Put those comment boxes down Final Fantasy fanboys, I reassure you that this article is no slight against the game overall quality itself. For many reasons, Final Fantasy XII remains a must-have title for the PS2; the battle system is amazing, the gambit system and license board can be downright addictive (if you get into them), an ensemble cast allows for multiple points of view, and graphically speaking, the game looks spectacular (if not ‘beige’). So what problems could I possibly have with the title, where I’m so apt to shower it with praise? Well, there are two fairly significant issues that left me removing myself from the title: (1) Character Development, and (2) Narrative Delivery.
Final Fantasy XII has a playable cast of six and at least ten other supporting characters, but it’s hard to describe these individuals outside of a handful of bullet points because the game never works hard enough to develop them. Vann is an orphan that wants to become a sky pirate, Ashe wants to bring about full rebellion to the empire that destroyed her kingdom and killed her loved ones, Basch is an honourable night who was disgraced after being framed for the murder of the King and Vann’s brother, Baltheir is a sky pirate and estranged son of a lunatic scientist, Fran is Baltheir’s sexy partner and an exiled Viera, and Penelo is a responsible orphan who totally has the hots for Vann. That’s about all I can say about any of the playable cast. Final Fantasy XII’s problem is that it understands that characters are made up of different motivations, backgrounds, and personalities, but not that characters have to go through a “change” to make the narrative relevant (this is usually called a character arc). Unfortunately, none of these characters really evolve. Sure, different things happen to them (Baltheir faces his evil twin, Ashe accepts that Baltheir isn’t a traitorous ass hole, Baltheir and Fran both face their families, etc.), but none of their characters actually grow as a result; motivations don’t change, personalities persist, and everyone seems more like forces of nature than actual people as a result. Character development is important and other games in this series that also feature ensemble casts (Final Fantasy VI for instance) have able to balance plot progression and character development in parallel to each other, so why does Final Fantasy XII just give up on its characters as soon as they’re established?
The only thing about this game that bothers me as much as its unwillingness to give its main characters the appropriate time of day is the game’s approach to Narrative Delivery. What do I mean by that? Well, a strong plot is one that is strategically delivered; you can’t just create a massive universe, a handful of principle characters, and hand the player a glossary with the hope that they’ll be interested enough to do research on their own (a point made even stronger by the release of Final Fantasy XIII). Not only does Final Fantasy XII force the player to do more narrative legwork than reasonable, but it also has a bad case of propernounitis. That is, nonsensical proper nouns like Occurian, Sun-cryst, Nethicite, and Pagicite are tossed around like balls in a tennis match. If you don’t catch the meaning of these objects when they are first mentioned, which is easy considering how dialogue heavy the game is, you likely won’t understand many future conversations. At one point in the game’s plot, conversations go nuts over proper nouns and the narrative spins out of control.
Here is that time-frame in detail:
- Ashe retrieves the Sword of Kings, which can destroy Nethicite.
- Ashe’s party travels to Archades and the Draklor Laboratory, Doctor Cid’s base of operations.
- Cid escapes and leaves clues that lead them to Giruvegan, the supposed location of the Sun-cryst, the source of all deifacted Nethicite.
- Ashe encounters the makers of the Sun-cryst, the immortal Occuria, who “pull the strings of history”
- It is revealed that Doctor Cid’s Nethicite research was augmented by knowledge from the Occurian heretic, Venat, who had allied with Cid and Vayne in order to put the “reins of History back in the hands of Man”.
- Vayne aims to become the new Dynast-King by using manufacted Nethicite to conquer all of Ivalice.
From there, the plot is a whirlwind of complex terminology, numerous plot-twists, and characters acting like chickens with their heads cut off.
When I beat the game the first time, I didn’t really understand what had gone on. It took another full playthrough to grab every single piece of information available and fully understand the narrative. To be clear, this isn’t a good thing. The Silent Hill games require multiple playthroughs because the feature dense narratives, complex characters, and mounds of symbolism. Final Fantasy XII required an additional playthrough because it was ineffective at conveying its content the first time.
Again, I’m not saying that Final Fantasy XII is a bad game (in many respects, it is an excellent addition to the Final Fantasy franchise). However, the game’s lack of focus on character direction and narrative hinders the experience and it doesn’t get a free pass because of name brand recognition