In 2006, it seemed that the Final Fantasy series had found its next evolution in Final Fantasy XII. After long years of development, Final Fantasy XII for the PlayStation 2 offered what looked like the next single-player experience for the series. It had open environments, a political story, and played like an offline MMO. We know now this supposed evolution was not to be. Final Fantasy XIII went in entirely the opposite direction with mostly linear corridors and a heavily scripted experience. Even this evolution was largely ignored, being passed over for the fully action RPG approach being taken for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. The Final Fantasy series has yet to fully reinvent itself and has become lost in various experiments.
But perhaps Square Enix gave up on the Final Fantasy XII style too early. Final Fantasy XII in a lot of ways was the experiment that worked best. They did not understand just how ahead of its time the game was when they decided to stumble forward into other design dead-ends. With Square Enix recently announcing an HD remaster of the game titled Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, it seems this is the perfect time to go back a decade and examine the game that offered a path that Final Fantasy could have taken.
In Final Fantasy XII, the decades-old series staple of random encounters transitioning into battle screens was replaced by an open, sprawling experience where you could see your enemy in the distance and choose to engage them or not. This system was nicknamed the “Active Dimension Battle” system. Combat was no longer placed on set rows with the party trading attacks with enemies as with Final Fantasy X and its predecessors. Instead, fights were set in the environment with characters roaming freely in battle. Direct control of characters was an option, but Final Fantasy XII encouraged players to pre-program their battle strategy using a system called Gambits. With Gambits, players could manage the larger flow of battle and direct the AI of their characters, allowing for automation to speed up combat and direct ability character reactions. This allowed for incredibly fast battles with intense shifts in momentum depending on player direction.
Interestingly, no other Final Fantasy game has ever taken advantage of the options offered by the Gambit system. The entire JRPG genre has struggled for over a decade trying to come up with alternate solutions to the problem Final Fantasy XII mastered in 2005. How can you have fast, action game-style combat in an RPG without sacrificing player control? Most games would rely on fully automating every party member other than the one currently controlled by the player. Final Fantasy XIII used the actually rather brilliant Crystarium System. That allowed fast changes in battle strategy, but only on six pre-made roles created by the game designers. No other game has managed to pull off the level of customization and control that Final Fantasy XII did .
Open World Design
Final Fantasy XII was the first single-player game in the series to feature a freely moving camera and it intended to use it. The game is full of open fields, sweeping vistas, and beautiful scenery. Though its world map pales in comparison to The Witcher 3 or even Xenoblade Chronicles, Final Fantasy XII’s development team sensed the direction RPGs were eventually going to go. Both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII were set in worlds that are on linear paths, but Final Fantasy XII was a spider’s web of towns, fields, and dungeons, spreading outward in a natural chaotic order. It was open world a whole generation before it became standard practice to make nearly every AAA game open world.
Even though the world is not a single connected space, the game tries its best to be as large as possible. The sections of each location are broken up into areas to accommodate the PlayStation 2’s limited hardware. But individual zones were extraordinarily large for the time. The world felt alive thanks to the creatures which had a limited level of AI. They would react to players differently depending on the creature. Some enemies would even run away. Skirmishes against individual beasts had the potential to snowball into massive battles against dozens of foes at once. Beyond that, Final Fantasy XII added to the sense of a real world by including random weather effects, randomly spawning treasures, and secret paths within its areas. Just about every dungeon you visited had a secret bottom level which could be revisited and pillaged for loot.
An Unobtrusive Story
Players who did not understand what Final Fantasy XII was trying to accomplish largely accused the game of having poor pacing or even of not having a story at all. Its direct predecessors were games like Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX, and Final Fantasy X which featured many hours of story segments based around romances. Those were long non-interactive periods which told compelling stories but did not let the player fight a single goblin. Final Fantasy XII is a much more quiet game. There is no single hero who can be considered the star. Vaan is on the front of the box, Ashe is central to the story, and Balthier declared himself to be “the leading man.” The only romance storyline is subtle and unfortunately goes nowhere.
Many RPG fans at the time were not interested in a dark fantasy game set in a politically driven storyline. This seems hard to believe today when Game of Thrones is the current trendsetter for modern fantasy. There are major events during the course of Final Fantasy XII. This is a game mainly about stopping a major war as two points of view about how to move mankind’s history forward clash. Interestingly, the villains in the Archadian Empire seem to have more twists and turns in their arcs than the heroes themselves. This keeps the main characters free of long drawn-out story segments to instead keep the action flowing in the gameplay and the world.
This all makes more sense when you look at the structure of the game. Final Fantasy XII has a more hands-off approach to its campaign. Much of Final Fantasy XII’s main story is punctuated by long stretches where the game tells the player “go to this city on the far side of the world.” You are given a vague path with five or six varied locations to pass through. But you are not directly pushed along, you do not have a perfect map, and the story is largely silent during these periods. These are segments where the player can independently wander unencumbered by heavily scripted events. They are there to let the player breathe and experience the myriad of side quests that the game offers. Final Fantasy XII came out long before the massive, cluttered maps of Ubisoft open world games full of icons and side activities. It does, however, have several optional quests such as fishing, solving problems for various NPCs, and finding the secret Esper bosses. Final Fantasy XII is a game made for players to head off into the wilderness, hunt enemies, and return to civilization on their own initiative.
The primary sidequest of Final Fantasy XII is the Hunt which is a perfect fit for the hands-off approach of the game. Players are hired by NPCs to eliminate 45 strong enemies known as “Marks” that are hidden away in the darker corners of Ivalice. Marks range from little tomato monsters to kaiju-sized super boss dragons with 50,000,000 HP. Players are given vague locations of where their Mark is located, so need to learn the lay of the land in order to reach them. Some enemies can only be located after completing challenges, solving puzzles, or changing the weather. With Hunts, Final Fantasy XII keeps its primary diversion sewn into the world design.
One of the most praised elements of Final Fantasy XII next to its open design is the localization work by Alexander O. Smith. Ivalice is made into a varied world full of divergent cultures through the use of accents: Posh English for the high-class Archadians, American for the Dalmascans, Icelandic for the Viera, and some kind of Welsh-Hindu mix for Bhujerbans. The world-building effect of this is clear. Ivalice feels like a real place with separate ethnicities and races, essential for a story about those nations clashing. You are shown that Vaan is from a different place than Balthier because Vaan’s American-accented dialog is plain while Balthier’s high-class Queen’s English has the flowery arrogance of nobility.
Final Fantasy XII’s localization expands the fantasy elements to the very dialog of the game. Recognizing the plotline as similar to a Shakespearean history play, much of the dialog is given an archaic twist by Smith. Stylized lines like “You wear the mummer’s motley well, Bergan,” sound like they belong in the 1600s, not in a Japanese title from the 2000s.
Final Fantasy XII, despite its many successes, is a somewhat incomplete game. Director Yasumi Matsuno either left or was forced off the project halfway through — a sure sign of troubled production. Concepts like recruiting NPCs to help out with the party were only half-conceived and are given a token appearance. The Job Class system was cut entirely out of the original release, only to return in the Japanese second run release known as Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System. It will also return for the upcoming Zodiac Age remaster. The main character switched several times during production to appeal to fans. This created the POV character, Vaan, a character who never quite feels like he fits in the story.
For years, Final Fantasy XII‘s place in history was somewhat disputed. But with the recent announcement of The Zodiac Age remaster, and the heartening positive response from fans, people have begun to recognize that this was an incredible, visionary game that could have become so much more with proper care from its development studio and an interest in a proper sequel. Fans of this sort of RPG have up until recently had to turn to western offerings of the genre, whose developers sensed that rigid story structures and linearity were not the best way to present an RPG. This year, Final Fantasy XV seeks to change that, and finally make a JRPG that surpasses Final Fantasy XII in this regard, with an open world and a gigantic ecosystem of enemies. Hopefully it can make up for what has been a turbulent decade for the Final Fantasy brand.