Every month you can watch reviews and read our thoughts on the games we've been playing, old and new. This month, it’s all about FFXII baby.
Final Fantasy XII: Zodiac Age
I’ll admit, the first couple of hours were a chore. The prologue features confusing geo-politics, royal weddings and violent betrayals. The battle system seems, at first glance, to be so basic it’s laughable if it wasn’t so boring: stop running to open a menu, choose ‘attack’, then watch your wee guy fight something till it dies. After your boy Reks dies in a cutscene it’s time for another scroll of text describing the political situation of the world of Ivalice, then time jumps two years forward and you’re plonked in the middle of the city of Rabanastre as Vaan, Reks’ younger brother. And Vaan’s first exciting task? Kill a tomato.
This is where I gave up playing Final Fantasy XII on PS2 back in 2006. Since then the game has reached legendary status among the kind of JRPG fan who’s opinions I respect. What had I missed? What could possibly happen after such a dull first few hours.
One of the greatest, purest role-playing experiences I’ve ever had, it turns out. Thank lord Matsuno himself that I decided to try again on Switch all these years later.
Trudge on just a bit further - there are a few hours in a sewer I’d rather forget - and Final Fantasy XII opens up its systems, its world and its heart to you. Vaan’s first encounter with cocky sky pirate Balthier and elf/rabbit Fran is the point where licenses and gambits and everything else start to come together and make sense. It can be a bit complicated to try and explain, but basically every character can choose a job license - knight, monk, mage etc. - and start earning abilities and equipment for their chosen job using the license board.
In the original PS2 version, every character had access to every possible square on one big license board, but in this Switch re-release the narrowed scope of giving each character a job means characters have to specialise and be used in smart combinations to overcome foes. It sounds overwhelming but it actually results in a great sense of personalisation, as if you’re truly crafting a party of your own characters instead of accepting whatever the story dictates the characters do. This is true role-playing, like rolling characters before a D&D session except you also get the advantage of wonderfully drawn and written characters to go with their customised attributes.
We’ll talk about the characters and story and all that in a bit, but first: Gambits.
JRPG battles are almost always a case of action and reaction: baddies hurt you, you heal; baddies are weak to fire, you use fire; baddies charge for a big move, you defend. In FFXII, you *can* go into the menu for every character one at a time during a fight and play in the way you’d usually do, but it’s not the smart thing to do. Instead, the game gently nudges you towards using gambits.
With gambits, you set up a series of little logic functions for each character. I know, I know - it sounds dull but stick with me. You can tell your mage to attack with ice if the enemy is weak to it, and your muscle to back up with whatever the party leader’s target is to finish them off quickly. You can set potions to be used if an ally’s health falls below a certain percentage, or add buffs if they need a helping hand. Setting up gambits requires a bit of time spent in the menu, working out the logic of how your team works together, but it save so much hassle when it comes time to battle.
If it all sounds a bit too much like the game plays itself, it’s worth noting that a bad gambit set up can really bugger things up: I once went through phoenix downs like they were going out of Dalmascan fashion because I had my gambits set to only heal when I was at critical health. So it’s not like the game allows you to just switch off; it requires a bit of knowledge and trial and error to get a set-up just right, and you might meet a boss that demands a complete rethink.
It’s actually fascinating to properly play FFXII years later, after FFXIII and FFXV. My dearly beloved FFXIII essentially took the gambit and job systems of FFXII and made them into an arcade game; where XII luxuriates in considered and thoughtful set-up, XIII takes the same principals and streamlines them for a more high-level and fast-paced experience. I think I prefer XII’s ideas to be honest, and I can see now why so many were disappointed with the decisions made for XIII.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t mean anything if the story, world and characters were rubbish. Nobody cares about a battle or job system if a JRPG just isn’t a fun and enchanting place to be. FFXII’s other reputation is of a confused game with a troubled development, resulting in an unfinished plot and weak characters. This is where I have to admit I haven’t finished the game yet, but in my opinion so far both the plot and the characters are wonderful. Yes, even Vaan.
It helps that the game is set in Ivalice, Matsuno’s fantasy creation used in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. This is a rich, sumptuous world full of detail and history. The central city of Rabanastre alone can be explored for hours, just poking around nooks and crannies and getting lost in its endless details. It reminds me of Shenmue 2’s Kowloon, simultaneously grubby and beautiful, and full of interesting characters to meet around every corner. And the tale that takes place in this wonderful world is just as enthralling.
Final Fantasy XII tells a complex story, and on a surface level it can seem quite dry. This cast of characters doesn’t really fall into anime archetypes like other JRPG characters do, and they’re a bit less keen on wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Vaan doesn’t even feel like a protagonist for the most part. But this is an ensemble cast, being used to tell a larger story about nations, wars, faith and different cultures sharing a world. Teenage anime fans might get tired of the story and go back to another Final Fantasy game instead, but I really feel that, so far anyway, Final Fantasy XII’s story is written by adults, for adults. I don’t mean that in a belittling way; there’s a place for all types of story, but I get the genuine feeling that an attempt was made here to tell something grander and more complex than the usual JRPG fare.
More than anything, it’s the world that makes Final Fantasy XII so great. Every great review I read of the original release and every fan who still holds onto it as their favourite mentions the world of Ivalice, and I have to admit I’ve fallen for it too. Ivalice is a wonderful world to lose yourself in, and the cast of characters and deep, complex role-playing within it make Final Fantasy XII one of the all time greats.
A real big shift from the previous two games, but it’s been an exciting and tense experience so far, but my patience for silent protagonists is definitely running out.
Collection of Mana
I’ve always been meaning to play Secret of Mana, and the fact that it’s on Switch along with two other games in the series made it a must-buy. So far, it’s an oddball of a JRPG, but that’s just more reason to love it.
About five/six hours in so far and I’ve done a power of wandering about and finding distractions. The main game, though, feels fresh and interesting. More in-depth thoughts coming next month!
Legends of Geshcast
A lovely little Metroid-vania (I’m going to say Citadel-like…) tribute to Geshcast by Ben Burns. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to get used to throwing bombs, but YOU can play it right now here: https://almostgames.itch.io/legends-of-geshcast