I’ve played FFXII three times in my life.
The first time was in the summer of 2008. It was in between semesters at college, and I had about a month of free time before classes began again. I bought a used PS2, and while everyone was making the transition into the PS3 generation, I was reliving the classics on PS2. That summer I bought FFX, FFXII and their matching strategy guides. One of my roommates had never played an RPG before, let alone a FF game. The first time he walked into the living room while I was playing FFXII he teased me a little for playing video games, then sat down and watched. I decided to start the game over and he was blown away by the opening cinematic—the fall of Nalbina fortress, the death of Lord Rasler playing out like a Star Wars, Lord of the Rings fan fiction mash up. “What is this?” he asked me stunned.
Next thing I knew he was calibrating gambits on my party, changing equipment. We ran through the huge maps of Ivalice, dying repeatedly before save points (those maps were brutal). When the fights got hard, he handed the controller over to me over my protests that he had logged more time into the game and should therefore know how to win better.
It took longer than the summer break to beat FFXII. It was a slow grind. We’d die repeatedly, never quite figuring out the best way to use the gambit system. The final dungeon killed us (save spots were a rare thing in FFXII). The fall came and we had bonded over the game. He got me a necklace from his workplace as a thank you for lending him some cash in a tight spot. We called it an “Embroidered Tippet”—after the item we constantly swapped into the party to make sure everyone was getting double experience points.
The second time I played FFXII, I didn’t finish it. I have a habit of doing this with games and TV shows. I’ll delve into the lore of the world, and I won’t want the experience to end, so I don’t finish it. On this playthrough I took my time since I wasn’t playing with anyone else. I tried to better understand the gambit system. I hunted the marks. I looked for the Espers and collected them (the last time we only briefly looked at the pictures of the Espers in the strategy guide and then moved on). During this playthrough, the world of Ivalice came to life and I explored everything that could be explored. Then life hit and I never finished it. I moved onto the PS3, and then the PS4 and I kept hoping for a remaster.
I finally got my wish, and started my third playthrough.
FFXII is a game that was ahead of its time and one that was somehow swept under the table because of the transition to PS3. With its graphics updated, and the gameplay tweaked, we finally have a version of the game that is worthy of its own heritage. It is, at its best and worst, a Final Fantasy game. It carries much of the same baggage that each game in the series carries. However, people that were expecting a more traditional JRPG experience and were disappointed in FFXIII and FFXV, can relive FFXII for a unique take on JRPGs.
Each game in the series has a new combat system. The gambit system is unlike anything we’ve seen in gaming since the release of FFXII and makes for a unique gameplay experience that can be both active and incredibly passive at the same time. Depending on how you set up the gambits, you can create parties that automatically heal status afflictions, attack enemies, exploit weaknesses and more. With the right gambits, you can turn your party into a roving death machine. The only thing you need to do is to guide them into the next pile of enemies.
A lot of people have written about the new Zodiac Job system, and its implementation definitely makes for a different playthrough than in the past. While in the original version, all of the characters can be developed in essentially the same way, each character now can pick up to two jobs, which effectively lock their development into different ways. Your physical attack guys won’t be magic damage dealers unless you pick that job. Party selection is now a critical task instead of just cycling carbon copy clones into the lineup when the next guy dies.
What really stands out this time around is the ability to adjust the game speed. By doubling or quadrupling the speed, grinding for experience and license points becomes encounters lasting seconds instead of minutes. You cross the distances between enemies incredibly quickly and you can clear an area on the map within a minute or two with the right gambits. Grinding is a fast-paced blitz instead of an hours long ordeal (especially if you’re trekking back to a save point and you die halfway there).
On this most recent playthrough, I enjoyed the political machinations of the storyline. Despite the artwork, Vaan is not really the main character of the story. He’s the audience surrogate for sure, but the main story really revolves around Princess Ashe and her desire to restore freedom to Dalmasca. The story starts off really strong, but kind of devolves into a generic “thirst for more power” scenario out of the villains. It’s a little disappointing, but the game still holds up well.
Revisiting kingdom of Dalmasca almost ten years from the first time I played the game was akin to seeing an old friend. But it wasn’t until I started playing with the game speed that I realized that life was different. Who has time for endless grinding, or taking forever to cross a game map? Who has a summer to kill with a buddy on the couch grinding for experience points? We live in a world of fast travel in video games, of clearly defined icons hanging over NPCs for the next story point.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the game speed option. Your characters run faster than chocobos. It takes the drag out of a lot of the things that I didn’t like on my first two playthroughs. It’s just a reminder of how much gaming has changed in the last 10 years. Playing the game on fast forward feels like being on a high speed train flying through the neighborhood where you grew up, went to school, and discovered your first kiss. Memories and no time to visit. (Yeah I know you can turn off the speed boost, but after using it it’s really hard to go back).
FFXII is a unique entry in the Final Fantasy franchise that is finally getting its due. It’s a JRPG experience in a world where the traditional experience is getting more and more rare. The new features are a welcome addition, and the game has aged really well. Let’s face it. We’re living in a new FF golden age. With FFVII’s remake looming in the near (distant) future, we’re going to be seeing lots of chocobos and summons to come. On a scale of Moogles to Malboros, I give it 10 fat chocobos out of 10.
Exquisite remastered graphics - 10/10
Gambit gameplay aged well - 9.5/10
Political machinations in a dense story - 8.5/10
Realizing that Vaan is not the main character - 10/10