I have finally put the final dot on the FF series, having played all the mainline games thanks to this pandemic putting a wrench in my more constructive plans. I had some really good time re-experiencing some classics like FF6 and 9, but I was most surprised to discover that the game I ignored the most 15 years ago became the FF game that somehow managed to impress me the most today.
Maybe some of it is because I am now older, or because I managed to play the games by the same director and writer to prepare me to the kind of experience I didn't get before (Final Fantasy Tactics is phenomenal by the way), but wow, it is really great and inspiring as an experience today.
I will list why I think it's an impressive game, maybe even more so today than it was back in 2006:
Story & World
I feel like I was too young to appreciate it fully back then, but the story is much more interesting and mature than I originally believed it to be. The hallmarks of its story is more reminiscent of Western RPGs than it does Japanese RPGs in the way things unfold and how characters and their motivation is written, which is very good in this case even if I totally understand that it isn't the kind of familiarity that FF fans expected. But different doesn't mean bad in this case.
What FFXII excels at is really honing in on the class struggle and oppression that the people of Ivalice are experiencing. It feels much more of a world-driven game than any other FF in the sense that you are aware that your actions, and the villains' actions are not just something that will affect you but everyone else too. There is a weight to what the characters are doing because they have to face consequences others will have to suffer.
While FF games are often about a world-ending threat, FFXII is at most a struggle to liberate a single region, and even then you are not solving the world's problem, but a localized struggle in a system that will endure. Because of that, special attention has been given to NPCs, who will tell you how they feel about the situation and what hardship they are facing. This is a very good thing as NPCs are much more than fodder text but an integral part of the story. They also have something new to say after every major story event, showing that they are not just cardboard cut-outs but people that can feel the wind of change that you are participating on.
The intersection between the world and the characters is much more involved and something I really appreciate much more today. Back then, I never bothered to talk to a single NPC because I was conditioned to think that they would not have anything interesting to say as is often the case in JRPGs. Not in FFXII. They matter because the story makes it clear it's about them before it's about you.
But what really struck me, especially as I've become an amateur writer, is how tightly woven the themes of FFXII are and how they flow throughout every important character, and that includes both "heroes" and "villains", that I put in quotes as the game is much more grey than simply putting labels of good and evil to people:
- Family. That is the one theme that is the most fascinating to me, especially considering how rare it is in the genre. Almost every character have a family, or had one that is still very important to them. Even the main villain, Vayne, has a little brother that has a huge importance to the story and creates an intersection of parallels. Some characters are driven by revenge for who they have lost (Vaan, Ashe, Gabranth) while some are forced to carry a weight on their back for the sins of their living or dead relatives (Basch, Larsa, Balthier). Every character is finding an opposite in the form of someone else and shows how the ruthless world of Ivalice and the misery in it shapes people differently. For example, Vaan was driven by his hatred of the people who murdered his brother but learned to forgive to fight for a better cause, while Ashe cannot let go of her husband's dead and is ready to use power at her disposal to destroy the ones responsible even if it's at the expense of other people. Larsa believes in peace and unity while Vayne is ready to bloody his hands to reach his ideal.
And it all ends up butting up to each other, Larsa cannot speak of naive ideals while his brother is wrecking havoc to the world, and Ashe is constantly challenged by Vaan to remind her of her privilege in the sense that her revenge will end up having consequences for everyone but her.
- Past. Very similar to family but not exactly the same. Every character have a past that they have to contend with. Fran leaving her home forever has had consequences she has to live with every day (solitude, regret), Balthier knows he will never be truly free unless he confronts the things he left behind. This past will follow them even closer the more they try to run away from it, so FFXII contends that the only solution is to turn back and face them, despite the pain they have to face. The only way to be truly free is to confront your past and kill it.
- Legacy. Passing down their beliefs into someone is so prevalent in FFXII. Vayne's ideals are something that he wants to share with the world, to make something that is his and his alone. While someone like Vaan had the legacy of his brother, his kindness and self-sacrifice passed down to him. FFXII remind how characters are not just their own thing but the result of what came before, for better or worse. And we see how characters choose to accept or reject this legacy, like we see with Larsa and the legacy of his brother Vayne.
There is never a character in FFXII that just exists to provide something the story needs. Every character has a background that is indicative of the sheer amount of care put into its world. They exist inside the system and society put in place and they have to solve their issues within these confines.
What is so good about those themes in particular is that there is always an "other" to ground a character's motivation, as if they had an alter ego they have to surmount in order to finally be able to become the kind of person they want to be. Not just that but interactions between characters are always valuable because they do not just tag along for no reason and there is no unwarranted power of friendship tying them together. They are together because the circumstances forces them to be, and they often clash among each other, disagreeing about the way to go to to save Ivalice from this existing threat. It makes for so much more entertaining scenes because it promotes fascinating interactions about characters that have well-defined motivations that are not tied to the protagonist's. In fact, the main protagonist in this case (Ashe), is the most flawed character out of the group.
- Character motivations:
There is no friendship to speak of, they are not together because they like each other, there is even no romance to speak of (a first ever since FF4), but this is what makes it stronger because each individual character has to carry themselves by the story they have and the struggle they share. For example, in many JRPGs you will see the regular peasant befriending the princess and even falling in love, but in FFXII, the class divide and lack of shared experiences posits that no, they haven't lived the same kind of lives and cannot relate to each other in this sense. However, they can relate to the loss they shared in the war and learn from each other as a result.
I will also talk about some spoiler points:
I will talk a little bit about some spoiler stuff but I found the idea of a villain fighting to reclaim the history of mankind from higher beings to be much more fascinating than just a villain wanting to destroy the world. Vayne is a brilliant politician coming from a lineage of some of the most powerful men in the world and it makes it understandable why someone like this would despise to learn that the story he is making for himself was a farce and he is just another puppet of a story that is being written by someone else. While villains in FF often loses their mind and become pure evil, Vayne is someone who is always in control of his own actions, even his worst ones. He acts this way because he wants humanity to decide for themselves what they want their future to be. It is also important because it contrasts with the party, who is being used by these same divine beings to do their bidding. So for a large part of the story, the line between heroes and villains is heavily blurred, as you strive to use a power given by gods to destroy an Empire but the villains want to fight these gods to reclaim their free will. It is only at the end that the party comes through and rejects power itself that they are able to fight for themselves. Even then, Vayne's ideals have succeeded and dies knowing that mankind can finally write their own history. It's also very good in the sense that Vayne entrusts this future to Larsa, which he had always loved and respected his commitment to peace even if he is everything that he is not. There is this whole sense of voluntary martyrdom coming from Vayne who decided to do the kind of evil no one else could do for the sake of a higher goal. He is an incredibly multi-layered character who goes much deeper than what you can infer at a surface level. Not to mention the great character of Cid who shares Vayne's belief and ideal with their shared friendship. It's a matter of a group of people vs another group of people who are fighting to shape Ivalice to become a better place, but how they do it is the key.
And all of that works very well for me and has been very inspiring. It's reminiscing of Game of Thrones in the sense that they do not fall into the trap of characters becoming the most important by virtue of their birth. Even peasants and commoners have their own level of importance because these people do not exist without them. It's refreshing to have a story where it's never about a legendary hero or a benevolent princess, but flawed characters who end up overcoming their differences while still acknowledging that they have lived different lives. So, Ashe would not have been able to do the right thing without Vaan as her guiding hand to show that he is the kind of people she is supposed to protect. And without Larsa, we would never have had someone on both sides making us able to understand the Empire and how they are more than just a force of evil.
FFXII never settles on a side and tells you "this is the good guy, this is the bad guy, they will have to fight", it's a matter of ideals and conviction, and how strong their will are to make that ideal come true. It's always personal in a journey of learning and understanding.
You can see how different it is from FF13 or FF15, where, for example FF15 makes us to try to think about Noctis caring about his people and his kingdom, and then you spend your time hanging out with bros and fishing, or how FF13 just entirely discards any kind of player interaction, meaning that you simply do not get to understand its world outside of what the story feeds you, and coming to the conclusion of "why should I care"? FFXII also had wanted fugitives and still delivered on a lot of interactions (unlike 13), and understood that characters can have unique, different motivations instead of just being on one mind with the king (unlike 15).
I'm now in the opinion that FFXII's gameplay was the necessary step that the series needed. Its dynamic yet still somewhat turn-based gameplay carried the strategy of the latter with the snappiness of the former. Its open-world also had the best of delivering a wealth of new areas while still being big but not too big.
And I think FFXII was validated twice over with FF13 and FF15:
- FF13 took inspiration from FF10 for its world and structure with a more "classic" gameplay system and it was obvious it didn't work anymore.
- FF15 was much more dynamic but offered an open world so vast of nothing to do that it became tedious.
Final Fantasy XII was the missing link that they ignored but in hindsight was the best way to go about and should have been the blueprint of later games. In fact, the best world I had experienced after FF12 was FF14, and this game is probably the closest analogue to FF14 in story and world (and it also seems to have Ivalice inside the game, so heh).
I understand the complaints of the game playing itself, but now I play recent JRPGs and I'm forced to play only one character while I'm forced to suffer the AI-controlled party members just doing some of the most stupidest stuff imaginable, and I'm just thinking, what did we gain in the process?
In FFXII I was able to control three characters at will at any point, switch between six of them, totally manipulate their AI patterns to make it as good as I want it to be, from just doing light stuff to become fully automated killer machines. I had freedom all the way through from builds to the way I make my characters act. Then I see FF13 and FF15, and even games like Xenoblade or Kingdom Hearts, and I have none of that. FFXII is giving me the freedom that I don't have in JRPGs anymore.
Exploring and fighting on the same screen is snappy, the hunt system unlocking itself throughout the story makes it that I can have bosses to test myself constantly instead of being a cakewalk until the endgame. Not just that but the sheer amount of weapon types and magic means that everything is viable. I can make a hard-hitting white mage, I can make a roided martial artist using his fists, and I can make a gun-wielder piercing defense while buffing my party. It's all there for me to experiment and tinker with, and it has a ton of challenging content to try these builds I'm making. It has the challenge to match the depth.
And because it isn't enough, fighting enemies unlock more pages in the bestiary to know more about them and the lore of Ivalice. Just to show how every aspect of its world are made to be believable.
- Open world:
FFXII had a big world full of stuff to explore, and not just in that "go there, do that", but exploration because the game is making me *want* to explore. There's a ton of optional areas the story never tells you to go, and sometimes they seem to be so important that you're wondering why you're not told to go there. For example, the story talks often about Nabudis, the kingdom that was utterly destroyed by a powerful magic, and you go there by accident, unprompted by the story, and you discover the aftermath. You realize, by something that you've found yourself, something that makes you go "wow, what happened here was sheer annihilation".
It's so good because it is player-driven exploration. The more I take the time to explore everything and go out of the beaten path and the more I am rewarded not just with more areas, but more content, more bosses, more lore, more story. It's a believable world where the things the story speak about actually have a dot on the map that you can go at some point. Not just that but FFXII also even makes it worth it to go to earlier areas and unlock more places, or fight stronger enemies, or make use of the excellent Hunt System that keeps giving relevance to all kind of areas, new and previously explored, to face new challenges.
The way that most of the map is available to explore from the start means that I can have a ton of fun just wandering around and discovering that this area actually connects to another area that I've previously been to in ways I didn't even imagine but make sense in the context of the world. When you play FFXII, you realize that there was thought put into its world in ways that simply didn't exist before in the series.
The Hunt System is brilliant in particular, it could have just been a "go there, do that" like FF15 contracts, but the fact that you have to speak to people, find clues, then fight the monster, then talk to the NPC again means that each hunt has a storyline that fleshes out the world instead of being fodder content. Not only that, Clan Centurio (the hunt clan) itself has several storylines like the one where there people assassinating the hunters that you have to hunt yourself and find out why.
And of course, it would be remiss of me not mentioning the lavishly designed cities. From the sky city of Bhujerba to the eerie village of Eruyt to the Imperial City of Archades, every lived-in places are so well crafted and designed. I heard that FFXII has five times the amount of NPCs than any Final Fantasy and it wouldn't surprise me. It feels alive, but most importantly, quantity doesn't get in the way of quality. The NPCs are worth talking to and are not just cracking jokes left and right or talking about how they have to make dinner at 9PM.
Final Fantasy XII is the game that I didn't give any thought back then that I would easily put among the best in the series today. At least in my top 3 interchangeably with FF Tactics and 7.
It made me realize that the maturity of its world and story has been unprecedented in the numbered FF series. The excellent dialogue ("You look very thin, Basch. Less than a shadow. Less than a man. Sentenced to death and yet you live. Why?" still gives me chills), the unique characters carried by strong interactions showed a surprising amount of depth that reveals itself the more you care to dive into it. There is also the strong worldbuilding where every rock feels like it has a story to tell, and what I believe to be the most complex and rewarding battle system yet (seriously, fighting hunts like Fafnir has to be some of the most rewarding fights I've experienced in the genre).
Final Fantasy XII defines itself by its amount of confidence put into it. It just feels like a game that wants you to adapt to rather than a game that was adapted for the player. At the time, it felt like heresy, but right now? It feels surprisingly refreshing and unique.
More importantly, revisiting in the context of the whole series has made it clear that what it has done, it did it in a way that exposes why later games are failing to be relevant today (corridor world or empty open world & simplistic gameplay), while FFXII feels ahead of its time (Gambit system, in-depth worldbuilding, excellent dialogue and writing, well-defined characterization, more complex plot than a story of good vs evil, etc).
I really enjoyed my time with it, and I feel like I wanted to give it the love it deserves.
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