Few franchises are as revered and beloved as Final Fantasy. Ever since the first entry made its debut back in 1987, developer Square Enix has delivered, unquestionably, some of the finest Japanese role-playing games ever made. Final Fantasy IV added a new level of depth based around a character-driven plot, to the JRPG genre, while both Final Fantasy VI and VII remain fan favorites for a slew of reasons. But there’s no denying that many believe the series has lost its way for several years now.
It’s been awhile since Square produced a Final Fantasy game that mostly everyone loves. But one entry that’s severely underrated is 2006’s Final Fantasy XII. Some quite enjoy it, but many seem to hate it. For well over a decade now, fans have been clamoring for a massive Final Fantasy title that offers full player freedom from the get-go. Little do many realize, Final Fantasy XII is that very game, and is one entry the upcoming Final Fantasy XV should take heavy inspiration from.
Here are eight reasons why Final Fantasy XII is the most underrated game in the series.
Leveling up in Final Fantasy XII is intricate, but never convoluted. While simply increasing your level is expectedly distilled down to fighting waves and waves of enemies, just like any other RPG, the game also contains a deep system called The License Board. It’s most similar to Final Fantasy X’s Grid system. The board is an array of panels that contain certain “licenses” that are sort of like permits, which allow each character to perform particular actions. One character might start out as an expert in magic, while another is great at long range combat. To use these certain abilities, you have to spend license points, which are earned alongside experience points during combat.
The board itself is aesthetically pleasing and easy to grasp, and it’s a system that continually encourages experimentation and freedom.
There are six main playable characters in Final Fantasy XII, and four of them are well written and complex. While the two characters you start out playing as, an energetic orphan named Vaan and his best friend Penelope, are bland and uninteresting, the story quickly shifts its focus away from them. The plot revolves around a troubled and determined princess named Ashe, who lost her father and husband in a ferocious war, and her journey to getting her kingdom back from a corrupt monarchy.
Basch, a disgraced former knight, and two lively, humorous space pirates named Balthier and Fran also join the party, and they all add a much-welcomed layer of complexity to the party dynamic.
Gone are random encounters and the traditional turn-based system. Instead, Final Fantasy XII employs a combat system called “Active Dimension Battle,” in which battles unfold in real time. Also, enemies are actually visible on screen, allowing you to decide whether or not you want to engage in a battle; if you do, you won’t be taken to a separate battle screen. Battle commands are launched through a series of menus that include Attack, Items, Magicks & Technicks, and Gambits. The latter option is a feature that allows you to program each character to perform certain commands in battle.
While this drastic change in gameplay might not be for everyone, it was still a much-needed and engaging departure for a series that was well over a dozen games in. Final Fantasy XII is also quite challenging, and you’ll often find yourself trying out different strategies and tactics.
With this new real-time combat system, Final Fantasy XII has you going up against a panoply of mammoth, challenging and visually stunning bosses. Phoenix, for example, is a hovering menace that forces you to use only range attacks to inflict any damage. Tiamat, meanwhile, is a mix between a dinosaur and a dragon whose defense increases when its health decreases. Some of the Judges you’ll be fighting, who are members of the Imperial Army, are swift and force you to think on your feet. The Omega and Ultima Weapons are also difficult optional bosses that require intense preparation to even stand a chance.
Whether they’re story related or completely optional, Final Fantasy XII’s boss battles are always epic spectacles.
There’s no corny love story here, and you certainly won’t find any hormonal teens complaining about life. Final Fantasy XII is a political drama, filled with mature themes about civil liberties, genocide, nature vs. machine, coping with losing your loved ones to war, and what people willing to do to remain loyal to their country. Princess Ashe is an intelligent and strong female lead whose only goal is to protect her people and her kingdom. Basch is a withering lost soul who was framed for murder, and both Balthier and Fran provide levity at just the right moments.
It’s a sweeping tale replete with a slew of interesting characters, sympathetic villains, and excellent writing.
Final Fantasy XII takes place in Ivalice, and is filled with gargantuan, stunning cities, dungeons and vast meadows and jungles to explore. The first city, Rabanastre, is a lively and sprawling location with plenty of shops, guilds and secret areas. The Gilmore Jungle is a dark, brooding place with several dimly lit lamps as the only source of light. Archades is a capital city you discover well into the game. It has brown, stone floors and massive skyscrapers that house a complicated subway system. There’s also a colorful and dangerous labyrinthine dungeon called the Great Crystal that is literally shaped like a giant crystal.
While the main story is expectedly linear and straightforward, as you’re always well aware of your main objectives, Final Fantasy XII does an excellent job of giving you as much freedom as possible. After the game’s opening hours, you’re free to explore all of Ivalice. Yes, you can avoid the main story if you so desire, and instead complete missions for various guilds, discover dangerous new locations, and simply get lost in Final Fantasy XII’s giant world. You can come across enemies that are capable of killing with you one hit, and you might even discover rare and powerful weapons and armor that’ll come in handy dozens of hours later.
To go along with the amount of freedom Final Fantasy XII allows, the game comes packed with plenty of content. The main story will take you over 50 hours to complete, and it barely scratches the game’s surface. You’d still have dozens of challenging bosses to take down, like Omega and Ultima Weapons; tons of guild missions to complete; secret areas to discover; an entire License Board to fill out; and precious, rare items to find. Final Fantasy XII is arguably the last time Square Enix offered an experience that’s this varied and rich with content.
Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer who loves Breaking Bad and dislikes The Sopranos. He’s written for GamesBeat, Polygon, Playboy and Rock Paper Shotgun, among others. Tweet him @RParampampam.