Final Fantasy XII: the Zodiac Age

It wounds me so: the hearts and minds of gamers can be so fickle.

Forgive me if I come across as a hipster when I say that I loved Final Fantasy XII before it was popular. I am a longtime fan of the series, and I had sampled many of the earlier titles already when the twelfth entry found its way into my hands. This was years ago, on the PS2, and I thought it was almost perfect. All of the things I enjoyed about the franchise were there — gorgeous soundtrack, euphoric visuals, and crisp, addictive gameplay — and it was somehow better than all of its older siblings.

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The old PS2 box art, when the game originally released. This was what the case looked like when I first played it back in the day. ( Image Source: https://shopee.com.my/PS2-2K-SPORTS-NHL-2009-i.15266545.682299472 )

So imagine my dismay when I learned that the internet didn’t agree. Critics and fans alike called it unusual, unpolished, and too far of a deviation from the franchise. Some of these suckers even went so far as to say that it should have been labelled a spin-off. I didn’t understand why the rest of the world couldn’t see how wonderful the world of Ivalice was, and how fun it was to explore it with Vaan, Penelo and friends in tow.

But it turns out that the sun had not quite yet set on the so called “black sheep” of the final fantasy series. What I had been hoping for, deep down in my little heart for years, had finally come breaking through the wall of dreams and into reality: a re-release on current hardware.

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With the latest Western release of the game came a flood of promotional materials, including much of the world-class art produced for the original launch. (Image Source: https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Games/Nintendo-Switch/FINAL-FANTASY-XII-THE-ZODIAC-AGE-1438870.html)

I’ve been waiting for a remaster like this for forever. When Final Fantasy X came to PC in a remaster package, I had my fingers crossed. I dared hope that one of my favorite games of all time would come back to me on PC, where I could experience it all over again, but brought up to modern standards. Lo and behold: the experience has come back to us in a remastered re-release, now titled Final Fantasy XII: the Zodiac Age. Alongside the quality content I had already been acquainted with comes a number of new visual and audio upgrades, as well as some well-curated extra features to smooth out the gameplay.

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The young Lord Rasler leads his kingdom off to war. (Source: http://operationrainfall.com/2017/08/05/review-final-fantasy-xii-zodiac-age/)

Final Fantasy XII kicks off with great spectacle. The opening cinematic chronicles the fall of the protagonists’ homeland, the desert kingdom of Dalmasca, to the overwhelming military might of the Archadian Empire. It exudes supreme quality, showcasing such mastery in graphical presentation, musical orchestration and storytelling that one could mistake it for a marvelous fantasy film. If you haven’t seen the intro to FFXII, and don’t plan on picking up the release, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not giving it a quick viewing here.

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Pictured here are Balthier and Fran, a sky-pirate duo who find themselves tangled up in the political intrigue of the main plot. (Source: https://www.goombastomp.com/heres-buy-final-fantasy-xii-zodiac-age/)

In under ten minutes, the intro sets the tone and look of the world of Ivalice: sprawling, extravagant cities inhabited by a variety of colorful fantasy races serve as the backdrop of a beautiful world torn apart by war. Knights clad in silvered armor clash with sword and shield beneath skies choked by the fiery destruction of flying airship fortresses. Its a wildly intoxicating display that merges ancient myth with some more modern liberties, marrying old and new technologies and concepts in a way that evades classification as either pure fantasy or science fiction. The setting is quite unlike any other, with the closest comparison being the scifi-fantasy realm of Star Wars, but still do the two worlds differ greatly, with FFXII possessing more of a classical folklore atmosphere. Eastern and Western mythological influences can be clearly seen, executed with a flourish of pomp and grandeur that the series’ art direction is known for.

The main story takes place years after the war has ended, with the good guys ultimately folding to the Imperials’ superior force. We are introduced to Vaan and Penelo, impoverished war orphans with nothing to their names but their dreams of a better life. A few rash decisions later — Vaan’s hatred for the occupying imperial soldiers motivates him to burglarize the city palace — and we encounter Fran and Balthier, two roguish sky-pirates vying for the very same treasure Vaan has pilfered. While they argue over the ownership of the stolen goods, a rebel uprising rocks the city, and in the midst of evading the pursuant soldiers, they cross paths with Ashe, the daughter of the deceased former king. After falling into the bad guys clutches and breaking out of imprisonment shortly thereafter, they run across Basch, a disgraced knight of Dalmasca, and the supposed murderer of Ashe’s kingly father.

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(Image Source:https://popgeeks.net/whats-new-pc-version-final-fantasy-xii-zodiac-age/ )

Some of the main cast certainly possess stronger writing than others. Vaan barely rises above being a whiny pseudo-Aladdin, and Fran amounts to little more than Balthier’s exotic, eye-candy sidekick. Nevertheless, each individual in the entourage undergoes considerable character development, and by the ending credits, I found myself fond of each of them. This definitely came as a breath of fresh air, as Japanese media ported over to the states, especially in the realm of anime and videogames, tends to bring with it considerable helpings of cringe. Even a legendary franchise like Final Fantasy has its share of bungled storytelling — yes, I’m looking at you, Tidus laughing scene.

In stark comparison to these narrative missteps, FFXII‘s characters are among the most mature and believable that the series has had yet. In particular, Balthier and Basch espouse such charisma that it’s a delight whenever they receive screentime, and the internal struggles of each of the main protagonists, even the weaker ones, are compelling and relatable. Vaan, orphaned by his homeland’s war with the invading imperials, finds his xenophobic attitudes challenged when he befriends the kind and honorable Archadian Prince, Larsa; the stoic and mysterious Fran shows a more vulnerable side when she is shunned by the village she once called home, having chosen long ago to abandon its safety and comfort in exchange for freedom as a sky pirate.

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Basch was one of my favorite characters, if only for his brooding one-liners than for any other reason. In another scene, he overhears young Vaan complaining about the headstrong personality of their companion, Princess Ashe. Basch passes by and quips, “Now you know the joys of serving royalty.” I wish every game in the series had writing akin to XII‘s. (Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNol3Sm0o7w)

Not only are the character arcs well realized, but the dialogue between the cast is charming, avoiding the outlandish personalities and tropes often present in some popular Japanese games and animation. Obnoxious, flamboyant cliches are kept to a minimum, and though someone occasionally launches into overly theatric monologue, these scenes feel more Shakespearean than they do cartoony. The enjoyable dialogue and writing extend to the game’s villains, presented in such a way that they don’t seem blandly evil as they do ambitious, seeing themselves as heroes struggling to bring about a golden age for humanity as a whole. Ultimately, I found myself just as sympathetic to the antagonists, whose lofty ideals in some ways made Vaan and friends appear petty in comparison.

The cast are carried by excellent voice acting, which is performed remarkably well across the board, from major personalities to the minor supporting roles. When playing a JRPG, one might opt for the originally spoken Japanese voices in lieu of the oftentimes sub par English voicework, but you’d be a fool if you deigned to do so in FFXII. The random citizens, soldiers and natives of Ivalice, while usually lacking in spoken lines themselves, still dispense colorful conversation which provide a window into the everyday joys and struggles of life in Ivalice.

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The npcs scattered about the game’s cities, villages and wilderness will provide you lore regarding the world around you. They speak in a flowery, antiquated dialect that I found rather charming. (Image Source: http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Weather_Eye)

So the story is more than competent. Sadly, like other entries in the franchise, the narrative sort of sags a bit at the end as the game ditches its mature-drama trappings in lieu of an over the top, anime-style final boss. Regardless, the ending cutscene and credits draw an otherwise elegant close to the journey. However, the story is only part of the experience, for most of your time will be spent wandering the land and engaging in battles. The story and atmosphere are what draw you into the game world, while the fights and exploration are the bits that keep you engaged.

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Despite the fireworks that ensue, it was never unclear what was happening in a fight, which is a great credit to the visual design. Many games make the mistake of incurring too many particle effects and obscuring the clarity of a battle. (Image Source: https://www.rpgsite.net/interview/5595-final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-age-interview-developers-on-tactical-gameplay-cheats-legacy-and-more)

FFXII plays in a manner remarkably similar to previous entries, or at least in concept. The player travels around a large world, encountering dangerous enemies in the wild and in dungeons while pursuing objectives to further the plot. Each successive entry in the series puts a twist on this basic premise, and XII does so by allowing players to see enemies wandering around the area and engage them without transitioning into a separate battle screen. Older titles, like most classic JRPGS of old, would allow you to wander through various areas until, after taking a randomly generated number of steps, a battle would trigger. This battle would unfold in a different instanced location, and after the enemies were defeated, experience points and money for items are earned and the player is taken back to their previous position in the exploration area.

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In older titles in the series (pictured here is Final Fantasy I), characters would traverse an overworld, and visit various towns, dungeons and other locations. However, traveling through certain areas, such as the wilderness or dangerous caves and ruins, would occasionally trigger a battle…(Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ8oJ8ZX_4E)
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…which would take place in a “Battle Screen”. Here, players would choose various actions for characters within the party to take, such as a attacking with a weapon, using an item, casting a spell, or making an attempt to flee the fight. (Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5kmkOQjvSQ)

XII does away with the separate exploration/battle modes, merging them into one seamless whole. Enemies wander about in full view in the game’s open world, and if you stray too closely, they will initiate battles themselves — or, you can choose to target enemies first, if you so wish. The beginning of battle is announced by clear, animated lines that extend from the acting individual to their target; enemies display red lines that arc from above them over to the heads of your party members, and when you command your characters to perform an action, blue lines extend from above their heads and fall down onto their targets. It might sound strange on paper, but seeing it in execution shows just how effective it is a conveying who is targeting whom, without obscuring the action.

This is the first singleplayer entry in the series to introduce this gameplay change, and it is a considerable improvement over past titles. It sort of spoiled me, because when I began playing through other JRPGs, I realized how jarring the stitching together of the two separate exploration/battle instances could be. Walking a dozen steps and then having your progress halted by yet another entourage of giant rats/goblins/insert-generic-fantasy-enemy-here is annoying: It limits the player’s appreciation of the thematic presentation of an RPG’s level design set-pieces. FFXII does not commit this sin. The fantasy world you are actively treading IS the battlefield.

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Most wilderness areas are populated by mobs of moderately tough enemies, but there exists also a huge array of gargantuan boss enemies to challenge. As per usual for Final Fantasy, they often require the player to think on their feet, applying the many abilities of their characters in an imaginative fashion. And a lot of grinding for experience points, of course, to ensure your characters are up to snuff. (Image Source: http://www.shindig.nz/gaming/final-fantasy-xii-zodiac-age-review/)

Combat is usual JRPG fare. Characters can unleash attacks with weapons, cast spells, or summon powerful creatures to fight in their stead. One of the nuances of this Final Fantasy is the addition of the Gambit system, in which the player can assign AI to the characters so that they perform actions automatically. Much like the merging of combat and exploration into one continuous mode, this is yet another refinement that FFXII brought to the JRPG franchise as a whole. Repetitive actions that are performed over and over and over — attacking enemies, healing party members after battles, etc. — are enacted without your manual input, leaving the player to save their thumbs some extra mashing while their macros take care of the tedium.

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A glimpse of the Gambit screen for the character Balthier. Every member of the main cast has their own fully customizable list of macros you can set up, for the actions they’ll be performing for most battles. This way, you only have to contemplate the more crucial, strategic decisions of challenging fights, as the circumstances for such battles often dictate you think on your feet. Grinding weaker enemies over and over to get some extra levels has never been more carefree. Image Source: https://www.playstationtrophies.org/forum/final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-age/312251-favorite-gambit-setups.html

The Gambit system was a very controversial feature, and part of the reason why so many longtime fans decried XII upon its initial release. This irked me — if it truly bothered them so much, they could simply have not utilized the Gambits, as they’re not by any means forced upon the player. The Gambits are entirely optional and can be switched off with a simple button press. The system exists as a way to save the player from having to manually perform the same basic functions for the hundreds of thousands of battles the game requires you to fight in order to progress. JRPGs expect you to defeat the same enemies over and over in a grind, so that players feel that their strength and progress is hard earned; Gambits just allow you to save your poor hands some extra effort, letting the less-intense fights play themselves out while you observe. Nowadays, with the game re-released under the Zodiac Age branding, games journalists and players are instead lauding the Gambit system as being “ahead of its time”, and more or less agreeing that its a refinement for the genre.

It pisses me off, but least the game is finally getting some recognition for one of the many reasons its so special.

Anyways.

Defeating enemies awards experiences points and gold, the latter of which can be used to purchase consecutively more powerful weapons and items, so that more powerful enemies can be challenged, ad infinitum. Characters also earn Job Points, which are used to unlocks pieces of a massive License Board. Experience Points make characters level up and grow more powerful, while the License board allows players to spend their Job Points to unlock individual tiles on an overall enormous board. Unlocked tiles provide all number of benefits, from additional stat boosts (more health for characters, more damage with weapons, etc.) to special abilities. Most weapons and armor can’t be equipped until the license tile for that specific set of gear is unlocked, gating much of the gear behind the License Board.

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One of the License Boards I was talking about earlier. Take note of the lovely renaissance aesthetics that permeate throughout the menu’s appearance. (Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1stz6FAFOVs)

In the original Final Fantasy XII, all characters shared the exact same License Board, and boy, was it massive. The amount of freedom was exciting, but also paralyzing, and in my experience, I ended up making a lot of my characters very, very similar, purchasing the same favorite abilities that I preferred the characters have. Player choice can be a great thing, but in this case, it watered down the gameplay differences between my characters, as they all ended up some variation of heavy-armor wearing white mages. Another new feature that the Zodiac Age re-release brings with it, is the addition of Job License Boards.

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One can witness with just a precursory glance how varied each character’s skills and stats become, based on the structure of their Job’s License Board. (Image Source: https://www.vg247.com/2017/05/26/final-fantasy-12-the-zodiac-age-get-acquainted-with-the-gambit-system-in-this-new-trailer/)

With the new Job System, players must choose a “Job” for each character, with Jobs corresponding to many of the old classes from previous Final Fantasy titles, such as “Black Mage” or “Knight”. Each Job provides a unique License Board, with each Board giving access to different kinds of equipment, spells and abilities. White Mages, for instance, gain powerful healing magic and better magic resource regeneration, while Shikaris have excellent attack speed and gain access to ailment-inflicting knives and light armor. This system clears up a lot of the mystery and confusion that many players encountered with the previous License Board system, endowing the player with choice while also assisting in giving each character their own flavor and role in combat.

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I’ll admit, I was bemused by some of the word choices for these classes. White Mage is pretty standard jargon for healer, at least for a final fantasy fan, but how many people know what the hell a “Shikari” or “Uhlan” is? (Source Image: https://www.rpgsite.net/feature/5779-final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-age-best-jobs-for-each-playable-character-and-job-system-primer)

I did enjoy my time exploring and fighting through FFXII, even though battles against non-boss enemies eventually get very repetitive. The path that the main story takes you through mixes a good balance of combat, exploration and story, and yet, there is a considerable hunk of side content for the player to complete as well. Most of this takes shape in the form of optional boss battles scattered throughout XII‘s gigantic open world. These fights are each cinematic and engaging, and even more so than the story’s bosses, they require special strategies in order to be defeated.

However, FFXII only excels when the combat is packaged together with intriguing narrative beats and beautiful new visual set pieces to traverse. Much of the side content takes place in previously traveled locations, and with little to no narrative elements attached to them. Because of this, it starts to feel more like padding than extra content for those who enjoyed the main adventure. Even during the central story, the latter half begins to sag as cutscenes and dialogue become more and more sparse, and the context behind all of the monster/imperial slaying is found lacking. This is a problem the Final Fantasys have always had: the games feel longer than they were meant to after about halfway through the journey, and the battles become a tedious slog preventing you from seeing the story’s end.

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The journey begins in the deserts of Dalmasca, but as the adventure progresses, you’re taken to a surprising variety of climates and environments. (Image Source: https://www.gameaxis.com/reviews/review-great-return-ivalic-final-fantasy-xii-zodiac-age/)

Nevertheless, its a journey worth the price of admission, if only to take in the gorgeous world of Ivalice. I’d be doing a great injustice if I didn’t also briefly discuss the game’s music — The Zodiac Age features both the original and re-orchestrated soundtracks, and either are more than worthy of a listen. I’d wager its some of the very best music I have ever heard, utilizing classical instrumentation to evoke such emotion that its practically beyond words. One of my favorite tracks, “Eruyt Village”, can be found here. If those flutes and strings don’t make you feel something…

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Concept art of the aforementioned Eruyt Village, homeland of the Viera race. They’re basically just feminine elves, with bunny ears…yeah. (Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE0iAAZm5Kc)

In addition to the content of the original release, the remaster comes with a host of appreciated tune ups. The remastered visuals and playing at 60 fps were lovely, and the ability to pull up a transparent map overlay of the various areas greatly assists in navigating what could be labyrinthine level designs. There’s also the ability to boost game speeds up to two or four times faster than normal, which helps a lot with grinding for experience and Job Points. The game’s various encounters have been rebalanced as well, which allows for a more gradual difficulty curve, and more seamless progression through the content. Included along with the main game is a Trial Mode, which loads your existing party into a separate mode in which you must progress past 100 pre-designed encounters, each more punishing than the last. It’s definitely something suited for those who enjoyed the battle system much more than I did…I had killed far too many fantasy creatures and imperial dogs already to even consider giving it a whirl.

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Let me be real with you for a sec and say that the map overlay is my favorite new feature. The original game *did* have a map, but it was an entirely separate screen that you often had to pull up and put away multiple times, accompanied by a not-instantaneous loading segment. If you’ve never played the original, just take my word for it, and be fucking glad that this is a thing. (Image Source: https://blog.eu.playstation.com/2017/06/08/return-to-the-world-of-ivalice-and-the-resistance-in-final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-ages-new-story-trailer/)

Overall, I had a very good time with The Zodiac Age, and appreciated the crisper, clearer visuals the remaster provided. I wish the combat could have kept me more interested, but the narrative adventure was rewarding, and I can’t say enough just how world-class the visuals are — each and every Final Fantasy brings its own brand of downright godly visual design. Playing the game feels like therapy, for so many reasons, with the only excuse for me to not recommend starting a save is the time investment required to finish — it took me roughly sixty hours to see the credits, and that was only a minuscule fraction of the side content completed.

Most people who play this game will enjoy it quite a lot, I think — its definitely one that is near and dear to my heart. If you don’t like Final Fantasy XII, then you don’t like RPGs in general, which the game can’t be faulted for, anyways, but if you’re interested, The Zodiac Age brings this classic up to modern standards with a flourish, so don’t be afraid to try it.

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(Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7g1ZVtbFnss)

(Featured Image Source: https://middleofnowheregaming.com/2016/06/07/final-fantasy-xii-the-zodiac-age-announced-for-playstation-4/)

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