With the passage of time, Final Fantasy XII has proven itself to be wildly ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating the kind of real-time, macro-focused gameplay that now permeates the RPG landscape. In 2017, MMO-style gameplay is in vogue, and FFXII is now with the times, meaning it’s far easier to contend with the game for what it is rather than what it isn’t, which is to say that it’s still a lopsided, slipshod experience indicative of all the problems that many of Square Enix’s games have exhibited for the last decade.
FFXII’s fundamental problem is one of consistency. It has many major players whose names and histories are crucial to what must become of Ivalice, the world in which the game takes place, but with few exceptions they aren’t given depth or arcs beyond what new mystical artifact they have to collect next. This is a game that prizes player freedom, stripping away Final Fantasy’s typical linearity for an MMO’s open-ended nature, but also places strange, unwieldy restrictions on character progress and development, while also refusing to impart what specific, vital concepts are meant to do.
In FFXII’s opening hours, a prince marries his bride the night before going to war against an invading empire, and when he dies, the princess kills herself. A knight murders his country’s monarch, believing his king’s surrender to the enemy to be an act of weakness. A poor street urchin’s brother dies in the war, and does something stupid to take his revenge that gets him swept up into a larger adventure by a sky pirate and his fierce companion. And all of this transpires while the invading emperor is dying, and his son attempts to endear himself to a seething populace to ease his ascent to the throne.
FFXII is built on a foundation of strong, succinct personal stories, all of which fade into nebulousness over time. Within a few hours, personal stakes take a backseat to large-scale political maneuvers, sprinkled with a little bit of Final Fantasy’s usual magical elements—summon creatures, magic crystals, ancient deities—and the game suffers for it, because none of the politics are detailed or captivating enough to warrant the severity and weight the story wants desperately to attach to them. Hours of cutscenes are implemented to relate a plot point that could be resolved with a line of dialogue.
So much of the game is build up to minor privileges and plot points that other RPGs freely give to the player.
There’s some good news, at least, to report about the The Zodiac Age version of the game. Once, the plot’s emptiness was mirrored by the fact that playing as each of the main characters was an identical experience across the board, meaning each character couldn’t even exhibit individuality or development as gameplay. This remaster introduces a job system that allows players to select their own character-appropriate skill set, which is a plus in the game’s favor, albeit little more than a band aid over the fact that players will largely be hands off during most of the game’s combat.
The big gimmick in FFXII is the Gambit system, where in lieu of traditional turn-based combat, or even modern-style real-time button presses, the player must, in essence, teach the game how to play itself using lines of simplified code that operate along the lines of “if (x) happens, then character will (y).” This effort to be unique is borne out Square Enix’s midlife crisis in the aughts, throwing random new game mechanics at tried-and-true genres to see what sticks. While at the very least the Gambit system is functional and the most interesting of the developer’s experiments, it still undeniably takes much of the actual role playing out of this role-playing game, where the only one you’re actually playing is that of “programmer.”
It’s a shame, because Ivalice is the sort of vibrant world full of life, history, culture, and adventure that would be a joy to watch FFXII’s ensemble bounce off of, especially sky pirate Balthier, whose Hugo-Weaving-as-Han-Solo presence brings a theatrical flair to every scene he’s in. Instead, players will spend most of the game finding more barriers in place to keep that from happening. Indicative of the whole experience of playing FFXII is the fact that you can buy a magic spell from a store but the game won’t tell you what it does; you can’t use it unless your character has earned enough to buy a license to use it; and you have to tell the game outside of combat to use it, only to find out it does miniscule damage. So much of the game is build up to minor privileges and plot points that other RPGs freely give to the player.
The irony here is that this is the state of the RPG union, where players are meant to find their own joy instead of it being provided for you by a game’s characters, abilities, and adventures. FFXII was ahead of the curve in that regard, but one need only look at Final Fantasy XV, a game that began development after FFXII and evolved over the course of 10 years, as proof that even Square Enix’s stable of creators realized it could’ve done better.