Final Fantasy has always been known for its storytelling, with countless beloved characters, locations, creatures, and more. Yet, there’s not a single game in the series that does a better job at world-building than Final Fantasy XII, which puts most other JRPGs to shame.
Final Fantasy XII was fairly divisive upon its release, but most of that lies in how different the game was from anything that came before. It’s an utterly ambitious game that wildly succeeds in building a convincing world with a variety of moving pieces.
Sixteen years later, it’s still unmatched.
Final Fantasy XII takes place in the world of Ivalice, a location already established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. There are certain themes all three games share, but FFXII goes above and beyond in establishing complex lore and a diverse world that simply makes sense.
What I mean by that, is that every location in FFXII fits into the world in some important way, outside of just being visually interesting. Every location contextually makes sense; Bujerba floats majestically in the sky highlighting the importance of magicite and mining, while Rabanastre is a bustling center of trade packed to the brim with NPCs. Another example is the Capital city of Archades, which sports a three-tiered design meant to reinforce the political hierarchy of the empire.
These contextual elements also play into field and dungeon designs. Early on in Rabanastre you hear about the torrential rains that hit the nearby Giza Plains, and if you explore the plains during rainy weather you’ll find some pathways have been flooded and blocked off, while new ones have opened.
FFXII’s world-building, of course, goes much further than simply these contextual examples, as a lot of it comes in flavor text and NPC dialogue. While you can understand the main story just fine through cutscenes, talking to NPCs is absolutely vital to understanding the larger culture of Ivalice. You can get a great sense of the current gossip of each city, as well as the different cultural habits of each area. What’s even more impressive, however, is how much the NPC dialogue changes throughout the game.
At key points in the story, NPC dialogue in cities like Rabanastre will change to reflect the current state of the world. The game doesn’t force you to return and talk to NPCs, but doing so will show, for example, how the citizens of Rabanastre feel about the destruction of the Imperial Fleet.
There’s a fascinating project on a blog called Final Fantasy Nerdery, where one fan has worked to compile a complete text version of FFXII’s script. It currently covers up to Chapter 10, but just reading through parts of it gives a good idea of the massive scope of the game — especially in terms of how much light NPC dialogue sheds on the overall story and lore.
Another overlooked aspect of the game’s world-building is its formidable Bestiary, one of the best iterations of this kind of research resource I’ve ever seen. Whenever you defeat an enemy in FFXII you unlock its entry, which comes with a gorgeous piece of art and an entire page describing the monster’s nature and place in the world, just in case you ever wondered about the migratory patterns of Cockatrices. It’s practically a Final Fantasy version of a Pokedex that provides some phenomenal insight into the nature of Ivalice.
FFXII’s narrative is a vastly different experience from most Final Fantasy games, and that’s likely the key as to why the game was so divisive. In most Final Fantasy games the main party is the driving force behind the story, and the world forms itself around their actions.
In FFXII, however, it’s the world that’s changing around the main party, while they try and adapt. The narrative is much more about the world at large, and the clashing political forces within it. This is perhaps why the “protagonist” Vaan feels out of place, as he’s really just a bit player in the grand scheme of things, who lacks the power to truly change the world.
It all basically boils down to the world of Ivalice simply feeling lived-in. It’s by far the most immersive and convincing world the series has ever created, and a high mark that both the series and the genre have struggled to replicate since.
Final Fantasy XII is available for purchase on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC.