(Spoiler Warning, etc.)
So just what is the story, anyway?
Two major superpowers currently dominate Ivalice: the western empire of Rozarria, and the eastern empire of Archadia. Archadia begins a westward assault, and attacks the nation of Nabradia. The neighbouring nation of Dalmasca, having formed an alliance with the country by marrying their Princess Ashe to Nabradia’s Prince Rasler, aids them in their fight. Nabradia falls, and Archadian forces crush the Dalmascan army. In the onslaught, Prince Rasler is killed.
Archadia then offers a peace treaty for Raminas, the King of Dalmasca, to sign. However, before the treaty can be signed, Raminas is murdered and Captain Basch of the Dalmascan army is framed for it. The Archadian army proceeds west and takes the Rabanastre, the capitol, forcing an unconditional surrender. Princess Ashe, not wanting to be made into a figurehead, disappears from the public eye and begins organizing a resistance. Officially, it is announced that she took her own life.
Two years later in Rabanastre, a street urchin called Vaan attempts to rob the Royal Palace on the night of the new consul’s installation. At the same time, Princess Ashe leads an attack on the palace, while two sky pirates called Balthier and Fran are pulling off their own caper. Everyone gets mixed up with the rebels. Then it turns out that the consul, Vayne, had actually anticipated the attack, and everyone gets captured. Waiting for them in captivity is Captain Basch.
This covers the first three hours or so. The rest of the game is told through the perspective of Vaan as he throws in his lot with this motley crew
While JRPGs have a tendency to get convoluted, this is already pretty dense stuff for an opening act, almost more appropriate for a novel or miniseries than a game. It only gets more complicated from here. And, once the perspective settles around Vaan, most of it happens just out of the player’s sight. The roles and motivations of the characters are frequently ambiguous.
I’m of two minds here: on the one hand, this is realistic. Vaan is caught up in an international conflict that is beyond him, and so it makes sense that his perspective would be a narrow one. On the other hand, this approach to narrative requires a subtle hand, and XII’s writers are not always up to the task.
XII’s story is a bit of a mess at times, but it is an interesting mess which even manages to probe some profound questions.
Orphaned at a young age, Vaan lives the life of a street urchin. His older brother Reks, was a soldier who was murdered by the same man who slew the king. He thus nurses an intense hatred of the Archadian Empire, and Captain Basch.
Vaan is unique among Final Fantasy protagonists in that he is never a major player in the story. There’s never any twist where he turns out to be the son of someone important or the chosen one or anything like that. While his presence in this game was most likely a marketing-based afterthought, and while the script at times struggles to give him things to do and say, I do think that the basic conceit of his character is worthwhile. It’s interesting to watch an epic story unfold from the perspective of one of the extras.
While said conceit is worthwhile, there’s only so far you can stretch it. Being a second character tangential to the plot, Vaan’s down-to-earth friend winds up being an absolute nonentity. If we’re willing to overlook Vaan’s presence as the outcome of Dickensian coincidence, it’s much harder to do so a second time in the case of Penelo’s contrived kidnapping subplot. But on the other hand, if you need a party member with high magic stats, Penelo is your girl.
The most important of all the protagonists and rightful heir to the Dalmascan throne. As an uncompromising political leader, Princess Ashe has one of the most interesting character arcs in the game. While her goal of re-establishing her country’s sovereignty is a righteous one, she is initially unscrupulous about what the fallout from her actions will be, and views the imperials only as an enemy to be punished and destroyed. She represents for the player’s party one of the main themes of XII: how the pursuit of justice or other goods can become tainted by a desire for power and revenge, and how it can be difficult to tell where someone will morally stand when all the cards are up.
Ultimately, Ashe realizes that she is being manipulated into starting a war that would be disastrous for all sides and gives up her desire for vengeance in favor of defending her country.
A native of the Republic of Landis who fled to Dalmasca when it was conquered by the Archadians. He became a prominent captain in the Dalmascan army, and, at the game’s opening, is framed by his twin brother for the murder of King Raminas. With a traitorous brother, a disgraced name and a second home fallen, Basch’s character arc is a poignant example of a man who has lost everything but continues to fight for what is good.
An important member of the Dalmascan Resistance. Unlike Princess Ashe, Vossler is willing to negotiate with the Archadian Empire. Unfortunately, this only results in him getting used by the Empire in order to secure an extremely dangerous magical artifact.
But wait, wasn’t Princess Ashe’s character arc about the dangers of a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude? Doesn’t Vossler’s arc contradict that?
Not really – XII is highlighting how negotiating with the enemy can also be dangerous, how there is often no course of action which is completely safe, and how the best of intentions can lead to unforeseen consequences.
Archadians: House Solidor
House Solidor is the currently ruling dynasty in Archadia. They consist of:
Gramis Gana Solidor
The Emperor of Archadia. In spite of that, his power is severely curtailed by political gridlock with the senate and his own ailing health. He is eventually murdered by his son, Vayne, in a plot to wipe out the senate and gain total dictatorial control of Archadia. He is thus a complete subversion of the Emperor Palpatine sort of villain that RPG games love so much.
The primary antagonist of XII, and son of the Emperor. His motives are more sympathetic than you might expect: Vayne ultimately seeks to free mankind from the capricious influence of a group of beings that have set themselves up as the ‘gods’ of Ivalice. However, he is completely unscrupulous about what he has to do to accomplish this. And so he is willing to subvert rule of law, have political opponents assassinated, make use of weapons of mass destruction and provoke war in order to get what he wants.
This is one of the things I love most about XII – Vayne is a realistic villain. As C.S. Lewis noted, the worst evils are often committed not out of mere selfishness, but out of ideals and a desire to attain some sort of good.
Vayne’s younger brother. While also idealistic and conniving, Larsa differs from Vayne in caring about the means as much as he does the ends. Thus he attempts to Batman-gambit all the sides towards a peaceful resolution. By the epilogue he has become Archadia’s emperor.
Archadians: The Judge Magisters
The judges are strange. Decked out in full armor, they simultaneously act as military leaders and as the judge, jury and executioners of the judicial branch of Archadia’s government. The most important among them are the Magisters.
Captain Basch’s twin brother, who joined Archadia after the fall of Landis, and who was responsible for the murder of King Raminas. His ruthless nature is balanced by a desire to protect Larsa from harm. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that he suffers from a conflicted conscience over his actions and sides with the heroes in time for the final battle. Notably, he is featured in the game’s logo art.
A conniving old man who secretly seeks to seize control of the Empire. But before he can execute his plan, he accidentally sets off a magical WMD on his warship and gets himself blown up. Oh well. He was a fun boss fight, at least.
A bloodthirsty man who uses his office as an excuse to kill as many people as possible. Verbose to the point of self-parody, he also blows up, albeit under different circumstances.
The one woman magister of the bunch, and the one who cares the most about rule of law. She sees through Vayne’s schemes and attempts to have him arrested. This predictably results in her death.
The most pacific of all the judges, and the only one who survives to the end. He is willing to sue for peace and even sacrifice himself if need be.
Cidolfus Demen Bunansa
AKA Dr. Cid, and the only other human who knows the entirety of Vayne’s goals. His researches into manufacted nethecite allows Archadia to have the magical equivalent of H-Bombs. Cid functions as the game’s secondary antagonist, and, played as a scenery-chewing mad scientist, is an awfully fun one at that.
The self-proclaimed “leading man.” Balthier is a cross between Han Solo and James Bond. He joins the heroes for mercenary reasons, but as the game progresses it becomes clear that he has a deeper purpose: he is Dr. Cid’s son and an ex-judge to boot, and seeks to square things with his mad father.
Someone must have liked Princess Leia’s metal bikini, because Fran hails from an entire race of bunny-eared forest dwelling ladies who dress similarly. She functions as Balthier’s partner in crime. Although the game tries to give her a (boring) character arc, it’s clear that she only exists to round out the party and provide eye candy.
A Sky pirate who wants to know the lowdown on Dr. Cid’s experiments at Draklor Labs. Coincidentally, he too is also an ex-judge who fled the Empire after witnessing the destruction of Nabudis. The event scarred him so much that he carried around a death wish.
The self-proclaimed gods of Ivalice. They influence human history according to their whims by using deifacted nethecite – the FFXII equivalent of the atom bomb. Viewing the current state of Ivalice as a dead end, they attempt to manipulate Princess Ashe into starting a total war which would bring the end of civilization.
Expelled from their order is Venat, who works with Vayne and Dr. Cid to free humans from the Occuria’s rule. But, like the other two, he is ruthless and destructive in his pursuit of this goal. Although destroyed by the end, his plans nonetheless come to fruition.
Getting tired yet? Although I could detail even more characters, I’ll forgo that in favor of exploring some of XII’s themes in Part III.
(Images courtesy of Final Fantasy Wiki)