One of my biggest regrets for years was that I never got around to finishing Final Fantasy XII. It came out towards the end of the Playstation 2’s life cycle and with the release of new consoles with fancy HD games to play, I simply never put the time into it that it deserved. Now, more than ten years after its initial release, I’ve finally been able to play through from start to end with the remastered Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age on Playstation 4. Man, it’s been one hell of an adventure. When it initially released it was the first time that the series did something *different* within the mainline entries and whilst that uniqueness made it quite divisive amongst fans, it’s ensured that it still has the intricacies to remain as intriguing and enjoyable all these years later.
Whilst most Final Fantasy games focus on the fantasy element, Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age feels like one of the most politically-driven entries in the series. You take on the role of Vaan, a young orphan who lives on the streets of the Dalmascan city of Rabanastre. Following the aftermath of a war between Dalmasca (the good guys) and the Empire (the bad guys), you find yourself becoming involved in a Resistance against the Empire. It’s a typical tale of a small group against a mighty enemy, though it plays out well and certainly takes plenty of interesting twists and turns. Plus, there’s Sky Pirates. Who doesn’t love Sky Pirates?!
It goes into a lot more depth than I give it credit for, but it’s an interesting tale that’s full of great characters; whilst it’s easy to dismiss Vaan as a cliché, the supporting cast of Balthier, Basch, Ashe, and the rest provide plenty of enjoyable interactions and developments that’ll keep you intrigued to see what’s going to happen. It’d be nothing without an interesting villain though, but thankfully you’ve got the Judges who aren’t only incredibly cool in design but also make for some of the most intimidating enemies I’ve seen across the franchise.
One thing that’s easy to appreciate about the story is its cinematic presentation, with classic CGI cutscenes ever present and playing a starring role throughout. They’re something you see less of these days thanks to the high quality of visuals in modern gaming, but seeing so many of them throughout the adventure was a reminder of the old days where they almost looked ‘lifelike’ to me. Whilst the cinematic presentation is on point though, the developers made the odd choice of having all cutscenes (both in-game and CGI) play out on only two thirds of the screen with the lower part of the screen being filled with a black bar. Whilst I understand that it’s there to home the subtitles, it just looks ugly and was an odd design choice for the developers to make. Other Final Fantasy games haven’t done this, so I don’t know why Square Enix have done so here.
Taking a complete shift from the traditional turn-based system well before Final Fantasy XV ever did, Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age offers real-time combat that plays out right in front of you almost like an online RPG. In fact, anyone who has played Final Fantasy XIV will feel right at home, with the basic combat mechanics actually sharing a lot of similarities. Playing in single player where you have full control of the entire party is much more refreshing though, allowing the player to be deeply involved with the ins and outs of each combat set-up.
You’ve got your standard attacks, techniks (magic and abilities), quickenings (limit breaks), and items. Then you’ll target enemies and allies on the go in real-time, quickly shifting between attack and support to make quick work of each encounter. Don’t worry too much though – time freezes when you’re sorting out your actions, meaning you can take as long as you need to think everything through. It all comes together nicely, offering combat that doesn’t break up the flow of the game and that all feels quick-paced. Having it all take place in real-time was a bold move when the game initially released and it was something that some gamers never grew to appreciate, though in this modern day where we’ve seen a continued evolution of the Final Fantasy series it might be more warmly welcomed than ever before.
There’s one incredibly unique aspect to the game’s combat mechanics though with the introduction of Gambits – a system that allows you to set up actions for each character that are performed automatically based upon specific prerequisites. You could have something like your white mage healing any ally when their HP goes below 60%, having your black mage focus fire attacks on enemies weak to fire, having your whole team always focus their attacks on your target, or even having your weakest character attack any confused ally in order to knock sense into them without hurting their HP too much. It’s an intuitive system that offers so many options that you have the flexibility to set them up exactly how you please. Seriously, the possibilities are practically endless.
Whilst the Gambit system is neat and works really well in-game, it has one glaring flaw – the feeling of automation that bestows the player. There were times where I’d have set up my Gambits so perfectly that I hardly had to interact with the game, with each enemy encounter swiftly dealt with without the press of a button on my end. I just had to run through each area, with my party doing all the hard work for me thanks to their Gambits. Whilst it could be argued that RPGs typically build themselves around repetition, they at least demand some attention from the player; once I had my party buffed up and set up with Gambits I faced almost no opposition during my run through the game. Whether or not this sits well with you will determine how much you’ll enjoy playing through Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age.
You level up your characters as normal in Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age with EXP earned from defeating enemies, but they also have access to job-based skills through the Licence Boards. Whilst there was only one Licence Board shared between all of the characters when the game originally released, this new improved release gives you twelve to choose from, with each one offering a job class you would’ve already seen in the series before such as Knights, Monks, White Mages, Black Mages and so on. Once you’ve picked a Licence Board for your character, you can then upgrade them by spending Licence Points to unlock different tiles. Each tile will offer something different, be it a stat boost, a new skill to use in combat, or even the ability to equip a specific set of equipment – you can’t just use anything willy-nilly in Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age, but have to actually earn the right to do so. For example, only Knights can use swords and shields whilst only Mages have access to magic abilities. You’ve got to carefully choose exactly what you want for each character, otherwise you might find yourself with a mismatched team that don’t have the synergy to work together effectively. My tip? Make sure you get a White Mage early on.
It might sound a little convoluted, but believe me, it’s actually quite simple when you get used to it. It’ a satisfying system to toy around with; there’s a real sense of progression to be felt from unlocking each tile, especially since you know you’re increasing your character’s combat effectiveness by doing so. You actually end up having access to two Licence Boards per character as you get further through the game, granting you an even deeper sense of flexibility with the role each of your characters plays in-battle.
Everything about combat and levelling in the game is just so intuitive and something I never fully appreciated before; sure, the Licence Boards weren’t as varied in the original release of the game, but the principle of them remained the same. However, the one main issue I had before was just how unforgiving the game could be. I found myself dying over and over again, with the harsh opening hours of the game seeing plenty of frustration thanks to how few and far between save points could be. Taking the wrong turning or being ill-equipped could see a ton of progress wiped out in an instant, especially without the benefit of a well established Gambit set-up.
That issue has been rectified now though thanks to the introduction of auto-save checkpoints. It might feel cheap at times and purists may argue against it, but it makes for a more enjoyable ride – especially for newcomers to the game. It allows you to take more risks and not be afraid to venture out into the world of Ivalice during those early hours; I’ve gone on many detours along the way whilst out in the world, and whilst they often saw me die they rarely saw me losing much progress. The game has also introduced the ability to speed time up, allowing you to play the game at 2x or 4x speeds. This can make some of the long trudges whilst exploring the open, labyrinth-like world more bearable, especially when grinding to level up or simply trying to find your way to your objective. There are just so many improvements on show in the game that don’t only make it more convenient to play, but much more enjoyable too.
Then there are the other enhancements that typically come along with remasters like improved visuals, a new orchestral soundtrack, better loading times, and the option to play with English or Japanese audio. The visuals of the game hold up well, which is pretty impressive given that the game originally came on the Playstation 2. Those who prefer extra content over aesthetic improvements will be glad to see the introduction of the Trial Mode – a steady test of 100 challenges that slowly increase in difficulty as you work through them. I’ve finished the game’s story, but I’m nowhere near conquering the entirety of the challenges yet. Some of them require masochistic levels of commitment that only die-hard players will reach. Still, it adds an extra dimension to the game that wasn’t available in the original release, offering something completely fresh to play with to further enrich your Final Fantasy XII experience.
Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age takes everything that was great about the game when it originally released and improves upon it tenfold, with the expanded Licence Boards, improved visuals and audio, enhanced gameplay, and host of extra additions coming together to make for a fantastically produced package. It doesn’t only give players a chance to play through a classic RPG once more, but also gives those who weren’t so keen on the divisive title the first time around the chance to give it one more try.
There are still a few issues that simply can’t be changed, but as a whole I thoroughly recommend Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age. It’s one of the best remastered releases I’ve played so far and I’m glad to finally have been able to finish the game in its freshly enhanced state.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 11/07/2017
Format(s): Playstation 4