There are so many goddamn things to say about this game I don’t even know where to start. It’s a Yasumi Matsuno experience that somehow took mostly everything we know about Final Fantasy and turned it sideways.
Why not start with Yasumi Matsuno? As a writer/director he has been responsible for three games for Square Enix and before that he was the Tactics Ogre guy over at Quest. His big three as a SE employee are Final Fantasy Tactics (genius!) Vagrant Story (my favorite game) and Final Fantasy XII. Matsuno’s selection as the creative force behind Final Fantasy XII is actually fairly intriguing. There are some points that should be discussed briefly pertaining to the situation:
1. Why was Matsuno and his team given a main entry in the FF series? Their history of obscure games with high levels of complexity was completely contradictory to the direction Final Fantasy seemed to be heading. VII and VIII were pseudo futuristic tales of magic and technology with angst’y, spiky haired teens trying to ‘find themselves’. X was a linear piece of trash with the worst voice acting, character design (is that Meg Ryan?) and, arguably, writing of the series to date. XI was an MMO. These games were increasingly successful, too. So really… what miracle sign from God inspired Yoichi Wada to say hey let’s give the next entry to these dudes over here that make these fucking insane games that don’t sell all that well. Let’s risk our hugely successful franchise on a team that does the obscure thing one hundred out of one hundred times. Hard to say really.
2. At some point during the mammoth development time (like 6 years) Matsuno was ousted as director and a place-holder was given the responsibility to oversee its completion. I guess no one will ever really know what happened there. What SE says is that he became quite ill and couldn’t perform the duties anymore. It’s believable…I guess. There are other rumors that the team was upset over how long the game was taking to finish and blamed it on him because of his insistence on making it match his vision perfectly. Others from inside say that SE realized this fucking dude was making some awesome shit and that his ‘mature’ main character (originally Basch) wouldn’t resonate with all the fanboy’s natural need for a confused teen with no real back story to relay a story in which he has no stake. Enter Vaan/Penelo!
Now, out of respect or some shit Matsuno is still credited as being the creative force behind this game. Anyone who plays it can see that the foundations he laid are still intact though, which is great.
I labeled Matsuno’s team as misfits earlier and that is meant in no regard as an insult. Matsuno and company have created quite three of my top ten games of all time. All of his SE works are masterpieces that deserve more credit than they’re given. His go to guy for music, Hitoshi Sakimoto, is a genius who creates layers of music that blend together so beautifully that emotional moments are intensified tenfold. His character designer Akihiko Yoshida is the mastermind who somehow made each character in Tactics look unique despite large numbers of them WEARING THE EXACT SAME THING. His work is colorful and vibrant yet subtle and understated at the same time. It has personality. I think it goes without saying that Matsuno himself is an over-achiever. His Kojima-like flair for storytelling and cinematography lends itself well to the types of worlds he creates. Vagrant Story is more or less Final Fantasy: Metal Gear Solid…and it works. Toss in the fact that Alexander O. Smith always finds himself translating Matsuno’s games and you have yourself an inspired piece of work every time. These guys know what they’re doing… is what I’m trying to say.
So I guess this is a discussion for a game and not a fan boy article about My Favorite Designer. Final Fantasy XII is a Massivley Single Player Offline Role Playing Game. I say this because the core design philosophy here is one that is somewhat similar to an MMO. You wander around a huge world at your own discretion fighting non-random battles in an open world against creatures that roam around a habitat, you just don’t do it with impossibly annoying fourteen year-olds over the internet. The story is the pretty typical epic tale that most RPG’s try really hard to tell. It does the coming of age thing and mostly fills out the checklist of RPG clichés that every game maker has posted up on his wall.
Where FFXII changes the game up is in the why and how. What it does excellently is hit all those damn clichés with a twist and manages somehow to not only be completely refreshing and new but simultaneously harkens back to the franchises roots as much as anything in the 3d era yet.
I’ll start with the story and characters because that seems to be the reason people whine about this game so damn much. I guess the very first thing you’ll hear (or think) is that Vaan is a worthless character. Hell, I even took a shot at him earlier. What people seem to have forgotten is that in the old days of RPGs the main characters themselves were oftentimes SILENT and games were judged on how good of a game it was. Anyone remember that? Take Chrono Trigger as an example. Chrono himself had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Chrono was cool because of what he did, but was it really Chrono that made that game good? That game is good because that game is good, period. He was, more or less, an avatar for you to get into the adventure with. You can go jizz yourself because he had red spiky hair and a katana, but the reality is that he was just another cardboard cutout of what a ’hero’ is. Please stop telling yourself that Vaan as a weak main character is a legitimate complaint… because it’s not. He’s actually a kid with a decent amount of character and a story that is spirited and relevant. His voice actor did a swell job and his character design was in keeping with the tone of the world he lived in. Quit talking more about how Vaan is wearing a vest that shows his chest than the fucking monumental (and under recognized) strides this game made in storytelling and gameplay.
Actually… Vaan is more than just acceptable. It is true that as a standalone character, Vaan is pretty throw-away. What the design team did with that concept though, is brilliant. They took the standard silent protagonist concept (spiky haired, needs to find himself, angsty) and gave him a greater purpose (and no I don’t mean becoming a sky pirate). He has dialogue and is tied to the important events in the story of course, but what Vaan did in reality was much more subtle than it appeared. Next time you play through this game you should pay attention to many of the expository moments. Take notice of how Vaan is the one more often than not who is being used as a mirror for our more important characters to see themselves in. Vaan is frequently used as a tool to both marginalize the events taking place and magnify them. Ivalice as a world seems at once larger and smaller when reflected upon the thoughts of this young man. A king was murdered, setting the stage for a war/takeover. This young guy from a neighboring nation like Rabanastre wouldn’t really know shit about that ya know. Vaan though, had a brother who was slain during the massacre whom you happen to open the game playing as. It’s a device that works wonders to do exactly what I just described. It’s not necessarily that you get control of Vaan and are all jacked up to go fight the empire to get revenge…it’s the idea that these events are shaping the world from the very top the goddamn bottom. It’s a pretty classic move actually. Anyone ever read Lord of the Rings? Did we all get worked up because Frodo wasn’t the most kick ass mother fucker ever? Of course not, we had Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli and Gandalf and etc etc etc. To think of Vaan as a main character and to view his motivations singularly is setting yourself up for disappointment, because this game isn’t about Vaan. Try to see the world through and reflected upon him and you’ll realize what’s at work in this game is much more reminiscent of the classics like Chrono Trigger. We’re so used to the first people we control physically in a game to be the most important thing in it that we’ve forgotten that an overall plot can be just as personal as a singular characters’ road to discovery. If you’ve missed this point in Final Fantasy XII then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of the whole fucking thing, so there ya go.
Of course none of this would mean jack shit without a cast of heavy hitters to carry the actual plot, and just our luck, Final Fantasy XII has a fucking WAREHOUSE full of ‘em. Unfortunately a lot of people missed the point yet again and proceeded to whine a lot (maybe the most common complaint I heard) about how there wasn’t enough character development for our full cast of characters and that playing this game more or less was like watching an event happen from a distance. Man, are you all stupid? It’s like we all of a sudden forgot that we didn’t need every single character emotion or memory explained to us in detail. I guess when we get feelings verbally explained to us in every fucking cut-scene (I’m looking at you and your daddy problems Tidus) we forget that with a little subtle animation and proper wording a whole story can be told in a few lines. It is widely accepted that Balthier is a badass, but some people still didn’t grasp the gravity of the character beyond his wit and charm. I want to point to the scene where he mentions that his father is Cid and the he was once a judge. What’s cool about the scene to me is that it’s very short. He didn’t say much more than I just did but the way it was delivered was so fucking superb that he didn’t need to. He had the same damn problem Tidus did. His dad was crazy and didn’t accept him/asked too much of him. He was struggling with how to please or deal with his father. The music was appropriately emotional and you could read it all over his face. They didn’t have to fucking beat it into my brain for 60 hours to finally come to a climax that didn’t bear half the emotional baggage that it should’ve. When Balthier had his showdown with his father it was infinitely more meaningful.
Balthier approaches Cid after defeating him and asks, “Was there no other way?” To which Cid replies, “Spend your pity elsewhere. If you are so set on running, hadn’t you best be off? Fool of a pirate.” And then he dies. There are layers of story happening here…layers and layers and layers. This sort of storytelling just DOES NOT exist anywhere in the medium, I’m sorry… it doesn’t. This is a coming to realization moment that is done just elegantly enough that if you’re an adult, you get it. If you’re a young guy who was weaned on FF7-10 you think this ‘isn’t enough back story’.
What I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about are two or three SMALL moments in the lives of only 2 of 6 of the main characters in this massive game FILLED to the brim with them. The plot is wonderful from beginning to end in the way it is presented and the subtly it employs. It is just purely leagues above other games in concept and execution.
I do want to talk about the gameplay of course but I’d rather not get into a discussion about the actual battling because it is just so far ahead of every RPG I’ve ever played that I would be doing myself a disservice even comparing it to other games in the genre. What I WILL do though is defend the Gambit system until the day I die. What at first seems like an auto-pilot quickly transforms into an exercise in strategy that will test your very will to continue playing the game. I used the term auto-pilot because that is what many people referred to it as, attaching a negative connotation. FXII sort of encourages you to take your real-time strategies into the menu to try to get your characters to act a certain way during battle without your constant guiding hand. It’s actually awesome. To appreciate it you kinda have to let go of the idea that you’re going to make every decision in real time during a fight. What this enables the game itself to do is speed up the pace of battle while at the same time incorporating many more variables. This is a game that will force you to more or less figure it out, make no mistake. If you’re living your life without spending a whole lot of time assigning gambits you WILL hit a wall. For me it came during the earth dragon boss fight that did the ‘every status effect in the book special move’ that wrecked my whole party. All it took for me was to take a more critical look at my automated actions and find an equation that could handle what was thrown at me and I was able to move forward. That’s what’s incredible about this system. If you hit that wall in a more classic RPG you find yourself having to return to the grind until you hit some arbitrary level where you can just survive a tough fight. FFXII makes you think about it.
The obvious complaint here is that it can at times feel like you’re having your control taken away and just watching shit happen. I’m OK with that because if taking away some real time control means that I get to pre-game strategize and have MORE overall control in the end than I’m willing to make that trade. I mean why the fuck would I want to go into a menu every time someone gets poisoned and use a goddamn antidote if I can set my characters to do that automatically. Because of this system you as a player are able to avoid tedious tasks in the menu (like healing yourself with items after every fight) that destroy your immersion in the game. When a fight is over in FFXII I just keep walking, keep playing. YOU ARE STILL FREE TO DO IT THE OLD WAY THOUGH. Please don’t forget… you are given the very clear option to play this game just as turn-based as any other FF.
The personal interpretation I took away from the implementation of this battle system is that it wants us to believe that our characters are competent. I look at assigning gambits more like training your character to be smart. It makes the game more believable to me…gives the characters more character, and provides another way to progress other than lvls and hp/mp. Oh hey Basch knows how to heal poison and cure himself when he gets too hurt because HES A FUCKING ROYAL KNIGHT AND HE SHOULD KNOW HOW TO DO THAT.
Just in general this is a game that puts MORE control and content into your hands as the player then your typical RPG. Here’s a bulleted list of more reasons why this game is in a class all by itself:
-The license board itself can be adapted to each character in a different way or you can let everyone do everything, whatever the fuck you like ya know.
-You are free to roam a world at your will provided you are 1337 enough to survive it (a much better system than an invisible wall I’d like to add). FFXII also did the best substitution of a world-map that I’ve ever seen, which is just the ability to the roam the whole world in realistic proportions. I mean once you got your airship, FFX was point-and-click to your next destination which is literally the single biggest cop-out in the history of mankind. In XII they tell you hey the next town is north and you wander north in crazy huge open areas until you get there. Amazing.
-Hunts. ‘Nuff said.
-Guest characters return to the series in a huge way…Larsa, Reddas, VOSSLER…are you kidding me? Best B-Team in history. Basically side characters with enough to them to be main characters.
-Loot drops that actually make sense (mobs don’t drop gil anymore wtf guyz lolz).
-The Judges as a group are intriguing and well done villains that are way more than heavily armored baddies. Gabranth’s final scenes with Basch to me were mind-blowing.
-VOICE ACTING and TRANSLATION…like was this game even made in Japan? Hard to tell honestly.
-The graphics are out of control. Like for me graphics aren’t ever a game-breaker but this game outdoes itself time and again with the stunning amount of unnecessary detail. Hey remember when RPG’s were all about pre-rendered backrounds and static camera angles? *cough* ffx *cough*. Yeah try fully rotatable camera and completely rendered cities and environments. And not like, small environments. Like the biggest environment from FFX and multiplied in size by three then make the game full of them. It’s hard to believe that a game with the sheer amount of stuff that FXII has is utilizing the same system capabilities as a game that employs the amount of stuff that FFX does. I mean it’s like literally three times the game in size. Anyway…it looks beautiful.
There’s always more to discuss but I’ve hit my main points I think. I’ll finish this damn thing off by saying that Final Fantasy XII is a superb video game. If you have an aversion to it for one reason or another, take a second look. I will wager that upon further examination this game will reveal much more to you if you know what you‘re looking at. There’s a funny line in the strategy guide where one of the game creators admits that there is so much content in FFXII that he himself doesn’t even know 100% of what’s in there. It never holds your hand and a lot of it’s genius lies hidden underneath a labyrinth of complexities, but once you ‘get it’ there are very few RPG experiences out there than can match it. When you do finish this game you feel like you finished something significant, something worthwhile. It’s an adventure that is too valuable to be missed by anyone, and it’s a sad truth that this game was one that many Final Fantasy fans stopped at.