520 hours. That is how much time I poured into Final Fantasy XII. Now, quite a bit of that time was me leaving my PS2 on forever. However, I still managed to do everything that that game had to offer. With the help of the strategy guide and my discovery of wikis, I had completely filled out the Sky Pirate's Den. And by the end of that 520 hours I noticed two things:
1.) I have way too much time on my hands
2.) Final Fantasy XII is easily one of the best entries in the series to date.
Looking around the internet, it's not hard to find a plethora of varying opinions on Final Fantasy XII. Some people love it, some hate it, and some are just "meh". Different points of contention are gameplay, characters, and story. Some say the characters suck, but the gameplay is good. Some say the gameplay sucks, but the story is good. But the thing is, Final Fantasy XII has some of the best gameplay, characters, and writing the series has to offer.
Final Fantasy XII kept some of the traditonal staples of the series like a variety of summons and limit breaks. But, one of the major ways in which Final Fantasy XII departed from the series' usual gameplay formula was with how battles took place. Square decided to change from the more common ATB system and made the ADB system. Now, many JRPG purists will say that anything other than some kind of turn-based system is heresy. Some say it's too much like an MMORPG but without the MMO. But, the system in Final Fantasy XII actually provided something that felt more fluid and more engaging than any of the other systems.
For one, I can choose whether or not I want to engage an enemy. I don't have to worry about some random encounter that puts me up against an enemy that can one-shot kill me. I also didn't have to constantly put in the "Attack" command over and over again. My characters would continue to attack until the enemy went down. If I wanted them to do something else, I could quickly select that command, and then my characters would go right back to attacking. There was no tedium involved. And, most importantly, I had complete control of what every one of my characters did and when they did it.
Another gameplay mechanic that drew a lot of flack were the Gambits. Many people complained about the gambits putting the game on auto-pilot and taking away control from the player. Now, this complaint is, and will always be, moot. The gambits are not necessary. I've played through Final Fantasy XII multiple times without using any of the gambits. The only time that I used gambits were for the endgame bosses and hunts. But again, this plays into the game allowing you to take away the tedium that usually accompanies JRPGs. Putting in individual commands for a boss like Yiazmat would be ridiculous.
If refinement of gameplay mechanics wasn't enough, there was a ton of stuff to do and mini-games to play. Wanted a bit more of a challenge than the normal game gives you? You could go and track down the hidden Espers around Ivalice. Want to test out your skills and gain some cool items and a lot of gil? Go hunt down some enemies for the Clan. Want to relax a bit and farm for some rare crafting items? Go fishing. There were so many things to do and so many optional places to go that one could, quite literally, play the game for hundreds of hours. Final Fantasy XII not only kept a lot of the great aspects of the gameplay from previous installments, but it also refined and built upon those aspects.
First and foremost, yes, Vaan and Penelo are not very interesting characters at all. But, Fran, Basch, Ashe, and Balthier are all great characters. They do more than enough to make up for the less-than-stellar Vaan and Penelo.
Fran is usually seen as the obligatory "sexy girl with tits". But, as you start to look past her salacious looks, you start to realize that there's more to her. Much of Fran's history is shrouded in mystery, but you do learn quite a bit about who she is. She's a woman who decided to leave her village and their way to find her own way. This led to her being, essentially, ex-communicated by her former friends and family. Fran's arc in the game shows that your family, the only one that matters, is the one that you spend most of your time with. This is a powerful message that anybody that has ever felt "kicked out" from their family can connect to.
Basch's story follows that of the traditional story of finding redmption. Having been framed and his name sullied, Basch journeys to expose the truth and clear his name. But as time goes on, the player also realizes that Basch's journey isn't just for himself. Basch's journey also leads to him finding redemption for his brother-turned-baddie, Gabranth. Basch isn't just motivated to save his name, but also his brother's soul. Though it may be very similar to the Luke/Anakin arc in Star Wars, it nonetheless makes Basch quite a compelling character.
Blathier is, without a doubt, the most relatable character in the game. So many people can connect with the way Balthier feels when it comes to having great expectations thrust upon you. Many people understand wanting to turn away from those that dream large dreams for you. The straining of a familial relationship from strongly differing opinons is another way in which one can connect with Balthier. This occurrence is all to frequent in many lives today. Just by his issues and how he deals with them, Balthier is probably the most human character in the entire series.
Ashe is one of the best female characters I've come across in any game. Ever. She doesn't need to be extremely scantily clad. She doesn't need a man to come through at the last minute and save her. Her strength comes completely from her. She's independent and has actual drive. She's one of the few female characters that could be looked up to. Her arc in the story was also rather great. Ashe starts off as just a princess who is thrust into everything. After those closest to her are killed, she's sprung into action. She starts to work to bring her family and name back into power. At the same time, she's not completely sure of how she should rule. To top it all off, she has several other figures telling her how she should rule. Staying true to her independence, the decisions she makes are hers alone. Even though she is the rightful ruler of Dalmasca from the start, only through her journey does she truly learn how to be a leader. As I said, what the adult characters bring to the table more than makes up for what Vaan and Penelo don't.
Next to gameplay, the story of Final Fantasy XII has to be one of the most decisive aspects of the game and it's understandable why. It doesn't have a light-hearted, cheesy, emo-driven plot like most entries in the series. In fact, it's probably the most adult story ever found in a Final Fantasy. Much of the plot is politically-driven. There's a constant struggle for power and backstabbing. None of the characters are exactly pure evil. They only differ in how they feel things should be handled. Most of the story finds the main two countries engaged in a cold war. Through the way in which the player is shown the culture changes and occupations, one really gets a sense of the type of world Ivalice is. There's a variety of races and, subsequently, racism. Each area has a history behind it. The world doesn't feel empty, but lived in. In retrospect, it's very akin to Game of Thrones. it almost makes one wonder how the game would be received if it was released now, in the middle of the Game of Thrones hype.
Final Fantasy XII was a game that dared to be different. It sought to revitalize a series that was growing stale. Did everything work? No. But the amazing combination of gameplay refinements, some great main characters, and some pretty good writing easily makes it one of the best Final Fantasy's to date.