FF6 pushed a lot of exposition in their cutscenes. With no voice overs, you were reading text and listening to MIDI tracks. Still, if you’ve played that game, guaranteed you remember the Opera scene. I’m of the strong opinion that SquareEnix (SE) has been chasing that specific moment since then. The plates falling in Midgar in FF7. The Black Mages falling from the sky in FF9. The water scene with Tidus & Yuna in FF10. They are not moments of story expedition – because there’s no text or words.
I’m nearing the end of FF12 and realizing that the nature of the game doesn’t really allow for this, outside of the overall bookmarks (intro and outro). There are plenty of in-game engine scenes, trying to follow Ashe’s quest to follow a ghost prince (man, that sounds so FF when written out). There are cinematic cutscenes, which generally provide an area context shot (like a really big skyship), since those models didn’t exist in the game engine. But to say there’s a defining moment, I can’t really say I’ve found one.
That’s not say there aren’t impressive moments in the game, cause there certainly are. The skyship that blows up is neat. The scenes before the last dungeon are wild. The vignettes for the first time you entre each zone are solid. Even the tougher hunts have some cool backstory (Gilgamesh is great). I guess I’ve come to realize that FF12’s defining mark is that there are smaller peaks and troughs.
FFX was a 5 minute custscene, then 30 minutes of RNG battles, then a boss, then repeat. It was like watching a movie, then grinding for a boss fight. FF12 changed that because enemies were on-screen. It wasn’t an exercise in frustration getting from A to B. And by putting in the AI portion (gambits), it made the “regular” battles that occur seem like minor speed bumps.
And the bosses in FFX were gimmicky, which made sense given it was turn based combat. If you had infinite time to think, then yeah, make good choices. The Yunalesca battle is a damn good example. With a more active battle system, you have much less time to think, and the fights become more about being prepared at the start, then reacting accordingly in the fight. Did SE get this right? Hell no. The initial release had a very early “exploit” that worked for 90% of the game. Put on a specific belt, throw a specific item, and nearly every boss got neutered with every status ailment possible. It also made skills available really early in the game, making you effectively gods by the 1/2 way mark. The TZA release made that belt unavailable for most of the game, that item require skill investment to use, and split up all skills across classes and the game. Very well balanced, and the combat requires a whole lot more thinking.
The last bit here is the horizontal gameplay. Most FF games keep their sidequests for the end, with the exception of a mini-game that’s introduced at the start (e.g. blitzball, tetra master). The mini-game here is a set of hunts for difficult targets. These targets require specific scenarios to even get them to spawn, then a good build & gear, and finally some quick thinking to get through the fight. You usually end up with some decent gear by the end, a new subzone to explore, or a new summon. It is an amazing system, providing a great challenge/reward system throughout, and reason to go back and explore zones. The Bazaar is a weird system where you sell specific items to get access to other gear. Hell, even figuring out how to find something like Gemsteel is a major pain. This one I really don’t like since you need a wiki to really use it properly, because you can’t tell what items give what rewards. FF13 used a similar system, but it was more transparent about it. (More props to FF13 for the stagger system.)
I’m at the last dungeon now and this game is playing better than my memory recalls. The game manages to be continually engaging, both from a system and story perspective. Rare that time is kind to a game that’s nearly 15 years old.