a review of Final Fantasy XII
a videogame developed by Square Enix
and published by Square Enix
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Bennett
Final Fantasy XII is probably the deepest, lengthiest and most detailed game ever produced. When I finished it, the clock showed over a hundred hours of play, and I think I had plumbed no more than half of its optional sidequests and secret treasures. It has an epic plot, with hours of beautiful video and a richly-detailed script which is voiced perfectly. It has more beautiful art than I have ever seen on a single DVD.
When the credits rolled at the end, I thought to myself: “That’s it? That’s all there is?” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Had I invested 100 hours in this game for this?
I had to wonder how it could be that I was feeling this way. I had never played a game with superior production values, nor with superior depth. I loved the characters, and the lush, expansive world they inhabited. But somehow, in this Final Fantasy, which had more substance than any of its ancestors, the core experience seemed to be absent. I had to wonder what secret spice was missing which would have recreated the elation I felt at the end of installments VII, VIII and X.
The biggest critical complaint about XII has been that its combat system produces the same kind of repetitive ‘grind’ that is present in an MMO. To my mind, this is an ignorant claim. The Final Fantasy series already had this classic MMO ‘problem’ in spades – indeed, it was Sakaguchi who invented it. By contrast, the new real-time model allows you to avoid random monsters and frees you from endlessly repeated button combinations. It allows you to focus directly on the story and quest mechanics. It lets you constantly interact. The new system is not the problem. So what is it that ruins the game?
There are some obvious suspects. The new summon system asks you to wait five minutes while the summoned creature, or ‘esper’, is introduced. The esper appears, forming a party of two with the summoner. All the nearby monsters wisely attack the summoner, leaving the impotent esper alone, because they know that the esper will disappear when the summoner is killed. The result? You will never call an esper more than once.
The experience system is utterly broken. This is the first Final Fantasy game which puts more weight on your character’s level than on his equipment or tactics. About halfway through the game, it became apparent: you can either buy the largest, most expensive sword, or you can run around in the fields killing monsters for half an hour. The effect is exactly the same. As a result, you are never excited to get treasure.
These problems are annoying because they would have been easy to fix, if an insightful producer had been at the helm. But they don’t stop you from enjoying the game. What stops you from enjoying the game is a much more fundamental problem.
This is what I have realised: When we say a game is a role-playing game, or that it has ‘RPG elements’, we mean that the game allows you to increase your character’s skills and powers over time. Sometimes this device exists only as a Pavlovian reward – a way to addict you to a repetitive process, like the one in Diablo. In good role-playing games, it is a quantified metaphor for the advancement and development of a heroic character.
The development of a character from zero to hero is a powerful and satisfying theme when it appears in books or films. Luke Skywalker, Musashi, Spiderman, Neo, and King Arthur all moved from humble beginnings to a glorious pinnacle. This is at the core of any heroic story, not by convention but by necessity, because it is that contrast in power which gives the story its gravity and its emotional power.
Final Fantasy games always force you to spend the bulk of your time with one central character. It is this character who you bond with – he is the protagonist who must undergo that heroic metamorphosis.
In VII, the protagonist is a Han Solo-esque mercenary whose heroic deeds ultimately win the admiration of his companions. By the end, none of them care that he is an impostor who stole the identity of his girlfriend’s next-door neighbour. Their respect is not misplaced – in a single blow, he defeats his old mentor, a deranged genius who was initially hundreds of times more powerful.
In X, your central character is a dream. By the end of the story, your friends want the dream to be true so badly that they spend a whole sequel scouring the earth for him. Or so I am led to believe – I’m not going to play a game where you change jobs by trying on a new dress.
In XII, the lead is Vaan, once more an androgynous teenaged misfit with a sword. He falls in with a bunch of adults – royalty and thieves. In the closing scenes, one character explicitly suggests that Vaan is the hero of the story. But he never does a single thing to earn this respect.
He’s present in every dramatic scene, and often yells out some defiant line, or words of encouragement to another character. But he never does anything. He has no special powers. He has no particular significant relationship with any of the antagonists. He doesn’t even teach anyone an important emotional lesson, like Naruto would.
He is, in other words, exactly like a sidekick. Vaan is more Pippin than Frodo, more Watson than Holmes. But nobody plays Danger Mouse to Vaan’s Penfold. It’s like a story about Robin, but Batman isn’t around. or It’s Chewbacca Gaiden. It’s Ron Weasley and the Failed Attempt to Protect the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s Luigi at Peach and Bowser’s Wedding.
In the end this opulent, ornate game is a bitter disappointment. Yes, your characters all become much stronger over time. But you get the sense that they would have overcome their challenges whether or not you had gained a single level. And they certainly could have done the whole thing without the help of Vaan.
After VII, VIII and X, I was hooked on a feeling. But you can’t get that feeling back by playing XII.