Final Fantasy XII doesn’t need no stinkin’ plot

Final Fantasy XII, that black sheep of the Final Fantasy family, is finally getting remastered like we always knew it would. And it does deserve it – fantastic characters, a rich world, and shockingly fun battle system create an incredibly enjoyable experience that still sticks with me ten years after I first played it (and I still maybe have a crush on Basch).

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Of course, this is a remaster, not a remake, so it won’t fix FFXII’s most glaring problem – the plot. An identity crisis in motion, it’s never quite sure what it wants to be, and excessive padding only drives that point home as it drags the entire narrative down. Yet FFXII still absolutely deserves that remaster, because it’s one of the most fantastic games in the series. It doesn’t matter that the story’s a mess. That’s not what FFXII is about.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHOY!

It admittedly takes some time for FFXII to lose the plot (heh). During the first few hours its plot progression is fairly steady, from the moment Vann first butts heads with Balthier and Fran, to his meeting “Amelia” in the sewers, to the prison break that introduces Basch into their misfit menagerie. Every event flows naturally into the next even into Bhujerba, as the heroes converge on the city for their own set of believable reasons (Vaan to save the kidnapped Penelo, Basch to rescue his former charge, Balthier and Fran for treasure, and Larsa for political sleuthing) and ultimately rescue Ashe, gracefully cementing the group’s purpose as they agree to help her retake Dalmasca (for whatever reason suits them).

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However, things start getting disjointed and a bit fetch-questy after that. Trekking to the Tomb of King Raithwall to retrieve another powerful royal heirloom seems like a reasonable means of furthering the plot at first; but when you then go on another trek to seek advice from the Garif (who have none to give), another to ask for guidance from Ivalice’s holy leader (which isn’t super useful), another to recover a legendary sword (that you literally never use), and yet another to rescue Larsa from Vayne in Arcades (only to find they’ve flown the coop before you’re sent somewhere else again) the plot really starts to drag. All the while it struggles to figure out what kind of story it wants to be, and unfortunately doesn’t mix its chosen elements together very well – fascinating political dramas are stomped by sudden and superfluous bits of high fantasy (case in point: the final boss), and just when the fantasy starts to get interesting, Vaan’s Dickensian existence is thrown into the spotlight again and the whole thing ends up losing steam.

Honestly, everything that happens between Ashe recovering the Dawn Shard from Judge Ghis’ destroyed ship and the moment she runs off to destroy the Sun-Cryst (which makes up a good half of the game) could be removed with actually affecting the overall plot, because your actions never feel like they’re contributing to the story in a meaningful way. The game is just filling up playtime with extraneous areas and events.

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Even the development team has admitted to missteps in how the story was fashioned. Executive Producer Akitoshi Kawazu told French game site Gamekult that while he would have liked to have made changes to the story to improve the flow, development realities made it impossible: “When we arrive on the production of a game that is already well underway, we cannot change the scenario, because the universe is already built, dialogue’s written already. The flow of the game cannot be touched either. It is in this sense that I am frustrated, because it was impossible to rebalance certain passages in the story that did not suit me” (translated from the French).

While he wasn’t specific about which passages he took issue with, it’s not hard to imagine that some fall within the game’s middle sections, given how often they drag and how little many contribute to the story.

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This would be a huge problem for most other story-based games, which would likely crumble under such a flimsy framework. But FFXII has no such trouble, because the story isn’t actually all that important – the real thing that makes FFXII so great is its characters and world, and the plot continually bends and twists to let them take center stage.

Is it all useful to the plot when the characters run into a literal roadblock in the Golmore Jungle and are forced to complete an elaborate fetch-quest before they can pass? No, but it puts them in contact with the viera of Eruyt Village, shining a light on Fran’s bittersweet past and showing just how much she had to give up to realize her life’s ambition.

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Would the plot have worked just fine if Arcadia and everything leading up to it had been skipped? Yes, but that would have meant missing the Salikawood and Phon Coast (easily some of the most beautiful areas in the game), never seeing the Arcadian Empire’s human side, and never learning about Balthier’s complicated relationship with his father and how it changed his life.

And while the Stilshrine of Miriam (a dungeon you spend roughly an hour trawling to find a legendary sword that, again, you never use) is easily one of the most unnecessary parts of the game, it’s where you first see Ashe’s hunger for power starting to emerge when she refuses to destroy the Dawn Shard. It’s a subtle but unsettling moment that shows how complex Ashe really is, and that she might not choose the noble path if given the option.

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Few of these moments contribute to a steady, well-paced plot, but the focus on building up the characters and world creates a place that seems like it could spawn a thousand stories to make up for it – it truly feels that alive. The whole game certainly could have benefited from a better-defined storyline – I still side-eye the climactic scene where the ultra intelligent, manipulative Vayne becomes Generic Angel Badguy for the final battle. But ten years later, FFXII still has one of the most sympathetic and fascinating casts in all of gaming – seriously, all of it – and a world that feels just as rich and deep now as it did then.

I’ll be happy to explore it all over again when the remaster finally hits, and won’t let those plot troubles get in my way, because there’s so many more interesting things going on. Maybe this time I’ll actually get through the Necrohol of Nabudis this time.

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