To call Final Fantasy in the early 2000s “experimental” would be an understatement. The advent of the Playstation 2 meant that developers were no longer content with leaving the franchise beholden to the constraints of previous generations. With this newfound ambition, mainline FF titles would move away from the series’s classic design philosophy with each new entry.

Final Fantasy XII, more than any other entry, was lambasted for being considered too radical a departure from the franchise’s staple formula. However, I believe it to be the only game that perfectly captured the classic essence while bringing it to a modern standard, and it did so long before that standard existed.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age | Square Enix

REDEFINING THE WORLD MAP

At the core of the Final Fantasy’s experience is exploration, the feeling of being introduced to a large world and slowly unraveling its mysteries as you travel. The World Map system is instrumental in giving this grand sense of scale to the player. Through it, players can progress from town to town, dungeon to dungeon, etc. Tried and true as this concept is, it would be abandoned after the release of FFIX.

FFX can be seen as the first real departure from the series’s staple gameplay formula. It heavily streamlined the experience by introducing a linearly progressing overworld, hardly allowing players the freedom to explore. Almost as a response to FFX, it was decided that FFXII would be an open-world from its inception.

The seamless open-world was designed with the intent to allow exploration without always forcing the player to go where the story needed them to go.

Takashi Katano: We didn’t really want to limit players in any way, even if they found exploits. We wanted them to find these things and enjoy them. That’s part of the discovery of the game: Finding those little shortcuts and exploits that you can do. It feels good, and we wanted them to feel that way.

While most FF titles simply gave the illusion of freedom through their world maps, as many of these games were still quite linear themselves, FFXII’s staff was sparing no expense at immersing the player. Where other FF titles would quickly pull the reins if players went too far off the story path, FFXII beckoned the player, daring them to discover its secrets. This sense of freedom can be found in every aspect of FFXII’s design.

Reaching Nabudis Early | FFXII: The Zodiac Age | Square Enix

A testament to FFXII’s player freedom requires you to look no further than the original release of FFXII. At about 1/3 of the way through the game, you’ll be able to access an optional dungeon, the Necrohol of Nabudis. If you’ve been careful about opening chests, and have made it into the Necrohol (a feat in itself as you’ll be severely underleveled), you’ll be able to grab the Zodiac Spear, a powerful weapon that almost trivializes the rest of the game, very early. The game does not hint at this being an option, it was discovered because players had the curiosity to explore, and the game facilitated that curiosity.

This is still only scratching the surface of what makes FFXII’s open-world so revolutionary. What many don’t know is that FFXII operates on a real-time dynamic weather system. With the change in weather also comes a change in creatures spawned, and even gameplay effects (ex. Thunder spells being stronger in rain, or ranged accuracy being reduced in wind). Monsters and wandering NPCs will sometimes interact with each other in the open-world, giving the sense that there is an ecosystem that exists outside of the player.

FFXII: The Zodiac Age | Square Enix

Before Lightning Returns and FFXV attempted to bring open-world conventions to single-player FF, FFXII was already pioneering it in 2006. And has arguably done it better than most games since its release.

STORY AND CHARACTERS

Just as impressive as FFXII’s open world, is how Matsuno’s team was able to construct an open-world while still telling a strong cinematic, narrative. Modern FF has a problem with trying to bridge the gap between storytelling and world design, and most developers won’t even attempt to do it these days. Mainline titles will be either be linear but narrative-heavy (see: FFXIII) or open but narrative-sparse (see: FFXV). This is an odd dichotomy for the series to have today when FFXII already struck the balance over a decade ago.

FFXII: The Zodiac Age | Square Enix

Similar to how games like FFVI told their stories, every character in FFXII has their own stake in the narrative, and can be seen as a protagonist in their own right. This is also affirmed by the gameplay, as FFXII uses a flexible party system. This allows party members to be freely swapped around.

Think about games like FFVII, where you’re constantly made aware who the actual protagonist is by the game forcing your party composition to include them at all times. Even worse is in FFXV’s base game, where you can only control the protagonist. It’s an archaic design decision, and the FFXII staff recognized this in 2006.

GAMBITS ARE GOOD, ACTUALLY

With the new scale that FFXII’s open-world brought to the table, the series’s trademark ATB combat system would also need to evolve. Instrumental in the design of this new combat system would be Hiroyuki Ito, the very man who created the ATB system. His input would lead to the creation of the Active Dimension Battle (ADB) system. This system allows battles and exploration to happen in real-time, effectively eliminating random encounters.

The Active Dimension Battle (ADB) System | Square Enix

Long before FFVII Remake would introduce its Hybrid ATB system, FFXII was already pioneering this concept with ADB. Even more amazing is that despite FFXII’s system predating the Hybrid system by 14 years, it makes the Hybrid system look much more aged by comparison. There was hardly a precedent for FFXII’s real-time combat system in single-player FF, but it lacks none of the flaws present in the real-time/action RPGs that followed it.

A commonality that most action RPGs share is that they tend to have clumsy and unreliable AI. Xenoblade Chronicles, perhaps the closest analogue to FFXII, was guilty of having inconsistent AI. Kingdom Hearts is notorious for this, so much so that people meme about it to this day. Within the FF franchise, games like FFXV and, most recently, FFVII Remake have also been criticized for their poor AI.

One of the primary concerns the FFXII team had when crafting the ADB system is how the AI would function with all party members present on the screen in real-time. The team believed that a purely menu-based approach, with the player issuing commands to a party (of up to four) individually would take away from the fun of the game. This led to the team to repurpose Ito’s old Gambit System, which had previously been used to some degree for the enemy AI in the Super Famicom release of FFIV.

The Gambit System | FFXII: The Zodiac Age | Square Enix

The irony of Gambits is that while people criticized them when FFXII released, people ask for similar systems to appear in action RPGs today. Some people have it in their minds that “automating” gameplay through programmable AI removes strategy, but they don’t realize that the Gambit System itself requires strategy to use properly. With Gambits you can account for every status effect, HP/MP value, enemy type, enemy numbers, and abilities used in the midst of battle, all without ever needing to manage menus for many different characters at once.

But the best part of the Gambits is that they are entirely optional. You do not have to use them and can instead play FFXII like a more traditional JRPG, if you so choose. Again, going back to that concept of “freedom” that is central to FFXII’s design.

THE JOB SYSTEM

The Zodiac Job System | Square Enix

Final Fantasy is famed for its unique Job System, allowing players to choose distinctive roles (Monk, Knight, etc.) for their characters in combat. However, the majority of mainline titles actually do not use this system, relying more on ability systems (Materia, Junction, etc.), while the characters themselves are blank slates. While this isn’t inherently bad, games that did this almost always ran into the issue of homogenization, where all characters felt indistinct from one another.

The original release of FFXII didn’t quite have this issue, but I do believe that it suffered from a lack of direction in regards to character progression. Progression was tied solely to the License Board, with it you can use License Points to purchase stat increases, abilities, etc.  The License Board was massive, and you were kinda thrown into it and given carte blanche to build your characters however you pleased. On its face, this sounds great, but it could be quite overwhelming. Many players even ran into difficulty spikes by carelessly allocating License Points.

This was addressed in the International Version of FFXII, where the Zodiac Job System was added. With it, you can choose between one (two in TZA) of 12 jobs for each character and the License Board would reflect that specific job. While this system is extremely committal, with characters being locked to their job, you can also choose to not use jobs at all. (Are you noticing a pattern yet?)

Between 12 unique jobs, gambits, and a cast of six characters, FFXII is a highly experimental game that evokes the feeling of playing a classic FF. Unlike FFV, where using anything other than the optimal setups can make it exponentially more difficult, FFXII’s job system is more flexible. When you assign a character to a job in FFXII, you are guaranteed to get a character that performs that job exceptionally well. The game will provide everything you need to win, and enemies are designed with this kind of player expression in mind.

IN THE WAKE OF FFXII

Despite being so ahead of its time, FFXII, for years, had been relegated to a position as the “black sheep” of the franchise. Its deeply political story and ADB system being points of contention for many. FFXII’s reception has improved dramatically with the release of The Zodiac Age in 2017, but there’s no denying that fans staunchly rejected this game in 2006. How does this shift happen?

The answer is that time has finally started to catch up to FFXII, but not in the negative sense. The concepts it pioneered in 2006 have become the new standard, and people are simply more receptive to them today. FFXII even executed its concepts so well that it can stand up to the scrutiny of modern game design, without concessions made about its age.

This timeless quality is a trait unique to very few games, as most games that are credited as “revolutionary” do not age gracefully. FFXII’s staff weren’t actively trying to revolutionize the industry with it, they were just focused on making a fun game, which is why it has aged so well.

Katano: We weren’t really trying to change the world, or change the game industry, with what we were doing. We were just exploring something that we thought was fun.

As for the FFXII/Ivalice team themselves, many of them are still active at Square Enix. While they haven’t made a proper single-player FF since XII, many have significant roles in the development of FFXIV, and are directly responsible for turning it into the massive success it currently is after the disastrous launch of 1.0.

Here’s a brief look at some key staff:

  • Kazutoyo Maehiro (FFXII’s Battle Designer), wrote and directed the main scenarios for both ARR and HW. He is most recently credited as the Scenario Director of Shadowbringers.
  • Hiroshi Minagawa (FFXII’s Co-Director), was the UI Designer for ARR and HW before becoming Art Director.
  • Ayumi Namae (FFXII’s Concept Artist), designed costumes for much of FFXIV’s main cast. She also designed characters such as Lyse and Yotsuyu from Stormblood.
  • Takeo Suzuki (FFXII’s Lead Motion Designer), has been the Art Team Leader of FFXIV since Stormblood.
  • Yasumi Matsuno (FFXII’s Story & Concept Creator), is even involved with the project to some degree as a freelancer. He is currently writing the Bozja event questline in Shadowbringers.

With so many former FFXII staff present on FFXIV’s team, and with Naoki Yoshida being a big fan of Matsuno himself, it’s no surprise why so much of FFXII’s influence can be felt in the design of FFXIV’s gameplay and political story.

Final Fantasy XII redefined an entire genre of games, and went on to influence some of the most successful games in the series. It deserves to be in the conversation when we talk about landmark titles in the franchise. While FFVII went on to popularize the genre outside of Japan, FFXII created a blueprint that would influence game design for over a decade after its release.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age | Isamu Kamikokuryo