As I started writing that review of FFXII: Revenant Wings, I realized that I’d never taken out my notes on its predecessor and arranged them into a review. So, I decided I would go ahead and do that. I’ve played through the game twice now, and I feel it likely that I’ll play it again at some point in the future. Final Fantasy XII walks an interesting line: compared to recent entries in the series it seems very much like a new direction. I felt, however, that it actually hearkened back to older entries in many ways. This synthesis had many strengths, but the game did not play to them as well as it could have. For all its epic grandeur, FFXII never really connects emotionally, in the end producing a superficial experience.
The battle system garnered the most attention, because it was the largest departure from Final Fantasy X. A turn-based system with a separate battle screen was replaced by “real-time” encounters in the field. However, the “real-time” system is something of an illusion, and in fact is a throwback, because it is essentially a partially-automated version of the active time battle system that series veterans are familiar with. The real difference here was the elimination of the battle screen, a move that made sense in terms of firmly rooting the action in the world, but which highlighted the oddity of having only half your party involved in a fight. The advantage of the change is most evident in terms of scaling. Giant enemies seem truly enormous in this system, and it also accommodates swarms of enemies that can be a drag in a turn-based system, as anyone who has sat through a Dragon Quest battle with 8 or more slimes can attest.
The removal of discontinuities and transitions between the overworld and battle screen adds a greater sense of immediacy as well, and creates some interesting moments—your characters might end up running through the desert with an enormous dinosaur on their heels, for instance. This engagement is adversely affected by the “Quickenings”, rather inexplicable special attacks that seem to take place on some other plane. It would have been better, and achieved more to differentiate the characters, if these had been replaced by in-field special techniques.
The price of all this is the control afforded by a turn-based system. While it is possible to manually direct all your characters, it is more efficient to use the rudimentary AI system (gambits) so that they control themselves. There was some grousing about this, and also the “license” system that forced you, in the early stages of the game at least, to pick and choose what weapons and abilities your character could use. In the end though, these aspects of the system, however controversial, were secondary, because the real selling point of the Final Fantasy games has been presentation and story.
The story was quite a departure. While many of the popular FF entries were highly personal stories intertwined with a traditional fantasy epic, FFXII is much more distant from its characters. In FFX, Tidus repeatedly states “This is my story,” but FFXII is emphatically not the (supposedly) main character Vaan’s story, nor even Princess Ashe’s. The player’s characters are all very small relative to the conflict being played out, and for the most part they are unable to affect its course. Only at the very last do the efforts of the characters amount to a thrust against the march of their history. Even then, they affect only the superficial aspects of the moment (i.e. who wins the battle); the great task, the toppling of the Occuria, has already been achieved.
The presentation matched the epic focus in several ways. Full-video cutscenes seemed slightly less textured than they were for FFX—compare Tidus’ skin and hair to Vaan’s, for instance. Full-video also seems to be used somewhat more extensively for establishing shots than in FFX, and the main characters get rather less screen time in the action shots. Thus, in general, the full-video cinematics feel more remote from the characters. Similarly, the soundtrack is very grand and highly orchestrated. Horn and string ensembles take the lead here, rather than the solo instruments that dominated most tracks of FFX. As a side effect, the music is less intimate, and at times feels almost superficial, like it came out of a fighting game. Although some themes get repeated, the music has nothing like the coherence of FFX. These features work with the nature of the story presented.
So too does the general vastness of the landscapes involved. Entire regions of FFX could fit into single screens of FFXII, and the exterior landscapes are generally quite distinct. Interiors are something of a problem for the game, however; the differences between the various mines in the game mostly amounts to pallette work. Also, in some instances the scale seems very odd—particularly in the corridors of Imperial ships, which are too wide, too purposeless, and have improbably high ceilings. In general, however, the scaling of the environment works to the advantage of the game’s approach, emphasizing how large the world is relative to the characters and their story.
This is not to say that there is no personal conflict motivating the story, but it does not play out nearly as intimately as in some other entries. Vaan (the protagonist) and Vayne (the principal antagonist) see each other briefly at the beginning of the game and do not meet again until a few brief moments before the end, but the story tracks their movements and the development of their opposing ideals. Curiously, both wish to be free of oppression: Vaan from the Empire that Vayne represents, and Vayne from the godlike Occuria who try to control history. That Vayne and the Occuria both view their respective rule as benevolent does not impress those who endure it. Despite their key similarity, Vaan and Vayne are presented as physical and emotional opposites, with very different reactions to the resented oppression. Vaan wishes only to be free, and his own master, while Vayne wishes to take the godhead himself, by manufacturing his own version of the magical stones that the Occuria use to distribute power (and with it, control). The problem with this dichotomy is that while Vayne is the unquestioned leader of his side of the argument, Vaan is not a leader nor seemingly even essential to his.
As the story progresses it sounds two main thematic notes: a suspicion of power and the powerful, and the futility of revenge. Criticism of current events could easily be read into either of these if one wished, though the tale of small nations caught in a conflict between two great empires seems more directly analogous to the Cold War. Intertwined with the theme of vengeance is the resolution of loyalties—familial and political. In general the characters choose to be loyal to the future rather than to memory, which could also be read as a political statement.
One interesting feature of the story is that Vayne and Doctor Cid both have a habit of talking to thin air, seeming to be insane. Yet the “Venat” they speak to, a renegade Occurian god, is actually present (invisibly). The obvious note sounded about the ease of confusing religion and insanity may obscure larger questions about how we can distinguish a good God from an evil one, and whether any God that relates to the world purely through power can be truly benevolent. Is Venat good or evil, or both?
These threads are interesting, but through them we ultimately learn very little about the characters. FFXII spends so much time building up the enormous supporting cast that we never get to connect very completely with or truly understand the putative main players. At the end of the tale, we know that they have done certain things, but we understand very little about why. Nor does the story end with any resolution of tensions or personal transformations. Most of the characters (except Penelo, who is practically a non-character) reconcile with their past, but the significant transformations that Yuna and Tidus underwent in FFX find no echo here. Vaan, Ashe, and Basch are somewhat less bitter at the end of the story, but otherwise not significantly changed. The relationships between the characters of the party never seem to develop or change—at times it’s not at all clear why they’re even still travelling together. Rather, it is the secondary characters, Larsa especially, who are transformed by events of the story, and their relationships that develop and change. In that respect, FFXII resembled some of the earlier Final Fantasy games to its detriment.
The only remedy to this weakness would be a change in the narrative. A narrowed focus would have helped—Penelo and Fran could have been excised or relegated to supporting-cast status without much of a loss. Fran and the Viera in general felt like an indulgence of puerile sexuality—the village full of scantily-clad bunny girls was almost fatal to the tone. Vaan should either have been excised or built up significantly—for long stretches of the story he seems like a supporting character who got stuck to the main plot by accident, which is not a problem unless (as here) the events of the story seem as insignficant to him as he is to them. Trimming some of the fat and refocusing the story could draw out Vaan’s developing leadership and responsibility, and Ashe’s resolution with her past, to a much greater degree. It would also allow more space to play on Ashe’s relationships with Vaan and Balthier. At several points the Occuria seem interested in using Vaan somehow, or pushing Ashe towards him. Again, allowing more space for this to play out would also have been wise.
As an epic, FFXII mostly works, and the vastness of the landscape, the massiveness of many of the enemies, and the sweeping score help reinforce this property. However, while the political and military tale is compelling, the personal story is not: the main characters are never developed adequately, their relationships do not seem to evolve, and for all their epic scope the events of the story do not seem to greatly change them. The automation of your allies, the vastness of the world, the remoteness of the score, and the two-dimensionality of the characters creates a fundamentally alienating and impersonal environment only partly ameliorated by the engagement of the continuous-field battle system, and this only weakens the emotional impact further. Ultimately, FFXII is grand but not touching—all glorious gilding, and no lily.