“The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
It’s about time we talked of Final Fantasy XII. Previously, I thought to myself: “Self, ought you to hold out on reviewing Final Fantasy XII seeing as how the forthcoming Zodiac Age re-release is nigh?” Then I realized talking to oneself is a sign of inanity, so there you are.
Final Fantasy XII is the twelfth entry in the definitive and wildly popular RPG series by Square Enix. It is the lovechild of Hiroyuki Ito, director of Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy IX and the creator of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced in Final Fantasy IV, and Hiroshi Minagawa, the art director of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story and the director of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. The cooperation between Ito’s directorial experience and Minagawa’s artistic distinction make Final Fantasy XII an FF entry which stands alone.
Even though Final Fantasy XIII marks a departure from the traditional involvement of series creator Sakaguchi and less work by series composer Uematsu, FFXII boasts several new elements stepping into the future. It’s set in the massive, non-linear world of Ivalice, features a complex plot of monstrous sociopolitical structures, a “license” system for planning character abilities and equipment, and a seamless battle system that may just be the best in any Final Fantasy, ever.
Seriously, its “gambit” setting system for controlling a party of one playable character and other customizable A.I. characters is genius, and there is no intermediate transition screen between exploring the vast lands of Ivalice and entering into a scuffle with bad guys.
This was a battle system so enjoyable and so intricate that it became the defining feature of FFXII. I never stopped enjoying it. I beat the game twice and still wanted to run the gambits. I grinded (grounded?) for over 200 hours and still wanted to fight moar monsters. Actually… why did I ever stop playing? Probably because I forgot what I had to do.
It’s not a small world after all. You get the sense of that right from the first cinematic. No one could ever blame a Final Fantasy game for smallness and modesty. Final Fantasy XII opens with some heavy stuff that feels a lot like a fictional history lesson. Don’t be too put off by the long-winded fantasy names.
Dalmasca’s capital city Rabanastre is celebrating the holy union of Princess Ashe of Dalmasca and Prince Rasler of Nabradia but their marriage is short-lived since the tiny kingdom of Dalmasca and neighboring ally Nabradia are both caught on the borders of two warring superpowers: Rozarria and Archadia, fighting for dominion over Ivalice.
When Archadia invades Nabudis, capital city of Nabradia, Prince Rasler and Dalmascan captain Basch launch a counterattack at Nalbina fortress. Archadia’s forces are unstoppable and Rasler is slain in battle. Archadia knows that the defeat of Dalmasca is westward march to Rozzaria but fresh off conquering Nabradia, the empire offers Dalmasca terms of peace and the chance to surrender.
King Raminas of Dalmasca arrives at Nalbina fortress. A young Dalmascan soldier named Reks arrives at the king’s side in time to find that he and his escort has been murdered. Captain Basch stabs Reks, calling King Raminas a traitor to Dalmasca.
With the announcement of the assassination of the king and the assassin named as Basch, who is to be executed, the announcement also comes that Princess Ashe has committed suicide, having lost her father and her husband. The forced surrender of Dalmasca without terms soon follows.
This is all a ton of historical information that you won’t have to take a test on but it does form the backdrop of the game and its characters, somewhat, since the characters themselves seem less to drive the narrative forward than do the circumstantial churnings of the war machines of two nations.
Two years after the tragic fall of Dalmasca and Nabradia, we meet a poker-faced street urchin of Rabanastre named Vaan and his friend, fellow war-orphan Penelo. Vaan’s older brother Reks was the one who was stabbed by the traitor Basch.
We get to see the deep-seated hatred of the Dalmascan populace toward the newly appointed Archadian consul, Prince Vayne “obviously the bad guy” Solidor. However, Solidor’s empathetic speech serves to soothe the seething crowds.
Vaan dreams of one day flying an airship and becoming a sky pirate. He soon gets his chance at an adventure. Against the better arguments of wise Penelo, Vaan’s enmity for the empire leads him to break into the palace during the Archadian celebration to loot the place. He bumps into a duo of sky pirates named Balthier and Fran. They escape the palace with a stolen chunk of Magicite just as the building is stormed by the Dalmascan Resistance and below the streets they encounter the leader of the resistance, Amalia.
The four are soon captured by Archadian forces and taken to the dungeons in Nalbina where they find Basch, the assassin, has been imprisoned but not executed. Basch claims his twin brother Gabranth was the real killer two years ago.
Eventually, the newly formed party escape with a lot on their minds. Fleeing to the floating city of Bhujerba, they essentially embark upon a quest to rediscover what happened two years ago and confront the Marquis, the Judges, and the rising star of Vayne Solidor in the throne of Archadia. In the process they bite off a little more than they can chew by discovering the true nature of magicite and nethicite, and the role of the immortal Occuria acting behind the scenes.
On its surface, Final Fantasy XII is about people caught between the irresistible greed of two nations. Underneath all of that, it’s about the hidden schemes of ancient spirits controlling nations like puppets and themes of human responsibility and the dangers of technology.
With the narrative out of the way, let’s talk a bit about the battle system. One thing I hear pretty consistently from modern gamers about RPG’s of the past is how much they despise random encounters.
That was just the way things were and I didn’t ask any questions as a kid when that’s all there was. But it seems that the developers of Final Fantasy XII were keenly aware from the beginning of the project that random encounters were quickly becoming archaic. So they purposed at the start to create something which could move fluidly and coherently from exploration to battle and back to exploration again.
Thus the Active Dimension Battle (ADB) system was born, a logical evolution of the ATB system of games past which would now allow characters to both move freely through the environment but at the same time attack enemies as soon as their activity meters were ready.
Enemies can be seen in the environment and avoided if the player desires. If the enemy or the player character comes too close, the battle begins. Distinctive targeting lines arc from characters and enemies to indicate which is attacking (or supporting) who. At first it seems like an absolute visual mess but it’s easy enough to get on top of soon enough.
Players can only control one member of the active party at once though they can swap between characters and issue commands in the traditional sense. However, uncontrolled party members become A.I. controlled characters. A.I. party members can be pre-programmed through the use of “gambits”.
Gambits describe three parts of a character’s behavior: the target, the action, the priority. These are set by the player before battle and determine the specifics of an A.I. character’s actions. Examples of gambits include: “Foe: highest HP” and “Ally: status = Poison”, which would target the healthiest enemy and the poisoned party member, respectively. The actions set to those gambits determine the character’s behavior, such as using a strong spell on enemies with the highest HP or using an antidote on a poisoned ally, automatically.
I set it to have one character use Steal with “Foe: HP = 100%”, so that I’d always have a chance to steal an item from an enemy at least once before my other party members dealt damage.
Direct player commands can override gambits. These help to keep the party strategic and directed. In fact, the player character still forms up the center of the party by guiding movement. The criticism that the game plays itself is unfounded. The gambits themselves can be switched up for unique fights such as those with bosses or even turned off entirely. This pre-programming functionality is a brilliant and intricate system, one which I wish would make a triumphant return.
In all honesty, this is what put XII on the map, even though it marked the departure of traditional aspects and talent.
The 8-bit Review
Every single main series Final Fantasy game has always pushed the technical achievements of graphics forward. FFXII is no exception. The very first scene in the pre-title intro is of an airship flying through the clouds above a city of crystals on a floating archipelago. First time I saw it, it took my breath away. And it’s immediately apparent that this is still one of the best looking games on the PlayStation 2.
This is a game defined by its art design. Final Fantasy XII benefited greatly from Minagawa as the visual designer and the character and background designs of Akihiko Yoshida. I even felt that series veteran artist Yoshitaka Amano was honored here with the level of detail present in characters and their clothing (Amano’s work is intricate). However, this is distinctly Yoshida. Known for character design in games like Vagrant Story, FF Tactics, and Tactics Ogre, Yoshida employs consistent coloration between characters and backgrounds which are typically muted and even sepia, earthen. Verging on drab but too well-done to go there.
His characters have elaborate garb with youthful, almost-baby faces. His work is apparent across the rugged landscapes of the Estersand, the ethnic feel of cities like Rabanastre, the plated armor of Archadia, and the many, many other sights. A limited color palette helps to ground the fantastical visuals in what seems like reality. Consider that floating Bhujerba is one of the more fantastical places in the game and its given a brighter, vivid color wash.
If you’re familiar at all with the art of Final Fantasy, then you can recognize Yoshida’s unique work easily. It’s one of the first things you’ll notice about the visuals of FFXII and it sets the game apart from the much more outlandish flair of the colorful Final Fantasy X.
For what the PlayStation 2 was capable of, Final Fantasy XII may indeed have perfect visuals for its time. The game feels cinematic, substantial, like it carries weight. I can’t wait for the remaster.
While the graphics are very much up to par with the visual nature of Final Fantasy, I didn’t feel like this soundtrack matched the brilliance of what we’ve heard from this series before. It sounds very much like Final Fantasy Tactics‘ soundtrack, which isn’t to say it is terrible so much as it is to say it sounds somewhat generic, typical of a high fantasy game. It is more symphonic than melodic, feeling like the score for a film (not entirely a bad thing) with a degree of aimlessness rather than the thematic personality of previous FF soundtracks.
I don’t recall any defining themes or musical motifs in repetition, which used to be characteristic of the series. In a lot of ways the songs sound either too much alike or several of them sound as if they don’t belong with the rest. I think that may be a symptom of having three composers on the project. Hitoshi Sakimoto composed most of the soundtrack, with Hayato Matsuo and Masaharu Iwata working on nine tracks between the two of them.
Sakimoto was asked if he looked to previous FF titles for inspiration and responded:
“The simple answer to that question would be no, I didn’t look upon previous titles too much. Of course, Final Fantasy is a long established title and I am a part of the generation that played the game and listened to the music that Mr. Uematsu created, so I first contemplated if I should follow the music style from the previous series but in the end, I got back to my original promise that I would do the best I can and expressed in my own way how the music of Final Fantasy should sound.”
Here’s a track I’d agree that exemplifies how Final Fantasy “should” sound.
Of course he cannot be faulted for being true to his personal, musical convictions. He couldn’t very well compose the score in someone else’s style, nor in any style other than his own. There is a conscious effort to retain some musical history with the inclusion of a Chocobo theme, the prelude theme, and the Gilgamesh theme (below).
But the departure of Nobuo Uematsu left a gaping hole in the franchise that has yet to be filled. I mean, we’ll see what happens with Final Fantasy XV. I have my doubts after hearing “Stand By Me”, but I’ll give it a chance once it comes out. But the transition with Final Fantasy XIII into techno-rock and J-pop is of course the developers’ decision to make but not one which I predict will greatly serve this series or truly come to define it as Uematsu’s work did in the past.
Uematsu did contribute a single track: “Kiss Me Good-Bye”. Not really his best work, either.
Finally, something must be said about the dead-pan deliveries of the voice actors. Balthier sounds fine in his greasy, weasely way and Fran’s voice is intriguing with her Icelandic accent. Everyone else sounds… bored. Vaan is exceptionally inexpressive. You notice it right away. I get that maybe they were trying to come from the perspective of him being a jaded, moody teen, but his performance runs wearisome. It’s harder to stomach given he’s usually the point-of-view character.
We’ve already discussed the amazing new ADB system, so let’s touch on a few other elements of the exploration-based gameplay: Quickenings, Espers, magick and the license board, weather and spawning patterns, random treasure chests, and bounty hunting.
Final Fantasy VII set a precedent with its Limit Breaks that echoed on through multiple FF’s since. Desperation attacks originated with FFVI, but think VIII’s similar Limit Breaks, IX’s Trances, and X’s Overdrives.
In FFXII, there are Quickenings. They aren’t character specific as any party member can learn any of the Quickenings, but once one is learn it becomes unavailable for other characters. Quickenings can be chained by other active party members and they have the chance of restoring characters’ MP, as well as triggering a Concurrence which increases the damage output to all nearby targets. Quickenings aren’t nearly as exciting as earlier versions of these kinds of special attacks since they aren’t character specific and the chaining becomes boring and tedious eventually. Even the damage output doesn’t seem to be too significant.
Espers are this game’s version of summons. Summoned monsters have a long history with Final Fantasy but here XII ditches the usual appearances of Ramuh, Shiva, Ifrit, and Bahamut (names now given to airships) for a whole new set of entities. In FFXII, Espers can be obtained by finding and defeating them, then unlocking their license. The game includes thirteen Espers, eight of which are hidden in areas outside of the main storyline. Similar to Quickenings, any character can use any Esper except once an Esper is unlocked on the license board by a character, all the other characters cannot use it. When an Esper is summoned, the party is reduced to the single player character, the summoner, and the Esper will begin to fight enemies, unleashing a final attack just before its time limit runs out.
So I’ve mentioned the license board a few times. Think of it as a less linear version of the character growth Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. There, each character could follow a path dominated by class-system stat growths pertinent to each character before splitting into other character paths and learning some of their abilities. Here, at least in the US version, characters can follow any individual path of growth. After obtaining license points from battle, these can be used to purchase licenses on the board to learn new abilities, access Quickenings and Espers, and become able to equip new armor and weapons. The development concept behind the license board was the concept of fate, but ultimately it’s a little silly if you think about it.
Why would the cities and cultures in FFXII demand that an adventurer only be able to use a piece of equipment or a magick spell if they purchase a license? I mean, who’s to stop some dude in the desert putting on a breastplate even if he doesn’t have a license? Or why would licenses exist for legendary, mystical entities like the Espers? Wouldn’t only one person in the world be able to control an Esper at any given time? So why have a license? It’s fourth wall breaking.
Finally, there are the weather and spawning patterns. This is some cool stuff. The weather will change occasionally upon revisiting various environments, such as it suddenly raining or being overcast or being a bright, sunny day. The random weather changes alter some environmental objects and also how many and what kind of monsters appear in the area.
Speaking of random spawns this also includes random treasure chest spawns. That just means certain treasure chests have a random chance of appearing. This includes chests containing the game’s ultimate weapons, which have an extremely minimal chance of appearing and relinquishing said weapons. I played for over 200 hours and got the ultimate gun… Good luck getting a piece of equipment in a treasure chest with a 40% chance of appearing and a 27% chance after that of that specific item even being in the chest at all.
Mark hunting is one of the best sidequests ever. You can receive hunt missions from a moogle named Montblanc, and the rewards are money and items. Finding some of the unique monsters was a delight. The battles and gearing up for the battles with specializing gambits was also exciting.
So despite the lackluster license board, random chests, and Quickenings, I still have to award Final Fantasy XII a 10 for gameplay because of how immeasurably awesome the gambit system is.
Possible unmarked spoilers.
Though the Final Fantasy series has
always generally made the telling of the story its strongest point, FFXII doesn’t do much to move beyond stock elements typically found in these games: the threat of an empire, the threat of technology not kept in check, and so on. Star Wars prequel trilogy politics. Poor, fallen, disgraced characters. Atomic power metaphor. Coping with personal loss. Odds are you’ve seen these in FF’s past.
The complicated nature of the narrative isn’t to blame for its being somewhat confusing, nor is it its own fault for feeling aloof and disjointed with a lack of tension. It’s my opinion that that comes from two things: the gameplay focused on exploration and the type of cast of characters.
Because there are so many gigantic places to explore in Final Fantasy XII, not just cities but sprawling woodlands, deserts, oceans, mountains, and ruins leading to more woods, deserts, oceans, mountains etc., the act of exploring itself takes away from the drive of the plot. It’s hard to feel any narrative tension when big story events are separated from each other by hours of crawling dungeons and countrysides. The ending of the game itself was so far removed by the time I’d completed sidequests and hunts and explored the known world that I just about had no emotional reaction to it at all. Granted, I could have played the game in such a way that I only pursued the main story events in quick succession, yet the game was so clearly developed with exploration in mind and that becomes a large part of enjoying the experience on purpose. Final Fantasy XII lets the air out of its own tires. It’s self deflating.
Then there’s the cast of FFXII. Let’s start with the villain. There are several but Vayne Solidor proves to be one of the biggest ones. Yet he’s even more boring than Maester Seymour, a pretty, personality-less plot device.
And as for the party members… it’s been said that there is no main protagonist. That seems more or less true. The developers apparently began the project with Basch in mind as the protagonist but eventually shifted more towards Vaan after measuring audience metrics (and crap like that). It shows. All of the characters are important to the story, except for Penelo. Why is she even here? Of the cast, only Balthier and Fran are compelling because of their mystery. Think of Balthier as Han Solo. The pilot of the M. Falcon was interesting because he was a rule breaker when everyone else was consumed with rules. Same with Balthier, and his slender Viera Chewbacca-Fran, in a world where you have to get a frickin’ license to pick up a dagger.
The story is still good despite so many things working against it. But even executive producer Akitoshi Kawazu said:
“…of course, we were doing everything we could to make the best game possible – we still think it’s far from ‘perfect’ though. Hearing fan feedback after the game was released in Japan, there were some players who felt that the story wasn’t as a good as it might have been compared with some of the earlier Final Fantasy games. Even personally, I feel that because of the way the games are made – the story itself is decided very early on and the process of getting that realised makes it very difficult to change along the way – there are things I would have liked to change about it as well but, practically speaking, we couldn’t. From a development standpoint then, that’s something we need to address and find a way to work better going forwards. That’s just one example, but certainly there are things we can improve on in future titles.”
“Oh, and one other thing that absolutely cannot go. Unmentioned is Alexander O. Smith’s superb work on the script localization. While I can agree some of the voice acting wasn’t anything exceptional (although it’s actually grown on me to where I like it), the writing is just top notch. I haven’t seen anything quite like it before or since (except of course his other works like Vagrant Story and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together).”
-The Timely Mage
Despite pulling out of its hat a dramatically new battle system, as well as other gameplay innovations, Final Fantasy XII is not an inaccessible RPG. Certainly not, considering we’re living in the age of MMORPGs. It may seem daunting at first to engage with this single-player RPG, as it looks a lot like an online RPG with all of its on-screen data. I found that it eventually becomes natural and in fact setting the gambits before battles (rather than during them) makes learning how to battle easier since most everything just happens automatically.
I had an unusual amount of Game Overs when playing this game, mostly because you can explore much too far or suddenly run into some hideous monster you’re seriously unprepared for. Completing the main story in itself can be difficult, not only because of the temptation of exploring but because there are times when knowing what to do next isn’t apparent.
After many spinoffs, sister series, and eleven main titles, Final Fantasy XII did what should have been rather difficult for the FF franchise. It gave it a fresh breath of life. It took a long step away from old and tired traditions without forgetting to honor them and made something great out of the work of newcomers and visionaries. When I played it, it felt very much unlike any Final Fantasy I had ever played, yet that didn’t seem like an insult.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Seamless. Artistic. Complex. Layered. Fresh. Different. Optimistic. Sprawling. All of those describe Final Fantasy XII. I enjoyed playing through it more than I thought I would. In fact, I was deeply troubled when the original copy I bought was a faulty disc that skipped and I had to buy another one, the Collector’s Edition. Somehow, it didn’t bother me too much to have to pay twice for this game. I felt like it was worth it given how many enjoyable hours I spent exploring Ivalice.
How they went from here to Final Fantasy XIII, I’ll never know.
While writing this, I was watching live coverage of the 2016 US Presidential Election. If this is our last review, I’m glad it was for this game.
“… follow out the happiest story—
It closes with a tomb!”
Aggregated Score: 8.4