Because games are about more than headshots

Progression without merit; character progression in FFXII

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One of the key appeals of an RPG is the sense of ownership and reward that comes with the customisation of your character, growing his stats, abilities and equipment that you have earned through long hours of questing/grinding. This has long been an area in which the Western RPG holds supremacy over it’s Japanese counterparts, with most JRPG’s following the original a fairly linear system which encourages less player association with the characters (as they are designed by the game and not the player) but rather encourages stronger narrative association, as the role and abilities of a character will never be up in the air.

However, in it’s recent iterations the Final Fantasy series has attempted to move away from this model by providing ‘complete’ character customisation in X with the ‘sphere’ system and actually complete freedom in the ‘licence board’ system of XII. Today, I’ll be explaining what went so wrong with the board system of 12 and how it’s execution ruined both the pacing and the sense of attachment that you feel with the game’s characters.

In order to explain the system of 12, however I shall first touch on what made 20’s system work so well. In 10, there was a very large number (over a thousand) interconnected nodes on a map, roughly divided into connected circles of nodes, which were all roughly themed around one character archetype (warrior, rogue, archer, blue mage etc) and though battling foes, characters earned levels which allowed them to move along between nodes, obtaining the abilities presented. The entirety of a character’s advancement came about due to these spheres, both statistics (strength, speed, HP etc) and the abilities/spells which defined each ‘class’. The layout of the grid encouraged the player to follow certain paths for certain characters, which would lead to fairly diverse characters, comprising a good mix of everything required. However, all the areas were connected, so if a player wanted he could steer the black mage into the warriors section to pick up some extra HP nodes for a usually frail character, sacrificing magical damage in the process. In turn, your fighter characters could even learn the ultimate black magic spell, ‘Ultima’ however it would be fairly useless unless they also invested some levels in magical damage. Also, due to the way that the ability nodes are spread among a large number of stat nodes, the system not only prevents white mages from picking up black magic spells at not cost, but also ensures that characters which obtain certain abilities have the stats to back them up, thus preventing the player from investing in a bunch of largely useless skills which could potentially leave them unable to progress. All in all this was a really good system, which provided freedom to customise characters while simultaneously spacing out rewards such that players felt an achievement in obtaining them and avoided borking their characters. Finally the system ensured diversity within the party due to the good abilities being placed at compass points around the grid.

In the ‘international’ (also PAL 🙂 ) release of FFX, another iteration of the grid was introduced, where there was increased interconnectedness between the paths and all characters starting on the same tile, enforcing customisation of each of the characters roles. However due to the pathed nature of the grid, this still led to characters diverging in both stats and abilities eventually ( they did end up fairly similar early on), unless the player very deliberately created a stacked party.

And now we come to FFXII with the licence board. I shall endeavour to explain it before I rip on it, but I guess we’ll see how that turns out. As the PLACE DIAGRAM ABOVE above diagram shows, it’s loosely two chessboards which are unconnected in any shape or fashion. Every character starts on the same square on both chessboards, and they exist on both equally and simultaneously. From the opening square, the four which surround it are available for purchase using points gained from defeating enemies. The bottom board is for equipment and is the better designed of the two, where you unlock the ability to use various items. The uppermost board allows the unlocking of spells or techniques, as well as a few stat increases, with each of those categories being sequestered off into a corner (the spells are all in the top left, for example). An important difference with the top board as compared to the previous system is that unlocking a spell/ability in the top grid is not enough to be able to use it, you have to purchase them like equipment (although once bought, the whole party can use the relevant gambit assuming it’s unlocked).

Well, now that I type it out it sounds a lot like he system from FFX. So what’s so awful about XII’s system?

Supposed to be the thief, is now the healer/tank

Supposed to be the thief, is now the healer/tank

Firstly, the pacing is entirely off. I chose for one of my characters to become a black mage, so I used whatever license points she accumulated to go into the next level of black magic (1-7) or into black mage style equipment. Putting points into both of these categories, I reached Black Magic 7 by about level 6/7, in a game with a level cap of 80. Seems a little ridiculous, eh? Of course I couldn’t use most of these spells as I was hampered by what the storekeepers would offer me at this point, however my character was technically a supreme master of the black arts. Which made her use of the level one spells seem a little odd. This is a bad thing,as the point of this sort of customisation system is to give the player the feeling that they are in control, while all this roadblock does is make the player start second guessing when the game is going to let his character grow in the way he wants her to, instead of when he can progress his character in such a way.

The issue of my character’s accelerated mastery leads into another, however. If my ‘black mage’ has maxed out black magic by level 8-9, where are the other points going to be allocated? Well, the board offers you an astute suggestion: white magic. You see, as you unlock the black magic path along the board you also unlock the white magic areas, so my master of black magic’s first option upon obtaining the highest level of black magic was to buy the same level in white magic, without first mastering the basics. This is a real problem that is endemic of the entire system, as the rate at which you gain points means that there’s no real variety in character roles. For example, every one of my characters is a white mage to at least rank three, making potions not only largely redundant but also making characters largely interchangeable within battle. I know longer need o protect any characters particularly, as they’re all quite homogenised. RPG’s that aren’t fire emblem or a Roguelike have long struggled to make death meaningful in a land of infinite respawns, but largely these days it is done by having the player lose some important factor in his ability to succeed, something FFXII obviously misses out on with it’s interchangeable characters.

Despite their varied appearances, they all end up having the same roles in combat

Despite their varied appearances, they all end up having the same roles in combat

The problem is exacerbated by the levelling system, which is independent of the licence boards and basically comprises a character’s statistics. While in FFX the stats of a character were linked to the abilities they gained on the Sphere Grid, the independence of the two in XII means that in order for a players customisation of a characters abilities not to be useless, all the characters have to possess roughly equal strengths in each area. While this means that should you choose to put a character’s points into sword fighting techniques that character will be fairly adept at them, it also means that there is no bonus for specialising a character essentially devaluating both the players interest in developing these characters and the player’s interest in the characters themselves.

So apart from essentially being a botched system that creates homogenised characters which make the already simple battle system even less engaging, what else did the license system mean for XII?

Even in the lowest resolution, the FMV of this Chocobo Knight has to be seen to be believed

Even in the lowest resolution, the FMV of this Chocobo Knight has to be seen to be believed

Well, the one positive is that it forced the writers to create more compelling characters. In X, what differentiated the characters early on in the narrative was largely their role. Without distinct roles the characters would have been a lot less distinct and interesting early on, as the writers guarded whatever emotional dilemmas they had until later on in the narrative. In XII however, they don’t have that crutch to fall back upon and instead had to create characters which were distinct and engaging in their personalities early on, rather than having distinct roles the player cared about. Not the whole way through the story I can’t really claim to know whether this works out, however some characters have obviously had better written any characters in FFX, specifically ashe/vayne/baltheir. Now whether this is an initiative that is realistically influenced by the lack of predefined roles or whether it’s just due to a more mature writing team who knows, but it does lead to characters who fight in cut scenes having to have more a reason, rather than just being the person suited to the fight, which is a good thing.

So to surmise my myriad rants, the downfalls of the system can be seen in the following main areas:


  • Forces writers to establish characters through personality more than roles


  • Independent levelling and ability system forces all characters to become effective jack of all trades, homogenising characters.
  • The board is so small and interconnected that it takes almost no investment for characters to skip large areas of progression
  • The rate at which the points to progress on the licence board is too high, leading to characters acquiring a large number of unusable skills (sometimes for up to 20 odd hours)
  • The above problem also leads to characters taking up skills totally unrelated to the initial specialisation, making characters interchangeable.
  • The interchangeability of the characters leads to reduced player care about the characters, something integral to character based RPG’s.

Although FFXII did some amazing things, the licence board system was not one of them. Not to end on a negative note though, the seamless battle transition really increases the immersion within the game and the story is night and day more interesting, incorporating a space opera of mecha-fantasy instead of the angst-fest that was FFX, however good the twist was and however well the former was executed.

The battle system is far more immersive than in previous titles as battles occur within the world for the first time. Although it is frustratingly simplistic.

The battle system is far more immersive than in previous titles as battles occur within the world for the first time. Although it is frustratingly simplistic.

My next post (As with every other post, I’m going to promise to return to a more regular release schedule) shall be a side by side of the plot of Final Fantasy XII as compared to the original Star Wars trilogy, which will be spoiler-full for both and surprising. So look forward to that, as well as some analysis of DOTA clone ‘League of Legends’ (really good fun, by the way. Get a beta invite and watch your life trickle away) and the ways in which the game makes itself accessible now that the NDA has become ‘looser’, in the developers own words. Another post that might be on the radar is some analysis of the design of the ‘duck hunt’ sections of Hideo Kojima’s cult classic ‘Policenauts’ which I’ve been enjoying since the fan translation patch came out a little while ago.

Anyways, thanks for reading and look forward to more content soon.


Written by Aonshix

September 1, 2009 at 8:46 pm

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