The Controversial Legacy of Final Fantasy XII

by Dustin Bailey,
There is perhaps no Final Fantasy game—and certainly no 3D entry in the series—which has been uncontroversial. Maybe that's the cost of a franchise where each iteration is wildly different from its predecessor, making groups of fans who love what a particular entry has to offer while growing to despise the changes other titles introduce. Yet even within that context, Final Fantasy XII has proven to be one of the most divisive games in the FF milieu. It came after the cinematic but confined world of FFX and the wide-open online gameplay of FFXI, feeling like an simultaneous evolution of both—yet that evolution was not without a cost. The release of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on PS4 offers not just a visual remaster, but a full rebalancing with gameplay tweaks both massive and miniscule, and it seems that the decade since the original release has softened the criticism many players leveled at the game. With that in mind, there's no better time to look at FFXII's legacy, and how it's evolved since 2006.

Building Ivalice

That legacy starts well before the game's release. Final Fantasy Tactics, the series' most beloved spinoff, was released nearly a decade earlier and would mark director Yasumi Matsuno's first involvement with the franchise. Coming off of beloved—but niche—games like Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics would be Matsuno's opportunity to bring a more strategic brand of RPG to a far bigger audience. It was a success by nearly every metric, selling well and proving a legendary favorite among fans and critics alike. Notably, the setting of Tactics stepped back from the encroaching sci-fi elements that defined much of PlayStation-era Final Fantasy. The world of Ivalice builds from the medieval—airships notwithstanding—with something that distances itself from FF's more whimsical elements for a somber, serious tone. It's a place of aristocratic and religious corruption, and one that offers more nuanced motivations for its characters, all of which is backed up by dramatic art and compositions.

The unified aesthetic was created by a team that had been working together for years. Since working on Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre at Quest, Matsuno had collaborated with illustrator Akihiko Yoshida, composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, and designer Hiroshi Minagawa, and the entire group joined Square before again working together on Final Fantasy Tactics. The team would continue collaborating in the years to follow, building the beloved Vagrant Story—a game not truly a part of Final Fantasy, but its connections to Ivalice are unmistakable—and serving largely as supervisors on the more kid-friendly Tactics spin-off on GBA.

Square would soon be a much different company—and the most significant part of those changes happened while XII was in the early part of its development. Final Fantasy X had been largely successful on its release in 2001, but the disastrous flop of Spirits Within that same year was followed by the departure of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. On top of all that, Square itself was fundamentally restructuring to merge with its biggest competitor and become Square Enix.

A New Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy itself was left without a clear direction forward. The fact that the series ditched its characters and world with each successive entry meant that it was in a constant state of reinvention, and by then it had swapped so many times between whimsical adventure and brooding sci-fi that it was tough to pick out a particular line of evolution. Even the game systems had suffered the same fate. FFX ditched the Active Time Battle system that had been with the series since the Super Nintendo in favor of truly turn-based combat, and Final Fantasy XI was an online-appropriate semi-real time system. The launch of FFXI was also surrounded by talk that online would be the future of the series, and while the MMO would garner a devoted audience the thought of single-player, story-driven Final Fantasy being no more was alienating to much of the fanbase.

Maybe there was no more appropriate team to take on the monumental challenge of Final Fantasy's next chapter than the one behind Tactics. Matsuno and company would be reunited with long-time FF battle designer Hiroyuki Ito to take that next step, and while that combination might suggest a “back to basics” approach, XII would end up being anything but traditional. One tradition it seemed to start, however, was that of mainline series entries having monumentally troubled development—something that would continue through XIII, XIV, and XV. At the time, XII set an unenviable record with its five-year development cycle, and more time spent meant an ever-inflating budget. Corporate pressure early on forced a switch toward a more marketable protagonist, and fans remain bitter about Vaan a decade later. Most troubling of all, Matsuno left Square midway through development, and the reasons for that departure remain a huge point of speculation. Officially, he left due to health concerns, but theories about a “true” reason range from unhappiness with management's pressure of the game, to an inability to deal with the stress of heading up Square's most important franchise, to a disheartened refusal to work when many employees left the company to join Sakaguchi's new team at Mistwalker.

Whatever the reason, FFXII would see Minagawa and Ito step into directorial duties while Akitoshi Kawazu—who just so happens to be the designer behind the controversial systems of games like Final Fantasy II and the SaGa series—would guide the remainder of development as executive producer. Though such a shift in leadership might suggest a fundamentally different final game, members of the original team say that isn't the case. Speaking to Jeremy Parish at Polygon, programmer and remaker director Takashi Katano said “the game pretty much followed on the same track after Matsuno-san left. There wasn't a huge overhaul or anything like that.”

The final product—with or without Matsuno—would be a massive, open game with wildly original combat systems, and one that delighted critics when it finally released in 2006. The core of it was the Active Dimension Battle system, which allows you to move around the field in real-time, consequently removing random battles and allowing characters to be constantly repositioned during combat. Of course, the problem was that you can't simultaneously control a character and issue commands to an entire RPG party. Thus, the Gambit system was born. Gambits would essentially allow you to program your party's responses in battle, setting actions to perform and conditions under which they'd occur. More straightforward examples might include healing party members when they're low on HP, or casting Fire on an enemy with that elemental weakness, but the strategy could get far more complex—provided you could come to grips with it. It was a system that offered a great deal of customization and tactical thinking, but it did mean that strategy happened in preparation rather than in battle itself. You could pause and issue commands at any time, but an effective combination of Gambits meant that big chunks of exploration and combat happened automatically.

There's also the character development system, which proved even more controversial from the start. Classes and jobs were a thing of the past, with every character purchasing new abilities on the singular License Board. On one hand, this meant a highly customizable party with whatever abilities the player felt were appropriate—but in the end, it meant each character ultimately felt the same.

Ivalice Alliance

Both major issues with FFXII's gameplay would be addressed with the International Zodiac Job System, released a year later. Gameplay could now be doubled in speed at the press of a button, so making it through rounds of largely automated combat was far more palatable. Characters now had to commit to more limited, Job-based License Boards, ensuring a more diverse party and more strategic considerations in how to build it. But by then it was 2007, and with the gaming audience largely moving on to a new generation of consoles, the International version ironically never made it out of Japan.

The revised edition of FFXII was part of a larger collection of games called the Ivalice Alliance, which also included a PSP remake of Tactics called War of the Lions, and DS sequel to the GBA game called Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. The latter is generally liked, but still suffers from being part of the child-focused vision of Ivalice, while War of the Lions is often cited as the definitive version of the beloved PSX game. There was also Crystal Defenders, a mobile strategy game later ported to console.

But perhaps the most curious part of the Ivalice Alliance is Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, a real-time strategy slash RPG hybrid for DS. Directed by Motomu Toriyama—who also served as director of other FF direct sequels like X-2, XIII-2, and Lightning ReturnsRevenant Wings directly followed XII's story with a new adventure featuring Vaan. You know, Vaan, the controversial XII cast member unfortunately shoehorned into the role of protagonist. Lacking the more dramatic story hooks of XII's original plot or much in the way of strategic depth, Revenant Wings remains more of a curiosity than anything else.

The After Years

Though Final Fantasy XII was released amid questions of what the series truly is, it never really answered them. XIII, XIV, and XV would bounce between cinematic turn-based battles, MMO gameplay, and real-time combat, with wildly different stories of completely different tones and types of characters. As mentioned before, the one trend it seemed to start was a troubled production cycle, and its five-year development record now seems quaint with the decade it took XV to finally release.

The systems introduced by XII, it turns out, may have been ahead of their time. Its open world and largely real-time combat were defining characteristics of the Western RPGs that rose to prominence on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and the programmable AI of the Gambit system would be a significant component of games like Dragon Age: Origins. Within Square Enix, the Ivalice Alliance would set the tone for future Final Fantasy releases, with each major entry launching a new setting and franchise spanning spin-offs through multiple games and other bits of media. The absurdly-named Fabula Nova Crystallis would see multiple direct sequels to XIII, and would eventually spin out into the most recent major game—which in turn would spawn its own web of tie-ins, movies, and spin-offs.

As for Ivalice itself, that may be the shakiest part of FFXII's legacy. Fans of the setting gravitate more toward the way it was represented in Tactics, and it's difficult for XII's story to escape the weight of being tied to Vaan, whose role in it is largely inconsequential to the political drama that unfolds around him. Of Vaan, the best thing most people can manage to say is “Well, at least he's not Tidus,” and that is some seriously low praise.

But with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age now here, it seems the game's stock is on the rise. It's a stretch to have ever called XII a failure, but the weaknesses that came alongside the original release and the problems inherent to its story made it a divisive game even by Final Fantasy standards. Yet now that those once-wild gameplay components have become commonplace—and everyone knows what to expect from the story—it looks like many who dismissed the game the first time around are ready to give it a second chance. With Zodiac Age finally bringing those much-needed International changes to an English-speaking audience, it's about time.

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