Developer: Square Enix
Publishers: Square Enix
Price: Try your luck
Final Fantasy is a series that is best described as a Baskin Robins. Everyone likes ice cream, but not every flavor is to the liking of every person. Some people will try every flavor simply because they are that big a fan of the product. Others will accept the samples and decide from a little taste whether or not they’ll take the plunge and give other flavors a shot. Still others know what they want and stick with what they know. In the case of Final Fantasy, I find myself represented best by the group that’ll take a sample and decide from it whether or not it’s worth delving into. That said, my tastes tend to lean into the high-fantasy or the sci-fantasy. I have not touched FF7 or FF8 because, from what samples I have had of those flavors, I’m not too interested. FF12 is…not to everyone’s liking, and while I understand the very legitimate criticisms of the game, I personally enjoyed it a lot. The story is a little long-winded and there’s a lot of details to remember. It’s kind of an oddball in the Final Fantasy franchise, but that’s not always a weakness. With a remastered re-release on the horizon and the much anticipated Final Fantasy 15 just around the corner, I thought it was well worth looking back on this entry to the series.
The elephant in the room in regards to 12 is that the main character is really kind of a space occupant for the player behind the controller. He doesn’t offer any special abilities, he’s not from a powerful bloodline, and heck, he isn’t really all that fantastic of a fighter when compared to the other heroes of the franchise. Maybe that’s what I like about Vaan. He’s just a kid that’s found himself in the middle of a grand political conflict and has to persevere by whatever means possible.
Final Fantasy is well known for its firm criticism of the church, and while the developers tend to make up their own versions of established religions from our world, the reflections are rarely flattering. That said, FF12 really doesn’t shift the narrative towards any kind of faith for very long. There are ancient god-like beings that oversee humanity, control the flow of magic, etc. There is a scene later in the game where these beings are met face-to-face, and in a reflection of Lucifer’s fall, one of the divine beings goes rogue and puts itself at odds with its brethren. This rogue divine offers its strength and insight to a mortal who finds themselves on the wrong side of our party of heroes. The nature of these entities is revealed through the story, so to avoid spoilers I’ll leave it at that.
There is also a supernatural aspect that follows one of the main characters, Asche, through the majority of the game. A fallen loved one’s departed spirit appears, but is only visible to Asche and, oddly enough, the main character, Vaan himself. It’s haunting and the more traditional-minded members of the faith community may find it to be a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t cross any lines.
Perhaps the most present spiritual aspect of note is the Aspers. These beings have a very strong reflection to the fallen angels of the Bible in that they are beings created by the divine with the intention of serving them. The espers rebelled, grew proud, and because of this, they were thrown down and confined into grotesque forms. They can be harnessed by mortals and called upon to their aid in combat in the form of summons. Again, it is in the context of a fictional story but the similarities could raise a few brows.
Beings of strange form and appearance made by the gods in ancient times. Favored with great strength and intellect, the Espers knew power far beyond that of men, but their power made them proud, and at length they sought to challenge the gods. Seeing this, the gods were angered and struck down their blessed children, and binding their souls and flesh with the Glyph of the Beast, they stole their freedom for all eternity. Now they are bound to live only when summoned by their Glyph, to serve whosoever called them forth—Espers, Sage Knowledge
Like any Final Fantasy game, there is a lot of combat. Swords, magic, spears, and a variety of other weapons are used against human and beast alike. In battle, the violence is actually pretty mild. Characters take blows, they flinch and curl into themselves, or they shudder under the effects of magic, but there’s no blood, no bones breaking, etc. The cutscenes, while quite violent in action, are deprived of blood and gore. There are several on-screen deaths, some extremely heart breaking, but again, it’s not overly grotesque, and despite the nature of some of the mortal blows, there’s no blood to be seen. It’s not anything I’d show to young kids, but middle schoolers and up should be able to handle it.
Cursing is pretty mild in these games, and FF12 is no exception. The “big brother” words are completely absent, but there are variations of “darnit,” “illegitimate son,” and “heck” that drop out of a few mouths from time to time. Considering the language of most cheese burger commercials, this is hardly a concern.
Yes, yes, I know; I like her but the woman is barely dressed. The attire of the bunny-eared accomplice to the dashing sky pirate, Balthier, is not exactly something that can be missed. If she’s in your party for any length of time, you’re getting a big eyeful of bunny buns. She isn’t exactly covered up well on the front either. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be a fashion trend that’s sweeping the country. Her aside, one of the Espers is a little less modest than Fran but she’s rarely on the screen.
As far as the content aside from the immodest attire of some of the ladies, the game is pretty clean. There’s obvious interest and flirting that happens here and there but nothing goes even as far as a kissing scene. Over all, it’s a fairly clean game.
While there are taverns present and occasional drunken NPCs, there’s really not much to note. The drunkards are easily avoided and missed unless the player is determined to make idle chat with everyone and it’s never a point of focus.
Instead of there being this clear evil looming over an innocent population, the story presented in Final Fantasy 12 is something that is far more relatable—it’s the story of two warring nations. There’s no good or bad; there’s just a clash of ideals and a victor vs. a loser. A kingdom is toppled when its forces are crushed and their prince is slain on the field of battle. The people of the defeated empire become second-class citizens and harbor understandable resentment towards the Empire that overthrew them.
This hatred and bitterness is very evident, especially in the character of Vaan who has been left orphaned as a result of the war. On top of that, his elder brother enlisted to help defend the empire only to lose his own life as well. Vaan is left homeless, forced to live in a pack of other war orphans in the streets of his homeland. While there can be arguments made about his character and whether or not he’s a good lead, there is a genuine transformation from being an immature, bitter young boy to becoming a strong young man. Vaan is thrown into a political conflict with implications well beyond his understanding but the experience opens his eyes to the reality of the war: There are people on both sides. He befriends Larsa, a noble from the Empire, and is often seen interacting with him the way he might a younger brother. He warms up to Asche, the princess of his own home nation, and becomes a person that she can confide in. He moves away from living a life in the streets, allowing his circumstances to dictate his outlook, to taking charge of his life and working to make things right. Again, Vaan is a bit controversial as a lead, but he is very relatable.
Aside from Vaan, Larsa is a fantastic character with a lot to offer both to the story and the moral fiber of the game. He’s a noble in the empire, brother to a rather disreputable individual but, like Vaan, he is unwilling to allow his circumstances to dictate him. He shows compassion, even to his nation’s enemies, and works for the benefit of both sides of the conflict. For how young he is, he’s extremely wise and insightful. Even in his grief in later parts of the game, he finds the strength to stand up and do the right thing. I really want to say something positive about the other lead of the game, Asche, but she is honestly kind of…there. Any actions that she takes that trend to the positive are encouraged or outright provoked by either Vaan or Larsa. At the very least, it shows that she’s willing to take good council regardless of where it comes from.
Final Fantasy 12 introduces us to the land of Ivalice which is divided into three continents: Ordalia, Valendia, and Kerwon. At the heart of the conflict, and the center of a political tug-of-war, is Dalmasca. The small kingdom is the unfortunate central ground for the ongoing war between Rozarria and Arcadia. The later has actually managed to subjugate Dalmasca two years prior to the introduction of the game following the death of their prince. The native population has been largely forced into a state of second class citizenship and driven into the underground tunnels while the Empire resides on their open streets. This is where we meet the lead protagonist, Vaan. He was orphaned prior to the war and during the same conflict that cost his nation their prince, Vaan also lost his elder brother. He lives a rough life in the city of Rabanastre among other orphans of war. He often fanaticizes about becoming a Sky Pirate and leaving the political strife and the life of a street rat behind him. A window of opportunity towards that end opens up when he encounters the infamous sky pirate, Balthier, during an attempt to steal a valuable relic from the castle proper.
Vaan finds himself at the heart of a the conflict tearing the world apart along with the widowed Princess Asche, Balthier, and a handful of other misfits. The story largely revolves around Asche and her attempt to regain peace for her people, but it’s told through Vaan’s perspective. While not as fast-paced as earlier Final Fantasy games, FF12 focuses heavily on political manipulation and does fairly well showing how power struggles between the elite influences everyone beneath them. It takes a very human narrative in choosing Vaan as the avatar for the viewer as Vaan is pretty openly hostile towards the Empire for the majority of the game’s introduction but he slowly begins to realize that the scope of things isn’t always set in black and white. For some, the story may be a little bit of a bore because it’s oriented more in the evil and manipulation in the hearts of the political elite rather than in the more common evil of power-drunken wizards, clowns, and sorcerers. It’s a more subtle story, but it’s one that’s a little more relatable.
Along with a more subtle story, FF12 breaks the mold when it comes to the mechanics of just about everything. In the past, even up to FF10, the battle style was turn based. In FF12, the battle is done in real time. You can move your main character around, select whatever enemy you want to fight, and use items, magic, and attacks freely. FF12 also introduced the fantastic gambit and license system.
Gambits essentially allow you to set actions and priority for those actions for your party members. For example if you want to build Asche to be a strictly supportive character you can set her up with gambits that prioritize healing, repairing status conditions, and applying buffs. You can set her to attack, but she will only do so if the party is over a certain percentage of HP, not suffering from a status effect, and everyone has a buff on. Likewise, you can set priority in what kind of attacks, magic, and abilities a character uses based on an opponent’s type, weakness, HP, or several other factors. This system was amazing in that you could fully customize your part for each situation and you wouldn’t have to micro-manage them once you’ve unlocked enough gambits. You could focus on the enemy and trust that your healer would keep your HP up, the archer was nailing sky-based enemies, your magic-user was slowing down the foes with status effects, and your tank was provoking the enemy. It really put the battle in your hands and made the battles strategic and well-paced.
Licenses add to the customization of your characters as well as replace stat allocation from previous games. As you kill enemies, you gain LP or license points. Each character has a grid of licenses that they can unlock using the proper amount of LP. Licenses allow characters to use certain kinds of weapons, magic, abilities, or give them an increase in HP. This allows you to customize each character rather than having to conform strictly to a class system. If you want Vaan to be quick, agile, great with knives, but also handy with a shield and a little healing magic- you can! If you want Fran to double as an archer and a black mage- knock yourself out. The licenses also include up to three “quickenings” each character. The quickenings have replaced the limit break from previous games and honestly, it’s the only complaint that I have in regards to changes.
Quickenings are “super attacks” that you must chain together in order to accumulate damage onto a target. When one character activates a quickening, you have the other three in your party that can chain with that character. In order to do this you have to select the correct button (triangle, square, or circle) when it pops up in the span of a few seconds. The more you chain, the less time you have to do this and the less frequently the buttons appear. This eats up a LOT of MP and often times the damage is laughable unless you can achieve a 10+ chain, which is next to impossible. It’s a great way to finish a boss, but if you use it early on, and manage to chain more than six, odds are your healer had all their MP eaten up and you’ll be at the mercy of flinging potions around.
Finally, there is the return of the Espers. This system has taken a lot of influence from previous games but it has twisted the application in battle once again. Espers can be located within the world map in a variety of locations. Some Espers will be found through the canon of the story but the majority of the Espers are a little more tucked out of the way, so they require a lot of exploration to even locate. The hidden Espers tend to be pretty tough, so it’s also a bit of a chore to grind up to a higher level to even confront them. Once an Esper had been subdued, their icon appears on the license board and you can assign them to a single character by unlocking them on said board. The character can then summon the Esper in battle but this enters a state of battle where it’s just the Esper and their summoner confronting the enemy. The Esper and the summoner both must survive or the Esper will vanish. After a certain amount of time, the Esper will release its ultimate ability and strike the enemy with a good handful of damage. During the time the Esper joins the battle, they deal heavy damage and can even heal their summoner. The Espers are a much better investment for MP over the Quickenings as they tend to do more reliable damage, you only cut into the MP of one character, and it isn’t nearly as draining. An Esper can be summoned up to three times if the MP permits- more if you replenish using a potion.
All these additions to combat really help in the long run, especially because FF12 is perhaps one of the most grind-necessary games in the franchise. The battles don’t scale gently. There are even areas where the game warns you that leaving will be difficult and it’s a good idea to create a backup save file. One such area is pretty early on in the game. The enemies in this area are pretty tough for the level and they continue to come in waves. I ended up grinding for two days, running between a heal/save point and a hallway just to get my party up to level so we could reach the next area. Bosses are extremely difficult as most will lay status and magical conditions thick while being immune to them.
Thankfully the game provides some diversity in their grinding through hunts. These hunts are posted in taverns through the game and award a lot of EXP, gil, and a rare item in most cases. Hunts are essentially larger, more powerful versions of common enemies that get a bounty posted on them for one reason or another. Some hunts are mandatory to the progression of the game but the majority of them are optional. They provide a chance to return to some areas to explore and lots of grinding opportunity. The game also allows you to chain your kills to increase EXP, drops, and gil. Chaining essentially means you have to kill several of one type of enemy and kill only that type of enemy. If you chain over a certain amount, the benefits increase. Still, even with all that the game is very demanding of your time just in leveling up, updating armor, buying new spells, and working out gambits to best fit your next hurdle in the story line. I love the game, but this aspect felt like padding.
Visually, the game blew away the expectations of the Play Station 2 but the in-game graphics are dated for modern times. This is likely why an HD remake is coming out fairly soon. The cutscenes hold up very well, however. The characters are animated beautifully with a lot of emotion behind even the most subtle of expressions. The game does suffer from frequent, “What the heck are you wearing!?” syndrome. The outfit designs can be a little distracting at times. The world presented is vibrant, diverse, colorful, and downright beautiful at times. Sadly, these environments feel a little linear when exploring. Even open fields seem small and constrictive, but there are so many areas to explore that it kind of makes up for that. Some areas even have chocobos for rent so if you need to cross them quickly, and without the many confrontations with the local wildlife, you can pay a fee to ride the noble war chickens across the terrain to get you to your location quicker. There are even some areas that require a chocobo to access so that’s something to keep in mind.
The voice acting is actually quite good for this game. Even in the English dub, the voices fit the characters, the lip syncing is almost flawless, and the voice actors seem truly invested in their roles. The soundtrack isn’t among my favorite, but it’s far from bad. The music serves its purpose—adding atmosphere and dimension to situations and locations—but there’s very few pieces that I can say were memorable. That said, there’s no one song or theme that’s outright bad or distracting. Everything kind of blends into the background, allowing you to focus on the characters and the story. It works well enough.
Overall, Final Fantasy 12 is a strong addition to the franchise. The characters are down to earth, the gameplay is fun and extremely challenging, the story is a breath of fresh air, and the visual and audio presentations are strong. If you’ve not had a chance to play FF12, I’d give it a go. It’s pretty cheap used but again there is an HD remastered version coming out soon, so that may be worth looking into.
The Bottom Line
While the pace of Final Fantasy 12 may not be to everyone's liking and the political focus may be a little less exciting than sword-slinging against an evil magic-user, the game has a very solid narrative at its heart. The game play is a lot of fun and with the introduction of gambits and licenses every aspect of every character and their performance in battle is up to you. There are so many ways to enjoy the game from the main story line to the many, many side quests that it has something to offer to everyone. The characters are down to earth but have a lot of heart. Visually the game holds up pretty well and the voice acting really goes a long way to strengthen the overall presentation of the game. While obviously not for everyone, FF12 is a great member of the franchise and one I can highly recommend to veterans and newcomers alike.