Some Thoughts upon the Occasion of the Announcement of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

  1. I’d genuinely given up on this ever happening.

Until Zodiac Age launches, Final Fantasy XII is the only ‘main line’ Final Fantasy game to be completely unported. It exists in only two versions, the original release and the paradoxically Japan-only International Zodiac Job System edition, both limited to the PS2. The PS2 is a hardy console – my second-hand one is probably a decade old and still happily functional – but no electronic device lasts forever, and FFXII‘s original graphics are decidedly difficult to look at on modern LED TVs.

Square have been denying any murmur of an FFXII update for some time now, too. It was even possible to believe them; the game’s development was famously troubled. Perhaps some legal complication between the company and departed (and apparently still disgruntled) director Yasumi Matsuno prevented a rework. Even if there were no hard barrier, perhaps the development difficulties made key Square personnel unwilling to revisit it.

But no, apparently everything’s fine and Japanese game development is still inscrutable to the West. That’s probably for the best.

  1. My First Final Fantasy

I played about the first disc of each of FFVII and FFVIII – the original PC versions with the legendarily bad music, borrowed from a friend – in about 2003/4, and most of the DS port of FFIII in late 2007, all well before I ever touched FFXII. But FFXII is My First Final Fantasy in the sense that people talk about their First.

I don’t say that to be judgemental, either of myself or others. It’s more a comment on the extraordinary phenomenon of this series of games – the capacity of one specific instalment to make converts of particular players while maintaining just enough brand integrity to alienate so many of those converted by previous instalments.

FFXII is the game that converted me, and that means that, whatever depth or merit I’ve subsequently found in it, I’m also bound to the game by nostalgia (or at least sentiment). That makes me sensitive to The Discourse in a way I’m not with most other games, means I have to be careful not to overreact. Monday was a day of trying not to chew too much furniture at people having different views of my precious treasure.

Bhujerba

  1. This shot still gives me chills.

On the PS2, this is the first thing you see after Square’s logo when the game loads up; Balthier’s airship, the Strahl, emerging from the clouds over the floating continent of Dorstonis and sky city of Bhujerba. The ‘new game/load game’ menu doesn’t even appear until the cloudbank clears. I’ve played a lot of FFXII. I’ve seen this shot hundreds of times.

I still love it. It is wonder and beauty, the kind of impossible, nonsensical landscape I crave from any fantasy game. On some level I can recognise that even in 2006, floating continents were hardly original, but with the opening harp-ripple of the Final Fantasy theme flowing up to greet this vista, Bhujerba feels like the best possible example.

And there’s another side to loving this shot, because it’s completely at odds with the areas you can actually visit and explore on Dorstonis. After landing in Bhujerba and navigating the local politics, you’re freed to explore the only other playable region of the floating continent. It’s a mine.

Yup, you spend most of your time on this fantastical landmass in a series of murky caves. Put like that, it sounds like any other disappointing, formulaic JRPG dungeon. It’s certainly a stark contrast to the promise of the cutscene.

Here’s the thing, though: the Lhusu mines are one of my favourite JRPG dungeons. The level designers took the idea of a mine on a floating continent and went all the way. If you dig far enough through a lump of rock in the sky, you’re eventually going to dig right out the bottom or side.

The Lhusu mines not only open to the sky below and around in several places, but the dungeon also crosses back and forth along bridges between distinct sky islands. The fissures and drops are harmless – you can’t leap out – but violently abrupt, completely unexpected in their genre context. There’s even a minor sidequest at one point to find a man who did fall from the mines, taking with him the only key to the final area.

The double contrast – spectacular promise of the initial cutscene to tedious level design trope to earnest and effective commitment to a concept – goes a long way to summarising not just FFXII but also much of the critical response it has received.

  1. What really happened with Matsuno and/or Vaan?

I mean, we’ll probably never know. I’ve yet to find an unambiguous source for the common claim that Vaan was added after Matsuno’s departure as a result of marketing pressures. That Matsuno struggled against other forces within Square to make the game he wanted to make, and struggled badly enough to seriously impact his health, is pretty clear (though, again, find me unambiguous sources if you can).

There is definitely an assumption, though, that the identity of Final Fantasy XII changed when Matsuno, the genius auteur, was replaced by Akitoshi Kawazu, who’s often made out to be the villain of the piece. This background has encouraged readings that divide the game in two, though which elements end up on which side varies a bit.

Kawazu usually gets ‘blamed’ for Vaan, though, and for the game’s story allegedly fraying into incoherent fantasy nonsense in the final act. Matsuno gets credit for the political intrigue of the initial scenario and the thwarted promise of Basch’s character arc. Attribution of the mechanics is murkier (and it’s important to remember that the father of ATB himself, Hiroyuki Ito, shares directorial credit with Kawazu and Matsuno), but I’ve seen both people praising Matsuno and damning Kawazu for them.

  1. Why haven’t they fixed Vaan’s skin texture for the HD version?

Vaan...

Seriously, he looks like he’s rushed a cheap fake tan job.

(there’s a lot more to be said about skin colour and the designers’ deliberate use of Indian and Middle-Eastern visual style, but it’s out of my lane)

  1. Final Fantasy Tactics

If Matsuno is celebrated for one thing above all others, it’s for Final Fantasy Tactics. The PS1 game has a reputation for nuance, depth and artistic merit that very few games enjoy. Alongside Vagrant Story, FF Tactics is why many people were so excited for Matsuno to helm a ‘main line’ Final Fantasy, and so disappointed or angered when it didn’t work out.

We covered FF Tactics on the podcast recently. The results would make a great study in video game hagiography. FF Tactics plays out, narratively and mechanically, like a prototype of FFXII. It has the same political intrigue, eventually blurring away into basic fantasy tropes. The same feeling that the mechanics were developed by committing hard to every idea rather than trying to make them coherent.

To me, FF Tactics was an enjoyable but incoherent mess. The plot abdicated all its truly interesting ideas about privilege and social hierarchy after the first chapter, trading them for a competent but cynical conspiracy thriller. Combat systems ground against each other like stuck gears; difficulty emerged sporadically, with little respect for pacing or drama.

The game’s biggest problem is that, once Ramza is forced to confront the corruption of his noble family, he is allowed to solve his moral quandary by just walking away from them. From that point forward, he is a dauntless, cherubic hero; his scant personal goals consistently align with the Good, and everyone who opposes him turns out to be Evil.

FF Tactics‘ final villain has neither nuance nor motivation; Ultima is just the queen of demons, out to… subjugate the world? Spread suffering? Destroy everything? The game takes little time to make this clear. Ramza leaves the material world and its difficult political questions behind to kill her, and is declared a hero by narrative fiat.

If FF Tactics is Matsuno’s fingerprint, it becomes possible to draw a quite different picture of his role in FFXII. FFXII, too, is characterised by mechanical sprawl, and many people have condemned the second half of its story for rambling off into traditional, tropey fantasy territory. It is where FFXII goes beyond FF Tactics – the grandiose visual spectacle, the smoothing-off of rough mechanical edges, a few key narrative differences – that it pulls together.

  1. The Zodiac Age

The new version of FFXII is to be based on the International Zodiac Job System version, currently only available for Japanese PS2s. IZJS features a number of ‘quality-of-life improvements’, most notably a button that allows the game to run at double speed, but the main change is to the character development system.

Where the original FFXII gave every character exactly the same development options, through a shared License Board, in IZJS each character must be assigned one of twelve jobs, which they keep for the rest of the game. In the original, all characters can eventually learn all abilities (except summons and quickenings). In IZJS, each character is restricted to one career path, and you just have to guess what you’ll need from the get-go.

I haven’t played IZJS, but it’s hard to believe this change won’t significantly alter the feel of the mechanics. Not for the worse, necessarily (though my nostalgia dreads it), but I suspect it will shift the thematic emphasis of the game a bit.

The original’s license board was an open, indifferent space. You could take your characters anywhere provided you were prepared to put in the work of earning enough license points. Few individual choices made much difference, though, since the demands of balance led the developers to nerf all the quirky options to the point of ineffectuality. In this, it mirrored the world of Ivalice and the game’s environments – vast, sprawling, but largely unaffected by anything the characters do or try.

IZJS is (in a peculiarly video-gamey sense of the word) oppressive; it forces you down narrow paths, bound to simple initial decisions for which you cannot have enough information. Rather than making all choices meaningless, it takes the choices away altogether. This suggests more the narrative and political situation of life under Archadian Imperial rule.

Both approaches force a kind of humility, and humility is at the heart of FFXII. They are different flavours of humility, though, and one of the things I most like about the original version of FFXII is its empty openness. If you choose to exist in its space at all, you can only do so by accepting how little that space cares about you. IZJS’ restrictiveness is more specific; I expect to feel the game pressing on me more, responding to my presence at least in an equal-and-opposite-reaction sort of way.

  1. So, FFXII then.

I get frustrated with people talking about FFXII mostly because it’s My First Final Fantasy, of course. But there’s also a pattern to what people say about the game even when being positive: nobody seems to like FFXII as a complete work. Some people like the combat but not the characters. Some like the start of the story but not the end. Some enjoy exploring the world but find the combat trivial. Everyone seems to agree that FFXII is conflicted, its components acting against one another.

I’ve tried before, and will almost certainly try again, to explain the coherence I’ve found in the game. I’ve characterised it as a story about the insignificance of traditional fantasy heroism and as a response to the peculiar demands of the Final Fantasy fanbase and target market. Playing another Matsuno game, and seeing the very clear similarities between the two, has helped clarify my thoughts on this.

I said that Final Fantasy Tactics‘ biggest problem was that the presence of an Ultimate Evil trivialised the game’s attempt at nuanced politics. So long as Ramza fought against Ultima and her minions or their plots, he was in the right. FFXII rips this certainty away by pitching its heroine into a struggle between unknowable gods and cruelly ambitious men whose rationale is the liberation of mankind from what they see as divine tyranny.

On top of that, the majority of Ashe’s actions come to nothing. The player characters are far from Ivalice’s centres of power, constantly reminded of their insignificance. Combat that can feel trivial or unsatisfying supports this, as do the environments and architecture that loom over and dwarf you. The sheer time it takes to travel anywhere, or grind out the gil and license points to try out a new combat tactic, works to this end too.

FFXII isn’t the most fun game to play. It’s drawn out, labour-intensive and opaque. Whether deliberate or not, though, the results work. All these disparate elements converge on the idea that if you do ever have the opportunity to change the world, the choice will be unclear, and it will not give you everything you want. If nothing else, this deserves praise for being so profoundly at odds with the ideology running through so much of game design that the aim should be to reward or satisfy the player.

The game’s complex development makes it very easy to argue that FFXII can’t have been the product of a coherent vision. Indeed, it almost certainly wasn’t. But there are two reasons why this doesn’t matter. The first is that, quite simply, it’s more interesting to talk about how the different elements of the game work together (or don’t, if you disagree with my reading) than it is to dismiss the possibility of coherence at all.

The second is that the focus on Matsuno’s departure feeds an auteurism which has no place in discussion of a game developed by hundreds of people over a five-year period. If Final Fantasy XII is flawed, it is flawed regardless of whether the flaws are departures from Matsuno’s vision or parts of it. If Final Fantasy XII holds together, that is the achievement of everyone who worked on it.

There are surely interesting stories to be told about the development of FFXII, and interesting discussions to be had about the content of the game. But the former require more than transpacific speculation, and the latter need not wait on that. Every piece of the FFXII puzzle does more work than it is given credit for, and I hope that the rerelease gives more people the opportunity to dig into that.

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