Final Fantasy XII: A Long-Belated Intermediate Gameplay Perspective (Part 1)
The year was 2006. I was sitting in my Japanese I college course, trying to pay attention and cram phrases like “Ii otenki, desu ne? (The weather is nice, isn’t it?)” into my head, crossing my legs, recrossing the other way, fidgeting, counting off the seconds on the clock on the wall while the only phrase that whipped around my skull on repeat was “Otearai wa doko desu ka? (Where is the bathroom?)” According to my painfully accurate count, class was supposed to end exactly one hundred and seventeen, eighteen, nineteen seconds ago, and according to my overly-full bladder, I was approximately twelve, eleven, ten seconds away from demonstrating for my nice, but garrulous, Japanese instructor exactly what the idiom “piss like a racehorse” means.
He dismissed class.
I rushed to the door, slinging my backpack onto my shoulder. The force of the swing, of course, tore the shoulder strap, and I just barely managed to catch the bag before its inertia slung it into the face of the guy who had been sitting next to me. I tweaked my back in the process, and the jolt of pain was nearly enough to make me piss myself right there.
I got control of the backpack (and my bladder), plodded to the door, and fought off a short Japanese-American girl who was insecure about her height, her valley girl accent, and her complete lack of fluency in Japanese. I don’t know what her background was or how her parents didn’t drill the language into her brain as a child, but I suppose I’ve encountered more anomalous things in the universe in my time.
She was cute, but something about literally shoving her into the doorframe so I could speed-waddle my way past and on to the cramped, antiquated men’s room seemed to have stuck a knife in any chance I ever had at a date with her. Oh, the joys of the limitations of human biology.
I reached the end of the hall, identified which unmarked converted broom closet was the most likely candidate to be the men’s room, smashed the door open, and ran inside. I dropped my backpack onto the disgusting tile floor next to me, unzipped my pants in front of the urinal, propped a forearm against the lead-paint wall, and leaned my forehead into my arm. In that moment of sweet, salvific, excreting release, I groaned out an exalting psalm to that selfless, infinitely receptive, and holy urinal. I hadn’t felt so spiritual in years.
Jarringly, a voice from behind interrupted my debased devotional: “Hey, are you going to get that new Final Fantasy at midnight?”
If you’re looking for the exact moment I irrationally decided that I hated Final Fantasy XII and was never going to play it, that was probably it.
Irritated this guy had caught me moaning over the physical pleasure of finally getting to pee, I finished my business, rinsed off my hands (annoyed that there wasn’t any soap left because Mr. Final-Fantasy-Midnight-Launch-McGee had suctioned out the last bit), almost forgot my backpack, and then stormed out the door, middle fingers blazing.
Just kidding. I think I told him I didn’t have time or something. I promptly walked home and killed about three hours on Myspace.
[Never change, Tom. Never change.]
So let’s fast-forward. I’ve spent the last twelve years shitting on FFXII, accusing it of being the crappy offline version of Square’s online MMORPG FFXI (and FFXIV since then). I even worked at a video game retailer for a while and told folks who came in that they absolutely needed to play FFVII and VIII (skip IX--that’s fine, you can hate me for that, but I’m sticking to my guns on that one) and X and, of course, Guild Wars (an online MMO I was obsessed with at the time). But that offline MMO piece of garbage FFXII? Nah, man. Put that one back in the bin.
Well, I’m here to admit that I was wrong. It’s 2018. I’ve finally given FFXII an honest shot. And...it is amazing!
Fair warning: some minor spoilers incoming, specifically regarding names of playable characters who join your party.
Let me be real clear here: I’m talking about the Zodiac Age version of the game. You know, the one with dedicated job classes. I’ll confess that I’ve never played the original (although I did at some point pick up an $8 used copy for PS2). I can’t compare the two, but I can tell you all about how much I love the world of FFXII and this new job system (that last part in my next post, apparently).
I’m about fifteen or so hours into the game, I’ve scrambled around various locales of Ivalice, run a couple of in-game hunts (which were difficult, but satisfying), and I’ve unlocked the second job class. Upon clicking the “X” button to gain access to the second job license board, Disney’s Aladdin song swelled in my head: “A whole new world!!!”
The options, the synergy, the samurai-ninja hybrid abomination of your dreams! The possibilities are endless!!**
The game isn’t without its flaws, of course.
I still don’t care for most of the characters. Vaan, in particular, is not a compelling protagonist to me. He’s young, immature, enchanted by shiny airships and a life of sky-piracy (although there is absolutely no indication he understands what the hell such a lifestyle entails). I get it, though; he’s a pauper, a member of an oppressed class living in a city under occupation of the Empire that in their conquest literally rained down hellfire from the cannons of their airship the Ifrit. So, yeah, to Vaan, airships represent power previously denied him, and the ability to traverse the sky at will represents freedom, which the game is clearly contraposing to Vaan’s life down in Lowtown, the underbelly of Dalmasca where the poor masses huddle and scrape out a meager existence.
That’s all fine and well. This is technically solid, and in fact, good character-building and world-building. But I still can’t stand Vaan. As a vehicle to take me through this world, he’s not my fave. (Side note: the undisputed best video game protagonist of all-time is Ryudo from Grandia II, and I’m happy to explain to you why you’re wrong if you believe otherwise).
In fact, every chance I get, I put Ashe in my party and make her party leader. She’s not without her flaws either, but she’s a much more compelling character to me. She’s a representative of the old, dethroned guard--in fact, she’s presumed dead by her own hand. (Too late for a spoiler alert? Oops. I didn’t warn you all I would spoil a plot point. Whelp, she ain’t dead, y’all!).
I find it intriguing that the resistance trying to restore the sovereignty of Dalmasca enlists a member of the former royal class, and I think that says something about Japanese history. This is a country that was once dominated by the fierce Tokugawa shogunate, after all.
Later, of course, came Japan’s rise to power during World War II. Under the Meiji Restoration, they modernized according to the British model, and we know what conquest-obsessed colonizers the British turned out to be. Some role model...
In WWII, even as they allied themselves with European fascists, Japan stuck with the monarchical form of governance, with an emperor at its head. In 1945, when the Allies requested the full and complete surrender of the Empire of Japan, one of the unacceptable conditions for Japan was the removal of the emperor. They were serious about that strong leader at the top.
So there’s this long and proud tradition of strong rulers. The narrative I’m spinning here (and I’m sure one could complicate it and probably ought to, in fact--I’d love to read that take) is that, in the unfolding of Japanese history, power comes through force, and it comes from the top. It’s very much a power over as opposed to a welling up of empowerment of the people.
This history is not lost on Final Fantasy XII director Yasumi Matsuno.
Matsuno concocted the concept and plot for FFXII in 2001, while working for Squaresoft, only to later step down from his director role before the game’s release. I’m not getting too deep into a biography of Matsuno here, but he previously wrote and directed games like Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics, the latter of which is still my all-time favorite game.
Matsuno’s style is characterized by complex plots, political maneuvering, factional warfare, and power games. For some context, in Tactics Ogre, Matsuno was inspired by the events of the Yugoslav Wars, which included ethnic conflict and genocide. With such dark source material, there’s always something malevolent transpiring in the background of a Matsuno universe.
And that’s where I think Vaan is supposed to come in. Unlike Ashley Riot, the tormented militant of Vagrant Story, or Ramza Beoulve, the noble preoccupied with honor and justice in Final Fantasy Tactics, Vaan is about as deep as an overturned kiddie pool.
I think Matsuno (or possibly Squaresoft higher-ups) gave us this lighthearted, airheaded street urchin to help us as the audience cope with the journey through such a malicious world. Vaan is meant to make all this unseemliness more palatable. But the inclusion of Vaan feels schizophrenic to me. He knows his world sucks, he is aware of the oppression of his people, and his own brother lost his life in the war effort with the Empire (supposedly, at the hands of a traitorous Dalmascan, no less). My point is Vaan feels too happy-go-lucky given the awful circumstances of his life and world.
Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon. I know there are “the happy poor” out there, but this feels like a dangerous trope to me. Historically, it’s been used in narrative fiction to make the plight of the poor not seem as bad as it really is. But Matsuno gives us enough plot elements to tell us that, yes, the situation really is as bad as it seems and that it all revolves around petty power games of the elite. That’s a bleak world.
Vaan aside, and my gripe about character progression that makes all the male characters (including that chump Vaan) naturally and stereotypically physically powerful while all the female characters are stereotypically better mages (except Fran, who is kind of meh at everything), I’m enjoying the hell out of this game.
And to hell with natural proclivities. I made Ashe, my designated party leader, into a samurai-monk, slapped a sword in her hands, and let her go to work! She’s a leftie with a brutal follow-through on that katana swing!
In my next post on the game, I’ll dig into the job system in more detail and discuss all the ways it lights up the nerd neurons in my brain. For now, back to questing in Ivalice!
**some restrictions may apply