It feels like every Final Fantasy since VII has split the fanbase. The polar opposite of Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy has always tried to redefine itself. Those between IV and IX were slight variations, focusing more on different ways to build your characters while featuring the same combat system. X overhauled that central system but still felt like a Final Fantasy. XII goes so hard in the other direction that, if not for its title and a few familiar creatures, one could have easily assumed it was a new series entirely.
I’m not going to pretend Final Fantasy XII is flawless. Previous Final Fantasy games have some of the most beloved casts in gaming – the only great character from XII is Balthier. For whatever reason, XII went with a more subdued and realistic art style, leaving most of the cast looking mundane. A messy production left non-entity Vaan as the protagonist, and the narrative is almost impossible to follow. Those drawn to the series for its stories had every reason in the world to be disappointed – it took until the 2017 rerelease for it to really click with me.
But once it clicked, it hit hard. XII is sometimes derided as a single player MMORPG. For me, it lands in the perfect place between the two genres. This is about as big as JRPGs come, yet it never gets as overwhelming and demanding as a full MMO. There’s so much to explore, but it never leaves you waiting or needing to endlessly grind.
A common complaint from its release now seems rather precious. Instead of controlling every individual action for each character, the game has something it calls a gambit system. You are given up to 12 lines of “if x, then y” statements for each character. The earlier lines take precedence, so you can set up your healer to raise the unconscious first, heal if no one is knocked out, and then attack if no one needs healing. It’s an ingenious system which allows fluid combat, which is key since this game avoids random encounters by having enemies integrated into the locations. With more RPGs moving toward action combat where the AI controls everyone but the main character, it’s shocking more games haven’t expanded on this feature to give the player precise control over their teammates. The only other game I know which uses a similar system is Dragon Age. While this can cause a lot of battles to essentially play themselves, I find this intricate programming preferable to mashing the attack button against random mobs. The player can always give commands when necessary, and there are plenty of hard encounters which will require restricting the programming. Combat in XII feels a lot more tactical than its predecessors, even when much of it is hands-free.
I’ve always been a fan of how Final Fantasy manages to reinvent leveling, and the license board started off as an intriguing concept which was fully brought to life in the rerelease. The original version gave everyone the same board, giving the player control over what path to send their characters down. The Zodiac Age mixes this with the underutilized job system and dual-classing, limiting the characters but guiding them down distinct paths. Deciding which ability to go after next is always a tough decision. Every RPG should aspire to make levelling this fun.
While I mentioned that the art style does little favor for the characters, the world itself is breathtaking. Few cities in gaming feel as alive as Rabanastre. Having enemies scattered across the land leaves every location bustling with life. Later locations are colossal, and the pure variety makes it feel like you are truly trekking across every inch of this world. There are dozens of side quests, and I wanted to do all of them just to visit every corner. In fact, I believe this is the only game where I bothered to get the Platinum trophy, simply because I was having so much fun seeing all this game had to offer.
Beyond simple scope, the world has a mesmerizing layout. Nearly every location has some passage sitting just out of reach. Many late game quests involve revisiting these areas and finally seeing what lies beyond those gates. Final Fantasy XII is constantly building a sense of intrigue.
14 years later, Final Fantasy XII still sits in a perfect niche. The only game I know which captures that not-MMO style is Xenoblade Chronicles. How more games haven’t followed in their footsteps is baffling, though it takes a lot of effort to make a world this awe-inspiring. While never capturing the typical Final Fantasy charm, XII managed to excel with its own distinct magnificence.