Best Bits is a series that highlights excellent mechanics or parts of a game. Whether they are thematic, intelligent or just enjoyable, this series wants to celebrate the best bits.
Final Fantasy XII and its subsequent re-release and HD version Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age are both sprawling, epic JRPGs. It tells the story of rebellion against an empire bent on world domination. It includes all of your traditional Final Fantasy tropes but with a unique twist. I could never tell you that Final Fantasy XII is my favourite Final Fantasy game, heck I doubt it is even in my top five. It does, however, include one of my favourite systems of all time; the gambit system.
The gambit system is one of the most elegant, and yet convoluted systems you are likely to come across. It succeeds in allowing you to have unparalleled control over your party, but at the same time overwhelms the player. The gambit system is essentially a list of commands that your party members will perform and a list of situations that they might want to use them. For example, if a party member’s health drops below 70% Penello should use Curaga to heal them back to full health. If a team member becomes poisoned, then Penello should use Esuna to cure them of that condition. The same is true for attacking as well. If the enemy is weak to fire, Ashe should cast Firaga to take advantage of that weakness. If the enemy is flying, then Vaan should use Telekinesis so that he can hit them.
You might think that gambits mean you don’t actually need to play the game. You can use them on the character you are controlling and watch them run towards an enemy that meets their gambit criteria and begin to hack away or cast magic. You can create the perfect AI party. You might think that this frees up time where you can go and get a cup of tea, read a book or perhaps play a different game on your phone, Switch, Vita or take a quick nap. All the while, your Final Fantasy XII party will be running around beating up enemies, gaining experience points and saving the day. At this point, you probably think I’m mad. Why would you bother to play a game that plays itself, you might ask? And that is a good question.
You can only have so many gambits set at a particular time. This means that you will often find yourself switching certain ones off and changing out ones that aren’t needed right now. This means that before a boss encounter, or against a particularly tricky dungeon, you need to program your gambits cleverly to be victorious. Seeing your finely tuned machine work together to punch a dragon in the face is immensely satisfying. It is the same satisfaction I get from playing something like SimCity or Cities Skylines and seeing the whole thing tie together.
If you aren’t clever with your gambits, then you can end up in a situation where your team isn’t working together effectively. That is what Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system is all about – team cohesion. This ties in with which classes and skills you select. It won’t do any good to have your thief character repeatedly try to steal from an enemy with 100% health. They will endlessly try to steal nothing until someone else hits that enemy. You need to be clever and work out the optimum way of handling each individual gambit.
At the end of the day, what is a good JRPG if not something that allows you to tinker with stats and numbers like a madman on an Excel spreadsheet? Final Fantasy XII allows precisely that and much like a spreadsheet, there is a particular pleasure to be derived from having everything add up correctly or the macro work at the right time and allow you to punch a dragon the face.