Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Madman

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Screw all that, get an editor and publisher and just fucking publish this book!
I'll buy 10 copies and give you a virtual cookie.

Awaiting the epic conclusion

(While you're at it, do consider creating a travelog for FFX as well, I'd love to read your thoughts about the Tidus/Yuna HAHAHA scene especially.

PART 11: A New Hope

You know, I almost want to just thrash this thing and have done with this torture once and for all, but lets make it interesting, why don't we? We've had an excuse to see almost every Esper in the game... Let's bust out the rest, because I intend to dwell on them a bit in the aftermath. And because after this, I am never playing this fucking game again.

Against a god of death, and angel of death: Zalera, the Death Seraph! Okay, that matchup is a bit predictable, isn't it? Zalera went down astonishingly quick, barely clinging to (un)life before I had the chance to bust out its supermove... which did piddly damage.

But hey, let's ramp it up a bit, for an Esper I found in a sewer: Cúchulainn, the Impure! Cúchulainn proves far more survivable, hardly reacting to The Undying's attacks, but doing very little in return; at the same rate that Cúchulainn can throw out his regular Malaise attacks, Fran was throwing out Flares that hit for five times as much damage. When you're being out-fought by Fran, you need to step your game up. Next!

Time for Exodus, the Judge-Sal! Exodus turns out to make a fantastic ally, slamming Comets and Ardor attacks left and right for massive damage. He isn't the most resilient of Espers, but he's quick with the Curajas and I actually managed to run his timer out and use Meteor. I always knew I liked you, you crazy arboreal nightmare.

But you know, Venat, I know of someone else who tried to rebel against the gods, and it didn't work out very well for them. Furthermore, I hear they're dying for a rematch. So, Vaynat, prepare to face Ultima, the High Seraph! Ultima is strong, but... not great at fighting Vayne, actually. Damage seemed pretty light, and it turns out that, yes, The Undying halves holy-elemental damage, which all of the Esper's attacks consist of. Nonetheless, the gray-blue Satan analog riding a helicopter and palling around with a street kid managed to hold out fairly well against the black-and-white Satan analogue riding a junk sculpture of a dragon and palling around with an Emperor.

But all of this showboating is just killing time before the main event. These scrubs all fought the gods before, and lost, so screw 'em! But I've got an ally that makes even the gods fear: Zodiark, Keeper of Precepts! True to his lore, Zodiark manages to be unfairly powerful, and watching him fight The Undying is like setting a luchador loose in a children's hospital. Vayne was on the ropes even before I summoned Zodiark, and I get the feeling I'm not going to get another chance to bust out his supermove, Final Eclipse. My instincts are right: in a blaze of deific, serpentine majesty, the Undying is blasted into scrap metal, unable to withstand a fight full of nothing but my bored dicking around.

The orange glow of nethicite begins to bleed from the amalgamated villains as it seems to lose control. Three lights blast their way out of Vayne's body, spiraling into the sky before departing to the corners of the earth. I can't help but wonder if this is supposed to be the spirits of the Dawn, Dusk, and Midlight shards releasing themselves from the creature. The draconic metal shell falls to pieces, with the metallic face of Venat itself crumbling into nothing. The parts which had merged with Vayne's body melt and boil, and as the entwined beings give one last roar of protest, it is consumed in a vast conflagration.

The mask that had covered the Emperor's visage is flung into the superstructure, its empty eye staring as it disintegrates into the wind. Vayne Carudas Solidor is no more.

Standing on the cannon superstructure under a once-more blue sky, the party collects themselves. Balthier and Fran give each other a well-deserved bro fist. Basch silently dwells on how he never got any kind of character arc, eventually finding peace in the idea that no development at all might be better than the mangling Ashe got. The Princess herself gazes down at her kingdom, stunned with knowledge that it is finally free, and finally hers, and she has absolutely no idea how to run a kingdom oh my god oh my god somebody help me out here.

Within the central shaft, Larsa awkwardly admits to himself that calling somebody with a knowledge of field medicine might have been a better call as the by-now gelatinized body of Gabranth loses its last few gallons of blood. Once the camera cuts away, though, he reflects on how his father, brother, the Senate, and the entire Ministry of Law except the spineless Zargabaath all lie dead, and gives a maniacal grin. All is as planned.

Vaan and Penelo, two poor kids from the desert, can hardly believe they ended up wrapped in the affairs of gods and emperors alike, and came out on the other side unscathed. They stare at the calm, beautiful sky, and... nearly shit themselves as a flaming fighter ship buzzes out of control right above their heads.

OH, FUCK! The battle is still going on! We thought, you know, killing the main dude would wrap it all up! It worked in the movie, dammit! The entire party takes on their strongest "Well shit" stance before high-tailing it away back to the Strahl.

It would seem our fuckwit pilot left the damn engines running when we parked, and the damned thing is fresh out of fuel. But unfortunately for Rabanastre, so is the Bahamut! It would seem that all of that energy Cid siphoned into the fortress' gas tanks from the Sun-Cryst was used up by The Undying, and raining that energy back onto the fortress as Teraflares and Gigaflare Swords probably didn't do it any favors. The lift and propulsion systems of the massive structure have failed, and it turns out we really aren't playing by Yavin IV's rules anymore: if the the Bahamut falls where it is, Rabanastre will be crushed.

Balthier had been heading to the engine room to fix up the Strahl, but he and Fran head back into the fortress instead, telling Vaan and Penelo, "You can fly the ship, probably, I'unno. Give it your best shot, peace!" As they dart out of the small ship, likely to find an Imperial shuttle to GTFO on instead, Larsa and Basch are having a moment with the dying Gabranth, laid out on a cot in the back. Yes, the Judge Magister is exactly as hard to kill as I have made him out to be, but it would seem his grip on his last hitpoint is fading fast. Gabranth leaves his brother with a mandate: protect Larsa. If, in this time of strife, House Solidor should fall, it would mean civil war for the Empire.

... What. I honestly can't even believe the audacity of Gabranth's last wish here. Gabranth joins up with the Empire that destroyed their homeland and helps them destroy and enslave Basch's new homeland, pinning the assassination of Raminas on him and leaving him to hang in an oubliette cage for two solid years. The Gabranth constantly and unapologetically continues to try and assassinate or imprison Basch and Ashe, to further the aims of the brutal Solidor regime. He has no regrets until he is defeated in combat, whereupon he... charges Basch, of all people, with taking up the work that he should have been doing, to aid a nation that he has every right to hate? Basch has every reason to want Archadia to collapse into pebbles, with the ashes of its people's bones clouding the air for leagues around.

And is Larsa really their only hope? First of all, the entire Imperial system in Archades was brought about through the violent seizure of power by the military; the Senate was a holdover from its previous republican roots. And even the ostensibly-elected Emperor's seat was rigged when the Solidors violently purged all competition generations ago. Larsa Solidor has absolutely no right to the Empire, and anyone that would support him in the aftermath of Vayne's coup and the war in Galtea is a fucking idiot slave who deserves every bad thing that ever happens to them. Send the little lord into exile as a Rozarrian hostage, and let the Valendian kingdoms crumble. Nothing they come up with after the strife passes could be worse than a fascist nethicite-powered dictatorship as led by Loki Fucking Solidor, author of all lies and sire of discord.

Naturally, Basch agrees to Noah's request immediately. I fucking hate you, Basch.

Falling airships crash against the beleaguered paling above Rabanastre as Vaan miraculously gets the Strahl working again. Balthier had indicated it was a mechanical problem that needed direct attention, but apparently he can't fulfill either half of the "sky pirate" title, since jiggling the gearshift seemed to do the trick. Vaan blasts off at once, boldly leaving Balthier and Fran behind. I'm still not sure what their plan for the duo was; maybe they intended to go back for them once they were done trying to stabilize the Bahamut, but if this is so, they certainly never act on it.

The bridge crew of the Garland observes the Strahl departing the fortress, and Ondore realizes at last that the Bahamut has been neutralized. Did no one see a crowd of demons battling a dragon god on the superstructure?! Ondore prepares to concentrate all fire on the Alexander and crush the last of the Imperials' command structure, but before he can command the volley to be fired, Gabranth's voice comes over the radio, ordering all parties to cease fire at once and announcing the signing of a cease-fire with Her Royal Majesty. Aboard the Strahl, we can see that this is actually Basch impersonating his brother over the voice-changer, but whether this is because the Judge Magister has finally passed from the world, or because we aren't willing to risk Gabranth fucking up his last duty in life like he did everything else, is left to our imagination. Basch passes the mic to Larsa, who announces his Lord Brother's honorable death in battle (Did no one see us fighting Vayne on the- ugh, never mind!) and announces the passage of command authority to himself. The Garland's crew asks orders of Ondore, but the Marquis bides his time as the princess comes onto the intercom, wisely announcing herself as "Ashelia Dalmasca" (the canny girl knows well enough not to bring that goofy middle name up) and bidding her assent to the cease fire. She commands that all Resistance ships stand down, and as the two sides slowly halt their cannon fire and retreat to their own lines, she declares the war over.

It's a touching scene, but the danger has yet to pass: no sooner does the fighting stop than the Bahamut comes crashing down onto the paling over Rabanastre; the wall of blue light is clearly being pushed beyond its limit, and will not hold for long. Luckily for all those totally fucked peasants, the show of solidarity between the two sides caused our dear Judge Zargabaath's heart to grow three sizes that day. He opens a line of communication to the Garland and announces his intentions: the Alexander will ram the sky fortress, and push it right off the city's airspace! Ondore actually begs him to refrain, knowing this is a suicide charge in the making. Frankly, I'm pretty certain this would just result in the Bahamut and the Alexander being scattered over the city, but Zargabaath is resolute, ordering everyone to concentrate fire on the Bahamut's remains once it is clear of the city.

On board the failing hulk, Balthier and Fran hear the announcement over the intercom and ruin their drawers. Balthier makes a mad dash to the PA system, begging, "Wait, wait! I got this! Calm your tits! Oh God please don't kill us!" Ashe comes onto the mic and very calmly asks, "Do you actually have any fucking idea what you're doing in there?" This is a fantastic question! The Bahamut is larger than an aircraft carrier and, Marvel universe notwithstanding, aircraft carriers don't also fly. Yet Balthier seems confident he can fix the world's most advanced and secret technology from the kind of damage that it took the entire Resistance fleet and the indiscriminate bombardment of a nuclear dragon cyborg to inflict, all with nothing but a ratcheting wrench.

Incredibly, it seems the massive glossair rings that let the fortress fly are powered by magical D-batteries, a handful of which Balthier frenziedly replaces, praying to Ultima that following whatever basic instruction placards are posted around the machine room proves enough to get the Death Star up and flying again. For all we know he and Fran have been hauling ass around the ship, tearing panels off and swapping fuses, yelling, "It's got to be one of these! Throw me the open-end!"

Balthier offers one last entreaty to the gods of plot and genre, demanding that his role as the leading man should give him enough plot armor to get out alive. Incredibly, his blasphemous incantations are acknowledged, and the glossair rings light up as they come back online! As the Bahamut begins to lift itself from the Rabanstre paling, the exultant Balthier tells Fran to redirect all power to them so they can get the fuck out of this death trap. Unfortunately, Fran has always been the Black Widow of our would-be Avengers, and when you put Black Widow on a failing Helicarrier, it's only a matter of time before she gets trapped under a pipe like the useless fuck she is. Turning to see that this is exactly what has happened, Balthier gives a hilariously cold, "Really bitch? There was no better time for this?" Sometimes I think the game should have played up Balthier's capacity to be an utter dick to everyone around him, like Alvin in Tales of Xillia. You can't tell me this game wouldn't have been improved if he had, apropos of nothing at all, turned and shot Penelo right in the back, shrugging his shoulders coyly as the party explodes in shock and outrage.

Ashe demands he haul his ass on out of there, suddenly becoming very concerned with his well-being, or at least of the insanely valuable jewelery he's still carrying around. Balthier scoops up the viera failure like a sack of old laundry, and as he carries her away she chooses this moment to tell him that he's in "more of a supporting role." You know, if I was Balthier, and this chick had the audacity to call me a second banana, with a pun, while I was heaving to haul her ass out of an exploding doom fortress over my shoulder, no one would ever see her again. Accidents happen. There's not a jury in the world that wouldn't believe me. If I get lonely for another viera butt-buddy/sidekick, Ktjn is still hanging around Rabanastre somewhere. Or hell, see if Krjn from the clan needs a hunting buddy. That lady's tough, at least. Or- hey! Best yet! See if Mjrn still has the old wanderlust! That'd make the mahogany shrew spin in her grave.

But Balthier can't bring himself to betray that wookiee life debt, and sticks with his old elfbunnygirl buddy to the bitter end. One last transmission comes from within the Bahamut, a stern warning to Vaan to take care of the Strahl for him. Vaan promises, and the party watches as the glossair rings fail, falling away from the massive structure as it crashes into the barren Westersand.


Looking back on the last year, Penelo, sends a letter to Emperor Larsa. her voiceover of this letter serves as the game's epilogue. Now that she's legal (or close enough, in the original Japanese version), she's been bringing in money by "dancing." Rabanastre has more or less gone back to normal, other than the massive wreck of the Bahamut visible from every part of the city. It seems the sky fortress simply stuck into the ground like a lawn dart, leaning there like a cross between the Shinra No. 27 and a dropped colony from the Gundam universe.

It seem the city likes the wreck right where it is, since one of Ashe's first acts as queen was to surround it with a lake, build a fancy bridge over to it, and cover the thing with vegetation, a fantastic use of resources in the middle of a desert. Even if the Bahamut, by pure chance, struck a natural spring and the oasis formed naturally, there is simply way, waaay too much greenery to have formed naturally in a year, especially on every surface of a barren metal wreck. So yes, it looks like the broad's first act as queen was to dump all the corpses out of it and turn it into a Hanging Gardens for her to gawp at from her balcony, a lush reminder to the world of what happens to people who fuck with Dalmasca.

Ashe herself has been cutting ties with the two street rats leading up to her official coronation, growing quickly accustomed to having all her whims sated immediately and without question. Within another year everyone that knew the truth of the war will be dead and she'll be set up as a Kim Il-Sung-style cult of personality, having single-handedly driven off the cowardly Valendian forces and created the oasis of Rabanastre in a majestic wave of her miniskirt.

Over in Valendia, Basch has taken up Gabranth's armor, his title of Judge Magister, and his fucking identity. The idea is that Basch is, and will always be, too marked by his past to live freely and openly, and that revealing Gabranth's death at the battle of Rabanastre would be too dangerous. I don't even have the strength to itemize how drastically fucking stupid this is, but I hope I simply don't have to at this point. Basch, my most earnest desire is that tragedy stalks you to the end of your days, because you will always blithely accept it, and that's exactly what you deserve. You pathetic cunt.

Penelo speculates that Ashe is hiding her wishes to see Basch again, but I know good and well she's playing the long game. Ashe knows all too well what happens when Basch swears to defend something, and with the alleged kingslayer sworn to defend Larsa, Dalmasca needs only wait until they can sort through the cinders of whatever inevitably befalls Archades. With Valendia under her crown, Ashe and Al-Cid Margrace can laze around whichever continent's pleasure domes they feel like that weekend, smashing up all the furniture as they crank out a new Galtean Dynasty.

Zargabaath is probably mad as hell that, as far as he knows, Gabranth is still Judge Magister, and not him. Over thirty years in the Ministry of Law, and some Landis pup manages to not only snipe the top spot out from under him but shit up the works year after year, growing ever more clownish and angry until he comes back from the Dalmascan campaign all stoic and prideful. Thinks he's so cool with his beard and that neat-o scar. Don't worry Zargabaath, I still like you. You should retire and soak up that pension in Bhujerba, drinking up all that famous Madhu wine as an Archadian ambassador to Ondore's realm. Pour one out for Ghis and that magnificent hair.

But the big surprise is that the Strahl has been stolen! Vaan and Penelo had gone in to check on it after servicing, only to find the hangar barren. Left its place is a note, and a small envelope. "Something more valuable: The Cache of Glabados. I await in Bervenia." DUN DUN DUUUUUUNNNN! And on the back, "Give this to our Queen for me, will you?" From out of the envelope slides an elegant ring. It occurs to me upon seeing it that the ring is massive; it looks like the One Ring held in Isildur's palm, taken from Sauron's very finger. Ashe must have the hands of a Dullahan! I do wonder about one small detail: Ashe sets the ring upon the table, rather than putting it back on. Is this supposed to symbolize her moving on from the past? Hmm.

But with the bait laid for Vaan and Penelo, the two are heading out in their own airship to chase after Balthier and Fran. I don't know how they got their own airship. Did they get an equal share of the hundreds of thousands of gil the party had at the conclusion of the game? Does it pay, indeed, to have a friend on the throne? Did they just shank some poor bastard in Nalbina and fly away in a hail of bullets? No matter. With their sights set on the horizon, the two fledgling sky pirates head to parts unknown to kick of the plot of Revenant Wings.

And that, as they say, is that. I have some things left to say about the game, but the narrative is concluded at long last, and the Let's Play portion of our journey is concluded.

I have one more post left to write, and there in I will have a nice sit down, peel off my boots, and pull all of my impressions together- which, after all, was what I had initially set out to do when I first started putting this together nearly a year ago. There will be vitriol, yes. But I do have a lot of positive things to say about the game that didn't come out over the course of the narrative. I do still very much like Final Fantasy XII- or, at least, I like the idea of it very much. I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't.

I couldn't have put this kind of effort out for a game that I thought didn't have great potential to fulfill, like XIII. Nor would I have seen fit to do so for a game that managed to largely fulfill its potential, like- thankfully!- most Final Fantasy games have. It is in this awkward space, in which the reality of the title and the fullness of its possibilities are divorced, yet close enough that the sparks of your imagination may jump freely from one to the next, that Final Fantasy XII sits.

I suppose, as they say, that there are no "other words." My journey through Ivalice in 706 Old Valendian does and must stand for itself. But in my next and final post I will try to distill somewhat my total and final thoughts on an imperfect but remarkable game. Among them: its handling and mishandling of its thematic endeavors; its characters, for good and for ill; its place in an old and storied series; and, indeed, its place in its very setting of Ivalice, and the shocking implications of its presence within it.

To be concluded.

You should consider doing another one of these once you conclude. You've got a talent for comedic writing that I would hate to never see again.


Two Masters

Final Fantasy XII holds the distinction of being both a main-line Final Fantasy title and an entrant into what is now called the "Ivalice Alliance," a group of games- not necessarily Final Fantasy games, even- that take place in the Ivalice setting. Prior to Final Fantasy XII, the only games set in Ivalice had been Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the latest of which was stated to not even be Ivalice in truth.

These three games vary greatly from one another in location, gameplay, and setting, yet in all three we see some primary characteristics develop through the constant involvement of key creators, chief among them Yasumi Matsuno, who created the setting. Most importantly, a sort of narrative and thematic framework was established.

The tendency of these Ivalician games is, in itself, not out of line with the expectations of Square's body of work. Many Final Fantasy games can be said to follow a reliable narrative structure of "B, A, D, B, A."

What I mean by that gibberish is that at the beginning of the game, we are introduced, often in medias res, to a "B" plot. The characters' immediate circumstances are affected by these events, and compel them to action for personal reasons. Most often, this is an invasion: Palamecia, Baron, Vector, etc. Or it could be the destruction of the crystals, as in FFV, or Shinra and mako power. The B plot, though, is not and, I believe, should not be "lesser;" often, they are, in themselves, a worthy conflict for a game in their own right.

Yet, early on in attempting to resolve this B plot, an "A" plot of different stakes is discovered. Though I say the B plot need not be lesser, the A plot tends to supplant it as the primary motivation of the narrative, and does indeed tend to provide the greater threat. Jenova and Sephiroth, Kuja, even Chaos from the very first game fill this role.

Often, once both plots have been firmly established, a major event- the Destruction even- occurs. This serves as the nadir of the plot, a great victory for the enemy that lays the cast low, and may greatly change the nature of the conflict. These events tend to come in both macro and micro forms, one of which alters the setting and the nature of the conflict, and the other, which affects the party personally. They may or may not occur together in a single stroke; the razing of Alexandria by Bahamut serves both purposes in IX, as does the ruining of the world by Kefka. Otherwise, they can occur out of sync: FFV had the death of Galuf, followed later by the rejoining of the planets, which served these purposes, and in FFVII with the death of Aeris and the summoning of Meteor.

Rising from this, the party makes their final assault to resolve the A plot, while the B plot either works itself out in the course of events or is dealt with in tandem. Before the Northern Cavern is assaulted, all of Shinra's leadership is dead. Vector is wiped out by the midpoint of the game. Golbez and Edea are remove from play.

And, finally, the A plot is resolved. The villain is slain, the decay of the world is solved, and the world returns to peace.

Ivalician games take this familiar framework and modify it to a somewhat more specialized purpose. While the transition from B plot to A plot serves as a stakes-raising device in both cases, in Ivalice, it also serves to introduce a conspiracy, a threat that relies on the B plot to take proper advantage. In Tactics, this is the Lucavi using the War of the Lions as a cover for the resurrection of their leader. In Vagrant Story, the story seems to be Müllenkamp's attempt to sieze the Gran Grimoire, but in reality it turns out to be a scheme by Sydney to pass the Dark onto someone who will not fall to its corruption. And in FFTA, Marche, in the course of building up his clan, discovers that the very world he inhabits is an illusion created by Mewt's wishes.

Ivalice also tends toward a focus on corruption, and the use of power. This was the bread and the butter of Final Fantasy Tactics, and features into the prime motivations in Vagrant Story and Tactics Advance as well. The corrupt seek and abuse power, while the righteous are mistrustful of power and use it only to satisfy appropriate ends. And in the end, the corrupt are lost to the power they sought: the Lucavi steal men's minds and souls, and the Dark cannot be truly controlled by one who desires it, and controls them in turn.

But the Ivalician theme of conspiracy differs most from its contemporaries in how it affects the protagonist and their place in the world. The protagonist begins unenlightened, knowing of the B plot, and breaking into the A plot requires tremendous personal sacrifice. Ramza Beoulve, in cutting the true path through the War of the Lions and the Lucavi revolution, is permanently alienated from society. Ashley Riot becomes traitor to his order and, having been chosen as the worthy successor of the Blood-Sin tattoo, is set apart from humanity forever. Marche becomes the enemy of the world, and is known as an outlaw and a madman to the nation by the end.

Yet righteousness is shown to be, in itself, a kind of reward, and the hero, in prevailing over a world of corruption, is granted a measure of peace by it. Ramza escapes with his sister while Delita, having become king, is betrayed by Ophelia and forced to slay her. Those who sought the Dark all end up dead, and Ashley becomes the Vagrant, full heir to the Blood-Sin tattoo, and able to truly command it while maintaining his purity and sanity. Marche brings his friends through the crucible in Ivalice, and they return to the real world having matured and learned to appreciate their own lives. Ostensibly. FFTA is somewhat problematic.

Yet, there is often very little resolution to the stories; conspiracy and mystery must go hand in hand, and the endings of these stories have to be taken with a measure of faith and hope by the audience.

Ramza Beoulve and his retinue depart into the unknown, foraying into a world that will remember him as a heretic and a traitor for all time. The audience can believe that he and his sister found happiness, but we are shown time and again what becomes of his kind, and in Ivalice, it is not happy. Only that his doom goes unrecorded by history provides a hope that his ending was in any way happy. But we can never know.

We are told at the end of Vagrant Story that Ashley has tasked himself with correcting the Dark's awful effects wherever they have cropped up, and wanders the world as a Vagrant, setting no roots down and living as a pariah. Did he, though cursed, ever manage to improve the world? Did he die terribly in his life of struggle? Who inherited the Dark upon his passing? If it passed to someone unworthy or abusive- those who would seek it most- all of Sydney's efforts and the suffering of Ashley would have been for nothing. But we can never know.

In Tactics Advance, we see that the children have gained a measure of maturity and strength from their tenure in Ivalice. But the reason they needed that strength was that their lives were unhappy, and there is only the smallest promise given that that will change afterward, particularly for Mewt, who comes from a poor family with an alcoholic father, and for Doned, who will be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. The game implies that, regardless of whether their lots in life improve, they will be prepared to deal with it. But we can never know.

Final Fantasy XII attempts to draw upon the full measure of these themes. Its attempts to succeed its predecessors as the custodian of Ivalice in its present is visible in every part of it, and its failures to live up to most of them are the game's largest, yet often least visible problems.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Final Fantasy XII has an incredible cast of characters. Everywhere one goes in the Ivalice of 706 Old Valendian can one encounter characters who have a fascinating reality to them, who are memorable and interesting, who want things and have their own lives. Some of these are nameless peasants you will meet once. Some are prime movers in the plot whom you will rely upon constantly. None of them are in the player's party.

Yes, as it has been pointed out so many times, certainly not first by me, the main party of this game leaves much to be desired. But its primary shortcoming is in how alien they seem in the world. In truth, I think the conflict comes down to this: Ashe, Basch, Balthier, Fran, Vaan, and Penelo are characters from a more traditionally "Final Fantasy" world inhabiting a world that is otherwise thoroughly Ivalician, and the friction between these two inconsistent elements constantly introduces problems that the game does not know how to address and may not even realize exist.

This, ultimately, is the chief problem with the game: the world knows that the main characters of the game are the main characters of the game, and bends over backwards to accommodate them. It is the problem people had with Vaan writ large upon the setting. People point out that Vaan had no real reason to serve as the main character, yet the game seemed to accommodate him in this respect nonetheless. This happens constantly in regards to how the larger setting treats the party and their role in the world. In the three previous Ivalice games, we see that the protagonists play a direct and active role in the primary events of the game, yet Final Fantasy XII seems to set up a very standard narrative separate from and parallel to the main background narrative, which is managed by the adults while we, the kids, dick around.

I can understand why that happened; there is precedent for it. In all three of its predecessors, the A Plot is a mystery to the world at large, and the B plot can stand as its own set of events without them. The populace need not know of the Lucavi Revolution; the War of the Lions works fine on its own. Same as the Müllenkamps' terrorist/cult actions regarding Duke Bardorba and Leá Monde, and with Marche's revolt against King Mewt. But what these games do well is use our vantage point as the protagonist of these stories to demonstrate just how false this appearance is, and how the events in question could never have occurred without the underlying machinations and, indeed, how they could have never turned out correctly without the intervention of the protagonists.

Yet Final Fantasy XII goes out of its way to use this vantage point demonstrating that our actions in the game have only the most tangential and incidental, even accidental relationship with the "other narrative," which is so detached from our actions as to be the background of our quest rather than the environment of it. As pointed out by Venat at the end of the game, the party does not even upset its plans entirely; our greatest effect on the overall plot is the destruction of the 8th Fleet, which we did not even intend to accomplish and which may have occurred had we not even been present- as I'll point out later. Beyond that one glancing, though significant, impact, the war against the Empire proceeds totally indifferent to our actions, managed by Ondore, who is the constant MVP of Team Good.

Ramza, Ashley, and Marche all serve as both hero and participant in equal capacity. What sets these characters apart from everyone else involved is their character- their values and beliefs, which elevate them beyond their dark times. And it is in this fashion that these games, in such a quintessentially Ivalician fashion, demonstrate the worth of these qualities. It was not any special power or place in the world that granted Ramza or Delita the role that they took in the plot. If anything, they fight constantly against their own shortcomings in these regards. It is, uniquely, their desires and character that empower them- and it is through the demonstrated motive power of these things that the worth of these values is emphasized; the idea that in a crisis, a man's heart and morals, over all things, will elevate him to victory or crash him to ruin.

Yet while the rest of the plot beyond our characters is one of intrigue and scheming, ours is a time-worn tale of fate-chosen heroes collecting Items of Power, proving their worth through trials, and fulfilling a predestined role as the slayer of evil. We, oblivious of the struggles of the chattel, carry on our heroic quest, and they, lesser creatures, occupy themselves with their petty war for lack of any ability to do otherwise until we deem it fit for our attention and resolve it effortlessly.

A lot of these things in the game may seem excusable to most observers. "Of course the party succeeds. They must, or there would be no plot." No. This is an extremely lazy way of telling a story, and to use it gracelessly, like a cudgel, is all too common in this game: a given task is either easy or impossible, depending on whether the player characters or the enemy is attempting it.

More importantly, it runs counter to the single most important theme of the game: self-determination. How can we take seriously any promotion of choosing your own fate and refusing to be ruled by circumstance, when the only reason the plot exists is because the characters were fated to win or lose, even when they didn't deserve it?

History's Tangled Skein

Final Fantasy XII, likely through the struggles of its long development and constant rewrites, struggles even to get the basics of its "B A D B A" structure down. I am NOT implying that this structure is somehow important, or even needs to be present at all. It is not, and does not. But it is in half-heartedly attempting to introduce it, and failing to do so, that twists the backbone of the plot into lameness.

The B plot of the game is, as it so often is, the invasion of the Empire. The main characters are their enemy, and coalesce together in the struggle against it. Later, the A plot is introduced: human history, since time immemorial, has been guided by the hands of the Occuria, alien and unknowable beings of inconceivable power, who, from time to time, grant weapons of unopposable might to those who would enforce their will on the world. What's more, one of them has gone rogue and is actively aiding the Empire. This is a great setup. I have no issue with it, and in fact I like it very much. It establishes early on so many of the essential Ivalician themes: power and the responsibility of the mighty, hidden mystic agendas behind a time of mortal turmoil, and the triumph of the protagonist's will, that willingness to determine one's own fate in a world in which they are expected to merely play a part in the games of the mighty.

The "Destruction event" is not even a constant of the structure, but I think Final Fantasy XII has one: the destruction of the 8th Fleet over Jagd Yensa. Yes, this is a disaster for the enemy, and that does make it very different from the standard. But it serves the same role in the overall plot: it acts as a sudden, spectacular catalyst for the events that will bring on the endgame. The destruction of the fleet teaches us the immense power of nethicite, impels Ondore to gather the Resistance at last, and pushes Vayne into seizing power over Archadia. Perfectly well. But our party seemed to have nothing to do with it. What gives the destruction even its weight is both its effects on the world and that it represents a failure on the part of the player characters. It isn't that Kefka seized the warring triad, or that Sephiroth murdered Aeris. It's that you were right there, and you couldn't do a damn thing to stop it. In the skies over Jagd Yensa, the plot suddenly and unexpectedly kicks into high gear, and the player characters can only whistle through their teeth and wonder what the shit just happened.

The resolution of the B plot is the halt of the Imperial forces and the end of the war. Vayne, Cid, and Venat are slain, and the Ministry of Law is all but dismantled. Rozarria and Archades will not war over the realm, and Dalmasca and Bhujerba regain independence. ("Landis and Nabradia can go fuck themselves. Got mine, bitches!" -Queen Ashelia B. Dalmasca, 707 O.V.) Archadia is Larsa's to rule. Again, these are perfectly acceptable outcomes.

No, here is the primary problem with the structure: The A Plot is never resolved. No part of the staggering revelations, which entirely overshadow and underpin all of the mundane struggles of the plot, are addressed. The Empire still knows how to manufacture nethicite. Rozarria will want it. Deifacted nethicite may still exist in Giruvegan, and the Occuria may have any number of alternate plans or weapons that we know nothing of and have no defense against. This is important, because the Occuria, who still desire control of history, who we know nearly nothing of, who overpower all the nations of men, still wait within Giruvegan. And our party, their would-be agents on the earth, defied and insulted them in the boldest manner possible.

This is not only unresolved, but unaddressed. The game completely forgets that the Occuria existed. They are not treated as a looming threat, to be feared, but as totally unworthy of attention and remembrance. This is like defeating Shinra while Sephiroth still sleeps deep under the earth, and just going back to business as usual, as if matters were settled. It leaves an extremely uncomfortable feeling of dissonance and unease for the player, knowing that the Undying are simply looming in their city like Meteor in the sky, and no one pays it any mind when they should be shaking in their boots, glad to have dispensed with the small potatoes when the main threat- in truth, the real threat- has nothing left stopping it from taking the harshest possible measures.

But here's the main problem: the party has no role in wrapping the B Plot up, either. At the end of the day, the entire B Plot is handled by Ondore and the Resistance. The only thing the party has to do while the weight of the world rests on our Bhujerban compatriot is to deal with the Occuria and the A Plot. Which is never resolved. The main cast, already sequestered so completely from the narrative, accomplishes absolutely nothing of substance.

In the previous Ivalice games, we are left to hope at an ambiguous resolution because it contributed to the feeling of mystery, and of the mortality of the characters. We have our glimpse, our special and invaluable insight into a fascinating turning point in history, and beyond it lies an enigma. The main characters do not slip away because the narrative doesn't care about them, but because they care about. Theirs was a crucial part to play in the plot, but once it was done, they went on to whatever life was left to them. Their lives are uncertain because our lives are uncertain, and even if we, as they had, strive for our ideals and dreams, our futures are no less perilous. Yet still, we are assured that, regardless of what the outcome was, the endeavor was worthy, and right. And in years to come, our time, like their time, will slowly fade, because we are small, and time never stops.

But the cast of Final Fantasy XII receives an unambiguously happy ending. Basch kind of got fucked over, but that's the only way Basch can raise wood. The heroes of the game receive unambiguous fairy tale endings, because they are unambiguous, larger than life, fairy tale heroes. But once again, the world does not accommodate this, because it is not a fairy tale world, and they do not fit into it... But more on that later.

Of course, the reason that simply blowing off the Occuria seems foolish is because the Occuria are an epic and imminent threat. Right? Well...

The Gods Must be Lazy

The villains of Final Fantasy XII are a constant weak point of a generally weak narrative. And this is a significant problem! A plot needs a good antagonist. If the antagonist is incompetent, the conflict is trivial. If the conflict is trivial, there's no tension. And in a game, the enemy needs to appear a legitimate threat to the main characters, or there is no value in overcoming them. A narrative about a good guy versus a bad guy, minus the bad guy, is a farce. And Final Fantasy XII has no bad guy worth the players' time.

We are told the Empire is unopposable, and our sextet battles them regularly without difficulty. Imperials are some of the least challenging enemies in the game, since they are typically battled in sequences that the party cannot easily escape, and must therefore be toned down so an underpowered player does not become stuck. So the forces of the Empire are frequently demonstrated to be incompetent. The party regularly strikes down the most powerful members of the Imperial war pavilion, whom we are told are some of the greatest warriors in the realm. So their leadership is demonstrated to be all talk. At the final battle, it really does appear as though the Resistance Fleet managed to destroy the Bahamut, the ultimate magitech weapon of nethicite abuse, on their own as we assassinated Vayne. Which would make our involvement in the plot farcical. It is not impossible that Vayne and Venat's actions somehow affected the Bahamut adversely, but this is not indicated in any way. As a physical threat, the game undermines our enemy at every opportunity.

We are told that Cid and Vayne are brilliant, and their actions frequently make no sense and make life difficult for them. Their entire plan- to use the deifacted nethicite to power the Bahamut and use it as a Death Star- relies only upon their using the Sun-Cryst with the Daylight Shards. If they do need all three of them for this, then they would also need to retrieve the Shard our party possesses. If they accomplish these tasks, the Empire wins. They never seek to accomplish these tasks with even the remotest sense of urgency, and, in fact, wait until the latest, most dangerous time to attempt any part of it. To their credit, they do seize the Midlight Shard before the game even begins. But apparently Vayne knows that the Dusk Shard is held in Rabanastre Palace, and it goes undisturbed for two entire years, gathering dust in a storeroom? Sure, it was hidden away, but the fact remains that Vayne, schemer extraordinaire, and Cid, mad genius, were thwarted because they could not open a closet. They gain the Dusk Shard only because the party, entirely through chance, had it with them when they were captured by Ghis the first time.

So they wanted the Midlight Shard badly enough to invade Landis and Nabradia for it, then waited two years for the Dusk Shard to literally fall into their laps. What of the Dawn Shard? Did they never seek it? It's possible that they simply didn't know where it was, hidden away in Raithwall's Tomb. Yet, I find this unlikely. Ashe knows, and she was 17 when Dalmasca fell. Has she just known all of the Dalmascan royal secrets since since she was a toddler, or are there others in Dalmasca who would have known? Wouldn't the Empire have interrogated everyone they could have and perused any documents they could find? Ideally yes, but again, easily thwarted by locked storerooms, sooo... Cid seems to know all about the nethicite; indeed, he must know, since his entire plan is to use them for the Bahamut. Even if they didn't know, the Tomb of Raithwall seems to be an ideal place to look.

But while they may not have known themselves, they certainly knew enough to follow us there and ambush us on our way out. Vossler probably told Ghis of our intentions before he even reconnoitered with us in Ogir-Yensa. Why didn't they do it themselves, then? We had to walk across the entire desert to get to the tomb, when they could have simply flown out and gotten there first. And it's not like only the party can enter. As long as you can survive the trip to the basement, you get the Shard, and an Esper to boot. So if the Empire had the chance, why not get it themselves? Apparently, they expected our party of six people, half of them teenagers, to be able to succeed. So were they, with the might of the Empire, unable? If they couldn't handle the tomb, why should we take them seriously? Either they were too weak or too stupid to succeed in their plans.

But sure, we accomplish their work for them. Then get captured, and the Stone is stolen. And the Empire blows themselves up. It's a cut-and-dry, "My evil has overtaken my intelligence" show of Ghis' own conniving doing himself in and taking out the entire 8th Fleet with him. And we have no reason to think that this wouldn't have happened without us there to observe... so the destruction of the Fleet, the most important event in the overall plot, is one that we had no real effect on. Why are we here? What does the party matter to this story?

The only thing the party does which matters is to snipe the Shard from the ashes and delay Cid's plan even longer. We are able to do this because the main party were the only people who fled the explosion, and were the only people who survived. Yes, the main party really is smarter than every member of the 8th Fleet.

So, the enemy's attempt to seize the Dawn Shard failed. What's their next attempt? There is none. Our party is never pursued again. The next time anyone in the Empire goes looking for us, it will be Vayne sending Gabranth after us as a practical joke. We run into Larsa by chance, and thereafter into Bergan as he comes after Larsa. We deliver ourselves directly to Archades and escape unimpeded. Why, we even run into Cid, who directs us to Giruvegan. This is interesting, because he directs us to the Occuria only because he knows they will direct us to the Pharos, where he needs us, apparently.

Yes, the Empire is going to bide their time and let us take the Dawn Shard to the Pharos while they wait to accomplish the next phase. They never again make any effort to pursue their own goals by pursuing us directly. And in the end, it works: once atop the Pharos, we literally drop the Dawn Shard on the floor and Cid picks it up. As usual, the Empire has conceived of the worst plan in the world, and it has worked somehow.

The only way this makes sense is if, once again, they need us to get through the Pharos for them, and this simply cannot be true. If it was true, then it would simply be the problem of the Tomb once again: our six guys are smart and strong enough to do it, but not the entire Empire. But no, they demonstrably do not need us to reach the Sun-Cryst, since they simply meet us at the top. They had to have flown up. There is zero alternative. I cannot believe for a second that Gabranth quietly shadowed us up 100 stories of the Pharos, while Cid quietly shadowed him in the exact same way. Gabranth, at least, must have fled from the peak by airship. There's no other way he could have survived, unkillable though he seems.

Yet, what happens isn't really any better. The enemy demonstrates that they could have proceeded with their plans at any moment they chose, and not only did they never attempt to do so for no reason whatsoever, they chose to wait until their most dangerous opponents had the greatest chance to intercede.

Even at that, their plan to let six buff people take on the Pharos and deliver the Dawn Shard for them would only be "necessary" if they needed all three stones for their plan to work. And I don't believe that they would. For one, the Dawn, Dusk, and Midlight Shards don't require each other to work; they aren't a matched set or anything. They're just the three stones that Raithwall chose to cut a thousand years past. If all Cid is doing is using them to siphon power from the Sun-Cryst, why didn't he? He demonstrates that he can travel freely to the Sun-Cryst, so did he ever attempt to use the Dusk and Midlight Shards on their own? Wouldn't that work just as well to siphon energy from the Sun-Cryst, just maybe to a lesser extent or at a slower rate? Did they have no other ideas besides the Bahamut, which may indeed have needed all three to power?

Vayne and Cid are made out to be geniuses, yet they have the worst plan they could come up with, and execute it in the most time-consuming, risky, and dangerous way possible, during which time they pursue no other options, no matter how simple, easy, or obvious. Bowser would tell them they suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. Fuck, Bowser can at least kidnap a Princess correctly.

Yet, here's what pulls the rug right out from under even what little the Empire has: Venat. They have an Occuria on their side. He's the one that taught Cid how to make nethicite, and inspired Vayne to use its power to seize Ivalice. He is literally the driving force behind the enemy, and not only should he know literally everything about the Stones anyone cared to ask him- including where all of them are- but he can warp anywhere in the world and has powers of clairvoyance that enable him to monitor our own party's actions and locations at all times. It is he that tells Vayne and Cid that the party had met with the Occuria at Giruvegan, and it must have been he that could even have known the Ashe would be the Occuria's new choice for Dynast-Queen. Otherwise, even their shockingly terrible plan could not have formed. Additionally, Venat, as an Undying, is so powerful that no foe on earth could hope to stand to its power, and any obstacle Cid and Vayne faced could have simply been blasted into ashes by Venat.

Now, I anticipate the obvious argument against this: Venat, in his own fashion, believes that it is not his place to act in lieu of the humans. Venat believes in the self-determination of mortalkind; it was her reason for betraying the other Occuria, and it might simply be against her principles to take the reins. Teaching Cid and Vayne the truth of the world's nature and granting them the knowledge of nethicite is enough to even the playing field, and anything beyond that would be mankind's burden to shoulder.


(cont'd below)


Power Underwhelming

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.

Well, I think that deserves a standing ovation. What a spectacular review of a spectacular mess of a game. Perhaps it's time to dust off the PS2 and finally finish this, what may well be the last good Final Fantasy game...

So I finally got around to putting this into a PDF, so if you've been waiting for that and don't want to read along in a forum, the alternative exists now.

Unless I find a filehosting service that is both free AND non-skeezy, just PM me and I'll send it to whoever wants it.

Like Alhazred already said above, if anything on the internet deserves a standing ovation, this most certainly does. Sadly, I don't have the equipment to record me doing so, so I hope that you'll be willing to take my word for it.

It's really not possible to overstate just how wowed I am by this labor of love/ire. Out of curiosity, I tried to copy and paste Rocketeer's ...essay? editorial? large body of words into a word processor so I could get an exact word and page-count. However, once the document broke 50 pages and started to chug, I figured that a rough estimation might suffice.

Still, let's make one thing clear: Even if I couldn't count them all, I read almost every single god damn word of this masterpiece. And I enjoyed it. The writing was smooth, understandable, and fucking delicious to swallow, chock full of worthwhile ideas and brilliant arguments. Final Fantasy VII was a game I played for all of two weeks, nearly six years ago, and since then I haven't given it a second thought. At least, not until I spotted this in the Escapist forums. Now I don't think I'll ever see it the same way again.

Thanks, TheRocketeer. This was absolutely amazing.

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