THIS FUCKING GAME.
The game starts out with a ton of backstory and exposition that goes on way, way too long and drops too many proper nouns. But it all boils down this: the big, evil empire from up north, Archadia, stomped its way south and took over its next-door neighbor, Landis. Then it took over your country’s next door neighbor, Nabradia.
Your country, Dalmasca, just married off its princess, Ashe, to Nabradia’s Prince Rasler, who runs off to fight them and gets his shit wrecked along with most of Dalmasca’s army. The Dalmascan King Raminas heads off to strike a surrender and keep a little bit of autonomy in exchange for not everyone getting killed.
That’s when Basch, a Dalmascan Knight Captain,A captain to us Yankee folk; in the original Japanese version, Basch is a general. and some nobody footsoldier named Reks, are marching down the road when they get word that the surrender is all a setup and the king is walking into a deathtrap. Whatever forces they can scrape together haul ass back to the negotiations at Nalbina Fortress to try and rescue him.
While fighting their way up to the king (and really, if they’re already openly assaulting the fortress, is there any chance the king is still safe?) Reks gets separated from Basch for a second, and when he runs up to the treaty room to catch up, finds the king already dead (No shit!) and gets backstabbed by Basch… who’s now talking with a completely different voice, presumably feeling it more appropriate for admitting he killed the king himself for surrendering like a wuss.
Reks is bleeding out on the floor when the Archadians bust in and Basch gives the story to them. The Imperials basically say “Well sucks to be Dalmasca I guess” and then Dalmasca surrenders anyway, except without the part where they aren’t Imperial property afterward. Basch is executed for being a total prick, and Princess Ashe kills herself after having about the worst few weeks ever.
Cut to two years later, and you take over Vaan, who is, in deference to Final Fantasy VI and IX, an annoying fucknugget thief. Vaan is Reks’ brother, and carries a raging hateboner for the Empire, which he indulges by stealing their pocket change. Given that you never fight an Imperial who carries more than about ten bucks, this can’t be a productive hobby. This next part of the game is just Vaan fucking around learning various game systems before they finally start the actual plot.
After killing some rats, because this game has zero self-awareness and forgot that it already had an entire tutorial dungeon, Vaan runs into Penelo. Penelo is that standard JRPG character who’s waiting to be Vaan’s girlfriend when the game grows the balls to pull the trigger on a real relationship.
(This never happens.)
Penelo scolds Vaan for being an irresponsible shit, then sends him to a bar to become a poacher.
Some jerk at the bar gives you the first of the Hunts, side missions in which you track down and slay boss monsters. The first Hunt is against some Kingdom of Loathing reject, a fanged tomato head on the body of Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. Apparently, slaying this means Vaan is badass enough to join Fight Club, so the jerk from the bar inducts you into the local clan, a guild for getting more Hunts.
The first Hunt is the only mandatory Hunt, which is sort of strange considering how much of the game they account for. There are whole subplots linked to the Hunts and the clan that never intersect with the main game. I can’t help but wonder if this was deliberate or a product of the game’s troublesome development… but more on that later.
As we wrap up our Clan business, Lord Vayne Carudas Solidor, son of the Archadian Emperor and dead ringer for Pete Burns from Dead or Alive, rolls into town to take over the management of Rabanastre, the only real city in Dalmasca. Vayne actually received Basch’s confession at Nalbina Fortress, but good luck catching that brisk little detail on your first time through this hot fucking mess of a narrative.
Vayne rolls into Rabanastre like Aladdin rolling into Agrabah, then Kanyes his own ceremony by telling the angry Dalmascans he knows they hate his guts but he’s going to do a killer job as consul anyway.
The extremely fickle crowd decides they like his jib, and Vayne fucks off to get ready for some hardcore welcome dinner action.
Vaan decides that if you want to rob your own city’s palace of its national treasures, it’s best to wait until after a belligerent nation will have stripped it of everything valuable but not until it is occupied by a top VIP of the world’s most powerful nation. Thus, he claps his scrawny hands together and goes to see a tricksy fellow named Old Dalan, which is actually a brilliant maneuver on Vaan’s part. Dalan, despite never leaving his easy chair in the sewers, has unlimited access to information and resources and gives no fucks about sharing it with anybody who asks. When Vaan, a disenfranchised, sticky-fingered peasant kid like thousands of others in Rabanastre, asks if he knows an easy way into the palace, Dalan not only knows exactly such a thing, but has the magical key to the treasure vault in his nightstand and will eagerly hand it over as soon as Vaan grabs a spare battery for the thing.
Vaan fucks off to the wilderness to grab one, and Penelo tags along because she doesn’t want her only friend in the world to die fighting anything tougher than a living tomato stalk. Naturally, gathering the magical thungumbob, a “sunstone,”Why yes, people that have played this game, this section is foreshadowing. turns out to be a daily chore so common and tedious the tribals in the area make their kids do it to keep them out of their hair, and then sell them to tourists as tchochkes. No, they don’t have any on hand. Yes, you will have to make one yourself.
With sunstone in hand, Penelo lets on that she, a lonely 17-year old girlMore Nippon trickery! Penelo is 16 in the Japanese version. Strangely, I can’t think of any content in FFXII that would make her too young in the West. She doesn’t start wearing skimpy outfits and shaking her goods until the sequel, Revenant Wings, ironically making her 18-year-old NA/PAL incarnation too old for her role in Japan. ditching work to spend time with him, actually sort of enjoys being around Vaan-kun, and would onii-san care to drink from her oasis? Vaan ripostes like a champ and pile-drives her back into the friendzone, saying, “Thanks for your time, but it’s late, and I need to go get slaughtered committing a felony.” Treasury key in hand, Vaan heads off to the sewers. That’s right, Vaan’s story kicks off with rat-slaying, two fetch quests and a sewer level.
THIS FUCKING GAME.
Luckily, it’s only a short walk through the sewers from the worst part of town to an unguarded palace storeroom. The rest of the palace is a bit more populated, but in true Final Fantasy fashion, the guards are essentially stormtroopers; a kindergarten-level forced stealth segment versus these attention-deficit jackasses is all it takes for Vaan to bumble into the secret treasury.
Now, here a few things happen solely because of plot: as Vaan stumbles around the room appraising the priceless treasures the Empire so graciously left undisturbed, a random statue apparently thinks, “Oh, shit! A protagonist!” and opens up its face to bare a crystal, which Vaan instantly seizes because, numerous faults aside, he knows a MacGuffin when he sees one. Then, two people waltz into the room right behind him, thanking him for finding it for them. These folks are Balthier and Fran, who apparently possess enough ninjutsu to intuit that Vaan is looking for the exact same thing they are (despite Vaan not knowing it exists) and possesses the only means of obtaining it… and are able to follow him to it stealthily enough for Vaan never to notice them… yet are too inept to find the crystal themselves, or to seize it before Vaan after he’s opened the way. They also don’t seem to expect Vaan to want to keep it for himself, as once he refuses to relinquish it, they engage in a harrowing 2v1 staring contest until a door in the back opens completely of its own accord and sounds of a ballyhoo waft in.
Vaan hightails it out of there, getting as far as an upper courtyard balcony before realizing, “Oh shit, this place is under some sort of all-out assault,” as an airship bombards a rowdy melee below. Vaan seems alright with standing there and dying— since that would be pretty metal— but Balthier and Fran grab him by the collar and abscond with him on their equally-metal flying crystalpunk motorcycle.
Apparently this exceeds the craft’s weight limit though, as it immediately crashes despite not seeming damaged in any way, and the makeshift party somehow winds up back in the sewers again. Balthier remarks that the Imperial forces seemed suspiciously quick to act once La Resistance attacked— which I would point out is just their fucking job. But sure enough, it seems like they were counting on, if not baiting the rebels into attacking to trying and kill off Lord Vayne, just to entrap and rout them. This means that Vaan’s hunch about the guard being lax during the fete was dead fucking wrong, and he really did choose the worst possible night to rob the place, what with everyone there literally counting on disgruntled peasants skulking in and causing a fuss.
At this point Balthier chides Vaan for ogling Fran like a sultry zoo creature, so I guess I should introduce them. Balthier is essentially what Vaan would be if he wasn’t pathetic, pubescent, and penniless. He introduces himself as “the leading man,” and periodically refers to himself as such. This seems to be an in-joke, in that he might have been, at some brief in development, exactly that, before Vaan had sufficiently polished Akitoshi Kawazu’s doorknob. Balthier is, thematically, far more suited to this role, and this gets on my tits mightily, but I’ll save it for a more apt juncture. Fran is a Viera, a bunny-elfgirl. There are actually a handful of nonhuman races in FFXII, but fucked if any of them are going to end up in the party except the fanservice race. Fran doesn’t really have a character; she is Balthier’s Chewbacca, and any chance of development or an arc she might have had is neatly capped off fairly early in the game. She will, however, provide timely gazetteering and cryptic insights in as few words as possible. So that’s something.
With the amoral career criminals agreeing, for the moment, not to shank the scrawny bottom-rung-of-society cockblocker in a witness-free sewer for his priceless treasure— in point of fact, the only treasure they thought to leave with— the rabble proceeds to blunder about the sewers until they happen upon a damsel in distress. She’ll introduce herself as Amalia, the Resistance leader, in a few moments, but if you’ve read the fucking manual, seen the cover of the game, or if you’ve ever experienced a work of media in your life, you might already have puzzled out that it’s the “late” Princess Ashe. She’s cornered on a ledge by some Imperials, but, at Vaan’s urging, jumps down into his arms.
Now, allow me a short tangent. The game now indulges in the first of a handful of spots where they hint at some sort of deeper connection between Vaan and Ashe. This time, they just sort of have a too-long gaze at one another when Vaan catches her. It’s part mystic, part romantic, and nothing, nothing at all, ever comes of it. Ever. I suspect it’s just a ripple in the game’s tumultuous development, but of course I can’t prove that, and indeed it’s what I say eight out of ten times the writing goes somewhere inexplicable, but there it is.
So you wallop a few Imperial goombas with fingerquotes Amalia as a guest star. They try and present Ashe as a stone cold badass, but given that she was cornered by a few hilariously incompetent mooks, froze like a doe instead of defending herself, and then had to be caught by a young man that probably weighs less than she does rather than jump that perilous TWELVE FUCKING FEET, she comes off as being pretty ungrateful once she immediately flips the Bitch Switch to the “ON” position and leaves it there for the rest of the game.
Now, I’m not gonna make fun of all the particulars of this game’s dialogue, because if I do that we’ll be here all goddamn night. But I do think this is worth pointing out: so Ashe, after spending two years in obscurity before blowing her Resistance’s best shot at killing or ransoming someone worthwhile, has the news gently broken to her that everyone she knew or was working with is definitely dead now. When she walks away in a bad mood, Vaan flippantly asks, “What’s wrong with her?” I know! Women, right Vaan? Balthier wisely calls him out, but then thinks to deride his skills as a thief, despite being 0 to 1 with Vaan in terms of goods stolen, where they both shall remain for the rest of this fucking game.
With a fourth party member in tow, the crew of thieves and seditionists mow through the rest of the sewers, to include two token boss fights, neither with any bearing on the plot. But just as they reach the slums, they are ambushed and arrested. Vayne is here for this scene, for reasons I won’t even try to guess. Did he sprint here through the streets with his personal guard, and hoof it down the stairs to intercept us here, somehow? The shots imply Vayne probably knows who Amalia really is, but if that’s the case, I can’t fathom why our foursome wasn’t shot to fucking pieces without a second’s delay. Actually, I already can’t fathom why that doesn’t happen anyway. As we’ll find out much later, Vayne’s scheming may not be at it’s most diabolically sublime where Ashe is concerned.
Penelo arrives to see the four clapped in irons… for the robbery. That’s right! Amid the massive slaughter of Resistance infiltrators and the entire palace in chaos, the steadfast Imperials not only totally noticed the robbery of goods they didn’t know existed by folks they never witnessed, but were able to determine exactly where you would emerge from a massive sewer complex they hadn’t mapped and didn’t know you had entered. That’s damn fine policework! After Vaan has the taste slapped out of his mouth by an Imperial for glancing in her direction,For some reason, Sergeant Bitchslap’s visor is suddenly raised after cutting back from Penelo, which is a very strange decision. They never show Imperial troopers’ faces, and doing so here means they have to lipsync his line. I’m assuming this is the last remnant of a cut subplot where this guy would appear from time to time to waste Vaan with his 9999-damage backhand. Balthier calmly hands her what appears to be a handkerchief. Because while a throwaway remark to a passer-by is worthy of a beating, letting known thieves make handoffs to acquaintances isn’t worth a raised eyebrow? Naturally, they cart you all off to prison without trial.
The Travelog continues next week.
 A captain to us Yankee folk; in the original Japanese version, Basch is a general.
 Why yes, people that have played this game, this section is foreshadowing.
 More Nippon trickery! Penelo is 16 in the Japanese version. Strangely, I can’t think of any content in FFXII that would make her too young in the West. She doesn’t start wearing skimpy outfits and shaking her goods until the sequel, Revenant Wings, ironically making her 18-year-old NA/PAL incarnation too old for her role in Japan.
 For some reason, Sergeant Bitchslap’s visor is suddenly raised after cutting back from Penelo, which is a very strange decision. They never show Imperial troopers’ faces, and doing so here means they have to lipsync his line. I’m assuming this is the last remnant of a cut subplot where this guy would appear from time to time to waste Vaan with his 9999-damage backhand.
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