I’m joking, of course. I really like XIII, actually, but I don’t think it would be contentious to say that XII and XIII are often ranked right down the bottom of the Final Fantasy main entries. Certainly at the time of their releases, both were met to less favourable reviews than were expected of games in such a prestigious series, so even if the reviews weren’t terrible, they were damned by being less good than their fellows. While I can see some of the points against XIII – linearity, lack of RPG-ness, slightly weak writing – I never really understood why XII wasn’t considered a whole lot better than the Internet seemed to think.
It might be relevant to point out here that XII was only the third Final Fantasy game I actually played all the way through, so the fact that it’s a bit different (and I don’t dispute that it is different) to most of the ones that came before it really didn’t bother me at the time, and it still doesn’t. The shift from turn-based to more active combat, probably the single largest and most divisive change XII made, felt to me (an avid Kingdom Hearts fan) like a progression rather than a case of fixin’-what-ain’t-broke, and while I didn’t particularly like Vaan, he was never much of a problem for me. I just kind of ignored him and focused on Balthier instead, and that approach served me just fine.
I don’t intend to make this post a total defence of XII against any and all criticism, by the way, and I’m not going to say that people’s observations of flaws aren’t valid; I actually just sort of want to revisit this game and take a look at why it was met with reviews that I think it’d be fair to call mixed-to-unfavourable. For me, playing through it as a teenager (I distinctly remember buying it aged 14 and being astonished that I’d got away with it, since the box said 16+) was a really fun experience, probably the most epic that a game had felt, and it was only later on that I discovered what the Internet at large had to say about it. I was pretty surprised, actually, but then I’ve always had this amazing gift where I can basically find most things entertaining and enjoyable even if the rest of the world seems to think they’re a bit crap.
For what it’s worth, I’ve played neither Revenant Wings nor International Job System Zodiac Remaster Remake FFXII Updated Re-Release Age of Ivalice or whatever the recent remake was called, so my feelings about XII are based solely on the original PS2 version.
So what was it that made XII so different from those that had come before it? Well, a big change – certainly, and as I’ve already touche on, the one that a lot of people latched onto at the time as either an innovation or a pretty bizarre sidestep from tradition – was the new battle system. Most Final Fantasy games are what you’d call turn-based, even those with the ‘Active Time Battle’ system that assigns turns based on a constantly filling meter, but XII decided to retain the strategic elements of picking an action in battle while making it all feel a bit more active and fast-paced. It still feels recognisably FF in many ways, at least to me, but rather than random encounters in some weird dimension totally separated from the overworld, enemies you encounter on your travels will just go for you immediately without any kind of loading or separation. It makes things quicker and more seamless, in my opinion, and it’s easier to hold R2 to keep running past enemies without engaging than it is to select ‘flee’ every time you get sucked into some random battle. There’s also the fact that you don’t even have to actually select actions for each of your party members due to the new ‘Gambit’ system, something that I actually really like and that I’m not sure any other game has done to the same extent. (I could be wrong, of course.)
Some games (I’m thinking of Kingdom Hearts, primarily) will allow you to have a small measure of control over NPC ally/ party member characters by giving you the option to configure their behaviour in preset ways. KH, as an example, lets you pick a few different modes for each of your party members: you can set them to attack anything and everything, to only attack enemies you’re targeting, or to focus on healing and supporting. XII, however, lets you basically code each of your party members’ AI from scratch yourself, programming in commands such as ‘if an enemy is weak to fire, use fire on it; if an ally has less than 30% health, heal them; otherwise, attack’. It’s enormously customisable, and the fact that it includes variables allowing you to tell your allies not to do stupid things and which order to prioritise actions in (don’t cast expensive magic if you don’t have much MP – or, heck, use an ether if you don’t have enough MP to cast, for example) means that you can basically just allow them to self-manage during battle, though you can always interrupt their gambits if manual intervention is required.
The cast also took a bit of a turn from what fans had come to expect: Vaan, protagonist apparent and shitty sort-of Tidus-looking knock-off with weird abs, was already a cause for concern before the game came out due to his… odd design. Come release, he’s even more disliked for being basically a nothing character who just sort of ends up going along for the ride. You almost wouldn’t notice he was there at all if it weren’t for the fact that most of the game is told from his point of view; his co-stars, after all, include a dashing sky pirate, a magical rabbit lady, a disgraced knight and a princess-turned-rebel-leader. (Oh, and Penelo’s there too.) I can’t claim to be particularly fond of Vaan, but I don’t think he’s a massive issue; I think the story XII is telling is about a small band of people who are, on their own, not all that significant in the grand story of two nations at war, but whose actions end up changing the world, and the fact that Vaan doesn’t seem particularly important speaks to that theme (I’m not claiming this is totally deliberate, but it ties in reasonably well).
I think that’s the major criticism that I’m aware of out of the way; there are some other small things like the fact that the debatable-best-weapon-in-the-game requires a ridiculous amount of impossible knowledge to get, there’s a superboss which literally takes about twelve hours even with an optimal set-up, and the audio’s noticeably compressed to fit the entire massive game on one disc. That last one is a particular real shame, because the VO work is on point; I’ve heard that the remaster fixes this, which makes me extremely happy. I’m not surprised that the technology was a bit of a barrier, though; there’s just so much in this game, with an absolutely enormous world, a giant repertoire of items and side-quests, and a whole heap of optional bosses and other content. It stands out compared to XIII, coming directly before and all; that game was met with such vitriol about being overly linear, but XII‘s world is spectacularly open. It’s smart about how it directs you to where you’re supposed to be, with only a few points where there are lame excuses for not allowing you to go a certain way; for the most part, clever enemy placement is the best way of warning you that this might not be what you’re supposed to be doing just yet. Very early on, you can run into a dinosaur that will absolutely slaughter you if you try to engage it, and that basically sets the tone to let you know that you’re going to be in a heap of trouble if you go the wrong way.
So, yes, FFXII is pretty different to a lot of its brothers and sisters, but I never understood why that should be a bad thing. If the series could never do anything different, we’d just get the same game fifteen-plus times, so a bit of diversity can’t possibly be a bad thing. I don’t think anyone’s expecting Final Fantasy to suddenly go uber-experimental, and that’s okay; it wouldn’t recognisably be FF if it did (notwithstanding the myriad of different genres represented in side-games and spin-offs). XII, I think, straddles that line better than it got credit for: it’s very definitely a Final Fantasy game, but perhaps not exactly as we know it, and I rather like that.
This post was part of the Final Fantasy Crystal Compendium, a community event orchestrated by the Well-Red Mage. A bunch of awesome people got together to write articles on every main FF game, and you can read all about it here!