Final Fantasy XII: The Twelfth Final Fantasy
by Pitchfork

 


In human terms, five years is a moderately-sized chunk of time. It's hardly an eyeblink, but the world outside your window probably won't look all that different five years from now. In the video game sphere -- an industry fueled by novelty and perpetual hardware arms races -- five years is practically an epoch. When six years is about how long it takes for the latest round of consoles to become obsolete, a piece of software with a five-year development cycle is an outlandish thing, especially when it's being designed for a current-gen console. The Final Fantasy XII project had its beginnings in 2001, the year of XI's release, and finally hit the shelves in 2006. To put this in perspective: five years is how long it took SquareSoft to release Final Fantasy I through V (1987 through 1992), and it's only one year less than the span between the initial planning stages of Final Fantasy VII in 1994 and the release of Final Fantasy IX in 2000. XII apparently still holds the Guinness record for having the longest development cycle of a commercially-released video game.

Four billion yen. That's ¥4,000,000,000. This might sound like a inconceivably vast amount of money, but when you convert it to American dollars it only adds up to about $35,000,000 -- which is still a preposterous heap of currency. It's more money than me and all of my combined readers will probably ever earn during our lifetimes, and it's how much someone was willing to spend in order to make Final Fantasy XII happen.

Four billion (or thirty-five million) must be an especially scary number to a company like Square, which was bogged in a financial quagmire throughout the first years of the decade because of Hironobu Sakaguchi's money-hemorraging box office bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. (For the record, the film cost $137,000,000 to produce and market; the whole venture put SquareSoft $98,000,000 in the hole.) As you probably already know, Square merged with former nemesis Enix in 2003 (two years into XII's development), presumably because had no alternative if it intended to continue operating. This event coincided very closely with the resignation of Final Fantasy creator, series patriarch, and Spirits Within director Mr. Sakaguchi.

Now. Sakaguchi is out of the picture. Yoshinori Kitase (who fulfilled various direction and production duties in Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII, and X) is hard at work on the Kingdom Hearts series and the Final Fantasy VII spinoff movie and games. Hiromichi Tanaka, whose earlier credits include Final Fantasy I through III and Seiken Densetsu 3 and had recently been Final Fantasy XI's main producer and designer, is busy putting together the new XI expansion pack with the misanthropic temerity of a methamphetamine cook. So who did the Square bosses select to produce and direct the latest addition to the Final Fantasy series proper? None other than Mr. Yasumi Matsuno, the man behind the brilliant Final Fantasy Tactics and cult hit Vagrant Story. With Matsuno at the helm, Final Fantasy XII was primed to be a return to his signature world of heretical heroes, political power struggles, and murky morals.

Halfway though production, Matsuno resigned from Square Enix, citing health reasons. That the actual reason was a nervous collapse is practically common knowledge, though you'll never heard Square Enix say so. (Matsuno's not taking a paid vacation to recuperate and choosing to get the hell away from Square Enix instead speaks volumes.) Working on Final Fantasy XII actually caused its director and executive producer to cave in on himself.

So. In the middle of a five-year, thirty-five million dollar development cycle, the man in charge of Final Fantasy XII snapped and called it quits. But the game couldn't be scrapped. Square Enix already had too much time and money invested in Final Fantasy XII to flush it down the toilet and start over from nothing. Hiroshi Minagawa and Hiroyuki Iito (Art director of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story and longtime Final Fantasy battle-system designer, respectively) were summoned to replace Matsuno as the game's co-directors, and the vacant role of executive producer was assumed by none other than Akitoshi Kawazu. As in Final Fantasy II, Legend of Mana and SaGa Kawazu. That Kawazu. Somehow, Square Enix concluded the most suitable recipient of Final Fantasy XII's executive producer reins was a man who has pretty much been quoted as saying "yeah, I'm aware that the games I've made have never been, you know...good."

Five years. Thirty-five million dollars. One talented, adept director/producer driven batty halfway through production and replaced by three men out of their depth (in varying degrees). Add to this the nervous meddling corporate brass insisting certain changes be implemented to make the game more marketable and an English localization with a psuedo-Shakesperean idiom that makes the quirky Woolsey translations seem positively virginal by contrast, and you have all the prime ingredients of the long-simmering DVD-ROM stew that Square Enix at last ladeled unto the world as Final Fantasy XII in 2006. Naturally, the sycophantic critics delightedly lapped it up, as did Square Enix's easily-pleased core fan base.

If only the game itself were interesting as the byzantine saga of its creation.



Let's backtrack a little, though. XII was the first Final Fantasy title (discounting spin-offs) developed with zero input from Sakaguchi. Following the Spirits Within catastrophe, Square -- the company that Sakaguchi and his game rescued from backruptancy and elevated to a multimedia superpower -- pointed Hironobu towards the door and kept Final Fantasy as its own. Here we see one of the pecularities of these new breeds of commercialized media. When your job is designing intellectual property for a company like Square, your creations all legally belong to the company and not to you. So while Final Fantasy was indispensible to Square, Sakaguchi was not. With or without him, Square Enix still had every intention (and legal right) to continue cashing in on Sakaguchi brainchild as long as they saw fit. That's just how business works.

Final Fantasy without Sakaguchi is like the Misfits without Danzig. The name and themes are the same, but the original creative driving force is missing. (More Misfits. Much like Final Fantasy itself, I am consistent if not very predictable.) But here we also see the other side to it. The post-Danzig Misfits have put out a damn good album or two in their time. I've known one or two casual, younger Misfits fans who've only listened to new Misfits and are shocked when I tell them the "Mother" guy was the band's founder and orginal songwriter/singer. Sometimes a licensed franchise can develop a life of its own under new management, and the change isn't necessarily always for the worse. Batman in the creative hands of Grant Morrison, Frank Miller (circa 1986), and Jeph Loeb is a thousand times better than the Bat-Man of Bob Kane (who, let's face it, was really a pulp hack who happened upon one very, very good idea). The Cthulhu Mythos inspired by Lovecraft's fiction has ballooned into a beast Howard Phillips couldn't have possibly imagined. In video games, you see two excellent examples in Team Ninja's reimagining of Ninja Gaiden and Crystal Dynamics's compelling (though flawed) sequels to Silicon Knights' Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain.

Square could not have done any better than Matsuno. He was the perfect choice. With Sakaguchi gone and Kitase busy elsewhere, nobody but the man behind Orge Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story was fit to carry Square's most renowned property forward into the 21st Century.

And then he had a nervous breakdown and was replaced by Kawazu, a man whose name is synonymous with all of Square's most mediocre games; the vertiable Aquaman of the Square Enix creative team. Not to harp on this, but damn. This is like James Cameron getting knocked into a coma halfway through his latest film and seeing the studio choose Joel Schumacher to succeed him. Saying that the finished product is somewhat inconsistent is like pointing out that Vaan looks just a tad fruity.



Before we delve into the usual catalogue of people and places, some words on Final Fantasy XII's reputation as an offline MMORPG. In a lot of ways, XII seems like an effort to make a Final Fantasy XI Lite for offline audiences. (Evidently, a portion of XI's programming staff also worked on XII) Outside of all the cutscenes and drama, Final Fantasy XII plays a whole lot like a single-player version of XI. The basic concept is the same: you go on quests, pimp out your characters (though unlike in an MMORPG, their appearances don't change with their equipment), and fritter hours away romping about on EXP, LP (license point), and loot grinds. And since it's a single-player game, stuff like spending forty-five minutes running around town begging people to join your party, mollifying tempers following a miscommunicated rendevouz point, and putting up with OH MY FUCKING GOD IT'S YOUR FAULT I LEVELED DOWN FUCK THIS FUCK YOU FUCK THIS GAME conniptions are now entirely unnecessary. There are more sidequests available than in any other Final Fantasy (except for XI, of course), and the player is given a great deal of freedom in deciding when he wants to tap out of progressing the story and just go on Hunts for eight game-hours. Some of XI's features have been reconfigured and transplanted into XII, such as the Crafting system. In XI, Crafting enables you assemble pieces of swag by taking a bunch of raw materials and slapping them together with some crystals (but only on the right day of the week and only if your Skill Level is high enough). In XII, Crafting has metamorphosed into the Bazaar, which only requires selling merchants the right pieces of loot and then having enough money to buy the products once they become available. It's the same concept, minus all the frustration and scores of spent hours.

Battles in XII are carried out in a sped up and smoothed out revamp of XI's purgatorial snoozefest of a combat system Square calls the Active Dimension Battle system (ADB). XI killed the battle screen, and XII keeps it dead. The battle menus and commands can be accessed at any time, except for when you're cavorting around a city or town with Vaan. Selecting the attack command once again impels a character to run towards an enemy and repeatedly smack it with his/her equipped weapon until one of them drops dead (or until a Gambit compels them to shift gears, but we'll get to that later). You've got your Technicks and Magicks. Most Techniks are imported monk/knight/samurai/thief abilites from V and Tactics, only most of them aren't useful enough to ever bother with. Magick is a lot like Magic, although it's spelled with a "k" because looks edgier and suits the imposed psuedo-Shakespearean idiom of the English localization. Some other noteworthy changes (improvements): items are back (thank god); physical attacks no longer disrupt spellcasting; and it is now possible to actually run away from a fight without getting chased for five minutes, killed, leveling down, being resurrected, and then dying again when a random fleeing player collapses right as the monster chasing him has been brought close enough to notice you and rip you to shreds ten seconds before the post-Raise Weakness debuff wears off. (Final Fantasy XI is a wound that can never heal.)

On second thought, let's leave this at "Final Fantasy XII is an effective single-player MMORPG modeled after XI" and move on. Elaborating on the topic will only draw out things that should stay repressed.




People

Here we go again.

VAAN
Age:
16
Quickenings: Flashy and spunky

An optimistic, scrappy orphan from the conquered kingdom of Dalmasca. In spite of his parents' dying from the plague, his brother's apparent murder at the hands of Basch, Achadia's takeover of Dalmasca, and the subsequent imperial occupation of his home, Vaan has tried to keep up his spirits...but then some callous imperial soldiers go stomping all over the flower he picked special for Penelo, and this is the last straw. (True story.) It's time for Vaan to take back what is his.

The funny thing about Vaan is that he was never supposed to be XII's main character. Early on, Basch (or an early prototype of Basch) was set to be the game's star. But this aroused concern amongst the Square Enix executives, who feared their prime audience (Japanese teenagers) would cringe at being put in the shoes of a wheezing, decrepit 36 year-old geezer. Vaan, likely intended to serve as a sidekick, was elevated to the postion of protagonist, despite being one of the least-important characters to the story. He's got the best stats, he's the only character the player controls inside cities and towns, and he always has to get in last word during the important cutscenes, even though he's not really calling any of the shots.

The most accurate summary of Vaan's role in Final Fantasy XII I've seen comes from R. Wolff, my sprite comicking partner in crime:

The rumours are indeed true and Vaan is the least plot-important playable character. So far that's established. However, Vaan fills a vital role in the party that I can't remember any other character in any Final Fantasy I've played (i.e. 1-10) filling so obviously. Vaan is the official party bitch.

I can just imagine a usual party meeting in the back room of a Rabanastre tavern:

Basch: Vayne gathers his forces. We must hurry and find a way to stop him, else all is lost.

Ashe: Let us leave at once for the mystical temple and seek the mystical stone.

Balthier: Good thinking, but we should go along the coast. The empire's troops won't be looking for us there.

Vaan: Coast? We're going to the beach? Awesome, I'm packing my swimming trunks!

Silence.

Balthier: Vaan. Vaan, why don't you go out and buy us a few new suits of armour? A few hundred potions and remedies, too. Be so kind, would you? Oh, and pick up my shirts from the laundromat while you're out, there's a dear.

At which point you, the player, take over and guide Vaan through an exciting city adventure full of calculating prizes and haggling with merchants. This is the reason you only ever play as Vaan inside cities.

At least it's a change from the usual "The main villain grew him in a vat."


English voice: Better than Tidus -- though really not by much. Whereas you have to endure the former's LIVE AND LET LIVE and EENIE MEENIE MINEY MOE all throughout X, you only have to put up with the latter's HEY BUCKET HEAD and I'M CAPTAIN BASCH FON RONSENBERG OF DALMASCA during a couple of (required) minigames in XII. It's still a great relief that Vaan's speaking time decreases drastically once the entire main cast is assembled and he fades into the background. I'm starting to think it's impossible to dub over a character like this in English without him sounding like someone who should be strangled.


PENELO
Age:
16
Quickenings: Sparkly shiny crap

Vaan's childhood friend, who was orphaned during the Empire's final strike against Rabanastre. Penelo is even less important than Vaan and stops speaking about 1/3 through the game. She contributes absolutely nothing to the party except for an occasional comic quip and her conspicuously pert buttocks.

More than a few have asked what the hell reason Penelo has for keeping close to Ashe, Balthier and Basch after she's been rescued. Since it's never really stated why she doesn't just ask Balthier to be drop her off in back Rabanastre so she can get back to working at the dried goods shoppe and spare herself from getting devoured alive by monsters and murdered by imperial troops, many people call it a blank spot in the plot. One possibility is that there's actually a cultural issue that gets lost in translation. Americans are a people with virtually no concept of royalty, while it hasn't even been seventy years since the Japan was forced to officially cede the divine status of its emperor. Maybe a culture with such old, ingrained notions of obligation to the hierarchy doesn't need to be explicitly told why Vaan and Penelo cling to Princess Ashe and put their lives on the line for her sake. It seems equally likely, however, that Final Fantasy XII's designers just didn't give a shit.

English dub: I forget.


BALTHIER
Age:
22 (middle-aged by JRPG standards)
Quickenings: Snobby and self-aggrandizing

First, from Wikipedia:

When asked to comment on the fan observation of a Star Wars influence, Minaba [designer and art co-director] replied that although he was a fan of the Star Wars series, it was not necessarily an influence to the game's designs.

With this in mind, let's take a look at Balthier.

The notorious Balthier is a charismatic gun-toting pirate who commandeers a unique craft with a demihuman co-pilot and is definitely in no way derivative of Han Solo. Balthier and Vaan bump into each other while trying to steal the same treasure (a sparkling jewel that predictably turns out to be a mystical artifact of incredible power and a crucial plot device), and are forced to set aside their squabbling and work together in order to escape from the imperial forces' clutches. Just like the space pirate of Stars Wars fame on whom he is most assuredly not based, Balthier is at first reluctant to help the rebels' cause, but is later swayed by the rebel princess and the purehearted determination of her teenage bumpkin friend to lend his ship and life to the battle against the empire.

English dub: Great. He certainly talks like the "leading man" he proclaims himself to be.


FRAN
Age:
?
Quickenings: Sexy sparkly shiny crap

Every Final Fantasy game has a.) a go-to girl for mystic abilities and esoteric knowledge, and b.) a female supporting cast member intended to cater to a less conventional sexual fetish. Meet Fran, Balthier's reticent Viera copilot who comes equipped with an extensive background in magical lore, body "armor" that looks it came from VampireFreaks, and a pair of fuzzy white bunny ears. I suspect somebody at Square Enix just wants to see how far the cosplayers are willing to go.

English dub: Excellent...if you like hokey Bjork impersonations and screwy vocal modulations. Otherwise, Fran just sounds silly.

BASCH (FON RONSENBERG [OF DALMASCA])
Age: 36
Quickenings: Exactly the same as everyone else's: the background goes black, the camera rotates, and Basch launches magical glowing deathstuff at people. (Side note: you'd think somebody who can blow up futuristic flying tanks with negative-color Kamehameha beams wouldn't let himself get locked up in a rusty cage for two years.)

If Matsuno had his way, Basch would be the face of Final Fantasy XII. A former soldier of Landis, Basch fled to Dalmasca after his homeland went beneath the wheels of the Archadian Empire. Following the Dalmascan defeat at Nabradia, Basch learns of an assassination plot against King Raminas and assembles a band of soldiers to foil it. Basch fails; King Raminas is murdered and Basch is framed for regicide. Proclaimed to have been executed, Basch is secrely kept alive in a steel cage in the Nalbina dungeon for two years until Vaan, Balthier, and Fran bust him out. Loathed by his people, distrusted by his former comrades, and forced to concede the Hero role to Vaan, Basch nevertheless remains steadfastly loyal to his adopted kingdom and picks up his job right where he left off.

English dub: Not bad. He sounds appropriately grizzled and disciplined. But for somebody who was conceived as the game's main character, Basch sure doesn't get to say much. (This might work to his advantage, though.)


ASHE
Age:
19
Quickenings: Remember when Final Fantasy super moves tended to reflect the character executing them and weren't just "okay, so now she grunts and sticks out her palm, and the enemy is consumed by an opalescent supernova for some reason?" That was nice.

The only daughter of Rabanastre's King Raminas. Wedded at seventeen to the young Lord Rasler of Nabradia to seal the alliance between their kingdoms, her marriage was cut viciously short with Rasler's death during the siege of Nalbina. Shortly afterwards, the Archadean Empire moved on to conquer Dalmasca and Ashe faked her own suicide to join the underground Dalmascan insurgency. Her being the sole heir of the Dalmascan throne is a source of both great poltical leverage and liability (Matsuno just loves his intrigue), and as a direct descendent of the Dynast-King Raithwall, Ashe has special access to a number of arcane forces that are of particular interest to Cid, Vayne, and Venat. She is the fulcrum on which the balance of Ivalice teeters.

English dub: Not bad. Always intense, all the time. Most of Ashe's speaking parts consist of her voice actress listing off plot tools resolutely as anyone has ever managed. "I WILL GO TO [insert ancient ruins name here]. I WILL FIND THE [insert artifact name here.] I WILL USE [artifact] TO ACQUIRE THE [artifact] AND CLAIM THE [something]."


VOSSLER
Age: 38



An old comrade of Bashe's and personal bodyguard to Ashe, Vossler has spent the last two years as a central organizer of the Dalmascan insurgency. Lately, the increasingly apparent futility of the rebels' cause has compelled Vossler to make certain pragmatic concessions regarding his mission. A flash in the sixty-hour pan, but perhaps an interesting one if you consider how he differs from the usual Final Fantasy Judas-type character. (At least he's thought it over.)

English dub: Okay. Doesn't do the character any favors, but doesn't do any harm.


LARSA SOLIDOR
Age: 12



The liberal-minded youngest son of Lord Gramis of Archadia, Larsa has taken it upon himself to see the conflict between Archadia and Rozarria resolved without any further bloodshed. He wears tights, speaks with a dainty faux-British accent, and plays a young prince in a Final Fantasy game, succeeding a long line of royal wusses like Allus, Gordon, and Edward. Yet somehow, Larsa isn't the little pansy you'd expect him to be. Kid's got moxy, and can actually carry his own weight in battle. (Any ally who comes with an unlimited supply of Hi Potions is okay in my book.)

English dub: Prim. Like a Care Bear with a British accent. Nothing else would have really suited him, though.


REDDAS
Age:
33



The mighty pirate Reddas is the head honcho of Port Balfonheim, a safe haven for Ivalice's sea and skyfaring rogues. On the surface he is an ally of Archadia, offering up a cut of Balfonheim's profits to the empire in exchange for the port's safety. Secretly, he works at the behest of Marquis Ondore to gather intelligence and help stymie the Archadian conquest. Reddas is very interested in Dr. Cid's military work at Draklor Laboratories, for practical and personal reasons.

English dub: Excellent. He's played by the same actor who voices Jack in Samurai Jack, Green Lantern in the Justice League animated series, Hermes from Futurama, etc., who delivers a characteristically fine performance. (Possibly the best in the whole game, really.)


MARQUIS HALIM ONDORE



The requisite kindhearted but flawed uncle of the young princess. Bhujerba's pragmatic ruler Ondore is an ally of Dalmasca's old order, through lately he has made every pretense of kowtowing to the empire in order to keep their forces out of Bhujerba. In reality, the crafty politician is biding his time and waiting for an opportunity to mount a large-scale resistance movement against Archadia. Ondore also acts as a kind of narrator throughout XII, reading passages from his memoirs pertaining to the military and political effects of major events.

English dub: Pretty good. Ondore speaks in a phony accent with a Hindi inflection, but seemingly only when the voice actor thinks of it. Still solid, though.


GRAN KILTIAS



The patriarch of the Light of Kiltia, Ivalice's dominant religion. If Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy X, Grandia 2, and Breath of Fire 2 are any indication, your average JRPG designer has a less than favorable opinion of Christianity, as virtually every Catholic-like institution in their games are always full of savage templars and corrupted priests whose lordly deities always turn out to be horrible archdemons. The Light of Kiltia, however, is derivative of a pointedly more Eastern sect, and its leader bears a lot more in common with your Dalai Lama than your Pope. Therefore, Gran Kiltias is nothing but a noble, benevolent greybeard who is savagely murdered when the rapacious American Archadian military machine storms his temples without warning and kills all the poor refugees, because they are arrogant fucking Yankee bastards bad people who do bad things to good people.

English dub: Passes.


AL-CID



The sole representative of the oft-mentioned but never-seen Rozarrian Empire. Al-Cid is Eurotrash without the Europe. Tawdry. Annoying. Definitely a post-Matsuno creation. He was probably only crammed into XII because some executive balked at the idea of a Final Fantasy game with an evil Cid character and demanded the scales be balanced with the addition of a "good" Cid.

English dub: Ugh. Another fake accent. Apparently they couldn't decide whether Al-Cid was supposed to sound Spanish, Italian, Russian, or Romanian. Good thing he only makes a total of three appareances.


MONTBLANC



Marshe's prime ally and guide from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is transplanted into XII as a stationary sidequest dispenser. Talk to him in Clan Centurio's Rabanastre headquarters to sign yourself up to get ripped to shreds by all the game's nastiest optional beasties.


MOOGLES



They're back and now they have bunny ears a la Tactics Advance. Never thought I could get sick of moogles, but...


VIERA



If Final Fantasy XII were the Lord of the Rings films (which it isn't, but not for lack of trying) the Viera would be the elves. Gorgeous, peremptory, and isolationist, the Viera get their jollies by sneering at everyone and everything outside their ancestral home in Eruyt Village. Viera society regards the world of the humes (that's what we're calling humans again by the way) as backwards and impure, and any Viera who leaves Eruyt is ostracized and unable to ever return. God, it's like visiting Williamsburg.

English dub: Weird. While Fran sounds like an American woman doing a Bjork impression, her older sister talks like an American woman trying to speak in Count Dracula voice. Who knows.


BANGAA & SEEQ



The brawnier peoples of Ivalice. The Bangaa are a race of slurring, sobbering (but otherwise very articulate and well-mannered) reptilian humanoids, while the Seeq are doltish, lumbering pigmen obsessed with money and shiny things. The Bangaa are crossovers from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The Seeq are inspired by American tourists.


THE OCCURIA



The ancient "gods" of Ivalice, the Occuria are a race of undying beings who watch over the world from their perch high about the ancient city of Giruvegan. They are the creators of both the Espers and Nethicite, and have indirectly manipulated the course of civilization in Ivalice for a long, long time. Periodically, the Occuria will select certain powerful figures and grant them shards of Nethicite. With the Nethicite, these rulers are able subjugate and unite the unruly factions of Ivalice and establish order (as the Occuria see fit). The last figure chosen by the Occuria was Raithwall, the Dynast-King, and now their eyes are set on Ashe. Including the heretic Venat, there are at least five Occuria. A novel take on "the gods," to be sure.

English dub: Interesting. They speak in heavily-filtered and apparently genderless tones, but what's really worth noting is that most of their localized dialogue is written in unrhymed iambic tetrameter. (The meter isn't always perfect, but it's a commendable effort.)


LORD GRAMIS SOLIDOR & THE ARCHADIAN SENATE



Peculiar artifacts from Matsuno's tenure as producer/director. For the first half or so of Final Fantasy XII, occasional cutscenes provide glimpses of the political maneuvers and power struggles at the very top of Archadia. We meet Emperor Gramis, who seems like less of a murderous power junkie than a sick old man shouldering the immense task of ruling an empire. Gramis is at odds with the senators, who are trying to check House Solidor's power and syphon it towards themselves. The player's characters never get to meet any of them. The emperor is murdered off-camera, and there is only a passing mention of the Senate's disbanding and their leader committing suicide. These are some of the most interesting scenes in the game, if only because they feel so out of place sharing the stage with moogles and dancing cacti.

English dub: Quality.


ARCHADIAN ARMY



Upholders of the Final Fantasy series' long-standing motif of easily-killed cannon fodder representing the Avaricious and Unscrupulous Imperialist Power of the Week. They're real good at swarming and overwhelming your team when you're not careful.

English dub: Goofy. They speak in muffled voices with accents that make them sound like a bunch of modern-day yahoos imitating Monty Python. Taking these guys seriously isn't easy.


JUDGES



As you're probably aware, Ivalice's Judges are originally from Final Fantasy Tatics Advance, in which they presided over battles, enforcing hosts of rules by blowing their whistles and handing out yellow cards to offending participants. In this (substantially less absurd) incarnation of Ivalice, the Judges are the personal guards of House Solidor and de facto commanders of the Archadian army. The highest ranking judges are the Magisters, of which there are five. There's Judge Ghis, the smug old man (re: Grand Moff Tarkin from A New Hope); Judge Bergan, the ruthless army leader and veritable fascist; Judge Zargabaath, the quiet one; the discerning and principled Judge Drace; and Judge Grabranth, whom we'll get to later. With the exceptions of Ghis and Bergan, the Judges are treated much the same as Emperor Gramis: not quite depicted as the cruel and blackhearted servants of an evil empire, but but as civil and military leaders trying to do their jobs during a tumultuous period.

English dub: Excellent. The English script's stuffy dialogue can feel out of place elsewhere, but it suits the Judges perfectly. Zargabaath is actually voiced by the same person who played the titular character of the Legacy of Kain series (one of the greatest spoken roles in the history of video games). Question is, why did they cast such an enormous talent to play such a minor role? He would have made a much better Basch or Gabranth.


BA'GAMMAN



A bangaa bounty hunter obsessed with bringing down Balthier. He is actually green-armored spaceman Boba Fett reincarnated as a green lizard, and once again meets his end by taking a nasty fall out in the desert (and once again, we're never shown a body).

Minaba says Final Fantasy XII's developers were not directly inspired by Star Wars. Minaba's mouth is a womb of lies.

English dub: Not bad. All Ba'Gamman has to do is shout, snarl, and hiss, so...


VENAT



Part Prometheus and part Jenova, Venat is the outcast of the Occuria. Despised by its bretheren as a heretic, Venat has quit Giruvegan and descended to Ivalice, where it has been passing Occurian secrets on to men -- Dr. Cid, in particular. Venat and Cid's partnership has resulted in the deaths of thousands; the other Occuria want Venat destroyed. But whatever its means or reasons, all Venat apparently wants is to see the Occuria shoved out of the driver's seat and mankind put in charge of its own destiny. Curious. (Venat's original Japanese name, by the way, is "Venus.")

English dub: Interesting. Venat's voice gets the same treatment as the other Occuria, except its dialogue gets an extra beat beat per line, which makes it unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse). Hmm.


DR. CID



Here we go again. One of Final Fantasy XII's central cast members is a quirky middle-aged man named Cid with a talent for engineering and machines, who is also a twisted, ruthless maniac. What? This is a new trick.

Six years ago, the respected Archadian scientist Dr. Cid embarked on a research expedition and returned to Archadia a changed man. He has become increasingly withdrawn, fixated on Nethicite, and frequently speaks to things that nobody else can see. Cid is the architect of most of XII's events, including the imperial push to conquer Dalmasca, the annihilation of Nabudis, the magical enhancement of Judge Bergan and Vayne, and the construction and activation of the battleship Bahamut. As a member of XII's trio of central antagonists, Cid puts on his best Hojo act to complement Gabranth's Seifer and Vayne's Seymour routines. Manic, menacing, and unrepentant to the very end, Cid is one of the better latter-day Final Fantasy villains. (Who saw it coming?)

English dub: Very good. Funny, but not ha-ha funny. The character is supposed to come across as equal parts rambling kook and evil genius, and the English dub accomplishes this excellently.


JUDGE GABRANTH



He is Darth Vader. The first time he appears to yell at Ba'Gamman, you half expect him to start jabbing his finger into the lizard's chest and growl "NO DISINTIGRATIONS."

The "mysterious" Judge Magister Gabranth has held his post for the two years that have passed since Judge Magister Zecht disappeared after the Nabudis incident. Beneath the iron mask is a noble, generally chivalrous (if not conflicted and histrionic) character, except when he's assassinating kings and framing his twin brother Basch for it. No, this is not a spoiler -- Gabranth's kinship with Basch is revealed about two hours into the game. It might seem like a waste of a good plot twist (especially for a game in such sore need of them), but does the world really need another "it's been a long time....BROTHER" sequence? What's funny is that the direction and dialogue still present it as a massive revelation when Gabranth meets the party for the first time, and it's just as funny that some forgetful players receive as one. Keep in mind that it's something like fifty-five hours between the scene in which Bashe confronts his clean-shaven, scarless doppelganger at the bottom of Nalbina dungeon and the scene where Gabranth jumps out and yells "IT WAS I WHO FRAMED BASCH AND KILLED THE KING!" We can probably be forgiven for not remembering.

English dub: Limey and lugubrious.


YIAZMAT & OMEGA MK. XII



Final Fantasy XII's superbosses. In order to even fight them, you need to first take out all of Montblanc's other marks. I was planning on doing it, but then BlazBlue intervened.

I'll get to them eventually.


VAYNE SOLIDOR



Let's see here. Long, raven-colored hair. Impeccably dressed and groomed. Silver-tongued, suing for peace. A high-ranking figure in the antagonisitc imperial power, but not quite at the top. If you've played more than one post-VII Final Fantasy game and haven't deduced that Vayne is XII's main antagonist within five minutes of his first appearance, you seriously need to work on cultivating a sense of pattern recognition.

The eldest son of Emperor Gramis, the ambitious, brilliant Vayne Solidor has recently been appointed imperial Consul of Rabanastre. But Vayne is a schemer and has plans of his own. Sixty hours later, after committing patricide, seizing absolute power in Archadia, and meddling with ancient forbidden forces, Vayne stands atop airborne fortress high above Ivalice, poised to assume total domination. And then the heroes beat him up and he transforms into a monstrous out-of-control demigod when his power runs amok and consume him. Don't look so shocked.

Like Cid and Gabranth, Vayne is more of a Matsuno villain than a Final Fantasy villain. Typically, Final Fantasy villains are either blackhearted demons or human psychopaths; but Mr. Matsuno doesn't see the world as being so black and white. Vayne may be a ruthless autocrat, but so was the historically-revered Dynast-King whom Vayne strives to emulate. All Vayne's talk about wresting mankind's destiny from Ocurrian doesn't sound like a cruel or evil cause in itself, however brutal his methods might be. It's worth noting that while Venat's ultimate goal is the breaking of the Occuria's hold over Ivalice, Vayne is under the impression that doing so is simply a means towards his own personal end of ruling Ivalice. So: in order to free Ivalice from Occurian control, one of the Occuria manipulates a powerful man into doing its bidding with false promises of attaining absolute power over Ivalice. Interesting.

Hmm. Vayne. A villain from a video game developed between 2001 and 2006, who acts as the military commander of a martial superpower that sends his armies to invade other countries and commits unscrupulous deeds, all for the professed cause of spreading peace and assuring mankind's freedom. Where do you suppose Square got that idea from...?

English dub: Great. The dub emphasises Vayne's coldness, ruthlessness, and total self-confidence in himself. No complaints here.


THE UNDYING



The old "fallen angel" routine again. Ho hum. The cyber-godling part was a nice touch, but enough is enough. The Undying might as well have been named "Vayniroth."

The last boss is the product of a critically-wounded Vayne overglutting himself on Venat's power and merging with the Bahamut's machinery at the behest of Final Fantasy XII's developers, who had been working on the game for five fucking years and were told they could go home and see their families as soon as the last boss fight was finished. Don't go in expecting much. (The Esper battles are a lot more interesting.)


Places

In spite of all my grousing and griping about how much more interesting Square's games used to be when they were on the Super Nintendo and I was twelve years old, and in spite of my insistence that a $50 Gamestop purchase entitles me to nothing short of sixty hours of sustained intellectual and spiritual satori akin to Keats's reading Chapman's translation of the Iliad for the first time (what do you mean my standards are unreasonable?), credit must be given where credit is due. If nothing else, Final Fantasy XII gives you one hell of a world to run around in. To the best of my knowledge, no other JRPG world has come anywhere close to being as massive or detailed as XII's Ivalice. "Pushing the limits of the hardware" is an overused phrase that everyone must be sick of by now, but I'm not sure what else can be said about XII's environmental graphics. Even an old-timer like me, who will probably always prefer 2D backgrounds to CG environments, can't help being impressed.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS



In your early RPGs, entrances to town and dungeon maps are scattered across a single world map. When the player isn't stocking up on supplies in town or exploring a bottomless cave in the middle of the swamp, he is in the world map screen, dragging his party between location markers and fending off randomly-appearing monsters.

At some point in the mid to late Nineties, game designers realized that players preferred being someplace than being between places, and the time spent traveling on the world map was trimmed and slashed. Final Fantasy X did away with it altogether (as did many post-PSX JRPGs). Spira is practically a digitized trot along Oz's Yellow Brick Road, with Tidus prancing down narrow strips of traversible road through fantastic landscapes.

Final Fantasy XII draws from XI to ressurect a semblance of the old-school world map. Between towns and cities are tremendous stretches of wilderness with wide open areas and multiple branching paths. Depending on how often you fight or flee from monsters, it can take something like fifteen to thirty minutes to get from one town to the next if you're not buying airship rides or using Teleport Crystals. The first time you really get a sense of Ivalice's size is about five hours in, when the party embarks across the Westersand to find Raithwall's tomb. Basch says there's a long road ahead. He is not kidding.


A WHOLE BUNCH OF ANCIENT RUINS



It's been a while. Ever since Final Fantasy VII or so, we've seen a gradual diminishment of repeated "go to some godforsaken haunted ruins in the middle of nowhere and retrieve the magical item" missions. Surely it occured to game developers that dispatching the player on fetch quest after fetch quest doesn't exactly help drive the riveting plots that were all of a sudden required of JRPGs. Though the old dungeon dive still appears in newer Final Fantasy games, they don't occur nearly as often and are much less formidable than they used to be. Final Fantasy XII reverses this trend and thrusts a slew of "go to ruins, find the treasure" missions at players, accompanied by dungeons more brutal than any we've seen in a while. Several floors, multiple bosses, large and hard to navigate maps, and "hit switches/insert items to proceed" puzzles are once again the norm in Final Fantasy XII. It also introduces these cute trick Save Crystals that turn into vicious monsters when you approach them. Those things are great.


RABANASTRE



In typical Square fashion, the very first city you encounter in XII is the biggest, most impressive, and obviously consumed the most man hours in its design. (Another Square tactic you must be used to by now: shock and awe.)

Rabanastre is Dalmasca's capital city, and home to four of the game's six heroes. Formerly the central hub of the Dynast-King's Galtean Alliance, its decline as a superpower coincided with the rise of the Rozarrian and Archadian empires. With a strategic position in Ivalice's central isthmus and a relatively small military, Rabanastre made a ripe and easily-plucked fruit for Archadia. Rabanastre exists as an oppressed Archadian puppet state, its military dismantled and monarchy toppled.

Apart from the fictional historical tidbits, Rabanastre comes off as an amalgamation of Mos Eisley from Star Wars and the game designers' parents'/grandparents' recollections of the post-World War II occupation. Watch the early cutscenes again and replace the word "Archadia" with "America," "Rabanastre/Dalmsca" with "Japan" and "Emperor" with "President" for an uncanny historical analog.


BHUJERBA



The fabulous airborne city of Bhujerba is Ivalice's greatest source of Magicite, the magical fuel that lights its cities and powers its airships. Incidentally, the island's high concentration of Magicite is what keeps Bhujerba from falling out of the sky -- the very same Magicite the city mines and exports by the ton. Surely there's a hint of a message in this.


ARCHADES



The imperial captial is divided into two sections: Old Archades and Archades Proper. Old Archades is a massive slum on the outskirts of the central city, a sewer basin for all the city's losers and hopefuls. Information is currency here: everyone constantly scrambles to beat everybody else to discovering the Hot Tip or inside knowledge that will give them the edge and make them a buck. The city proper -- whose gates only open to those with the right paperwork or enough cash -- is a cosmopolitan metropolis whose citizens live contented lives of luxury, surrounded by comforts and splendors paid for with the plundered wealth of conquered nations.

Two small tidbits about Archadia. One is that it's the site of Draklor Laboratories, which is really nothing more than a poor man's MagiTek Research Facility. The second is -- well, does anybody else detect a similarity between the skyline of Final Fantasy XII's oppressive imperial city and the view of Manhattan from across the river? Am I just being crazy and paranoid...?


THE PHAROS AT RIDORANA



A dungeon worthy of the old school. The Pharos is a massive tower consisting of three areas spanning 100 floors and twelve maps, with three different sets of puzzles and seven bosses. At the top lies the Sun-Cryst, the source of the Occuria's Nethicite and Final Fantasy XII's veritable Ark of the Covenant. At the bottom rests a nasty optional dungeon whose normal enemies can wipe out a party that beat the boss of the game. It's one of the most challenging treks in a Final Fantasy game in years, and a far more exciting and climactic trip than XII's final area (which comes immediately afterwards).


NABREUS & NABUDIS



Hello Hiroshima. Haven't seen an allusion to you in a while.


THE BAHAMUT



Cid's greatest creation and Archadia's ultimate weapon: the warship Bahamut, an aerial battle fortress with unsurpassed firepower. If you're naive enough to believe Minaba, it is absolutely not a phallus-shaped Death Star.

Bahamut is yet another disappointingly-brief final dungeon, containing only five screens and four boss fights (one of which is a rematch; the remaining three are just different forms of the same foe). The path towards Vayne's inner sanctum is one of the few instances in Final Fantasy of a particular game's "imperial troops" becoming a real and inescapable threat. Unlimited numbers of Archadian soldiers constantly spawn in packs and relentlessly pursue your team throughout the ship. Still, it's hard not to suspect this place was just another end-phase rush job.


Things

NETHICITE



Ah, yes. Every Final Fantasy has some magical item or other representing the archaic force that the villain needs in order to fulfill his dreams of world domination, which the heroes need to find before he does (only to ultimately hand it over to the villain after he takes the princess hostage). In XII, we have Nethicite.

Instead of emanating magical power as Magicite does, Nethicite gobbles up and stores it. This stored energy can be released with catastrophic results, as the world learned from the Nabudis incident.

There are two kinds of Nethicite. One is Deificated Nethicite, which was created by the Occuria. Deifacted Nethicite is more rare and generally holds more power. The other is Manufacted Nethicite, which Cid succeeded in engineering under Venat's guidance. Manufacted Nethicite doesn't pack quite the punch of the real thing, but is more malleable and far more abundant.

And that is Nethicite in a nutshell. Nobody in Final Fantasy XII ever shuts up about this stuff and you get tired of hearing about it. (Especially when the plot starts borrowing from Lord of the Rings, with Ashe playing Frodo, Vaan playing Sam, and the Nethicite serving as the One Ring.)


MIST



And here we go again with another paranormal force that is closely tied to the magics and monsters of its fictional world! In Final Fantasy XII, all magic in Ivalice has its source in a supernatural substance called Mist. For the sake of XII's story, the Mist makes a great all-purpose plot device. In battle, each character has two "Mist" commands: Espers and Quickenings. The Esper commands summons Espers (obviously), while Quickenings are XII's take on the Limit Break. I think we'll let somebody else explain how they work:

Once the license for a Quickening has been learned, that Quickening slot is removed from all other character's license boards, which means that only one character can learn a Quickening from any specific slot on the license board (note that there are enough Quickening slots on the License grid for every character to obtain three).

Each time a character learns a Quickening, they will receive an extra Mist Charge. A Mist Charge is basically a second MP bar, and can be used for extra MP for ordinary spells, or as an extra charge for a Quickening.

Quickenings have three levels. Once a character has learnt their first quickening, they have their version of the level one Quickening; they will gain one Mist Charge bar, and this Quickening will cost one Mist Charge to perform.

When this character learns their second Quickening, they have their version of the level two Quickening; they will gain another Mist Charge bar (total of two) and this Quickening will cost two Mist Charges to perform.

When this character learns their third and final Quickening, they will have their version of the level three Quickening; they will gain another Mist Charge bar (max total of three) and this quickening will cost three Mist Charges to perform.

To perform a Quickening, all you need is to have at least one Mist Charge available, and all you have to do is access the Mist option in the battle menu, choose the Quickening option, and then choose whichever Quickening you wish to perform.

When you have selected a Quickening (and chosen an appropriate target), the Quickening will be performed, however, this alone will do little damage; you must chain a succession of Quickenings together to get the desired effect.

To create a chain, you must pay attention to the bottom right hand side of the screen at the beginning of each Quickening. When you perform your first Quickening, you must chain a second Quickening onto the combo within a certain time limit. The time limit is displayed as both a bar, and as a numerical value (the bar is so that you can monitor it out of the corner of your eye, without having to switch your attention from the Quickening commands to the numerical value).

Above the timer bar, you should see a button for each of the characters in your party who have learned at least one Quickening, and next to it, you should see a particular command. This command will either read "Mist Charge" or it will be the name of one of the Quickenings that this character has learned. If it is a Quickening (not "Mist Charge") it will also display the number of Charges needed to perform that Quickening. For example, if you have Vaan in your party, and you have learned White Whorl, it might read:

[] White Whorl oo

This would indicate that the Quickening White Whorl is available to be performed, and that it costs two Mist Charges to perform. As the button at the beginning is the Square button (indicated by []) if you wanted to perform this Quickening, you would press the Square button.

When you choose a Quickening to perform, this freezes the time bar.

Sometimes, you will see that the commands that are displayed are in grey and not white. This is because you have learned that particular quickening, but you do not currently have enough Mist Charges to perform that Quickening. For example, if choose the Quickening Pyroclasm to start the Quickening chain, this will use all three of your Mist Charges, and will mean that you won't have any left to perform a second Quickening.

If however, you were to start the Quickening chain with 'Red Spiral' you would only use one Mist Charge, which means that, if either 'Red Spiral' or 'White Whorl' were to become available, you would have enough charges to perform either one of them.

If you see the command "Mist Charge" next to a particular character, you are being given the change to refill that characters Mist Charges up to their maximum level. For example if you have learned two Quickenings with Vaan and you are given the Mist Charge option, this will refill his charges back to two.

When you choose the Mist Charge option, the timer will not stop, as you haven't chosen another Quickening to continue the chain; you have only refilled a character's Mist Charges.

When you have chosen the Mist Charge option, all the options will be shuffled, and you will have three brand new options from which to choose. These options might be Mist Charges for the other two characters, or they might be Quickenings.

Note that there is always one command for each character, and that character will always correspond to the same button within the same chain i.e. Vaan will not switch from Square to Triangle in the middle of a chain: he will always remain the same button.

The way the button assignment is determined is dependent on whom you have in your party. The person at the top of the party list in the battle screen will always correspond with Triangle. The person second on the list will always correspond with Square, and the bottom person will always correspond with X. The Circle button is not used when performing Quickenings.

Sometimes you will find that all of the options available to you are grey. This will either be because you have used all of your Mist Charges or because you do not have enough Mist Charges to perform any of the Quickenings presented. If this is the case, you can press the R2 button to shuffle your options. This will give you three brand new options from which to pick; however you are not guaranteed to be given an option you can perform. Also be aware that the timer does not stop when you choose to shuffle, as you still haven't chosen another Quickening to continue the chain.

To perform a large chain, you must juggle between not using up all of your charges, and not using up all of your time.

Once your time is up, you will perform a Concurrence. This is dependent on the length of your chain: the higher the chain means a better Concurrence.

Also note that anyone who performs a Quickening in a chain will use all their Mist Charges.


Wow! Fantastic! Not quite as cool as Final Fantasy XI's skillchain system, but close!


ESPERS



The Phantom Beasts return yet again. In XII, the Espers are powerful spirits created as divine "scions" by the Occuria. When their pride and vanity impelled them to rebel against their creators, the Espers were defeated, cast down, and banished to the Mist. (This reminds me: if you've never read Paradise Lost before, you probably should. Just saying.)

XII's Espers are so clever. First off, all the more familiar summon monsters are absent -- no Ifrit, no Ramuh, no Shiva (well, almost not Shiva), no Alexander, no Odin. Twelve of this particularly demonic batch of thirteen Espers have been pulled from Final Fantasy Tactics' Lucavi, Tactics Advances's Totema, and the final boss fights of Final Fantasy I through V. (Shemhazai the Whisperer is the only new one.) And there's the parallelism between them and the main characters: in their rebellion against the Archadian Empire, XII's heroes find themselves petitioning the aid of beings that tried to overthrow the gods themselves. (Subtext brought to you by poor, crazy Matsuno.)




If this sounds too good to be true, it is. For all their razzle dazzle, Espers are absolutely useless in XII. Summoning them is a waste of time at best and suicide at worst. At least they make some fun bosses.


THE LICENSE BOARD



Final Fantasy XII's specially-designed skill acquisition system is called the License Board. It works sort of like a more open-ended version of X's Sphere Grid. Every character in Final Fantasy XII is essentially a blank slate, as per II, III, and V. Expending License Points (LP) earned in battle activate tiles, which allows a character to use better equipment, learn special abilities, acquire stat bonuses, etc. Activating a space reveals its adjacent spaces, which can then be activated themselves. Inititally, you are forced to be pragmatic in building up your team since you only have so much LP available. However, by the time your guys hits level 60, they will all be Ragarok-swinging, Scathe-casting, Ribbon-wearing battle gods. Not a bad system altogether, although we're going to overlook the absurdity of requiring Basch to file a license with his Archadian overlords in order to equip the Mythril Sword he intends to use in battle against his Archadian overlords.

(Addendum: just discovered that the characters are not blank slates. Turns out their base stats all develop differently, although it tends towards boys = fighters, girls = casters, Vaan = strongest. Bah.)


GAMBITS



Around when I was halfway through XII, a coworked of mine mentioned that she had recently picked up and was playing Final Fantasy X. Replying to the question of how she liked it, she said something like, "it's pretty good...I like it so far, except for when the game plays itself."

"Plays itself?" I said. "What do you mean?"

"You know, when you're walking around and suddenly you go into a cutscene or something, and you're just sitting there and watching the game do its own thing. I want to play a video game, not watch it."

Good thing she hadn't picked up XII instead.

In Final Fantasy XII, Gambits are sets of conditional instructions you can program party members to follow so that you don't have to micromanage three characters acting in real-time battles. On the plus side, the Gambit system is by far the best method of managing AI-controlled teammates I've ever seen in an RPG, and it's light years ahead of selecting vague "play defensive" or "use spells" algorithms as you do in games like Persona or Star Ocean. The negative side is that Gambits can make the person playing the game virtually unnecessary if he knows how to program his team and has a good idea of what they're up against. Someone knowing how to work the system can just select the "fight" command once, sit back, and watch his progammed chararacters working in tandem to dismantle the opposition without any further input. With the proper Gambits, your team will constantly dish out damage, automatically keep themselves healed, cured, and buffed, and never allow themselves to run out of MP. In XII the player often assumes a sort of "supervisor" role, only ever intervening directly to use Quickenings or to get the system back on track when something unexpectedly disrupts it.

"Hi! We're Square Enix! We just spent thirty-five million dollars making a game that's so cutting-edge, it doesn't need people to play it! We're geniuses!"


MARKS & HUNTS



In your typical MMORPG, a great deal of your game time is spent going out on quests. The process is probably the same across the board: you talk to an NPC who usually asks you to go somewhere, kill something, and bring something back. Once you do what they say and return to them, you are rewarded with experience points, money, special items, scraps of story, etc. Then you move on, find another NPC and do it again, and keep on repeating the process until you turn twenty-eight, go to your high school reunion, and discover that your old girlfriend and her new real estate agent boyfriend are unimpressed by your character's being a level 75 NIN, DAN, PAL, and THF, and no, they don't want to go out sometime and catch up, thank you.

Anyway. Final Fantasy XII, as a veritable offline MMORPG, has a similar object called a Hunt. Here's how it works: you either check a tavern's message board or talk to Montblanc in Rabanastre for a list of hunts. Once a Hunt has been selected, you go prancing halfway across the world to talk to the NPC that posted the bill, who informs you of a special monster he wants killed and hints at its general location. Then you run halfway across the world to track down your Mark, which usually turns out to be a bigger, recolored/reskinned version of a standard enemy with more HP and stronger attacks. Once it's been beaten to death, you collect some trinket or other and take it back to your client in exchange for some cash, a couple of iterms, and the gripping resolution of their micro-sideplot ("Thank you! The missing child is saved!" "That golem was created by me, all along!" "I'll never play with matches again!" "Yay! The shepherds have a place to pray!"). Then you adjust your beanbag chair and pop the tab on your tenth can of Mountan Dew.

And this how 40-60% of the 50-100 hours you spend playing Final Fantasy XII will go. Early on, monsters drop such lousy loots that you'll need to do Hunts for the cash bonuses, so you can keep pace with the new equipment and spells becoming available. Later on, doing higher-level Hunts is necessary to acquire exclusive equipment, unlock some nifty Bazaar items, and raise your Clan Rank high enough to buy some crucial spells at the guild shop.

It's not that all this isn't fun -- because it certainly is, in the same brain-draining way as a Disgaea grind, Grand Theft Auto rampage trance, or an hour spent messing around in Guilty Gear's training mode. But "time-consuming and repetitive" is an understatement. The Hunts must have been designed to require either a Wiki or strategy guide to be completed in a reasonable amount of time.

When your contact tells you where to find your Mark, he usually only provides you the name of general area and a small, often unhelpful hint. My favorite Hunt so far has been Marilith. This is the information you are given by the petitioner, as it appears in your Clan Primer:

Saw bill posted for the hunting of the Marilith (Rank V). The petitioner is the tavernmaster at the Sandsea tavern in Rabanastre.

Hunt accepted. The tavernmaster wants you to collect an important ingredient for making wine from the mark. The Marilith is to be found in Zertinan Caverns, somewhere near the Dalmasca Westersand. You'll just have to perform a thorough search to find out where.


"Perform a thorough search." That's cute. The Zeritan Caverns map consists of about a dozen different zones. "Just look carefully" is your only clue. What this actually translates to is "locate a particular part of a specific area in the Caverns that has virtually nothing distinguishing it, and stand around for five minutes. This will cause Marilith to spawn."

And that's the only way to do it. Even Simon's Quest has less asinine puzzles than this.

Marilith might be the one of the worst, but there are also those several Marks that only show up in certain parts of certain maps under certain weather conditions (which are often unspeficifed or vague). "Go kill the Lindwrym in the Tchikta Uplands," your contact tells you, and offers a hint about clouds that doesn't get recorded in the Clan Primer. Chances are the player on an unguided Lindwrym hunt will be running around in circles for two hours, pulling at his hair and screaming "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME" at the television. Since he hasn't the foggiest idea of where to expect this thing to appear, all he can can do is wander Tchika aimlessly until he manages to stumble -- totally by chance -- into the right part of a particular area under the correct weather conditions. You don't even need a particularly cynical mind to spy a correlation between rubbish like this and the ad for the $20 BradyGames strategy guide in the back of the game's instruction booklet.

First Blitzball, then Final Fantasy XI, and now games of virtual marco polo with skewed rules. This just isn't reasonable. Just how much time does Square Enix believe the average Final Fantasy fan is willing to spend on this kind of dreck? (I think I already answered my own question by mentioning XI before.)

(Addendum: Now I go back and find out the little Nu Mou in Clan Centurio headquarters gives you clues toward the location of your current mark. Hmph. That's really something I would have liked to know seventy game hours ago.)




End of the Tour

Each successive Final Fantasy since VII has left me feeling increasingly divided. Ever since VIII, Square hasn't put out a single Final Fantasy game I would recommend to my friends with the same enthusiasm as I would IV through VII or newer JRPGs like Mother 3 and

...with the same enthusiasm I would IV through VII and Mother 3. At the same time, I don't think I can recommend against playing them, like I would Shadow Hearts, .hack or Disgaea. (NIS. Never doing that to myself again.)

Final Fantasy has become such a mixed bag. When you reach inside, you're guaranteed a fistful of dogshit and gold in proportions that vary from game to game. The extent to which a player can enjoy the Final Fantasy XII experience depends on how much of one he is willing to put up with for the sake of the other.

Rather than weighing out what's good and bad in Final Fantasy XII and post-merger Square across five roundaboutly meandering paragraphs of second-guesses and unelaborated throughts, we're going to let two separate perspectives speak for themselves. One hopefully isn't any less valid than the other, and the one I subscribe to depends on my mood.


GOOD END

There are so many things I could scream and groan about regarding Final Fantasy XII. The story's not up to par, not handled as effectively as it should have been, and is so widely scattered between Hunts and traveling that it's easy to forget what the heck is going on. The endgame was rushed, yet again. Too many Hunts, too much backtracking, too much gamer crack for obsessive-compulsive collectors. The Zodiac Spear is impossible to find unless you read a strategy guide before playing the game. Vaan is a twink. Fran was designed to be a resin figure, not a character in story. Final Fantasy and the JRPG are stuck in a developmental ditch, and XII does nothing to improve the situation. Blah, blah, blah, and blah.

And yet, I'm having a hard time spurring myself into a nerd rage.

This was the first game we've covered that I first played after turning twenty-one (except for XI, but that one doesn't count) . There is no nostalgia skewing my impressions this time around (which has certainly happened before, though I might not always have been aware of it).

Why do I bring this up? Well, I was reading an article on Final Fantasy XIII in Edge, and came across this:

We ask Kitase if, as he settles into his 40s, he ever thinks about those members of the Final Fantasy audience who have also grown up with the series. After all, even those players who only joined the fanbase with the seventh game in the series, the first to make a truly global impact, are now entering their 30s. Surely the expectations of these players and the things that they look out for in games are different now to what they were ten, 15 years ago. Is Square Enix interested in changing the tone or theme or style its output to meet these changing needs of the audience?

"I actually think that it's a very natural thing for players to grow out of the
Final Fantasy series," he answers. "In terms of the age group we target with each new game, it remains the teens to 20-somethings. That said, you're right in saying that some of our staff have been working on the series for many years. They are having new experiences and growing and they inevitably do bring those new ideas and perspectives to their work. In Final Fantasy XIII, for example, we have a greater spread of older characters in the story than we have had in the past. Satzu is older, has a family and is not really the kind of character one would normally encounter or play as in the series. But, that said, I think it's better that we keep the focus on the young generation rather than ageing the series' appeal. If players choose to stick around and continue playing the games as they grow older then that's great, but hopefully new generations will find the appeal, grow up with the series and then pass that down to the next generation as they themselves grow older".

Back to Final Fantasy XII, though. I'm not sure if it's necessarily that much worse a game than VI or VII (the high points of the whole series, if you're just tuning in). It's got some egregious flaws, but it's not like VI and VII were without some glaring imperfections themselves. VI can be sappy and sententious, and its system is too easily borked; VII is beyond convoluted and it oversimplifies its game far too much. Sure. But I don't recall holding these against VI and VII to the same extent that Vaan's frutiness and the abstruse Quickening Chain functions irritated me throughout XII.

I get the sense that I'd find Final Fantasy XII much more captivating if I a.) were twelve to sixteen years old again and b.) hadn't already played more than twelve other Final Fantasy games was able to hit New Game on the title screen without knowing exactly what to expect from the next 30-50 hours.

What I'm getting at is that Final Fantasy may not have actually declined in quality as much as people like me have been saying for however many years. Maybe we've just outgrown it.

It's disappointing, and it's strange for someone my age. I started playing Final Fantasy (the very first one) when I was seven or eight years old. Final Fantasy VI dominated my middle school years; I was obsessed with Final Fantasy VII as a high school freshman. I wrapped up X the year I graduated high school. For a very long time, Final Fantasy was a constant presence in my life. As nerdy and sappy as this is going to sound, I watched Final Fantasy grow up along with me. Between a seven year-old kid playing the NES Final Fantasy and a fourteen year-old kid playing Final Fantasy VII, there are tremendous developmental gaps -- on both sides. Final Fantasy is the only video game series I can think of that actually matured as I did. Street Fighter may have accrued a larger cast, grew more complex, and improved its graphics, but it never really matured. Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha, and Street Fighter III (1991 through 1999) are all about a bunch of crazy people beating the hell out of each other in the most spectacular ways in scenic locations across the world in the context of slapped-together plots about the murderous regin of an evil psychic busdriver from Thailand or the messianic designs of a thong-wearing man in red and blue body paint who beats up people's father figures and steals their cars. (Not that there's any problem with this, mind you: Street Fighter is not a game people play for its story sequences. It never needed to mature.) Meanwhile, if you were asked compare themes between Final Fantasy (1987) and Final Fantasy VII (1997), you'd have "WARRIORS, revive the power of the ORBS!!" and "WIZARDs weak to LIT" in one column, and "unbridled capitalism, nature vs. technology, postindustrial urban alienation, identity crises, modernization, millennial anxiety, etc." filling out the other. That is maturation.

I was growing up and figuring myself out, and so was Final Fantasy. And then, sometime around or after the tenth installment, it stopped. I kept growing, and Final Fanasy seemed to stay in place. It stopped maturing. Its growth plateaued, leaving it a perennial seventeen year-old.

Sure, I'm disappointed that Square Enix has flat-out said that they're no longer designing games with me in mind anymore. But what else should I expect? Final Fantasy was a game designed for the under-eighteen sect from the very beginning. Why should that have to change now that its older fans gone and aged myself out of the target demographic? Whining about this would be like writing an angry letter to Hasbro suggesting that they'd better start making GI Joe figures that a man in his twenties can enjoy if they expect to keep my business. When you grow too old for your toys, it's time to put them away and move on.

Final Fantasy XII is a much, much different animal than the earlier games in the series, there's no doubt about that. But it there wouldn't be a twelfth Final Fantasy game if Square hadn't been able to adapt to the changing times. Video games are a much different scene than they were twenty years ago. They're a big business now. Designing games for the latest hardware is much, much more expensive and time-consuming than whipping up some NES software with a dozen or so people. The logistics and expectations have changed, and the product has changed with them.

But it's definitely a Final Fantasy game. Everything that has defined the series since 1990 is there. It strives to dazzle the player through high-end production values and an epic scope, immersing the player in a vast fictional world of monsters, magic, and strange technology. It's got the goldhearted thief, the determined princess, the dutiful knight, the mad scientist, the prince who grows up and the machiavellian villain who rises and falls; it feature melodrama and allegory, moogles and chocobos, airships and crystals, item collecting and skill matching -- familiar concepts and images reinvented for a new story in a new world. A heavy-handed message and a happily-ever-after ending in a tale of young hero and his crew of motley misfits who stand up to an evil empire and overcome an ancient evil with the Power of Love and Friendship, pushing back the darkness so the light of hope and peace can shine upon the world once more.

This is what Final Fantasy has always been about, even from its earliest years. XII is hardly any different from its predecessors. If you don't like it, it's not because it isn't as good a game as you remember IV being; it's not because Sakaguchi is gone; and it's not because Square Enix has become an obese corporate blob. You've just grown out of it. Stop complaining, step away, and let a new generation enjoy it the same way you did when you first discovered it.




BAD END

When Matsuno snapped and bolted from Square, the last shreds of integrity left to Square Enix and its Final Fantasy brand went out the door with him. Matsuno probably tried his damndest to make a Final Fantasy game whose content was worthy of all the flash, hype, and astronomical production values in which it was packed. It proved to be an uphill battle against his staff and bosses, and ended with him cracking under the strain and concluding that Square and Final Fantasy weren't worth the grief.

Final Fantasy XII is by no means the weakest game in the series or the worst game of its generation, but it does prove beyond all doubt that Final Fantasy's metamorphosis from Hironobu Sakaguchi's brainchild to the crass cash slut of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd. is all but complete.

For all the Square Enix Corporate Philosophy blather about Creativity and Innovation --

To attain and maintain new standards of value, there are questions we must ask ourselves: Is this creative? Is this innovative?

Mediocre dedication can only result in mediocre achievements. Simply being content with the status quo can only lead to a collapse into oblivion. To prevent this from occurring and to avoid complacency, we must continue asking ourselves the aforementioned questions.


-- there's really very little of it in Final Fantasy XII. (But for all I know, Square Enix's mission statement might have been revised since 2006; perhaps Final Fantasy XII wasn't held to the same rigorous standards as Dissidia or Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.) Despite all the technical changes and revamped battle mechanics, Final Fantasy is pretty much the same game it's been since IV. As soon as you figure out how to accommodate the ADB system, Gambits, Quickenings, and the License Grid into your tactics, you're coasting through the same bloody game you figured out in 1992. And this is from a series whose legendary talent for innovation elevated it to an industry superpower. Rumor has it Matsuno wanted the game to include airship-to-airship battles, which would have shaken things up a little -- but, well, so much for that.

As for Kitase's words about Final Fantasy's audience: they're nonsense. What he's saying disingenous, shortsighted, and lazy. Just because you're designing a piece of media with a certain age group in mind doesn't mean it needs to alienate people beyond that group. Take the Pixar films of the last decade and a half: nobody would argue that they're children's entertainment, but what makes them so exceptional is that they're almost equally appealing to people ten, twenty, and thirty years beyond the toddlers-to-teens demographic. Same goes for the animated films of Disney and Miyazaki; same goes for Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson's opus is one of the greatest comic strips of all time precisely because it is capable of delighting a forty-year old as much as an eight-year old. It's the difference between something good and something great. As for Final Fantasy XII? If you are over 23 years old and sat through it without once cringing or rolling your eyes, you are emotionally and intellectually stunted (probably from playing too many video games during your formative years). If Square ever strove to make its games great, it has since decided to settle for one degree less (at least).

All this and we've never even touched upon the stuff that those uppity "ludology" types blast JRPGs for. Final Fantasy XII's reviewers and fans might praise it for "reinventing" the series' playstyle, but this too is nonsense. It's still a game where you can lose a boss fight, level grind for two hours, then go back and completely trounce the same boss using the exact same strategy that didn't work two hours ago. There may have been an excuse for this in the nascent years of the JRPG, but nowadays it's harder to forgive. XII's claims of reinventing the series would only be justified if it made the slightest effort to unbork some of the inherent flaws of the twenty-year old Dragon Warrior design that Square (and every other JRPG developer) still clings to. (Square used to try. Remember Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross?)

Instead, Square Enix seems intent on making it even more broken. For instance: if you explore everything and find 90 to 100% of the items there are to find in a Legend of Zelda game, this will usually give you just about all the tools that are necessary for eking out a victory against the final boss and winning the game. If you explore everything and find 90 to 100% of the items there are to find in Final Fantasy XII, you will blast the final boss to a cinder in a matter of seconds. Huh?

This is closely related to the ridiculous "postgame" feature. I used to think it was sort of neat, having another challenge to conquer after beating the final boss...but after a few years and some consideration, my feelings have changed a bit. Final Fantasy is a plot-driven game; when designing its games, Square works on its characters and story first, and then goes about building its battle system, dungeons, etc. In such a plot-driven game, whose story ends with a climactic final showdown against the main villain, the final boss fight should be 1.) the final battle 2.) the hardest battle 3.) the very last part of the game. But that's not how it works. In XII, the end of the story is really just the start of the postgame, in which the plot remains in total stasis while you grind and grind and grind and grind in order to defeat some impossibly powerful superbosses existing outside of the plot. Imagine if people started writing novels like this! The story would effectively end on page 500, while pages 501 through 1,100 would be repetitive, plodding descriptions of places and actions that don't provide any new information, or word-for-word copies of previous chapters. The publishers and consumers are thrilled; the authors are praised for adding more value to their product. (After all: MORE PAGES = MORE WORTH IT.)

And then, once you've maxed out all your characters and beaten Yiazmat, you wake up and discover that you've spent the last hundred hours doing video game busywork. At the very least, being a completion freak in an MMORPG permits you the indulgence of strutting your pimped-out avatar around Vana'diel or Azeroth for your online peers to envy. But the only real reward for achieving 100% completion in a game like Final Fantasy XII is a pat on the back from yourself, followed by immersion in the well what do I with my life NOW post-RPG doldrums.

Protip: again, THIS ISN'T FUN. It's not stimulating, it's not constructive, it's not enriching -- it's light on the face. It's letting the photons from your television set tickle your optic nerves while you sit by yourself getting fatter, slower and older.

None of this would bother me if Square Enix didn't act like it was doing the world a tremendous service by putting out mediocre, test-marketed, multimillion dollar, melodramatic grindfests. If Square Enix were half as good at spreading happiness throughout the globe by providing unforgettable experiences as it proclaims to be, they'd be making games like Mother 3 instead.

I'm tired of going on about this. Sakaguchi and SquareSoft's Final Fantasy is gone, and it's never coming back. Square Enix's Final Fantasy is factory-assembled, market-tested, megabudget tripe; and because of the brand name's near-universal recognition, the massive budgets at Square Enix's disposal, and the ease with which its presentation can knock putty-mided critics and fanboys into fawning trances, it's just going to keep pumping out its mediocre products until the end of civilization as we know it, warping the landscape of pop culture and breeding smug, obsessive devotees convinced that their playing Final Fantasy games is a badge of intellectual and cultural superiorty.

Don't buy any more Final Fantasy games. Please. It will just encourage Square Enix to keep making more of them. It may be far too late for the series to die with dignity, but it neverthless deserves to die.




Conclusion

Well, what's left to say?

Final Fantasy XII is gorgeous and exceptionally well-designed; designed, in this case, to look pretty and play itself half the time. The combat is pure high fructose. The characters and ideas left intact from during Matsuno's tenure are interesting; the parts of the game with obvious Kawazu/Square Enix executive fingerprints are much, much less so.

Final Fantasy XII can't keep pace with the story-driven progression of your more traditional and linear 1990s JRPGs (especially those with the now-rare benefit of not having already been done a dozen times before). It's not as tremendous and engrossing as an actual MMORPG. It's not open-ended or rich enough to compete with the higher-calibur WRPGs. XII comes off feeling like an unnatural marriage between Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto. It's great fun to run around and waste time in, but doesn't offer much else. It's all too weak, too watered-down, and stretched far too thin.

With that said: I probably expect too much from my toys these days, and Final Fantasy XII is still one of the best JRPGs I've played in the last decade. If the genre is slowly sinking into a swamp, Final Fantasy might still at the top of the heap.

...Let's see how XIII turns out.








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