The Sins & Triumphs of Final Fantasy XII

Expectations were high for Final Fantasy XII, the first proper game in the series in five years after instant classic X and the first online entry, XI. Ten was a long stride forward and its torch was passed to Yasumi Matsuno, the visionary responsible for Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. Over the last decade, FFXII’s reputation has seen drastic shifts from apathetic to negative and back to praise. With its HD Remaster recently announced, let’s take a look back at the last Final Fantasy entry on the PlayStation 2 and see where it misstepped – examining this “black sheep” of the Final Fantasy family to isolate the reasons it’s scorned (“Sins”) and point out their “Triumphs,” or redeeming factors.


Release: March 6, 2006 (JP)
Director: Yasumi Matsuno, Hiroyuki Ito, Hiroshi Minagawa
Original Sales: 5.95 million

Sin #1: License for Auto-Pilot

Not since Final Fantasy IV had the franchise seen such a drastic change in its gameplay. Instead of classes and Active Time Battle- or turn-based combat, Final Fantasy XII introduced players to a genre-subverting system derived from both of its predecessors, reimagining X’s Sphere Grid and XI’s MMORPG gameplay. The result was the Active Dimension System, where players could set “gambits” to pre-program their two AI companions as they traversed Ivalice’s vast regions and fought monsters in the field.

Consequently, many players found they could rig the game to essentially “play itself” with minimal player input. Gambits were a great solution to allow a party of three characters while only one is controlled at a time (and a few years later the same idea was applied even more efficiently in BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins); however they were also flawed, in that companions could be either dead weight if programmed improperly by the player, or so efficient that the player could win boss battles without holding the controller. More than other Final Fantasies or JRPGs, FFXII demanded a lot of time tinkering in menus to make sure all six playable characters were firing on the right cylinders.

The other half of Final Fantasy XII’s bold new system, the License Board, also demanded a lot of menu time. In an effort to reinvent the Sphere Grid, Licenses required characters to spend AP to unlock the ability to use certain items or abilities. As a system for gaining abilities it was smooth, but it stopped making sense when a character could not equip particular pieces of equipment without appeasing the in-game bureaucracy. Furthermore, improper development on the License Board could essentially paint players into corners, where their parties were unable to advance.

Others ended up with every single license tile unlocked by the end of the game, rendering all six characters essentially indistinguishable. Even early on, players can find little reason to choose one character over another, if they’re treading the same region of the License Board. This pratfall was present in Final Fantasy X by the endgame, but reared its ugly head much earlier in XII without the added diversity of varied Limit Breaks to warrant taking one character over another. One of Final Fantasy XII’s later directors, Hiroyuki Ito, wrongly assumed players would be more self-regulatory in diversifying their heroes and less diligent in over-levelling them.

FFXII had an interesting goal for its battles: to essentially create an offline online-style game. In the end, its quality is obscured by finicky aspects beneath its hood.

Sin #2: Matsuno’s Departure

This may be a prickly subject. Rumours have abounded that political reasons (like interjection by Square-Enix executives or Sakaguchi’s departure from the company) or displeasure with the game were the real reasons for Matsuno stepping away from Final Fantasy XII, though the official story is that illness forced him to take a break. It’s likely that all of these factors are to blame, that the stress from the company and fans caused or aggravated his health problems. In 2012 he left developer Level-5 citing a need to “recharge,” so it’s likely there’s a genuine medical problem at play. As such it’s not my intent to blame Matsuno for Final Fantasy XII’s ills. The game was already substantially complete at that point and Square-Enix just needed to keep the wheels on to bring it to the finish line.

FFXII was very much Matsuno’s baby, like the other Ivalice games before it. His absence was bound to have a profound effect. Whether he was pushed out justly because the game wasn’t shaping up to the company’s liking, or he refused to budge to the company’s whims and stood by his vision, or illness genuinely demanded he step back, the visionary steering the ship was replaced. Any project would suffer for such a switch-up halfway through development. One could compare it to the rocky development of Final Fantasy XV, where Tabata took over directorial duties on Versus XIII from Nomura. After a quarter of the game’s development was completed, Tabata was put in charge and took the project down an entirely different route. Final Fantasy XV will barely resemble Nomura’s plans for Versus XIII in the slightest by the time it’s released – just as the version of Final Fantasy XII we received is far removed from Matsuno’s vision.

It’s difficult (and perhaps even petty) to point fingers; we’ll likely never have the full, complete, unbiased tale of what happened behind the scenes. The bottom line is that it shook up FFXII’s development considerably late in the process. Matsuno was replaced as director and producer by three people, moving from a single person’s vision to three people trying to finish another’s story.

Sin #3: Flawed Story

Final Fantasy XII’s shortcomings in the story department were debatedly more damaging to the overall product’s reputation than tedious party micro-management; indeed, it felt somewhat jarring to be pulled out of the game world into the finicky world of party automatization.

Let’s deal upfront with the (vest-wearing) elephant in the room: Vaan. Something interesting was attempted in Vaan, making the main character a common person through whose eyes we see the true protagonist complete her quest. He is the lens through which we see Ashe’s struggle. It’s a brilliant technique borrowed from some great works of literature, and for attempting to adapt it to a video game I applaud Square-Enix.

I say “attempting,” however, because it failed. Fans have not been very receptive to Vaan since the game’s release. An official popularity poll taken in Japan in 2012 saw Vaan ranked lowest of all male protagonists (he tied Onion Knight and beat Warrior of Light and Firion, though to be fair they have almost no personality in their own games); he also ranked lower than some unlikely candidates, including Noctis (in the Versus XIII era), Hope, Reeve, and the spoony bard himself, Edward. Though he’s perhaps the least whiny teenaged boy in the series, he falls flat for most of the audience and contributes little to the story beyond the introduction and some conversations with Ashe. (Matsuno’s absence can be felt here, as he originally intended for Basch to the protagonist. Vaan was pushed into prominence as a younger, more androgynous hero was thought to be more appealing to female audiences than a gruff old soldier.)

The rest of the cast, save Penelo, is much more interesting and compelling, particularly Balthier – and yet another common complaint is that the party has little to do with the story’s events. They fight some prominent people and then events unfold around them. As in other games each character gets a moment to shine, where their past and true personality are revealed, but they are quickly swallowed by the more complicated plot of international conflict. Much content was cut, particularly in Penelo’s case, to meet production deadlines.

In this regard, I also blame pacing. There are some very long dungeons, like the Stillshrine of Miriam and the Pharos, that felt like brutal slogs; by the time a player conquers these herculean challenges after wrestling with difficult foes and the menu system, the narrative pace has slowed to a crawl and the drama that unfolds loses its impact. It’s hard to digest the dense plot, complicated with nethicite and otherworldly overseers, when the player can be so separated from it with hefty chunks of gameplay. (Moreover, some of these dungeons reward the player with somewhat disappointing weapons with huge story import and little power, like the Treaty-blade and Sword of Kings. I was so let down to see their stats after working so hard to earn them.) The need to grind for experience and the deep Mark system do little to help here either.

This is where Matsuno’s departure caused the deepest scars. With new directors and a new executive producer (Akitoshi Kawazu, who was blamed by Sakaguchi for Final Fantasy II’s gameplay, as you may recall), the story and characters were passed to new hands and it’s possible they were fumbled a little.

Triumph #1: Marks & Endgame

Frustrated with XII’s story? Take a break from the main campaign to enjoy the battle system in a purer form with the mark system, a set of monster-hunting side quests so large it could have been its own game. Certain story milestones unlock new sets of marks and elite marks, challenges that dwarf those in the proper story.

It’s here that the development team’s goal of an “offline MMORPG” comes closest to realization. Exploring the world in search of marks was perhaps the most fun I had with the game, setting aside the story for a while to focus on the true gameplay. At one point, near the end of my original runthrough, I wondered if I was getting the Final Fantasy XI experience I had missed out on – the only thing that XII lacks from real MMORPGs is the network features. Strip away the story and this becomes clearer.

Later Elite Marks make the actual final boss look like a pushover, like the legendary Gilgamesh (yes, literally that Gilgamesh, supplying plenty of evidence for a “shared Final Fantasy universe” fan theory) and the godly Yiazmat. Reports commonly claimed battling this epic dragon could take up to twelve hours – about what I imagine a speedrun of the story would last.

I never reached Yiazmat’s doorstep myself, as my original runthrough ended with grinding to explore the optional dungeon, the Necrohol of Nabudis. I was overwhelmed at the time with how much content was available to me at the very end of the game, even armed with the official guide as I was. With the exploration left to do, the marks to hunt, and the optional Espers to obtain (there are thirteen, but only five are gained during the story), I likely would have spent twice as much time on the endgame than the game itself. By 2006 standards, this was particularly amazing.

Triumph #2: A Bold Step Forward

Final Fantasy XII was the first game in the main series made without the input of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu, two developmental cornerstones of the franchise, or even Tetsuya Nomura, who had played a large role in Square’s biggest recent successes. The enterprise they created was left to take its first solo steps into the world, essentially.

FFXII boldly embraced this new situation and shook the series’ foundations, taking one of the biggest departures in its history. Changing from Active Time Battles to the “Active Dimension System,” ditching random encounters in the process, was the biggest innovation to gameplay since Final Fantasy IV first introduced the genre-standard, also laying the foundation for XIII and XV.

Other familiar elements traditionally copy/pasted into each game were challenged, like the pantheon of summoned creatures. The typical lineup of eidolons had been fairly standard up until XII; some games replaced elemental representatives, particularly lightning ones, and each had different higher-level ones like Eden or Ark, but overall fans could expect Ifrit and Shiva, and maybe Ramuh and Leviathan, in every game. XII ditched these staples altogether, reducing them to the names of airships in favour of thirteen new faces, many of which were already established as Espers of Ivalice in the Tactics series.

Matsuno had conceived Final Fantasy XII as a piece of the Ivalice mythology, established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, and even if Uematsu hadn’t stepped away from the franchise he might have taken the passenger seat to Hitoshi Sakimoto, composer of those games. Sakimoto’s scores are as essential to the spirit of the Ivalice subseries as Matsuno himself, and even the legendary Uematsu’s scores would not have seemed fitting for this world.

This is where we find some reason for the game’s shaky reputation. Fans expect things from numbered Final Fantasy games – catchy themes, a certain type of battle system, and certain background elements like familiar summons. FFXII challenged these expectations in many big ways, and the default reaction for fans after ten familiar games is to recoil.

Sakimoto’s score is every bit as wonderful as his work on Tactics or Uematsu’s on prior games, but while it suits the world of Ivalice and this battle system it’s not as thematic and enjoyable to listen to outside of the game. The new Espers are every bit as awesome as the familiar ones, but they’re all drastically different. If anything, FFXII is guilty of trying to change too much too fast – implementing a new battle system might have been enough change for one game in itself, but XII went far beyond that.

Triumph #3: Summoning Legacy

Yet, despite the drastic changes much homage was paid to series traditions, especially in the Esper department. Known summons like Shiva and Bahamut are present in the names of grand airships, allowing a new pantheon to take the spotlight and come to players’ aid – once their mettle is tested, of course.

Final Fantasy XII takes up the torch of summon gameplay from Final Fantasy X. As Yuna called her Aeons to battle in the party’s place, XII’s playable characters can take the field alongside an Esper for which they’ve unlocked the license. Changing summons from fancy, overlong animations into a separate gameplay experience was one of Final Fantasy X’s best innovations and XII continued its gameplay revolution. (Something else to look forward to in the Zodiac Age remake – Espers are directly playable!)

More subtle, however, is the tribute given in the design of many Espers. Of the thirteen, five directly relate to the final bosses of the first five games: Chaos (I’s Chaos), Mateus (II’s Emperor Mateus), Famfrit (III’s Cloud of Darkness), Zeromus (IV’s Zeromus), and Exodus (V’s Exdeath). Optional holy-elemental Esper Ultima previously appeared as the final boss of Final Fantasy Tactics and as a Totema in Tactics Advance. Look closely enough, and you may see references to other final bosses like Sephiroth and Necron. Sure, XII took away our familiar summons, but it provided final bosses as substitutes!

By daring to break the chains of established series design, XII also set the stage for XII and XV to push further into new, modern territory. Whatever people may complain about with the main games these days, it can’t be said that Final Fantasy has stagnated and leaned too heavily on its established formulae. FFXII ensured that gameplay kept evolutionary pace with the technical side.

“Don’t Believe Ondore’s Lies!”

Huge changes in a game development team, particularly in its leadership, can rock the boat of any project. In a case like Final Fantasy XII, so ambitiously different in its intents, these changes exponentially amplify. To redefine a familiar series like this a steady hand was needed, and sadly Matsuno’s departure may have soured the final project. Decisions that might have earned him countless accolades may have faltered in his absence and led to flat reactions from devoted fans.

It’s not that FFXII is a bad or failed game; it simply aimed to change too much too fast. Look at the disappointment surrounding it in the first years following its release – jaded fans (myself included) didn’t get the familiar, over-comfortable experience we expected and were perhaps overly dismissive. But since XIII and the X/X-2 remaster collections, hope for a proper HD re-release of XII surged until Square-Enix could not ignore their fans’ desires. As Darryl recently mused, and discussed on the podcast, the community’s general opinion on XII went from hype to disappointment and back to veneration, and I think this is the effect of time healing our wounds, so to speak. We recoiled from the changes, but now that the paradigm has shifted, our definitions of what a “Final Fantasy game” entails have changed and we can enjoy it for what it is.

Definitive Version: If you understand Japanese and have a Japanese PS2, check out the International Zodiac Version. For the rest of us, I recommend waiting for the HD remake next year. Many flaws were smoothed in the International version, and luckily we’ll get those revisions on PS4.

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