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.
This article contains spoilers.
For me there are two moments when I am most excited about a good game: when I start it and when I finish it. I get the appeal of a game I can go back to and keep playing continuously, but in my experience that usually fizzles out after a while. When I had recently played Final Fantasy XI, I found it overwhelming that the game seemed to go on forever (though that game does have “endings” to its own story arcs and ironically I wasn’t even able to reach the first one). The protagonist’s primary objective in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance isn’t to defeat a villain or save the world, it’s to end the videogame.
In this game Marche, his brother Doned, and a few of his friends from school end up being transported by a magic book into the world of “Final Fantasy”. It’s not the setting from any particular game in the series, even though the world does share the name Ivalice with Final Fantasy Tactics. The main characters are people who’ve played a game called “Final Fantasy” that is very similar to the place they’ve ended up. Within this new world the kids find that things they have wished for have been granted, and they have much more freedom here. But Marche knows that it’s just a game, and because of this he makes it his mission to end it and return home.
A tactical RPG is an excellent sort of game to tell this story. The structure of turn-based combat, the blocky terrain found in all environments, the fact that all situations have to be resolved through fighting. All of these things highlight the artificiality of the world. The job system this game has also feels more appropriate than it ever has since Marche has more freedom in this world, so he’s able to easily change his role in combat. That this game makes it much easier to unlock more jobs for everyone to change into highlights that even more. These are all systems that have seen use in many other games in the genre, but here they feel like they were purpose built for what Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is doing (it’s also similar to how Final Fantasy X used this to great effect).
However, those freedoms contrast harshly against certain restrictions which is the nature of living in a systems-driven videogame. The most blatant way in which it demonstrates this is through the use of “laws”. Most combat encounters will feature a seemingly arbitrary set of laws that will prevent certain skills or weapons from being used. They also reward other actions, encouraging a player to work those into combat as well. Marche’s school friend Mewt has some control over this world, so these regulations do fit in with a child’s idea of changing a game’s rules to suit themself. As this is a videogame, these laws work like a fundamental rule of the world and cannot be broken without making use of another system to do so. Choosing to ignore the laws will only result in progressively harsher punishments that eventually lead to losing the fight. The judges that enforce them also prevent people from being killed in combat, further emphasizing how much this is simply a game.
Fights are what make up most of this game. Any location where a fight doesn’t take place exists to either facilitate missions that lead to combat, or provide items for sale which are used in combat. After a while, no matter how fun these fights can be (which they are, I’ve had a great time playing this game) it can’t go on forever otherwise it would be fatiguing. Even children have a limit to their energy. There are also other people around from the world of Ivalice who aren’t there to fight, who often end up as victims as a result of bandit or monster attacks. The world being in a state of constant conflict for the sake of a child’s wish fulfilment is causing harm to the people that live there.
I also can’t help but view this game as somewhat reflective of the state of Squaresoft at the time. This is speculative since I haven’t come across any first-hand accounts of this game’s development. Producer Yasumi Matsuno has gone on record saying that Final Fantasy Tactics, a previous game he directed, was inspired by his own experience at the company. The company was also working on Final Fantasy XI around the same time, a game with odd and at times punishing systems that still looks like it will go on forever. Having played both games so closely together and knowing they released fairly close to each other, I can’t help but think about this comparison.
In many other contexts I could see the ending of this game as being a little weak. It moves much too fast towards its conclusion and feels a little sudden when it gets there. Within Final Fantasy Tactics Advance it makes perfect sense. This is a game about children playing and after a child spends enough time playing an adult often comes to tell them to finish. It doesn’t take a pessimistic view on the whole subject either. The game begins and ends with a snowball fight, showing that even though playtime has to end eventually, that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again.
Knowing when to stop has been a key part of my own project to play through a lot of Final Fantasy for this blog. If I simply wanted to play through all of them I could have been much further along through the games, but I took breaks when I felt as though I needed to. I’m only roughly halfway through this series, and I haven’t felt too tired from it all yet. Square Enix hasn’t stopped making Final Fantasy, and I can’t picture them stopping any time soon. I could still be playing these games for a very long time, but if I allow myself time to rest it will be easier.
I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.
How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.
I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.
Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation.
In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.
There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game.
The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.
There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.
Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.
I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.
Since writing my last piece about this series, the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI came out. I thought that when I played Final Fantasy VII Remake I was seeing the trajectory of the series going forward, I was expecting more games exactly like it.
The trailer for FF16 surprised me, since I genuinely thought that game didn’t exist yet. I wrongly assumed that all resources for Final Fantasy were being pushed towards FF7 Remake and the subscription MMORPG FF14.
What also surprised me was that it seems to be going in a dark medieval fantasy direction, not unlike The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Any time someone would try to pitch Final Fantasy Tactics to me they’d mention Game of Thrones, which I assume is shorthand for “fantasy story that’s a bit darker than other ones”. I might as well start talking about that game.
Final Fantasy Tactics
To me this game really doesn’t give off the feeling of an HBO prestige TV show fantasy, or an epic fantasy series of novels. The Game of Thrones comparison didn’t seem to apply to how it looks (though it is apt in other ways considering this is mostly a game about schemes involving royalty).
Theatre seems to feel like the biggest influence on the presentation and story structure of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each location where story sequences a battles play out looks like a small set that would have been built on for a stage, since the lower-fidelity 3D graphics really give it the impression of something that’s been handbuilt. Large scale events such as battles take place out of view, as the game places more importance on how the characters on those sets react to it.
That last aspect is crucial as not only does it come across as an interesting stylistic choice, but helps convey the distance characters have towards those in the larger conflicts, in more ways than one. I need to provide a little context before really getting into it.
The game mostly follows the story of Ramza Beoulve, a man born to a noble family who ran away from them to become a mercenary. Ramza is a goodhearted person who wants to save people, and by saving a kidnapped princess he gets caught up in the middle of a much bigger problem. The king has recently died and two dukes are working against each other to have a line of succession that allows one of them to become a regent, since the king’s own heirs are apparently too young to rule by themselves. Whether the princess lives or dies favours one duke more than the other. This eventually leads to war, which allows other organisations to take advantage of the situation and increase their own power, such as Ramza’s old friend Delita, the Church, and later on a collective of monsters who were banished to another dimension. Ramza ends fighting to stop the latter two plots, as they really do seem to be much more immediately dangerous.
I’ve had to simplify a lot of that to keep it concise, so many things happen over the course of this game.
So back to the use of distance. It’s easy to see how it’s used for the scheming nobles, since they see themselves as above common folk. A large part of the first chapter is used to convey this through a flashback to Ramza’s past. One noble, Argath, talks at length about how much better the upper class are than those who are from “lower birth”. Delita is derided for it as he was from a lower class family and was only adopted into the noble lifestyle. Most nobles see the poorer classes as pawns to be used in their own schemes and wars. This is shown at the start of the game, where a war had just recently finished. The soldiers who fought in it were cast aside without any aid for their future, and some had to become thieves and bandits in order to make their living.
It also feels as though Ramza and his group of fighters are distant from the war as a whole. A lot of the battles they fight in themselves are smaller skirmishes off to the side of them. However, the direction their story takes eventually grows distant from the themes of the initial chapters. The initial focus on how terrible nobles can be diminishes over time, and it becomes about Ramza and crew fighting off a group of strong monsters who want to use this war to resurrect their leader. It’s a real shame that it takes what could have been a really interesting premise to follow through on and abandon it for a stock fantasy story.
There’s also the problem of Ramza’s friend Delita who, through deceit and murder, rises from being a commonder to becoming the next king. I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem with this if it was an isolated story, but it exists here to contrast with Ramza’s goodhearted nature and noble birth. It feels as though the game wants to say that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, it only matters how they act, which sure… I guess that’s true to some extent. However much more loudly in my head I hear the game saying poor people can be just as troubling and damaging to the world as the rich ones. It makes me think a little about the real world. The real world where the divide between the rich and poor is only growing. The real world where over one-third of all carbon emissions come from 20 companies. Honestly Delita comes across as not so believable in this fantasy game.
It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the tactics game aspect. It didn’t end up being as ridiculously difficult as I was expecting it to be. That was because I’ve tried and failed to get into this game before a few times, to the point where I almost accepted that I’d never be able to play through this game. I wasn’t used to the idea of unit positioning in a tactical RPG, so I’d move a party member to the wrong place and they’d be killed very quickly. I was not aware that the game’s random encounters would scale with the highest levelled party member, making it much more difficult for my carelessly levelled party, full of characters at different stages of growth.
Being aware of how these things worked this time around was a huge help, but I also did a lot of grinding so I had a fairly powerful team anyway. It’s interesting because I still had to be mindful of the combat during that, since if I wanted to level up a class with lower defensive stats I would need to have them avoid the heavy-hitting enemies that often get thrown into random encounters. By the time I started to lose patience with the grind, the difficulty level of the game dropped off a cliff anyway, since I was given an extremely powerful party member.
The sudden drop in difficulty was partly appreciated as it wasn’t as mentally taxing as some segments of the game were. While I found the game much easier than my prior attempts, it didn’t stop me running into particularly troubling battles at times. However it coinciding with the drop in quality of the storytelling meant that I was just able to get through the rest of the game at a much faster pace.
I suppose I can’t talk about any of these games without mentioning the music, which has a much different tone compared to the rest of the series. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata put together a soundtrack that ranges from quiet and foreboding themes, to bombastic battle tracks. The latter ended up being much more memorable and effective for their use of staccato rhythms and harsh percussion to really ramp up tension (though admittedly this is a trademark of Sakimoto’s work, also used to great effect in Radiant Silvergun). Even though I did enjoy listening to those tracks, they did start to wear thin eventually. The heightened bombast was often at a high level, to a point where if I listened to the soundtrack by itself I wouldn’t as easily be able to determine what the “important” battle themes were.
I don’t really have as much to say about this one, as I did some of the other games. I thought about putting it together with a few more games but that would have meant waiting much longer to get this one out as these games are taking much longer for me to play. I spent over 60 hours on this one. It’s the most time I’ve spent on a game since starting this project, and I expect that some in the future will take me even longer.
That still hasn’t diminished my excitement for moving forward since there’s some very cool games coming up after this. The next couple are Final Fantasy VIII and IX, so I’ll essentially be revisiting some of the first few games in the series I played.
Also to go back to the Final Fantasy XVI trailer, I didn’t find it very exciting. It seems a sort of game I’d probably pay much less attention to if it didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name. There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks they’re holding something back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.
Until next time!