In case you missed the previous episodes:
- Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 1: Why, Oh Why, Is Vaan The Protagonist?
- Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 2: If This Game Is Basically Anime Star Wars, Why Don't I Like It More?
- Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 3: Hey Internet, Why Is FF12 Set In The Same Universe As Tactics?
Part 31: General Housekeeping
Before I jump into the proper blog, I want to discuss why this Final Fantasy series has been perpetually on hiatus. Unfortunately for all involved, my ability to write long-form blogs is decreasing as time marches on. That aside, personal issues have reared their ugly head in the middle of a series before. Thus, I do not want any of you to fret about my well-being. However, it is worth mentioning Final Fantasy XII has induced some of the worst writer's block I have ever experienced. Maybe it's the game's grind-heavy nature or possibly my general struggles to discuss game mechanics in written words. Perhaps its the story's lack of a compelling protagonist. Or, it could be the game's soul-crushing length, which has, on several occasions, sapped my lifeforce away.
Regardless, when we last met, Ashe made a pact with Larsa to attend a conference with a religious leader at Mt. Bur-Omisace. What occurs next is a relaxing set piece where the characters are permitted some "breathing room." One recurring issue with Final Fantasy XII is its nonsensical pacing. Either the game is spewing mountains of text during twenty-minute cutscenes, or you are wallowing away in open-world dungeons. As such, I have come to enjoy the "quieter" moments in Final Fantasy XII, where the characters act like genuine people. At any rate, before the characters set off on their treck, they pair up and converse with one another.
Moments like these might sound minor, but to me, they do more to frame the characters than the actual story. In a prior scene, we witness Ashe showing a more vulnerable side she has not previously surfaced. In this quick one-off moment, she pairs up with Vaan and states her concerns about following Larsa. Similarly, Basch and Balthier play off each other, and it's refreshing to see a more humorous side to Basch. Role-playing games need moments like these. Without them, it becomes difficult to see the world from the perspective of the characters.
What I find especially curious is these moments only occur at the entrances and exits of new environments. For instance, when you first enter a new level, you'll likely have to listen to one of the characters drone about where you are and the task at hand. After this ho-hum introduction, two characters will stay behind as the rest of the party moves forward. The party members that pair up then proceed to converse with one another about the direction of their adventure. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy these character moments! Above all, I find them more compelling than large swaths of the main story. Nonetheless, these interpersonal relationships develop via a tired and true format.
Regardless, before we set off for the Ozmone Plain, Basch confronts Balthier and asks him about his loyalty. Balthier brushes Basch's concerns aside, and the party sets off for their adventure. Regrettably, this conversation is all we have in terms of storytelling for the better part of an HOUR! Until we enter a new portion of the Ozmone Plain, we only have a partial idea of where Larsa wants to take the party. The rest of the characters are left in the dark and look like they are joining this journey because they have nothing else better to do. Worse, Penelo, Fran, and Vaan continue to have little to no characterization that connects them to the underlying themes of the story.
Part 32: Why Are The Judges More Compelling Than The Main Characters?
I don't think I have detailed the "canonical" reason why we have to travel long distances on foot in Final Fantasy XII. As Balthier explains it, airships use a device called a "Skystone" to operate. However, there exist regions in Ivalice where an excess of "mist" prevents these stones from running. These regions are called "Jagds," and are lawless wastelands where few bother to explore. I understand jagds are an essential concept from Final Fantasy Tactics, and their use here is more than appropriate. What I am less enthused by is the fact I had to read the game's codex to explain how Mist operates. Final Fantasy is a franchise known for not leaving a single stone unturned when managing its worldbuilding. So, color me surprised when I found a crucial part of Ivalice pushed to the periphery.
It is worth mentioning Larsa is a "guest" in our team, and his addition exponentially improves your ability to play the game. Why the game does not allow you to fill that guest position, after he leaves, with an unused party member is beyond my comprehension. No matter, after toiling away at the Ozmone Plains, Ashe and company locate the entrance to the Golmore Jungle. Ashe again confides her concerns about working with Larsa, but this time to Basch. As with before, it's a well-done character moment, albeit a short one. We see Basch is confident Larsa means well. Although he has lost everything to the Empire, Basch finds Larsa's inclusion encouraging. As he states, a world where all humans can live peacefully together is worth protecting.
What continues to surprise me about Final Fantasy XII is how it paints its characters in shades of grey. I am not going to suggest Square-Enix is entirely successful in creating morally ambiguous characters. Nonetheless, it is exhilarating to play a Final Fantasy game where the characters feel diverse in their perspectives and exist side-by-side without judgment. Ashe HATES the Empire, and we empathize with her viewpoint. She's not wrong for hating a nation that killed her husband, and violently devastated her homeland. That said, Bash and Vaan are not "wrong" for assuming the best of Larsa. They too are victims of the Empire's "big stick" diplomacy, but their willingness to forgive differentiates them from Ashe.
I have said it before, and I will repeat it once more: the Judges are the best characters in Final Fantasy XII. The political intrigue of the Archadian Empire provides the most gripping moments in the story. Watching the judges wrestle between their duty and what is morally right, far outstrips anything accomplished with Fran, Penelo, or Vaan. I would go so far as to suggest the character arc for Gabranth even exceeds that of Balthier or Basch. What makes the difference is how some of the judges debate the necessity of Vayne's brutality with their duty to protect him. These moments are not just exhilarating in their own right; they do a lot to frame the Judges as real characters. For example, Judge Drace is only in the game for about twenty minutes, but I found her to be the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the game!
In this particular cutaway, which is only around ten minutes long, we discover the judges are starting to fracture between two camps. There are those who support Vayne and his brutal conquest of new lands, and those who would rather see Larsa become the leader of the Empire. If there is one issue, I would have preferred if Vayne's supporters weren't a bunch of comically evil super soldiers. Nonetheless, I'll give credit where credit is due and reverse my previous sentiments about Vayne. It is rejuvenating to see a Final Fantasy villain with clearly defined goals from beginning to end. Vayne wants to be the king of Archadia and is willing to do whatever is necessary to make that happen. Furthermore, at no point is an outside force playing him like a fiddle. Vayne is a motivated dictator with visions of grandeur and at no point do you struggle to understand his end-goal.
Now, I want to return to my previous comments about the Judges. Imagine if we played the game from the perspective of one of the judges. What if the main character was Gabranth instead of Vaan? How much better would the story be if it were about the two factions of judges jockeying for control? What if, as you carry out Vayne's orders, you come to realize the human toll of those orders and have to decide on what to do next? Do you remain committed to your sworn duty to act as the protector of the Empire, or do you listen to your heart and end the suffering caused by Vayne? In my opinion, this premise blows anything the game does with Vaan out of the fucking water.
Part 33: Fran's Homecoming
While I spend a great deal of these blogs levying criticism at Vaan, I would be hard-pressed to call him a "total failure." While the vast majority of his quips are groan-inducing, he serves a purpose in adding levity to the story. Furthermore, he plays a critical role as the player's cipher. Where the game runs into issues is when it insists on reminding the player Vaan is the protagonist when everyone, including the story itself, knows this is not the case. Fran, on the other hand, is a total failure as a character, and the same goes for Penelo. From top to bottom, both characters serve virtually no role outside of evening out your job slots. Worse, in the case of Fran, the characterization the game attempts is dead on arrival.
I am, of course, dancing around the significant issue of Fran's people, the Viera. First and foremost, the character design for the Viera is the worst. THE. WORST. I am aware there was a recent kerfuffle regarding the Viera's use in Final Fantasy XIV. While I have yet to play Final Fantasy XIV, I can safely say its depiction of the Viera surpasses that of Final Fantasy XII. As a reminder, upon entering Eruyt Village, you find an all-female society of bikini-clad bunny people. After a bit of research, we discover the Viera segregate their communities wherein males and females live in different locations to prevent unnecessary societal strife. That may sound interesting on paper, but the execution of the Viera is beyond problematic. As a result of the Viera's segregated society, your only exposure to them is their scantily clad women. It's as if you enter an alternate reality where Hugh Hefner is the mayor of an actual city, and it's as repulsive as you could imagine.
Before any of you swoop in to defend the Viera, let's make something abundantly clear. I understand the Viera are meant to be a nature-loving culture that does not need material riches. While it's a character trope ripped from Square-Enix's playbook, there's nothing wrong with including a community which refuses to interact with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we are talking about Square-Enix, and that means they put little effort into contextualizing the Viera as genuine people. Instead, the use of the Viera feels exploitative. Every time I entered Eruyt Village, I thought I was visiting Final Fantasy XII's version of the Playboy Mansion. It's as if the game wanted to impress me with a pornographic parade of pixelated female figures. As such, your time at Eruyt Village represents, far and away, the lowest point in all of Final Fantasy XII.
To add insult to injury, what we learn about Fran isn't particularly compelling. As I mentioned before, a character being split between freedom and tradition is a tired and true trope. That is to say: the Final Fantasy franchise has used Fran's character arc before, and better. What I find especially insulting is how barebones Fran's evolution ends up feeling. When we encounter Fran's older sister, Jote, we discover Fran left her village fifty years ago. By leaving the woods, Fran was excommunicated and is essentially a social pariah. What does any of this information have to do with the main story? Well, it appears a charm blocking our path is connected with Fran's inability to "communicate with the Woods." At no point does Fran detail the impact her excommunication has had on her.
Things take a curious turn when Jote reveals that Fran's younger sister, Mjrn, has left the village. Even though it is not explicitly stated, we assume the Viera will remove the charm if we recover Mjrn. As the characters set off to investigate Mjrn's disappearance, Vaan asks Fran about her age. The moment is as cringe-worthy as you can imagine, and I LOVED every minute of it! First, it was hilarious to see Vaan speak with little to no social skills. It's one of the few times when Vaan legitimately feels like a teenager, and thus, I think the scene fits his character perfectly. Second, I was howling in laughter when everyone gave him shit. Honestly, I wish there were more examples of party members telling Vaan off. I know it's not a great look for a games "protagonist," but doing so would at least make Vaan's lines more palatable.
What I am less enthused by is the amount of backtracking during this segment of the game. First, you enter the Eruyt Village after crossing the Ozmone Plains and encounter a forcefield at the Golmore Jungle. After your brief conversation with Jote, you exit the village to make a significant journey to an unexplored sector of the Ozmone Plain. Not only that, but you can only enter this area by using a Chocobo. To make matters worse, for some fucking reason, riding a Chocobo is timed in Final Fantasy XII! You heard that right; you can only use Chocobos for a finite amount of time! Then there's the Golmore Jungle with its monotonous threads of black and green vegetation. The repetitious level design there makes tracing your steps back to the Viera village no laughing matter.
Part 34: Let's Talk About The Henne Mines And The Infinite Slime Exploit
The Henne Mines provide me with an interesting case study on why I am struggling to maintain my interest in Final Fantasy XII. The level itself might seem as innocuous as the previous dungeons. However, something about this specific level got under my skin. The Henne Mines are, like most of Final Fantasy XII's dungeons, unnecessarily vast. The environment contains eight distinct sections, and the level is a nightmare to parse out when you first enter it. Worth noting, Final Fantasy XII doesn't make the process of acquiring location maps a complicated process. Additionally, I appreciate the game visibly marking points of interest. Be that as it may, these environments are a total bore.
I have harped enough about my dislike of Final Fantasy XII's overreliance on MMORPG loot-grind mechanics. Therefore, let's address a different groan-inducing aspect of the game's design, its environmental puzzles. Honestly, the Final Fantasy franchise has a long and storied history of bad puzzle design. Since the series' foray into the third dimension, Square-Enix hasn't had an excellent track record with environmental puzzles. The Temple of the Ancients in Final Fantasy VII and Cloisters in Final Fantasy X immediately come to mind. What complicates things in Final Fantasy XII is the levels are so enormous you lose sight of what the game demands of you.
In the case of the Henne Mines, there are only three switches to flip to progress to the final boss. However, the game stretches this straightforward concept for two hours. To illustrate, in-between the final two switches, you navigate FOUR whole sub-levels! By the time I reached the last lever, I had forgotten what I had needed to use the switches for in the first place! And Lord have mercy on your soul if you chose to play this level without the fast-forward feature! If you fail to do so, the two times when you fight swarms of slimes slows the game to a crawl.
Okay, I admit to taking advantage of the infinite Slime exploit at the Henne Mines. There are two principal reasons for this decision. First, my previous avoidance in grinding was beginning to catch up to me, and this exploit presented a quick solution. Second, playing around with this exploit may have been the most fun I had with Final Fantasy XII. To my first point, Square-Enix almost goads you into finding "easy outs" when you reach a snag. There's no more frustrating a feeling than going up against a boss and discovering you lack the gambits or licenses to beat it. Exploits such as these are a godsend as they make grinding and leveling a breeze. On top of that, if you have the Zodiac Edition and use the "fast-forward" feature, you'll find yourself getting some outrageous combos.
Hilariously enough, this is around the time when I started to get the appeal of the Gambit and License Systems. Watching my characters murder globs of slimes always put a smile on my face. Likewise, I came to enjoy playing around with my various character class combinations to try and find the most efficient manner in which I could commit slime genocide. I also have to say the combo system is an underrated feature. When you reach more massive combos, the game starts to restore your health and magic points automatically. This feature made it even easier to get into a "rhythm" while testing out the game's core mechanics. Speaking of which, I feel I learned more about "playing" Final Fantasy XII through this exploit than the actual in-game tutorials.
Unfortunately, it's not all "rainbows and unicorns" in the Henne Mines. The level, much like every dungeon before it, culminates in an "empty" boss battle. In fact, the fight against Tiamat is almost as frustrating as the level itself. For one thing, to watch Tiamat, a legendary summon in the franchise, boil down to a one-off boss encounter, sucks. I get the Demon Walls in the Tomb of King Raithwall are frustrating, but at least they feel like organic encounters. Here, Tiamat appears out of the ether, and nothing in the environment suggests Tiamat's looming presence.
Part 35: This Game Only Remembers It Has A Story During Ten Minute Cutscenes
When you wrap up your fight against Tiamat, you witness the "stunning" conclusion of Fran's character arc. Fran's sister, Mjrn, is seen standing near our party when an almost Grim Reaper-like figure looms behind her. As she lumbers towards the party, the ominous figure disappears, and she collapses at Fran's feet. After relocating to a den in the mines, the characters mull over recent events. Mjrn explains researchers from Draklor Laboratory attempted to inject Mist into her body. As Viera have a natural intolerance to Mist, she went into a rage-like state and accidentally summoned Tiamat.
I have mentioned before how I think Final Fantasy XII's narrative has structural issues. For instance, the only "real" storytelling occurs during cutscenes which exist exclusively before and after finishing a level. In this case, once Larsa hears Mjrn mention "Mist" and "Draklor Laboratory," he pieces together what connects the two. Larsa states the researchers at the Henne Mines were playing around with manufactured nethicite. He also snatches away a shard he gave to Penelo as a gift, which in NO WAY will tie into events later in the story. Quick question, if "manufactured nethicite" has Mist, why hasn't Penelo's "good luck charm" been causing Fran to go berserk?
Around this point in the story, I feel the writers bite off more than they can chew. For example, at the Henne Mines, we don't just contend with Fran's character arc. We also have to deal with the introduction of Draklor Laboratory and its relation to Balthier. Second, there's the mysterious specter that loomed over Mjrn. Later, we watch over two juxtapositions to the Judges and learn more about Larsa's upbringing. All the while, Ashe, Basch, Vaan, and Penelo provide interjects about their impressions of our journey thus far. At no point does one individual character get the opportunity to stand on their laurels. Instead, the story begins to become a muddled mess of one-off character vignettes.
When Fran returns to the Eruyt Village, with Mjrn in tow, she encounters Jote. Mjrn immediately confronts Jote and asks her to end the Viera's isolationism. Citing the massive changes shaping the landscape of Ivalice, Mjrn asks to leave to protect the world from further harm. Additionally, Mjrn states that she wishes to live a life free from the confines of the Eruyt Village. Now, you might expect Fran to be a "good" sister and support Mjrn. Instead, Fran, for whatever reason, sides with Jote and tells Mjrn to shut up and stay at the village.
I have no idea what to make of Fran. At first, I thought the game was presenting her as an empowering "alternate" to the unflinchingly static nature of Viera society. Fran rejected the isolationist view of the Viera and pursued a destiny of her own. However, when her sister asks to blaze a similar trail, Fran promptly shuts her down. Part of the appeal of Fran is her sense of independence. She takes no quarter from the other characters and shares her opinions without any shame.
I understand the game tries to frame Fran's actions as "protecting" her sister. Regardless, Mjrn's point of the Viera needing to confront significant issues plaguing Ivalice is a legitimate concern. We can only assume the Empire's experiments with Mist pose a threat to their way of life. Furthermore, my heart dropped when Mjrn expressed her desire to live her own life outside of Eruyt Village. The idea of "leaving the roost" is something I think we all find appealing. Why the story decides to squelch this growing sense of independence is beyond my comprehension. In the end, Fran comes across as a hypocrite by the end of her character arc.
Part 36: Again, Why Is The B-Plot Ten Times Better Than The Main Story?
Before progressing the story further, I went ahead and wrapped up several side-quests. As mentioned before, Final Fantasy XII provides "guest" characters who tag along with your party for limited spurts. As a result, you feel motivated to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves. As such, I took on the optional Earth Tyrant boss. With Larsa's help, the battle itself did not pose as big a problem as anticipated. However, and I know I harp on this a lot, the process of getting to the battle was a long and drawn out affair.
Before we return to the main story, it is worth mentioning that from this point forward the game ramps up the number of transitions to Archadia. As our party enters Mt. Bur-Omisace, we watch a brief juxtaposition to Vayne as he defends his recent actions to his father. When we reach Gran Kiltias Anastasis, shit hits the fan. Here, we watch Vayne violently usurp the throne from his father. As I said before, these cutscenes, as short as they may be, feature the most compelling storytelling in the game. We spend at most twenty minutes with Judge Drace, but her execution at the hands of Gabranth is one of the story's most memorable moments.
To prove my point further, let's examine Gabranth as a case study. I am of the controversial opinion he is the story's best character. While he starts as your typical obedient bodyguard, the game begins to show his many layers. When the game ends, you realize he's a torn and broken man. Not only does he profoundly regret his actions, but he also wants to make amends by doing the right thing. And you know what? The story pulls off his redemption in flying colors! Without a doubt, the drama surrounding Archadia feels far more genuine than most of what we see with our primary cast.
Square-Enix has a history of including sub-plots that outshine their main narratives. The example that immediately comes to mind is Final Fantasy VIII. There, I ended up preferring my time with Laguna over Squall. In Final Fantasy XII, I feel equally torn, but I wish it went as far as Final Fantasy VIII's treatment of Laguna. It would have been GREAT if the game provided opportunities to play as the judges during different points in the story. I understand they are fascists guilty of war crimes, and I don't intend to make light of this fact. But, I can't help but feel playing as them, even in short spurts, would do Final Fantasy XII's story a massive service.
Furthermore, I wish there were more scenes involving Gabranth clashing with Vayne. Throughout the game, you see the aftermath of Vayne's brutality, but never watch the process in which he reaches his cruel conclusions. Additionally, when the game pivots Gabranth as a redemptive character, there aren't enough scenes where we see him pleading with Vayne. Case in point, when we fight Judge Bergan, the game attempts to frame him as a brutal and vicious monster. However, his attack against Mt. Bur-Omisace occurs off-screen. How much better would it have been if we saw Gabranth standing in a war room with Bergan and Vayne? Then, as Vayne drones about his attack, we see Gabranth shocked in horror.
Part 37: It's Time, Yet Again, To Pick Up Some Bullshit At A Temple!
If it seems as if I am "down" on Final Fantasy XII, nothing could be further from the truth. While there's one more set piece that annoyed me, I found Mt. Bur-Omisace to be one of the best levels in the game. Whether judged by art design, worldbuilding, or storytelling metrics, your time there ticks all the right boxes. It is an organic world teeming with lore that thankfully transforms as you reach different parts of the story. The version of Mt. Bur-Omisace we first encounter is very different from the one we see after our battle against Judge Bergan. Furthermore, it is one of only a handful of environments where the game encourages exploration at your own pace.
Far too often video games depict calamitous events without taking the time to show the aftermath of those disasters. Final Fantasy XII primarily manages to avoid that pitfall. Here, we have an unmistakable imprint of the real cost of the Empire's violent conquests. Refugee camps litter Mt. Bur-Omisace and they feature almost every race and culture found in Ivalice. The breadth of people living in poverty took me by surprise. For miles and miles, you see tents for refugees. Likewise, it's something the game doesn't shy away from as you make the slow trek to the top of the mountain. During your walk, you witness depressing scenes such as people huddling around a makeshift food pantry or children crying for their parents.
It's also important to note this is when Vaan becomes a complete afterthought. After showing a bit of humanity at the Garif village, Vaan spends the better part of ten hours making wisecracks and off-hand comments you'd expect out of a seventeen-year-old boy. So, credit where credit is due, Square-Enix finally managed to craft a character that talks and acts like a teenager. The problem is he's involved in geopolitics and often comes across as a total goober. Additionally, it is not a good look when the supporting characters roll their eyes at Vaan and expect you to join them. Ultimately, Ashe, Basch, and Balthier come to prominence by the story's climax, and they, more than Vaan, become the driving force of the story.
When our party finally enters the main temple, they encounter Gran Kiltias Anastasis. The curious religious leader communicates via telepathy and shares his exhaustive knowledge of Ashe's quest. Just as Ashe prompts Anastasis for advice, Al-Cid Margrace, a member of the ruling family of Rozarria, arrives. Final Fantasy XII is notable because it features TWO story significant characters named "Cid." Curiously enough, both of them feature campy and over-the-top voice acting. However, one of these characters works and the other is a complete disaster. Al-Cid Margrace is the latter of these two.
Trust me; I LOVE camp in my Final Fantasy games. Nevertheless, our first meeting with Anastasis is neither the time nor place for this Spanish playboy. A Spanish playboy, mind you, who spends more time dramatically taking off his Gucci sunglasses than bringing everyone up to speed. I guess it is worth discussing Final Fantasy XII's choice of voice acting. Ivalice's aristocrats have British accents, the lower-class sport American accents, and sex-pests like Al-Cid have Spanish accents. What I find especially depressing is I like the concept of Al-Cid as an avatar of a distant and culturally distinct land. I also like the Rozarrian Empire being an unseen but omnipotent threat to our party's quest for peace. But, GOOD GOD is the execution TERRIBLE!
Accordingly, let's address the issues of "tone" at Mt. Bur-Omisace because HOT DAMN is there a lot to discuss! Before Al-Cid arrives, it appears Ashe is one step away from executing Larsa's plan for world peace. When our Spanish beefcake waltzes through the temple, he drops two massive bombshells. After patting Larsa on the head and calling him "old friend," the Spanish underwear model announces Larsa's father is dead. Yup, immediately after sashaying to the Gran Kiltias, he announces Vayne has usurped power and declared martial law in the Archadian Empire. When Ashe seizes control of the discussion, the tone further swerves to drama. She begs Anastasis to think of anything that would allow her to cause the armies of Rozarria and Archadia to lay down their arms. On a dime, Anastasis names YET ANOTHER magical MacGuffin that can assist Ashe in her quest.
Part 38: You Know What? I MISS The Cloisters From Final Fantasy X!
With Vayne in power and the world on the brink of global war, you'd think the game would unleash its pace to match the tone of the story. Sadly, you would be wrong as, yet again, the game tasks our party with collecting a legendary item from a far off temple. No matter, as Anastasis explains, the "Stilshrine of Miriam" contains the legendary "Sword of Kings" which can destroy any piece of nethicite. To acquire this sword, we fumble around in a Mayan inspired temple futzing around with statues. I wish I were kidding. It's the fucking climax of the middle act, and everything plays exactly like the first dungeon!
My hatred here isn't due entirely to the puzzles being arduous and time-consuming. The long and dark history of lousy puzzle design in Final Fantasy games is a frequent topic of this series. Likewise, the level culminating to a cheesy esper battle isn't immediately repulsive as well. While I would prefer the esper battles to play out better, cheap bosses are to be expected in a Final Fantasy game. What I despise is how little effort the game makes to connect these temples to the world. When you stop and think about how much of your time is spent at these levels, you'd hope Square would take the time to make them feel meaningful.
Consequently, let's address the title of this section. You may remember I referred to the Cloisters in Final Fantasy X as a "black mark" in an otherwise tour de force of classic Square-Enix worldbuilding. Back in that series, I repeatedly questioned the need for the Cloisters as they shared no cohesive artistic design or recurring gameplay hooks. As I wallow in the dungeons of Final Fantasy XII, I now recognize how wrong I was to dismiss the cloisters as brazenly as I did. Oh, how I WISH these levels showed as much visual variety as the temples in Final Fantasy X! The least you can say about the cloisters is they provide gameplay "breaks" after pulse-pounding cinematics.
Instead, in Final Fantasy XII, you have to toil away against trash mobs in the same copy-paste dungeons over and over again. It's the same drab sandstone temple design we have seen since chapter one, and it's fucking killing me. Seriously, I feel like I have seen more compelling dungeons farted out of GameMaker! On top of that, everything feels entirely contextless. At least at the Tomb of Raithwall, we got a handful of grandiose speeches from Ashe about the legend of the Dynast King. Here, we get JACK SHIT! Worse, when we finally make our way to the Vinuskar and Mateus boss battles, you have no idea why you are fighting them!
Humor me as I rant once again about the Esper battles. I fucking HATE these battles, and they continue to get worse. Admittedly, the story-required Esper battles are not as bad as the optional ones. That said, natural gas is better for the environment than coal, but that doesn't mean we should be opening up thousands of natural gas plants. What I especially hate is how each of these battles, with a few exceptions, plays exactly like the previous one. In every battle, at around the halfway point, Espers summon a high-level magical ability that provides a proverbial "gear check." Either, you survive these cheesy spells, or you don't; there's no middle ground.
Part 39: Judge Bergan, And The Narrative Consequences Of Grinding
Again, creating compelling set pieces is a consistent strong point in Final Fantasy XII. As you make the treck back to Mt. Bur-Omisace, you see the same densely populated refugee camps, but this time they are in ruins. Smoke billows from the tent strewn landscape, and upon entering the temple, you see countless dead bodies and desecrated religious artifacts. Your interactions with the surrounding NPCs paint an even grimmer picture. The refugees recount an army of Imperials laying waste with reckless abandon, and the mountain's acolytes recite acts of murder and genocide. As you enter the main temple, you encounter the slain body of the Gran Kiltias. The camera then pans to a comic book-esque mutant super soldier, Judge Bergan, who then screams as if he's about to take a shit.
There's a lot more to unpack about this boss than you'd think. For one, having a tragic moment culminate in a battle against a laughable super soldier, is disappointing. Second, the confrontation itself is a pushover unless you are incredibly under-leveled. As someone who completed every hunt up to this point, I blew through Judge Bergan as if he was a wolf from the Dalmasca Estersand. This situation poses another dilemma with Final Fantasy XII's grind-heavy nature. With loot-grind feedback loops strewn throughout the game, the storyline confrontations can become an afterthought. Earlier, we watched Judge Bergan slay Judge Drace with relative ease. To watch him fall apart in a matter of minutes because I completed a bunch of side quests is undeniably anti-climatic.
Additionally, the Gambit System makes battles against single-target enemies far easier than fighting against trash mobs. When you fight a single boss, you can immediately identify which attacks are the most effective and quickly input the appropriate Gambits to deploy those maneuvers. However, when you go toe-to-toe against swarms of enemies, setting up Gambits becomes exponentially harder. When there is more than one enemy, you have to set up additional parameters or risk your characters not hitting their intended targets. Eventually, you discover a handful of fail-proof Gambits such as "Foe: party leader's target" or "Foe: nearest visible." That aside, Lord have mercy on your soul if you want to distribute attacks equally or plan AOE spells in tandem with buffs.
I have to preface; I am warming up to the Gambit System. When you finally strike a smooth rhythm, the system is highly rewarding. That said, there are a few things about the system that continue to annoy me. I understand several of you have grown weary of my rants about the Gambit System. Thus, I think it is high time I come clean about my bias. To make it abundantly clear to everyone, I believe the move to real-time combat in the Final Fantasy franchise was a mistake. I have always held turn-based combat fits the immediate needs of the single-player Final Fantasy games better than free form real-time combat. Ultimately, I find planning attacks on a timeline or timed-meter to be more contusive to role-playing than automating characters using an algorithm.
Look, if you enjoy MMORPGs, then more power to you. What I can say from my experience, is there's something innately appealing to planning your character's every move. Tabletop role-playing games have been taking advantage of that appeal for the better part of forty years! So, don't simply dismiss me as a Luddite. More importantly, Final Fantasy XII tries to have your standard role-playing tropes while also incentivizing the player to hand over control to an automated system. That is what I ultimately dislike about Final Fantasy XII's mechanics. It wants to remove you from the actions of your party members, or at the very least, place several barriers between you and the action on the screen.
To me, controlling your characters in combat is half of the appeal of role-playing games. There's something magical about watching my wizard master a spell like Flare and selecting it during a battle. But, what I don't like is when an automated system gets to enjoy that sense of character progression. I HATE having to surrender what I spent HOURS toiling away to earn, to Boolean logic of all things. That's MY spell; that's MY suit of armor; that's MY Wizard! I understand a lot of this sounds self-entitled, but when a game expects me to sink in thirty plus hours, emotions are bound to flare up.
Part 40: WHY IS THERE SO MUCH POINTLESS WALKING?!
Upon dispatching Judge Bergan, our party discusses the origins of the judge's new-found strength. During an earlier cutscene, we even saw the same shadowy figure from the Henne Mines looming over the shoulders of Bergan. When Balthier examines his corpse, he notices signs of manufactured nethicite running through his veins. With the temple in ruins and Larsa nowhere to be found, Al-Cid Margrace appears and brings everyone up to speed. Larsa is currently safe under Gabranth's ward, and the Imperial Navy is in route to preemptively attack Rozzaria. Believing Ashe can convince both sides to lay down their arms, Al-Cid asks she return to Rozzaria with him. Ashe refuses and states she can only stop the threat of war once she has destroyed the Dusk Shard.
If you are wondering how any of this information relates to the next steps of our party, then buckle up. After Ashe announces her plan to destroy the Dusk Shard, she maps out our long treck to the Imperial Capital, Archades. This journey, I shit you not, necessitates we traverse through FIVE interstitial environments, six if you include our time in "Old Archades!" You might be thinking, "But ZombiePie, Final Fantasy games use transitional levels to build character moments and plot arcs!" In most cases, you would be correct. Unfortunately, with Final Fantasy XII, these levels exist solely to provide the player with more opportunities to grind. At best, we get to listen to a long-winded explanation about Balthier's relationship with the evil Doctor Cid, but that's after HOURS of fussing about in mindless open-world dungeons!
These grinding levels are the gift that keeps on giving. I am willing to admit there might be something appealing to the Gambit and License systems. Maybe you find both mechanics to be the most exciting concepts Square-Enix has conceived in over ten years. I'll come clean and admit I love the game's job system. Specializing characters to address environmental needs and party-wide shortcomings adds role-playing pizzaz in a game that desperately needs it. What I do not appreciate is how Final Fantasy XII does not respect my time.
Square KNOWS they could get away with two to three transitions between mainline story events. However, because Final Fantasy XII is their first "bite" at the real-time apple, it is filled with gameplay-heavy environments. My guess is this is by design, so the player has multiple opportunities to test out new mechanics without feeling overwhelmed. That or the development team felt obligated to copy-paste the level design of Final Fantasy XI. Be that as it may, the consequence is the story stops dead in its tracks on several occasions.
Case in point, there are environments like the "Mosphoran Highwaste," which contain multiple parts and contribute virtually nothing to the game's story. It exists so Square-Enix can place dozens of side quests and optional hunts to create the illusion of interactivity. You think these environments tie into the game's greater world, but they don't. All they do is create one-off situations that force you to play around with the game's half-dozen mechanics. If you like these mechanics, great, but that doesn't change the underlying issue with this game's structure. Despite having stunning art assets and beautiful skyboxes, the vast majority of the game's environments lack "true" staying power.
To further my point, I want to play a game with you. Down below, you will find a box with screencaps from my playthrough. What I challenge you to do is determine which screencaps are from the following locations:
- Mosphoran Highwaste
- The Salikawood
- Phon Coast
- Tchita Uplands
- Sochen Cave Palace
- Old Archades
My guess is the vast majority of you will struggle to nail down at least three of these environments. And do you want to know what that proves? This game doesn't need more open world dungeons! What it needs are more storyline set pieces like Mt. Bur-Omisace or Archades where the characters go through genuine drama and strife! Since the last blog, I can honestly say I have come around to the game's cast, and that includes Vaan! What I now lament is they are not provided enough time to develop and evolve naturally as characters on an epic journey!
I cannot preface this point enough; there are plotlines the game NEEDS to develop! As it stands, the story so far has six active narratives. First, we have Ashe and her attempt to regain her homeland's independence. Second, there's Larsa and his attempt to deal with Vayne's usurpation of power. Third, Basch wants to prove he was not responsible for the assassination of King Raminas. Fourth, Bash ALSO has to deal with his twin brother. Fifth, there's Balthier's backstory and his relationship to Draklor Laboratory. Sixth, there's the evil specter from earlier that looks like the Grim Reaper. And this is all ignoring the one-off character moments the game has for each of our party members!
Finally, when Final Fantasy XII is "done" with a character, they might as well be an NPC. Are the issues about Fran's heritage ever addressed again? You bet your ass they aren't! Have you forgotten about everything Vaan said at the Garif Village? WELL, THE GAME CERTAINLY HAS! I know I try to not "spoil" upcoming blogs, but the next episode will detail what I consider the "worst" part of Final Fantasy XII. I am, of course, speaking of the transitional levels between Mt. Bur-Omisace and Draklor Laboratory. So, until next time, get your goddamned chops ready because it's going to be a bumpy ride!