10 Years Later: Final Fantasy XII Should Have Been The Future Of Console RPGs


So Final Fantasy XII is 10 years old (in Japan). I usually don’t say a lot about the anniversaries of individual entries in game franchises, but this one stands out for me. FFXII is easily my favorite main Final Fantasy game, and the first point where I made a legitimate effort to get into the series. More than that though, I look back on it as a critical turning point for where console role-playing games could have gone in contrast to where they actually went.

Today, as in 2006, FFXII is a divisive game. I always like to call it “Final Fantasy for people who don’t like Final Fantasy.” It tried to make some big changes to the look, feel, and operation of the game which simultaneously angered longtime fans of Japanese RPGs and enticed people previously averse to them. I was one of the people in the latter camp. FFXII was the first main game in the series I bought at launch and I remember going through much contemplation on the decision.

I saw it as the game that tried to streamline Final Fantasy. When playing it, it felt like the developers had finally sat down and asked the question “Why don’t some people like JRPGs? What can we do to change that?” It had a sense of immediacy I had rarely seen in RPGs before which made all the gameplay and even grinding much smoother. The setting also felt more sophisticated than the standard JRPG setting. It basically fixed everything I didn’t like about JRPGs. Even today I see it as the kind of change the genre needs in the face of its current challenges.

What’s ironic about FFXII is that the genre it seemed to try to change started taking a lot of damage in the years immediately following its release. Japanese console games became less common on the PS3 and Xbox 360, JRPGs migrated to the DS and PSP, people started criticizing Japanese games for not keeping up with technological changes, Square Enix started taking way too long to get games released only for them to finally meet heavily mixed critical reception. The important contrast between all this and FFXII is how Japanese publishers responded to this threat — by trying to imitate western games.

Many of these attempts were criticized for forgetting what made Japanese games appealing in the first place or copying the wrong things from the west. In my opinion a lot of these games, including Final Fantasy XIII, learned the wrong things from the west. FFXIII in particular tried to emulate portions of the Call of Duty experience with linear maps and health regeneration after battles. On the other hand, it brought back transitions from exploration to combat and featured a trope-filled storyline — precisely the two things I laud XII for getting rid of.

See, this overall criticism of the staid nature of JRPGs (or Japanese games in general) has been going on since at least the latter half of the PS2 era. Around that time some people were already getting tired of how much they stuck to turn-based combat, battle transitions, antiquated user interfaces, and storylines right out of shounen anime. FFXII was probably a response to that, but market forces didn’t really start hurting JRPGs until maybe 2007 and onward. The Xbox 360 had set the battleground by filling the console market with technically forward-looking games built specifically to appeal to westerners, which highlighted just how “Japanese” Japanese games were.

The problem with copying those games is that they have a history behind them which sharply contrasts with what you see from western publishers on consoles today. FFXII resembles western RPGs in some ways but definitely not the single-character action RPGs like Skyrim — which Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII tried to latch on to. XII’s resemblance is closer to BioWare’s older RPGs or perhaps other party-based PC RPGs that use a real-time-with-pause battle system and complex fantasy settings. Better yet, they have the same emphasis on mechanical substance over cinematic flash. People used to criticize JRPGs for focusing too much on cinematic elements, and now the same criticisms are being levied at blockbuster western games. In short, I think XII is one of the games that learned the right lessons from the west. There are other games that did so too.

Metal Gear Solid V is the biggest recent example and has caused a division among fans similar to the one FFXII opened a decade ago. People are saying MGSV is “a good game but not a good Metal Gear game.” Just like FFXII, I’ve called it “Metal Gear for people who don’t like Metal Gear.” Its slick controls and emphasis on systemic mission design in my mind draws the most comparison to games like the original Crysis or the first two Far Cry games. If you want to extrapolate further, you could even say it shares some design philosophies with the first two Thief games or even GoldenEye 007. Even Dark Souls probably has more in common with the 90’s PC RPGs that inspired King’s Field than it does with today’s western console RPGs.

Another thing I find funny about FFXII is that it charted a possible course not only for Japanese RPGs, but really console RPGs in general, particularly the kind that involve parties instead of single playable characters. You don’t really see party-based console RPGs anymore, not from western developers except for BioWare’s games. I think the reason is big publishers think real-time action games have a wider appeal, and having one character is the easiest way to do that. FFXII’s “wait mode” and gambit system, which pretty much form a real-time-with-pause system, kind of set the template for real-time party RPG combat on consoles. Wait mode in FFXII isn’t even all that different from the ATB system except characters can move around freely and enemies are fought directly on the exploration map. Both Japanese and western RPGs might have benefited from evoking such a system but almost the only ones that did are BioWare’s games and Xenoblade. Maybe the console versions of Divinity Original Sin and Wasteland 2 did something similar. Come to think of it the Tales of games aren’t that different from what FFXII attempted either.

I get some of the criticisms levied at FFXII from the other side of the table though. Its license board system does get broken out of balance at higher levels (which I hear International Zodiac Job System fixed). More importantly I understand the criticisms of the story, and admit that while the game has a deep and interesting setting, the main story doesn’t do much with it. My problem was always with people who use that as grounds to damn the whole game. I always had that problem with people who judge the cinematic, non-interactive story above all other aspects of a video game.

Anyway, all this is why  I want a remaster of FFXII more than any other Square Enix game right now. I feel like it’s the one main Final Fantasy game that would best hold up to today’s standards.


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2 thoughts on “10 Years Later: Final Fantasy XII Should Have Been The Future Of Console RPGs

  1. matt says:

    Well said. I think FFXII is probably my favorite of the series as well, though I like elements from each of the proceeding entries in the series. While not without its faults, the story wasn’t as bad as a lot of whiners claim it was; I liked that there was some real international repercussions at stake. I think the size of the world and how alive it felt was awesome and I enjoyed wandering around in the environment.

  2. Ilyas says:

    Great analysis! I’ve always felt that FFXII was a wasted opportunity for JRPGs. As for the oft-maligned narrative, I personally thought it was great not so much as a sequence of story events but primarily because it provided situations for complex interactions and dialogue (instead of the usual power of friendship themes) within the ensemble cast, from the protagonists to the Judges. I love that the writers were confident enough in the player’s intelligence to provide subtle hints at character intentions and motivations through dialogue rather than spoonfeed them unambiguous, melodramatic backstories the way JRPGS often do. Can’t wait for the upcoming remaster!

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