Despite my tepid reaction to recent entries in the series, Final Fantasy XII excited me beyond all reason as soon as it was announced. Why? Because that's when I learned that the Final Fantasy XII development team was led by the same people who had created two of my favorite games of the PlayStation generation: Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.
In the years that followed between the game's announcement and its release, I fed on every interview, screenshot, and trailer that Square released. I was delighted when it was declared that FFXII's story would have a more adult tone. The series I had grown up with was finally growing up with me.
I got the game a minute after midnight on release day and popped it into my PlayStation 2 shortly thereafter. I remember bouncing up and down on my butt impatiently as I waited for the loading screens to clear. Did I have any trepidation that my expectations would not be met? I did not.
Here's how Final Fantasy XII opens.
Watching it now makes me think that that good storytelling requires contrast. Without contrast, action and emotion and size all feel flat; there's no sense of grandeur because each beat of a story is the same as the others.
That's why Final Fantasy XII's opening cinematic works for me. You have the large scale celebrations and battles that contrast with intimate moments featuring major characters; this allows us to understand the enormous scope of the world in which these people try and survive. You have the love and joy present at Princess Ashe's and Prince Rasler's wedding, and then the sorrow that follows as Basch fails to protect the prince from his death; this allows us to understand the stakes and consequences.
All of this invests the viewer in the story that unfolds, and also makes it easier to drop in some needed exposition without running the risk of having the viewer's eyes glaze over: the Empire is on the warpath and conquers Rasler's homeland. Ashe's homeland is next. It would have been easy to delivering this information through a text crawl. But FFXII chooses a better option in order to draw in the audience: it presents the information naturally in the characters' actions and speech.
The Rest of the Story
The central point-of-view characters of Final Fantasy XII are Vaan and Penelo, two orphaned children who fall into a grand adventure to free the kingdom of Dalmalsca from the clutches of the Empire. There's a rumor that they were shoe-horned into the game by executives that were worried that the intended focal characters would not be marketable draws. I don't know if this rumor is true or not... but I do know that the original direction of FFXII stepped down for "health" reasons. And I also know that the opening cinematic does not feature Vaan and Penelo; it features Basch and Ashe.
I will say that if the rumor is true, Vaan and Penelo are remarkable for not feeling completely out of place. Having said that, I do agree that they don't really fit into the politically-realistic storyline that follows the opening. So I'm going to pretend they don't exist.
Shortly after the events of the opening cinematic, the king of Dalmalsca begins peace talks with the Empire. During those talks he is assassinated, and the assassin is identified by all to be Basch. Dalmalsca is declared a protectorate of the Empire, to be governed by Lord Vayne Solidor, eldest surviving son of the Emperor. Princess Ashe is nowhere to be found.
What follows is a highly complex series of events. We learn that Basch was framed by his twin brother Gabranth, now a highly-ranked Judge in service of the Empire. He is freed by Ashe, who has started a movement to free her kingdom from the clutches of the Empire; they are eventually joined by the charming mercenary Balthier and his partner Fran. In the meantime Vayne has arranged for the death of his father and ascended to the throne. From there he is free to pursue his real goals, which are far greater than they appear.
There's far too much plot to summarize, so I'll just hit upon some points that interested me.
Some of this growth is apparent. Ashe evolves from a resistance fighter bent only on destroying the Empire's hold on her kingdom to a stateswoman who - especially after meeting Lord Larsa, Vayne's kind and intelligent younger brother - understands that a compromise may be the only way to secure her people's future. The story of Basch and Gabranth is different, showing how the weight of events led two brothers onto opposing paths. And Balthier...
... well, Balthier's story is one of the most subtle. He's a Han Solo-like rogue, quick of wit and ever-ready with a quip ("Spare me your quiddities" is my favorite), and he remains a constant even after his backstory is revealed. It's a bit complex and requires an understanding of the greater plot; just try to hang in there with me...
Balthier's father, Cid, is a high-ranking Imperial researcher who is close friends with Vayne. It is Cid who is contacted by Venat, a rogue being of a god-like race of immortal beings called the Occuria. He learns that the Occuria have been manipulating the mortal realm throughout history by tempting them with powerful Crystals. Venat wants to break mankind free of the Occuria's grasp, and that is what Vayne and Cid ultimately hope to achieve as well.
His father's preoccupation with this task drives Balthier away from the Empire and into a vagrant life. The party eventually confronts Cid and defeats him, and father and son have one final conversation.
This is the one time when Balthier is left with nothing to say. And there is a payoff at the very end of the game.
But before we get there, I'll talk about the final battle with Vayne. This confrontation takes place when Vayne gathers an immensely powerful air-fleet with the intent of wiping out the last rebels. The Crystals have already been destroyed, Ashe having refused the Occuria's offer of power in return for sparing the Crystals. With no other hope left, the party steals aboard Vayne's flagship, the Bahamut... and defeat him.
Stumbling away and dying, Vayne calls out to Venat, and the last act of their friendship is darkly moving.
Venat's final sacrifice was one of pure altruism, and not born out of desperation or need. Its goals had already been fulfilled, and it had no more need of its mortal allies. The final battle is entirely unnecessary.
But that's how life works. Life is messy and accidental and full of unnecessary events that ripple outwards in strange ways. The truth is that people don't really influence the present so much as they react to the past. Final Fantasy XII is a story that embraces that idea whole-heartedly, and it is pretty unique in doing so.
Let me wrap up Balthier's story now. After Vayne's death, the Bahamut begins to fall out of the sky, threatening to crush the city of Rabanastre. And in a moment of heroism, Balthier and Fran stay behind to massage the engines long enough to have the Bahamut fly over the city and crash just beyond.
His act is completely uncharacteristic - unless you remember Cid's final words to his son, the ones that Balthier had no answer to and which I imagine he could not dismiss. It's a subtle resolution and easily missed.
And in the end Final Fantasy XII might be a bit too subtle. Whether it's a fault of the storytelling or a consequence of the original director's departure, FFXII feels like an ambitious dream whose flaws are readily apparent under close scrutiny.
Still, I can marvel at the grandeur of the original vision; and I can appreciate the many points of execution that Final Fantasy XII did get right.