An apology to Final Fantasy XII

The first time that I played Final Fantasy XII, I played it wrong.

I understand, of course, that there’s no “wrong” way to play a videogame. Any way you engage with a piece of media such that it satisfies you or enlightens you (or neither of these things) is valid. But when I first traipsed through the heart of Rabanastre and the Mosphoran Highwaste and the Feywood, felling enemies and unlocking licenses and exploring the lush world of Ivalice, I spent nearly seventy hours trying to fit FFXII’s square peg into the round hole of my preconceptions of what Final Fantasy was. It never meshed. I came away vaguely dissatisfied. I was, I am just now beginning to realize, wrong.

It’s not simply that Final Fantasy XII is a good game — indeed, it’s excellent — but more than that, it is a game ahead of its time, built on conventions which were disorienting in 2006 but which have since become stock-in-trade for many of the RPGs we play today. Returning to the game in preparation for the remastered version which is being released this month, I have discovered that though the game has not changed, my own expectations have changed dramatically. And so I issue this mea culpa: I’m sorry, FFXII. I didn’t appreciate you. Allow me to lay bare my conscience.

Chief among my complaints with the game, a decade ago, was that it treats its spaces dramatically differently from previous Final Fantasys. From the series’ inception, Final Fantasy games have constructed towns, caves, and castles as labyrinths to be explored, enticing players to scour their corners in search of tucked-away treasures. Is there a shiny new blade down that long hallway? A glittering bangle lurking behind those tree roots? Every crystal tower, Mako reactor, and Magitek factory in the series bristles with gear and baubles, waiting for the diligent scrounger to seek them out.

FFXII has none of this. FFXII has a variety of beautiful environments, from wide-open plains to networks of narrow caves, but it does not care whether or not you poke your nose into every dead end and cul-de-sac. I know this because, when I first played the game, I did exactly that. I ran along the walls, uncovering every inch of every map, hoping against hope that this time I would be rewarded for it. Instead: bupkis. For 70 hours I opened treasure chests hoping for a legendary blade and finding instead a paltry 200 gil or “a mote of rust.” I spent hours tracing the outlines of every structure in the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea. Zilch.

And listen, FFXII: That’s not your fault. That one’s on me. Fool me for an hour, shame on you. Fool me for 70, well… I’m ashamed. Now, 10 years later, I know better — in part because newer games have weaned me from such expectations.

Even though its world is broken up into discrete chunks, FFXII has the feel of an open world game, and its environments are structured accordingly. I don’t need to peek my head into every thatched hut in The Witcher 3 in search of a better pair of boots. If I want some good gear, I’ll hunt down a monster. And that’s exactly what Final Fantasy XII asked me to do, though I was too hard-headed to wise up to it.

FFXII has almost four dozen hunts to undertake throughout the game, nearly all of which are completely optional — though the game is balanced so that you’ll be in trouble if you don’t track down at least a few. In a game with a narrative dense with political machinations and shifting allegiances, it can be difficult to pry your attention away from the main questline, lest you forget who’s preparing to betray whom — but that’s a skill that I’ve been practicing more and more in the last 10 years, as games like Dragon Age and Fallout have asked me to put their primary conflicts to one side to go slaying ghouls and gathering herbs for hours on end. (What was I supposed to be doing in The Witcher 3? Finding… someone? Anyhow, I’ve killed 400 Drowners.)

The depth of the worldbuilding in Final Fantasy XII is unrivaled within the series: the plot hinges on detailed histories of several countries, political bureaucracy, military hierarchies, and several different types of magical MacGuffins. This isn’t uniformly a positive thing — often it feels as though you’re being unceremoniously served a colossal bowl of Proper Noun Soup — but it is the sort of storytelling that has become a lot more mainstream in RPGs over the 10 years since FFXII’s initial debut. Anyone who’s spent time in Dragon Age’s Thedas or the various lands of the Witcher games is more than equipped to untangle the turf war between Rozarria and Archadia which serves as the game’s backdrop. In fact, given the complexity of the world FFXII lays out, it’s surprising in retrospect that it was FFXIII, rather than XII, that was spun out into a trilogy of games.

The most obvious way that FFXII thwarted my expectations, of course, was the way in which it streamlines the rhythm of its combat, distilling the traditional Final Fantasy battle sequences into a real-time, partially automated system that mimics the play of an MMORPG (like its predecessor, FFXI). There’s something about the combat that still rubs me the wrong way — it’s the way in which your character’s attack bar only starts charging up once they’re in range of an enemy, leading to a moment of awkward hesitation just as battle commences. But now that I’ve cut the chains of my previous expectations, I can see it for the clever reimagining that it always has been.

It helps, too, to see how this streamlining has been a recurring trend for other RPG franchises, especially in the West: think of the transition toward action-heavy combat in the second Mass Effect, or compare the first two Dragon Age games. Even Fallout, when Bethesda reimagined it shortly after FFXII was released, shed most of its RPG trappings and reinvented itself as a shooter. Final Fantasy, with the release of FFXV, has now gone fully over to the camp of Action RPG. (For now. Final Fantasy XVI, should it ever happen, may well have pachinko-based combat.) Part of what makes FFXV interesting — and part of what makes it such a hot mess, to be frank — is the ways in which it seems as though Square Enix seemed to be looking to western RPGs and open-world games for cues, remixing (and at times bungling) Western RPG conventions.

By contrast, FFXV feels like it’s playing catch-up. In 2006, FFXII was out ahead of the pack, presaging all of these Western design trends and doing so much more cohesively. Final Fantasy has always had the privilege and the burden of appealing to a much more international audience than many of its Japanese contemporaries, and its penchant for novelty has played a big part in that.

If it sounds like I’m heaping unbounded praise upon the game, allow me to dial it back: I don’t mean to suggest that FFXII is the best Final Fantasy, that it has the most interesting systems or the most innovative design — or even that it has the best story. I’ve just become convinced that during the 10 years since its release, a period during which it has been the least available entry in the series, it has aged exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that I’m willing to bet that even those players who regarded it with some befuddlement upon its release may be pleasantly surprised when they return to it with fresh eyes.

Last week I dug my PS2 out of the closet and gave FFXII another whirl to see if I should invest my time and money in the remastered version, The Zodiac Age, which has just been released. But what was supposed to be a brief dalliance quickly became an irresistible draw, and it’s taken all my willpower to force myself to wait until the remaster arrives at my doorstep, rather than simply dive back into the original. The pull of Ivalice is strong.