Written by Dragoon 27th November 2016
Ask any Final Fantasy fan about their least favourite game in the series and Final Fantasy 12 is sure to be in the conversation. It has long been a polarising entry ever since its release way back in 2006, but why? It reviewed well at the time with it currently sitting at a 92 on Metacritic but as time went on it steadily fell out of favour with fans of the series. With its recently announced PS4 remaster I thought it would be interesting to look back on what was good and bad about it. I personally feel that it’s an underrated game but there is definitely plenty to fault with it.
The Good: The World of Ivalice
Ivalice, the world in which Final Fantasy 12 takes place, is a beautifully realised one. The game takes a lot of inspiration from MMOs and it is very evident in the locations and environments within it. The cities are all sprawling metropolises with a great sense of life within them. One of my major grievances with JRPG towns is that they usually feel so empty and lifeless, serving as little more than a hub for you to progress the story or collect quests. This is definitely not the case with Final Fantasy 12, I love how it makes its towns feel alive by filling the areas with many of the weird and wonderful races that inhabit its world. I really liked the way the first city of Rabanastre was set out, with the slums underground and the bustling market above, all towered over by the imposing Royal Palace.
The various areas that you quest in are also beautiful and unique. The deserts outside of Rabnastre are prowled by the kind of monsters you’d expect in that environment such as Cactaurs and contain little pockets of settlements that help make the world feel lived in. The game has you exploring ancient tombs steeped in history and dense jungles which are home of the mysterious Viera. It’s a fantastic world which went on to be explored more in the Final Fantasy Tactics series. Unfortunately it was let down by my next point.
The Bad: The Story
I’m going to be honest with this one, the story in this game was an absolute mess but there is a good reason behind it. When development of Final Fantasy 12 started it was directed by Yasumi Matsuno, who had previously directed the Final Fantasy Tactics series and Vagrant Story which received a lot of acclaim for their story. He had laid out the foundations and general plot for the game but around halfway through development he had to drop out due to health concerns. Because of this his original vision for the story got warped and cut down to the almost abridged version we received in the end. There is a good foundation to the story but many things that need to be explained are glossed over and towards the end the game just loses steam and ends abruptly.
The Good: The Battle System
The battle system in Final Fantasy 12 is almost as polarising as the game itself. Some like me loved the tactical depth it provided due to the Gambit system. This system allowed you to set tactics for your AI controlled characters that would activate under certain conditions such as casting Cure when health dropped below a certain point. Some felt that this made the game essentially play itself which is an understandable point, it’s a big change from the total control the old turn based system gave. The battle system is another area where the game took inspiration from MMOs, when I recently revisited the game after playing Final Fantasy 14 I could instantly feel the similarities in how battles played out. It does have its issues though, you have to unlock and find the various Gambit commands as you progress which was infuriating because many of the good ones were locked out until much later on. Many fans wanted the same kind of turn based battle system they felt had been perfected in Final Fantasy 10 but this real time system has helped modernise the franchise and make it much more accessible while still being enjoyable.
The Bad: The Levelling System
In theory, the License Board system that was introduced in Final Fantasy 12 sounds like a great idea. Building off of Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid, the board allows the player to unlock Licenses which allow the characters to use new abilities and equip new items as they level up. You are given the freedom to build any of the characters as you like but this leads to one of its biggest issues. In 10, every character starts on a different portion of the grid which best corresponds to their role and they can later grab abilities from other areas. In 12, every character starts at the same point and you can get any mixture of licenses, meaning you can easily ruin your character's progression if you aren’t careful. The license system for gear is also a bit silly, you can’t wear a hat until you unlock the license for it which just doesn’t make sense. Thankfully this was fixed in the Zodiac Job System edition which lets you assign each character a Job and only lets them get abilities that work with it.
The Good: The Characters
Final Fantasy 12 has a great cast of playable characters with two exceptions. The story revolves around the young princess Ashe, who lost both her husband and father to the terrible war that ravaged her kingdom. She is fighting to reclaim her throne from the mighty Empire that conquered her land. Ashe is tough, headstrong and truly loves and cares for her kingdom. She is joined by the disgraced knight Basch who was framed for murdering her father, the king. He wants nothing more than to serve his princess and prove his innocence to the world, he also has some interesting ties to the Empire that come to light as the story progresses. Balthier, the lovable rogue, and his partner Fran, the beautiful and mysterious Viera, are Sky Pirates who get themselves swept up into the quest against their will. At first they only help after the promise of a reward but as they journey with the others they truly start to care.
The Ugly: The “Protagonists”
This leads us to the two exceptions I mentioned eariler, Vaan and to a lesser extent Penelo. The original idea was to have Basch as the main character with the story told from his perspective which would have made sense, he has a personal stake in the story in more ways than are first apparent. The higher powers at Square Enix didn’t think this would sell, they wanted teenage characters that were more relatable and so we were given Vaan and Penelo, two orphan children from the streets of Rabanastre. At this time the story was already written so they were just haphazardly slipped in, they have no bearing on it and if they were taken out nothing would change. At least Penelo serves as a decent foil for Vaan but Vaan himself is annoyingly chipper and the line “I’m Captain Basch!” is enough to anger many who played the game. Their inclusion was an odd decision for sure and made the story much weaker as a result, it didn’t make sense to have the story told from the perspective of someone who was nothing more than an onlooker.
The Bad: The Villains
While the main cast is mostly great the same can’t be said for the villains they fight. The Final Fantasy series has a plethora of memorable main antagonists such as Kefka and Sephiroth but ask someone to name the main villain from 12 and you’ll probably be met with a pondering silence. It can be argued that the main villain is actually the Empire as a whole but this just means they’re a faceless, evil entity. The main cover features one of the Empire’s Judges, who definitely cut imposing figures but are barely characterised as anything more than power hungry and are knocked off a little after their introduction.
Final Fantasy 12 is definitely a polarising game but it’s one that I feel doesn’t deserve the reputation it has with the fans. Hopefully the upcoming remaster will let many who may have overlooked it give it a go and form their own opinions. We will be sure to do a formal review on it when it is released, it will be interesting to see what changes will be made and if any of these points will get addressed or if it will be just be a straight port. For better or for worse this game helped shape the direction the series has taken and with 15 set to march to a lot of the same beats we’ll see if it has as many peaks and valleys as this game did.