When listing games that never got the chance they properly deserved the first time around, Final Fantasy XII would be near the top of my list. When it originally arrived on our shores for the PlayStation 2 back in October 2006, it did so one month before the launch of the PlayStation 3, and almost a full year after the debut of the Xbox 360. Thus, the game came at a time when many were wanting next-gen experiences—and FFXII’s fate wasn’t then helped any given it was a game that proved to be rather divisive for fans of the franchise and RPGs alike.
Though I’ve always wished we could have seen the true Final Fantasy XII that original director Yasumi Matsuno had wanted to give us, I still fell in love with what we got in the game upon its release—though not everyone agreed with me. FFXII was a daring mix of the single-player RPGs that had made the franchise a household name and the MMORPG elements of Final Fantasy XI, an idea that pushed away a number of fans who had never asked for peanut butter to be mixed into their chocolate. Other things it did would also prove controversial, such as its move to a more seamless open world, combat that was heavily automated by using player-created rulesets, and an equipment / magic / skill system that required characters to learn how to use everything in the game and then buy access to those options.
I’ve long wanted Square Enix to bring Final Fantasy XII back, and when the publisher announced that it’d be doing just that with The Zodiac Age, my excitement was mixed with fear over the realization that the game might not live up to my memory of it. And—to my dismay—a few hours into this HD remastering of the twelfth Final Fantasy, that was seeming like it might indeed be the case.
Part of the problem is that the first handful of hours of Final Fantasy XII are a slog. That tends to be a common thing to say about Japanese RPGs, but it’s especially the case here because the handful of dungeons you’re forced through as things kick off—one after another—are all dark, depressing places. While the game seems to have a love for such locales a majority of its length, it’s especially bad in the beginning, enough that a lot of new players could decide to just give up and never come back. It also doesn’t help that, in that early going, you’ll have few options available to you, as battle techniques and spells are still locked away, your party won’t be properly formed, and you’ll not yet be able to give any of your characters a proper class.
The more I pressed on, however, the more memories of the good times I’d had with Final Fantasy XII started flooding back. At the lowest levels, that starts with Ivalice, a land shared in other titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. This world and its characters feel richly crafted, offering up cities, races, and events that are easy to care about. There’s a beauty to this world, not only in design but also atmosphere and attitude. Even though it does focus on certain elements a little too much at times—such as the aforementioned dungeons, or the ridiculous love for desert areas the team seemed to have—it’s so easy to become attached to the slice of Ivalice that we’re served up here that you won’t want to leave it.
Of course, once you have a world, you need a story, and again I connected with what Final Fantasy XII has to give us—even with (or despite) its flaws. It’s funny to have Final Fantasy XV as the last game in the series I played before returning to this chapter, as there’s numerous similarities: Both feature a smaller kingdom invaded by another in a quest for magical power; both offer up would-be royalty that have lost their kingdom and who now struggle to get it back. Oh, and there’s something else both games share: criticism from fans in how they tell their stories. Admittedly, FFXII does indeed dole out plot advancement in smaller, less “intense” chunks, but I actually like its narrative style. When cutscenes happen, they seem meaningful to me, and rarely was I left feeling like there was a whole lot going on that I wasn’t privy to but should be—unlike with the adventures of Noctis and pals.
Where the story most succeeds—and where it sees its biggest failure—is in its cast. Much has been made about the game’s main character Vaan, who it’s been said was never intended to be part of Final Fantasy XII until some within Square Enix decided the game needed a hero that would better appeal to female and younger gamers. It’s painfully obvious how out of his league Vaan is when compared to the most of the rest of the cast, and even in his role as the outsider giving us a look into the drama that’s unfolding, he seems woefully under-used. And yet, in getting a chance to be re-acquainted with Vaan here, he’s honestly not that bad. Yes, he’d be ten times better if he was Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 shirt-wearing Vaan, but at this point in my life I’ve seen so many way worse plucky male protagonists. It’s also easy for me to not stress over Vaan because I’m then given what I think is the best cast of main characters the series had seen since Final Fantasy VI. You’ve got princess Ashe, the true main character of the story who will make you wonder how, in the span of simply one game, we went from her to Lightning; Basch, a disgraced captain that just oozes coolness and badass-ary every time he comes on screen; and the duo of Balthier and Fran, who are the greatest characters we’ve ever been given in a Final Fantasy and I won’t allow you to disagree with me on that. Mix in a collection of bad guys that feel threatening yet also down to earth, a handful of guest characters that you’ll actually want tagging along with you, and a collection of races that all belong as playable choices in Final Fantasy XIV, and it really is impossible for me to over-stress just how much I adore the cast of this game. Or, even more importantly, say too many things about how nice it is to go back to a more old-school feeling cast like this after where the series has been heading as of late.
(For those of you who are yelling that I missed Penelo, I know—the game’s six and final party member isn’t as notable for negative reasons as Vaan, yet isn’t on the level of her four other companions. I like Penelo, but she’s yet another in a line of “cute young-ish girl” tag-alongs the franchise has had a long line of. She fills her role quite well, and that’s that, really.)
Before I dive into the differences this new HD remastering brings with it, there’s one final area of the game I really want to hit on: combat and character advancement. In plenty of ways, Final Fantasy XII feels like your typical RPG, as you explore the world, fight monsters, take up quests, defeat bosses, buy and sell items and equipment, and all of that. For those who never played the game the first time around, however, there are some seriously big chances that were taken compared to almost anything else that’s come along, before or since.
First is combat. All enemies can be seen directly in the open world, and once you engage in battle—either through your initiation or theirs—everything plays out exactly where you were just standing. While you can directly control your three party members in what they’re doing at any given moment, the real way to play Final Fantasy XII is to set up Gambits. Think of Gambits as situational rules for what actions you want your characters to take which then play out automatically without your needing to be involved. However, unlike other RPGs that let you choose between different A.I. “strategies,” every Gambit you make only covers one specifically-defined action—and if no Gambits are set up, a character will do nothing on their own unless you use more traditional menus to tell them what to do. For example, a very simply way to start would be to create a Gambit that tells your characters to attack the enemy the party leader is targeting—then, by having your active leader target a foe, all three party members will concentrate on them. Next, you might set a character that can cast Fire to use it against foes weak to that elemental, or a party member who knows Cure to heal any teammates when they drop below 30-percent of their maximum HP. Gambits are set into a list, and where on the list they sit is the priority they’ll be given—meaning you’ll want to put rules for healing or resurrecting higher up than based combat options as one example.
One of the criticisms levied against Final Fantasy XII at times has been that it “plays itself,” and in a way, that’s actually kind of true. It’s entirely possible to set up all of your party members to attack enemies the moment they come into range, and with the right planning, you could literally set the controller down and just watch the action unfold until your team is victorious. In reality, the Gambits system isn’t flexible enough to come up with pre-set tactics that will keep you out of trouble 100-percent of the time, and getting anywhere close to that point will also require a lot of time, experience, and money (more on that last one in a moment). I see Gambits as more of a technique through which to better personalize the roles you want your party members to play, and as someone who has long loved having A.I.-controlled teammates in RPGs, this is one of the best realizations of that ideas that I’ve ever seen. If anything, I think the Gambits idea doesn’t go far enough, as the rules require pre-set conditions that aren’t always as flexible as you’d like them to be. (If Square Enix were to ever try the idea again, I’d love to see deeper “if-then” conditions come into play.) Even so, coming back to FFXII these eleven years laters, man have I missed how this game plays. Trash mobs and random encounters are usually nothing but an annoyance to me, but I enjoy even the smallest fights here thanks to this system. I love not having to micro-manage everything—though if that’s your idea of a good time, you absolutely can. The combination of more MMORPG-like combat and programmable A.I.-controlled teammates is just so up my alley, and I wish more developers would directly ape what the dev team did here.
There is, however, a rather sizable barrier that makes the Gambits system hard to either enjoy or properly use at first: pretty much every option you’ll have for setting up rules has to be purchased. If you want to target an ally who has their Hit Points below 50-percent, you’ll need to run to a store and buy that Gambit choice—as well as the same condition at 40-percent, or 60-percent, or any of the other conditions the game offers up. You’ll also have to purchase any spells or techniques that you want to utilize as part of a Gambit, because neither is learned simply by levelling up a particular character. Simply buying a spell doesn’t mean any of your characters will be able to use it, though, unless they’ve learned how to do so on their Licenses board.
In the original release of Final Fantasy XII, every character started off in a specific spot on a gigantic chessboard-like grid that held a vast array of purchasable “Licenses” specifically assigned to each spot on the board. If, for example, you wanted to equip and use swords, you’d need to use License Points obtained from battles to unlock different Swords Licenses that would grant you the ability to use each specific sword in the game. Meanwhile, other spots might hold Licenses for armor or shields, white, black, or green magick spells, additional Gambit slots, bonuses when using items, and more. The Licenses Board was very much an evolution of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, but—much like that game—with enough invested time and effort, you could have characters travel enough of the board that party members could potentially all end up feeling the same.
Absolutely one of the biggest changes returning players will find in The Zodiac Age is the introduction of the Zodiac Job System, which first came about in the Japan-only (and ironically-titled) Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System. Here, twelve different Licenses boards were offered up, each relating to a specific job (such as Knight, White Mage, Archer, etc.), and each character could be given any one of the jobs. That proved to be a little limiting in how players could spec out their parties, so for the West’s first introduction to the Zodiac Job System, characters can now run dual jobs, setting up some interesting and diverse combinations while also making sure everyone won’t end up feeling similar. Be warned, though, that there’s one factor to the new system that might cause a little panic in you: once you’ve picked a job for a character, you can’t ever change or remove that job from them. It took me a good 15 minutes of thinking to make that commitment the first time I did, and every time after, part of me wondered if I might end up regretting my choice. In the end, my advice is this: give the characters the jobs you think you want them to have, and don’t stress over it too much.
Other gameplay improvements will be scattered throughout the game that those playing Final Fantasy XII for a second (or third, or multiple) time will especially appreciate, originating either from that Japanese reworking that we never received or new to this PS4 re-release. Both guest characters and summoned Espers can now be directly controlled, which can be a huge plus during especially dangerous battles. You can now increase the speed of the game to either 2x or 4x normal (for burning through battles or traversal quicker), with other very welcome changes being a new auto-save system to help avoid progress loss, and the ability to keep the current area’s map on-screen at all times for easier navigation. A decent amount of additional content has been added since the first PS2 release, including Trial Mode, a special survival gauntlet offering up bonuses that can be taken back into the main game. And, yes, the Zodiac Spear—one of the most infamous weapons in RPG history due to how ridiculous the means of acquiring it was—is now obtained through far more sensible means.
Get past all of the gameplay changes both big and small, and there is of course one more immensely important benefit gained in The Zodiac Age: improved visuals and sound. One of the great parts of the original Final Fantasy XII was that it was a beautiful game—not because of how it looked technically, but because of its design. It was an art style that I knew would benefit greatly from getting a high-definition reworking, and that’s exactly what’s happened. Character models, NPCs, and monsters look fantastic now, while both cities and wildlands come to life with renewed vigor. Things aren’t perfect—there are times when some of the upgraded textures can look really rough—but this is the closest we’ve been to really seeing the game in the way it was meant to be seen all of those years ago. Audio also gets some love, as the soundtrack is offered up in both Original and 7.1 channel Reorchestrated flavors, all of the dialog has been remastered to help lessen the quality issues the original suffered from, and both English and Japanese vocals are now available. As much as I appreciate that last addition, I could never play Final Fantasy XII in Japanese; this stands as one of the best RPG localizations we’ve ever received, and I cannot accept a world where Fran has any voice other than her English one.
For years I’ve defended Final Fantasy XII as one of my favorite moments of the series, and going back to it again all this time later, I’ve been reassured that I wasn’t mistaken in doing so. This was—and still is—a bold, daring, different, divisive, and hugely ambitious chapter from one of the biggest names in role-playing games, yet it’s also a softer, beautiful, and more personal experience as well. Even while I can understand why some would dislike it or even consider it blasphemy, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age stirs feelings in me similar to what Final Fantasy VI did so many years ago—and is probably my second-favorite adventure in the franchise after that 16-bit classic.
Final Fantasy XII released to mixed opinions when it first hit back in 2006, and even today, fans will still argue over where it deserves to land on a listing of the best chapters of the franchise. It received those opinions because it was a bold, daring, and different chapter of a series that up-ended our expectations for what Final Fantasy should be—and all these years later, those elements are part of the reason why I still think it’s one of the best entries we’ve ever received.
T - Teen
|Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.