In Final Fantasy XII, players win or lose battles before they begin. Contrary to most conventional strategy game design, Final Fantasy XII charges players with devising a plan before combat which your party later executes. You choose instructions for your party of four adventurers in a menu based on simple ‘If’ statements; in battle each party member follows their own instructions to the best of their ability. Often, that might be as simple as attacking the nearest enemy. However, it’s also possible to give them more complex directions, like healing allies who fall below a specified health threshold, or attacking enemies who target the party archer. Fights are less about thinking quickly and more about testing out a machine you’ve already built. It’s as much Opus Magnum as it is a conventional RPG.
It is a tremendous idea which has potential only partially realised in game. Writing a battle plan is extremely fun, but the system can only work to the best of its ability if the challenges are serious and the options for overcoming them are numerous. Final Fantasy fails to meet both of these conditions. Combat is rarely difficult, and even when an enemy makes trouble, it’s usually cause for grinding in the wilderness rather than rethinking your tactics. The game also does its best to lock off options from players, to drip-feed basic instruction sets, and even to limit the number of instructions that can be given.
XII refers to the system for inputting commands as the Gambit System. It’s a great idea. Picking a set of commands and watching them turn a group of enemies to mince is fun no matter how often it’s done. Routine fights against low-level monsters are transformed into an opportunity to watch a complex machine work itself out: my archer targets the highest level monster, my tank absorbs damage and attracts attention, my healer restores the party’s health when it falls below 40%. Every fight also provides the opportunity to observe your party and figure out what they can do better: my tank is fine at 40% health, but that’s dangerously low for my damage-dealing melee character, so I should set him to be healed at 50% health, but my tank to be healed at 30%.
The Gambit System is wonderful, but Square Enix, developers of Final Fantasy XII, are clearly not confident players can actually use it. It takes hours to get access to even the menu for the Gambit System and even then you have access to only the most basic instructions: attack the nearest enemy or attack an enemy who is attacking X character. The Gambit System is all about building complex ‘if’ statements, but I was astounded to have to play about eight hours – that is, the length of many full games – before I was allowed more complicated instructions.
The strength of your characters also limits the complexity of their instruction sets. When you kill a monster in Final Fantasy XII your characters get points they can invest in a grid of skills, including Gambit slots, the spaces used for instructions. My first three characters began with just three slots each, but over the course of the game it can quadruple in size. The problem, however, is that the skill grid isn’t just for acquiring new Gambit slots. Players have to spend points from the same pool getting access to better equipment, new skills, and higher health and mana. Unfortunately, I was often forced to prioritize these over more slots. Vaan, my tank character, desperately needed more health and Penelo, my healer, was constantly running out of mana.
In Final Fantasy XII, it’s still possible to pause the game and give individual orders to every character. If I’m interested in getting the best value for your points this is extremely bad news. It means you can get that extra Gambit slot for 40 points and save yourself the trouble of constantly setting Fran to steal from every single enemy in order to get the best reward, or you can get access to the next tier of bows. Since the Gambit slots don’t make you more effective in combat, they just make combat more enjoyable, I couldn’t justify getting the Gambit slot over new weapons.
Even the starting allowance of three slots is more than the number of instructions you’re likely to give at first, though. Players don’t get access to even a fraction of the possible instructions at the start of the game, and they’ll spend much of their time and in-game money tracking down and buying the best Gambits. Omitting basic instructions adds little to the game except frustration. If an ally is poisoned, obviously I want my healer to cure them. If an ally is knocked out, obviously I want them revived. I don’t want to have to buy two separate instructions from an in-game shop to schedule it. I had great success telling my archer, Fran, to pick off foes on less than 10% health, but it’s bizarre to think another player may miss that option because they don’t have the in-game money or they haven’t visited a shop in a while.