Things definitely took a weird turn for the Final Fantasy franchise after Final Fantasy X. The next main entry, Final Fantasy XI, was an MMORPG! Whaaaat? Everyone was worried that Final Fantasy had finally ditched the single-player format for good, and Square Enix was quick to assuage such worries. Final Fantasy XII was going to be a single-player adventure, just like the other main titles.
This is part of a continuous series. Be sure to check out the other entries in the Year of Final Fantasy!
Now, by this time most people were expecting a trilogy of games per system. The original NES received Final Fantasy I through III, the SNES got IV-VI, the PS1 got VII-IX and the PS2 had finally reached its final entry in 2006 with Final Fantasy XII. Seeing as how the game was more or less arriving on the very cusp of the upcoming PlayStation 3, it had some very high expectations. Though the Xbox 360 had been out for quite some time, at this point Square Enix had more or less ingrained Final Fantasy as a Sony franchise.
Though it had some troubled development, Final Fantasy XII would eventually see a release on the PS2. Later on, Japan received an updated version called the International Zodiac Job System, which massively overhauled the gameplay mechanics in ways that we’ll be discussing later on. However, it wasn’t until just this July that North America would get the chance to see these changes in the remaster, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Truly, Square Enix had brought us to the light.
I’m going to level with you before we really dive into this game: I’ve tried playing it twice before having to do it for this review. I managed to get about five hours in before I stopped the first time, and about ten hours in before quitting a second time. The game just could not grip me for some reason!
That being said, that was upwards of six or seven years ago now. I’m hoping that with a different gamer mindset and a fresh slate, I can learn to love this game. It seems to be very divisive, with mostly positive feelings against some vehement haters. Originally, I found myself closer toward the hater category. How about now? Has anything changed after all this time?
There’s only one way to find out. Let’s get into Final Fantasy XII!
Final Fantasy XII - March 16, 2006 (PS2, PS4)
Version used for review: The Zodiac Age, 2017
“If I could protect but one person from war's horror... then I would bear any shame. I would bear it proudly.”
Final Fantasy XII is supremely different to most other games in the franchise, perhaps with the surprising exception of Final Fantasy II. It plays out much more like a political drama than any other RPG I’ve experienced, which is both a good and bad thing, which we’ll get to.
We start off with the wedding of Princess Ashe of Dalmasca and Prince Rasler of Nabradia. These two small nations in Ivalice hope to join together in the event of invasion from either of the two much larger warring nations of Archadia and Rozarria. Surely, nothing is going to go wrong here!
Oh, silly you. Of course it does. Archadia invades Nabradia to steal a magical (oh, excuse me, magickal) stone called the Midlight Shard. Soon after, the capital of Nabradia becomes a scorched earth and Archadia sets its sights on Dalmasca. Rasler leads the Dalmascan army but is killed in the process and buried in Dalmasca’s capital, Rabanastre. Try to keep up, I know this is starting to sound like Game of Thrones with all these names.
Anyway, Archadia takes over Dalmasca much like Nabradia, and King Raminas of Dalmasca opts to sign a peace treaty. However, word gets around that this is just going to be a plot to have King Raminas murdered, and so Captain Basch fon Ronsenburg rallies his troops to go to his aid. Along for the ride is Basch’s companion Vossler and a curious young upstart soldier named Reks.
During the rescue mission, Reks is separated from the group. When he rejoins them, he finds Captain Basch standing among all his dead men. Before he can react, Basch stabs Reks, explaining that he wanted to kill the king for betraying Dalmasca’s people with the treaty. Reks survives long enough to testify against Basch, which gets him a life imprisonment sentence. Unfortunately, Reks slowly passes on in a hospital, leaving his younger brother Vaan without any family left.
Because of this, Vaan is taken under the care of a shopkeeper named Migelo, who is also looking after Vaan’s childhood friend Penelo as well. Vaan becomes a “riff raff, street rat, I’m not like that… if only they’d look closer!”
Vaan dreams of being a sky pirate, which isn’t relevant at the moment. Anyway, he decides he’s pissed about Archadia running things and takes it upon himself to steal some of Dalmasca’s riches back from the Archadians in the Royal Palace. While doing so, he encounters two more thieves: Balthier the gunslinger (and sky pirate!), and his friend and companion, Fran.
The three end up in the middle of a coup by some resistance members, but escape. However, they’re soon caught by the Imperial forces and imprisoned for thievery. Then they almost immediate escape yet again, only to find Basch chained up in the dungeons. He’s being taunted by one of the Archadian Judges, Gabranth, who removes his giant helmet…
Spoilers for Final Fantasy XII are below! Skip to the next bolded text if you don’t want to be spoiled!
...and the party realizes that he’s Basch’s twin brother. It’s soon discovered that Basch, in fact, did not kill the king! It really was his evil twin all along, just like he said. Gabranth murdered the king so that his leader, Vayne Solidor, could turn Dalmasca from an occupied state to full Archadian rule.
So, let’s pause for a second. “The evil twin” has always been a ridiculous cliché for me, and I get that no medium is perfect. However, it bothers me that such a giant plot point of this game hinges on the “evil twin” crutch. It seems utterly ridiculous, which is impressive given the levels of sabotage going on in this entire scenario! Even if this isn’t the most egregious example of such a cliché, I had to set aside a paragraph to point it out. It’s such a mocked concept, but Final Fantasy XII decided to go ahead and do it anyway. Absolutely ridiculous.
Anyway, not long after they all manage to escape the dungeons and Basch leaves to fight alongside the Resistance. Basch needs Balther’s airship to get to the sky city of Bhujerba, whose leader is a Resistance sympathizer in secret. They go to request their assistance when Migelo informs them that Penelo has been kidnapped by a headhunter that’s been hunting Balthier. He had seen them talking previously and figured Penelo knew him and would come after her.
As it just so happens, he’s located in Bhujerba as well! So the crew all go and free Penelo, and a strange young boy named Lamont, soon found to be Larsa Solidor, helps them escape. They come across a magicite excavation site, where Vayne’s younger brother Larsa realizes that the Draklor Laboratory in Archades is being supplied with magicite to study manufactured nethicite, most likely by his brother.
Nethicite, a subtype of magicite, is a stone that reacts strongly to mist (the source of all magick in Ivalice) and can absorb it with ease. “Deifacted” nethicite is nethicite created by a race called the Occuria. It’s absurdly powerful and difficult to control, but manufactured nethicite is less powerful but more controllable.
So, the group realizes something needs to be done and they board a visiting Judge’s airship, the Leviathan. Penelo is brought on as Larsa’s guest, but the others are brought on as “captured” soldiers. The four are brought before Judge Ghis and find him with a woman they met named Amalia, who it turns out is Princess Ashe from before. It turns out that the leader of Bhujerba, Marquis Ondore, is Ashe’s uncle and wants the group to save her from the Empire while he still tries to maintain his ruse as an Imperial ally.
They eventually escape the airship with Ashe and start setting up a Resistance yet again. They go to find a piece of nethicite called the Dawn Shard, which reacts when near someone of royal blood. Ashe plans to use it as proof of her royal blood, and Basch’s friend Vossler chooses to join them in the Resistance.
They go and get the Dawn Shard, only for the Empire to show up. Vossler is a turncoat who believes that opposition is futile, and unfortunately that means stabbing the Resistance in the back. Thus, Judge Ghis takes the Dawn Shard and puts it in the engine of his airship, which then overloads. As the party escapes after killing Vossler, the ship explodes, blowing up the entire fleet. Ashe then decides to use the Dawn Shard as a weapon, having seen its power.
So, normally this is where I’d continue to go into detail about stuff, but man oh man there is so much going on in this game. It feels like it never ends! For reference, this is probably not even halfway through the game by now, I'm gonna try to jump way ahead. So, the super-cliffnotes is that the party ends up going against Vayne, who has murdered his father and become emperor, as a war breaks out with the Empire vs. the Resistance.
Aboard his airship, the party attempts to kill Vayne, who then fuses with one of the Occuria mentioned before, Venat. The two form The Undying, which is hilarious considering what happens to them next.
So, the war is over. Archades is now run by Larsa, who is extremely sane compared to his insane brother. Dalmasca is saved, Ashe is crowned queen, and Vaan gets to be the sky pirate he always wanted to be. Basch takes the mantle of Judge Gabranth, who died and begged him to protect Larsa for him. It’s a somewhat bittersweet ending, but overall it’s good that peace has returned to Ivalice at long last.
Spoilers end here! You can continue reading below!
Needless to say, there is a lot of depth to the plot of Final Fantasy XII, and I definitely appreciate it. There’s a lot to follow and with a game as long as this one, it’s nice to have something constantly trying to keep my attention. However, it’s not completely perfect.
While I appreciate a story that’s essentially medieval-era Star Wars, I still believe that the pacing is a little wonky. In any RPG it’s expected to be pretty long. However, in the case of Final Fantasy XII I felt things lagging a bit at times. Not often, but certain parts didn’t keep me nearly as engaged as the rest of the game. The story itself is fine, though.
Another major issue I have is Vaan. I just… I hate Vaan. So much. I hate Vaan so much it almost hurts. He’s so annoying, all he ever does is talk about sky pirates while being as much of a doofus as possible, and it drives me nuts. He’s not even the main character of the story! After the initial areas in Rabanastre, he literally is just around with the party for the sake of being around.
There’s actually a reason for this. As it turns out, Vaan was originally going to be a tough, rugged character. However, the development team thought that would put off Japanese players and decided to make him softer and energetic instead. They made him this way to be more “relatable," which just boggles my mind. This annoying runt is supposed to be relatable? Everytime he talks he either says something stupid or adds nothing to the conversation! It’s maddening!
But instead of lambasting Vaan for an entire article (believe me, I could do it), I’ll just skip on my merry way. Final Fantasy XII has a deep story, but at times the pacing gets a little funky. Thankfully, it’s not too much of a problem and the story being told is interesting. Can’t wait to play Episode V! ...Oh wait, wrong franchise.
“You've let your eyes betray your heart...”
This is one category I never snubbed Final Fantasy XII for previously. Despite my original feelings toward the game, I did always feel that it looked great. The character design isn’t nearly as varied as Final Fantasy X, but it certainly feels more in-line with the general aesthetic of the game here. Square was going for a dusty medieval look for the game, and I’d say they did a great job showcasing the enormous areas of Ivalice.
Models are well-detailed, the environments are pretty, and the enemies are just as varied and strange as ever. Everything has a much more realistic aesthetic this time around compared to the previous two PS2 entries, and that’s okay! It still looks fabulous and the art team clearly enjoyed themselves and worked hard to make a game as gorgeous as this.
Much like a majority of games on the console, however, Final Fantasy XII runs at 30fps. Like I said with Final Fantasy X, that’s fine. I’d prefer 60fps, but the game runs smoothly enough without drops that it doesn’t bother me.
If there were one thing I’d have to gripe about with the graphics, it’d be about the environments. Many of them are vast and impressive, especially for the PS2, but a large amount of them are also pretty barren. It ties in a lot to the upcoming gameplay feelings I have about this being an “offline MMO” style game, but a bunch of the giant areas feel totally devoid of… well, anything. They’re impressive for their size (at the time), not because they’re densely packed with pretty touches.
Other than that, the graphics are fine. Perhaps the one category in the series where Square is always consistent, it should be no surprise that Final Fantasy XII looks beautiful. It’s a great way to end the PS2 era of games, as expected.
“Quite a performance.”
Final Fantasy XII is a major landmark for the series. The veteran Nobuo Uematsu had a few songs he co-composed with others in Final Fantasy X, and then in Final Fantasy XI he ended up composing a handful of tracks as well. However, Final Fantasy XII is where Uematsu really stepped back. Instead, Hitoshi Sakamoto stepped up to bat and promised to try not to copy Uematsu’s work.
The difference between Uematsu and Sakamoto becomes extremely apparent early on, as Sakamoto relies much less on synthesizers than Uematsu. Instead, he opts to use more orchestrated tracks, for better or for worse. A lot of the time, it turns out great, like in the catchy theme for the town of Rabanastre:
It also works very well in some of the battle themes, such as the exciting brass-and-strings-heavy boss battle theme. Sakimoto shows that he really does know how to add some gravitas to a battle in a different way than Uematsu, which I find rather admirable. After hearing Uematsu’s work for so long, I was worried that Sakimoto would just try to emulate him. Instead, he attempts to go for his own style altogether and it comes together nicely
If we’re going to be honest, while I don’t think Final Fantasy XII tops X’s soundtrack overall, I do feel that it does have one edge over it: the final boss theme. While X was serviceable, it didn’t have the punch of other final battle themes (which makes sense, as Uematsu didn’t compose it). This time, however, Sakimoto composed Battle for Freedom and did what I think X was trying to accomplish with its final battle theme. It sets a grand stage, and is dripping with drama at every moment. It sent shivers down my spine!
Also, the voice acting is pretty great, too. Balthier’s voice actor did a fantastic job in particular as the smooth gunslinger, and Fran had a uniquely entertaining voice as well. The only one I didn’t really like was Vaan, which should probably come as no surprise given what I’ve written above. Seriously, that guy, I swear. It ruins my day for a few minutes every time I remember he exists.
Anyway, aside from that, the rest of the cast does a great job. Bonus points to Vayne Solidor for sounding exactly as I’d expect a crazy person that talks to an invisible monster would sound. He’s such a creep, and I adore it.
So, for the first time with Uematsu having basically no hand in the music, I would say things panned out just fine. Square knew they had some enormous shoes to fill, and thankfully Sakimoto understood that as well. Instead of trying to follow Uematsu, he chose wisely to be himself through his music and it turned out well! The orchestrations are all quite nice. On top of that, the voice actors pull in performances ranging from decent to fantastic. There’s one exception, but no need to beat a dead teenage whining little JRPG boy.
“In vain glory they arose, shouting challenges at the gods. But prevail they did not, their doom it was to walk the mist until time's end.”
Did you miss the ATB system, guys? I hope so, because it’s back in Final Fantasy XII! However, it’s not exactly the same as you may remember. In fact, Final Fantasy XII has a bunch of tweaks to the formula much like any other entry in the series.
Let’s dive right into it. The first thing you’ll notice is that battle no longer take place in a separate battle screen. Everything is happening right on the map in real-time. There are no more random encounters, so you can pick your battles quite fairly. This is actually a nice addition to the series. I don’t mind having random battles, but I do usually prefer being able to see my opponents so I can gauge whether or not it’ll be worth engaging them.
Once the battle begins, things start to show just how different they are. While the game does use the ATB bar, it’s not used in the traditional sense. Normally in a Final Fantasy game, you fill your ATB bar, then choose an action. In Final Fantasy XII, however, you can pick whatever action you want a character to do. Once you do this, a bar specific to that action will fill up. Harder-hitting spells and attacks will fill the bar slower, for instance.
Also, the other major difference is that you now have free movement over your main character. Since there’s no battle screen or anything, you can run around the battlefield as you please. However, one thing definitely bothered me about this: there’s no way to dodge attack by sidestepping, or anything like that.
In an MMO (which this game is definitely emulating), usually there are some telegraphed attacks where you can get out of the Area of Effect and avoid damage. However, it’s still entirely stat-based in Final Fantasy XII, and on top of that it feels disjointed in my opinion.
See, when you or an enemy attacks, you get a thin line connecting the two of you to indicate who is locked onto who. That’s fine, it help keep things organized since everyone is running around. What annoys me is that the attacks themselves are in no way close to how far away you can be for an attack to connect.
I’ve been swiped at by wolves from 10 feet away and still taken damage, which just feels wrong to me for some reason. I know it’d probably break the difficulty of the game if enemies had to basically be hugging you to hurt you, but it still just feels strange.
On top of this, managing everything you and your party can do in battle can quickly get out of hand compared to other titles, it seems. Enter the Gambit system, which seems to be perhaps one of the most divisive elements of Final Fantasy XII.
The Gambit system allows you to set auto-commands for party members based on certain parameters. You can control your main party member and switch between who you control at any given time. However, with the Gambit system you can set up a playstyle that the AI will more or less closely follow, meaning you don’t have to babysit it most of the time. Think of it like an expanded version of commanding Goofy and Donald in Kingdom Hearts, and much less frustrating in my opinion.
The Gambit system isn’t perfect, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved controlling my party in battle. However, if developers are going to give you a ton of options in the game like they do in Final Fantasy XII and its myriad menus, it would bring the pace of battle to a complete halt. I understand why they did it and I appreciate it, because my god is this game slow as hell enough as it is. That being said, if you want to you can disable the Gambit system entirely and go through Menu Inferno if you so choose, you masochistic freak.
So, we come to the problem I had with the game that made me quit several times before. I get that Final Fantasy XII is an ambitious title. It’s got a lot to do, it’s got giant environments, that’s all well and good. However, playing the game just… wasn’t much fun to me. I opted to play as originally intended, without using the speedup feature included in later releases of the game.
Boy oh boy, I wish I had. Everything seems to take ages, especially travel from one area to another. The grand environments I mentioned? They really are large, and traversing them feels like a nightmare more than an awe-inspiring experience.
This is not true of everywhere, however. Dungeons are generally exciting to go through and the towns are pretty neat, but by and large I was getting extremely bored chugging along through yet another wide-open area that’s large for seemingly only the purpose of saying “we have big environments, guys!” It quickly became draining, and I was just as quickly reminded of why I quit the game twice. I should sound more mad than I do, and I am, but the truth is I’m just so tired after this game that I can’t really muster a full-on rant like I normally do. It’s too exhausting.
Oh right, I still have to discuss the License system, another thing that I’m sort of half-and-half about. In the original release of Final Fantasy XII, each character has the same license board, which looks like a giant chessboard full of tiles. As you gain License Points from battles, you can buy more licenses from the board via the tiles. What are licenses?
Well, it’s how you learn to equip armor, weapons, learn spells, and more. So, this is where I think it’s cool: It’s a giant board that you can traverse as you see fit, learning whatever you want for whoever you want. Everyone is completely the same in the original release. However, what I don’t like is the armor and weapon aspect of it.
While it never really becomes a problem, I still don’t enjoy the idea of having to level up and buy a license just to equip a better weapon than the one I have. I own the weapon, the person uses those weapon types regularly … so why do I have to spend License Points so that they can use a better one? It just seems silly and it’s always bothered me.
Now, a common complaint with the original is that everyone felt exactly the same, as I mentioned above. That’s why they tweaked the system twice. In the International Zodiac Job System version, there are 12 jobs based on, you guessed it, the zodiac calendar. These range from an Archer, to a Time Mage, to a Samurai, and so on. Each of the six characters can pick one of the 12 jobs, each with its own unique License Board.
In the Zodiac Age release on PS4, Square heard the complaints loud and clear. People were annoyed that the super-long game forced them to miss content by only picking half of the jobs, so they fixed it. On the PS4 version of the game, each character can pick two jobs, thereby filling out all 12 roles. This allows for some very dynamic gameplay scenarios that can play out in very interesting ways depending on who gets what jobs.
So, overall? The gameplay that’s there is fine. The Gambit system works, the License system works, and the Job system introduced in later releases is a very welcome addition to the game. However, I just can’t get over the fact that I got so bored playing Final Fantasy XII. The game feels like it moves at a snail’s pace for a large portion of the time and it really gets in the way of my enjoyment sometimes. It’s not a complete dealbreaker like it was in the past, but it’s not ideal either. It’s telling that the International version added a 2x speed option… and then the PS4 remaster added a 4x speed option. Let that sink in.
“Attain it I shall. For too long have my deeds gone unrewarded.”
Much like the rest of Final Fantasy XII, there is an inordinate amount of side content to pursue. There are tons of little sidequests to go on, but the two main sidequests are the superbosses and the Hunts.
The Hunts are a huge portion of the side content in Final Fantasy XII, and in fact, contain several of the game’s superbosses. These are exactly what you’d expect: monster hunts. You pick a mark, then you go out to try to hunt that monster. For doing this, you get plenty of rewards. It’s definitely worth checking out! Most of the hunts are pretty manageable, but like I said, some of them are superboss-level difficult.
Don’t worry, the game will let you know that an enemy is tough stuff, so you won’t bite off more than you can chew. Needless to say, it’s worth all the goodies to attempt to kill everything though. Now, for the original release, I’d say that Yiazmat is the hardest superboss. This freak of nature is pure hell on earth, with a mind-melting 50,112,254 HP. Fifty. Million. HP. Just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach!
If you decide not to cheese the battle, it can take upwards of four or more hours to kill him. Can you imagine the type of rage that would happen if you die when Yiazmat itself is close to death? I didn’t even bother attempting the boss fight for that very reason. If I had, and I died… I might as well have actually died. I’m not going to put myself through that mental torture.
Anyway, the International Zodiac Job System version added some extras as well, including a giant Trial Mode that you can access upon beating the game. The Zodiac Age version of Trial Mode allows you to access it at any time, using a save file from the main game of your choosing. At the end of this crazy 100-battle melee is a fight against the Judge Magisters all at once. Five bosses coming at you at one time. That is truly scary, and while there’s some hot debate over whether Yiazmat or the Five Judges are harder, the fact that there even is a debate should tell you that it’s not easy either way.
On top of all that, there are plenty of other Espers you can get in the game. For the most part, they shouldn’t cause you too much trouble. However, some of the later ones such as Ultima and definitely Zodiark will most likely give you a headache when you fight them. However, it’s worth getting them, because they’re some pretty amazing Espers as you might expect!
As it stands, then, there’s a wealth of extra content in Final Fantasy XII regardless of the version you choose to play. Most of it is Espers or superbosses, but nevertheless it’ll keep you grinding away for a long time if you want to.
The Final Word
“Believe whatever you want to. Whatever it takes to make you happy. What's done is done.”
Believe me when I say I wanted to love Final Fantasy XII. I really did. I thought the third time would be the charm, that I’d finally just “get it." Sadly, I don’t. It’s so hard to try to get into at times, but there are some genuinely fantastic parts to the game. The music is good, the story is more engaging than I remember, the acting is great, and the general combat is fun as well with deep customization options.
It seems to balance out the good, but there is a lot of not-so-good either. The story, while fine, is sidetracked by perhaps the worst main protagonist in a game I’ve ever played. I seriously despite Vaan, even more so when I remember that he was specifically added so that people would have a “relatable” character for the younger crowd. If I have to hear talk about sky pirates one more time, I might snap.
Aside from that, I found the environments gorgeous but I disliked having to traverse them most of the time. It takes forever to get around without using the speed function they added later on in my opinion.
Thankfully, for those who enjoy the gameplay, there is a metric ton of side content to explore and a lot of it feels meaningful and not like busywork. It’s rewarding and can be some of the most fun you have with the game (Yiazmat notwithstanding).
So that’s where I stand. I will say that I view Final Fantasy XII more favorably than I did almost a decade ago, which is positive. Though I’ll level with you, with how lowly I considered the game originally, “more favorable” isn’t exactly singing its praises. It just has too many issues bogging it down for me to thoroughly enjoy.
I’m not trying to knock fans of the game, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to say the game is bad. For me, however, it’s not great either. It’s painfully average, which stings even more than being an outright bad game if you ask me. There are some truly shining moments in Final Fantasy XII. It’s just a shame that you have to slog through so much of the game to get there.