Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

cold_spirit

Pro Adventurer
AKA
AlexT
I haven't abandoned this run! Just got a bit sidetracked with the arrival of my PS5 and the holidays. Been chipping away at it again...

Alright, the gambit system. Got some followup thoughts from my brother to share after I sent him my previous post. He thinks one of the reasons the gambit system works great is because you can't completely automate yourself out of the core gameplay. He thinks they provided only 12 gambit slots for this reason.

This lines up with what Takashi Katano, director of The Zodiac Age, had to say about XII's stealing mechanic in an interview. Stealing is notable because there isn't a perfect gambit setup for it.

"As for play improvements, like what you mentioned with the stealing Gambit, we definitely didn't want to make it too convenient. We wanted to keep that element of trial-and-error, that sort of healthy player frustration that makes the game fun."

https://retronauts.com/article/421/...rial-mode-of-final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-age

I think this is an interesting game design mentality to have. It's reminiscent of what Katsura Hashino, director of Persona 3, had to say about AI-controlled party members in that game:

"There are a lot of RPGs out there where you can control every aspect of your party members... It’s true that we got some feedback stating that the party system was 'too difficult' to control effectively, but I’ll honestly say that I don’t regret doing what we did with it. I’m glad we stuck to our guns on that one."

Basically both games have frustration intentionally designed into their systems in the hope that players find creative solutions. This is risky, but I looove bold moves.

I find the evolution of game mechanics between FFXII and FFXIII to be fascinating. In FFXIII, the paradigm system is like having 6 perfectly optimized gambit sets each with a specialization (e.g. healing, debuffing, etc) that you switch on-the-fly in battle. They basically automated the player out of the gameplay, like Takashi Katano feared. Instead, the player "macro-manages" the party in FFXIII. Instead of giving characters specific commands you give them behaviors. This allows for visually spectacular battles. I like it! It might sound boring, but fortunately FFXIII is brilliantly balanced, so switching paradigms at the right time is the difference between victory and defeat.

As for the story, FFXII definitely has the least amount of it out of all the "modern FFs". After the midway point the narrative beats become really spaced out. I'm not knocking it, I love gameplay! Though unfortunately, the story starts to do more telling more showing, like with Balthier stating his past to Ashe.

On the flip side, I really enjoyed the scene where Vaan, Penelo, and Basch banter when they first arrive at Archadia. Ashe smiles upon overhearing their conversation. I like to think it's here we can start to see her believe in the people of Dalmasca more than the power of nethicite. Really well done.
 
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AKA
The Engineer
FXIII's Paradigm system leaves... a lot to be desired in a way FFXII's Gambit system didn't. Especially once you branch out of the Comando and Ravenger roles and into the Saboteur role. The AI has horrible programing for applying debuffs. It just goes across the debuffs in the way they are displayed in the enemy information screen which is... a really bad order for applying them for reaons (why is Poison one of the last debuffs to be applied when it works the best when applied at max HP!). Even having just six Paradigms to have stocked felt... super limiting and frustrating to work with. It didn't help either that 90% of the trash battles in late-game are beaten fastest with COM-COM-COM and the only battles I had to really put a lot of thought into were the 2nd to last boss of the story and the optional super-boss.

FFXII's Gambit system is... ironically a lot less fool-proof and I found myself changing it a lot more often to tweak it for whatever enemies were in a given area, especially once I got to end-game (trying to attack enemies 10 levels above you in FFXII with the wrong gambits is... yikes...). I spent a lot of time interacting with the Gambit System in ways I never did with the Paradigm System. I also had the... weird experience of playing FFXIII first and FFXII:TZA second. And it was... very funny... how in just about everything but graphics, FFXII felt like an evolution of FFXIII. Everything you could do in FFXIII you could do in FFXII... just with a lot more freedom and a lot less hand-holding. It would be really hard to tell which game was an evolution of the other if the graphics of both games were from the same era.

The story of FFXII is... for better or worse, wrapped up in the story of how FFXII got made. Specifically in how the game's first director and story writer ended up leaving the game party-way though. Probably in large part to all the executive meddling SE did on the story so that it's "main character" was who SE wanted it to be (Vaan), not who the director wanted it to be (Bash, Balthier, Ashe; it changed a lot in development) and... lots of other stuff. The result is that the pacing of the last part of the game's story feels wonkey compared to the first part of the story.
 

cold_spirit

Pro Adventurer
AKA
AlexT
I beat Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age. There's a lot to unpack. This might be a two-parter.

FFXII is basically a dungeon crawler after the Leviathan. There may not always be a ceiling over your head, but make no mistake the design philosophy is the same. The cycle starts with a nice cutscene to contextualize the upcoming journey. It gives you a destination and route. After gearing up at the local market, you set off! ...and fight battle after battle. From Rabanastre to Mt Bur-Omisace, Mt Bur-Omisace to Archades, Balfonheim Port to The Great Crystal... The promising story told in the first ten hours begins to look distant in the rearview mirror. The cycle reaches its final evolution with the Pharos, a literal dungeon crawl. And that's fine if you like the gameplay! It's just too bad the pacing is so at ends with the beginning of the game.

Leading up to the Leviathan, FFXII features traditional RPG storytelling to great effect. The world, characters, and narrative gradually grow in complexity as you play. Even the cutscene/gameplay ratio is good. But at some point things feel off. The characters just... stop acknowledging the world around them. Take the Great Crystal for example. The futuristic architecture is in shocking contrast with the rest of the game, but the party has barely anything to say about it. There's one cutscene, sure, but it lacks meaningful commentary on the absurdity of the environment. There's lots of examples of this stuff...

What's up with that trio at Balfonheim Port? I don't know their names... should I? The player just spawns into a conversation with them. Vaan doesn't even respond to what they're saying! It's clear the devs ran out of time to refine these moments.

What's up with the all the boss fights in the Pharos? Not a single word is spoken as the party warps to alternate dimensions, ride a malfunctioning elevator, or acquire the esper Hashmal. Things feel disconnected and at times bizarre. It's like the gambits took complete control of the party's minds, removing all unnecessary responses and emotions in the name of efficiency.

There are moments of brilliance though. Each dungeon crawl concludes with a memorable cutscene. At the top of the Pharos, Vaan effectively puts down his sword against Gabranth, the man who killed his brother. This is exactly what Ashe needed to see to solidify her decision to destroy the Sun-Cryst. It's nuanced, but great! Despite serious issues, FFXII gives exactly what the player needs to understand the core narrative. Had the game somehow managed to feature the pacing and cutscene/gameplay ratio of the first ten hours all the way through to the credits, I think we could've had the best FF yet.

I'll post my thoughts on the actual ending sequence soon.
 
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Wholeheartedly agree. That's a great assessment of what makes XII so impressive, and yet why I have always struggled to connect with it. The story vanishes for such huge swaths of time, and the characters hardly even interact with each other.
Or: when Vayne gives that speech in Rabanastre and it's unexpectedly understanding and charismatic, it's super compelling. And then really nothing else happens with that for the rest of the game, lol
 
AKA
The Engineer
You can... pretty much lay most of the story problems of FFXII at the feet of SE executives that was fighting a game dev team over who got to tell the story. And the SE executives kinda won at the expense of the game director and main scenario writer leaving half-way through the game development. Hence the latter part of the story is messy because no one could quite write plots and characters as well as Matsuno did in the first half of the game.

But the bare-bones of the story Matsuno wanted to tell with the characters he came up with is still there, and it's... one of the more nuanced stories in the "modern" FF era. It's also unironically not a tragedy and... all the characters we care about get happy endings without any side-content.

For all that the FFXII development story ended... not so great for game devs... many of them would go on to Creative Division III and are now behind FFXIV and FFXVI (and a lot of them worked on FFXI before working on FFXII). Matsuno is constantly brought up by the devs in that division as the person who inspired them to be video games devs in the first place (and work at SE) and the game design philosophy of FFXII is alive and well in certain parts of SE. They just haven't been making single-player FF games (until FFXVI was announced).
 
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