I don’t have anything against Final Fantasy XV. I played, and mostly enjoyed, Episode Duscae when it came out with the PS4 port of Type-0. The game’s visuals are picturesque and the combat is a nice real-time step up from what used to be expected from JRPGs, even if I was left vaguely embarrassed over trucker girl Cid. (FFXV’s Platinum Demo left me a bit more mortified, as is sometimes the case when Final Fantasy strays too far into anime territory.)
I have little doubt that with the absolute commitment of its director to make something incredible, and the extended development time taken, that the latest flagship Final Fantasy will have strong gameplay.
What I’m not one hundred percent sold on is that Square Enix has appropriately distanced itself from the convoluted narrative nightmare that was Final Fantasy XIII’s trilogy, which evidenced a certain kind of overwrought, needlessly labyrinthine and hopelessly dull storytelling unappealing enough to make many question the future of what the series could be. As likeable as XV’s cast has appeared thus far, where the plot goes is still up in the air. I think it’ll turn out in the end, and I hope it does. But for now, caution isn’t a bad thing.
Final Fantasy XII is a different case. Despite hearsay to the contrary and the huge success of the X/X-2 remaster, the chances of an HD XII always felt slim, until this week, when Square Enix made official what had been a rumor since last Fall. As a numbered entry, it never had the loyalty of X. XII is inherently divisive, sophisticated and unlike anything else in the series.
Instead of the typical hero’s journey starring a teenager and his band of allies (though there is one present), XII offers a baroque plot that’s grounded in war, diplomacy and political allegiance. Rather than revolving around a destined savior, the characters are closer to pawns in a much larger game between rival kingdoms. For 2006, it wasn’t entirely dissimilar from a comic book-y Game of Thrones, mixing Shakespearean drama and gravitas with the occasional lick of swashbuckling Star Warsian adventure.
Despite the publisher’s best attempts to make it seem otherwise upon its original release, XII doesn’t really even have a main character, instead following an ensemble from across the land of Ivalice, including Balthier, a sky pirate Solo-type who is among the best characters the series has ever produced.
Unlike other Final Fantasies, XII’s wide gulf of differences comes from being the brainchild of Yasumi Matsuno, a then-long time designer at Square Enix perhaps best known for creating the isometric-viewed tactical spin-off Final Fantasy Tactics, which at a glance takes very heavy influence from Macbeth as much for its unrelenting cynicism of power and corruption as its brutal body count.
Matsuno set out to make a mainline Final Fantasy in the same vein, more interested in the complex schemes of monarchies than the comparatively archetypal and basic stories the series had often used in the past. If you look at either game, which also happen to share their world, albeit hundreds of years apart, it doesn’t appear that he had much interest in making a Final Fantasy that felt much of anything like Final Fantasy.
Along with its stupefying strategic battle systems – whose real-time, MMO-style surface belies a rich web of customizations and skills that can be switched up on the fly given an insane level of customization detail – Matsuno succeeded. Though he left the project before its completion, allegedly over corporate changes Square Enix wanted to make to give the game more of a mainstream appeal, Matsuno’s original design is faithfully intact in the final game; the shirtless Vaan seems to be the only noticeably out of place factor.
Still, XII’s myriad changes made the whole package a deeper and more challenging experience which kept players on their toes and always thinking three steps ahead. Compared to the cakewalk of most other FF titles, XII is neither as easy nor short. Between the narrative departures and much greater emphasis on strategic play and planning, the radical shifts could be tough to wrap your head around. The game just demanded more consideration, something that may appeal to a larger subset in the post-Dark Souls world. How could this be Final Fantasy?
And yet it was, and was glorious. The Zodiac Age, the official title of next year’s XII remaster, is actually a localization of the game’s International Zodiac Job System edition, which brings job classes into the fold of the already complex design and has never seen the light of day outside of Japan. Though XV may be the next step in the series’ history, XII showed it was possible to drive it forward. I can’t wait to return.