Final Fantasy XII is a game I wish I had been old enough to appreciate when it first released in 2006, but am very pleased to be playing now with its new coat of HD polish. The tale of Final Fantasy XII is refreshingly mature compared to past installment of the series; it does not involve stopping a global catastrophe right off the bat or a mysterious bad guy intent on world domination. Instead the plot is a bit closer to home for the characters, more true to life, and therefore feels very down to Earth (or rather down to Ivalice).
You initially play as a orphaned teen, Vaan, but eventually control a cast of six party members. Vaan and his adoptive sister Penelo live in a small country sandwiched between two, massive, warring nations. In order to reach one another, the opposing armies force their way through the middle ground, leaving a bloody wake behind them, including the royal bloodline. The main plot begins a few years after the peak of this conflict which killed Vaan and Penelo’s parents, leaving the children to survive as street rats.
Long story short, Vaan and Penelo are in the wrong place at the wrong time and get swept up in a transborder, political conspiracy with some sky pirates and “rebels” loyal to the assassinated King’s daughter, a woman whom would have taken his place as Queen.
Queen Ashe was said to have commited suicide, but secretly lives and wishes to reveal herself, reclaim her throne, and dispose the usurping outsiders from her palace. With the help of new, useful friends of convenience, the dethroned Queen quests to prove her royal heritage, the sky pirates promised royal riches for their assistance, and the orphans seek familial belonging and justice for their slain parents.
Sometimes cities in JRPGs feel a bit lifeless, with little background hustle and bustle of daily life. Final Fantasy XII does not have this problem. Each hub city has a distinct aesthetic, with people everywhere talking, walking, buying, laughing, and drinking.
The broader art of the game is less “anime” than most JRPGs. Colors combinations are lower contrast than you might be used to seeing in other titles. These muted palettes make everything seems organic, in tune with the surrounding environments. Outside the urban areas, Ivalice has one of the largest, nonlinear explorable maps of any Final Fantasy.
One of the first things that stood out to me in Final Fantasy XII was the city design and citizen attire, which seems to be a medley inspired by real world cultures living in arid or desert climates. The main city is surrounded by a desert and designers clearly took cues from architecture in the middle east and surrounding areas.
If you have ever played Assassin’s Creed Revelations, some of the urban areas might bring to mind old Istanbul. Buildings are light colored with intricate, vivid patterns etched into the wide, sandy brickwork. Slightly chaotic bazaar streets are littered with colorful, cloth awnings over merchant stalls to give a shady break from the heat. The detail built into each visit-able dwelling and shop is incredible. Also, there are airships you can ride in!
The races of Ivalice include some of the most creative non human species I’ve seen in a fantasy game in a long time. From Vaan and Penelo’s donkey-lizard-step-uncle to lithe, warrior rabbit-ladies, they all feel integrated into society and look natural, like they belong, because they do. Likewise, the creatures in this particular Final Fantasy world are for the most part are visually unique, fitting well into their environments. Characters on every side of the main political conflict are presented in shades of gray, each with their own subjectively understandable perspectives of right and wrong.
The playable cast of characters has a nice variety of personalities. Vaan and Penelo are young, idealistic cast members coming of age and slowly shedding their naivety. Balthier is a smooth talking, sky pirate captain and lover of shiny things, with a soft side despite the devil-may-care attitude he wears. Fran is the ancient, wise one with a keen sense of practicality, often acting as Balthier’s conscience or voice of reason. Ashe is cool and collected, with the focused determination of a woman with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Her right hand man, Basch, is a knight whom was set up to take the fall for Ashe’s father’s death and has committed his life to seeing Ashe retake her rightful place on the throne.
Ashe’s story is particularly interesting to me due to her being a young widow. This is not something one normally sees in video game main characters much today, much less thirteen years ago. Often the death of a male main character’s female relative or love interest is used as a plot device or to provide motivation.
In a reversal on this trope, Ashe’s grim determination to see through her ambitious plans is fueled by the untimely demise of the Prince Rasler, whom she loved dearly and had just wed prior to war breaking out. Prince Rasler was killed in battle and his ghost appears to Ashe multiple times throughout the story to guide her when she feels most unsure. I found these scenes remarkably touching, even though the ghost turns out to be something else in the end.
Voice acting in Final Fantasy XII is, in a word, superb. I could listen to Balthier’s suave banter and witty quips all day. Vaan sounds appropriately moody for a teen boy, with Penelo in contrast as a level headed, empathetic voice. I have no idea what Fran’s accent is based on, but it is tantalizing to listen to and I couldn’t wait to hear more of her lines. Thunder booms across the plains with the first introduction of weather cycles in the series and birds sings in the jungle.
Final Fantasy XII features an amazing, re-orchestrated soundtrack alongside the original as well as the Zodiac Age version, which you can swap between at any time. I haven’t gotten chills from Final Fantasy music since the day I heard To Zanarkand at a Distant Worlds concert in college. High strings and piano abound, providing an alternatively playful and intense set of tracks.
Final Fantasy XII introduced the most dynamics combat style shift in the series. Rather than slow, turn based fights, the player is presented with Active Time Battle where characters attack automatically and perform actions based on a Gambit System. The ATB and Gambit Systems were divisive at the time of release and I can see why: They are radically different from the traditional Final Fantasy formula. If you liked battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, this system will feel familiar on the surface. At first it might seem a little too “hands off”, but once you dig in, the combat gets juicy.
Gambits are essentially scripts you can set for each character to follow based on activation conditions you set for them. This system is absolutely fantastic because gambits are the most meticulous level of party AI customization that has even been made available to players in any game to date. The player is able to fine tune their party into a perfectly scripted, clockwork running, murder squad with the player needing only to direct the party toward a chosen target.
The player acts more as an overseeing tactician than a participant, occasionally interfering to select specific actions. Watching your squad deftly carry out plans of your design is much more satisfying than I initially expected and you still feel like you have agency over any situation thanks to how much control is at your fingertips.
For instance, you can set a gambit for your White Mage to heal any party member who falls below 70% health with a small Cure spell, but if they fall below 50%, a Cura spell, or a heavy Curaga at lower than 30% health. You can have your Black Mage target enemies with attacks specific to their elemental weaknesses, or have them ready to silence opposing mages. The Gambit System is incredibly robust and you will not see anything like it in another game.
The player also has access to special flashy abilities and summons available to use manually, and the HD version has a function that allows for 2x and 4x the speed of normal combat. If you fight the same type of enemy for long chains in a row, you’ll see better and better loot drops. Your characters can each dual class using the License Board system, which is like a nonlinear version of Final Fantasy X sphere grids. Last but not least, you can accept highly rewarding challenge quests to kill elite monsters via notice boards found in taverns.
The Final Word
Final Fantasy XII became one of my favorite Final Fantasy titles in short order, which is something I was not expecting going into it. I’ve heard so many mixed takes on the game that I was gravely concerned I wouldn’t like it and had wasted my money. On the contrary I found the world of Ivalice to be a cornerstone of modern JRPGs of which you can see the influence in later entries as well as titles made by other developers. I really appreciated the political plotline, the complex characters, and I found myself wishing every Final Fantasy was as detailed and interesting. Easy 9/10 for me. Final Fantasy XII is a series entry no JRPG fan should miss.
Thank you for reading!
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