I come to Final Fantasy for the stories. As mentioned in my blog on Final Fantasy VII Remake, I came to the series in the Sony era of consoles so I missed the series more fantasy oriented origins on the original Nintendo systems. These games told melodramatic, rich, and sometimes dark stories of a party battling against godly forces in a setting that was a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. These games sold me on that type of story and I wanted more of it. When I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy XII on my PS3 (I didn’t have a PS2 but did have a backwards compatible launch system), I found myself spite playing it. “What is this more straightforward fantasy setting? Why do they half of the characters talk like they’re in an Austen adaptation? Where is the no angst?” I played desperately waiting for some sort of twist or turn to take place that left me and the cast of characters truly shocked; a haunting ritual to end Sin ala final fantasy x, a fight for personhood ala VII, or even a love story like VII, anything! All of this frustration, but I still ended up playing it for over 30 hours, so obviously something kept me there. I still bad mouthed the game for many years after playing it and how big of a disappointment it was. I remember at the time the overall opinion of the game seemingly fit my narrative.
Cut to years later, and my staunch “gamerism” has softened a lot. I’ve grown a lot in the decade or so since I had played XII and realized there is room for different kinds of stories in my life. I can appreciate a more archetypical fantasy adventure and not every JRPG or Final Fantasy have to be VII or X. The game’s reputation has improved since then and become more beloved among certain circles. Since the game had been rereleased on Switch, I took the opportunity to replay it with a much more open mind. While I had a great time playing it, it turns out my original opinion of the game remained oddly intact.
First the positives. This is absolutely one of, if not the best, playing Final Fantasy games. Comparisons to MMO combat are very on point, as your characters are able to move around in real time while action bars fill up to use an action (attack, use an item or spell, etc). I’ve always been a big fan of MMOs so seeing that type of combat adapted into a single player adventure is 100% my jam. Better yet, the game allows you to program your characters’ actions through their “Gambit” system. You are able to literally program what actions your characters take (including the one you control) using if then statements. For example, you could set your characters to attack the enemy with the lowest health, cast fire spells against enemies that are weak to it, or heal allies if their health drops below 50%. You can then prioritize actions so characters know what actions to perform (ex: healing characters below 50% at the top, use attack on party leaders target below). Once you have these set, you just love your characters into enemy range and let the systems go. It is so satisfying to watch your programmed actions fire. It is a completely different sort of satisfaction than conquering an action game; watching your carefully planned gambits pay off makes you feel so damn smart.
But man is the story bland. The setting isn’t the problem, although the world of Ivalice has not taken off the way Square seemingly hoped it would have. It’s not the characters either, a lovable crew of fantasy archetypes. It’s that the actual plot winds up going nowhere. It starts out promising enough too, a ground level view at poverty within an empire occupied city (Dalmasca). The main villain, Vayne Solidor (great name), is even introduced with a sympathetic speech; a monologue delivered to the people of Dalmasca about preserving their way of life that resonates with the crowd. While the fantasy plot is apparent, it seems like we’re going to get more political intrigue. But once the full party is assembled, this is quickly discarded for a more boilerplate story of chasing ancient weapons. Comparisons to Star Wars are very apt, at least that the broad strokes are about a rebellion fighting against an evil empire. There’s even a Han Solo character, Balthier, who may not have much to do but looks very cool doing all of it. The action pertains to you shuffling off to random locales gathering random items across the globe for no other reason other than “plot.” It unfortunately resembles some of the worst parts of modern blockbusters (looking at you Rise of Skywalker).
There’s not much momentum in the plot either. There are set pieces sure, but not a lot of weight behind them. The main thrust is concerned with whether Ashe, the former queen of Dalmasca and true protagonist of the game regardless of who the game actually has you control, will use the magical (read: evil) stones to fight back against the empire. See these stones (nethicite) can cause untold amounts of damage and are granted to humes (yes, the humans name) by the gods of this world. The empire meanwhile are manufacturing their own (manufactured nethicite) so they want to destroy the god related ones. You end up coming to the same conclusion as the empire, to destroy them, but still ending up in opposition because they are still invaders in your home land. This friction between more grounded political dealings and fights against god causes a hollowness in the story. There are lots of talks about preventing a war but the game ends up focusing way more on stone collection that it’s easy to forget what the grand stakes are. The true cost of the empire invasion is evident in the setting (refugees on Mt. Bur Omisace for example) rather than the focus on the plot. Vayne, Cid, and the other empirical judges are evil because they lust for power not because of the collateral damage they cause to civilians.
In the end, you beat the bad guys, free yourself of gods, and decide that the two countries with the right rulers can live in harmony. It’s a pay ending to a very shallow plot that’s expected throughout the whole way through. The characters are left mostly unexplored, mostly serving as mouthpieces to ask “will Ashe seek revenge???” When in the final cutscene it’s discussed that they don’t see much of each other anymore, it makes a lot of sense like coworkers who no longer work together but see their posts pop up on Facebook every once in a while. There was no extended bonding merely a perfunctory sense of “well we have to beat the Empire, they are evil.” It’s easy to gloss over though when the game plays that good.