Final Fantasy XII was released when I was a high school senior. By that point, however, my early enthusiasm for gaming had atrophied away, and I was at the peak of my phase where I snobbishly scoffed at almost any form of leisure activity that didn’t consist of reading literature or listening to classical music. And so XII became the first mainline entry in the series to be met with total disregard on my part.
But a certain apathy had also begun to creep into my life.
I was, for one, growing increasingly frustrated with school, my academics got correspondingly worse and I wound up having to take a night class. But with the conclusion of my senior year I found myself directionless and drifted into a strange sort of hermitude where nothing happened – no friendship, no job, no school, certainly no spirituality – except reading and listening and occasionally writing. I briefly volunteered to man the lighting board at my old high school, but that was it.
I gradually pulled myself out of this limbo. Pursuing higher education gave me something to apply myself to. But I had also, during the thaw, began playing video games again. I started with Shadow of the Colossus, which became an instant favourite, and began playing the games I had missed which were now on the cheap. and then I came around to Final Fantasy XII.
Boot it up and you hear the familar Final Fantasy Prelude as scenes from the upcoming game flash by. Then it segues into a dramatic, militaristic theme before finally becoming the triumphant Final Fantasy theme, with the title screen and logo suddenly appearing at the cue of the music’s greatest peroration.
Most of the mainline Final Fantasies feature pretty low key boot-up sequences, preferring to pull out the big guns only after you’ve selected, ‘New Game’. And in particular, the modern FFs had a tendency of sticking the theme song at the very end. By bringing it to the front, XII seemed to almost be throwing down a gauntlet to the player, as if it were declaring itself to be the definitive, or somehow ultimate, Final Fantasy.
Arriving as it did in a rather low point in my life, XII evokes no nostalgia for me. Instead I associate it with growing up, and how life marches on. It fell right at that point in my life where one chapter had ended and another begun. And indeed its bombastic opening FMV, which begins in marriage and ends in widowhood, suggests a story which is concerned with the navigation of the future in light of the past.
Final Fantasy has always been something of a protean series. Right from the release of Final Fantasy II (not to be confused with Final Fantasy IV, which was originally released in North America as Final Fantasy II) the series showed a willingness to almost completely disregard the gameplay mechanics, story and even tone of the previous entry.
Thus Final Fantasy has manufactured something of a broken fanbase, with tremendous disagreements over which entries are good, and even what the metrics for defining a good Final Fantasy should be. With the possible exception of VI, every Final Fantasy has attracted its share of controversy, and XII is no exception.
But in spite of that, XII still comes across as an odd duck, and revisiting some series history may help articulate one reason why.
While VII is often viewed as the first ‘modern’ FF, I think the line is better drawn at VI. For while earlier entries like II and IV featured story-driven gameplay, everything that you saw on screen could easily be a visual representation of someone’s tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
But VI, after some opening exposition, moves into a scene which uses some mode 7 trickery to depict the characters trudging through some snow, with their destination slowly creeping above the horizon while staff credits appear on the screen. It’s an early, and very successful, attempt at aping cinema. And it symbolizes a shift in the series from being a literal electronic Role Playing Game, and towards being a kind of aesthetic gesamkunstwerk where the RPG elements are subsumed into a larger experience.
I posit that XII undoes this. Sure, it features flashy cinematic sequences, but they serve mainly to contextualize the gameplay. They exist as one of the RPG elements, and not vice versa.
Thus XII is often criticized for lacking much of a story and featuring bland characters. I don’t think this is quite true, however.
Not Your Older Brother’s FF?
But before I can talk about the story, I have to explain a bit more about what kind of RPG said story is contextualizing.
XII is the brainchild of one Yasumi Matsuno, a man best known for the Ogre Battle series as well as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, but who otherwise has not had much involvement with the mainline Final Fantasies. In contrast to the more straightforward (relatively speaking) FF games, Matsuno’s oeuvre tends to feature baroque, intricate western-influenced gameplay and stories that eschew melodrama in favor of complex political intrigue. Even the art-style his games sport leans more towards the look of a European graphic novel than eastern animation.
Matsuno brought all this to XII – and, indeed, the game explicitly makes use of Ivalice, the same world explored in Tactics and Vagrant Story. But do to reasons that I do not fully understand, Matsuno dropped out of the project and was replaced by Akitoshi Kawazu. Although heavily involved in the first two Final Fantasies, Kawazu has spent most of his career working on his SaGa franchise, a series which is famous (or infamous) for its obtuse, experimental gameply and open-ended, sandbox approach to progression. So all that baggage also got dragged into XII.
Another important influence was Square’s own MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI. Using the same engine, XII deliberately apes some of the design elements of MMOs, giving the game an exploratory, non-linear feel. About half of the content stuffed into its world is completely tangential to the story, and the game seems to expect that you’ll be taking regular detours throughout.
The result is a game which is difficult to define, bearing as it does a family resemblance with a bunch of different subgenres without easily fitting into any of them. But somehow it rarely feels like it suffers from an identity crisis; it’s a remarkably coherent game, albeit one which trips over its own ambitions on occasion.
But what, exactly, is this Frankenstein monster about? That’s for Part II.
(Images courtesy of Final Fantasy Wiki)