The End of The PS2 FF Era. Released in March 2006, just months before the release of the PS3, Final Fantasy XII was the last big hurrah for the series, and maybe even for the PS2 itself, one of the most celebrated and widely sold consoles in video game history. With the winds of change a blowin, FFXII came with some big expectations from FF fans, and unfortunately some big delays from the developers. While the idea of a Final Fantasy game taking forever to actually be released is something of a well known joke these days (yes I’m looking at you FF versus XIII, now rebranded as FFXV), FFXII is the first one I really remember it being a massive issue. According to wikipedia, as of 2008 it had held the guinness world record for longest development period (around 5 years, from 2001 to 2006). I remember being quite hyped for FFXII myself, it being probably the first Final Fantasy I purchased with my own money on release day (I think I even preordered my copy). So as the XIIth entry in the long standing series, and my thirteenth game of the project, the question is: Does Final Fantasy XII live up to the hype I held for it so long ago?
Being One of The Last AAA Releases Means It Should Be One of The Best Looking...Right?
Being one of the last releases for the PS2, FFXII benefits from all previous development efforts to squeeze every last drop of power from the PS2, and it results in some truly (for the time) breath taking visuals. At least that should be the case, don’t get me wrong, FFXII is a looker of the PS2 crowd, but there are some really weird kinks to the graphics and art style that put a decent dent in the games visuals. The most obvious and popular example would most likely be whatever the hell is going on with Vaan’s abs. I don’t even know how to describe what the hell is going on down there. Another issue with the character models is that sometimes it looks like the eyes are textures laid over the face without any actual modeling (think 2d eyes on a smooth face). In the CG cutscenes I sometimes felt like things look a little more plastic-y than the X series, hair seemed to be the biggest offender. If these seem nitpicky, it’s because yes they kind of are. Overall the game looked great back then, with a little help from the emulator I used, it looks decent today. I nitpick because one modern criticism of the FF series is probably that it’s going for style over substance and I feel like XII may be the start of that being a valid complaint. Its obvious that Square was just so damn excited to throw as many cool high tech effects at you, regardless of whether or not it made sense. Quickenings, the special Limit Break type attacks, are orgasms of spell effects. Bash’s Level 3 quicking brought my emulator and PC to its knees every time I used it (which had the incidental boon of slowing things down and making chaining a lot easier). Some of the quickenings don’t even really make a whole lot of sense, such as Vaan being a really angry rainbow, but I get the feeling the developers didn’t care as long as it constituted a visual orgy. Spell effects actually managed to have a negative effect on the actual gameplay believe it or not. Magic in FFXII has a bit of a queue system where larger more visually complex spells will cause other spell casting is delayed until the previous one ends. During this time however, physical attacks are more than welcome to continue on. So unfortunately our old friend magic once again gets a bit shafted. On a more subjective note (yes I know it’s all subjective but bear with me) the artistic direction and the world of Ivalice, honestly just does nothing for me. I don’t care for the look, or the old timey manner of speaking. However reception of presentation aspects like this is so highly different between people, that I’d never use it as a reason to not recommend the game. Call it a classic case of the Uncanny valley, Square reached for the stars and, while mostly succeeds, gave rise to strange imperfections which sat in a corner, never really inhibiting my enjoyment of the game, but never really letting me forget they were there in the first place.
The Story Admirably Charts A New Path, Even If It Doesn’t Entirely Work
Unlike almost every other FF, FFXII doesn’t focus on some world ending catastrophe or apocalypse inducing madman. Rather than getting bogged down in Good Vs. Evil or drama and emotions such as love, FFXII kinda keeps it all business. The player ends up siding with Princess Ashe to defeat the main antagonist Vayne. But as mentioned it’s not good princess vs evil empire (although Vayne does do many things considered evil), Ashe isn’t seeking to save the world, she’s just grasping for the Ivalice equivalent of a nuclear deterrent to preserve her kingdom.
Vayne himself isn’t trying to bring about any world ending destruction, but expand the size of the archadian empire like a fantasy Alexander The Great. Vayne has other motives for what he does, which continues his depiction as a dark grey moral character, but it’s a pretty big plot point so we’ll steer clear of that in this article. In the end FFXII tries to move forward with a more grounded, adult story about the politics of nations, war, and the struggles of a land face with occupation. While not too removed from past FFs, which often start out with similar set ups, FFXIIs shifting of gears can be a breath of fresh air to those a bit sick of the ol “Get The Girl, Save The World” tried and true stories of the past. The problem however, is that while the shifting focus is commendable, the story kind of fails to draw me in for a couple of reasons.
While FFXII tries to paint itself as a story of the politics of wars and kingdoms, the actual bulk of that happens in the background, only to be revealed when the main party needs somewhere new to go. The main bulk of the game is centered, as previously mentioned, on Ashe’s search to procure the power to maintain Dalmasca’s independance. Except whenever she gets her hands on something, the goal post ends up getting switched on her. When you find the thing you need it often gets taken away, or is rendered useless by a change in the situation. While Ashe may be an instance of proactive royalty, choosing to get her own hands dirty, the fact is the party spends almost the entire game being reactionary. Few to no events that occur over the entire game are ever instigated by Ashe and crew. One could look at it as an interesting subversions of a common setup, the rogue party in a game centered on complicated political moves is often seen as a disruptive element, a game changer, one who cares only about fulfilling their goals, damn everyone else’s grand plans. FFXII could be trying to say the one person really can’t change the course of entire nations like that, at least not easily.
The biggest problem with FFXII’s story is what I can only describe as a major disconnect between all its major aspects. As Ashe only reacts to waves others make, and never seems to really generate them on her own, it feels like the events of her journey and the rest of the world are separate entities Yes I know I said that may very well be the point but I feel like some evidence of the road between Ashe’s actions and the nations at large is at least a little bit of a two way street would help tie the two threads together. The finale of the game even kind of cuts the thread of Ashe’s journey as it basically boils down to “Well shit, none of that worked out...let’s just go kill Vayne as he resides on a massive superweapon never before mentioned, being crewed by an entire army”. Even the plot point I alluded to earlier about Vayne’s actions not being cut and dry gets wrapped up in the previous dungeon and has little to do with the events that occur (except powering the superweapon, but that’s almost an aside to what it means for the world at large). Speaking of Vayne, let’s talk about the disconnect of Vayne, who is the major opposition to Ashe and crew. If you’ve read my series so far, you know I love nothing more than when the major villain interacts with the main party. The snarkier and cockier the better, the likes of Sephiroth and Kuja (Kefka for being batshit insane). Unless I’m blocking out a particular scene, Vayne and Ashe only ever actually meet at the final battle. Not only that, but Vayne’s actions are often the major catalysts for events, and usually what moves the goal post on Ashe, but I question whether or not he even knows or cares about Ashe for the majority of the game. In the end I guess the answer is that he is aware of her, after all she ends up unwittingly accomplishing one of his major goals for him. But for the life of me I can only think of two events in which Vayne’s actions are directly in response to Ashe’s. The first being at the very beginning of the game in which he baits her and the resistance out into the open, and the second when she happens to be traveling with his younger brother. Another major player in the final showdown is the Resistance lead by marquis Ondore. When you first meet the resistance its in a seedy bar backroom. Next time you see them they’re flying a fleet of fucking airships. They’re backed by the opposing empire seeking to halt Vayne’s expansion, but it still feels a bit weird to go from secret handshakes to flying armada.
The main cast of characters also feels a bit flat and sometimes I end up wondering why some of them are even there. I imagine most of us have heard the idea that Vaan was never meant to be the protagonist, it was Basch, but in order to appeal to demographics, a younger protagonist was created. I don’t know how confirmed that is, but I fully believe it because Vaan spends a big portion of the game not really doing a whole lot of anything. Hell Penelo is literally only there because Vaan is, she has almost no effect on the story at large. Fran is similar, just being there because she’s Balthier’s partner, but her backstory is examined in the course of the game. Even Basch himself can feel a bit like a part of the scenery sometimes. The only characters who really take center stage are Ashe, for obvious reasons, and Balthier. Even before Balthier becomes involved for reasons other than self gain, he views himself as the “Leading Man” and has the charisma to back it up, often stealing the scene.
Gameplay Mixes It Up, Brings a Little MMO in to Your Life
Its not too much of surprise considering the previous entry was an MMO, but FFXII does away with some classic RPG conventions, mainly in the battle system. Random encounters are no longer a thing, enemies are visible on the main map and there is no transition to a unique battle map upon engagement. Characters are also able to freely move around the battlefiled, and aren’t relegated to a nice clean line up. There are even some abilities (namely the Lure spell) which allow you to bring a little mmo style party composition, although with only 3 party members on the field, roles get condensed. There also aren’t a whole lot of utility spells, so using Lure to turn one party member a tank can be kind of a bad idea when they lack any type of defensive skills/cooldowns beyond their HP and armor. Overall the flow of combat is improved, moving in and out of combat occurs quickly and battles usually don’t take long unless its a boss or you’ve done a classic MMO over pull. Also nice is when you want to run from a battle, you literally just run away. You may have to run all the way to a zone change, bringing a conga line of mobs with you, but hey its sometimes better than the chance based model previously used.
Other changes are relatively minute, it still plays like a Final Fantasy for the most part. If there’s one smallish change I’m not a big fan of, its the economic ones. Battles no longer drop gil, rather they drop loot (like hides or something), which you then have to sell for the gil. It feels like an unnecessary middle man step, and it feeds in to a larger annoyance at FFXII’s grindy/RNG nature. FFXII is very gear centric, and that requires a lot of cash to outfit your full 6 man party. Having cash requires mobs to drob valuable items, the rate of basic item drops isn’t too bad, but you’ll need a lot of them, and may be reduced to simple grinding. On the bright side if you can afford to fully outfit your party on arrival to the next shopping tier, chances are you don’t need to worry about your level or License point status. Thats where FFXII gets kind of grindy, where it begins to RNG fuck you is when you start wanting some of the top tier gear. Unlike previous FFs where ultimate gear was often a reward of side quests, optional bosses, or just really expensive, FFXII relegates a good portion of its ultimate gear to treasure chests. If the game is kind, you can probably find at least one 100% drop chance for a piece of great gear, but other times, or in cases where you want multiple copies for multiple people, you’ll be looking at some drop tables. First of all, you’ll have a RNG roll to see if the chest even spawns, then there’s a good chance it’ll need to make another roll to see if it actually has an item, or just gil. Then you might need to be aware if what you want requires you to have the Diamond Armlet equipped (it changes the loot tables on a lot of chests). This feels a lot worse than say FFX where the ultimate weapons involved an actual quest and mastery of minigames, and the “Ultimate” (there are various ideas of what is best for certain situations) armor requiring you to craft and customize, making it feel more personal. High tier equipment acquisition in FFXII just feels kind of soulless. You can sell monster drops to shops in an attempt to unlock some of the gear through the bazaar, but these often require grinding rare drops from high level, but otherwise common enemies, more grind in other words. Also if you’ve played the original FFXII you’ve probably heard about the Zodiac Spear, the most powerful weapon in the game, whose guaranteed chest drop is lost forever if you happen to open 4 seemingly random chests all over ivalice.
Earlier I mentioned License Points, let’s talk about those for a second. LP functions like AP from FFIX in that you can use it to buy feats for your characters. In the original release everyone was on the same LP board, starting at the same spot. Unlike FFXI where AP was spent on passives, LP here can be spent on passive hp increases, and the ability to cast spells and equip gear. You still have to actually buy the spells and equipment, but until you buy their respective license, you can’t use them. The result of one big board and everyone on it was a mass of generic sameness, Every character could do everything, and there really wasn’t a whole lot of choice to be made. Of course every character wants all the HP boosts, and getting to the equipment you want often required taking equipment licenses you didn’t want, resulting in a feeling of wasted resources. Techniques are also mostly useless so feel free to ignore them. Even going beyond that, I just hate the feeling of the game double dipping into my resources for everything i want to do. Hey you just blew the last 3-4 hours of mob drops to just barely outfit your entire party, now go grind for another hour because the way you spent LP in the process means you don’t have the right licenses for half of it. Now the good news is the License board system was heavily revamped in the Zodiac Job Edition re release, but we’ll get to all those changes in its own section.
The Gambit System Is A Massive Double Edged Sword, Both Greater and Lesser Than It Should Be
Even if you’ve never touched FFXII, chances are you’ve heard of its Gambit system. Realizing that managing all three party members in real time might be a tad bit difficult, but not wanting to reduce uncontrolled members to simple predefined AI, the developers saw fit to give us the Gambit system, which is basically a “Baby’s First AI Programming”. Using simple If/Then set ups, you can customize your party members AI to act as you want it. a simple, and very universal example is “Party Member </= 30% HP -> Cure” what this means is that whenever a party member reaches 30% or lower hp, the character that has this gambit will cast cure on them. Now I said it was greater and lesser, let’s talk about the less than part. Unfortunately the gambit system requires that whatever triggers the If, is the target of the Then. What this means is that you can’t include a third party in the gambit. What this means is that I can’t use a foe’s action to target an ally for something. For example, the Lure spell forces enemies to target who it’s cast on. Ashe is my frail mage, Basch is my big tanky warrior. What I can’t do is say “Foe: Target Ashe -> Lure on Basch” or “Foe: Target Ashe -> Protect on Ashe”. In each of those cases, whatever the Then statement entails, it needs to target the Foe that targeted ashe. It’s not the end of the world, you can manual cast these, and you can also just set them to maintain the buffs on each character all the time (“Target: Basch -> Lure), but that takes MP when you might not be fighting, and characters can’t cast and move so they’ll stop and probably fall behind, sometimes so much that they’ll stop the cast because they’re out of range, and stagger step until you either turn off the gambit or just let them finish the cast.
Now I also said that the Gambit system is Greater, what could I possibly mean? How could something be too great? Well, not to jump ahead, but if you’ve ever read criticism of FFXIII, you’ve probably heard about it’s all pressing forward and X. Well if you’ve got half a brain and a semi decent gambit set up, you don’t even have to press X. You can literally just use the analog to point the party at some poor bastard and then walk away. There are power leveling strategies which exist to exploit this, using a custom gambit set up and starting a special encounter, and then literally just walking away. Go to sleep, get some dinner, come back and reap the rewards. Even if you decide against using the heavy automation the gambit system provides, its still MMO style combat without utility skills, activated abilities (for physical attacking) or rotations and procs. Your front line just attack till the cows come home, and your mages just case a generic damage spell or whatever the enemy is weak against. Some may say this is better, and the option to ignore the gambit system deflects criticism, but if making the game play the way you want requires ignoring a major pillar of gameplay, the developer messed up. Oh and another way the Gambit system is a little OP is that if you set your mages gambits to target elemental weaknesses, they can auto target that even if you don’t use libra to know what it is yourself. In the end you’re faced with two options, either letting the game play itself, or presiding over tedious flat combat. Regardless it’s probably the most boring to play Final Fantasy in the series. Bosses really don’t help. Most of them are just hard hitting HP meatbags. Status Effects, Adds, or periods of immunity are really the only non damage tricks in their kits.
The International Zodiac Job System Re Release Fixes Some Problems, Introduces A Few Others
Like FFX and FFX-2 before it, FFXII received an international version re release. Unfortunately those of us who reside in North America never saw this release, so if you want to experience the changes, you’ll have to emulate it with the english patch. The biggest change is right there in the title, The International Zodiac Job System. The IZJS changes the license board to better emulate classic jobs of the FF world. Instead of all characters on a big all inclusive board, you’ll be forced to choose a specific job board, which comes with its own unique version of the LB, containing job appropriate license (your Black Mage won’t be rocking as much HP as your Monk, and your Monk won’t be slinging spells at that flying enemy). Character stat growth isn’t changed, so if you’re interested in effective pairings, you can’t put any character in any role, but the forced specialization means you’ll actually have to think about your party composition and account for their strengths and weaknesses. There’s also 12 jobs and only 6 party members so half those jobs, and any unique skills/weapons they hold will forever be lost to you. Really this is the best change they could have made, and it really improved the feel of the game for me. The new job system gave each character a mechanical sense of individuality. Other positive changes are mostly minor, Quickenings are now given their own bar rather than working off MP, this means you don’t have to choose between spells or quickenings, and MP growth is a lot smoother where as before every time you got a quickening license your mp jump 100% of base mp. It doesn’t feel like their power had been modified, they’re still OP boss killers at the start, and barely worth the trouble later on. Another positive changes is that chests with important gear has been sort of rebalanced. A lot of good things are now 100% chance when the chest spawns (which might still be a bit RNG related) and moderate high tier gear can be easier to obtain. However Square giveth, square taketh away because certain changes actually make some things harder to gain. Certain very important skills and spells are no longer sold in stores (like Dispel) and some very good gear have been moved from merchants to locations or merchants in post game areas. Accessories like bubble belts (which admittedly are a bit OP) aren’t as common, though the Bubble spell isn’t too hard to get ahold of. The overall effect is anything you might need to beat the main quest seems either equal or easier to get, anything above you might want for optional content is either placed in post game areas or in long but doable sidequests, or in some cases made even more RNG pain in the ass (usually duplicates for if you have multiple part members that use the same gear). Good news is the forbidden chests have been fixed so getting the zodiac spear is easier, though you may not have the one job that can use it so.../shrug.
FFXII Isn’t Bad By Any Stretch, But It Completely Fails To Grab Me
None of the issues I’ve discussed are silver bullets to FFXII’s head. You can easily buy the game, get your money’s worth, hell maybe even call it your favorite FF ever, I wouldn’t bat an eye at such statements. However in the end I really care for nothing about FFXII. I don’t care about the setting, I don’t care for the style, other than Balthier the other characters fail to endear themselves to me and I find it hard to care about the larger picture focus of politics and nations when I don’t care about the characters that make them up. Vayne, after an amazing entrance, being set up as the not evil, but merely opposing force, ends up petering out into a disappointing finale and feels removed from the heroes. The character you control exits the center stage after the first few hours and only remains tangentially relevant to the story at large. The combat, if all tools being utilized (ie the Gambit System) ultimately becomes a major bore. In the end FFXII represented an amazing opportunity...to catch up on all my favorite youtube videos, because honestly unless a cutscene was playing, I was probably paying more attention to those. Don’t get me wrong, the Gambit system is an amazing idea and should be considered a gold standard for modification and control of AI party members going forward. Unfortunately it just ends up doing a bit too much work, automating the rank and file battles far too much, and rarely if ever do any bosses ever contain mechanics to make them interesting. Final Fantasy XII isn’t the worst Final Fantasy, but I do consider it the most boring. Almost everything about it fails to make any impression on me. Its successes fail to light my fire, its failures fail really earn my ire, in the end FFXII is kind of just...there. I used to think FFXII was the worst FF, but this series has given me the perspective that it’s not the worst (that would be 2 for me so far). in the end, FFXII is not a bad game...it’s just not for me.