I’ve always enjoyed FFXII for what it did but replaying it several years later after I had some more JRPGs under my belt really cemented that it has the best example of “open” world design in a JRPG for me. I say “open” in quotes because it is not an open world, it’s more like a collection of hubs that are delimited in several areas.
The reason I like them over others are twofold:
It crafts a believable world without the abstraction of a 3D overworld like previous FF did, and without the vapid expansiveness of modern open world games. You do not go through half the world in a matter of seconds, but you don’t spend 2 hours doing it either. It strikes a perfect balance between having just enough abstraction to have a world that is believable and immersive without having the impression of walking from the west coast to the east coast.
This optimal size of the world has offered the possibility to offer more freedom rather than less. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the smaller size offered the possibility to offer a better variety of areas and especially a bigger sense of inter-connectivity.
I think a lot of people who played the game might agree with me that in their first playthrough, they might have stumbled into an exit they didn’t know where it would lead, only to realize that it led to a part of an area you’ve already visited before! And yet this connection between zone A and zone B make sense when you thought about it.
I think this sense of surprise of going back to previous places without your knowledge is an incredible tool of immersion, for several reasons:
It breaks the curse of linearity in its world design, meaning that you are making your own surprises as you go. There is a reason FFXII only shows a “???” when you are about to exit to a new area. They want you to discover, rather than doing the discovery for you.
There is a sense of respect to the smaller scale they’ve created that allowed them to build the world around this scale. Creating hubs composed of several exit points that lead to different areas contribute to the world being believable rather than not because it feels like it obeys rules of logic it sets up to itself.
So, why does it matter so much?
Linearity in a JRPG, as seen in Final Fantasy X, XIII, and to a slightly lesser extent FF7 Remake, is already unable to provide much of these points, for the simple reason that maps are created with one entry point and one exit point. The world only exists as you are being fed by the game designer. FFXII is in itself a linear experience if you think about it, because the core experience is the story, and its story has one path, but the world itself is not linear. You can decide to go on a huge trek and the game will most of the time allow you to go wherever you want.
The trek you want to make will be inherently immersive because despite the smaller scale, the sense of scale itself is not diminished. When the game tells you to go to the heartland of the Empire, the trek needed to get there takes several hours for the first time, and you get to understand that the Empire is indeed in a different region separate from yours rather than the joint next door in so many RPGs. However, if one were to just walk from the furthest point away from the capital to the capital itself, it would only take 20 minutes in a beeline at most. The sense of scale is fed into the content (5 new areas to traverse to get there!), and the content available in these areas (more optional areas! bosses! hunts! quests!), so getting there is an achievement. You’ve reached the capital of the enemy, and it was an actual journey.
In a real open world, this would not have been as satisfying despite the scale being much bigger. Mostly because the variety would be much lesser (FFXV has shown it), and the journey itself would be mostly unrewarding because the bigger freedom isn’t guided enough to make the player have an actual objective to pursue. The scale ends up delivered through walking, not through the amount of things to experience between this point A and point B. And in a linear game, you would not have the amount of control necessary to feel like this journey was your own and fed by the world design rather than the needs of the story.
What I’m trying to communicate is that the size of the world is not what constitute freedom in a way that is rewarding to the player in a RPG. Xenoblade is a bigger game than Final Fantasy XII, but the journey is still very linear. You do not get to experience more than what the story wants you to experience. It is to its benefit, because it manages to strike a balance between story and gameplay. You will always be rewarded with a steady stream of story segments whereas you can spend upwards of 15 hours not having seen a single cutscene of FFXII.
However, in terms of pure player exploration that is immersive, rewarding and deliver a sense of scale through sheer variety of areas that are linked together in ways that are fascinating yet logical and promote further exploration despite being relatively small, Final Fantasy XII has succeeded in ways that very few other JRPG did.
This is guided freedom, a kind of freedom that constantly give you an incentive to do more in ways that are more organic, rather than artificial. It is not quest markers (it doesn’t have them), nor dotted lines (it doesn’t have them either) that drives player exploration through incentive. It is simply the world of Ivalice itself being fascinating.
It is fascinating because FFXII drops you in a place with a history, which is why they invested a lot in its world-building. The script of Final Fantasy XII have been said to be 5 to 7 times more voluminous than its predecessors like FFX, much of it owing to NPC dialogues constantly evolving through the game. It even features an in-depth bestiary that teaches you more about enemies and subsequently the world as a result. All of that showcases that they delivered a sense of scale in ways that matter. It’s not just the areas that are linked together, it’s not even just the scale, it’s everything that the game has placed into its world, from NPCs, to enemies and even the architecture. I was even surprised that gambits are treated diegetically in the world of FFXII. NPCs are telling you they’re using it themselves to give orders to their squad.
No element of its world is left by itself, and it drove me to believe that it is a world that wasn’t made for me, the player, but me, the character, who is suddenly living in this world, and who has so much to learn. This guided freedom, then, applies not just in the way Ivalice is constructed but in the mindset the game promotes to push me to know more about something that exists by itself, not just because the player ran into it.
This is why FFXII is so brilliant in its world design for me. I wouldn’t say it is perfect. However, I believe there is a real reason that I always end up going back to it even almost against my will and being surprisingly immersed in it while other JRPGs always feel they either pushed it too far into linearity, or open-ness, without the level of commitment to create a world that compliment their world design. Warren Specter said he would rather design a world that is an inch wide but a mile deep, I think FFXII succeeded being in the middle. It is as wide as it is deep, and I am given the keys to discover it by myself.
Love this post and wish I could reply with such depth. I’ve recently played it again as well as XV and X. None of them blew me away in terms of perceived size like XII, even XV which is inherently massive. XII is so epic in scale. Traversing the sandsea for the first time and beyond was amazing. With all the added guided detours as you say, a 20 minute trip took literal hours and felt like such an expedition. Bless
If you can play Xenoblade Chronicles X, I think this might please you as well, it’s goes 2 step further if you ask me (unlocking movement option that totally change your exploration, as well as litteraly building the world as the narrative evolves)
This is a game I’ve always wanted to try. I might seek a copy and play it on an emulator if a switch port isn’t happening in the foreseeable future.
This is the game that made me think that I can love open world game but unfortunately, close to no game get even close to that way of designing a world.
When I tried XCX I ended up unleashed in a world to aimlessly wander for hours. I might just be too dumb for that game but I played for like 4 or 5 hours and I still had no idea where to go, what I was supposed to be doing, and I think I hadn’t even fully opened the combat system. I would get into fights thinking I was winning and then suddenly have my entire party one-shotted, and just had no earthly clue what to do. I tried spending some time in that first city to figure it out but it was pretty aimless as well and the soundtrack there made me want to jump out a window.
I guess I may try it again sometime, as I have played and loved many JRPGs in the past (in particular, FFXII is one of my favorite games, for many of the reasons OP stated), but something about that one just made it impossible for me to get into.
I wanted to love that game so much more than I did. Exploring the world was a lot of fun and the game had such gorgeous designs to it.
I got until you encounter the one small alien race like 8 hours in. Hearing their voices and realizing that they’re gonna be common, combined with barely being able to tolerate the Nopon, is what caused me to drop it.
But the world was still a blast and I liked creating my own outposts/fast travel points.
I love this game and I wish I had the time to replay it properly from start to finish.
This is a great analysis and I agree completely. It’s one of the things I love about the game – I loved that it was the first FF where you didn’t explore the entire world but a clearly definite (set of) region(s). I love Ivalice games in general so that added to the allure as well.
I was crazy about the idea of no transitions between overworld and battle mode at the time, as well as no transition between overworld and cities. It gives the game an unparalleled sense of scope. It also gives you an idea of how the world is structured and how going from A to B is not necessarily that simple. It’s the same kind of concept that Souls games have and that’s a big reason why their world design is so good. Other games before XII also tried this, like Vagrant Story (unsurprisingly another Matsuno game)
I wish I had the time to replay it properly from start to finish.
You do. The remake comes with a 4x speed option. If that’s not enough to get you through the game, I don’t know what will.
I couldn’t get hooked on the story, which is a shame. I replayed it last year and have already forgot the plot. I think it the multiple storylines/characters.
But the world was indeed massive. I think I remember the area designs and map layouts better than what actually happened. Also, the game allowed a semi-transparent overlay of the map while you played which really goes to the exploration aspect.
The shapes of the areas also is important. They were wide in shape. You had plenty of twists and turns, especially the the “dungeons”. The use of “long hallways” was one of the more disappointing aspects of FF7:Remake. But then again, that might be an intentional difference. Everything there was routed to be pretty streamlined to keep the storyline pacing.
Yessss I love FFXII map system. I find the downfall of open world maps is that we’re moving away from those random encounters and into a persistent one. In XV for example the enemies are well spaced out which means the world itself needs to be bigger and bigger but of course you’ll either hit tech limitations or simply having too much open air with little variations. I love how to get from Rabanastre to Archades I go through a desert, a mountain area, a forest, a coastland, a hilly zone and some creepy cave. There’s variations in terrain and mobs that never overstay their welcome.
I really hope Square draws from it on the VIIR sequel. It’s okay for Midgar to be so many hallways because it’s supposed to be this city, but once we go outside we need these wide open areas to stand in for the overworld we won’t be getting.
I agree with your points. I always felt that FFXII was such a vast game with a ton of exploration. The world is big enough that you that open world feel, but not so big that it feels like the developers were padding out the areas. I like FFXII’s approach of having “hub” regions as opposed to one huge map (Such as FF15). Each region has its own identity and purpose and it really adds to the immersion. I would add, though its not the point of the topic, that the game could of really used having the party members banter or talk amongst each other outside cut scenes. There are long sections (as you mentioned above) where no story is happening and that hinders the pacing a bit.
Just get rid of the stupid traps. Why should I always need an accessory that’s otherwise useless to avoid having my whole party silenced or nearly one-hit
IIRC Libra made them visible to the player, and it didn’t matter if you got the effect through accessory or through a regular cast (eg. triggered via gambit)
Levitas is your friend, friend.
FFXII is great at worldbuilding. I love when I was still so early in the game but you can wander off to an unknown, high-leveled area. IIRC when you’re supposed to be in Giza Plains, you can go to Dalmasca Westersand. It’s a dangeroud place for early players and also a good place to gain EXPs. After a while, I found a way down to Zertinan Caverns, a place not relevant to the main plot but it adds to the worldbuilding. It’s a far more dangerous place for early players and of course I got a game over by going there. I like this kind of “gate”, it doesn’t completely blocks you off and makes you think maybe you should explore this area later.
I also love the bestiary entries for each monsters, areas, and cultures.
Not much to add of my own, but having been burned with Square Enix PC ports multiple times, is this another one of their shit shows? I keep hearing good things about FF12, but at this time I wouldn’t even pay them a single € for their software.
It is one of their better ports for me. It has 60 fps support, ultrawide, no denuvo, and runs well on my machine. Nothing to complain about and neither PCGamesWiki. Only big flaw is that it lacks HDR if that is your thing