There are so many Final Fantasy titles with their own followings that it is impossible to say which ones are the best and the worst, but Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age allows us to revisit one of the more popular titles in the series that has aged pretty well since its initial PlayStation 2 release.
I know everyone who adores the Final Fantasy franchise has their own favorites. For me, it's probably X and VI. Many people feel the series 'died' after shifting from IX to voiced characters, and that is certainly an opinion they are welcome to, though I do not share it. Now, while I adore Final Fantasy X, and appreciated the desire to voice characters and breathe new life into the storytelling technique Square Enix used, there is no doubting that some of the dialog was pretty rough around the edges. They were new to using actual voice actors and it showed.
Final Fantasy XII took some pretty serious strides, even if there were times that the dialog was a bit stilted, where timing was off. Generally speaking, the voice acting was far better, even if stitching it together still sounded less like actual conversation and more like lines being read separately from one another and then pieced together after the fact. Some of the characters obviously outshine others, with the sky pirate Balthier being the obvious standout, while even the also-ran-esque Vaan as a youthful, overly exuberant lead character is less annoying that previous characters like Tidus or future ones like Snow.
The story of Final Fantasy XII was never its strongest selling point, but tries to be focused on things like politics in a way that previous titles never quite did. Whether or not it is successful is another matter altogether, but the cast of characters is just interesting enough to help carry along a story that gets off to a dark and troubled theme that helps to keep things interesting. However, where Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age really excels is in its systems. Another aspect of Final Fantasy XII that has fared quite well is the sense of world around the characters. There are some generally interesting locales. It has bee a long time since I last played this title, but I still found the Sandsea to be an incredibly interesting location. Deserts have a tendency to be open, same in color and incredibly boring. Here you have moving 'water-like' seas of sand, large mostly circular structures dotting the landscape and even changing levels of wind and blowing sand that help to add some variety to what is usually a rather dull location in RPGs.
When it first released, Final Fantasy XII kind of caught me unprepared for its hybrid approach to exploration and combat. It had a very MMO-like feel to it, complete with the way characters all move around on the map together in real-time and some elite enemies wandering about ready and waiting to beat you down if you are not careful. However, the action itself is also a mishmash of action and turn-based commands. That in and of itself was not too revolutionary, but the Gambit system still stands out as one of the more interesting approaches to combat in an RPG. I still remember that when this game came out, the system was hugely divisive. I had friends who liked it and those who loathed it. One of my buddies, Randy, sold his copy about three days later to another friend simply because the Gambit system frustrated him so much.
I can understand why, as Randy was always someone who appreciated the more tactical, turn-based combat of the past, but has never had a head for programming. While this is nothing like writing actual code, the basic idea of input conditions followed by output actions seeded in an order of operation system are all concepts that resonate with programming and make this an intricate and powerful system for developing your partner AI. All these years later, it is kind of amazing how utterly moronic AI companions can be, which actually allows me to appreciate the Gambit system even more as it has aged rather fantastically.
Similar to the remake of Final Fantasy X, some of the changes we see in this updated version of the game brings some features to North America that didn't arrive with the original release years ago. In Japan they got the Zodiac Job System which heavily overhauled the license board. You still used license points earned in combat to unlock new skills and passive benefits, but instead of sharing one huge board between all of the characters, this system allows you to pick classes (related to signs of the Zodiac, hence the title). Back then, only one board per character was allowed, but in this updated version, each character can now take two classes, allowing you to try out each of them (or have characters that use the same sign/board - it's completely your choice). This adds a lot of utility to each of the characters and allows some serious noodling on trying to come up with combinations that take advantage of the characters' innate skill sets.
This system also adds an additional layer of strategy to how magic and weapons are used, because some classes only have access to some items. For example, when you have the most powerful weapon in the game, the Zodiac Spear (which is also tweaked in how it is attained in this release), only one class has access to it. So you really do need to plan ahead accordingly. I spent a good deal of time looking over previews of the boards to get a feel for how the skills slanted, and it was pretty cool to have this level of customization over the characters.
Obviously with any kind of an update here, you tend to have improved visuals, and that holds true here. Not just improved textures, but the framerate seems far more stable than I remember it being in the original game. Perhaps my memory is just messing with me, but when Robert and I were chatting about it, we both seemed to recall that the original game got a bit jittery when you were in heavy-traffic areas such as sections of town with lots of characters and a save crystal nearby. Obviously the bulked up power of the PlayStation 4 allows for some improved processing power and it shows.
However, there are several quality of life improvements to be had in Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age as well. While the game still relies on save crystals for manual saving, there is an auto save feature that offers some pretty forgiving checkmarks along the way. I also adored the new map functionality where you could press down on the left analog stick and cause a translucent map to lay out over the top of what is currently happening in-game. It is larger and more detailed than the square mini-map in the upper right, and is frankly a fantastic feature that more exploration-heavy games need to keep you from having to jump in and out of a pause / map menu every few minutes. Another new feature is the ability to make the game move at x2 or x4 speeds (you can select which you prefer from the options menu) with a quick tap of the L1 button on the controller. Final Fantasy XII was a big game, with that aforementioned MMO style of would building that meant lots and lots of walking. While there was an undeniable charm to the way the world was laid out, it was often a slog as you had to run quests from one zone to another. This feature greatly assists with speeding up both the walking and the fighting. For those of us who like grinding, this is also a fantastic way to do so at a fraction of the normal time.
Last but not least, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age brings a few additional features outside of the actual gameplay as well. The most notable right off of the bat is the new Trial Mode. It has a prominent place on the start screen below 'New Game' and 'Load Game' and above 'Credits'. The idea is that you load in your save file, bringing in your characters to take on a series of stages of escalating difficulty up through one hundred. Obviously the higher level your characters, the easier this challenge will be, but the really cool thing is that the loot and license points you earn save back onto your file so they carry over to help your characters improve with the game. While the trial mode itself is nothing spectacular in and of itself, it is a nice meta challenge and it feels like a good use of your time due to the carry over aspect.Additionally there are a pair of New Game Plus modes that offer new challenges (strong and weak modes). They are an interesting enough idea, even if they don't impact the story or the game itself in any discernible way outside of your character levels when you restart the game.
Outside of perhaps the Gambit system, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age shows its age in many places, so newcomers to the game might be just a little put off by the older mechanics and conventions from RPGs of the era. However, Square Enix deserves a boatload of credit for taking the time to make sure that this release was a lot more than a shiny new coat of paint. There are a ton of improvements to a really good game that helps to make this one of the better remakes I have had the pleasure of playing. If you missed Final Fantasy XII the first time around, it is at least worth taking a peek at since the quality of life improvements make it more accessible than it original was. If you were a fan of the game originally, I would argue that the combination of nostalgia and care taken with the game also warrants a fresh look.
Article by Nick