As difficult as it is to tell what the game is trying to say sometimes, its stance on Venat is clear: Venat is an evil creature, who is even more manipulative as the other Occuria and far, far more ambitious and dangerous. And whatever its reasons for spiting Gerun and the Occuria may have been, the sanctity of human freedom has nothing to do with it.
If Venat thought the Occuria's system was unjust, and wanted humanity to have the power to determine their own fate free of their meddling, why did he not merely destroy the Sun-Cryst immediately? She seems to indicate to Vayne at the end that this was all it really would have taken. But perhaps it wanted humanity to have some recourse to fight the Occuria, thereby preventing their intercession if they should try to use force later on. Well, then, why not give everyone nethicite? Make it common knowledge. To do so would both eliminate the threat of the Occuria, and level the playing field between nations. To play favorites and keep nethicite a secret, sharing it only with one faction of your choice, is exactly what the Occuria have been doing.
And that's exactly what Venat does: pick a human candidate to accomplish your will, and empower them to do so. The difference is that Venat appears to have done so solely to appease his own whims, rather than in solidarity with the rest of the Occuria. We are told that the Occuria intercede in human affairs to maintain a kind of stability, and Gerun even implies that they have stopped our race from destroying itself, maybe more than once. Yet Venat upsets, rather than enforces that status quo; it is for Venat's desires that Landis and Nabradia were invaded, and installing Vayne as Dynast-King would mean imposing his rule by force on every nation.
That's not so different from what Raithwall had done, of course. But here's the difference: Raithwall, the Occuria's pick to be Dynast-King, was just, benevolent, and wise. The Occuria gave him the tools to establish his own reign, but that reign was his to create and implement- and it was glorious. The greatest golden age in human memory, which we only recently have fallen from, even a millennium later. But Vayne, Venat's choice, is utterly ruthless. He is shown to be remorseful enough for his brutal actions to be tormented by them yet not enough to stop being an ambitious tyrant, and there is no sacrifice that he is not prepared to make in seizing rule of all Ivalice for his own sake.
And while we cannot know what the world was like when the Occuria selected Raithwall, we know what kind of crisis motivated them to seek Ashe as their new champion: a renegade Occuria and a nethicite-powered Empire. But Venat's mandate did not seem to entail anything other than spitting in Gerun's eyes and empowering those who would most eagerly pursue the course he set for them. You see, while Venat claims to oppose the Occuria's occasional tug on the reins of history (back in the hands of man!), I think Venat, like the Satan-analogue that he so clearly represents, is making Vayne a cursed promise, and, in truth, desires nothing more than to rule all humanity as a Tyrant-God himself.
Venat taught Cid how to manufact nethicite, which would cement their conquest of all mortal nations over time. But more importantly, the Empire was eager to learn how to implant nethicite into a living body, thereby radically empowering that person. We see this done only three times: Mjrn, Bergan, and Vayne. And Venat uses the nethicite these people have taken for an altogether more sinister purpose.
Yes, we see that Mjrn, simply by holding manufacted nethicite, became susceptible to a measure of control by Venat, and went berserk. But viera were used as test-subjects specifically because they were more receptive to the effects of nethicite, and the goals of the research was to increase the affinity between humans and nethicite. When we meet Bergan at Bur-Omisace, he has gone totally berserk, and his speech to Ashe is bizarre and fanatical, talking about false faith in gods and taking the reins of history back in hands of man- Cid and Venat's trademark phrase. Cid himself was not implanted with nethicite, but was utterly obsessed with it and relied on it for all his weaponry. When Vayne himself was forced to rely on his nethicite implantation, his demeanor seemed to change at once, immediately declaring his intentions to slay Larsa and Gabranth. And, when even this power proved insufficient, Venat merged with him, creating a new entity that was both and neither.
What did all of these people have in common, besides the nethicite? Ambition. Mjrn was questioning her place among the viera, and wanted to defy their laws and leave the village. However, she was only questioning; she had not yet taken the plunge, and was spared after being rescued by Ashe and Fran. Bergan loved Vayne's ruthlesness, and firmly believed the world should be cleansed in fire and blood by its new Dynast-King. Vayne, of course, wanted power. All power. He wanted to rule the nations of men, and there was no experiment too vile, no cost in life too high, to pay the fee for him. These people claimed they wanted freedom, yes, but what they really wanted was power. And in giving them the power they desired, Venat claimed control of them, both literally and metaphorically. Each time, we see that when someone goes over the edge and gives in to the nethicite, Venat's affectations on their mind and personality takes over, and he lingers in the air behind them as their specter.
This is Venat's real dream. To let man rule the world, yes. And to let the love of power, through nethicite, to rule their hearts. And, through nethicite, to rule man. This, certainly, is one of the game's most complete and triumphant victories: the establishment of Venat as a Satanic figure, ruling through subtlety and lies, through temptation and the perversion of truth. What's more, it is so thoroughly, beautifully Ivalician: those who seek and love power can only be ruled by it, and one who is slave to greed and ambition can never truly be free. I honestly cannot praise this enough. I love this.
It is the game's only thematic success. For even this theme of power as a corrupting influence is mangled by the game. Even nethicite as a corrupting power is not really carried off very well. For we already know who the most powerful people in the entire world are: it's the party!
Yes, the problem with treating the party as fairy tale heroes- as opposed the the standard Ivalician treatment as normal people who overcame circumstance through worth- is that it so often conflicts with every one of the game's themes.
Without doubt, the one that give it the most trouble is freedom and self-determination. The true conflict of the game is that of man versus the Occuria, who seek to control human history. This conflict relies on two assumptions: first, that self-determination is an inherently good thing above all other considerations, and second, that the Occuria are immoral for violating this principle.
However, the game's demonstrations actually tend to run counter to both of these axioms. As stated, how can we have any faith in the game's promotion of the inherent goodness of human free will when the party seems to be doing nothing more than occupying the ludic space created for them by the world? When the fabric of reality bends over backwards to accommodate your presence, when impossible tasks become trivial because we're attempting them, and trivialities are treated as impossible when our enemies could benefit from them?
But that's just speaking from a "meta" standpoint. Even within the context of the game, there seems to be no support for the game's stated principle that self-determination is valuable and right. For one, it can be argued that we accomplished the Occuria's will for them after all. Their mandate was to end the Imperial threat and destroy Venat, and we did that. It was Cid and Zecht that destroyed the Sun-Cryst. And while they seemed to assume that Ashe would become the new Dynast-Queen afterwards, or should want to, the Occuria's main interest is in maintaining a status quo, which we ourselves enforced. Beyond that, the game really goes out of its way to make listening to the Occuria seem like a good idea. With Venat, we can see the game's morals demonstrated in the lives and actions of those who adhere to them. But the Occuria and their Dynasty scheme are made out to be unequivocally good things, despite the exact opposite being the game's intentions.
Of the Occuria, we know shockingly little, and from this little bit, we have to extrapolate certain things. We know of two candidates they have selected to carry out their will: Raithwall, and Ashelia. Raithwall we already know was one of the greatest rulers of all time, who ushered in the Galtean Alliance and cemented prosperity and peace throughout all Ivalice for centuries. We don't know that Ashe could have done so, but let me ask this: if she could not have, why should we support her in her capacity as the main character? She is bound for rule either way, either as Dynast-Queen or as Queen of Dalmasca. If she is unfit for rule, then is it not tragic that she should be put on Rabanastre's throne? If she is fit to rule justly and wisely, then are the Occuria not correct in their identification of Ashe as the worthy successor of their mandate? So let us give the game what I think is the greater benefit of the doubt, and assume that Ashe is fit to be a good and wise ruler. This can only mean that the Occuria were worthy judges of character.
But for what reasons do the Occuria meddle in the affairs of man? If they do so wantonly, for their own benefit, or to the detriment of man, then it's certainly worth opposing them. So what are the circumstances of their interdictions? It is recorded that when Raithwall was a young man, he was a ruler of a small nation in Valendia, and that his time was one of widespread and prolonged warfare. His mission was to unify the land, and he did so. That he did this through conquest can be, I believe, excused: the land was already at war, and his campaigns were demonstrably effective in closing these hostilities immediately, and leaving everyone better off. So we have one situation in which the enforcement of the Occuria's will certainly left the world better off. In our own time, the world is threatened by a nethicite-powered Archadian Empire and the ambitions of a rogue Occuria. Whether the Occuria were justified in interfering in these scenarios is a matter of philosophy, but from these two examples, we can observe what manner of perceived threat the Occuria require before intervening.
And what of the Occuria themselves? What is their conduct? Are they worthy of the mantle of guidance that they have taken on? Well, we could always hold Venat against them. I think it's more than fair to say that Venat's actions prove that corruptibility exists within the Occuria. Yet, if I were an Occuria, and I did not immediately strike you dead for this assertion, I would counter that they themselves thought the exact same way. The very mention of Venat's name makes Gerun wrathful, and summons the attention of other Occuria. They despise all that Occuria represents- his ambitions, his discord, and his wantonness in meting nethicite. Gerun refers to the knowledge of nethicite as a rose- a beautiful metaphor, given that it is appealing, but covered in thorns, to be handled with care. The Occuria say that it is their duty to "save" Ivalice, and, to them, history is synonymous with peace; whenever there is war and discord in the world, they say that history's weave is 'tangled.' Their actions, they say, are to mitigate the effects of the base desires of humanity. We know that in times long forgotten, many, many thousands of years ago, they ruled humanity with a firmer hand, but the nature of this era is a mystery to us, and they themselves, according to the will of "[their] King," abandoned this practice and chose to let humanity live all but free, adopting the system they have been using until now. The largest strike against them, I think, is Rasler. The Occuria were not shy in using Rasler's image to manipulate Ashe's emotions, and this seems to confirm that even their choice of Dynast-Queen they do not treat as an equal, or with absolute trust, but as lesser beings to be directed when necessary, as are all mortals.
I will be perfectly frank: I think the Occuria are worthy of human obeisance. If anyone has an argument to the contrary, I would be very interested to hear it. I don't mean that in a condescending or sarcastic way; I think the Occuria are made out to be nearly infallible, which is why it is so jarring when, after meeting with them at Giruvegan, the party- in the very seat of their power- immediately urges Ashe to defy them. Everyone seems to concur that the Occuria cannot be trusted and should not be obeyed, yet only two people actually speak up in this regard.
The first is Vaan, who asks what right the Occuria have to tell them what to do. This is a fair question. I would ask what right mankind has to tell rats what to do. Do not believe that the difference between the Occuria and Humes is the difference between men of power and privilege and the disenfranchised; it is not, and should not be regarded this way. The gulf between the Undying and men is the gulf between mankind and vermin, and all of their interactions and regards concerning our race should be considered in that light. Yes, it is somewhat humiliating to admit that the Occuria are simply smarter, wiser, and better-natured than mankind is or perhaps ever could be. But humility is an instructive virtue, and Vaan's objection is rooted in a prideful idea: that humanity is and should ever be the ultimate authority on its own affairs. I dare not imply one way or another any opinion of the truth of this in the real world, and neither should you in this particular thread. But in the world of Ivalice, there are, without question, beings Above us, who know better, and do better, and are better, and to think that merely being human is in itself a license to disregard that out of hand, as an inherent principle of immunity from direction as a natural human trait, is foolish, arrogant, and destructive.
Basch, on the other hand, counsels Ashe somewhat differently: "They may be gods, but we are the arbiters of our destiny... The Empire must pay, but destruction?" This is far more reasonable. The Occuria, superior though they may be, are not infallible, and we are not compelled to obey them if a reasonable contradiction may be raised. This is perfectly acceptable. But the party finds nothing wrong with the Occuria's bidding but its severity; they are loath to use nethicite in battle, and they do not wish to wipe out the Empire, as the Occuria bid them. To me, it seems immaterial whether or not we use nethicite to fight the empire; the Stones are granted to their Chosen to ensure their success, and if we can succeed without using it, then its use or disuse is of no consequence. And considering that, at the end of the game, everyone that had a shred of say in Archadia's affairs of state is dead- not uncommonly at our hands- the difference between our accomplishments and the Occuria's will may be so trivial that they may not even care. And if they did want Archadia razed and its people put to the sword, well... If you knew rats lived under your house, and some of them had been getting into your food, you might well decide to just kill all the rats, and few are they who would call you unreasonable. Appeals to humanity's superiority clause aside, the Occuria are never made out to be anything but good and reasonable, and are never treated by the party or the narrative as anything but sinister and vile. Well, before they are forgotten entirely, anyway.
The character arcs of our main party, to the extent that they even exist, seem to run counter to this theme. Vaan's comes closest to matching it, to his credit; he admits to Ashe that he had felt powerless to change his fate before running with the party for a while, and once he awakens to the possibility of choosing his own place in the world, he resolves to do so. This, unfortunately, does not come to very much in the game, yet in Revenant Wings and in Final Fantasy Tactics A2, he's made out to have become a fairly successful adventurer and sky pirate in his own right, so... good on you, Vaan. You won, in time.
Basch is largely tied to Ashe's character, but he does get a few turns in on his own. Unfortunately, he comes down rather strongly on the side against self-determination. Basch lives his whole life in fealty to causes he considers above or beyond himself, regardless of how little sense it makes or how much pain it causes. When he meets Ashe for the first time on the Leviathan, Ashe asks if she would have her live in shame as the subservient puppet of the Empire, and he responds, "If that is your duty, yes." By the time Vossler announces that he fancies this plan, too, it has become abhorrent to him, but it was a good time for Basch to pay lip service to duty and that's the only way he can get it up. At the end of the game of course, he has traded away his very identity to live as "Gabranth" in Larsa's service, for absolutely no good fucking reason other than that it feels dutiful to him. Basch has as much self-determination as the silicon disc he occupies. If only the Occuria had presented themselves as a knightly order, rather than as angels, he would have immediately sworn himself their staunch defender (and gotten Giruvegan invaded and sacked).
Balthier initially tries to master his own destiny, but finds that he cannot escape his past. This is even more damaging to the theme than Basch's arc; rather than simply accepting destiny like Basch, Balthier attempts to defy it and is inextricably drawn back toward it, as if it was simply a tenet of the world's nature. Balthier even says as much to Ashe at the Phon Coast, and accepts that he is simply fated to face off with his father and the Empire. And then there's his running gag: Why does he act the way he does? Why do certain things happen the way they do to him? Because he's the leading man, of course! Yes, the world itself simply has a way people and events are meant to play out, and not only does Balthier believe he know his role, but accepts it, is happy in it, and seems to have faith that it will serve him in turn as long as he's wise to it.
Fran, like Balthier, attempted to defy what seemed to be her destiny, and was laid low. She questioned the rigid, dogmatic society of the viera and sought to learn of and involve herself in the world. It's exactly the kind of thing that the setting should praise. Even if it brought her sadness, the effort itself should be regarded as worthy. But no; she has long since come to regret her decision, it has brought her only sorry and degradation, and when she finds her sister in the same situation, she counsels her to abandon her ambitions and accept the life she was simply born to live. Ghastly.
Penelo has no arc. Moving on.
Aside from free will, the game's largest theme is about power, and at the center of this theme is nethicite, which it regards as evil. But the party's, and indeed, the game's qualms about nethicite are important only because nethicite is, in some unstated fashion, special. The game does not totally denounce the use of force as a means of change. It is, after all, our only tool. Ashelia "Doom Bringer" Dalmasca does not know what a treaty table looks like. But force is, after all, a tool of necessity, and it is purported that there is no threat that could necessitate the use of nethicite's overwhelming power.
There are three possible reasons for this, which I will address and denounce in turn.
The first objection would be that nethicite is simply so powerful that no opposition could warrant its awesome power. To that, I merely point out the Empire, which has nethicite of its own, and a great deal of it. If the party's misgivings about nethicite are that it is too powerful a tool, does that not change when the opponent is using it on us? Is the party's disapproval of such power so great that we need handicap ourselves, just to be on the safe side? I don't know about that. Again, this goes back to one of my sticking points about our party and nethicite: We don't actually know anything about it, because we never asked. We don't know if there is a way to use nethicite without using the thing as a damned nuke crystal. We know that manufacted nethicite has a multitude of uses, and can even be used in a defensive capacity. But we never ask if the Stones can be used in this fashion. They are treated as unconscionable atrocities from the very start.
It could be that, regardless of whether it is possible to use nethicite responsibly, it is the corrupting nature of the power that the party shuns. This, I reject again; if power corrupts, then none in the world are more corrupt than our party, for they are, canonically, the most powerful beings in the entire world. Basch kicks the game off by fighting an airship with nothing but a sword, and winning. It only progresses from there. Our party, with nothing but the power that they, personally, possess, engage and defeat all manner of warriors, monsters, demons, dragons, and, yes, even an Occuria, and one power by the Sun-Cryst's might! "But Rocko," you protest. "They have to be strong enough. They're the heroes." Why, I ask, are they heroes? Here we have another paradox introduced by the game's treatment of the cast as Heroes of Legend and not really as people from the setting. We are shown that the power of nethicite and the Occuria is evil and beyond controlling, and then we defeat it with our bare hands. Either nethicite is not as overpowering as we had estimated, and we were fools to ignore it out of squeamishness, or nethicite is exactly as powerful as it is made out to be and our group of six people, three of them teenagers, are naturally even more powerful than the gods themselves and all of their strongest tools, be they mortal or crystalline. Either we are mighty beyond mortal and immortal estimation and have no choice but to reconcile our view of power as a corrupting force to be used only judiciously with our status as the mightiest beings to ever exist, or all of our enemies, and the Occuria, and the nethicite, were simply trifles, not at all living up to their reputation and unworthy of our attention. Tell me, which of the possible farces would you prefer? Choose whichever failure mode you can most easily cope with or rationalize.
The last objection against nethicite that I can predict is that it is simply that nature of nethicite that makes it repellant to our party. It is true, after all, that nethicite, especially deifacted nethicite, is a tool not quite like anything else, and it is not beyond reason to protest that there are some weapons that are simply, by the very nature of their creation, or function, or effects, or what have you, too terrible to contemplate using. I can think of a few good rebuttals to this, but I only need one.
Did You Not See Our Army Of Motherfucking Demons
Our party, without the merest shred of contemplation, examination, trepidation, or immediate consequence, enslaves and commands a cadre of the most evil and nightmarish creations ever to scar reality with their existence: The Espers, better known to some as the Lucavi.
While they are not called such in this game, 'Lucavi' is a Russian word for the devil, and this is all too accurate a name for the creatures. Each was created for some necessary purpose, and each was somehow corrupted into a twisted perversion of their former selves. In the end, they rose up against the gods who created them to usurp dominance over Creation. If you believe that a man may be judged by their enemies, behold the foes of the Occuria.
Each of the Lucavi are designed or named for demons and fallen angels (Belias, Zalera, Hashmal, Shemhazai, and Adrammelech) or after the final bosses of previous Final Fantasy games (Chaos, Zeromus, Famfrit, Mateus, and Ultima). There are two exceptions. First, there is Cúchulainn, who is named for an Irish folk hero. But 'hero,' as we tend to use it, isn't a precise term for what the mythical Cúchulainn was. He's a bit... odd. Here's a description of some of his powers I ripped straight from Wikipedia:
"The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage." -The Tain
You're welcome for the most metal thing you'll read all day.
The other exception is Zodiark, which is intended to serve as an outlier. It is demonstrated that the one thing the Occuria fear is anything they believe to be more powerful than themselves, and when they find such a thing they seek to restrain or limit its power. I find it interesting that they do so, rather than destroying them. Such was the case with Zodiark, which so frightened the gods that they restrained its growth and kept it in an infant form, yet it is still unquestionably the most powerful of all the Lucavi by far. Fortunate, then, that it had no part in their revolution, and does not seem to bear any ill will toward the world; Zodiark is neither good nor evil, yet simply is.
Ultima is the leader of the Lucavi, and she herself is, like Venat, and analog to Satan, much resembling a Christian angel and being described as one of the most beautiful, majestic, and powerful of all the gods servants, before leading the insurrection of the Espers against them and, upon their revolution's failure, was cast down forever. Her final attack is the Eschaton, the foretold end of days.
The Lucavi are more than just a background element of Ivalician lore; they are the driving force behind the plot of Final Fantasy Tactics, in which their repulsive nature is demonstrated to its full extent. They drive all Ivalice into war, seeking to use the blood of thousands of innocents as part of the blood-sacrifice to resurrect Ultima, who had been slain in ancient days... Days which, as of 706 Old Valendian, were soon to come! But more on that soon.
Canonically, the party finds, defeats, and enslaves each of the thirteen Espers. It is speculated by some that it is the Esper's power that, whether or not they were employed directly in battle, mystically empowered the party, who, like them, revolted against the gods who sought to rule them.
This is inexcusable. Beyond the pale. There is nothing the game can assert about power, about corruption, about responsibility, that is not immediately countered by the party's seeking out and dominating the most vile and powerful creatures in our world, who, themselves, were and would remain emblematic of the corrupting, damning lure of revenge, of wrath, of destruction, of ambition, of avarice, of- in a word- power, magnificent and terrible.
Everything the game so thoroughly condemns about nethicite is so shockingly hollow, occupying the same space as these beings, which the party commands without reservation. I want you to look at Penelo, at that innocent face, and say to yourself: This girl is the master of Adrammelech, the Wroth, who betrayed his holy masters and lived as a lord of Hell, leading a horde of ravening fiends against his creators. And then I want you to picture her sitting on its shoulders, holding its horns as it hovers in place stirring the air to a tempest and raining lightning upon shrieking civilians as they flee, bellowing blood-curses at a Creation it despises. And, from this diabolic vantage, chastising Ashe thusly: "Nethicite is bad, Ashe. We shouldn't trust those shady Occuria."
In fact, I can't help but believe that it is the party's reliance on these creatures- and, ultimately, their mismanagement of them- that changed the world in ways they really, really should have seen coming. Having thoroughly reviewed the timelines and lore of the three main games in Ivalice, I can come to no other conclusion that the party's outrageous defiance of the Occuria and their absurd negligence regarding the Espers resulted in, without hyperbole, the end of the world as they knew it.
Götterdämmerung: The Twilight of the Gods
Eons ago, when Ultima led her assault against the gods themselves and lost, they were, in punishment, bound into glyphs. Whoever possessed these glyphs would, in turn, become their masters, and great and powerful people in legend, such as Raithwall himself, were said to command them from age to age.
707 Old Valendian. The time, though we are told is much decayed from the height of Raithwall's rule, will be remembered as a golden age. This is the time of magicite as a commodity, of airship fleets arriving and embarking from every city in the world, of great cities that reach to the sky, with people of every race walking the streets in harmony.
The six people who had defied the gods and won, had, in their travels, found and mastered these glyphs and the creatures imprisoned by them. They thought little of this. One of them, however- Famfrit, the Darkening Cloud- had, for a time, been commanded by Cidolfo Bunansa, who seemingly had it contained within a shard of crystal. Given that Doctor Cid was the architect and master of nethicite, it is presumable, and likely, that the creature was contained within nethicite. An alternative was possible. But the principle that an Esper's glyph could be bound within a crystal was proven.
As a byproduct of the destruction of the Sun-Cryst, the sky continent of Lemurés is rediscovered, and with it, Auracite, a type of magicite useful for the binding of spirits, from which the creatures contained within could be commanded. It would be speculated that even the Espers could be commanded in this fashion, but they, as with any creature, could only exist as an echo of their true self and power when called forth in such a form.
Many years pass. The heroes of that era grow old, and die. If they had any understanding of the power that they held in the Espers, or had made any effort to provide for the custody of the Glyphs after they themselves were gone, they are not remembered by history.
After a time, in a kingdom unknown to the heroes of Rabanastre, a young king, seeking to expand his power even further, attempted to summon a demon of incredible power. He succeeded- somewhat. Unable to command the creature, it slew him, and set out at once to destroy the entire world. However the king had attempted to bind them, Ultima, and with her, the Lucavi, were not only present in the world but freed from their glyphs' imprisonment.
The Cataclysm of the demon and its brethren usher in an age of destruction unequaled in history. In time immemorial, the gods themselves fought these creatures, and defended humanity and the young world from their like. This time, no gods appeared to do so. No man was given means to oppose them.
A means to combat them was found in time, however. If one of the demons was defeated, it was possible to seal its spirit away in a shard of Auracite. Twelve warriors set out on this quest, and succeeded in sealing away all of the demons. They were remembered as the Zodiac Braves, and these shards of Auracite, the Zodiac Stones, were kept by the Holy Ydoran Empire as treasured relics.
It was understood, however, that the demons were not destroyed, but contained. One who possessed the stones could, perhaps, summon the creatures once again- yet to do so would require one to merge themselves, body and soul, with the creature; with the ancient glyphs that had bound them in the world gone, this was the Espers', now the Lucavi's, only means of manifesting physically in the world, though the stones themselves could still grant their wielder great power even without this ritual.
It is around this time, only a century or a little more, after the life of Ashelia Dalmasca, that a man named Ajora Glabados would be born. Ajora would found a new sect of the Light of Kiltia religion which, following the death of its Gran Kiltias and the terrible Cataclysm that had followed, was all but dying out.
Though his legend was inflated and falsified by those that would later deify him, Ajora did indeed possess remarkable powers, and had gathered many followers around him in the Holy Ydoran Empire. However, one of these followers, Germonique, discovered that Ajora was also spying on Ydora, and passing along information to all of its enemies, apparently trying to foment some grand conflict for reasons understood only by him. He also discovered that Ajora was gathering the Zodiac Stones, and intended to use them to summon the creatures contained within- which Germonique, misunderstanding, believed were the Zodiac Braves, not the Lucavi.
The Holy Ydoran Empire, finally with the evidence they needed to move against the troublesome would-be prophet, arrested him and had him hanged. However, the prophet's vengeance before dying was terrible, and Mullonde, the seat of Ydoran power and perhaps the last great bastion of Golden Age, pre-Cataclysm technology and culture, was annihilated in a great tidal wave. Though at terrible cost, Ajora- in truth the host of Ultima, the High Seraph- was slain.
Over a millennium later, man is alone in Ivalice. The other races are long since gone, and go unremembered. Humanity itself was said to have nearly been wiped out at one point, but no one can remember quite why. However, researchers of eons past often find great masses of machinery that no one alive has ever seen, all fallen and destroyed as if in a short time, even in one great moment. Even more rarely, the machinery can activate in the presence of a magickal stone, but who would ever have such a thing as magick stone?
Most puzzlingly, there are sometimes uncovered masses of ships in lands where no water is ever known to have occupied. Many have strange protrusions like fins and propellers, but know one knows what these could have been for. In jest, it's said that maybe they flew to where they were. Idle fantasy.
The extraordinarily powerful Church of Glabados is ever-present, and keep a benevolent hand in the affairs of every nation in Ivalice, dedicated to the memory of their founder, the ineffable Saint Ajora. It is in this world that Ramza Beoulve is born.
One hundred years. That was what Dalmasca's stubborn streak bought humanity. This was our victory over the tyranny of the gods. One hundred years.
A Travelog, by a Raving Madman
There is one last thing I would like to test your patience with, and it may indeed surprise you: there is so much to love about Final Fantasy XII.
Yes, I'm surprised by it, too! I try to bear it in mind, but I forget sometimes.
I will maintain once more that I could not have gone through all this effort and thought for a game I dislike. I have been somewhat unkind to it, but I only care in the first place because there is something in this game that seized my imagination and has not yet let go. There are people who can play a game they hate, that gives them nothing but pain, and remark upon it, and say meaningful things about it and entertain people with their lamentations, and I admire these people, but I am not one of them.
The setting is brilliant, and alive. There is remarkable care and thought into making the world and its environments feel equally like a high fantasy we could never know and a living, comprehensible place that we are immediately at home in. This is not something that exists in a single part of the game, but must be distributed throughout it, and it is undoubtedly the work of people who treated this game and its creation with care, and love, and genius. Yes, the creation of the game was not untroubled, nor quick, and the creator of the very setting, Yasumi Matsuno, was tragically removed from the project by untimely illness. But somewhere in the midst of all that, people put their hearts into this game, and it is impossible not to feel it. You can hear it in Lowtown, while people sit and chat near sunshafts breaking in from the noisy streets above, hanging colorful cloths over the bare stone walls and lounging with a small circle of friends on crates that were bound for the city back in the good days. You can feel it at a small shrine, observing an unbroken vigil in silence overlooking a marsh of the miserable undead, lamenting wordlessly their incomprehension, a great palace barely visible through the roiling mist as it protrudes at a grotesque angle from the shattered landscape. You can see it in the eyes of a madman, hanging in the air before a crystal that blazes like the sun, howling exultant laughter and praising a new era at the very edge of the world, gazing out over an endless abyss from a tower dedicated in ages unknowable to the deities he has usurped. There is life here. Put your hand on the screen and you can feel the pulse.
I love the real time gameplay, and, with it, the brilliant open-world environment design that it encouraged and even necessitated. I like the gambit system, both as a concept and in practice, and I think with a little more development it could have served as a fantastic basis for a lot of games, but I know not everyone agrees. I don't attempt to defend it; it worked for me. But the particulars of the system itself are immaterial; the important thing, to me, is that in choosing a system, any system, that allowed them to maintain an open, free-roaming world, one that the player would inhabit in and out of battle, they were immediately locked into making a world that had to work with this system's needs, and this I feel improved the game indispensably. The environments had to be crafted with the expectation that both players and monsters would inhabit them, and need to work within them, and I believe that the designers succeeded in crafting a world that felt like a grand, contiguous world that teemed with life and possibility. There is not "dick around and hunt treasure world," and "fight scary monsters world," partitioned from one another by a big swirly wall. There is just Ivalice wild and free, where beautiful and savage creatures roam across sandy, rolling dunes, and icy rivers flowing through frostbitten crags. There is the palpable feeling that, walls of the world be damned, the setting extends in all directions, on and on. Environment design is not something to take for granted. When you play a game without it, it distresses you, mentally and physically. Whether you know why or not, you can feel it all the same. And when it works, you go to the top of a hill and stare out to the horizon, taking on faith that there is anything and everything lying beyond it, even if you know from experience that there isn't. A well-crafted world like this gives your imagination license to supersede any realities you deem other than preferable. This game does this for me, and I think the decision, made when the game was still just ideas and some sketches and concepts, to make the player's means of interacting with it the way that it is.
The music is some of the very best in the entire series, and I mean that. When the game starts up and "FINAL FANTASY" begins to roar out of the speakers, it shakes my fucking bones, and I am immediately eager to adventure far and wide. When you start the game for the first time, and are greeted by an Opening Theme like this, you have only your rotting, sexless heart to blame if you are not ready to at least give the game a chance. It contributes so indispensably the feeling of the setting, and the game simply could not be the same without it. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, who, together, have created the unique and beautiful music that has so wonderfully characterized the games of the Ivalice setting since Final Fantasy Tactics in 1997. The score of the game is built from high strings, soaring horns, flute, timpani, and harp, and if any complaint can be levelled at the music, it it, perhaps, that they never depart from this instrumentation. But when it works, it works amazingly, and it works nearly all of the goddamn time. In particular, the credits identify the horn player as Osamu Matsumoto, and I can only infer that this man descended onto the Japanese shoreline in a pillar of silvery light, tromboning all onlookers to tears. I have been listening to the soundtrack on loop since I started writing this, and every time The Battle for Freedom comes on, I have to suppress the urge to make war on my neighbors. If you've been following me so far, your time is clearly worthless, and you owe it to yourself to at least give these tunes a chance.
The game is constantly and remarkably beautiful. This was a game created in the closing of a long, long console era and the creators knew exactly what to do with the hardware, technologically speaking. But that's only the foundation, not the edifice. The art in this game was put together masterfully. Everywhere you go, there is vibrant color, and beautiful, intricate environments of every landform and climate, architecture tragically unknown in our own world, and creatures bizarre and beautiful alike. There is more color and variety in the game's sewer level than some games ever manage to possess in sum. The game is so frequently and expertly pleasing that when you go to a place like Old Archades, which is so drab and barren, that you believe it's because the town is simply an awful place to live, and not that the artists couldn't be bothered to put in the hours- which they did, because even these areas are intricately detailed and filled with thoughtful design.
As I mentioned long, long ago, I have a total preferential weakness for the style and delivery of the game's writing. The game strikes an amazing balance, relying on faux-Elizabethan vocabulary and sentence structure while remaining immediately comprehensible, and the intense variety in diction and construction keep the dialogue vibrant and immensely readable. And going hand in hand with that...
The voice acting is some of my favorite in any game I have ever played. Reportedly, for the English translation, they simply hired a bunch of Shakespearean stage actors, and let them go nuts on the script, improvising as much or as little on the prose as they felt appropriate, and in a game that already has the kind of writing that I adore, I cannot help but feel speared by the effect. There is such genuine feeling and nuance, and emotion, that playing this game after playing nearly any other voiced game will leave you feeling richly spoiled. Hilariously, the main cast are the only characters that seem not to have gotten the benefits of these casting and direction decisions, having been made much more "conventional," and the result is that literally everyone in the world is many factors more interesting to listen to than every member of the main cast besides Fran and Balthier. Characters like Ondore, Al-Cid Margrace, Vayne, Doctor Cid, Anastasis, Bergan... Anyone. Nearly everyone! I can't get enough of the voice acting in this game. Comparing it to its predecessor, and its successor, is an act of madness. There is not even any point.
Come to think of it, the cutscenes in this game are absolutely masterful. I know that cutscenes are a part of games that have become sort of maligned. But nearly all games still have them in some form or another, and dammit, if it's in a game, it needs to be good, and the cutscenes in this game were pro-built. Cinematography is cinematography. I looked at a lot of cutscenes checking and rechecking detals for this write-up. A lot. I watched many, many cutscenes. Believe this. And I didn't even get bored! The framing, the script, the pacing, it's all spot-on. And everything I said about the art, music, and voice-acting goes just as strongly for the cutscenes. Games have attempted to be "cinematic" before and long, long since Final Fantasy XII, but it's shocking to see a game that actually has a decent understanding of cinema just working it like it's simply a matter of course, when so, so many others have tried so very hard and... Well... I have a game you can play right now. Here are all the cutscenes from Final Fantasy XII, stitched together. And here are all the cutscenes from Metal Gear Solid 4. Pick a random scene from either and hit play for about fifteen seconds. Plus one point for which scenes are something beautiful, and well-framed, and well-acted, and well-scripted, and well-scored, and well-paced. Minus one point for which scenes are plodding, ugly, stilted, colorless, interminably redundant, tonally-oblivious, narmy vortexes of space-dweller dislogic that leave you screaming at your monitor in grief for your slain time. When you get tired, multiply that score by the length of the game's cutscenes divided by the game's total length. Actually, don't do any of that. You already know good and well what I'm playing at and if you disagree, well, I'd be fascinated to know what it's like going through life being wrong about literally everything. It would be hard to get a driver's license, for one.
But lastly, I think these games have some amazing characters. It would have been great for some of them to end up in our party! But they're in there, and they aren't uncommon. A lot of the better characters seem to be enemies, actually, but that's likely because our dear party tends to piss off so very many people. This, too, is a function of the writing style; any dumb, no-name NPC you run into has some sort of personality crammed into them, and when you throw that much stuff at the wall, you end up with a lot that managed to stick. And, knowing the alternative, I'd say it would have been just great if that's what the main cast had ended up with. Forget about narrative arcs, or thematic relevance. All the characters needed was some memorable personality. Balthier is far and away most people's favorite party member, and it's because the guy actually has some life in him! For what desperately little there is to her character, I ended up always liking Penelo, and I can only conclude that it's for this slab-simple reason: her voice acting is decent, and she has a personality. But even beyond just having memorable people, there are a number of characters who really do have depth and meaning in them. Vayne, Cid, and Venat, of course. But I'll do you one better: you know who the best character in the game is? In fact, you know who the main character of this game is? Halim Fucking Ondore.
Marquis Halim Ondore IV is most everything that the main character of an Ivalician game should be. He's moral and earnest without being naive or foolish. He's cunning, but not conniving. He can play the Great Game as well as his opponents in Archadia and Rozarria despite having a fraction of their power. He's a natural leader of men, uniting the Rebellion into a force that could legitimately oppose the Empire and leading them in battle at the front of the fleet. He's handsome, well-dressed, his voice is outstanding. He is practical without being ruthless, reasonable without being soft. He takes control of one of the largest combined fleets in history without being tempted by its power, which the setting promotes as a near-impossibility. He games the course of nations and history for his nation's benefit, and for the benefit of his friends and allies- not because he, personally, profits from it, but because he desires peace and freedom for these nations. While the Big Six dick around in a swamp collecting rainbow slime and zombie fritters, he's moving the pieces around the board facilitating the entire plot thanklessly behind the scenes. He makes a better opponent and counterpart to Vayne than Ashelia does, when she was designed to fill that role. Put simply, he's a good ruler, and a good warrior, and a good man, in a world where being the last of these is a constant trial and being all three makes you a creature of myth. Ondore MVP 2006.
...I'm sitting here, drumming my fingers, trying to think of anything else to say. But after 75,000 words and 110 pages of Courier New... I think I'm out. Yeah, I know, you're so disappointed.
But frankly, I think I've said all there is for me to say. Anything beyond is for you to find out for yourself, and I think I've put enough out there for you to know pretty definitely if you want to, or not. Though I wouldn't blame you either way.
If I had to describe Final Fantasy XII in two words, I would pick "fascinatingly flawed." I'd be very hesitant to call it a great game, and at times I'd balk at calling it a good game. But nonetheless, I found myself entranced by it. So often, I find myself shaking my head at the missed opportunities, left only to wonder what might have been if things had been different, if other decisions had been made or if more or less emphasis had been put in this part or that. Yeah, there are times when I can't stand Final Fantasy XII. But sometimes, in the right light, or from the right angle...
I think I might love this fucking game.
Thank you for reading.