A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy XII (PlayStation 2)

A QUICK note: The images you’ll see are taken from both the original 2006 version and the 2017 Zodiac Age re-release. If you see any UI/HUD changes etc, that’ll be why. Also, as always: spoilers ahead.

By the end of 2003, the newly merged Square-Enix could somewhat afford to rest on its laurels. The monthly subscriptions and growing popularity of Final Fantasy XI was already reaping dividends, and the quick-buck salvo of YRP was only adding to the payload. But where was the ‘real’ sequel? Where was the next ‘true’ Final Fantasy? In truth, that game had already been in development for two years, with a 100-strong team and a $35 million budget. The same year, Hironobu Sakaguchi – widely regarded as the father of the series – left Square-Enix and never returned.

The departure of Sakaguchi and the direction that the company took in his absence is no coincidence. Its most recent equivalent is Metal Gear‘s Hideo Kojima leaving Konami – the creative heart of a franchise relinquishing their grip to a nebulous corporate entity. Final Fantasy, without Sakaguchi at the helm, may share the moniker, feature the same monsters and employ similar themes, but it is a fundamentally different beast that drifts further from its origins with every veteran’s exit. It is all the poorer for their absence.

It’s impossible to say for certain, but Sakaguchi’s presence may well have salved the crippling problems that plagued Final Fantasy XII during its creation. Missing its projected release by a full two years, the tumultuous development cycle was marred by health problems, constant miscommunication among its bloated team and clashes with company officials over the game’s artistic direction and controversial choice of protagonist.

Much of the controversy surrounding the game arose with the departure of Yasumi Matsuno, its original director. Known primarily for cult tactical RPGs Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as Vagrant Story, Matsuno’s work was characterised by political subterfuge ‘twixt warring houses, morally ambiguous characters and ideological conflict, compared to the MacGuffin-driven plots and black-and-white ethics of his contemporaries. Though unconventional, he was an inspired choice to direct. Together with the masterful Hiroyuki Ito, the two were poised to deliver an entry that could both honour the series’ legacy and signal a new and exciting future.

It’s unknown exactly why Matsuno left the project. Dissatisfaction with the stalling development, an inability to deal with meddling executives or a literal mental breakdown have all been offered as explanations, but his absence left a gaping void that was ultimately filled by two men: Hiroshi Minagawa, who had worked with Matsuno as art director on each of his previous projects, and executive producer Akitoshi Kawazu (remember him?). Faced with an overdue game that was rapidly haemorrhaging its production costs, only a couple of years after the Spirits Within debacle, the decision was clear. Compromises had to be made.

When Final Fantasy XII reached Japanese shelves in 2006 (and European shelves in 2007), it had been in development for five long years. Consider that between the years of 1997-2002 – the same period of time – Sakaguchi’s Square churned out FFVII, VIII, IX, X and XI. If we widen that perspective: FFXII entered development at the dawn of the PlayStation 2 and finally arrived at the dawn of the PlayStation 3. An entire console generation for a single game.

To say that the finished product reflects its beleaguered production is an understatement. Final Fantasy XII is a fascinating, beautiful, thwarted mess of a game that draws more from the aberrant FFXI than the defining statements of VII or IX. Far from the fluid combination of old and new that Ito and Matsuno’s original partnership promised, FFXII deviates so far from series tradition that it almost demands re-classification, bearing only passing resemblance to earlier titles. The disparity between critical and fan reaction upon its initial release only skews our understanding further – long-time fans simply didn’t know what to make of it.

The change is almost immediately apparent. Whereas previous games opened with bombing missions or god-choirs or the cataclysmic destruction of a futuristic paradise, FFXII opens with lofty Shakespearean narration, regicide and militaristic imperial expansion. This might not seem unfamiliar for the series as a whole, but it’s the delivery that separates XII from its predecessors. The cartoonish villainy of Emperor Gestahl is absent here; there’s a sombre, political edge to proceedings that paints these happenings as just another notch in history’s weave. It’s not the beginning of the end of the world – it’s just war, governed by human ambition instead of magical rocks.

Just as abruptly as we’re thrust into this turbulent world, however, we’re dragged right out of it by the introduction of Vaan, the game’s marketing-appeasing protagonist. Vaan is a milksop, dime-a-dozen JRPG protagonist if ever there has been one. Blandly attractive, blandly moral and blandly present, he does nothing to elevate himself and nothing to devalue himself. He is in the same room as the plot but never affects it. Vaan, though not without merit as an audience proxy or a pack of painted-on abs, is symptomatic of the problem with FFXII’s narrative: Every interesting idea it has is drowned in a sea of uninspired dross.

Compare Vaan with Basch, the game’s original protagonist. A disgraced captain, falsely accused of murdering his King, Basch’s journey to redemption would have made for a far more compelling plot than the tired ‘fight the power’ trope that dominates the majority of FFXII’s play-time. Far too much time is spent trudging across Ivalice (as seen in Tactics and Vagrant Story) to obtain another glob of ‘nethicite’, the crux of the duelling Empires’ arms race. The game rarely gussies up each trek as anything other than an elongated fetch quest with the occasional cutscene sprinkled in. It feels like the trite busy-work that it is, thinly disguising simple padding as exploration; little wonder, then, that many players simply lost interest midway through.

We’ll never know for sure how much of this aimlessness was approved by Matsuno during his tenure, of course – by most accounts, little deviation was made after he left – but his influence shines through when the narrative is at its most engaging. It’s written all over the political manoeuvrings between warring nations that occasionally breaks into the rote, MacGuffin-driven fetch quests that serve as the main plot. This is most prominent in the scenes in Archades, where Emperor Gramis of House Solidor is beset on all sides by ambitious Senators and his own failing health. His son Vayne’s machinations, the concerns of the elite Judge Magisters and the ramblings of the maniacal Dr. Cid all seem culled from another game entirely, which is only emphasised by how they occur entirely separately from the party’s journey.

The Archades scenes are not the only example of Matsuno’s influence. Though nethicite is nothing more than a plot device, its power is constantly reiterated as political leverage, which is a small step above the usual fare. Ashe, meanwhile – the real protagonist – as the presumed dead Princess of the conquered Dalmasca, is positioned as a crucial bargaining chip that holds the faltering balance of power in check.

These deeper meanings also tie into the Occuria: unseen, blank verse-spouting deities that govern the fate of Ivalice by handpicking emissaries to shape the world as they see fit. In years past they chose King Raithwall, Ashe’s ancestor, who united Ivalice – now, they want Ashe to do the same. However, a heretic named Venat has shacked up with Dr. Cid, intent on restoring humanity’s agency, and an interesting parallel is established between Ashe’s fight to restore her kingdom with Venat’s Promethean struggle to liberate mankind. (This is also seen in the lore surrounding the Espers, this game’s version of Summon monsters.)

Even Vayne’s motivations are not as clear-cut as the average Final Fantasy villain. Though he shares the androgyny and ruthlessness of your Sephiroth or Seymour, Vayne also shares the inherent nobility of Cid and Venat’s objective. But shaking off the Occuria is only a convenient by-product of his ultimate goal of ruling Ivalice, which is stoked by Venat for its own ends. However reductive the seraphim routine in the final boss fight may be, Vayne is a far more ambiguous antagonist than the series is accustomed to, even if the party still has to beat him up at the end with swords and guns and luminescent supernovas.

The problems with FFXII’s narrative don’t necessarily come with the beats themselves, weak as they often are: it’s the hours of wandering between them that takes its toll. That’s the conundrum: A more linear experience would bolster the plot significantly but rob the player of immersing themselves in the most compelling world in the entire series. Ivalice is a gorgeous, sprawling masterclass of world design and not merely in aesthetic terms, for which Hideo Minaba, Hiroshi Minagawa and Isamu Kamikokuryo deserve enormous credit. Equally commendable is the openness and inter-connectivity of these environments, boasting multiple paths, exits and secret areas off the grid.

The Sky Pirate’s Den was sadly excised from The Zodiac Age in lieu of Trophy support. It’s lovely, so here it is.

Just as vital is the world’s history. Frittered away within Bestiary entries, side-quests and random NPC nattering, it’s well-considered, fascinating and coherent, adding both context and subtext to the world in lieu of the narrative. The Bestiary in particular, with more pages added by killing a quota of each enemy, is a treasure trove of information chock-full of digressional analects and chronicles. It’s the kind of material that actually incentivises the player to go out and hack T-Rexaurs to death, just so they can uncover the next tantalising, lovingly-written nugget of lore.

This is localisation wizard Alexander O. Smith’s crowning achievement. Smith, having already worked on Matsuno’s previous Square titles with long-time colleague Joseph Reeder, already had experience lending pseudo-Shakespearean idioms to the director’s complicated characters. Here, they were given the freedom to really run wild. The sheer size of FFXII’s futurist-Medieval Ivalice suits the esoteric stylings of their language, adding rich texture to each facet of the game, the most pivotal being the voice acting.

Thankfully, it’s a vast improvement over FFX and FFX-2’s efforts. Crucially, species and regions are characterised by distinct accents, avoiding the anime tropes or Saturday morning cartoon standards that plague JRPG dubs. This decision alone, championed by VO director Jack Fletcher, adds an enormous layer of complexity to Ivalice that a standard localisation would have been incapable of providing. Of particular note is Gideon Emery’s universally acclaimed performance as Balthier, the swaggering sky pirate that should have been the main protagonist, who bleeds charisma whenever he’s on-screen, but the voice acting on the whole is stellar. As a feat of localisation, it’s near peerless.

Fortunately, the gameplay rises to meet that standard. While FFXII is fundamentally a single-player experience, its subsequent reputation as an offline MMO is not unfounded. The litany of Hunt side-quests reinforces the comparison further. Despite their perfunctory nature – read bill, talk to NPC, kill monster, talk to NPC, receive reward – each Hunt has its own self-contained plot and characters in miniature, often rewarding the player with lore as well as loot. They’re also entirely optional and designed to be taken at the player’s pace, usually in the long stretches of walking between plot points.

The most obvious mechanical resemblance to MMOs, however, is the Active Dimension Battle system, or ADB for short (designed, of course, by Hiroyuki Ito, with Wait and Active modes). FFXI killed the battle screen and FFXII honours that decision; all battles occur in real-time with a completely controllable camera, eliminating random encounters entirely. From an active party of three (that can be swapped through the menu in a clunkier version of FFX’s mechanic), players control a ‘Leader’ while the AI handles the other characters, including the occasional Guest, with Gambits.

Here we are: the controversial Gambit system. Gambits are customisable ‘programs’ that dictate character actions when the player is not directly controlling them, designed to trigger when certain conditions are met. Said conditions are assigned by the player from the menu, with a maximum of 12 (of course) equippable at any time. Gambits can also be prioritised: a common set-up is to include a healing option as top priority when a character falls below 30% HP, or to cure a status effect etc. Much of the fun with FFXII’s combat comes from concocting your own ‘perfect’ strategies before engagements, and adapting those plans when trickier fights demand it.

In theory, players don’t even need to press buttons to progress in battles: they simply walk forward and the characters do it for them. Critics of the system have derided it precisely for this automation, arguing that the game plays itself, but the opposite is true. The ability to manually input commands is never disabled and actually takes precedence over Gambits. It’s no different to the customisation present in previous entries and actively encourages player choice by proxy. Try exclusively using Gambits against some of the game’s insane super bosses, like Yiazmat or Omega Mark XII, or the Judges in the re-release’s Trial Mode: see how you get on.

The Licence Board progression system is just another extension of the freedom FFXII offers to players. Aesthetically resembling a chessboard and mechanically resembling FFX’s Sphere Grid, earning Licence Points (alongside traditional Experience Points) in battle allows characters to unlock ‘Licences’ for Magicks, Technicks, Equipment and standard stat augmentation. Again, the player has the option to carve their own path on the grid, picking and choosing what to gain and when, or even to ignore it entirely for challenge runs.

2017’s The Zodiac Age re-release shakes up the Licence Board with the inclusion of – glory hallelujah! – the Job System. This time, characters are tied to a maximum of two jobs each that are permanent once assigned, all of which come with their own unique Licence Board. After unlocking all the Licences in the original version, party members feel largely identical beyond their equipment and Gambit set-ups, so the Jobs go a long way to restoring character individuality in battle. It certainly encourages players to utilise all members of their party, with each job pairing being exceptionally well-balanced no matter what the player chooses.

The re-release doesn’t change all that much beyond the Jobs and the aforementioned, survival-themed Trial Mode. It naturally polishes the graphics to a HD shimmer and the uncompressed audio is a welcome boost. The ability to switch double/quadruple speed on or off is a neat addition, especially considering how exhaustive some of the longer treks and battles can become (though the latter is less of an issue with the slightly decreased difficulty).

The most appreciable change, however, is the re-orchestrated music. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the original version’s soundtrack was lovely if not particularly memorable. In The Zodiac Age, Sakimoto’s music seems to soar with character, matching the richness of the game’s environments with subtle textures of strings and roaring cannons of bombast. His score is a rousing, confident call to adventure. While it may not be as melodically powerful as Uematsu’s work, it’s a marvellous soundtrack that perfectly captures the mood of the game.

Whichever version you play, Final Fantasy XII is all about options, moreso than any non-MMO entry in the series. Though unintended, the anaemic narrative serves to emphasise the vastness of the game-world and prods the player toward the boundless possibilities present in the game’s combat. That’s what sets it apart from the other modern instalments: It’s a Final Fantasy game where the story-line is thoroughly outclassed by the gameplay.

It almost feels like a throwback to the NES days, where constant grinding and aimlessly wandering around enormous maps was part and parcel of the experience. Perhaps that’s the reason why FFXII originally appeared to be such anathema to long-time fans – it simply wasn’t the cinematic tour-de-force they’d become conditioned to recognise.

The game was far from a disaster upon its initial release – a Metacritic score of 92 and six million copies sold would suggest otherwise – but its esteem has only grown in the decade since. If anything it was ahead of its time, grafting MMO elements onto a single-player game when the concept was almost unheard of. What might have been is, ultimately, irrelevant. Now, it’s widely regarded as a masterpiece of design that shone through the nightmarish circumstances that surrounded it. It’s only fitting – it took time to truly appreciate a game that took its sweet time.

Next time, we stir a cauldron of ambition and hubris; fate and free will; fal’Cie and l’Cie. You know damn well what’s coming: Final Fantasy XIII.

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