Part 1: Let's Address The "Elephant In The Room"
For many of you, the idea of me starting a Let's Play series on Final Fantasy XII might come as a surprise. After ripping Final Fantasy XIII a new fucking asshole, several of you were hoping for a blog about Final Fantasy XIII-2. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I am confident playing XIII-2 would have resulted in my death. I make no qualms about not liking Final Fantasy XIII and took your suggestions to try something "different" to heart. Indeed, some of you may recall me soliciting suggestions a few months back. After several of you recommended Final Fantasy XII, I chose it as my Final Fantasy "palate cleanser."
To clarify, the majority of this series will detail my experiences with the PC remaster of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. I was intrigued by the game's "quality of life" additions as well as its improved job system. With that in mind, it's time to bring back an old feature. That's right everyone; it's time for me to rant about the default mouse and keyboard controls in a Square-Enix game! At this point, I'm starting to wonder if Square-Enix knows how PC games work. Seriously, what other excuse is there to justify shit like this:
Look, I get it, I should be playing the game with a controller. Playing PC games with a controller is neither a technological nor cost-prohibitive burden. That said, I'm stubborn, and will defend "Mount WASD" until I die. More importantly, it's a pain in the ass to convert the key bindings in any Square-Enix PC port. That said, Square-Enix's default setup is downright unacceptable. I don't know how you feel about constantly using your pinkie finger while playing a real-time RPG, but I can tell you from experience !
With this humorous aside behind us, I have a bit of a disclaimer. Every blog in this series will grouse about Final Fantasy XII's "accessibility issues," because HOT DAMN is this game dense! Not since Final Fantasy VIII has a JRPG made me dizzy quite like Final Fantasy XII. To say Final Fantasy XII has "a learning curve" is an understatement. This game is a brick wall you have to smash your skull against four or five times before you make a dent. Rest assured, I will finish this game, but I admit it has been a tough nut to crack.
Admittedly, I have yet to wrap my mind around Final Fantasy XII's several sub-systems. Speaking of which, let's return to the version of Final Fantasy XII I am playing. For a while, I debated if I should have played the original PS2 release. For reasons we will discuss another time, I eventually committed to the Zodiac Age edition. I tried the original version, and if you must know, I found that game far less mechanically interesting, and there's a lot about that version that doesn't sit well with me. First, and foremost, characters sharing the same license board undermines the story's emphasis on diversity.
However, that does not mean the HD remaster is perfect. In fact, this version is highly problematic, but for different reasons. While there are a few quality of life additions I greatly appreciate (i.e., the fast-forward feature), other design decisions left a sour taste in my mouth. While HD textures always sound good on paper, it's the execution that screws the pooch this time around. Simply put, the HD remaster removes a lot of the character in the environments. For example, when we first gain control of Vaan, we find him navigating the depths of a sewer. Unfortunately, the HD textures make the sewer look like a pristine example of fantasy city-planning. Truly, every environment looks "clean" to such a degree the game feels sterile.
There's another point that Kotaku's Ethan Gach made that I have to agree with as well. Final Fantasy XII's world pines for a storybook aesthetic. Significant portions of the story involve us listening to a narrator extol pages from a diary. The muddy but hand-painted style of the PS2 version more appropriately fits the story's mood and tone. In the remaster, everything looks so crisp the environments come across as generic fantasy schlock. Additionally, there's a distinct lack of shadows in the remaster which hurts scenes that take place at night or dusk. Again, I get these complaints sound like nitpicking, but something about the Zodiac Age feels "lost in translation."
Part 2: The Introductory Cutscene Is Overwhelming
"Overwhelming" perfectly describes my initial feelings about Final Fantasy XII. Its diverse cast is dizzying; its gambit system is inscrutable; its job system is a nightmare; its geopolitical-focused story is a lot to take in. However, I'm not saying any of this to condemn Final Fantasy XII. I respect its ambition, but it is undeniable the game could have made a better first impression. Case in point, the opening cinematic is an astounding but baffling affair bound to frustrate first-time players.
Before I rag on Final Fantasy XII, I want to clarify that I eventually came around to its opening moments. From start to finish, its worldbuilding is some of the best I have ever seen. Likewise, I enjoy the reflective elements of its geopolitical drama. However, the game stumbles a bit regarding its storytelling "triage." Too often, it meanders on story beats that feel inconsequential to the greater narrative. The result is the game feels like it's trying to accomplish too much in its initial hours. For one thing, was it necessary to spend ten minutes on Ashe's marriage to Rasler, when that dynamic doesn't kick into gear until the game's fortieth hour!
The game starts in the Kingdom of Dalmasca where Rasler and Ashe marry in a dramatic ceremony. After a bit of merriment and joy, the monolithic Empire of Archadia invades the nearby Kingdom of Nabradia. Rasler, the prince from earlier, offers to lead a relief army in support of the defending kingdom. He is joined by Basch fon Ronsenburg, one of his captains, who promises to protect him from harm. Despite a valiant effort, the combined forces of Dalmasca and Nabradia are no match for Archadia. The empire dominates the defenders due in no part to its superior air fleet. In the ensuing action, Prince Rasler dies. With their defeat all but guaranteed, the Kingdom of Dalmasca prepares itself for surrender.
If you are willing to humor me for a bit, I'd like to share my first nitpick with the Zodiac Edition. While the cutscenes hold up magnificently, the storybook narrations do not. With the in-game visuals getting an extra coat of paint, the chapter narrations feel incredibly out of place. I understand these sequences are an homage to Final Fantasy Tactics. Nonetheless, looking at static images as an obscure figure drops exposition dumps does not make for compelling content. It's nice the game puts effort into contextualizing its world, but the juxtapositions to these anecdotes are perpetually awkward.
Even more, Final Fantasy XII's first twenty minutes hit you HARD! It introduces dozens of proper nouns with zero scaffolding. As a consequence, I found it a struggle to maintain my attention during the prologue. As tragic as it sounds, I eventually turned off my brain like I would during a Summer Blockbuster. That's what happens when you mix fancy visuals with contextless action scenes. In the case of the battle at Nalbina Fortress, I could not tell the difference between the two dominant factions at war.
I also noticed something odd about the audio in the Zodiac Edition. Maybe it's me, but the music and dialogue have significant compression issues. This problem is especially noticeable during the CG cutscenes where characters talk for up to twenty minutes. For large portions of the Zodiac Edition, there's a tinny background sound whenever the characters speak. The same applies to the remastered music which sometimes sounds like it is playing through a garden hose. Unfortunately, there's no option to enable the original voice acting or uncompressed soundtrack. Of course, you can switch between the remastered and original soundtrack, but that doesn't seem to fix this issue.
Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy XII Is A NIGHTMARE!
Worth noting, while the prologue represents only a half-hour of your time, it feels far longer than that. The opening cutscene operates for twenty minutes alone, and the transition to the first gameplay sequence is inelegant. After establishing a grandiose world steeped in geopolitical drama, we control Reks, an insignificant Dalmascan foot soldier. None of the characters we saw during the opening cinematic are within our control. Herein lies a pressing issue with Final Fantasy XII. While the narrative opines for grandeur, its gameplay sequences rarely act as a useful scaffold. This problem worsens when the game juxtaposes to Vaan in the following scene.
To begin with, let's run down the scene where you control Reks. After the Archadian Empire rides roughshod over Dalmasca, Lord Raminas, King of Dalmasca, prepares to sign a surrender treaty. When word reaches Basch of a plan to assassinate Raminas, he organizes an intervention. With the help of a small team, Basch attacks the now occupied Nalbina Fortress in hopes of saving the king. In spite of his best efforts, Basch's plan fails and everyone including the king dies. Basch appears to be a traitor and Reks, our initial player-character, is dead.
It's an exciting plotline filled with intrigue and mystery, but one the game squanders thanks to a loathsome series of fetch quests involving Vaan. To make matters worse, Final Fantasy XII has some of ! When you control Reks, your only available command is to attack. That might sound simple on paper, but when you consider this is the first Final Fantasy game to run in "real-time," even the game's baby steps feel overwhelming. After this brief gameplay set piece, the mechanics dole out at a breakneck speed.
Nevertheless, this nitpick pales in comparison to what I found especially heinous about Final Fantasy XII's tutorials. Often, the game plops a significant gameplay mechanic on you after a short explanation. To illustrate, after the game uses a Quickening, it has Basch briefly explain what he did in combat. Following this conversation, the game assumes you can remember this information for the remainder of the game. Hilariously, this tutorial occurs FIVE HOURS before a single quickening is available to you. Alternatively, when you do unlock one, there's no "practice arena" where you can test out the mechanic.
Admittedly, understanding the Quickenings is not as necessary as it seems. However, the game repeats this tutorial format for the Gambit and License Board systems, and these two mechanics practically define the game! Moreover, the first four hours don't allow for a ton of experimentation with either feature. The best Gambits don't open up until later, and without the game's full cast, the License Board lacks its dynamism. Worse, Final Fantasy XII isn't a riveting gameplay experience until its middle act. While the story certainly has its share of dramatic moments, too often you are stuck wailing away at sewer rats or random foot soldiers. That is because more than half of the first chapter involves grinding for the sake of grinding.
Nonetheless, I do want to praise the game's story. Never before have I seen Square-Enix show such narrative restraint. The story establishes a mystery without spoiling too much of the surprise. In particular, I was legitimately shocked when Basch appears to assassinate Reks. Best of all, the characters are charming and pleasurable when you first meet them. While there are a few character missteps, party members like Basch or Balthier are consistent highlights.
Part 4: Why Am I Killing Sewer Rats In a Game About Global Politics And Regicide?
I'm just going to say what I want to say — the first two chapters of Final Fantasy XII fucking suck. They just suck. After the story shoots for the stars, it unceremoniously transitions to simulating Vaan's life as a street urchin. The game could have done more to justify this transition if it fully-invested in drawing a connection between Reks and Vaan, but it doesn't. It instead ferrets Vaan on one fetch quest after another. I get it's an attempt to "humble" the player, but it's a rough juxtaposition to say the least.
This preliminary bellyaching is a decent enough segue to my summary of "section two." With the king of Dalmasca dead, the forces of Archadia overwhelm the city of Rabanastre. Imperial agents identify Basch as the culprit of Raminas' murder. Additionally, the princess of Dalmasca supposedly dies off-screen from grief. This event leaves the formerly-independent kingdom leaderless. After the omniscient narrator says their piece, we transition to a sewer at Rabanastre where Vaan is killing rats.
Vaan is a plucky orphan under the employ of a sundry store owner named Migelo. A troupe of orphans accompanies him; the most notable being Penelo. The breadth of children and citizens living in poverty does wonders to the game's worldbuilding. Thanks to their inclusion, we know Rabanastre has seen better days and is suffering from the Imperial occupation. Conversely, this is the point of the game where I think the HD textures does the story a disservice. As mentioned earlier, large portions of Rabanastre are meant to come across as a slum, but the pristine graphics do not allow for that to happen.
Before we move on, let's stop for a minute to allow me to throw in two pennies. There's a limit to the respectable worldbuilding of Rabanastre. Rabanastre being under Imperial control is a significant plotline during the game's first act. Unfortunately, you have to take Vaan and Penelo for their word about the impacts of this occupation. Sure, we see a few Imperial soldiers rough up some merchants, but it's a far cry from what Vaan characterizes as a "brutal occupation." I understand Vayne Solidor's obsequious nature is an attempt to frame him as a selfish opportunist. For fuck's sake, his name is "Vayne" after all! However, Final Fantasy XII's ambiance is too reserved in its initial hours.
What I would prefer is more contextualization of the Archadian Empire in the first act. We understand later that there's another empire named Rozarria and it represents a significant security threat to Archadia. The game puts little effort into relating this background information to the recent invasions. Likewise, the Imperials do not feel as menacing as other monolithic Final Fantasy villains. Their acts of conquest are, in theory, in the name of self-preservation. While that sounds interesting in concept, it also opens the story up to weird anachronisms. While Vayne's peaceful facade masterfully breaks away, characters like Dr. Cid are comically evil the moment you meet them. In addition, there's Larsa, who wants everyone to be holding hands in peaceful harmony. Lastly, the foot soldiers of the Empire, more often than not, serve as comic relief. The end result is the game's messaging about the Imperials is a muddied mess.
I'm again dancing around a more significant issue when it comes to Rabanastre. While the location is brimming with storytelling potential, everything you accomplish there is a bore! Seriously, when you first take control of Vaan, the game tasks you with three fetch quests! Equally important, there's no real connection between these errands and the greater narrative. I could be mistaken here, but I'm pretty sure hunting the "Rogue Tomato" has nothing to do with freeing a country from a fascistic military-industrial complex.
Part 5: Vaan Is FUCKING HORRIBLE!
Before I rag on Vaan, I want to give credit where credit is due. First, I don't hate his voice acting. His voice actor is far from perfect, but more often than not, fits Vaan's ego-driven posturing. Moreover, Vaan's storyline with Basch showcases one of the stronger interpersonal relationships in the game. Once again, Final Fantasy XII shocked me with its restraint. During this story beat, neither Basch nor Vaan comes across as especially preachy or melodramatic. The characters have different perspectives, and the game treats each viewpoint as equally valid. Finally, I appreciate the fact that Vaan is not emotionally static during the game's introduction. Throughout the first chapter, you see him express a broad spectrum of emotions.
Beyond that, . In fact, he may be my least favorite Final Fantasy protagonist. What sticks under my craw is how miscast Vaan is in the story. Say what you will about Squall or Tidus, but you cannot envision someone different as the player-character in their respective games. The main story of Final Fantasy XII is about restoring the independence of Dalmasca. In that regard, Ashe and Basch are the primary stakeholders! Vaan has very little connection to that plotline outside of his dead brother.
Besides, Vaan is a fucking brat. Whenever he chimes in with his two cents' worth, . Above all, he is made a member of the team out of pure convenience to the story. When you stop and think about it, he adds nothing to the cast other characters cannot provide. Now I've said a LOT about Final Fantasy XIII, but here's the thing. Lightning, for all of her problems, is the only natural-born leader in her group. Vaan doesn't even have that going for him! From top to bottom, the majority of the cast outclasses him in every regard!
And you know what? The game has a golden opportunity to justify Vaan as a character during its fledgling hours. When we first take control of Vaan, he is a poor street urchin. It's not a terrible starting premise, but the game does so little with it for HOURS I quickly grew tired of him. At no point does the game scaffold Vaan's life experiences to the global politics we witness earlier. Worse, rather than embracing Vaan's lack of societal stock, the story conveniently provides him MacGuffin after MacGuffin to justify his presence.
Let's come back to that last point for a minute. If you could, I want you to answer a question for me. Why does Ashe allow Vaan to become a party member? It's NOT because he provides a service no one else can contribute. Neither does Vaan communicate a clear political leaning, nor does he feel invested in helping "The Resistance." Rather, he's permitted to tag along in world-shattering events because he finds himself in possession of critical story items. To add insult to injury, Vaan gains these items through pure luck rather than intuition or physical prowess.
Even more, Don't get me started about Vaan wanting to become a pirate, because he loudly shouts about it dozens of times! Besides, having your protagonist declare their employment aspirations IS NOT a replacement of good characterization! This criticism is especially the case when the writing serves every part of Vaan's character arc on a silver platter. Furthermore, it's during these enthusiastic exclamations when Vaan's voice actor struggles the most.
Part 6: The First Five Hours Of This Game Are BORING!
What does Final Fantasy XII accomplish in its first playable hour? If we are honest, NOT MUCH! It's shocking how much the story drags after showing massive promise during its introduction. Unfortunately, most of this issue is by design. As we will review later, because Final Fantasy XII is packed to the gills with dense gameplay mechanics, the game has to stagger itself. Unfortunately for me, things are worse in the Zodiac Edition. For example, your second job slot isn't available until AFTER you battle Vossler.
The result is much of the initial game involves battling trash mobs with little sense of difficulty. Which is problematic given Vaan's whole starting gimmick is that he's downtrodden and living in the lowest rung of society. For lack of a better word, Vaan kicks too much ass too quickly in the story. Regardless, after Vaan attends to the rats in the Garamsythe Waterway, he meets up with his childhood friend, Penelo. There's a quick scene where Penelo chastises Vaan for picking fights against the Imperials, and we leave with an unshakable feeling the two are close friends.
In spite of my nitpicking, I cannot deny Final Fantasy XII's innate beauty. Its worlds are teeming with life and colorful characters. NPCs feel like members of a society rather than soulless automatons. Furthermore, there are small touches to the world that add to the game's atmosphere. The Imperials have an all-encompassing presence, and we see the occupiers accost several NPCs in Rabanastre. Another nice touch is the apparent sense of technological superiority the Imperials have over their occupied states. We see hundreds of monolithic airships armed with state-of-the-art weaponry, and no such technology exists elsewhere. The effect is you feel the game is stacking the odds against you, and thus, your accomplishments are all the more impressive.
All the same, most of the story's introduction is held together with bubble gum and masking tape. After completing a mindless errand, Migelo tasks Vaan with fetching a package. Admittedly, the fetch quest serves as our introduction to the Hunts, but it's otherwise an impassive affair. It's here where you can feel Final Fantasy XII's length. When it tasks you with locating and killing the "Rogue Tomato," the simple process of finding it takes upwards of ten to fifteen minutes. All the while, you waste your time offing swarms of wolves and birds with no end in sight. Moreover, it doesn't help each of the game's desert environments look and feel the same.
Granted, there are grandiose moments in Rabanastre worth mentioning. When Vaan successfully transports Migelo's foodstuffs, we witness a parade in Vayne Solidor's honor. Vayne speaks to the citizens of Rabanastre and tries to frame himself as an enlightened despot. He implores the people he means them no further harm and asks they return to life as usual. You know, things a dictator would say during an occupation. Afterward, a quiet moment occurs between Vaan and Penelo. The two dismiss Vayne's speech as grandstanding, but their differences in philosophy are made obvious. Vaan is a dreamer with huge aspirations, and Penelo is a tacit pragmatist.
These moments are visually and narratively impressive. Both do wonders to cement our understanding of the world. However, they are woefully short and not reinforced in the following scenes. After we have another taste of the story's geopolitical framework, the game tasks Vaan and Penelo with collecting desert rocks. I would hazard to say the development team had their story moments in mind when making the game, but no clue as to how to string them together. What is more, Final Fantasy XII's mechanics begin to open up at this point, and you are unprepared for this change. Speaking of which:
Part 7: The License Board System Drives Me Bananas
Before we address my issues with the License Board, let's briefly summarize the story up to this point. Once Vaan attends to the matter of Migelo's shipment of food, he schemes to break into a royal locker room. Penelo directs Vaan to a crime lord named "Old Dalan" who is dressed like a Hindu snake charmer and voiced by a white person trying to fake an Indian accent. It is a bad thing. Old Dalan agrees to help Vaan break into the Empire's treasures, but only after he fetches him a "Crescent Stone." What ensues next is
Worth mentioning, getting from one location to the next is a colossal pain in the ass. In this case, getting to the Giza Plains and starting Old Dalan's quest is three load screens away. Additionally, while the world map marks points of interest, there's no way to set custom waypoints for the side quests. Luckily the game has a teleport system, but bizarrely enough, it's a part of the in-game economy. Teleport Stones are only available as purchasable items or rewards for completing side quests. Even more upsetting, these items are stowed in the "Loot" tab of your inventory. I cannot begin to count the times I accidentally sold my warp crystals when selling loot to merchants.
Regardless, upon entering a village in the Giza Plains, Vaan locates Penelo. After a brief chat, Penelo assists Vaan in acquiring the Crescent Stone to complete his mission. During this quest, the two find an injured child who tells them to locate the "Dark Crystals" to create the Crescent Stone. It is at this point when Final Fantasy XII presents an outstanding choice. As someone playing the Zodiac Edition, I can attest selecting jobs for your party members is no longer avoidable. More worrisome,
Not since Path of Exile has a game's leveling system felt this intimidating. That statement might come as a surprise because the process of spending points and making your characters stronger isn't in and of itself difficult. Likewise, the Zodiac Edition's design ensures that no individual job combination is nonviable. Instead, the soul-searching comes from the fact the game locks you into a critical choice without any idea what you are doing. The in-game biographies aren't helpful in making an informed decision either. Maybe the terms "Foebreaker," "Time Battlemage," "Bushi," "Shikari" or "Uhlan" are burned into your skull, but as someone playing the game for the first time, I was forced to consult a guide.
I want to concede the job system in the Zodiac Edition is preferable to the license board in the original PS2 release. After tinkering with the PS2 version, I found it to be dull. The game spends much of its time highlighting diversity as an asset rather than an impairment. Nevertheless, the original license board is the same across each character, and thus the story's diversity is mechanically hampered. Consequently, the characters spend most of their time playing out like unbalanced fiddler crabs with little variety in-between.
Nonetheless, it seems bonkers Square-Enix couldn't find a middle ground between "everyone is tabula rasa and nothing matters," and "have fun making a blind choice you'll never get to undo." What ended up adding to my anxiety was the knowledge other characters would eventually join my party. For example, if I made Penelo a White Mage would I be smarting my choice when a better magic caster entered the fold? Generally the game does nothing to clue you into what each character's strengths and weakness are, or if any exist in the first place. Likewise, This fact alone led me to avoid the License Board for hours upon end. When the inevitable was upon me, I quickly discovered another issue with Final Fantasy XII....
Part 8: This Game Requires A Guide
Other elements of Final Fantasy XII's design are astoundingly Byzantine. The story and mechanics cast a shadow over you every minute you play Final Fantasy XII. Even more, simple mistakes can bite you in the ass. To illustrate, let's return to the Zodiac Edition's License Board. There's no one "correct" way to tackle the mechanic. While some feel this design choice allows for the freedom of experimentation, for me, it results in constant second-guessing and uneasy compromises.
So, without further ado, here are my final job assignments. As a bit of a note, I want to clarify that I use every job precisely once. Be warned though, mistakes were made on my part.
- Ashe - Black Mage & Monk
- Balthier - Foebreaker & Shikari
- Vaan - Samurai & Knight
- Penelo - White Mage & Machinist
- Fran - Time Mage & Uhlan
- Basch - Archer & Red Mage
As you can see, my "A-Team" is solid, but there's a massive drop in prowess when we reach some of my supporting party members. In particular, look at poor Basch's setup on that list. Part of my dilemma stems from the game not communicating the strengths of your characters. Indeed, the game does the opposite in many regards. In particular, Balthier starts with guns and even totes one in his in-game portrait. In spite of this, Balthier is one of the WORST characters to equip with firearms. The same sentiment applies to Basch. While he's seen to have an aptitude for archery during the opening cinematic, he's more potent when given a sword or battleax. When things are already confusing, it doesn't help Final Fantasy XII maliciously misguides you.
There are other examples of the game not conveying critical information to the player. For one thing, you have to purchase equipment after unlocking their licenses on the board. This issue poses a significant problem for the Ninja or Samurai jobs, as their conceit boils down to the use of a few critical accessories. In both cases, you have no hope of owning those pieces of equipment until the game's FINAL ACT! The same goes for the magic-focused classes wherein high-tier spells open up to you far earlier than they should. Often I found myself pooling License Points because there was nothing immediately available to buy from the merchants.
To further highlight how backward the design of Final Fantasy XII can be, let us talk about its loot drops. For lack of a better word, the loot drop spreadsheets in Final Fantasy XII are absurd. For a start, treasure chests are randomly generated, meaning, there's no guarantee any given chest will appear in the first place. On top of that, there's a spreadsheet that determines the contents of every treasure chest. This design decision is a bummer when you are traveling long distances in hopes of finding a specific accessory or magical ability. Finally, if you equip a particular item called the "Diamond Armlet" the loot options for the chests changes dramatically. In other words, someone at Square-Enix spent a lot of time designing how loot works in Final Fantasy XII, and I don't know if I care.
Then we have the Hunts. The monster hunts represent a large portion of Final Fantasy XII's optional content. This fact is painfully apparent as they are often harder than anything in the main story. For instance, the third hunt is the "Flowering Cactoid," and if you do not adequately prepare yourself, it's the hardest boss at that point in the game. Also, several of the hunts are programmed with narrowly defined scripts that necessitate endless amounts of trial and error. Often, getting the monsters to spawn involves a prolonged series of events. Consequently, if you do not take advantage of specific elemental or physical weaknesses, some battles are outright impossible.
To begin with, you need to locate the bulletin board at a bar and accept any outstanding missions. Next, you need to talk to the person who authored the posting for further details. Following this brief conversation, you need to travel to the monster's location. Sometimes the game asks you to perform a task to spawn the target, and other times it's merely waiting for you. After you defeat the mark, you then need to trek all the way back to the author of the mission and collect your reward. I'm not joking when I say 80% to 90% of the hunts involves aimless walking!
Part 9: I Hate The Gambit System
Look, I admit the gambit system was revolutionary at the time. I get it allows you to steamroll through trash mobs with relative ease. I get why people like it. Regardless, the system has been a consistent thorn in my side. It's a robust mechanic to parse out, and the game does not set you up for success. In fact, Furthermore, the game neither provides a set of easy to use gambits, nor a sense of an end-goal for the mechanic. Seriously, what ideal am I supposed to be aiming for with my Gambits?
Maybe my musings come across as rantings rather than legitimate criticisms. However, there's nothing more frustrating than spending hours setting up a character's Gambits and watching them do nothing in the middle of a battle. Consequently, there's no "training ground" where you can see if your hard work translates into something useful. More importantly, the Gambit System isn't empowering. More often than not, I felt like I was doing the job of the programmers. When I saw Fran or Balthier fruitlessly casting the same spell over and over again, And I'm sorry, but I don't think that's fun!
I cannot preface enough how easy it is to misplace a single command that unknowingly makes a character "broken." To illustrate, I setup my characters to "Attack Target at 100%." In this case, I thought the 100% meant my party would focus their attacks on a single boss while ignoring everything else. I was wrong, and after inflicting a single blow, they stopped attacking entirely. However, the game made no effort to warn me of my incorrect assumption. Another annoyance is how slowly Gambits open up to the player. Throughout the game's introduction, there were several conditionals I would have LOVED to use, but the game arbitrarily gates them away until reaching a particular part of the story.
To add fuel to the fire, That's right, the mechanic that makes the characters usable in combat is part of the in-game economy! I have no clue who thought this was a good idea, but we need to find them and shoot them to the moon! Not to mention, there are hundreds of Gambits to purchase and no sense of which ones are genuinely helpful. Each Gambit Store has a long and exhaustive list of options, and you have to scroll through this list whenever making a purchase. It's a colossal pain; moreover, you will often not understand the value of these Gambits until AFTER failing a boss battle. For instance, I didn't purchase the debuffing Gambits until an enemy killed my characters using poison.
And you know what? These are MY characters to control. The world is told through the perspective of the cast, but I control their destiny. I feel having the game automate your characters disconnects you from their evolution. By leveling these characters, I am pushing them closer towards their end goals. Unfortunately, this sense of progression rapidly diminishes because the ideal is to have them play themselves!
Part 10: Did I Mention The Story Takes Forever To Get Interesting?
With the mechanics of Final Fantasy XII out of the way, we can return to its story. After Vaan and Penelo convert a sandstone into a Crescent Stone, they part ways. Penelo returns to Migelo's shop, and Vaan returns to his thieving schemes. When Vaan returns to Old Dalan with a Crescent Stone in tow, the old man reveals a secret passageway into the royal palace of Rabanastre. While convenient, Vaan yet again needs to navigate through the labyrinthine depths of the sewers.
When Vaan finds himself in the Royal Palace, the game's serious tone starts to crack. None of the guards care about our spirited teenager waltzing through the palace halls. While the game initially treats entering the palace as gravely dangerous, it doesn't follow through on this conceit. When you try to dodge guards, there's no noticeable penalty for failing. If anything, the mission plays out like a comedic farce. The Imperial Guards act like buffoons, and Vaan behaves like Bugs Bunny.
It's worth noting there are several interjections as Vaan makes progress through the royal palace. When he first reaches the sewers, there's a brief scene where we see Vossler conversing with his men before leading them into battle. Upon entering the palace, we watch a quick cutscene that introduces Balthier and Fran. While abrupt, these juxtapositions are surprisingly effective. You understand there are more significant forces at play and Vaan is bound to get caught in the middle. Likewise, it builds upon the game's earlier sense of mystery and betrayal. Now if only the game knew how to scaffold this brewing sense of intrigue. Instead, it has us complete a bullshit stealth minigame.
While the palace itself is a welcomed change of scenery from the moribund desert wastelands from earlier, it is stunningly non-interactive. You don't fight any of the guards, and your only interaction with the environment is trying to find a secret passageway. Speaking of which, when you discover the entrance to the royal treasures, Vaan runs into Balthier and Fran. After the three exchange words, shit pops off. Explosions boom in the background, and the trio grabs what treasures they can before making a hasty retreat. What ensues next is the best scene in the game's introduction. Balthier and company board his air bike as they desperately try to avoid an aerial bombardment from an Imperial airship.
Before you ask, . His swagger plays off the other cast members to hilarious effect. My only complaint is that too often the game has him spew terrible one-liners in an attempt to frame him as the party's "lovable asshole." Fran, on the other hand, is so underwritten it's not even funny. However, it's her exploitative character design that irks me the most. The game has a gross tendency to frame the camera on Fran's bottom or chest whenever she is in a scene. Also, . I get she comes from a different culture, but she's dressed like a Playboy Bunny. With guns and canons readily accessible, her outfit has no practical purpose other than to further modern Square-Enix's lamentable female character design.
Eventually, you meet up with a mysterious female figure called "Amalia." After rescuing her from a troupe of soldiers, you collectively work together to exit the sewers. All the while, Vaan proudly displays the glowing magical stone he stole from the royal treasury. As you progress through the sewers, you eventually encounter your first proper boss battle. This encounter, like many in the Final Fantasy franchise, exists because someone thought it was high time for a boss encounter. The "Firemane" accosts the party because I guess it makes sense for a flaming Pegasus monster to be living in a sewer. Upon defeating the Firemane, a small army led by Vayne surrounds your party. With no other option, everyone surrenders and lays down their arms.
Part 11: Vaan Is The Worst Protagonist In Final Fantasy History
Previously, I mentioned how I felt Vaan's characterization never feels wholly connected with Final Fantasy XII's major themes. The poster child of this issue is when the story develops his character arc. After being knocked unconscious, Vaan has a dream sequence involving his brother. The cutscene briefly shows a side of Vaan that we have never seen before. We discover Vaan genuinely cared about his brother, and his passing impacted him emotionally. This turmoil is what justifies Vaan's unfathomable hatred for Basch.
Admittedly, Vaan's relationship arc with Basch showcases the best of Final Fantasy XII's writing. It is a story based solely on the characters and their experiences in the world. At no point does it bother with inter-governmental politics or complicated mind games. It is a slowly evolving tale that progresses as new layers to the story present themselves. It's a beautiful character arc, but there's a catch. It doesn't do much to justify Vaan's position in the mainline story. If anything, Vaan's character evolution pales in comparison to Balthier or Ashe.
Stop and think about Vaan's evolution for a moment. When he finally buries the hatchet with Basch, what is the result? At most, Vaan continues to be a hysterical teenager with aspirations of being a space pirate. Yes, he's a victim of that occupation, but why is Vaan one of the main actors in ending it? On top of that, the game never justifies what makes him an asset to the team! What does he bring to the table that Basch and Balthier do not?
However, this nitpicking is dancing around the more significant issue with Vaan's characterization. The game painfully stretches his character arc to a literal breaking point. The Nalbina Dungeon presents the introduction to Vaan's relationship with Basch, but this relationship doesn't significantly develop for a solid ten to twelve hours! All the while, we watch the two stand side-by-side one another without a care in the world. To say the game "presses the pause button" on Vaan's character arc would be an understatement. Vaan feels as if he's put into stasis as the rest of the story jumps into hyperspace!
Furthermore, and I hate to beat this drum again, but Vaan is intolerable! I don't take Vaan seriously, and neither do the other characters. I can't think of a single time when Basch, Balthier, or Ashe approach Vaan asking for his input on a dilemma. The worst part is when Ashe or Basch think aloud the party's next steps, and Vaan offers his two cents' worth. During these moments, you cannot help but join the rest of the characters when they roll their eyes.
I hope this blog doesn't make it seem like I'm bashing Final Fantasy XII. What I like about Final Fantasy XII means the world to me. It is an admirable change of pace compared to Final Fantasy XIII. Above all, it's a pleasant surprise to play a Final Fantasy game that feels like a legitimate role-playing game. The world is dripping with character, and there are places I want to explore. That said, it's a handful to deal with, and some clear missteps plague it. All the while, I wouldn't say I hate the game, but it's certainly .