This article contains spoilers.
I can remember a time where Final Fantasy XII seemed more contentious. It still was largely well-liked, but when the game came up in a room full of nerds there was always someone who would react strongly to mere mention of it. They’d usually have some point about how it “isn’t Final Fantasy” mostly because of things like the big differences in combat, or the structural changes.
The years since have been kinder to the game. I’ve seen more rankings put this game at the top, and while I wouldn’t take these as fully definitive, it does seem to signify a change of consensus opinion. It may be because of the more recently released port of the game, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which featured many changes and is the version I chose to play for this article.
That’s the version of the game that I ended up enamoured with after playing. I felt such a high with it, also declaring it one of the greatest Final Fantasy games when it was released on Playstation 4. This time around I’ve cooled down on it a little, but I still think it’s an excellent game. Playing it a second time meant that I noticed a few things that I hadn’t before.
The plot of this game is a war story (and not a particularly subtle one) about the effects of an arms race on the world. Most of the party members have dealt with tragedy related to this, especially Vaan, Ashe and Basch who all lost so much from one single event. The assassination of the King of Dalmasca by the Archadian Empire resulted in Basch losing his freedom, Vaan losing his brother, and Princess Ashe losing her father, husband, and country.
Despite what a lot of promotional material seems to show, Ashe is the central character of the story. It’s her motivation to take revenge on the Empire that drives everything forward. She is the character who most interfaces with the nethicite, the artefact central to the plot.
The nethicite is a blatant metaphor for nuclear power. In a previous war, the city of Nabudis was destroyed by nethicite. The Empire’s attempted meddling with it also caused an accidental explosion in its own fleet. These had devastating effects on the environment as well. It was initially provided by the godlike beings known as the Occuria, but the game’s villain, Vayne Solidor, sees it his mission to cut these beings off by beginning to have the Empire manufacture their own nethicite.
Throughout the game it feels as though Ashe cannot win. If she takes revenge by using the nethicite, she will only end up causing even more mass destruction. Many other options she’s given don’t feel like victories for herself, they feel more like acting in the interests of others, both man and godlike. When she gets the opportunity to destroy the Sun-Cryst, the source of nethicite, that’s when it really begins to feel like she gets a win because it also goes against the Occuria’s will.
The most striking details for me came from something completely missable: the NPC dialogue. Particularly from the people living in Rabanastre, a city in the kingdom of Dalmasca. It’s a shame that some of these conversations didn’t make their way onto the game’s critical path. More modern games may have recorded lines play out as a player passes by people, but that simply feels like passive eavesdropping. Walking up to them to initiate a conversation feels like taking an interest in their lives.
After a tutorial section elsewhere, Vayne Solidor, the new Consul of Rabanastre, arrives in the city to introduce himself. After his big speech the player is able to explore the place and talk to people. The area is divided in two, the surface and an underground area called Lowtown. Up above there’s a mix of opinions. Some people feel he might not be trustworthy since he comes from the country that defeated Dalmasca, but just as many people voice opinions that he’s going to sort the place out.
Down below in Lowtown it’s different. Many of the people there are locals who have been priced out of their own homes, barely scraping by to survive. The place has fallen into disrepair, almost out of deliberate neglect. The guards stationed around the city don’t even go into the place. The people there all don’t trust the new rulers, and some don’t even share opinions because they’re too busy worrying about their own life. A lot of this information is simply found from looking around and having conversations with people.
I feel as though it’s important to highlight this precisely because it reinforces the game’s narrative as a whole. There are also other areas with play with a similar situation, such as the Empire’s capital city, Archadia. The party members all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Vaan and Ashe especially and Final Fantasy XII uses that as an opportunity for good storytelling. Both of them lost family in the war, but their circumstances are very different. Many upper class people in Ivalice have a lot of interest in Ashe because of her status as a princess (but many of them have ulterior motives), but Vaan had to look out for himself often. He is introduced in a scene where he fights rats in a sewer to pass the time, before having to do menial tasks and thievery to earn a living.
Vaan is the one with first-hand experience of the effect of war on poor people because of what happened to him and many other people he knows. While Ashe is the central character of the story, it’s Vaan who’s controlled in all non-combat areas. He’s the one doing all the talking to the NPCs. He’s the one hearing about their experiences. He is the one who encourages Ashe to destroy the Sun-Cryst and not use it for revenge. Even though he has lost a lot because of the Empire, he knows that when the privileged choose violence, it’s the poor that get the biggest casualties.
Stories of haves and have-nots have been done before throughout Final Fantasy, and they’ve been done well, in the case of Final Fantasy VII. The story of a thief joining with an escaped princess was also done before in Final Fantasy IX, but that wasn’t without its flaws. Final Fantasy XII does better at this because it keeps things grounded. There’s more perspectives to consider, and the villains aren’t afflicted by darkness that makes them evil, they’re simply infected with selfish ideas which they rationalise with morals. Bringing the “reins of history back into the hands of man” becomes a reasoning for the erosion of democracy.
There’s a real struggle going on in the world of Ivalice, but that wasn’t felt by me when I went to explore the world. The battles of Final Fantasy XII use a real-time system where each action takes place after a small per-character timer. It’s backed up with an automation mechanic referred to as “Gambits”, which a player can program themselves with simple if statements (for example if an ally’s health is below a certain percentage, a cure spell should be cast). With the right kind of planning it means that the game’s combat ends up playing itself. While it is nice to see a plan come together nicely, it is very easy to do so and most enemies don’t need much more than “if you see it, attack it”. There’s much more satisfying encounters in some of the game’s sidequests, but I do wish I didn’t have to go out of my way for that. For a large portion of the game I was simply running through areas on fast-forward, watching enemies fall over and picking up the loot to sell later.
That’s another thing, the fast-forward function was a later addition to this game. There’s a reason I didn’t simply write “Final Fantasy XII” for the title of this blog post. The Zodiac Age is a complete rebalancing of the game with all sorts of things changed like character progression, item placement and many more small changes. When I wrote about Final Fantasy X, I stressed the importance of how that game’s mechanics work in tandem with the storytelling. One thing I didn’t mention in that piece was that the optional Expert Sphere Grid found in later versions of the game removes that mechanic’s ties to the game’s narrative because the character’s positions on that grid are no longer tied to their relationships. I wondered how many more changes like that are present here. Though I might have had more fun and an easier time with this version, would that have meant that I missed out on a version of the game where other systems better inform the narrative?
Even the visuals have had a big overhaul in order to suit higher resolutions. While it still keeps somewhat true to how it originally looked on the Playstation 2, it’s still different. This is still an excellent looking game, with some brilliant use of lighting, fantastic facial animation and great cutscene direction but the increase in detail makes the imperfections more apparent. I suppose it’s in the nature of games moving onto platforms that they were not intended for, they do end up losing something in the process.
Before I finished Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I made one last trip to Rabanastre. I had to have a talk with the NPCs again. Not much had changed except that Lowtown was a little more full. It served as a good reminder for what the party was fighting for.
The game’s ending initially comes across as triumphant. Vayne Solidor has been defeated, Dalmasca has been reinstated, and the Occuria’s meddling has been cut off. It’s actually more of a quiet tragedy. In becoming Queen of Dalmasca, Ashe has been forced to cut herself off from the party due to her much higher status. Life has returned to normal, but in this world normal means that the class divide doesn’t go because the bad apples have been thrown out. While the party was able to come together to avert a crisis, the systems of the world ensured it couldn’t stay that way.