"World-building is a very important aspect of the fantasy genre, but many works fall into the trap of making world-building the most important aspect. This typically happens when a constructed world is so deep, so immense, and so full of history and culture, that the writer hasn’t spared enough attention to address the other important areas of the story, such as the characters that inhabit this world and their personal growth. In the case of Final Fantasy XII, the characters and the plot only exi..."
World-building is a very important aspect of the fantasy genre, but many works fall into the trap of making world-building the most important aspect. This typically happens when a constructed world is so deep, so immense, and so full of history and culture, that the writer hasn’t spared enough attention to address the other important areas of the story, such as the characters that inhabit this world and their personal growth. In the case of Final Fantasy XII, the characters and the plot only exist as a vehicle to explore this amazingly realised world.
Ivalice is Square-Enix’s finest world to date. Dalmasca is a small kingdom sitting uncomfortably between two super powers. Across these three lands there are numerous locales - dense forests, verdant fields, monster-infested mines and bustling cities. Every place you visit feels real. The architecture of Rabanastre, the city at the centre of the story’s conflict, is exactly what you’d expect from a desert city, the music adds to the city, giving it a personality of sorts. So much care has gone into writing the geography and history of this world - and it shows. There’s more information than you’d ever care to read in the game’s inbuilt encyclopaedia. So much care has gone into making each area look visually stunning and varied - a southern forest has a very different feel to a northern forest.
Because so much work has gone into the world of Ivalice, be prepared to spend fifty hours being forced to visit every single location in it. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because the story starts out quite interesting. You’ll go to each place with a reason, a goal. The second half of the game loses something, though. You’ll need to go from the south of the map to the north, travelling through numerous locales with very sparse story segments.
Most places won’t simply let you walk through, either. One forest in particular requires you to find Moogles and set them to work on the gate so you can pass. This occurred roughly half way through the game, and Final Fantasy XII never got much better after that. Do a little research and you’ll learn that there were two directors. The good director presumably did the first half of the game where stupid fetch quests are mocked, while the second director loved including inane tasks to artificially make the game longer.
Archadia and Rozarria are at war, and Dalmasca becomes a sought after strategic point of interest to both nations. The leaders attempt diplomacy, which leads to political intrigue, and eventually to all out war. The major player in this plot is antagonist Vayne Solidor, a man who is too charming for any genre-savvy player to find him trustworthy. Pitted against him is Ashe, the Dalmascan princess who leads her small band in a rebellion.
Ashe’s role in the story is to provide the motive for traipsing around the world. She travels to seek allies in Rozaria, uncover ancient magic powers that will help her, and spends a lot of time trying to evade capture. In typical Square-Enix fashion, she has some issues, but she resolves them long before the story is through, though she remains one of the few characters to remain important all the way to the end. After all, it’s her resistance, and her kingdom she is fighting for.
Vaan and Penelo share the title for most useless additions to the story. They are street urchins who somehow get caught up in the political machinations - Vaan is simply content to provide a window for the player. He doesn’t know much of anything, so it’s always up to the others to explain it to him, which is all to the good because we tend to know as much as he does. He has a revenge subplot early in the game, but it is resolved ridiculously early on, and he never has anything useful to contribute to the story after that. Penelo is his hot jailbait childhood friend, whose only contribution to the party is as a moral compass. In a rebellion, even the good guys can slip from their righteous ways to achieve their goals. Penelo keeps them on track.
The other three party members simply provide more world-building as it’s needed. Fran, the Veira, is a tall furry rabbit girl with magic. As Ivalice is a fantasy world, there is a lot of magic. Whenever strange magic occurs in the game, Fran is always on hand to explain it to us.
Basch is a grizzled old soldier who was framed for murder in the story’s prologue. Despite spending a few years locked in a cage, he knows a lot about the current political climate, and still knows how to fight. He becomes Ashe’s knight - the muscle of the party, and the voice of reason.
When a line up of bland characters appears in a game, there’s usually one who stands out. Balthier was wasted on this game. He is a cocky sky pirate. Overconfident, charming, knowledgeable, he’s Square’s answer to Han Solo. He’s seen the world in his many travels, so he becomes the tour guide for the party’s trek across Ivalice. But he’s genuinely funny, and even after he resolves his daddy issues, he still remains interesting. Even though the plot focuses on Ashe and Basch and their rebellion, Balthier manages to steal the limelight most of the time. He claims to be ‘the leading man’, and he is. He can tap into the rich history of the world, and he helps to drive the story.
There are several guest party members who will join your adventures for a time, and they tend to eclipse the regular party members in terms of how interesting they are, and how relevant they are to the story. They rarely stick around long - many of them manage to get themselves killed off, or they betray you in a predictable fashion. But they are fun. They get to say things in cutscenes. When Vaan tries to say something, Ashe tells him to shut up and let the grownups talk.
I don’t think the blame can be placed entirely on the writers for this, however. I remember reading that Basch was supposed to be the main character, but executive meddling forced them to create Vaan, an androgynous pretty boy to be the main character. The story forces him into the background early on, and most players won’t bother using him in battle after the first few hours.
The battle system is something very different. You only control one character at a time, though you can switch between them at will. At the start, they will attack automatically, though you can select skills to use. You’ll eventually unlock gambits which you can program your characters to follow. You can set up a healer to cast cure when an allies’ health drops too low, or you can tell them to cast fire on an enemy that is weak against fire, though you generally don’t get access to the useful gambits until after they are needed most. With a programming system, it would be much more useful to be given access to all of them at once - but they are only unlocked as you progress through the story. Eventually you can set up your party so that you never have to tell them what to do. It works well, especially in the later stages of the game, which makes it a bit frustrating at the start when the system is so limited.
Speaking of limited, the licence board doesn’t allow your characters many options. Remember the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X? If you grinded well beyond the final boss, with enough patience you could max it out and make every character the same. In Final Fantasy XII, you can make every character have all the same skills and weapons and EVERYTHING long before finishing the game. The licence board is small. And every character has the same one. So if you’re just starting out and wondering which direction to take each character, don’t sweat it. They’ll all have everything soon enough.
This is a shame because aside from the story, there are a lot of optional quests to tackle - monster hunting, boss fights, item collection - that it’s kind of sad to see the characters just stop improving after a while.
Final Fantasy XII is such a bizarre mix of good ideas, bad ideas, and experiments in game design that didn’t quite work out, that it’s hard to know how to look at it. The world is fascinating. The story draws on that world-building, and manages to stay interesting for the majority of the fifty hours. The characters don’t get much development, and some of them hardly get any screen time at all. The battle system works, but it could have been so much better (although, looking at Final Fantasy XIII, I can see how it could have been so much worse). The game is a lot of fun for the first half, then the veil is lifted in the second half and you realise you’re just playing a travelogue of a fictional world.
The overall experience may satisfy you. It may not. In my mind, the good outweighs the bad… but only just. Without Balthier, the scales would have probably tipped the other way.
Community review by jerec (July 24, 2010)
On very rare occasions, Jerec finds a game that inspires him to write stuff about. The rest of the time he just hangs around being sarcastic.
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