Final Fantasy XII

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

2 stars

Bottom line: Final Fantasy XII is “perfect in form and function; otherwise, bad.”

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.

It's 'Watson and the Case of the Missing Detective'

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.



32 Responses to Final Fantasy XII

  1. Right on. I loved the combat in FFXII, but the characters and plot are so generic… who heckin’ cares? I was embarrassed to play the game in front of my friends, because it’s just a horrible fantasy cliché. Fortunately, one of my roommates broke my copy of the game disc, so I no longer even have the option of playing it.

  2. I actually don’t mind a horrible fantasy cliche. Dragon Quest VIII raised that particular cliche to its absolute acme, and it was still a charming enough story, because it got the fundamentals right. You were the hero, and your companions were the sidekicks.

  3. You know, a thoughtful and deeply considered game about being the sidekick could be a really compelling experience. When it just happens by accident, though, it’s sort of like gumming cardboard.

  4. This is probably the worst review I’ve read here yet. You don’t actually bother explaining all that much why you dislike the game, or why it deserves 2 stars. Most of your time is spent complaining about the protagonist, and only you mention the game play problems twice or so, and you didn’t even go all that in-depth in explaining it. I didn’t like Final Fantasy XII all that much, so my problem, obviously, isn’t with you giving it a low rating, my problem is, as mentioned, how poor this review was. I would expect more from a site that has a bloviated windbag like Tim Rogers writing for it. No offense to Tim Rogers.

    I know which reviewer to skip over from now on.

  5. But two stars is good, right?

    I think you have a point about the sidekick thing. It could have been avoided if the game treated all the characters equally. I thought it was a terrible and needless mistake to prevent the player from changing characters in town. I could use my chosen avatar in the field, but as soon as anything important happened the game said “No! This is you! You are Vann!” when really, age-wise, I’m closer to Basch. Well, actually, I played through with Penello in the lead because… well never mind why. You see what I’m saying.

    Funny how dissappointment taints an experience, though. I had a great time playing through the game, but when it all failed to pay off I immediately forgot why.

  6. @toups: don’t get me wrong, I played IX, but I actually think it suffers from the exact same problems as XII. I mean, it casts you as a monkey boy.

    @Anonymous: I thought I made it pretty clear – the game deserves 2 stars because it’s missing the enjoyable aspect that good FF games have. It’s not because it lacks some graphical feature or because the combat system is broken. But if you want a bullet-point list of the relative strength of the graphics, audio, gameplay, and so forth, I’d direct you to Gamespot which is more than capable in this regard.

    @kitroebuck: That is /exactly/ how I felt. I’m not sure why RPGs need a pay-off at the end, but they do.

  7. This’s also the worst piece I’ve read on here, because it’s ploddish, peppered with boring analogies, and ultimately deeply unentertaining to consume.

    C’mon kids. I don’t visit this joint for balanced, sensible examination; I come to be made to chortle, vigorously, ’til lactic acid renders my face static. Please don’t let this happen again.

  8. I continue to think that XII had the best plot/characters out of the whole lot of FF games. It really feels like the series got people used to completely over-the-top melodrama and as soon as you got something thoughtful, everybody complains about the lack of dad-hating and teenage angst.

  9. So does this lack of focus on a main character… is this what kills the game for you? I probably agree with you on this, but I also disliked FFVI for this reason as well… but does this mean that FFVI was a disappointment too?

  10. I think it does kill the game in the case of these rigid Final-Fantasy game structures. For me, Final Fantasy games key into the same sense of enjoyment as superhero manga comics.

    The game system they designed for these games perfectly complements the theme of wandering, battling and getting stronger, which has a long history in Japanese literature dating back to the old ronin or shugyosha stories. The best JRPGs tap this literary catalog to create stories which give context and importance to the training process.

    I don’t play these games just to get the maximum score – I’m trying to help a character get stronger to attain the power he needs to achieve his (or her) goal. For me, this is the most important hook a JRPG can have. If it’s missing, the game seems like a pointless grind.

    I didn’t play FFVI yet, I’m ashamed to say. I’ve played III, VII, VIII, IX, X, and XII. The last three I played were III, IX and XII and I have to say I’m just about ready for another 5-year hiatus.

  11. Nice work, Bennett. You captured exactly what I liked and disliked about this game, and the series as a whole.

  12. bennett, I kind of don’t get how you say that you like JRPGs because they’re like superhero manga or martial arts fiction, but don’t think they’re about growing up. I generally assume the wander-and-punch-things narrative is about growth, and given that most RPG heroes are adolescents, that seems like a reasonable enough connection.

    I’m not harshing anything else in your review, I just don’t get that disconnect.

  13. bennett, are you saying that FFXII isn’t very good because it’s not enough like boys’ fighting manga?

    Is it a bad thing to have a coming-of-age story where the hero struggles to process the adult world? Do they all have to end in the hero accepting his super-powered inner awesomeness and changing the fate of the world by getting a new costume?

  14. jhb: Coming-of-age stories can be interesting, but I don’t think that a character needs to gain 50 levels and kill a lot of rabbits to come of age.

    In any case, FFXII is not Vaan’s coming-of-age story. It’s not a Vaan story at all, really.

  15. FFXII can be summed up by the ‘Ribbon’ syndrome…

    The Ribbon is the best accessory in the game, rendering your characters immune to status effects and costing the most license points to unlock. The most feasible way of getting one involves a tedious sub-quest to fight loads of boss-level monsters which cast loads of really debilitating status effects on your party that a ribbon would be really useful against. There’s a slim chance one treasure chest in one map will have a ribbon in it, but by ‘slim chance’ I mean you have better odds of winning the jackpot in the National Lottery. If you’ve perservered with the game long enough to go to the optional dungeon right at the end (and you’d pretty much have to have done everything else in the game to be tough enough to survive there) you’re finally awarded with a chest in a room that offers up one ribbon than never reappears.

    The problem with this is that at no point in the game after you’ve aquired a ribbon will you encounter a serious boss-type enemy that uses status effects, requiring you to equip the ribbon thus making the most ‘useful’ accessory in the game utterly, utterly pointless.

  16. I have not finish the game because i got bored, and put a rest on it, until yesterday that i play it again to feel the enjoyment this game provides once more, i have logged 50 hours of gameplay in it, i think a can comment on the game, i think i feel almost the same about the game (same as bennett), most of the characters does not have anything to do with the story, and how you put it, don’t even have a atachment with the main character, and the game sometimes make you stop to gains levels, and i really hate that, thats the main reason that i stop playing the game: the repetive MMO feel that the combat system has. I’m not against this combat system, but i prefer when the game is designed to grow your characters with the story, i’m the type that play a RPG finish it and later check the sidequest, so to not make this more longer, 2 stars is good with me too.

  17. Well, I’ve written my own lengthy criticism of XII which I’ll link at the bottom of the comment…I think your criticism of Vaan is spot on. I’m pretty sure he actually says “I’m just along for the ride!” I found the game’s story totally un-engaging and bland.

    I would also say that the License Board is utter trash. It has no capacity for character individuality or specialization; therefore there is no thrill in developing and customizing your characters because no matter what you do your characters will all turn out more or less equally good at everything.

    The problem with the combat is that it doesn’t address any of the root weakness the FF games have had in recent years. You may not have to manually press all the buttons, but you’re still just executing the same commands over and over because the enemies aren’t hard enough to require strategy, and even if they were, you could just level up till you’re strong enough to let the cpu button-mash its way through for you.

    Would making Guy, Cody and Hagger fight on auto-pilot eliminate the button-mashing element of Final Fight and make it as deep a fighter as Street Fighter II? No.

    Substitute FFXII for Final Fight and FF Tactics for Street Fighter II and you have the gist of the situation.

  18. Gnam, I think your comment about the combat is basically correct – FF12 does do a lot of “auto-mashing”. The problem they face is that a canonical FF game needs to get through combat quickly. It can’t require you to spend half an hour on each battle, as Tactics often does.

    Though maybe this would be the solution… what if every fight in an FF game was at least a mini-boss fight? You might level up after each encounter. I wonder if that would destroy the feeling of compulsion that FF normally gives.

  19. Yeah, I think making battles into “miniboss fights” would help…or at least, restricting battle to fewer, more involved and difficult battles. Rather than being like Final Fight, where you’re literally slogging through waves of weak, dumb enemies the entire time you’re traversing an area…divide it up so you spend some time just exploring an area in peace, then you encounter a single involved battle, then resume exploring. So essentially, rather than fighting 20 easy random battles in a dungeon, you’d fight only 5 battles which were 4 times harder.

    To be honest, what I really want to see is experience systems stripped out of RPG’s. Level grinding and stat-building is just redundant busywork for people who have nothing better to do than jerk their characters off all day to make them stronger. Pull that stuff out, and then it’s all about the decisions you make; which is the actual depth and substance to a turn-based game.

  20. I’ve logged about 140 hours of “real” play time in FF XII, mostly exploring and doing quests. Having recently beaten FF IV Advance, I really appreciate the Gambit system. It has its limitations, but I like the meta-game aspect.

    If you want mini-bosses, just do the Hunts. You will miss out on a big part of the game by skipping them just to beat the game. The weak enemies that get in your way do tend to be little more than annoyances, which I guess is a turn-off for a lot of players, but from the meta-game standpoint, I have fun seeing my party’s Gambits in action. I don’t think the game would be better by eliminating the lower level enemies — it would be just as desolate as Shadow of the Colossus. I find that with Gambits, dealing with those enemies creates a background rhythm to the game.

    I also have fun doing stuff like getting the Ribbon in the dungeon with the swarming enemies because it is a challenge. It’s also totally optional, and I choose to do it because I dislike the puzzles in the game’s main plotline as much as I did the ones in FFX. The game is so vast that you should just pick and choose what parts to do, rather than forcing yourself to do parts that aren’t fun. Even though I’ve played the hell out of this game since it came out, I haven’t bothered to do a lot of stuff. That’s fine with me, because I’m the one playing the game, not the other way around.

    I prefer the Sphere Grid system to the License Board. FF XII International’s License Board changes sound good, bummer that they didn’t just do that in the first place. But the License Board is just another example of the freedom the game gives you to do what you want with it. It’s not like it forces you to use all your characters the same way.

    I find that I don’t mind the relative anonymity of the characters in relation to the world. That they can save the world without being the sole, heroic force that must save the world because everybody else is helpless or evil is a nice change of pace.

  21. Totally agree with you, I found the game completely souless. I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan, but I couldn’t play the game, it was more of a hack and slash than an RPG, and the characters/story were awful.

  22. “In any case, FFXII is not Vaan’s coming-of-age story. It’s not a Vaan story at all, really.”

    I agree completely, which is why I am completely baffled by the fact that your critical review is based almost entirely around the faulty assumption that Vaan is the main character. He isn’t. If Final Fantasy XII does have a main character or a protagonist (and it is my contention that it does not) it’s Ashe, or possibly Balthier. Vaan is just the guy you show up as in towns. Condemning what is otherwise a superbly-wrought story for a minor character’s lack of depth seems foolish to me.

    I’m going to strongly advise you play Final Fantasy VI, another Final Fantasy (and one widely-lauded as one of the best in the series) that lacks a single main character. It and XII tend noticeably towards ensemble casts, and both stand in marked contravention to your claim that all Final Fantasies “force you to spend the bulk of your time with one central character”. That most games in the series conflate the protagonist with the player’s avatar doesn’t mean doing so is an integral part of Final Fantasy.

  23. not to be a troll or anything I’m just wondering do any of these reviews point out any real problems ? or is it just a site for a bunch of people to bash a good game ? cus this is a good game it’s not amazing or anything but it is great and I’m about 40 hours into the game and so far the story has been pretty cool. I often read videogame reviews and it doesn’t really look like these are reviews just some biased game bashing………even though I agree with some of the reviews here and most of them are hilarious no matter how off topic some of seem to be.

  24. bennet –
    “An RPG with no experience system: Zelda”

    Except combat in Zelda has no strategy, does not involve a combat party, or class/ability management. Plus, modern Zelda games are crappy.

  25. One of the things I find funny about this is that you complain about the fact that the Final Fantasy series was a game that lends itself to a sort of good guy overcoming ultimate evil. While this may be true, I tend to find these stories generally base in character. One of the reasons why I disliked Final Fantasy VII is because it followed this idea. I’ve always been a fan of the Tactics idea, where the goal of the character is not some grand attempt to discover life, liberty, and the pursuit of cliche; but rather a game where characters are each personally motivated. Ramza is the classic example of a character who is motivated by his own ideals and desires, not because there’s some sense of over-arching goodness to his actions. The game itself even brands him as a traitor on more than one occasion and the character goes unmentioned as far the “Ivalice” history is known.

    I’ve not played Final Fantasy XII, but from my understanding it seems like XII follows in the same footsteps, although the main character is even more detached. Vaan is essentially a rather normal person caught up in rather supernatural events. More than that, being caught up in these supernatural events does not magically make him supernatural: this is pretty important to note. As a result, characters who are able to handle these rather vicious circumstances step up, and Vaan steps to the side. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong in telling the story from the perspective of a character who can’t comprehend it all; in fact, I applaud it. It’s a different way of looking at storytelling and isn’t nearly as presumptuous about any one person’s importance. The grand scheme of things such as politics and people around shady organizations should logically dwarf the influence of any single person or even small group. As such, I think the argument that it’s bad or doesn’t come off right is somewhat unfounded. Rather, I think that the game’s entire intention was to bring modern thought into gaming; a single person is a drop in a sea of people, so to speak.

  26. What makes this game a disappointment is not the plot. What makes it disappointing is the fact there is no character development involved. Actually the plot would have had something going for it if the characters would at least bond together. The fact that there is really no good or bad characters makes the game very realistic. But when there is not really much going on with the characters it becomes a dull and lifeless experience. Everyone in the game considers the empire an enemy and every soldier evil, but most of the soldiers are just doing their duty for their country. The antagonist had his reasons for doing what he did and for fact I can’t say he was evil. Put more emotions into the characters and this could have possibly been one of the best games ever created.

  27. Hmm, I actually think you may be right. The game world was drawn in a very rich way, which evoked emotions. But the characters evoked very little emotion in me. Mind you, the voice work was very good – especially Vaan and Balthier (though I often couldn’t understand what Basch was saying). So it must have been the writing which was emotionally weak.

  28. this game is not a disappointment at all. you know, i love this game, perhaps more than any other final fantasy, even though it certainly isn’t perfect, because of the hecking FREEDOM you have. sure, you could easily end up with characters having similar attributes in an end-game scenario, but i’m not sure we should dismiss the game critically because it doesn’t cater directly to “powergamers” or what have you. if anything, this game is much better off for staying far, far away from Tactics and the ilk. why would squeenix want to stifle their franchises by blurring their distinctions? i also disagree with the “mini-boss” idea, since, as someone pointed out, it’s already basically available in the game as-is (the hunts are pretty hecking ace, as well). i agree that the game is more ensemble cast than most FF’s (VI excepted), but don’t see that as a bad thing. as far as character development, well, it wasn’t necessary. the game wasn’t trying to be a movie, it was trying to be a game! that sounds stupid, but hear me out: the game was banking on you developing your OWN attachment to the characters as opposed to having them fluctuate on their own (thru the designer’s whims, something you have no control over), which is the tack taken by nearly every prior FF. this gives the game a breezy, upbeat quality that takes time to sink in. no wonder the more “powergamer” (not too apt, can’t think of a better word) crowd hates this one: it doesn’t want to be as epic as you might EXPECT it to want to be.

    regardless, though, it still somehow IS epic.

    it could have been better, sure (the gambit system is a bit limited, buying the gambits also doesn’t make much sense), but i can honestly say this is my favorite final fantasy (maybe not the best, objectively, though). 4 stars for evermore and 2 stars for FFXII is just wrong, to me. where are we out on that?

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