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 Ario Barzan
When this site was a little younger, we had a review go up for Final Fantasy XII. I didn’t like that review too much; to be honest, I still don’t like that review. I’m compelled to re-review Final Fantasy XII not just for being “fed up” with having the game represented on our site with two stars, but because I’m playing it again, right now, and the unexpectedly huge balls hanging from it should be enough to get anyone wanting to talk. Things were going a bit slow – the disc was lying around – I decided I would keep going, stick to the thing and try to see it through. Know that there are things wrong with this game. Some of them are big, and some of them are little. This is both important and unimportant, in that, yes, this could’ve been much more – but I’m partly giving Final Fantasy XII three stars because it was trying to do something, against whatever pressures it was going up against, and partly because of what it actually is. The sheer presence of taste is a sort of miracle, magnified by its emergence from the pleather-bound toilet known as Square-Enix – a company whose agenda centers around releasing products that would make any person with the consciousness to make sane judgments deadbolt their doors in shame, if ever the products slipped their way into a nearby console.
A long story is forced to be short by limited information: Final Fantasy XII was to be Yasumi Matsuno’s bold renaissance for the series and the genre – a genre which kind of doesn’t exist, since most of the creaking, aching oddities defining it are now relics from a time when technology couldn’t do what it now can. Sooner or later, Matsuno, the man behind titles such as Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Vagrant Story, exited from Final Fantasy XII’s development. If there are any persons who can say precisely why he quit, they haven’t decided to speak, yet (or ever). If we’re forced to make suppositions, it might’ve been the sheer size of the task laid ahead of Matsuno – it might’ve been that size paired with rogue elements and interventions that began to compromise his vision. Suffice it to say, Matsuno left, Final Fantasy XII was released, and the latest videos for Final Fantasy XIII proudly exhibit Advent Children syndrome, where Zippers and Pleather do weightless battle for the distinctive honor of who has the most outrageous hairstyle, where there is a “warp” effect before battles, even though the terrain hasn’t changed. The Fans are beside themselves. Whatever the cause may have been, it’s easier to guess when Matsuno left: earlier, rather than later.
The biggest reason for this supposition is the general execution of dungeons. Everyone who has played Final Fantasy XII is bound to remember a specific dungeon above the others. This is an early dungeon, where robotic monsters are feeding on exposed electric sources. Kill these monsters to stop their power-theft. An icon on the right-hand side of the screen shows how much electricity, percentage-wise, the dungeon has. “If things go black,” one of the characters says, “it’s not going to be good for us.” Why does everyone remember this dungeon? Answer: because it’s the only dungeon to harbor a slightly interesting mechanical theme. A dungeon in the desert has you walk down a series of steps; before you is a bridge that leads to a door. You may be inclined to look at the multi-armed sculpture that’s set away from, and facing, the bridge. Having at least played Final Fantasy IV years ago, and seeing the barrenness and length of the path ahead, I knew that this sculpture would come to life and give chase. This is, of course, exactly what happened, so I fled (by holding R2!) and exited the chamber through the door at the end. A similar, weaker sculpture – that must be felled – appeared at the other side of the bridge in the subsequent room. It’s just too obvious, too easy of a concept. The rest of the complex is about dashing through two identical “mazes” to touch lamps at the end of either, lowering a barrier.
Yet another dungeon beyond uses a gate-system, where pressing a button will open gates and simultaneously shut others. I was hoping for a Braid-like level of care applied to the puzzles’ clockwork. Again, the element is barely toyed with, left on the side as a Thing to Do, “solved” by traversing the only available paths. What the dungeons end up being are gorgeous (and I mean gorgeous) to run around in and look at, but functionally stunted. It doesn’t seem to be that Final Fantasy XII’s dungeons are the way they are because the developers believed interaction was synonymous with “tarnishing,” thus resulting in the experience of traversing a gallery of hands-off props, so much as no one seemed to know what they wanted to do, period, after Matsuno left. Each dungeon might have a thing, but it’s such a little thing, such a little, inconsequential thing, it often might as well not even be there at all. You can see the start of a desire for some clever, situational aspect in the power-gobbling monsters dungeon, and barely anywhere else.
Going on: take the License Board. Like the clunky camouflage feature in Metal Gear Solid 3 being, in all likeliness, not Hideo Kojima’s idea, the License Board is, in all likeliness, not Matsuno’s creation, but one of another genius. Upon death, every enemy yields L.P., or license points; access the in-game menu and select “License Board,” and you’re taken to plane with two irregularly outlined, chess-like boards where every square on a board represents something that may be unlocked, provided you’ve enough license points. The game begins by placing you somewhere near the middle of each board. Ultimately, however, there’s nothing to the License Board. It exists as an artificial barrier to enlarge the game’s heap of numbers (“because,” says the genius, “more numbers means more progressive sensations” (truth be told, said genius hates himself)). There is no actual strategy to branching out; you’re hardly guided by the incidence of whatever has been uncovered. Final Fantasy X had the sphere grid, which simply existed, though credit should be given where credit’s due: as you were able to see everything ahead of time, you could begin to map out mental charts for where you would go, according to how many places you could move. It was decently board-game-like and un-board-game-like enough to work, at least as a thing unto itself. That it floated in a void separate from the game’s world was another issue. With Final Fantasy XII, the License Board is both weirdly abstract and a pointless, un-tactical Rite of Passage to learning spells and being able to don equipment, on top of having to pay for said spells and equipment. I mean, why? Isn’t the fact that I have to buy spells strange in and of itself? And if the License Board has to exist, why not let me learn the spells in that square, on the spot? To go on, if I, say, use that spell enough, why not let that dictate the spells I learn? If I have enough money, why not let me buy and equip that sword or gauntlet? Et-cetera.
There’re also the Gambits – specific commands players ascribe to each character via slots on the respective menu. It’s a much better idea – in concept, even – than the License Board. It’s definitely from Matsuno’s head; to what extent is the question. It’s a nice enough idea that we can see it being nurtured to where it becomes a Thing that other games take and elaborate upon. Or, we could’ve seen that. In Final Fantasy XII, it’s the start of a paragraph. Any avatar can use gambits, including your “main” character. Able to be purchased or found in treasure pots (here’s where your warning alarms go off), they tell an avatar what to do on their own, freeing one up from the need to micromanage their party. Suppose you have a Gambit called, “Ally: HP < 60%.” If you equip this to a slot, and add, in the side-slot, “Cure,” that character will cure another if their health drops below sixty percent. If the slot it’s in is higher than others, it will have a higher priority than the ones below. But this is already leading into a problem: you both have to increase your character’s slots on the License Board, in addition to buying or finding Gambits. Why? There’s not a solid argument in the world for why every Gambit, and every slot, shouldn’t be available from the start. It’s not so much a question of, again, the “mechanic floating in a void,” (well, it is, partly (you look in a pot, and any character suddenly has the ability to prioritize their dealing with flying foes? Really?), but that it just feels kind of backwards, and meaningless.
In any case, you have the framework of a battle system, lambasted by some for, in their words “basically turning the game into a single player, massively-multiplayer online RPG.” That there’s nothing actually, fundamentally wrong with MMORPGs makes this complaint flimsy enough. And what is a single player MMORPG? It seems that the label is used because Final Fantasy XII sees your party walking around, uninterrupted by the fetishized banality of random battles, because the swiftness and general flow of the action (pro-tip: turn the battle speed all the way up) begins to distinguish Final Fantasy XII from the typical Japanese RPG, turn-taking though it still may be. You’re never separated by The Line of Division, only breached for a second by selecting Attack and seeing your avatar leap twenty feet in a single bound to slap the enemy on its side, and then return to their spot with an equally enormous backwards leap. Here, the monsters are running around you, and you’re running around them. They’re attacking, and you’re attacking, observing your team-mates do what you’ve set them up to do, which is strangely, satisfyingly prophetic. This is it, really: people are honest-to-god angry and confused that the game lets one take the initiative to fight or not fight enemies without forcibly being sucked into an alternate dimension, and that its world is consistent in what it shows itself to be. I wonder if they have maintained a twelve-year hard-on for the multiple models of Final Fantasy VII’s protagonist, Nimbus Conflict.
* A normal (read: LEGO-like) model for walking around
* A LEGO-like model, made to be the “size” of a city, for the overworld
* A slimmer, more realistic model for fighting
* A spruced up model for cutscenes
* A drawing or two, provided by Tetsuya Nomura
Final Fantasy XII is a role-playing-game that was made in Japan, but we salute it for attempting to be more of A Video Game by making its seams less seam-y, establishing a base shuddering with potential, and freeing itself of various antiquated baggage.
I do so like the thing; yet, for it being so fiercely defined by its statistical quantification, it’s hard to, uh, quantify exactly why. If it can’t be narrowed down to one definite point, it might be possible to narrow it down to the more indefinite point of whatever word you may use for “feeling.” Atmosphere? Attitude? Vibe? You don’t even have to consider it in a relative context, though it sure as heck couldn’t hurt; having played parts of Star Ocean: The Last Hope several months ago – where it wasn’t uncommon to hear witnesses express a desire to see the developers be visited by the local prison and have their hands broken – coming back to Final Fantasy XII just feels so right. It can feel like grasping onto the wisp of a thing promised to us in our youth: there are blue skies, strong women, and good-looking men. There is deliciously orange and tan architecture, caught somewhere in between a future we’ve not seen and the buildings of 13th and 14th century Italy. There is the green-grassed, noble-citied music of Hitoshi Sakimoto, who might be the most talented person in his field, overflowing with delightful melodic twists and plucks that makes us yearn for a new age of discovery. If life were nothing but a series of adventures on plains and mountains with a band of monster hunters, we would be listening to Sakimoto’s music on our iPods. As life isn’t that way, the music is still good enough to warrant a listen on our iPods, anyway, and good enough to make us wish that life were that way (even though . . . really, we don’t).
With random battles gone, everything is more able to be about things happening, rather than things that are about to happen. It feels so much more “real,” so much more true to the idea of the game’s world having its own pulse. I love seeing a man-sized toad leap from the water, take a few steps around, and then fall asleep. I love that particular animals, large and small, are content to co-exist with me, lest I decide to attack them. I love that I can see a great, crackling orb of electricity roaming in a place I’ve never seen it roam before, and have a lump of anticipation and dread fizzle in my gut. And I wish there were more of these things to be had. I’m craving a day and night cycle, where animals that emerge at night don’t come out at daytime, and vice-versa – or where the nocturnal temperature of a locale is so cold that it slightly slows down the frequency of my attacks. Such a cycle must’ve been mentioned once during development, perhaps rejected because of the priority of the plot. Someone out there would complain that, as the story went along, and a character said, “Okay, we’d better hurry up and go here,” any player could actually not go “here,” and instead spend two in-game weeks slaying monsters. Keeping the game in a constant state of daytime, save for the cinematics (or when a section of the story demands it be night for a set period), relieved this potential conflict. And we’re not about to argue with that to the death. It’s a fairly logical decision. Still – still.
And if there aren’t monster hunts in real life, there are monster hunts in Final Fantasy XII. Every city has a Notice Board; walk up to one and you can see the bills people have posted, requesting Whosever Haveth the Balls to kill a troublesome creature. Find the respective person, talk to them, and set out to find where said beast is lurking. One soldier says that he saw a Wyvern flying around the sand dunes, and might you be able to exterminate it, please, because it could cause casualties if it ever made its way to the city. Another, a chief in a tribe, claims that a malevolent spirit has been terrorizing the miners of a nearby quarry. Money and items reward a successful hunt, but it’s quite enough to see each animal (and then promptly read about it in the deliciously worded bestiary). There is the most fascinating, attractive array of creatures I’ve seen in a three-dimensional video game; even the god-damned wolves are interesting to look at, though it might just be on account of my curiously strong fetish for that flat-topped, rectangular build of animal heads.
If we’re going to address an argument that the other review makes, let’s address what was at the heart of those two stars – the characters and their story – and start with the latter. The story, for what it is and what it’s surrounded by, is surprisingly okay. Some have said that “nothing” happens in the story. This is false: enormous things happen in the story, sometimes with the utterance of a few words, sometimes with the collapse of a kingdom. That such a great deal of it plays out with a subtlety uncommon in the genre and medium could account for the naysayings; as in, no, there are no cloaked priests murmuring about evil gods’ resurrection, no men wearing jock-straps on their faces and searching for the ultimate expression of monotone angst. There is a teenager in the game named Vaan, though, and most people consider him to be the main character. That he, in fact, isn’t the main character – that the lead role is actually occupied by Basch, a man initially labeled by Vaan as a traitor and the murderer of his brother – is a feather in the story’s cap. It’s impossible to say if Vaan had always been intended to provide the story’s perspective, or if it was one of those interventions. Was it believed that the game absolutely would not sell in Japan if a scarred, gruff man were the unquestionable star (unfortunately, this belief is accurate – there goes a lot of your female market, as well as whoever can’t connect with an avatar that isn’t youthful and/or androgynous)?
Does this sound familiar? It should; Metal Gear Solid 2 sort of did the same thing by relegating the player’s effeminate avatar to act as witness to the legendary, gruff man who has been deemed a tratior. Most players – at least, non-Japanese players – were displeased by this, especially when the game led them, with its opener on a storm-tossed ship, into thinking that they would control the legendary, gruff man the whole way. The largest difference between Sons of Liberty and Final Fantasy XII, however, is that MGS2’s switch-around felt like a spiteful joke (even if it wasn’t), while the point of view in FFXII feels “real.” In a way, the narrative lens of Van, as a dusty orphan and the “lowest” part of the game-world’s society, heightens the scale of the occurring events. What meets his eyes and ours is all the more cataclysmic. Vaan doesn’t become the Hero of Legends, but he doesn’t need to: he survives, and the world around him changes from his own decisions, and those of his companions and enemies. Whatever that choice may have been about who occupied the lead slot, we’re pretty satisfied with the way things are. Even the visual design of Vaan works as an elaborated, Japanese version of Disney’s Aladdin, snugly set in the context of his city’s bustling markets. It’s far from the result of Mr. Nomura gurgling over the photograph of a lederhoser-wearing Gackt. We could, however, do without the amazing shortness of the princess’ skirt that makes us wonder, now and again, how she sits around all those guys.
Final Fantasy XII, of course, is what it is to you. For me, it’s a step closer to what I saw buried beneath Dragon Quest VIII, a game that charmed the heck out of me with its excellently laid-out landscapes and somehow generic-yet-appetizing veneer, but tortured me with its constant, plodding battles and hollow dungeons. Final Fantasy XII’s inner workings are cleaner, clearer, making for a healthier exterior. On my side, it’s such an easy thing to get along with and cheer on, despite its fumbles and stumbles. One may not like it because it’s “not their thing,” and I nod and say, Okay – though, can we try to see what it was striving for? I’d like to. I’d like to believe in this incomplete game, and what it tried to stand for before whatever happened happened. Final Fantasy XII had the potential to be the hurling hunk of space rock that made impact, scorching old things and choking weeds, and allowing the new to sprout up. In the present state of reality, I don’t even remember how many off-shoots Square-Enix has released, or have in store, for Final Fantasy VII, and how many they have planned for Final Fantasy XIII. Would they be willing to take such a chance with the franchise, again? If so, when? And if when, would it be capped off by a similarly crushing conclusion? I’m running around in idealistic and fatalistic circles, here. Maybe I should cut this off before a vein in my other eye bursts.