Sunday, May 12, 2019

Final Fantasy XII

So, back in the day, 13 years ago to be exact, Final Fantasy XII came out.  At that time I had been an almost life long fan of the Final Fantasy series.  The original Final Fantasy was the big thing I'd gotten for Christmas the year after I got an NES.  I didn't get a SNES for some time after they were released, but when I did, the first game I bought was Final Fantasy II(IV) and then one of my friends got Final Fantasy III(VI) for his birthday, and we all gathered around to watch at a sleepover as he played through a large portion of it.  It may sound pretty silly these days, but at the time, we were pretty blown away by the graphics, and the music, and the story, and the characters.  We didn't care that it was eight of us watching one guy playing a game that, by today's standards, is pretty archaic.  It was an experience.  I bought that one a soon as I could afford it too.  I downloaded fan translated roms of the Final Fantasy games that didn't make it to the USA, and then bought those when they were released for various platforms here at last.  When Final Fantasy moved into the next generation of consoles, I, like the idiot I was, bought an N64 in anticipation, only to have Final Fantasy VII be announced for Playstation.  And I had quit my after school job by that time, due to hating every single second I was at work, so I had no way to buy the new system.  Through the help of a friend, I was able to get my hands on one, and snapped up Final Fantasy VII.  I was hyped up like crazy for VIII and IX, and the CG Spirits Within movie, buying both the games opening day, and as I was working as a projectionist at the time, watching the movie after closing time at the theater a couple days before release.  The movie was kid of terrible, but I loved the games.  Then came the Playstation 2, and all of the craziness it took to actually get my hands on a console there.  The launch for that system was flippin harsh.  And Final Fantasy X, which I hadn't been quite so hyped for as the three previous games, but was still rather excited to play.  It was okay, not great, not terrible.  I think it might have been better had they, at the very least, allowed me to play the game with the Japanese voice cast, because HOLY FREAKING CRAP the English cast is absolutely AWFUL.

And that brings me to Final Fantasy XII.  At the time that this game was announced, I had allowed Final Fantasy XI, the first MMORPG of the series, to suck out my soul.  I played that game for so many hours a week that I look back on it now and cringe.  I let it take over my life for so long that I don't know how I even managed to finish college.  At that time, Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, and the guy who wrote all of the stories for the games, and came up with all of the characters and stuff, had left the company in disgrace after the massive flop of the Final Fantasy movie, and left Squaresoft in such financial disorder that they had to be bought out by long time rival Enix, making Square-Enix.  The Final Fantasy series was still their flagship series, and so they announced another game.  Right from the beginning, in the first trailers and info from the game to be released, something felt off to me.  It wasn't the same.  Something wasn't right.  Something was missing.  Then it was announced that series music composer Nobuo Uematsu would also not be returning.  I own the Final Fantasy soundtracks.  I still listen to them today.  I LOVED his music for those games, and this announcement kind of hit me a little hard.  The two men most responsible for my enjoyment of the Final Fantasy series were not taking any part in this game.

But, I was a Final Fantasy fan, and I was still going to buy and play it no matter what.  So when the game came out, I went and bought it, popped it into my PS2 and absolutely hated it.  The characters were annoying, the voice acting was atrocious, the battle system was clunky and very buggy, and the skill system was a nightmare of idiotic ideas that somehow had not been rejected, and actually made it into the final product.  The story was bland and painfully cliche, none of the characters seemed to have any real motivation to be doing anything, and I just did not enjoy the gameplay at all.  So I never finished it.  I gave up after a few hours.  I remember the exact moment when I said to myself, nope, this one is not for me.  It was the revelation that the king had been killed by someone's evil twin.  Yes.  An evil twin.  You can't get more cliche than that.  Until now, this game has remained the one and only main line Final Fantasy game that I didn't finish, and after finally going back and finishing Final Fantasy XV a few weeks ago, I saw a banner ad online for a Nintendo Switch re-release of Final Fantasy XII.  I figured, it's been 13 years, and they've probably made some improvements to the game, maybe it's not as bad as I remember it being.  And I've recently gone back to games that I'd abandoned, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Final Fantasy XV and finished them, coming away from both feeling that I was glad I gave them a second chance, so maybe I'd feel the same way about Final Fantasy XII.


I did not.

I did finish the game.

But I thought it was awful.

So, let me start with the positives, because there are some good things in this mess of a game.  For the Switch version of this game, which is a port of the PS4 version, I'm told, there have been some improvements over the original game.  The music was completely redone of this version of the game, reorchestrated and rerecorded in HD, and the game gives you the option of playing with the old soundtrack, or the new.  The graphics are pretty great for a PS2 game, and they transferred to HD pretty well, which is not always the case.  It's a beautiful game to look at, and it has some pretty seamless transitions between gameplay and CG cutscenes.  This version of the game saw the introduction of an actual job system, rather than the hot mess the License Board was in the original version, giving less customization options for your characters, but also removing the extreme headache of trying to figure out a path through that damned license board that makes sense for each of them.  This was one of the main reasons I found the game so frustrating in the original version.  The battle system has been tweaked a bit so it runs more smoothly.  The Gambits are a lot easier to set up in a way that they'll actually function as intended now, which was another thing that I found to be unbearable in the original game.  They also added a speed multiplier, where you can speed the game up by 2x or 4x.  The game slows back down to normal speed for cutscenes, but this allows you to run through the countryside at increased speed, level up quickly, and move from place to place without spending hours walking there at normal speed.

Now for the bad.  First of all, the music.  It's boring, bland, and horribly generic.  For the life of me, I can't remember a single track off the entire soundtrack, except the ones that came from previous Final Fantasy games.  For me, the music is always part of the experience, and when the music is so boring and forgettable, it doesn't make for a very good experience.  The story is extraordinarily cliche.  It's also very poorly written and told.  Nothing in this game seems like it's happening for any real reason.  It's just happening because the script says it has to.  There's no real driving force behind anything that happens.  And a big part of that is the characters.  4 of the 6 playable characters have no reason to be there.  Including Vaan, the supposed protagonist of the game.  Vaan, I feel, has the least reason of all of the characters to actually be there.  He has absolutely no motivation whatsoever as a character.  He's just there because reasons, and because he's, apparently, the main character.  He has no stakes in anything, and is frequently asked what his motivations are, to which he replies, with I'unno.  I mean, how are we supposed to care about a character who has no reason to be there, and doesn't even know why he's there, himself?  Penelo fades into the background, because she's only there because Vaan is, but as flimsy as that is, at least she's shown to have SOME motivation as a character.  Balthier also has absolutely no reason to be there.  He's got this very thin, oh, I'm in it for the money, but he's never actually seen getting paid, and he's never really even promised any sort of reward either.  He does have reasons, which is more than I can say for Vaan, but they are very thin, and they take a very large leap of logic to connect to him wanting to accompany the group for any amount of time.  He is the character I hate with a fiery passion.  I absolutely despise him.  He says nothing in this game that is not the most horribly cliche line he could possibly say in any given situation.  Even Fran, his longtime friend and partner, calls him out on his BS at the end of the game, which made me laugh.  The guy is just wretched, and every moment he is onscreen and speaking is torture.  Fran, like Penelo, is only there because Balthier is, but she maintains a presence in the story by being the mystic of the group and knowing about all of the mystic things so she can explain them.  She also constantly tells Vaan how stupid he is, which made her my favorite character just for that alone.  The onyl real characters that have a reason to be there are Ashe and Basch, which are trying to get Ashe her throne back and liberate her kingdom.  They're the only characters in the main cast with motivation to do anything, and it's really just not enough.  The problem is that neither of them are, in any way, likable or sympathetic.  Even though they're the only characters in the game that have a reason to be there, they're just terrible characters that I found it very hard to like or care about.

As for playing the game, yes, they did fix the gambit system and the battle system so that they run more smoothly, but that also makes gameplay very boring.  Once you tweak your gambits just right, the game, literally, plays itself.  All you do is choose the direction your characters run in, and they will automatically kill anything in their paths.  Oh, you can control your characters all individually if you want, but why would you?  Combine this with the speed multipliers and you can just zip through areas, kill everything in your path without raising a finger to do so, and arrive at your destination all leveled up to fight whatever big bad may be waiting for you.  It makes the game feel very hollow and unsatisfying, but at least you can get through it without wasting too much time or effort doing it.  Combine this hollow, unsatisfying feeling with the horribly cliche and terribly written story, and the characters that just don't have any reason to be there, and, well, you have an absolute mess of a game that is just not very fun to play.

I have to make one more point here about the English voice acting.  It's terrible.  The actors are just not very good, the direction is pretty terrible, and there are actors who I KNOW are white doing very, very bad Middle Eastern accents, which feels a little racist in this day and age.  But the worst, most annoying thing about the English voice acting is this.  There are probably 3 dozen separate actors in this game that all, EVERY ONE OF THEM, mispronouce the word Marquis.  I mean, of all the people who spoke the word incorrectly, and all of the recording team and director, not one of them stopped and said, hey, wait a minute, I don't think you say it like that?  REALLY?  It was so freaking grating.  I was literally yelling at the screen, "It's pronounced Mar-kee, you idiots!!!" dozens of times throughout the game.

So, my final thoughts on this game:  Avoid it.  It's not good.  It's a waste of time and money for anyone that doesn't care about series completion.  The story and characters are terrible, and the gameplay is boring and far too automated.  This game experimented with a lot of things, but it didn't really do any of them well.  The music is bland, boring, and forgettable.  The series creator and writer, and the series composer, both left the company and had no or very little part in this game, and it shows.  It has the feel of a game that was thrown together as fast as it could be thrown together, just to get another game out during he PS2 lifecycle and milk a bit more money out of fanboys like me.  I felt that this game was a complete drudgery to play, and found little to no enjoyment in it.  As someone who loved all 10 main line Final Fantasy games before it, I felt very disappointed and somewhat betrayed by this game, and I can't recommend it to anyone for any reason.

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