This is an edited version of a previous review of Final Fantasy XII, fixing some typos and including some discussion of parts I’d neglected before. It contains SPOILERS, so only read if you’ve beaten the game or don’t care about plot details. If I see someone asking for a spoiler-free version of this review, I’ll post it… but not for a little bit. No need to flood this nascent blog with TWO nearly-identical FFXII reviews so soon into its run, is there? Onto the criticism!
Okay, by the time I finished FFXII I felt in my heart that it was one of the best Final Fantasies I had ever played, but I couldn’t quite reconcile that with all the other feelings I had about the game, as well. As anyone who’s talked to me about the game knows, I don’t think it’s perfect by a long shot. Maybe by the end of my rant I’ll have pieced together my feelings more coherently.
First of all, what struck me about this game was the newfound skill it had in storytelling. The game is far more confident and literate in its cutscenes than any other Final Fantasy that has come before. And the clumsiness that showed through in Square’s first attempts at next-gen cutscenes are almost wholly gone. In FFX most cut scenes were just character models acting like floppy armed puppets while the camera panned boringly across the screen. This rarely, if ever, happens in FFXII, and I think it has more than a little to do with the addition of Yasumi Matsuno and the staff he brought with him from Vagrant Story. To me, Vagrant Story was the first RPG to really nail a cinematic quality in its scenes on the same level as a Metal Gear Solid game. The cinematic quality that was previously only seen in a Final Fantasy’s CG FMVs now carry over into the regular in-game cutscenes, too, and I think it adds a lot to the feeling of weaving a cohesive story. It’s a different version of what got fixed from FFVII in FFVIII; bringing order and homogeneity to the hodgepodge that was FF’s cutscenes. Only instead, this time it’s the level of artistic craft brought to the direction that makes the difference rather than similar character models.
Also what I like about the storytelling in this game is the level of maturity it has on all fronts. Again, I think the influence of Vagrant Story and Matsuno is responsible for this. Previous FFs wore its story and characters on its sleeve for all to see. If someone felt a certain way, they’d tell you about it, or if a plot development occurred, the game would be sure to drill it into your skull (very seldom did FFs leave anything to the player’s imagination in this regard, the few circumstances I can think of being Shadow’s past in FFVI, the ending of FFVII and the connection between Laguna, Raine and Squall in FFVIII). In FFXII, you can’t just sit passively and look at the pretty pictures and get the gist. The game expects you to take it like a serious piece of fiction, which is quite a refreshing change to see from a series like this. And even though the level of gravitas was also found in turds like Xenosaga, I think FFXII has the chops to back it up with the previously mentioned excellent cutscene direction and the incredibly well-translated script from Alexander O. Smith & Co. This is a Final Fantasy I can look back on in five years and not roll my eyes at the dialog. I’ve been playing FFVI at the same time as this and the dialogue in there, whether because of the character limit or size limitations or whatever, is painfully dry and simple. All FF dialogue has been since the creation of the series, for a matter of fact (only FFIX could have been considered to inch towards a modicum of charm). But every level of FFXII’s text is infused with the atmosphere of the game’s world, making it so much the more immersive. The interview of the translator on the DVD had a clear example of what I think worked in localizing the game. Instead of just putting, “You can only ride chocobos for a limited amount of time” like it was in the original Japanese, they said, “Chocobos tire easily, so you can’t ride them forever” which is so much more organic. This way, it’s less of a clumsy device for the developer to convey the rules and limitations of the game. It becomes a way in which to further immerse the player in the world and characters of the game. It’s now the NPC explaining to Vaan how to treat chocobos, which makes so much more sense.
Now the story… I’ve heard a lot of different reactions from people about the story. Some say there wasn’t enough of it. Some say that the story lacks in foreshadowing, so things constantly appear to be happening for no reason. Others say that it’s poorly paced, heaping everything at the end. And still others say that it’s just plain bad and not at all what a Final Fantasy story should be. There’s nuggets of truth in all of this, I think. It is rather sparse considering how much story some other FFs have. Do I think that there’s too little, however? No, it’s just a problem of a terse story exacerbated by a game that lets you do a whole lot unrelated to the main quest any time you please, which I’ll try to address in great detail later. It leads itself to vast stretches where you won’t be developing the story at all.
The game does lack foreshadowing in one particularly important place: the Occuria. You get hints that something is controlling the Empire, but a cabal of gods ruling over Ivalice from god-knows-where isn’t exactly mentioned at all anywhere in the game until it happens and it seems to have been implicit all the time. Annoying, but I can roll with the punches. The other bits that seem to pop up out of nowhere I can deal with a lot better because I have a great deal of respect for the “realism” that FFXII attempts to imbue in its fantasy. You’re told the story from the viewpoint of people that have been born and raised in this complicated fantasy world, so artificial exposition where things are just laid out for you are dropped by the wayside in favor of a method where the characters know things that we don’t, and we’re left to discover them as they’re brought up. It’s not a matter of the developers just making things up as they go along, but of things only appearing once they become relevant. Again, this is Matsuno’s way of doing things, if you’ve ever played FFT or VS. You start off with a bit of a headache because you’re in a complex world that’s already existed for hundreds or thousands of years and they expect you to just dive in and deal with it. I can appreciate and enjoy this. Others expect something different from entertainment. They think that they should be able to sit back and let the game cater to them, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that point of view. You paid $60 for entertainment, not homework, right? I just think that there’s more to stories than being a passive observer. I think that people should interact actively with pieces of art, which I think FFXII undeniably is, and think critically about it in order to get the most out of it. If a person does this with FFXII, I think they can get the most enjoyment out of it.
I do think that the story was poorly paced for what is sort of the “summer blockbuster” equivalent of RPGs. There’s only, like, two set pieces in the game, at the beginning and end. What happens between is largely going from point A to B without much dazzle happening. Also, for some reason the game keeps the motivations behind what’s really happening a mystery for almost the entire game. I still don’t know what the hell Venat wanted to do besides **** off the other Occuria. I think it could’ve used someone on the outside of the development team coming in and asking, “What the hell is going on?”
As for what type of story it is, I think it was about time FF tried something really different. It’s not a love story like FFX or FFVIII where the entire production hinges on the relationship between two people. It’s not your typical fantasy like FFIV, V or IX where there’s a bunch of mystical, magical shit to explain what’s going on. It’s not like VII where you have a clearly defined villain bent on destroying the world. It’s not even like VI where you’re also up against an expansionist empire trying to dominate the world with magicite. The politics of the world are the driving force, and the lack of personalization or even connection to the characters you’re playing as is the big, striking difference in FFXII’s story. It’s no longer an personal story blown up to epic proportions, but an epic story that involves the entire fantasy world. It’s much more important to understand the countries and alliances of Ivalice than it is to know, say, Penelo’s tragic back story. Hell, I think half the important cutscenes in the game happen without the main cast of characters. Some might say that this is a huge problem, and that the main characters should’ve probably been Ashe, Basch, Balthier, Larsa, etc. But I think there’s a reason we got who we did. The people you control in FFXII represent the three types of people that are affected by the conflict in Ivalice. You have Ashe and Basch who have noble ties and have direct, personal stakes in what is going on. Then you have Vaan and Penelo who are commoners, people who are usually caught in the crossfire of international conflicts, as evidenced by their orphaned status. Then you have Balthier and Fran, the rogue, outlaw class who follow their own rules and are beholden to no one but their own beliefs. You could also say that they represent different degrees of freedom. Ashe searches for the freedom for her own people, but is a slave to her responsibilities. Vaan and Penelo don’t have any responsibilities, yet their fates are not their own since they’re at the mercy of huge, faceless political entities. Fran and Balthier have true freedom and no responsibilities to anyone but themselves. I don’t think this was an accident. I think it was to show microcosmically the people of Ivalice working towards a world with no pointless war. I think it’s also noteworthy that a big theme of the game is giving up hatred that can’t solve anything, because it will only fuel more and more conflict. A message, maybe, that some parts of our own world could stand to learn. I think the story of FFXII is extremely socially relevant to our times, something that I don’t think any other FF has striven for.
Another positive thing I have to say about FFXII is that its atmosphere is almost second to none among FFs. I think this is due in no small part again to Matsuno’s team and the addition of a free-moving camera. Being able to look up and see a ceiling adds immensely to the feeling of actually being in a building. My first reaction to FFXII was overwhelmingly positive due to the fact that the game was so gorgeous and so much effort had been put into even the smallest details. It definitely hearkens back to VS’s Lea Monde and its decaying city. Something that I also think was a brilliant move was adding NPCs you can’t talk to, thus giving the developers a way to add a sense that you’re actually moving through a living, breathing city without having to think of of clever things for everyone to say. The amount of animations they gave the NPCs was also brilliant. Watching some kid in Rabanastre try to do a handstand delighted me to no end. I also liked the inclusion of the races, although I’m not sure I share other people’s anger that you could only play as Humes and a Viera. The other races probably proved an impractical fit for main character, seeing as they either couldn’t believably wield some of the weapons (Moogles, Nu Mou) or lacked the expressiveness necessary (Seeqs, Bangaa, Garif). Some would say why not nix the other races entirely if they’re not going to use them to their utmost potential, but I think that’s being drastic. I’d rather have them there than not at all. It adds a unique flavor to FFXII.
I feel I should finally get to talking about what really has people up in arms about FFXII: the battle system. I think it was a brilliant move that adds a lot to the lasting power of this game. I’m not sure if I want it in every FF, but I want it in every FF that has to do with FFXII, that’s for sure. It speeds up the flow of the game so well. Battles aren’t nearly as frustrating as they are before. Hell, I even sought out battles most of the time! I love that it doesn’t feel like battles slow down exploration to a halt. It’s the perfect answer that began with CT’s enemies being visible on-screen. Cranking up the battle speed to max also helps, too. I never really felt like I wasn’t in control or that I wasn’t playing the game because I was constantly roaming around, adjusting gambits and equipment and buying Licenses and the like. A very, very cool addition.
Now the not-so-cool things about the battle system. Magick is almost entirely useless. Aside from curing and buffs, did anyone seriously use magick? It’s so underpowered and overpriced compared to what physical attacks can do. Even the strong spells have issues. Which brings me to the second bad thing about it: animation load times. This, to me, is the most crippling blow to FFXII’s battle system and the worst flaw in the entire game. Powerful spells are rendered worthless because while the game is waiting to load them, enemies can keep attacking you until you’re dead. And when you’re fighting enemies that use graphics-intensive spells, YOUR spells and technicks are put on the back-burner. The game is just kicking its own nuances in the nuts right here since if you just change your characters so they attack, they can get in extra attacks while the enemy’s frozen. It’s so sad it’s almost funny. They should’ve added HDD support to the game in order to put all the spell animations on the drive to load faster. Yeah, it would’ve created a split in the audience, but at least SOME people would be able to play a FFXII where magick isn’t crippled AND have a use for that HDD they shelled out money for. The rest of the people would just be stuck playing the same FFXII that the rest of us got. Also: gambits, while cool, are limited in just how useful they can be. You’re giving a fuck-ton of options, but only a few of them are really practical. How many other people used targeting gambits other than self, Ally: any, Foe: any and stuff like that? A cool, cool idea with limited practical use. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Also, the license board was rumored to have been added after Matsuno was kicked out and I can see why. It’s really sorta graceless and stunted after the elegant Sphere Board. I think I ended up with 10,000 LP or more in excess at the end of my game. You gain it so easily! I don’t have a problem with being able to develop characters into jacks-of-all-trades, since it’s your own choice if you do that. You can just as easily enforce a class system on yourself and NOT give Basch all the magicks just as if you DON’T give Penelo all those strength augments. Plus, even if you give everyone every license, their base stats will still determine what they’re best at. A Flare cast by Basch won’t be anywhere as good as a Flare cast by Penelo. I think the freedom it gives you is its one good point. Square shouldn’t be the one to put restrictions on how you develop characters. You can do that yourself if you want it so bad.
There’s also bad things that don’t necessarily have to do with the battle system. The one that sticks out most egregiously is Matsuno’s fetish for randomizing rewards. It was there in Vagrant Story and now it’s here in FFXII with a vengeance. To be blunt, I don’t think that rewards such as steals from bosses or rare monsters or marks should be random. I don’t think I should have to spend an hour to steal four High Arcana from Adremmalech and wind up with 99 pebbles. I don’t think I should go out of my way in the Great Crystal to open up gates to a chest that may not even be there, not to mention will probably only give me a Knot of Rust. I don’t think the chest I get to go to after beating an optional boss should give me anything other than the best weapon it can possibly give me. It’s extremely demoralizing and I wish that the people behind this part of the game had understood motivation psychology more. And it’s odd, because it’s not like this has any real significant effect on the game. In VS, stuff that was actually important was randomized, such as stat boosts. And yet I’m more annoyed at how it was employed in FFXII. I can’t quite explain it. At least Knots of Rust actually figure into two of the strongest attacks in the game, so it’s not like they’re completely useless. Speaking of chests, the forbidden chest trick is inexcusable. It’s so obviously Square-Enix grubbing for strategy guide money, since there’s no logic behind it whatsoever. And a chest having a .1% reward rate? Fuck you, Square-Enix, that’s just a kick in the balls. Also, enemies having Palings, Perfect Defenses, last-minute defense/attack boosts is uber-lame and not a creative or fun way at all to increase the difficulty of battles. What was creative was the use of rules in battles. It reminded me of FFTA in a good way, even when I was getting annoyed by them such as during Ultima’s battle. The only thing I can nitpick about them is that I wish they had shown up in the Judge battles so that they actually had some tie-in with Judges like in FFTA.
Now it’s time for some miscellaneous thoughts. I like Matsuno’s Ivalice world, so I was delighted whenever I found connections. Did you catch how many FFTA locations ended up in FFXII? Or who the esteemed ecologist in the bestiary was? Or where the Kiltias religion originated? I was so stoked when I saw these things because I think the way the worlds interconnect is fascinating, and I still hold out hope that Matsuno will get to return to Vagrant Story one day. Including stuff like Leamonde Entites and Vagrant Souls just makes me squeal with delight. Speaking of Vagrant Story, the final battles reminded me a lot of VS’s, including the ending and staff roll. VS also had a giant winged boss that flew around the outside of a circle after a previous battle where he ran around on foot attacking you with a big sword. And the concept art in the staff roll combined with lovely orchestrated music was awesome. I actually like the world presented in the concept art even more than the world that ended up being made. :P It’s also neat to try to analyze some of them. Is one of them a shot of Doctor Cid holding a baby Balthier? Is that Balthier and Fran after the end of the game, snuggling up? Speaking of Balthier and Fran, their relationship was understated, like everything else in the game, but made more powerful whenever they DID develop it. Balthier’s leading man metaphor throughout the game leading up to Fran telling him at the end that he’s really more of a supporting role, and Balthier’s reply, endeared them more to me than anything else that had happened during the rest of the game. Certainly more endearing than anything anyone ever did in FFIV. It also made me realize why Vaan was in there. People question why he’s in there when his tie to the main plot is tenuous at best. I think he was in there for the metaphorical reasons I stated earlier, but also because he and Penelo bring something to the cast that’s lacking. Ashe and Basch are somber as hell in an already weighty plot. Having the game consist only of characters like them would’ve been way too stuffy and grim. Meanwhile Balthier and Fran give some variety and levity to it, but Balthier’s hardly ever sincere about anything and Fran’s as mysterious as she is an exposition device. The Mist is dense here, is it? Uhhh, thanks. Vaan and Penelo, however, are sincere and lighthearted and I think in particular, Vaan’s relationship to Ashe is an important point in the game. Perhaps seeing Vaan give up his hatred of the Empire that killed his brother inspired her to make some of the decisions she made later on in the game. I think his influence on her was positive, even if she did find him a bit childish. The cutscene near the end, when Vaan basically tells her that even if she doubts her own strength, she’s not alone, speaks a lot about why he’s there. Even though personally I think that scene cut the momentum that part of the game had been building off at the knees. Who just stands around talking about stuff like that?! They weren’t even pedeconferencing! Anyways, agree or disagree, I think that’s why Vaan’s there.
Before I forget to mention it: Marks. Both the neatest and worst ideas in the game. First of all, I love that they give you these unique, challenging fights you can do at any time. It’s great for people that like some spice in their RPGs. The problem is that they give you so many so soon. And they’re not even given in order of difficulty. So people that are obsessed with doing every mark as soon as they get them will end up ignoring what’s going on in the game and halting progression for dozens of hours at a time in order to build their strength enough to take on a difficult mark. I think it’s part of the reason people get upset with the story of FFXII, because it’s really not meant to be diluted as much as it is thanks to the Marks. I think what they should’ve done is made a much smoother difficulty curve in what Marks are handed out to you and when. Maybe even let you play the game after you’ve already beaten it, in sort of an epilogue mode, so that the difficulty of the end of the game isn’t ruined by doing all of the sidequests and marks at the end of the game, making you level 80 for a boss that’s only level 50. If that. I don’t want Marks GONE from the game; I thought they were delightful and a fun pastime. But they should’ve been implemented more intelligently.
Also, Espers. I was originally miffed by how useless they were in situations that gamers are used to using Espers in. If you summon one during a tough boss battle or a nasty horde of enemies, it will get raped. Beaten, bloodied and tossed in the trash. Hell, I summoned Zodiark in the final battle and somehow it managed to die in one hit. I can appreciate that there are special circumstances that Espers are amazing in, and maybe I would’ve used them to find out if it didn’t cost at least a third of my MP to summon. Oh well, I got ’em all for the challenge of fighting them, not because I intended to use them. I imagine most were like me in that respect. While we’re on the subject of MP gobblers, I liked Quickenings. I didn’t think they were nearly as useless as others did. I used them all the way up to the end of the game. They were especially handy during those parts of hunts or Esper battles where the enemy would get its defense and attack pumped up and begin spamming powerful spells at you faster than you could heal. It was a great way to interrupt the monster’s momentum and to finish it off. I like how exciting and unpredictable chaining them was, I remember many fights where I was frantically reshuffling them in hopes of getting a Mist Charge. A very cool idea that I think is more balanced and fun than just plain Limit Breaks.
Musically, FFXII’s been bullied for not having the classic sound the series has been known for. This is true. FFXII’s soundtrack is definitely not the same as FFs of yore. This is due to the almost complete departure of Nobuo Uematsu, whose stamp on the soundscape of Final Fantasy has been there since day one. Uematsu specialized on the keyboard, and his style usually consisted of a single, indelible melody that formed the backbone of whatever instrumentation accompanied it. With Uematsu’s decreasing involvement with this series (he’s doing his work over at Square-Enix defects’ Mistwalker), he just turns in a rather poignant (but disappointingly plain) theme song in the form of the ballad “Kiss Me Good-Bye”, sung in perfect English by the game bilingual, bi-cultural musical artist Angela Aki. The person taking over the mantle of Final Fantasy XII’s soundtrack is fellow Squaresoft alum Hitoshi Sakamoto, best known for his score for Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story (both, unsurprisingly, Matsuno-helmed). This met with the aforementioned venom from loyal fans, calling his tunes “boring” and “unmemorable.” While this is clearly an area of personal taste, allow me to disagree and explain why. People were used to Uematsu’s clear musical message. Sakimoto approaches music with a more subtle and complex touch. A song could have multiple melodies merged together to form a certain image. He’s also fond of layering the driving melodies of songs underneath lush instrumentation, full of cascading harps and thumping war drums. Needless to say, this takes a more patient and attentive ear than Uematsu’s more populist approach. I thought that the majority of the tracks for the game were well done. The tune of Rabanstre left within me a feeling of ambling happiness and momentary state of being flustered by the grandeur of the architecture. Eryut Village perfectly captured the cool, antiseptic demeanor of the Viera race along with their slinky sexuality and mysterious allure. The track “Esper” especially stood out to me for displaying the essence of what an Esper is, giving an image of a powerful, awe-inspiring, unstoppable ally while the fast pace of the tempo keeps the player aware that time is running out. I think this is yet another misunderstood and unappreciated aspect of FFXII that hopefully will get its due as time goes on.
There’s also tidbits here and there that show that a lot of thought and care was put into this game. A huge, detailed bestiary is stored in the menu, promising hours of fun reading through descriptions of monsters, their biology and their place in society, in the same literate prose sprinkled throughout the whole game. Even the most minuscule of miscreants is given a write-up by the developers, sometimes with humorous results. Also, if you defeat a certain number of a single enemy, an addendum is added to the file, usually giving some tidbit of info about Ivalice and its history, but sometimes juicy gossip leading to a sidequest or just a bit of fun being had by the developers. A small collection of sprites called a Sky Pirate Den is also accessible in the menu, showing achievements that the player has acquired over the course of the game. It could be something as simple as selling a certain amount of Gil in goods, or as difficult as collecting every Esper or performing every Concurrence possible with Quickenings. This is basically an evolution of Vagrant Story’s “titles” you could earn and also a nod to FFXII’s ties to the 2D Gameboy Advance title, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, where characters have similarly cute superdeformed sprites. A clever and cute addition, especially when you see how all of the sprites end up interacting with each other when your cursor activates a sprite’s animation. Lots of fun to be had there.
That’s all, I think, from me on the details of the game. Now to try to suss out WHY I feel it was as great a Final Fantasy as I think it is. Even with the gigantic flaw in the battle system, I had fun fighting things. It was pleasantly challenging and I think I responded well to the stress it brought upon. Even though I was cursing during the Zodiark fight (I mean, really, a 50% chance of killing my party?!?!) it made me think under pressure and come up with strategies that were effective. Watching my hastily cobbled together plan actually sink that thing by a fraction of a second before it was probably going to cast Darkja again and murder the last of my party was extremely satisfying. And the emotions displayed in the ending made me feel more than any other time that the characters in FFXII were better than most give them credit for. None of them had qualities about them that SCREAMED out characterization, like Auron’s sullen, shaded scowl or Wakka’s Caribbean-retard personality, but it made it feel all-the-more real when Penelo’s narration talked about Ashe moving slowly away from everyone else, and the game showing Ashe looking out over a balcony at Rabanastre with a bittersweet, wistful look, as if you could tell she was thinking about the people she’d left behind. It was enough to get me a bit emotional, myself. I also was surprisingly touched when Gabranth’s helmet was removed to reveal Basch in his brother’s stead, and the similar look he had when he was shown the letter. Although it was never really said explicitly, the cast of FFXII bonded together despite their differences. The inevitability that they couldn’t stay together forever elicits a most exquisite pain when you see that each of them left a part of themselves in that moment standing upon the deck of the Bahamut after defeating Vayne. It’s a time of their lives they can never go back to, and I think most of us here are old enough to have experiences like that. That’s as close as I can to justifying why I feel this way about FFXII. I hope that my incredibly long and winding rant has rekindled the spirit of discussion about FFXII in you, too, and I hope we can all talk some more about it. =)