Last year I finally had the opportunity to play Final Fantasy XV. And despite the game using the most cutting-edge open world technology, much of it wasn’t engaging. Its world had great graphics, infinite acres, and decent action gameplay, but it never felt real. Last week, Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy XII – their earlier attempt at an open world RPG – to the PS4. That much smaller PS2 world was a place I loved dearly back in 2006. In 2017, it is still the best world Final Fantasy has ever had. Here’s why XII‘s world is better developed and far more compelling to play that XV.
Using Limitations to Its Advantage
Final Fantasy XV is vastness spreading out in every direction. It’s big for bigness’s sake. You can walk for ten minutes and not find anything in particular, while the best vistas and natural architecture come from speeding down the highway. It’s a road trip game, but while you’re combing the wilderness, it’s empty. One part of Leide looks the same as the next which becomes boring pretty quickly.
The difference is that Final Fantasy XII is a game about getting lost, whereas Final Fantasy XV is not. In Ivalice, you aren’t given a full map at first. The locations draw themselves out on your map as you visit every nook and cranny of the level. On the other hand, Final Fantasy XV gives you everything you need – you know exactly where to go and how to get there. In the older game, you struggle through a maze-like wilderness and never really know where to go or where a turn will lead. Sometimes you’re rewarded with hidden treasures; sometimes you’re rewarded with a dead-end.
Exploring Ivalice is the main accomplishment of Final Fantasy XII. You’ve built your party to be strong enough to defeat enemies, you’ve navigated the labyrinth, and since you have to spend real time in every spot on the map, the locations become meaningful. Places like the Paramina Rift or the Phon Coast are memorable because you have to spend time learning their tricks. In Eos, exploration isn’t an accomplishment; you could have left at any point.
Sidequests and Discovery
The most common quests in both Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy XII are hunting monsters. Final Fantasy XV’s hunts are numerous and almost all identical. You’re given a small group of enemies to kill, you’re given your route, and you simply do it. Rinse and repeat. Final Fantasy XII makes the hunts much more vague. Sometimes you’re given the enemy’s exact location, sometimes not.
A huge part of the hunting experience is Ivalice itself. These monsters are animals in a living environment, not just enemies. To find them, you often have to learn their natures and how they interact with the world. Your mark might only appear in certain weather conditions, or it might only spawn in hidden locations that require puzzle solving to unlock.
Through this experience, you get to know the world of Ivalice better with every sidequest. But this is not the case on Eos. The quests and extra activities have the stink of filler. You don’t learn more about the world or the characters. In Final Fantasy XII, you can discover in side quests that not all the Imperials are bad people. A local officer might hire you to kill a dragon to protect a city he’s helped conquer. In Final Fantasy XV, you drive out to a farm to pick potatoes. What are you learning about Eos with that?
One of the best parts of Final Fantasy XII is how most areas in the game tell you more about Ivalice. Players see culture through architecture and accents, but also through smaller details you might not notice.
Compare the cities of Rabanastre and Archades. Rabanastre is your party’s home city, while Archades is the capital of the evil Empire. The many species and races of Ivalice intermingle peacefully in Rabanastre but in Archades everybody is human, or they live in the nearby slums. Ivalice is a medieval world full of knights and magic, but only Archades uses advanced technology like flying cars. It’s a sci-fi city. You can see that Archades is a stratified society hoarding the best resources for itself. This is more than just scenery; it builds the universe.
Show, Don’t Tell
One of the best locations that tells Final Fantasy XII’s story is the Nebreus Deadlands and the dungeon within, the Nechrohol of Nabudis. This land was once a prosperous kingdom before the Empire destroyed it. Now it’s a place that has been hit by an atomic bomb. Nothing lives here except mutated creatures. Princess Ashe wants revenge for what the Empire did to her. However, her quest to use magical Nethecite stones could turn all of Ivalice into Deadlands. Players aren’t told this, but rather see it through their curiosity of visiting the location.
There’s nothing as cool as the Nechrohol of Nabudis on Eos. You spend the entire game between the two main nations. Eos is inexplicably peaceful despite theoretically being at war. The burning ruins of your home city, Insomnia? Never seen. You never explore such an important place. You’re never given any inkling of what life is like there, or in the Empire, so the story feels less real. My characters and I aren’t living in Eos; we’re just passing through.
With Final Fantasy XV nearly everything is open, but for what purpose? Everything – even the sidequests – are clearly mapped out. If the map tells you there’s nothing in the far corners, why should I waste my time to travel there?
Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XII leaves things a mystery. Exploration is its own reward. Half of the main story is spent marching through Ivalice, discovering what you can. Your only goal in these sections is to feel the world and interact with it. You push your way through Ivalice and become an inhabitant of that land. You have to master the world to continue.
Enjoy the Scenery, Drive on By
The real flaw with Final Fantasy XV is how it implemented its world. The game is perfectly fine as big-budget release and fun to play. But it forgot that if you are going to be open world, the world itself needs to be a character. Ivalice is a rich place full of history where the many regions become like characters. These locations feel alive despite the technical limitations because you’re forced to interact with them.
Final Fantasy XV never came alive for me because I knew that in Eos, even the world is optional. I could go out and wander the woods, or I could drive right by. The problem was it didn’t make a difference.
Where Eos is just a place you pass over to get through Final Fantasy XV, Ivalice *is* Final Fantasy XII. That world tells its games’ story, its mazes dominate the player’s experience, and every piece feels like a part of a greater ecosystem. Final Fantasy XV, for all its positives, fails to capture those key moments.