Very few of the Final Fantasy series are truly divisive. Final Fantasy XII, at least amongst our writers, is a firm discussion point brought up at any get together whenever the hallowed series is brought up. So, we’re throwing it to you people, our readers.
Two of our best and brightest have constructed their opposing views – now you can vote once and for all, is Final Fantasy XII good or bad?
Do you know who this is? Of course you do. Who could possibly forget Kefka? A video-game villain so psychotic and vicious that he has since become the true face of Final Fantasy VI, possibly because even years later we’re all still shit scared of him.
How about this guy? Yeah, that’s right; Kuja. Final Fantasy IX‘s antagonist was an amalgamation of some of the series’ most iconic enemies, but rose above his test-tube origins (literally) to ultimately become one of the most sympathetic bad guys in video game history.
Do you know recognize this face? Of course you do. This is the face of true terror. There’s barely a gamer alive who doesn’t recognize the cold, disconnected glare of Sephiroth. His silver hair dancing in the flames of Nibelheim is as instantly iconic an image as Mario’s moustache or the back of Lara Croft’s head.
But do you know who this is? No, of course you don’t. I’ve been researching this game, which I played to completion upon release, all night and even I’m not completely sure who he is. Apparently his name is Vayne, and apparently he’s the major antagonist for Final Fantasy XII, a game which is, despite my learned colleagues’ suggestions to the contrary, the blandest, most absolutely nothing game ever committed to code. And here’s a few reasons why.
As I’ve mentioned before on this very site, Final Fantasy XII is by no means a bad game. It’s not even the worst Final Fantasy game. Gambits are a pretty interesting idea, and in retrospect we can see them as the bridge between X‘s classic turn based battles and XIII‘s divisive ‘get out of here I’ll do this myself’ A.I system. Visually it’s nothing short of stunning, and is frequently held up (by me, no less) as an example of how the PS2 was only really hitting its stride when Sony shoved the PS3 down our throats. It’s also a huge game, and Square-Enix could certainly never be accused of phoning it in in terms of content. Unfortunately, none of this matters because FFXII is just so completely forgettable in every possible way.
Let’s start with the core mechanics. Gambits, whether you like them or not, have the same issue that VIII had with Junction, in that their connection to the plot and characters is minimal at best. So useful they may be, but diegetic to the game world they ain’t and when you divorce your battle or leveling system from your game-world, that world and the people in it better be worth sticking around for.
In contrast to the linear corridors of X or XIII, XII is so excited about its “open-world” that it thrusts you into it almost immediately, and although the aim is to ape the freedom of most MMORPG’s, in practice it makes the world impractically massive. There’s no sense of scale because everything is just always huge. There’s so sense that you’re exploring a planet rich in its own history and culture because everywhere just looks like everywhere else. There’s no drive, no focus, no clear, discernible reason for these characters to be doing what they’re doing, aside from the occasional cut-scene where they explicitly state it. Not that that’s completely unwelcome mind you, XII’s story is absolutely incomprehensible and the only times it makes any sense is when the characters themselves are explaining it to each other. Honestly, I was tempted to just copy and paste the plot synopsis from Wikipedia for my contribution here, because it made a better case for XII being a muddled directionless mess than I ever could.
I’ve played every main Final Fantasy game – except Lightning Returns and X-2 – to the end credits and honestly I remember all of them, even the ones I hated, more clearly than XII. I know Balthier was a good character, I know Penelo was used as bait at one point and a king was put in a refrigerator to turn a princess into a rebel-leader but no one likes to talk about either of those for some reason. Basch had a brother who probably should have been the main antagonist but for some reason wasn’t, and Vaan was pretty much just not there for most of it. Which brings us back to my main point; whatever XII got right or wrong, it was ultimately so lost and directionless that it’s main character and its main villain are barely remembered by anyone.
XII isn’t bad.
It’s not good either.
It’s nothing at all, and that’s the real tragedy.
To understand exactly where Square Enix were coming from with Final Fantasy XII, one must first consider the immediate home console prequels to the game. Square had essentially cornered the RPG space on Playstation with Final Fantasies VII through X, each one another cornerstone for a generation of players. Coming up to the end of the Playstation 2’s major commercial life cycle, Square had to do something to go out with a bang before continuing, to both signal big things to come and to show everything that they’d learned with the massive successes that had paved the path here. In short, they had to experiment, to boldly push outwards with newer ideas that made the most out of the platform they were on and made sure players were going to stick around. That’s what Final Fantasy XII is, a whole bunch of experiments put together, some working, some not so much.
Everything about Final Fantasy XII is based on being bigger. Before XII, Square Enix were known for incredible worlds that looked amazing but offered slightly narrower means of exploration. The world of Ivalice is a large one and every single area therein felt it. Taking obvious design nods from the MMO world, every section of the gameworld is a wide open field to be felt out and explored. The enemy encounters being built-on on the active battle system mean that making your way through different areas is akin to that of a dungeon – sprawling, confusing, slightly irritating. But even when annoying, the agency to completion is increased when secrets are salvaged.
The grand palaces, cities, forests, mountains and planes of Ivalice are constructed so that you aren’t just wander down a series of corridors with forks in the road, you’re ceaselessly nagged with the idea of missing something because there might be a corner you missed. Especially if there’s a particular kind of enemy that’s just out of your reach hanging out around a visible walk-way.
With these new size parameters being a constant, the game needed to be filled with ways to make them feel alive. The subtraction of using corridors as the main way of getting the player from A-to-B also subtracts the sole use of art installations to add flower and spice to sections of transit. Life needs to be emulated another way. Thankfully, one of the greatest gaming collaborations was currently paying of dividends at the time as Kingdom Hearts absolutely soared in popularity and sale. So, the battle system and real-time enemy encounters were taken from KH practically wholesale, with modifications for the more mature player-base. What you get in Final Fantasy XII is the largest free-roaming space yet seen in a home console Final Fantasy, with the greatest aspirations to real-time agency therein. Every area is littered with creatures that you can simply watch from a distance as they roam around and battling your way through them is a much more satisfactory experience. You can watch yourself slice, dice, shoot, firaga and otherwise bash your way through the wildebeast and dark forces in your way without the battling being an interruption to an otherwise empty path in front of you.
That said, the one thing that does suffer from the improved scale is the plot. With a larger world, comes more potential for winding, political narrative. Nothing new to the folks at Square Enix, of course, but Final Fantasy XII suffers from bad perspective (the lead character is poorly chosen for the story being told) and muddled politic-heavy plotting. The attempt is commendable and thankfully it doesn’t stop any of the well-written characters from shining (Balthier and Fran, I mean, need I say more?) but it simply lacks cohesion to the more progressive mechanics and art direction. Parts of the game require backtracking and of them, the secondary reason, hunting, is far more satisfying than the primary, which is story progression, especially in the middle act, where the story intensifies and becomes almost lost within itself.
Final Fantasy XII is still the last remnant of the Final Fantasy series that Final Fantasy VII promised back in the ’90s. It’s bold and slightly unhinged but charming and grandiose in ideal. Does every experiment work? No. But wouldn’t you rather commend a tight-knit effort at progress than a lazy safe average experience? I know I would.