After years of delays and uncertainty, Final Fantasy XII garnered lavish praise from critics when it landed on the PS2 back in 2006/7. Despite some rather substantial changes to the tried and tested Final Fantasy formula, it was given a perfect 40/40 by respected Japanese publication Famitsu, with numerous game of the year awards following soon after.
Yet, because of the very changes referred to above, it remains one of the most divisive titles in the series among fans; many having never completed or even started it in the first place. And, for a game of such depth and quality, that’s a real shame.
Now 10 years later, an updated version of the original titled Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (which, among other things includes the previously Japan-exclusive ‘International Zodiac Job System’) launches on PS4 in just a few days. And, as this article will attempt to demonstrate, it’s a must-buy for any RPG aficionado.
Back before the ‘International Zodiac Job System’ was available to Western audiences, Final Fantasy XII’s profoundly deep combat system was simultaneously one of the game’s biggest selling points and the main reason it failed to resonate with traditionalists.
Departing from the signature random encounters and turn-based combat that had been the cornerstone of the series for almost 2 decades, Square Enix instead plumped for a highly-tactical, real-time system based on ‘Gambits’. Essentially, rather than manually selecting each party member’s actions during encounters, gambits enabled the player to pre-programme his or her character’s behaviour, significantly increasing the speed of engagements among other things. For example, a standard gambit might command upbeat orphan Penelo to attack her foes with her equipped weapon, compel urbane sky pirate Balthier to use a hi-potion on his allies whenever their HP drops below 30% or induce princess Ashe to cast Firaga on any enemy in the vicinity who’s weak to fire. It might sound complicated – it certainly intimidated some at first – but, in practice, it’s really quite simple.
The outcome of any confrontation is entirely dependent on the player’s game plan; victory relies on their awareness of how different gambits complement one another and the ability to adapt to constantly changing situations. Yes, if the player configures their gambits correctly it can, on occasion, feel a bit like watching a let’s player strut their stuff on Twitch, but it’s a tremendously rewarding system for those who enjoy strategic thinking rather than quick reflexes. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say defeating a particularly tricky foe in FFXII is as satisfying as overcoming one of Dark Souls’s colossal bosses.
When it comes to character progression, meanwhile, The Zodiac Age’s eponymous job system changes things up quite substantially. Whereas the license board of the original used to operate like Final Fantasy X’s ‘Sphere Grid’ i.e. come the end of the game, every character would resemble a super-powerful jack of all trades, the game’s various abilities and spells are locked into specific classes in much the same way as Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy Tactics. In other words, only black mages can learn Thunder, Blizzard and other offensive spells, Uhlans (Dragoons) are able to wield spears etc. Although, to ensure it doesn’t feel too restrictive, each party member is capable of occupying 2 distinct jobs simultaneously which, aside from adding yet another level of tactical nuance to proceedings, also provides a greater amount of customisation and balance – the hallmark of all good RPG’s.
Speaking of balance, Square Enix has slightly reduced the game’s overall difficulty in an effort to bring it, tonally, in line with previous Final Fantasy titles and make it more accessible to players who perhaps don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours farming XP in preparation for a single boss fight. That’s not to say veterans who enjoyed the challenging nature of the PS2 original have been completely disregarded. The new, stand-alone Trial Mode should, according to producer Hiroaki Kato, be punishing enough to scratch that particular masochistic itch.
Whatever criticisms the original Final Fantasy XII received for its wildly different combat mechanics, the world of Ivalice itself – the same as that featured in Final Fantasy Tactics and another Square IP, Vagrant Story – remains one of the finest ever committed to disc.
From Dalmasca’s bustling capital Rabanastre to the fantastical floating city of Bhujerba; the peaceful, arboreal Eruyt Village to the sprawling metropolis of Archades, each location feels distinct. Of course, it’s the denizens of these contrasting lands that bring Ivalice to life. Although there are obvious similarities between the Viera and Tolkien’s Elves, the unique cultural backgrounds and idiosyncrasies of the Nu Mou, Bangaa, and Moogles help distinguish FFXII from other titles in the fantasy genre in general, not just video games.
But it’s Square Enix’s commendable attention to detail that completes the picture. Most noticeably, instead of re-hashing the same old summons – Bahamut, Shiva, Ramuh and the like – XII features a cast of brand-new ‘Espers’, each possessing an evocative title and imposing appearance: Mateus, the Corrupt; Hashmal, Bringer of Order. Similarly, the game features a bestiary that stands out from its predecessors both in terms of size and monster design. Despite the odd palette swap here and there, each section of the world map is inhabited by monsters that look and behave differently from the rest, bringing a certain degree of freshness to each confrontation. They’re only 2 small changes in the grand scheme of things, but they are nonetheless perfect examples of how hard the development team worked to differentiate it from the rest of the series.
There’s plenty of narrative depth too, tying all these disparate realms and peoples together. It may fail to reach the heights of Final Fantasy’s VI, VII, or IX in terms intrigue or grandiloquence, and the plot can get lost in the shuffle somewhat when the side-quests start piling up, but the tale of corrupt Gods and an all-conquering, megalomaniacal empire is still compelling in it’s own right.
In fact, the biggest issue in this regard is nominal protagonist Vaan; a grating street urchin who is, pound-for-pound, the worst main character in the entire history of the series. Even Tidus is a charming, relatable hero by comparison. Though to be fair, his presence is mitigated by the 5 other playable characters, particularly Fran, Balthier and Ashe.
It’s also worth noting that while the game’s impressive visuals pushed the PS2 to its limit back in the day, thanks to the superior power of the PS4, the world of The Zodiac Age is more beautiful than ever – aside from Vaan’s abs that is, which continue to more closely resemble corrugated iron than human muscle tissue.
According to game measuring website ‘How Long to Beat’ it will take the average player a whopping 100 hours to complete Final Fantasy XII’s main campaign and all associated extras; the figure rising to 170 for completionists. It might sound like a daunting task but, nevertheless, this generous supply of content affords the perfect opportunity to master the revolutionary combat system and explore every inch of The Zodiac Age’s intricate semi-open world.
Among a panoply of typically diverse side-quests – one of which sees the party help a lonely Viera find love; another follows their attempts to improve their social status in the city of Archades – the biggest time sink will undoubtedly be hunting. Featuring foes from previous Final Fantasy titles such as Gilgamesh (complete with his characteristic highfalutin dialogue and the classic ‘Battle on the Big Bridge’ soundtrack) and Marilith, marks become progressively more challenging as the group rises through the ranks of the hunter’s guild, demanding an in-depth knowledge of the gambit system if the player is to succeed. To put this in perspective, the final hunt alone, one Yiazmat, has an utterly absurd 50,000,000 hit-points and takes an equally ridiculous 3+ hours to defeat.
Aternatively, players can occupy themselves with obtaining the 8 optional Espers, completing their collection of rare and powerful weapons, beating the most difficult dungeons, or simply exploring the world of Ivalice itself; the latter of which is far easier in The Zodiac Age thanks to the introduction of a high-speed mode and a second, slightly larger minimap. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned Trial Mode with its 100, increasingly difficult stages.
Finally, in keeping with that most popular of modern trends, there’s a full trophy list. Alongside the standard bronze-rank rewards for completing the story, there’re a bunch of enticing (if ultimately arbitrary) digital prizes up for grabs for completing specific tasks, such as obtaining every Esper, learning every Technick, and yes, defeating Yiazmat. Still, if it’ll keep us engrossed in the world of Ivalice for a few hours longer, who’s complaining?
Considering just how many remasters are released these days – current gen console ports of Bioshock, the Batman Arkham series, Heavy Rain and now Crash Bandicoot to name but 4 – it’s understandable that some will object to paying $50/£30 for a slightly prettier version of a pre-existing game.
Nevertheless, what with the changes to the battle system, sundry other gameplay tweaks and enhanced visuals, there’s every reason to believe Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age will feel like a brand-new game; to western audiences and newbies at least. Even those who’ve already spent tens of hours playing the game over the years should seriously consider diving back into what is one of Square Enix’s finest ever RPG’s.