11 years on from its original release, Square-Enix’s twelfth prodigal son has returned to finally fulfill its promise.
The art of ruling. It’s as timeless a human pursuit as any, though one that continues to go strangely, even willfully unnoticed by the majority of those who are ruled. Kings and queens have not changed. They simply update their presentation and their titles through the ages so as to appear less imperious. Crowns for lapel pins, princes for presidents. The reality is, of course, that We The People give them that power. By looking up at them, by paying attention to them. By listening, and thereby lending credence to their obvious lies, simply because they have come to lead.
“The concepts that became the core pillars of the storyline in Final Fantasy XII were: ‘What is duty?’ and ‘What is the real meaning of freedom?’” says Hiroaki Kato. He’s the project manager on Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the heavily re-imagined 2017 re-release of the 2006 original. He was the project manager on that as well. For him, the experience has definitely been dutiful, if not exactly freeing.
“As a project manager on the original game, I remember looking over the old schedules that I had drawn up for each individual team with what they were supposed to be creating. Looking at these, it struck me again how much the teams were actually doing and it made me think, ‘Wow that was a really difficult schedule!’ There was so much that they were expected to do within the time, and I think maybe we were able to get everything done because we [were] all that much younger back then,” he laughs.
“The concepts that became the core pillars of the storyline in Final Fantasy XII were: ‘What is duty?’ and ‘What is the real meaning of freedom?’” – Hiroaki Kato.
FFXII carries its burdens just as mindfully. As the story goes on, talking to the people of Imperial-occupied Rabanastre, FFXII’s starting hub, reveals a steady shift in attitudes towards emergent villain Vayne Solidor. Arriving as the new consul to a city still hostile to Imperial rule, he sets about a familiar game of populist niceties: Mingling with the ‘smallfolk’ during his inauguration, inviting the use of his first name and not his honourific, ensuring the public know he has instructed the guards to be ‘nicer’ to them et al. There is a realisation, as Vayne’s true colours turn to deathly shades, that the nuclear power of nethicite – FFXII’s Death Star-ish superweapon – has the potential to dethrone, but will doom everyone in the process. Mutually assured destruction is no substitute for the masses coming together as one and turning their backs on royal madness. Penultimately, rulers should live and die by the sword of consensus and ultimately, a game made in 2006 has never been more relevant than in 2017.
“When you first look at it, it seems like these are really heavy themes, but they are very universal and many people think about them – regardless of their age, gender, position and upbringing,” Kato says. “We mixed these themes with the fictitious world of Ivalice and a war setting, and the story itself was woven together around the various main characters that have their own different ideologies.”
Like the political cataclysms that enliven FFXII’s storyline, its original release was fraught with bad timing. 2006’s attention was waylaid not just by the arrival of the PS3, but also the distant promise of Final Fantasy XIII. It was also the year that a slew of incredible JRPGs were released, not least of which were Level-5’s similarly-veined Rogue Galaxy and Atlus’ vaunted Persona 3.
“I personally liked both Rogue Galaxy and Persona 3 a lot. I am enjoying Persona 5 at the moment too!” Kato says. “If I think back to the time we were developing the original Final Fantasy XII, I don’t really remember us paying particular attention to the trends of the time or to other company’s games, though. This was because developing Final Fantasy XII itself was a big enough challenge on its own, in the sense that we had implemented a lot of new systems and tried a unique new visual style.”
It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time FFXII’s gameplay was a massive departure – and, if you hadn’t experienced any of Final Fantasy XI’s MMORPG leanings beforehand – unfamiliarly jarring. Many fans hadn’t, going straight from Final Fantasy X/X-2’s turn-based linearity to Ivalice’s open world and real-time ‘gambit’ system. A way to semi or even completely automate your party in combat, it was unexpectedly FFXII’s narrative that really polarised, decried as straightforward by Final Fantasy standards and even accused of derivation. Though Square-Enix have denied the influence of Star Wars, this is certainly hard to ignore: Vaan, the young man longing to leave the desert for the air. Ashe, the renegade princess on a mission to restore her republic. Balthier, the roguish mercenary who flies the unfriendly skies – in an unorthodox but effective ship, the Strahl – alongside his likeable but thoroughly alien partner-in-crime, Fran. Vayne Solidor, villainous emperor at large. His helmeted and heavy-voiced apprentice, Gabranth, a fallen angel of sorts who also has familial ties to one of our heroes. There’s even Reddas, the suspiciously charismatic leader of an independent trade hub who treats with the empire to keep it that way.
Vaan and Balthier, just two members of a sprawling cast.
Itself a joint development between opposing factions within Square-Enix, anyone who’s played through Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (never mind 1998’s original mess of mistranslation) will immediately notice that team’s hand in FFXII’s medieval parlance, benighted political intrigue and stylistic obsession with astrology. It’s telling that Kato outright refuses to answer any questions about the alleged development schism between the Tactics crew and PlayOnline’s people, though this has been hinted at elsewhere – in, uh, French – by executive producer Akitoshi Kawazu. Now seemingly more than ever, Square-Enix is loathe to shoot from the hip. That is in some way understandable given the historical precariousness of the company’s bottom line, but FFXII would make for a bizarre cash-grab. That dishonour may well end up going to Final Fantasy VII’s remake, but FFXII simply does not have anything close to the nostalgic capital of said classic. To the contrary, it’s frequently derided as the herald of the direction the franchise would take from FFXIII onwards – a direction that is still wildly unpopular despite Final Fantasy XV’s relative goodness, objectively speaking. All told, it’s a strange game in Final Fantasy history and seems a stranger choice still for what is an unusually extensive remastering.
All told, it’s a strange game in Final Fantasy history and seems a stranger choice still for what is an unusually extensive remastering.
“My favourite Final Fantasy titles are Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics, because they both have job systems in them,” Kato says. “In Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, we created the Zodiac Job System, which was heavily based on these two titles. Ivalice is a world where the environment and cultures completely change depending on the location and the era, and between Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, the nature of the world itself and the stories told have changed completely. In a way, they both have completely new and different settings. However,” he continues, “there are key concepts that are shared between the two versions of the world, so for fans that have played Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s a lot of fun to be had in solving the mysteries of the linked worlds using their intuition and imagination, and making that kind of thing possible is one aspect of why we used Ivalice. Naturally, the stories have a few thousand years of time between them, and we developed the game so the fans can really enjoy the deep world of Final Fantasy XII even if they have not played Final Fantasy Tactics.”
Sweet original art for the game.
Much like the complex machinations seething under its sword ‘n sorcery, FFXII is a game that is not entirely forthcoming with you. It doesn’t tell you the boys are all more likely to combo with sword, spear and stabby little dagger. It doesn’t tell you the Bushi’s damage is also based on Magic. It doesn’t tell you the weather isn’t just for show, with storms reducing the accuracy of crossbows and bows and rain increasing the potency of Lightning damage. The infamously unknowable Zodiac Spear ‘quest’ was the lord of this misrule, the fabled weapon only obtainable if you abstained from opening a specific series of otherwise unremarkable chests – none of which are ever signposted or even hinted at by anything at all (though this has been completely reworked). These foxy underpinnings could be incidental, but then there is the jobs system. Until now, it was present only in 2007’s revamped Final Fantasy XII International – hilariously never released outside of Japan. It changes everything.
“For Final Fantasy XII’s international version, it was decided that the director, Hiroyuki Ito, who was in charge of much of the battle design for many previous numbered Final Fantasy games and the creator of both the famous Active Time Battle and ability systems, was going to re-create the battle system himself,” Kato says. “So compared to international versions that went before, it went through a very different approach, with big changes to the core systems. The original Final Fantasy XII had one shared license board between the main party, meaning that they grew and developed together with the same board and ultimately shared the same skills and abilities. The addition of the Zodiac Job System allowed players to develop each of their characters individually and in different ways. It allows the player to choose the direction they can go in by assigning two of 12 different jobs per character. This adds a whole new layer of customisation and enjoyment for players when developing their characters, which is something some players were missing in the original game.”
Basch – a natural knight?
It’s here where FFXII goes from lying by omission to pointedly dishonest. The jobs the story overtly insists on for each character are mostly the less appropriate jobs for them. Vaan and Penelo’s urchin origins suggest the swift and tricky Shikari. Balthier is frequently represented with a sly grin and a Machinist’s gun. The elfin allusions of the viera cast Fran as an Archer. Basch seems a natural Knight as does Ashe, who first appears bearing blade and buckler. FFXII’s unlikely truths run deeper still: Penelo’s magical prowess is arguably the best but her physicality is the worst, and the Machinist’s guns do set damage regardless of stats, making them perfect for her but a waste of Balthier’s high Strength and tanky HP – a tank that can take the unexpected form of the thiefly Shikari. Vaan can do almost anything, but his equal-high Strength and Magic and combo powers with katanas make him the ultimate Bushi. Fran is actually the slowest with bows, and the fastest and most likely to combo with the Monk’s poles, while the Foebreaker’s potential is based on Vitality, at which she excels the most. Basch deals obnoxious damage as an Uhlan and has an unexpected affinity for archery. Ashe’s sorcery and surprising sword-arm scream for the Red Battlemage.
“The European and American releases of Final Fantasy XII were based on the original Japanese version that came out before it, and this is one reason that the Zodiac Job System was not in them,” Kato explains. “We had discussed including a job system in the original game, but because we had already introduced a completely new battle system that differed from previous numbered, packaged Final Fantasy games, like the seamless transition into battle from exploration and the gambit system. We were worried that by introducing too many new elements it would make it much harder for players to learn the system, as they would have so much more to consider. As a result, we cut out the job system and spent the time on making the seamless transitions and the gambit system as fun and polished as we could instead. After we finished work on the EU and NA versions of Final Fantasy XII, when we came to work on Final Fantasy XII’s International Zodiac Job System, we felt that players would now have gotten used to the gambits and seamless battles by then. So in order to introduce new gameplay, we felt it was an ideal opportunity to put the Zodiac Job System in.”
Like the story, the gameplay itself metatextually declares: Things are never as they appear.
In 2007, each party member could only have one job. In 2017, they can now have two. This is well-meant, but deciding what combinations work well together and also in regards to the whole can be paralysing. Restarting at least once is a rite of FFXII passage, and then there are the espers to consider. Unlocking these summons for some jobs will open up skills that can fundamentally change how they work. When given Mateus, for example, all of a sudden the Knight becomes a potent magical healer as well. If Basch and his woeful Magic stat is your Knight, that’s a weird waste nobody saw coming. FFXII drops you into the world and come whatever may. Like the story, the gameplay itself metatextually declares: Things are never as they appear. All the forward planning you can muster will not save you from sacrifice, and then: Whose story is it, really? There is no Terra, no Cloud, no Squall, no Zidane, no Tidus, no Yuna. Like War of the Lions, FFXII is told in retrospect through the writings of a vital but otherwise infrequent presence – in this case Bhujerba’s ruler, Marquis Halim Ondore IV. We are introduced to the world as Vaan, though he quickly recedes into the background as deposed princess Ashe appears, only to be overshadowed by Balthier’s looming importance before an altogether unseen force takes center-stage and on and on goes the usurpation until the final act. It is knowingly apt.
“All six of the main party members are the real main character,” Kato says. “You could say that Vaan is the most central character as how the party meets and comes together centers around him, but they all have their own burdens from their pasts tying them down, and they all ultimately manage to overcome these through encounters with different people. Thanks to the graphical and sound upgrades in the HD remaster, the quality of the emotional depictions is that much higher now, and reading the subtle performances of each character has become clearer and more defined. If you play with the understanding that all six of them are the main character, then you may well notice things that you did not pick up on in the first Final Fantasy XII. Also,” he continues, “if you play through all the sub-events and sub-quests, starting with the bounty hunts, then you get the chance to look at the lives and dramas of the population of Ivalice, meaning that in a large sense, you could very well say that everyone in Ivalice is the main character of this story.”
He’s not wrong: Final Fantasy XII’s story is everyone’s story – now more than ever. Its claim for the throne was denied in 2006 by the uncertainty of apparent certainty, a theme ironically central to its narrative, gameplay and even mechanics. In 2017, the throne now fits it like a gilded glove for, ironically once again, much the same reason.
Toby is an Australian writer and RPG tragic. Follow him on Twitter: @jane_tobes