Why Final Fantasy XII is the best Star Wars ever made

Since its release in 2006, the smart-assed dismissive answer to the quality of Final Fantasy XII’s narrative has been “It’s just Star Wars with flowery language and Moogles”.  Which, as with most clever one-liners, is both fairly true and disingenuously fallacious: Final Fantasy XII is as much “Star Wars with flowery language and Moogles” as Star Wars is “just The Hidden Fortress crossed with Buck Rogers”.

The FFXII/Star Wars comparisons have much to do with how Final Fantasy’s cast is an almost 1:1 match for the main cast of Star Wars. Vaan is very much our sprightly youth who dreams of bigger things a-la Luke Skywalker, but instead of being the chosen one in the monomythic hero’s journey, he is actually the point-of-view character and is therefore closer to C3PO in function. Princess Ashe is the deposed member of a royal family leading a resistance/rebellion against a domineering empire, like Princess Leia, but in FFXII’s story she is the unambiguous protagonist. Balthier the Sky Pirate is of course Han Solo the space smuggler, but in FFXII’s case he is the reluctant mentor figure for Vaan instead of love rival/best buddy, as Han was to Luke. Balthier is accompanied by his non-human partner, who instead of being a naked bear/dog-man like Chewbacca, is a scantily-clad-in-some-kind-of-metal-negligee-thingee-Icelandic Playboy-Bunny lady named Fran. Basch is sort of the odd-man out–you could say he is Obi-Wan-ish, but ultimately it’s best to go back to the source and say he is essentially Toshiro Mifune’s character from The Hidden Fortress, General Rokurota Makabe, a soldier protecting his charge in the hopes of restoring their kingdom. That leaves Penelo, who by being the sensible voice of reason in her romantically-ambiguous companionship with Vaan is the stand-in for R2D2. The primary antagonist of FFXII is the emperor, with the prominently-advertised secondary villain being an imposing man in a menacing suit and mask with family ties to a main cast member (Gabranth who is brother to Basch)– which is all very Darth Vader-ery. Oh, and Balthier’s airship, the Strahl, is totally the Millennium Falcon. 

And that just accounts for the main cast. There are also things like the opening parade celebrating the wedding of Princess Ashe to Prince Rassler, which has imagery and art design very similar to the victory parade at the end of The Phantom Menace. The skycity of Bhujerba, run by the independent Marquis Ondore, is obviously modeled after the cloud city of Bespin run by independent administrator Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, both of whom are seen as collaborators with the empire by the heroes before becoming allies. The bounty hunter pursuing Han Solo, Boba Fett, becomes the bounty hunter pursuing Balthier, Ba’Gamnan. The source of magical energy, called The Force, becomes the source of magical energy called The Mist. Both feature large scale dogfighting combat against a deadly super fortress as their climax, along with sweeping symphonic scores heavy on theme. While I’m feeling cheeky I should also point out that both feature desert cultures whose human inhabitants are suspiciously pale.  

But ultimately these are the inevitable similarities of archetype and inspiration and genre, and listing so many of them reminds me of those laminated faux-parchment souvenir shop factoids about similarities between Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth I got from a school trip to Ford’s Theater in the eighth grade; eventually it’s just a list of trivia that amounts to no real significance or inherent meaning. Stories tend to be modeled on other stories for as far back as we can trace this stuff (most Western works either go back to the bible, the Greeks, or Shakespeare (who did his fair share of borrowing from the Greeks) ) and that coincidence is more common than not.  

So what I’m really interested in then is why I find Final Fantasy XII a much more affecting work than its inspiration and cultural progenitor. The short answer, I suppose, is that I am very fond of Star Wars for its cinematic craft, whereas I love FFXII for both its literary and cinematic craft, and furthermore feel that it is a work of genuine conviction that resonates with me.

A big part of my love for the original Star Wars (as in Episode IV) is that it’s a masterwork of editing; propulsive, spry, seemingly-effortless, Star Wars in its original release form was a movie of no fat that used an amazing soundtrack to add emotional texture to fairly straight-forward adventure story. It is a triumph of the post-production process, though that process’s significance has been slightly diminished by the Special Editions, which added some flab in the form of extraneous scenes (what does that Jabba scene tell us that Greedo’s didn’t?) and effects (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” scene is almost completely obscured by CG additions). Empire Strikes Back is wonderful to me for its rich cinematography, story structure (no introduction or epilogue, just a middle movie of defeat) and the way it manages to actually get some of that old-school Hollywood dialogue flowing. Return of the Jedi features the most stunning space battle made with miniature and practical effects there will likely ever be, and manages to achieve some genuine pathos in the Luke and Vader narrative, but also has some real issues that makes it the least of the original trilogy for me (not the Ewoks, surprisingly– more the generally flat cinematography and disinterested performances from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fischer). 

But ultimately Star Wars is, by design and intent I argue, a very surface work. Yes, yes, the monomyth and Joseph Campbell and good and evil and light and dark and so on… but these are not the subtext of Star Wars; they are just structure and plot mechanics. It’s a work of imagination that gives plenty of room for projection and personal interpretation, but I don’t think there is a deeper significance to Star Wars beyond inspiring the imagination. Which is all it needs to be! That’s one of the best things to be! I have no particular desire to see a more adult and complex Star Wars (though Knights of the Old Republic II is my favorite piece of Star Wars fiction, so maybe I’m a bit of a hypocrite… let’s say I have no desire to see a more adult and complex Star Wars film. So: your move, JJ).

Final Fantasy XII has cinematic craft to praise, too. The six-minute opening cinematic is still one of the most efficient pieces of storytelling I’ve seen in a game, managing to incorporate a wedding, a war and a funeral with minimal dialogue and minimal confusion. At the time of its release, the game contained some of the finest direction and facial animation used in real-time cinematics, with a focus on wide-screen composition, sharp in-scene editing, and character blocking. The CG scenes too hold up not in terms of technical wizardry, but excellent, clear, classical direction.

And about that flowery language I mentioned: I find it rather wonderful. What others call flowery I’d call elegant and often witty, with all sorts of wonderful English-language dialectical choices (Victorian English for the Empire, Mid-20th American for Rabanasre, a scattering of Sri Lankan terms and accents for Bhujerba, Icelandic accents for the Viera, metered verse for the Occuria) that make it rightfully considered a watershed moment of localization. For more details I recommend reading this USgamer retrospective with the key creative personnel. 

But again I’m focusing on the technical to describe a preference, which is a little bit like saying I prefer crimson to clover because it’s red: taste, like dreams, is one of the least interesting things to hear about when it isn’t your own. I’ve found the best way to get people to reconsider works they’ve dismissed is to highlight content and meaning they were too disinterested or frustrated to make note of. 

So in this case, Final Fantasy XII is a work of sincere humanism which, tied to its explicit theme of freedom (all those beautiful clear skies in the cinematics, that’s visual symbolism) makes it a work about the struggle for sentient dignity. And the best way I can illustrate this is through the character of Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, and the way the climax plays out.

Larsa (above) has no Star Wars corollary, and though he joins the party as a guest for two sections of the game, he is not a member of the main party. He is the brother to primary antagonist Vayne and is the presumed inheritor to the Archadian Empire by, like, everyone. And he is also liked and respected by, like, everyone. This is what’s interesting about his role in the narrative: a story fully on the side of our deposed princess and her party would see Larsa as a collaborator or future warmonger. Instead the party protects him, helps him when asked, and never questions his commitment to his homeland. Even the villains in this story care about Larsa; instead of trying to kill his brother, Vayne and his ally Gabranth each try in their own way to keep Larsa alive during the final boss fight—even at the cost of their own alliance. By the end of it, we see the two villains fighting each other not in a mad struggle for power, but because they have the same sincere belief in the person they love.

Compare this to the end of Return of the Jedi, where the Emperor would prefer Luke kill his father and live as his new apprentice; implicit is the fact that this would be corrupting Luke by turning him to the unambiguously evil Dark Side. Nobody wants Larsa to change or to be a pawn in a scheme; everyone just wants him to be the person he is. In Vayne’s own words, “Larsa is as he should be.”

Which actually ties into a larger idea here that supports the humanism reading. The villains and the heroes are fighting for the very same things, just on different scales: freedom. Ashe, Basch, Vaan and Penelo want the freedom of their country restored; Vayne wants the freedom of his species restored. You see, the main McGuffin of Final Fantasy XII is this thing called Nethicite. It’s basically a palm-sized WMD that is the product of a mysterious god-like race called the Occuria. They bestow Nethicite to their chosen ones “to correct history’s weave”.  Vayne’s plan is to free mankind from the (invisible) control of the Occuria. Vayne manages this due to the help of a renegade Occuria Venat, whom traditionally would be the real villain of the piece, perhaps using Vayne and Cid to its own end. But even here FFXII commits to its humanist attitude by having Venat be totally on the level. After the defeat of buff-ubermensch Vayne, Venat comforts Vayne by pointing out that they have accomplished their goal of freeing mankind from Occurian rule, and that Venat and Vayne are going to die fighting as (merged-into-one-giant-clockwork-dragon-person-final-form) comrades. Important to note is that the Occuria refer to themselves as “the undying ones.” This implies that Venat is willingly choosing a death that would otherwise have never happened to it; that’s loyalty.

Again this begs a comparison to the end of Return of the Jedi where Darth Vader betrays and murders his master in order to save Luke. This is the moment of redemption for Anakin Skywalker and appropriately this is the point where his iconic mask is removed and we see his face for this first time; a feeble scarred man. In a sense Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker truly are different characters inhabiting the same body, with a different name and different voice and different actor(s) for the good guy and the bad guy, showing that good and evil are separate things in the Star Wars films. As much as the yin and yang symbol has been used as a way to discuss the light side/dark side duality, it really isn’t accurate; it’s more like a yin and yang without those little bubbles of the opposite element: they are absolutely separate with a clear definable boundary. 

The concern for Luke is a fall to the dark side; a sort of change or corruption into someone else. In Final Fantasy XII, the similar concern for Ashe is she will give into the desire for revenge against the empire by wiping them off the face of Ivalice with Nethicite, but this is a dilemma rooted in character and understandable feelings of regret, revenge and anger. Anger gets paid lip service in Star Wars, but it’s never an element of Luke’s character that anyone really demonstrates any concern over as a plot element. His rejection of the Emperor’s plea to give into anger is not a culmination of a dilemma, it’s Luke reinforcing which team he plays for, as though there was any doubt.

The stakes of the climax in Final Fantasy XII are also more meaningful than those of Star Wars. Both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi feature a climax where the failure of our heroes will result in the destruction of rebel forces. In FFXII, though, the real things at stake are the Royal City of Rabanastre and its inhabitants. It is the home of the majority of the player’s party, and as the most frequently revisited location in the game it also functions as the player’s home base. Rabanastre’s freedom is the long-term goal set up by the game’s opening, and its survival is the focus of the climax; the stakes are personal for both the characters and the player. The only comparable location in Star Wars is perhaps the planet Tatooine, but its existence is never at stake and no one professes a particular fondness for the place. In fact, outside the Millennium Falcon, I don’t know that there is anything that provides a sense of familiarity or normalcy for the characters; they’re on an adventure and what happens after is never, ever, ever discussed. As the audience, we don’t want Yavin IV or the moon of Endor to be destroyed because characters we like happen to be there, not because of anything those locations might mean or evoke. As such, the destruction of the Death Star is the moment of victory in both films.

Compare this to the climactic cinematic of FFXII whose emotional lynchpin is the announcement of a cease-fire and the promise of freedom from Princess Ashe. Instead of blowing up the sky-fortress Bahumat, the climax is actually about keeping it from crashing on the people in Rabanastre below (allowing Balthier his leading man’s moment he was certainly waiting for).  It is a climax about saving and protecting people, not killing them (except for Vayne, whom the party essentially assassinates)– and not in just the general superhero sense of saving-lives-is-what-good-guys-do, but because they’re saving a place that is meaningful to both characters and players.

There are more themes I could talk about (one example, assumed identities: Ashe and Larso both first introduce themselves as Amalia and Lamont respectively, judge Zecht is primarily known as sky pirate Reddas, Gabranth impersonates Basch in the opening, Basch impersonates Gabranth in the closing, even Balthier turns out to be an alias for Ffamran Mied Bunansa) but at a certain point it’s probably more important to address the elephant in the room: if Final Fantasy XII’s story is so good, why is it rarely discussed in that context? 

There are two reasons for this, one better than the other, though both ultimately intertwined. The not-so-good reason is that Final Fantasy XII began as the work of auteur game designer/writer Yasumi Matsuno. It did not finish that way. Matsuno publicly left Square-Enix and the project about a year and a half before release, which means it was without its lead author for probably at least the last two years of development. For the fanatical, this means there is some other version of Final Fantasy XII that is the real one, and the released one will always pale to the vaguely sketched and therefore perfect version in their minds.

The other reason is that Final Fantasy XII has roughly five hours of cinematics over a campaign that lasts at least 40 hours, and if you invest any time in side quests or exploration, it can very easily become a 70-90 hour game. Additionally, so much of the optional content becomes available at a point in the story where there is little immediate urgency (around the time Vayne becomes emperor and the party leaves Bur-Ormisace) which is also the point where the fields and dungeons become longer and harder. This can lead to situations where the time in-between story scenes is longer than the combined running time of all the cinematics, leaving the player plenty of time to forget the incidental but thematically important (necessary for story comprehension, even) details. This back-half pacing problem coupled with Matsuno leaving has created an internet narrative that he only finished half the story before leaving.

This is, of course, a ridiculous conclusion to make as game development (and writing) aren’t linear processes. For example, elements of the climactic cinematic are in trailers shown at a time when Matsuno was still known to be working on the game. It is true that he didn’t finish writing the thing himself (translator Alexander O. Smith has referred to the story as “unfinished” in a Reddit AMA), but even replacement producer Akitoshi Kawazu has said that they pretty much stuck to Matsuno’s plan (by admitting he himself would have changed some things if existing staff hadn’t felt so strongly about it).  Should there ever be a remastering of the game, including some kind of theater mode would greatly reduce some of the game’s obstinate narrative pacing.

The question of authorship brings me back to Star Wars, which has its own history of who to credit and blame: The Empire Strikes Back is generally considered the most artistically successful of the Star Wars films, and it has George Lucas in the least amount of key creative positions. But at the same time it still doesn’t feel right to call it only a Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan film, just like it’s hard to call Final Fantasy XII a game made only by Hiroyuki Itou and Hiroshi Minagawa. George Lucas and Yasumi Matsuno are the creative sources from which hundreds of other people collaborated. These works eventually exist outside the intentions of creators and the hopes of the audience and can be examined on their own. Getting lost in the impossible-to-prove who-to-credit and who-to-blame game is in fact its own kind of storytelling: a crowd-sourced narrative of the self-sabotaging George Lucas and the reclusive and wronged genius of Yasumi Matsuno. But neither brings any greater insight into the work itself, only our imagined relationship to the people who made the work.

And perhaps imagination is where this reflection should end. Earlier I called Star Wars a work designed to inspire the imagination, and the potential future it sparked in me was for a video game whose cinematic craft and narrative theme could stand on its own merits, and with a world in which the player could lose themselves between those cinematics. That imaginative potential was fulfilled by Final Fantasy XII, a game of cinematic beauty, thematic conviction and gold-standard localization whose internet reputation as an incomplete narrative is due for reconsideration.

Chris Woodard is just some jerk who likes movies and videogames.