Friday, October 14, 2011

The Illusion of Choice in Final Fantasy XII

There were a few different topics that I wanted to talk about regarding Final Fantasy XII. Party limitations and the license board were two major ones. When I sat down and really thought about each one, though, I realized that they were all just masked examples of the same thing. They were all illusions, making it look like you have a choice in how the game progresses, but all really guiding you down a surprisingly narrow track.

Recently I asked a question on Gaming.SE regarding how the damage calculation works in the game. I was treated to this gem of a quote in the comment of the accepted answer:
"I do think there's significance [in weapon choice], but not enough to force you to confine any one character to any specific weapon class. The game's not hard enough nor particular enough for it to affect the experience. Just do whatever you want."
What it boils down to is that the differences between the classes of weapons are mostly irrelevant. You have the choice of using whatever weapon you want, but in reality, all the damage equations and statistics just don't matter. You can make a decision, but it doesn't affect anything. That is the running theme in Final Fantasy XII. The game is still fun, but it's not open. Final Fantasy XIII was fun too, and that game is like watching a movie.

To get to the rest of the illusion, let's consider the character progression mechanic. First of all, there are six playable characters in the game, and you can have up to three of them active for combat at any time. Right away, you are given the choice of which character to use. But that seems mostly irrelevant right off the bat. They have their own unique stats, sure, but any of them can be built to perform any function, if that's what you want. Since every character can learn every ability available in the game, whatever differences they start with at first are quickly washed away as they all become mostly the same with maybe some subtle differences, such as what weapon they are wielding. Which, as we already addressed, is a non-choice in the first place.

Ah, but why not specialize, you ask. Why not have one character learn all the healing and status magic, and have another character learn all the black magic, and another character focus on using the best weapon? The answer is because you can have all the characters do all those things. The license board system looks like a giant grid with countless options for advancement in any direction you want. And if the license board was the only limiting factor, that would be completely true. You could focus some characters in one thing and other characters in another thing.

But the license board is not the only limiting factor. Just because you unlock a license to be able to cast Fira doesn't mean you can cast Fira right then and there. You still have to buy Fira from a shop. And the shops don't stock Fira right from the get-go; you have to make plot progress so the shops open up and sell higher quality spells and gear to you. It's not just true with Fira, it's true with weapons, armor, magic, technicks, and every other thing in the game that could get progressively better. The license system is merely a way to let you choose what to unlock first, not the let you choose between long-term character development options.

By the time you get to a new area with new gear and magic to buy, you have already acquired enough licenses so everyone in your party can use everything you have available now. Everyone in my party can heal, everyone in my party can use black magic to take advantage of an enemy's weakness, and everyone in my party can use basic attacks to deal adequate damage. Switching out characters is a mechanic primarily used if I don't have time to heal to get someone with a fresh HP bar in the fray, not as a strategic switch of active abilities to take advantage of a tactical weakness.

The world around Rabanastre, the starting city, seems enormous until you start exploring it. There are seemingly countless exits and places to visit, but you quickly realize that all of them are blocked off. Except one. The world looks huge, and there seem to be tons of places that I will eventually get to visit, but for now, I appear to be on a guided track, with only one thing to do and one way to do it.

That's not a bad thing. It's standard fare, expected, and embraced. I am still enjoying the game. It's just a little bit of a let down that I can't grind up and overpower my enemies quite as well as I can in other RPGs.

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