Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age Review
As much as I love Kingdom Hearts, The Legend of Zelda, and Metal Gear Solid, and – more recently – Fire Emblem, no video game franchise is more precious to me than Final Fantasy. How so? No other franchise will dictate my console of purchase than where the next numbered iteration of this illustrious series will end up.
It’s a love affair that started as a kid.
Devoid of any video games of my own other than my uncle’s old NES and a copy of Darkwing Duck – my dad was not the biggest fan – I would go to my friend Steven’s house to watch him play Final Fantasy VI – known to us at the time as III – just so I could get lost in its incredibly special world filled with magic, airships, and flying teddy bears with batwings and bright red noses that I would come to know as Moogles. Up until then, I never saw video games as anything more than enjoyable disposable pleasures that could suck up a cold or rainy day, but Final Fantasy VI gave me a taste of just how powerful the art form could be in creating gripping worlds as well as telling personal and memorable stories with wonderful characters.
It’s these stories that forged their own stories in my own life. Every Final Fantasy became its own personal time stamp in my development. I remember spending hours in the local e-café playing FFVII exploring Midgar. I remember pondering at summer camp over the possibilities and excitement of the series returning to its roots in FFIX. I remember saving up to buy my PS2 just so I could be one of the first to experience FFX, which brought about one of my favorite worlds and cast of characters that rivaled any great book or film – while subsequently making me wish I too could hold my breath long enough to become a Blitzball player one day. Heck I even remember bringing my PS3 up my final year of University at McGill just to play FF13, and for all the negative stigma that game has around it, I will never forget my time with it.
Its funny no matter where I’ve found myself in life, through the ups and downs, through my different shifts in interests, Final Fantasy was always there for me and I would always be there for it, dropping all of life’s stresses and responsibilities just so I could be transported once again into another fantastical journey. Such is the story of my 2 weeks after my first year of University, when video games were a waning passion.
I remember seeing a copy of Final Fantasy XII lost amidst the sheen of next gen titles in my local game store. I was so excited to play it but after so many delays and my new journey to higher education in Montreal where I would not be bringing a console of any sort, it was less of a focus and therefore I never got the chance to play it until months later. But weeks before I started my summer job in 2007, I couldn’t resist the allure anymore of playing through what at the time was the longest game in development history and the most ambitious Final Fantasy yet: and what a Final Fantasy it was. From the incredible writing, to the interesting battle mechanics, to addictive hunts and overall challenge, I found so much to love, in a game that found its series’ fan base mostly polarized. With the release of Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age, I was excited for the chance to jump back into the world of Ivalice, but also apprehensive not knowing if my original love would be lost to time.
Great news, Final Fantasy XII is every bit as wonderful as it was 11 years ago and maybe even better with the release of The Zodiac Age, and while the re-mastered package isn’t as robust as it’s price tag suggests and a couple of lingering pacing issues keep it from being tops in the series, it is still one of the strongest, most memorable and important RPGs ever made.
Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age’s story is the identical to its original 2006 release. It is easily the most mature tale the series has told. Focusing on the conflict of two nations, Archadea and Rozaria and the Kingdom of Dalmasca caught in the middle, the story takes place 2 years after the Archadean occupation of the Dalmascan capital of Rabanastre. A young thief named Vaan, intending on stealing a magical stone from the royal treasury on the eve of the fete of the empire’s new consul, finds himself thrown into an adventure with a band of sky pirates, a disgraced knight, and the resistance led by a princess who wants to take back her rightful throne and bring peace back to her kingdom.
If the story is very reminiscent to people, it’s because it is essentially its own take on Star Wars, creating just as deep of a lore and mythos that is as interesting as it is confusing at times, with its opening hours feeding you dozens of names and locations before you get the chance to properly find your bearings. Nonetheless, it is filled with the series strongest writing and some of its best world building, that reading its glossary of beasts and characters – as well a perhaps doing some outside research – will become more of a natural occurrence than a chore. In fact, while I was playing the game again I was reminded just how remarkable the storytelling is and I would have gone as far as saying this is arguably the best Final Fantasy story to date, but then I was rudely reminded why I had never put the game at the top of my list of favorite Final Fantasy stories and that’s the fact that the game seemingly drops its narrative for long stretches halfway through the game for a widely uneven finish.
It’s a shame because the characters are mostly interesting and memorable enough with standouts like Basch, a loyal knight of Dalmasca, framed for the murder of the King, and the slick sky pirate Balthier and his trusty female feline compatriot Fran. But some of them don’t get the proper development or closure you would hope for such as the plucky young protagonist Vaan and best friend Panelo or the conflicted princess Ashe and that’s because the story is more interested in adding new McGuffins than developing and wrapping up original story threads is meaningful ways. This is most apparent in the game’s main antagonist, Vayne Solidor, whose early game ambitions and interesting moral gray areas are quickly plotted towards generic wanton villainry and destruction. It trades its Game of Thrones ambitions with the series’ weaker recurring element of going for the bigger, badder threat without developing any reasoning for us to care. Thankfully the story finishes in spectacular fashion, in a piece de la resistance that is visually sumptuous and emotionally resonant enough for us to forgive some of the game’s more misguided late game story foibles.
If you are new to FFXII where the game differs from most of its series familiars is in its battle system. Gone are the random encounters and turn-based battles as FFXII introduces real time battles similar to current MMOs and it’s all thanks to the Gambit system. The Gambit system essentially allows you to set up parameters for how your characters will act when you’re not directly controlling their actions.
It was a contentious new addition back then and it still is today because it essentially allows you to program to play itself. Why I think it’s an incredibly effective and uniquely important addition is due to the fact that it gives you complete autonomy on how to set-up your party while not having to micromanage on a constant basis. If you have played many RPGs from that era, grinding out battles for EXP is a natural occurrence and while enjoyable for some becomes more a nuisance over time due to facing the same grunts with the same commands over and over again. By purchasing Gambit’s you can make sure your healer casts cure on anybody below a certain threshold, your black mage casts thunder on those weak to that element, or use a remedy anytime a Marlboro uses its Bad Breath to inflict nasty status effects on you. Gambits allow for a more streamlined approach letting you cater your general tactics while still allowing you to step in when needed and believe me you will need to.
While not as brutal as I remember it being, FFXII is a challenging game, especially those who do not get themselves attuned to the Gambit system earlier on. Bosses in this game are especially challenging. Many of them hit hard, but it’s the stipulations they can put on your team that make them a tall task no matter how high leveled you are. For example one boss will cause any team member wearing heavy armor to take a serious action time penalty by inflicting them with slow. Another boss will cover your team with oil, inflicting fatal damage with their fire attacks if you don’t get rid of it quick enough. Where many RPGs require heavy amounts of level grinding to fell the harder bosses, it was in my playthrough of the Zodiac Age that I realized how much more important team composition and smart tactics are as I took down a few bosses significantly out of my level range. Whatever they throw at you they will require patience and even sometimes thinking outside the box to take down and it makes these encounters all the more satisfying and some of the most rewarding in the series.
While the gameplay hasn’t changed from a battle perspective, those who played the game’s original release will notice some significant changes to the way the character progression is handled. The original game introduced the License Board, an evolution of the FFX’s Sphere Grid system, which tied equipment, ability and stat upgrades to nodes on a giant checkerboard. While a unique system, it wasn’t very user friendly, especially early on in the game due to lack of direction. With the Zodiac Age, the game improves on this by implementing the Zodiac Job System – from the Japanese-only release of FFXII International Zodiac Job System – which breaks up the License Board in to smaller more manageable chunks that work as presets to specific classes. You can choose 1 job per character and after a third of the way through the game you can select an additional one, giving you a lot to play around with in terms of team makeup. Do I focus on making Panelo, the best magic user, a glass cannon by assigning her the Black Mage and Battlemage license boards or do I balance offense and defense by choosing a White Mage with Black Mage combination for her? It’s a greatly improved system that gives you a clearer and more focused approach, while still maintaining the depth of the original release.
While I enjoyed Zodiac Job System a lot, I would’ve appreciated the original game’s License Board as an option for those who want the original experience seeing as FFX gave you the option for both old and new Sphere Grid types, but the new system handles the job well enough that I can understand the justification. Just remember, you won’t be able to re-spec, the moment you choose a job you’re locked in for good.
The game adds a couple of other subtle but important improvements. The most convenient of these additions happens to give you the ability to speed up time 2 or 4 times the original – similar to the Bravely series. It wasn’t until I wasn’t using these helpful options that I realized just how slow this game was when it was first released. It addition makes grinding in the game a much more pleasant and less egregious experience, so much so that I barely felt like I went out of my way during my playthrough to ever farm for levels. In fact what was once a 50-60 hour playtime to reach the credits, only took me just north of the 30-hour mark. Some people may cry foul at the idea of playing the game on the faster setting, but those who just want to experience the story and don’t have the time and patience to grind for hours after their own daily grind, this feature is a godsend.
The other fantastic addition is the autosave feature, which is activates in the background everytime you load into a new area. This is a great for those who like to adventure off the beaten path and protects you in cases of wandering into caves with creatures that can one hit your entire party or while grinding for long periods of time in order to face off against tough Espers and hunts that make up some of the series’ best sidequests and post content. In an age where losing hours of progression is a huge hindrance, the autosave will become your best friend. This is especially true in the late game, which like FFXII’s story becomes widely uneven and incredibly long-winded, with minor encounters becoming huge barriers due to constant negative status inflictions not to mention the endless corridors of some dungeons. There is one late game tower in particular that I remembered from my first playthrough being a pain and even with the newfound improvements alleviating some of the hurt, it’s still a frustrating slog.
Overall these tweaks all make for a much better game experience and take what might’ve been a game too daunting and slow for casual RPG fans and gives it new wings for those who might’ve passed over it. If you didn’t like the game at all the first time, The Zodiac Age most likely won’t convert you, but these additions sure make it a more digestible game for those willing to give it the chance it deserves.
As for actual new content, there is a Trials Mode, which pits your team against a marathon of 100 battle trials, remixing encounters from within the main game. They are broken into 10 waves and get quite challenging, but reward you with rare gear you can use in the campaign. I’m about a quarter way in and already experiencing a healthy amount of attrition even with my endgame-leveled team.
When it comes to Zodiac Age’s treatment of its visuals what we get is a decidedly nicer looking game than the 2006 original with better textures, bump-mapping and higher resolution, but it’s not the overhaul some might want. Even 11 years later, the game still looks quite nice, but what you are getting is a slightly better looking high-end PS2 game, with moments that show its humble beginnings whether it be reused assets littering dungeons, low poly counts on NPCs, or some blurry texturing.
It’s a disappointment that visual upgrade doesn’t at least come with a bump in framerate like the most recent Kingdom Hearts re-masters as it’s still locked at 30FPS, but what’s more disappointing for PS4 PRO owners is the lack of 4K resolution with the game only reaching 1440p. While this isn’t a deal breaker for those who just want to experience/re-experience FFXII, it’s nevertheless a curious omission seeing as the Kingdom Hearts re-masters are all running at 60 frames and at native 4K no less. Even the CG cutscenes suffer from some pretty bad compression, but that’s a harder fix due to its standard definition roots. Seeing as this is a port of an 11 year old PS2 game that as a solo offering carries the same price tag as compilation packages featuring multiple games I think I was expecting a little more oomph in the visual upgrade department.
Where the game sees the biggest improvement is in the audio department. The original game sported some of the best voice acting in the series, but it suffered from bad compression on the PS2 and while it is still tinny in some places it is noticeably better in quality. The soundtrack, which was the first mainline Final Fantasy to not be scored by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, also gets a complete re-orchestration. It takes what I thought was one of the weaker soundtracks in the series and breaths new life into its original compositions while supplanting some of the old ones for outright brand new tracks – such as the Ogir-Yensa area – which really do a nice job of playing up the Star Wars fantasy opera feel and makes for a memorable listen. It’s an incredible effort and really cements itself as strong contender for reappraisal in the pantheon of incredible music the series is known for. On top of all of this you can switch between both old and new soundtracks as well as the English and Japanese VO, which is a nice touch.
4 out of 5
Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age is a reminder of just how much I loved the game in the first place and how well it still stands up to the best of today. At the same time it’s a disappointing reminder of how its poorly paced second half – in terms of story and gameplay – takes what could’ve been up there as not only perhaps the best in the series but one of the best RPGs ever and sadly knocks it below my favorites such as FFVI and FFX.
While the new gameplay tweaks and updates in The Zodiac Age do their best to alleviate these issues and make for a smoother experience overall at $50 USD ($65 CAD) and without much meaningful extra content or visual improvements, especially for PRO owners, the cost is significantly steeper than other recent Square Enix re-masters for what you are getting. Nonetheless, what you do get is an incredibly ambitious game that delivers the most unique Final Fantasy and one of the landmark titles for the evolution of the Japanese RPG genre in the last 10 years.
For those who loved it when it first came out there is no better time than to return to Ivalice and for those who were on the fence the first time or have never played it before, now might just be the perfect time to see just why this game is as revered by its fans as it is.
Now if you excuse me, I have a date with a little dragon named Yiazmat.