Hands Off

Final Fantasy is to role-playing games as the Yankees are to baseball.

The series -- now almost 20 years old -- practically redefined the genre with Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation, the first console RPG that captured a mainstream audience in the States. But FF was a victim of its own success, spawning a cottage industry of imitators. Now, what was once novel has begun to feel routine.

Square Enix's latest entry, Final Fantasy XII, tries to freshen things up by adding a few new ideas. Though the innovations keep it from feeling stale, one change in particular might turn off longtime fans.

But first, the plot: Final Fantasy XII sets you in the middle of a world war between two superpowers, Archadia and Rozzaria. Your little country, Dalmasca, lies between them. Players take the role of Vaan, a young street urchin. As the game progresses, you'll watch Vaan and his allies go from a ragtag band of pirates and thieves to a party of heroes who must -- wait for it -- save the world.

Though the plot is a little too heavy on politics at times, it's written well enough to stay interesting until the end. Full of appealing characters and surprising twists, the story is also buoyed by outstanding production values. The Final Fantasy games are known for great visuals and sound, and XII lives up to its pedigree.

Where XII deviates from tradition is in that other most important aspect of any RPG: combat. Abolishing the standard turn-based play of past games (hero attacks, monster attacks, repeat as necessary), XII uses a system closer to online RPGs: You target a wandering enemy for attack and then watch your characters duke it out.

Since combat unfolds quickly and without pauses, it's almost impossible to direct your heroes fast enough -- which is where "gambits" come in. Gambits are simple "if-then" instructions that tell your characters how to behave in battle. Example: "If Vaan's health drops below 70 percent, then use a healing potion." Gambits can control anything from whom to attack to when to cast a spell. They're a vital tool for managing the blink-and-you-miss-it combat.

But when it comes to game play, gambits present an interesting philosophical quandary. Admittedly, it's fun to try to design sets of instructions that make your characters behave as intelligently as possible. But success undermines the game's interactivity -- combat becomes more like programming a computer and less like playing a game. With just a little fine-tuning, skirmishes become a spectator sport.

And since the game is so story-heavy (i.e., non-interactive) to begin with, most of your involvement amounts to choreographing your party's progress from point A to point B. The player becomes a tour guide, moving the heroes to the places where the story will advance and passively observing the encounters that happen along the way.

It's not as bad as it could be, mostly because there is a limit to the number of gambits you can assign to each character, which means that occasionally -- usually during boss fights -- you will have to step in and make sure everything goes smoothly. But those instances are the exception rather than the rule.

On the plus side, you get a ton of game for your money -- expect to invest at least 50 hours in the game's massive world before you see the end of it. And it's loaded with extras, side quests, and other diversions.

But you have to ask yourself: How much fun will you have watching the game play itself?

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