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Just finished FFXII and it just feels so… lacking. Is this actually where the ‘decline’ of the franchise started?

Gamingtodaynews1g - Just finished FFXII and it just feels so... lacking. Is this actually where the 'decline' of the franchise started?
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I remember reading about FF12 when it came out, and most reviews deeming it a worthy swan song for the franchise's last title on the PS2.

But while I think it was still a good (if not great) game – gorgeous, big world you could get lost in, was an absolute blast to play, had its share of great moments, etc., I just don't believe it's worthy of all the praise it got. I've summarized the 3 major reasons below, and then I'll go through in-depth on each; obviously, happy to hear anyone's thoughts on this

Why FFXII felt so lacking (short version):

1) Not rich enough emotionally; coupled with poor character growth, resulted in weak emotional payoffs (especially by the end)

2) While the world feels very lived in, it felt like the main cast didn't really live in it / were disconnected from it, and the dungeons were somewhat repetitive

3) The overarching story, and motivations surrounding it were not well explained and suffered from a clear lack of exposition

Why FFXII felt so lacking (long version):

1) Not rich enough emotionally; coupled with poor character growth, resulted in weak emotional payoffs (especially by the end) – Okay, so, some key points here:

  • There's just very little growth for the characters, save Ashe who outgrows her desire for power and revenge, and Vaan who starts to care about something more than just getting into shenanigans. Balthier from start to finish is only after a greater prize, and while he shows signs of being more invested, is not really fully fleshed out. Basche, Penelo, and Fran just feel like background characters tbh, to serve as companions for the real front 3. They're almost exactly who they were by the end.
  • In addition to little growth from the characters – there's also very little interaction between them, no real relationships between them (aside from pre-existing ones). FFs always have had a rag tag bunch, but not a disconnected one. Even something like Balthier teaching Vaan how to be a sky pirate in bits and pieces would've worked wonderfully (they kind of did that, but far too little imo – contrast with Wakka/Tidus on Blitzball)
  • In addition, the story centers about the fight for freedom and while Vaan is the nominal main character, it doesn't really… feel that way, emotionally, and the game doesn't really make it clear. Ashe is obviously the most important, Balthier/Basche are 'cooler'; it felt like if Vaan got taken out of the equation, nothing would've been lost. Contrast this with FFX: Yuna's more important, Auron's cooler, but Tidus' growth and his connection with Yuna as they go on the pilgrimage is the driving force of the game
  • The result is by the end, while you're happy that you've won freedom for Dalmasca, and that ending song gets you emotional… It lacked the emotional punch that accompanied most of the mainline titles. Sure, you still bucked the typical FF odds of god-like beings, terrible dungeons and whatnot, but the lack of growth, and the thing tying the group together just makes it come up short. Basically every modern mainline FF game's payoff blows 12's away: the feeling of relief when you FINALLY beat Sephiroth, or saving the world from time compression and Squall/Rinoa getting their happy ending, Vivi coming to terms with dying and Zidane/Garnett getting reunited…

2) While the world feels very lived in, it felt like the main cast didn't really live in it / were disconnected from it

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  • It felt like there were very little consequences, gameplay wise, based on whatever was happening in the story – i.e., if you were fugitives on the run, wouldn't you have to move around more carefully (esp. in Rabanastre, Archades)?
  • The characters don't seem to care where they are – you enter the Nabreus Deadlands and there's nothing; shouldn't Basch care? I know Nabudis is an optional area, but would a few more mini cut scenes about what Basch was feeling during the battle, as you were journeying through it, really have hurt? It's just in stark contrast to other games where, e.g., when you reach Zanarkand, you really feel like you've arrived at an area of great importance, and the characters TALK. Many times it felt like I was just off to "random dungeon #5 needed to advance the storyline". They had lots of opportunities to do this too especially in Giruvegan (woah, legendary lost city, great view thanks to the camera… And you repeat the riddle and don't comment on its beauty, instead just workamnlike-going through the motions to do what you're supposed to?)

3) The overarching story, and motivations surrounding it were not well explained and suffered from a clear lack of exposition

  • The game's story is around a political struggle that's motivated by… men who want man to take the reins of history? Because gods have been deciding it for so long? Wait, what there are gods? Who are they and how have they been influencing history? Why and how can we take it back with the nethicite? These just aren't elaborated on enough (esp. the existence of the Occuria) through cut scenes
  • Even when you continue to acquire Espers – there's not a single line of dialogue (not even an "Uh-oh, I think we're in trouble") beyond the first. This takes "show, don't tell" waaay too far the other way, as there's no context for their existence, or what they mean to the overall state of things. The party's literally battling with beings who rebelled against the gods and no one seems to care??

There's plenty more that could've been better (look of the dungeons, puzzles, etc.), but they're minor compared to these issues. I'm not sure what FFXIII or FFXV's issues were, but FFXII's flaws are things you simply can't have in a linear game, especially today where the RPG landscape is dominated by choice-driven Western RPGs (how much of those choices are really meaningful is another story – I feel like only RDR and Witcher 3 actually do this well, tbf). Could FFXII have been where FF's decline started?

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