Final Fantasy XII
Developer: Square Enix
Based on: The sheer brilliance of Yasumi Matsuno, watered down for the masses...but still awesome.
Someday, I will finish Final Fantasy XII.
That sort of statement is normally a resolute vow: I will finish this game, someday, to prove my fortitude...but not now, 'cause the game in question actually kind of sucks. You may know it well. It's the kind of mindset that begins to metastasize when your gaming pursuits become a methodical to-do list -- a task rather than a hobby.
But that's not the case here. I've yet to finish FFXII -- a game I started playing at its Japanese launch more than a year and a half ago -- not because it's an arduous chore but rather because once I finish, I will no longer be able to look forward to playing more of FFXII. Returning to the game, mastering its objectives, bringing its story to a close: these are not the sort of things that require an act of will. Rather, the challenge has been parceling it out, spreading it over the months and savoring it a bit at a time. Because I know that when the credits roll, when the final boss is defeated and the last Mark hunted --
Well, OK. Yiazmat is an arduous chore. But no game's perfect.
FFXII comes within spitting distance, though. Even though you can look at the game and see gaping holes where it could have been even better, the most recent "real" Final Fantasy -- that is to say, the most recent to have a Roman numeral rather than a subtitle -- is easily the best in the series.
It's a distinction that isn't without a certain degree of irony, and more than a bit of melancholy. Irony, because many Final Fantasy fans (by which I mean "most Final Fantasy fans") are loathe to even acknowledge it as a true chapter of the series. For them, its claim to authenticity is simply one of relativity; it may not feel like a "real" Final Fantasy, but it was immediately preceded by Final Fantasy XI?, and at least it's not another stupid MMO, you know? And melancholy, because never again will another Final Fantasy play out like this. Final Fantasy XIII, whenever it finally launches, will take us right back to the zippers-and-hairspray aesthetic of the Nomura/Kitase/Nojima alliance that rules the series (and indeed, nearly everything to come from the Square half of Square Enix) these days. No doubt XIII will feature very impressive visuals and some clever combat rules and impressive character-twinking possibilities and an inventive new take on the concept of amnesiac heroes who have to save the the world from a beautiful, porcelain-skinned megalomaniac that wants to become a new god. But it likely won't be a brilliant, innovative fusion of numerous disparate styles, a synthesis of western and eastern RPG tradition, a collaboration of single- and multi-player RPG concepts.
It won't be Final Fantasy XII, in other words.
So when the final boss is defeated and the last Mark hunted, I will at last have to bid farewell to an era. Several eras, in fact. FFXII isn't just the final Fantasy of the PlayStation 2 generation, nor is it merely the last creation of director-slash-genius Yasumi Matsuno, at least until such a time as he emerges from hiding and creates something new; FFXII is, more importantly, the final creation of the old Square, the Square that stood alone before it collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions and found itself sucked into Enix's devouring maw. The Square that initiated the creation of FFXII was a company that prized creativity and innovation. That Square was a far cry from today's incarnation, that flaccid appendage of Enix whose sole purpose is to rake in gobs of cash by slapping the Final Fantasy name on anything and everything. Today's Square has one purpose, and that is to fund Enix's favored child Dragon Quest.
Granted, the old Square was hardly altruistic, and its efforts didn't always pan out; those 32-bit Final Fantasys were epic and creative and bold and ambitious, but they're damn near unplayable now. Still, if you looked beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the big budgets and the accusations of "sell-out" from snarling Final Fantasy VI fans, you'd find a sincere desire to push the boundaries. FFXII is the culmination of that mindset. It takes the series in directions that are at once new yet wholly in keeping with its heritage. No surprise; its personality was defined them moment its reins were handed to Matsuno, the guy who managed to rebrand Tactics Ogre as one of the best games ever to bear the Final Fantasy name. FFXII's unique style is wholly in keeping with Matsuno's style; his creative sensibilities are far more baroque than the mass-market friendly material that Final Fantasy demands.
And in fact, the conflict between the two visions eventually proved too great to reconcile. Matsuno left Square, and the game's development, amidst a flurry of rumor and innuendo. Did he go nuts? Did he have a breakdown? Yeah, maybe. But maybe not. Maybe more concrete clues to his departure can be found by reading between the lines of the FFXII Scenario Ultimania book, which reportedly includes info on Matsuno's original conceptual treatments for the game. In his vision, FFXII would have had more in common with his PlayStation magnum opus Vagrant Story? -- a dark tale with a mature main character seeking to unmake the betrayal that destroyed his life: Basch.
You'll always be the hero in our hearts, Basch.
The gulf between this alternate reality of FFXII and what we were actually given, the one starring plucky teenaged protagonist Vaan, suggests that Matsuno's departure had more to do with an auteur unwilling to compromise his creation than it did with panic attacks. Whatever the case, Square Enix certainly isn't talking -- I even asked the game's pinch-hitter replacement producer, Akitoshi Kawazu, myself -- so until Matsuno fills us in, it's all just a load of unfounded speculation anyway.
Still, it's easy to envision that other version of Final Fantasy XII; even in the real game, Vaan is pretty much immaterial to the story. He's simply a point-of-view, a pair of eyes whose only substantial connection to the core plot is that his brother was murdered in the act of that betrayal that unmade Basch's life. The final game treats Basch as a side character, perhaps because Square Enix lacked confidence that the game's target audience could relate to a hardened adult; best to play it safe, they figured, and give them a more youthful intermediary to serve witness to the tale of the story's true central character, Princess Ashe.
Balthier reminds Vaan that he is in fact a worthless little poop.
Unsurprisingly, playing it safe gave rise to the game's single greatest weakness; where the original take on the story would have felt not unlike a more sophisticated take on Final Fantasy X?, with players taking the role of a warrior sworn to protect the only woman capable of resolving the world's crisis, the final result distances the player from the events of the game, drawing a veil of irrelevance around their actions. You never quite shake the impression that, as you're running about town in your stupid little girly vest, quite literally pretending to be Basch, the real Basch is off doing much more important things.
Of course, this narrative technique isn't inherently flawed. The Star Wars films (to which FFXII owes a tremendous, and obvious, creative debt) use C-3PO and R2-D2 as their point-of-view -- the harmless peripheral characters who alone witness the fall and redemption of the Skywalker clan in its entirety. Even Square's own Parasite Eve?, whose mitochondria-enhanced DNA was passed to FFXII through Vagrant Story, offered meek Maeda as the POV character for its Japanese audience, who couldn't possibly relate to scary Americans with guns, I'm sure. But unlike Star Wars, FFXII is a game, and games are an active medium. While FFXII has an excellent story relayed with a gorgeously-written English script, the sense that you're a passive observer sabotages its effectiveness, especially as the tale builds to its climax.
Then again, this is a game, and games are an active medium. While the story falls short of its potential, story is but a single component of the game... and the brilliant success of FFXII's other facets more than makes up for any narrative shortcomings.
Of course, most of those successes can only be considered such in subjective terms. Every last one of them has caused one or another of the series's long-time followers no end of heartburn, prompting even more protracted bellyaching. FFXII does away with Final Fantasy's long-reviled random battles, replacing them with free-roaming gameplay and seamless enemy encounters. The formal "line up and trade hits" presentation of battles is likewise discarded. Battles simply happen where they happen, against enemies clearly visible in the space you're exploring, and experience points are dished out at the death of each individual foe rather than at the end of a regimented battle setpiece; only when you bring a boss or other significant foe to its knees does the party pause to enjoy the Fanfare theme.
This is a grievous crime in the eyes of some players, because it tinkers with something that's been part of the series since its inception. Never mind that random encounters playing out in separate little battle stages began life as a symbolic workaround for technological limitations which are long since immaterial. Chrono Trigger? proved more than a decade that neither of those crutches were necessary in a thoughtfully-designed game -- a demonstration promptly ignored by its own creators. Meanwhile, American-made PC RPGs took Trigger's lesson to heart. With FFXII, the Final Fantasy series essentially caught up with Western games -- and then promptly surpassed them in some regards by integrating JRPG-style character-building mechanics and storytelling into the more open gameplay format.
In short, it stands astride the potentially precarious divide between two different school of game design with confidence.
We'll miss that whooshy noise that preceded random battles. But that's all we'll miss.
Even more impressively, FFXII manages to bridge an entirely different gulf as well: the gap between single-player and massively multiplayer RPGs. To make its free-roaming combat style work, FFXII gives players direct control over only one member of the party. While wandering, this feels more or less like a straightforward improvement on Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy X, which lined up the secondary party members in a tidy little soul train about the world map. The difference is that FFXII lacks the artificial division of exploration and combat, meaning that the CPU-controlled characters remain outside the player's direct control during enemy encounters, too. Control freaks can micromanage each and every one of the entire party's actions, but the game provides a far more effective solution for combar in the form of Gambits -- essentially a series of user-dictated action macros for each individual character. These allow players to automate their team as much (or as little) as they deem fit; with aggressively crafted Gambits, it's theoretically possible to play FFXII without directly issuing a single command.
Theoretically, not not really. Ultimately, the most effective approach is a careful balance of automation and direct control. Simple enemy mobs -- and yes, the game calls them "mobs," just like an MMO -- are easy to mop up with Gambits alone. Bosses and Marks, though, often use advanced strategies and are even capable of countering your preset tactics; to take them down, players will usually need to intervene and make timely use of specific spells or advanced skills. It's also possible to cycle through the active party members to change the current leader -- useful in situations where, say, you want to make certain a spell caster or ranged weapon user maintains a safe distance from a dangerous opponent.
With Gambits in play, FFXII feels like nothing so much as a fast-paced, solo rendition of FFXI. The leader's two support characters function much like other players, making snap decisions in the heat of combat: attacking, casting, healing, buffing as the situation dictates. The involvement of frequent guest characters over whom the player has no control whatsoever only enhances this sensation. FFXII even fakes run-ins with other "player characters," friendly warriors whom you randomly encounter poaching foes on the field. The optional Mark hunts even rather resemble FFXI's various quests -- nestled snugly into the framework of a story-driven single-player game, of course.
It's like an MMO, except without the annoyances of playing with actual
humans. At no point does anyone ask for a Gil handout, for instance.
Even as it embraces the mechanics and dynamics of its massively-multiplayer predecessor, FFXII borrows plenty of inspiration from other Final Fantasys as well. Not surprisingly, it shares much in common with Matsuno's previous outing in the FF sandbox, Final Fantasy Tactics?. Summoned beasts play a significant role in the story (a long-running series tradition) and participate in battle rather as they did in FFX, temporarily taking the place of the summoner's companions when called. Yet FFXII's Espers aren't old standbys like Shiva and Ramuh but rather the same grotesque monsters who appeared as the Zodiac Beasts in Tactics and Totema in Tactics Advance''': Belias, Adremmalech, Cuchulainn, Zodiark, and more.
The plot connection are a nice touch for fans, but FFXII shares an even deeper connection to Tactics in its fundamental approach to gameplay. While its open, picaresque combat would seem the polar opposite of Tactics' chess-like design, both emphasize an unusual amount of preparation. Success in both XII and Tactics hinges upon pre-combat planning: the balance of your party's skills and specialties, your Gambit selections, and especially equipment. Somewhat unique to both these games is the manner in which gear boosts stats: not only offense or defense, but also your hit points, magic points, your speed and other assorted stats. Creating a tank-type character is as much a function of giving them heavy armor with massive HP bonuses as it is of boosting their innate defense capabilities.
It's like playing chess while shopping for a new gun.
As a result, FFXII skates at the edge of the blank-slate character creation dilemma that plagues most modern-era Final Fantasys, the unhappy reality that when given total freedom to shape characters you'll usually end up with a team of indistinguishable clones. The game narrowly manages to avoid falling in, but it's a close call toward the end of the quest once everyone's maxed out their License Board. The License Board -- FFXII's character-building system -- is best thought of as a cross between FFX's Sphere Grid and an inversion of Final Fantasy IX?'s gear-based learning system. Only here, characters don't earn permanent abilities from their equipment but instead earn the right to use their equipment. Purchasing a license square for a new skill, buff or piece of gear makes all licenses adjacent to that space available to be purchased as well, much like the Sphere Grid. Where the License Board differs is in its wholly open design; by the end of the game everyone in the party will likely have fairly identical sets of skills. For the bulk of the adventure, though, most players will choose to diversify their team and allocate different specialities to their heroes. It's a simple matter to swap members into and out of the active roster, too, so there's really no reason not to specialize and bring forward each character as needed. Of course, the blank-slate dilemma is avoided altogether in the Japan-only Zodiac Job System version of the game, which forces specialization and strictly limits each character to the abilities specific to their chosen class. Gosh, if only that would come to the U.S.
(Spoiler alert: it won't.)
These components may not sound particularly interesting or radical, but FFXII's excellence is as much a matter of execution as of conception. The fusion of Japanese and American design standards, the mingling of RPG mechanics derived from games both online and off, the deft combinations of Final Fantasy traditions into a unique whole: they're fine ideas, certainly. Yet good ideas alone can't carry a game; I may abhor Square Enix's rubber-stamp approach to spin-offs, but all those iffy offshoots give them the luxury to get their marquee titles right. By all rights, FFXII should have been an abject failure: it's both enormous in scale and ambitious in design; its creator abandoned ship partway through when corporate meddling neutered his original vision; it was delayed for three full years from its original 2003 release date. These are clear signs marking the way to disaster, and yet somehow Square Enix managed to extract from potential failure not a good game, but a great game.
The secret of its success, I suspect, may be found in the moments where it selectively eschews Final Fantasy traditions. Beyond the game's approach to handling combat, that is -- the extraordinary openness of the world. For the greater portion of the quest, where you can and can't go is determined not by artificial barriers or arbitrary roadblocks but rather by your party's durability. FFXII's world is huge, open and interconnected, offering the freedom to explore and frequently relying on insanely powerful monsters as a barrier to progress rather than invisible walls. It rids the game of the stifling linearity that makes Japanese RPGs so un-RPG-like -- yet unlike the last time a Final Fantasy opened up like that (FFVI's World of Ruin), the non-linearity is merely an option for those who like to go astray from the main path. The core plot is always there as your next destination. Meanwhile, the world provides a massive playground in which to seek better gear, experiment with gameplay mechanics, or simply admire the sights. It is truly a game that anyone can play their way. So long as they don't want random battles.
The delays weren't entirely good -- FFXII was so far off its intended production
schedule that its FMV was seriously behind the curve by the time it shipped.
It's discouraging to realize that likely no one will ever follow up on the brilliant ideas laid down in FFXII. It's a devastatingly brilliant RPG and could be the foundation of even better games, but corporate politics being what they are it'll almost certainly never happen. Square Enix acts as if Matsuno never existed, and FFXII only sold four or five million copies worldwide. Why, that's practically a failure! So the series's future installments will inevitably head off in completely different directions. Maybe they'll fall back on bad old habits, in which case screw 'em. Or maybe they'll strike out in their own innovative directions, in which case best of luck. But either way, they won't be anything like FFXII, and that's a true shame.
And with that, I guess it's time to face facts and tackle those last few hours of the quest. There'll never be another FFXII, true, but I owe it to myself to experience the whole of this game -- this exquisitely, imperfectly, improbably, heartbreakingly unique game.