Margaret Robertson

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I resent having to write this column. I resent being on a train on the way a conference that I also resent. I resent the pretty song that’s playing on my phone. I resent the way the sun is breaking through the clouds. I resent the nice second breakfast I’ll be enjoying in an hour, I resent all the nice people I’m about to meet and all the interesting conversations I’m about to have. Sod the lot of you. I could be at home playing Final Fantasy XII.


This is not rational. For once, I’ve already played FFXII. Twice, in fact – once in Japanese and once in American. Pretty much the same stuff happened each time. And while it’s always a pretty place to be, the way I’m playing it now – running it through a PS3 so I can be wireless – means that it’s letterboxed and smeared across a fraction of my telly’s unco-operative screen. There are dozens of newer games I could – should – be playing instead.


And more than rational, it’s downright dangerous. I love FFXII with a fierceness which would daunt a nursing lioness, but the more time I spend with it, the more opportunities there are to notice its few shortcomings.

The puzzles really are dreadful, it will surprise no-one to hear. The story occasionally fractures under the strain of obeying simple logic, let alone credible character arcs. The more you ogle the cut-scenes, the more you are infected with creeping dread that Balthier might actually be wearing slingbacks. It gets harder and harder to ignore the oddly saurian ridges that fan out along Vaan’s spine.

The rest, though, is pure magic. Majestic and brave, Final Fantasy XII is operatic not just in its plot and setting, but in the way the game itself is a story of doomed defiance. It wasn’t opposing a controlling father, a disapproving church or a unscrupulous officer, but its spirited rejection of random battles, of the supremacy of leveling and of line-dancing combat was well worth an aria or two. Its characters, too – vivid, charismatic and mature – steered the series away from the pubescent angst that has so often been its stock in trade. It’s efforts were far from universally welcomed, but for those of us who had long felt that Final Fantasy was a series shackled, rather than supported, by its past, it was a revelation.


Surely, then, I’m being hard on myself to say it’s irrational to want to pull a sickie to spend the day in bed with an eight-foot bunny-girl and some steam-punk surfers? The thing is, Final Fantasy XII has a secret – a wonderful, but confusing secret: it plays itself.

One of its innovations is the Gambit system, a modular control mechanic which lets you set the conditions and priorities which define the behaviour of your team. If you like, you can set of them all to automatic and simply sit back and watch them spray pretty bouquets of laser death around them as they explore. So, madness. Why stay home to replay an old game that doesn’t even need me to be there?


Steam engines, that why. Steam engines and pipe organs. I don’t think anyone can stand next to something like that and not be struck with wonder and fascination. Simply getting to watch a complex and beautiful machine do its stuff is captivating. What FFXII does is give you the chance to build that machine, and then stand by like proud parent and watch it go. Tweaking Gambits lets you take incremental steps towards perfection. Each time you try a new technique or set a new priority you get closer to the ultimate goal of being a perpetual killing machine, a super-efficient, zero-emission, friction-free engine of domination.

This preparing, witnessing and fixing loop is one of the most compelling I’ve encountered in games, I think. It’s what gives FFXII the edge over other games that play themselves. Much as I love Progress Quest, there is a teensy limit on the amount of credit I can take for the successes I’ve had over the years.


Witnessing is crucial, too. I think one of the reasons that Duels never got its claws into me is that – especially in the bad old, pre-animation days – you never really got to sit back and bask in the glory of your own might. And I loved the idea of Forza‘s Drivatar, which could drive for you when you couldn’t be bothered, but there were no quick fixes there: if you wanted it to race better for you, you needed to get better yourself.

Conceive a plan, test it, amend it. The reason FFXII is so narcotic is that, at its heart, it’s basically the scientific method, dressed up in biker boots and a leather crop-top. And so, as its siren song lures me back, I shan’t resist. It’s not skiving. It’s learning.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can’t stop going back to.]

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  1. Over 40 hours of gameplay and I was still BEGGING this game to do what every other great Final Fantasy game does… TELL ME A STORY. It was pretty adamant in its refusal to do so.

    Good article, though.

  2. Have you tried changing your upscale settings in the XMB to alleviate the picture problems? It’s under Settings > Game Settings > PS/PS2 Upscaler. Turning it off usually helps if the in-game (PS button) menu doesn’t work.

  3. I use the term “bladed enigma of death” to signify that point in an RPG where you crest the power curve and the game splays out before you as so much delectable XP just waiting to be harvested from the steaming corpses of things that were once your enemies and are now merely afterthoughts on the ends of your weapons.

    Games that do this spectacularly earn extra credit.

  4. doctorzizmore

    great article, i never really thought of the game in this way before. it’s the only modern FF that i have never finished. i always felt like it was too hard, like i was missing some crucial piece of knowledge that would suddenly make the combat fun. but it never happened. the game was a grind for the whole 40 hours i played it. then i hit the plant dragon and decided i had had enough. which is a shame because i did like everything else about the game.

    someday i’ll get a players guide, move the PS2 next to my bed and finish it.

  5. I wasn’t sure what a slingback was so I did a quick google image search.

    Those are definitely slingbacks.

  6. It’s funny, because the ‘guy’ trying to shop in the first seconds of the video reminds me powerfully of Knuckles, the Sonic character.

  7. Inverse Square

    Your articles seem to alternate between being about great, thoughtful games and power fantasies, sometimes overlapping. I never thought of the automatic aspect of FF12 as a great idea, though like you I played it more than I should have. Penny Arcade put there finger on the obviously good aspect of it, which is that most of the “gameplay” of jRPGs is spent going through the motions of implementing a strategy, while FF12 sorts it out for you.

    I don’t think that FF12 in any way made the most of it though. You make a great point about how it allows you to focus and experiment with your strategy, but you’ve forgotten to mention that there isn’t any strategy. I’m not being rude or anything, there just isn’t. If you’ve done enough grinding to fight a boss, you’ll pretty much be able to beat him no matter what your approach. If you haven’t, then you won’t. Even the levelling system (the “license board”) has the pretention to giving you lots of choice, but you can beat the game no matter what you do with it.

    However, the battles and the system are still appealing. I agree with you exactly on how that appeal is presented, but I think the core of the game is not strategy. It is a combination of power fantasy and obsessive compulsion – and now I’m being rude. I refined my automatic approach a lot, not because I was losing, but because things felt slightly better in a certain way. Sometimes it was about efficiency, trying to take away wasted time, which was sometimes useful I guess. But often I’d use up half a character’s instructions on a tiny exception to their behaviour that didn’t help me at all.

    My point is that this made me feel engaged and satisfied for really bad reasons, ones that were never intended to make my experience compelling. What’s more annoying from an philosophical standpoint is exhibited by the fact that the battles last as long as ever they did. If the designers really cared about strategy and streamlining, the battles would speed up, because the time spent playing it out is pointless. But it’s kept in, and why? Because the whole thing is still about power fantasy, about looking at the cool people on the screen and pretending to be them, because you control them.

    (By the way though, if you’re interested in the gameplay of FF12 and ways in which a glimmer of thought can be squeezed out of it, would recommend watching the “No License Board, Low Level Game” videos They worked out some clever stuff, and some funny bugs. The game hasn’t been completed, but Yiazmat and Omega have been defeated, although I wouldn’t recommend checking those ones out. It reflects depressingly on the lives of the people who worked it out.

  8. I thought the best part of FF XII was its sidequests. I had more fun hunting down “The Man of Mystery,” Gilgamesh, than I did with any point of the story. (That segment was ridiculously awesome fan service for fans of FF V, but I digress.)

    I loved turning my characters into automated killing machines, and I thought the concept of creating a giant, cohesive world you could run around in full 3D was a nice change of pace.

    FF XII’s biggest weakness is that it’s so vast and so action-oriented that its own story gets lost in the process. The game is bigger than the events that shape it, and there’s never a real sense of urgency to anything other than the few places where you must advance the story to move on. Even there, you can sit and level your guys up for as long as you want before you move on. They really should have focused less on the politics and more on the adventures of Balthier and Fran, which were easily the most intriguing part of the game.

    But, since XIII looks like it’s going to be another Tetsuya Nomura hack job where you’ve got cool characters and ideas in a bewildering, convoluted mess of a plot, I guess I can’t complain about XII too much.

  9. I too have a fascination with the Gambit system. Is there another game out there that has a similar system I might enjoy?

  10. This game has ruined me for all others. I loved the Persona series but after playing this I was plauged by the though “dammit, it they’d let me set gambits for the NPC party members I would rule this game!”

    Personally, I think setting your own AI in a rpg is a brilliant idea in party based rpgs that want to evolve. Imagine a game where you had not only a WOW style level of real time control over a character of you choice and a “gambited” party. This would allow you to most fully immerse yourself in the action like an shooter (RE5 would be a great place to implement this mechanic)as well as bask in the party building strategy of the rpg world. and you could do it all without ever wondering if the AI characters were smarter than you and thats why you were winnning.

    as video games are slowly allowing us to more and more control the nuances of our characters then I believe that based on those trends this may be the most important and overlooked innovation in video games in many years!

    much love to Squaresoft

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