The first thing a fantasy story does is belch out a bunch of nonsense words at you. These nonsense words are supposedly the names of places, important characters, groups of people, concepts or ideas… but you won’t remember any of them because a stream of nonsense words doesn’t mean anything without context. So when the prologue of FF12 fires off, “Dalmasca Ashelia Prince Rasler King Raminas Archadian Empire Rozarria Nabradia Nabudis Marquis Ondore Bhujerba Captain Basch — have fun!” your brain is going to short circuit and a small gelatainous quantity of material is going to ooze out your ears next time you shower.
(None of those were made-up words, by the way — that’s all stuff from the for-real prologue.)
Revisiting a fantasy story, though, even years later, allows you to see all those words again — only this time they aren’t nonsense. Coming into the beginning of a story and knowing what the big picture looks like can be quite rewarding, as any Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones fanboy will tell you. Final Fantasy XII is no different in that regard, and it’s in that vein I’ll be talking about the noble members of the playable cast: Ashe and Basch.
The headstrong runaway princess is a pretty well-established fantasy staple, and that’s the first thing I really like about Ashe: she’s not a headstrong runaway. In fact, we’ve every indication that Ashe would have been fine and dandy living out a fairy tale existence married to the dashing Prince Rasler, pampered and smiling and deleriously happy. Unfortunately the countries of Dalmasca and Nabradia happened to be sandwiched in between two giant, warmongering nations with magical superweapons they wanted to try out. Before the happy couple could whelp so much as a single spoiled princeling Nabradia was wiped off the map and Dalmasca was filled to bursting with Imperial soldiers.
In the months to follow Ashe’s husband and father were both killed and, in her grief, she took her own life. And that’s the end of the story. FF12 is a short, sad game. Well, no. What Ashe really did was vanish from the public eye and fall in with an anti-Imperial rebel group using the pseudonym “Amalia”. Their ultimate goal: eject the Archadians from Dalmasca and retake the throne.
Behind Curtain #2 we have Basch, whose story is perhaps more tragic. He and his brother were knights of the Republic of Landis, an ex-country which had been smashed by Archadia while they were both young. Lacking a banner to follow, Basch’s brother entered Archadia’s service. Basch himself saw this as a betrayal of his former homeland, and instead threw in with the nearby kingdom of Dalmasca. Admirable, on his part, but not particularly smart, considering Dalmasca was just a few dominoes behind Landis on Archadia’s warpath.
That brings us to FF12’s famous “It was his twin!?” moment. Basch, now a captain in Dalmasca’s army, has uncovered a treacherous Imperial plot to kill the Dalmascan king at his own treaty-signing. Not only is he too late to stop the assassination, but the man who weilded the knife was his own brother. Witnesses to the event naturally returned home and dragged Basch’s name through the mud to ensure he would not become a martyr. Basch himself was chained up in a dungeon and left to rot.
Enter Vaan and Balthier who, after a chain of haphazard events only partially of their own design, find themselves in possession of a dead princess who isn’t dead, and a treasonous captain who’s not a traitor. And that’s (sort of) where the game picks up the pieces.
Much of the plot of FF12 revolves around magic stones that can blow up cities. All the major players want to get their hands on as many of these stones as possible, each for his or her own noble cause, and Princess Ashe is no different. The quest starts out innocently enough: Ashe has to prove her noble lineage by descending down into the tomb of her ancestor and retrieve a treasure only those of royal blood can access. Upon learning this object is a particularly powerful example of the aformentioned magic stones Ashe’s first response is: “How do I use this?”
Ashe’s goal, when taken at face value, is the restoration and assured peace of her homeland of Dalmasca. There’s more to the puzzle than that, though; what she truly desires is vengeance for her slain husband and father. No less than three times is she offered the chance to forge peace with the Empire and resume her throne, by three different parties, with three different sets of circumstances. She denies them all. Ashe will have no resolution except on her own terms — and those terms involve bloodshed.
Basch, on the other hand, abhors war and desires peace above all else. He states at one point in the game, “If I could spare one person the horror of war I would bear any shame. I would bear it proudly.” How conflicted Basch must be, honor-bound to protect the Dalmascan princess, who is herself a warmonger? Everyone else in Ashe’s party has understandable (if not good) reasons to follow her, ranging from greed to naivety. But Basch? I don’t believe the game ever outright addresses this, but in order to truly preserve Dalmascan peace it seems to me that Ashe is first on the list of people that need to go.
Maybe he does it because he thinks he can turn her around. She does turn around, eventually, displaying newfound wisdom her Rozarrian and Archadian counterparts don’t possess. That’s way, way late in the story, though. That’s the eleventh hour. The journey up to that point, well… the player has to be wondering whether his guys are the “good” guys.
In that sense Ashe and Basch represent the core conflict of Final Fantasy XII: weighing the merits of war against peace, independence against occupation, loyalty against conviction, prosperity against freedom.
One final note: FF12 avoids a particularly common pitfall most JRPGs fall into. In every other JRPG you’ve ever played the role of the resident prince or princess is quite diminished over the course of the story. Characters tend to shed their airs of nobility in favor of being heroes. Be honest; did you really identify Edgar as king of Figaro every time you picked him off your party menu? At the end of the game, these characters form lubby-wubby rainbow friendships with the rest of the cast, whom they view as equals.
After the pivotal battle in FF12, though, Ashe and Basch go their separate ways. Ashe is sworn in as queen; she doesn’t have the time or inclination to continue rubbing elbows with the likes of street rats and sky pirates. Basch, meanwhile, is given a new charge to uphold (and a pretty swank haircut besides). In other words, they resume their lives as nobles. This, I feel, is much closer to how the upper crust would actually behave at the end of a long, wearying journey to free their land from occupation.
Of course they retcon that in the quote-unquote sequel. Should we just ignore that? I’m feeling like we should probably just ignore that.