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Review: Final Fantasy XII – The Zodiac Age

Final Fantasy XII was one of those games that had both lovers and haters back when it first came out in 2006 for the PS2. Fans of the Final Fantasy franchise were often having arguments with each other about whether it was a good game or not. Some people welcomed the changes in gameplay and storytelling, while others believed that those same changes made the game lose its identity as a Final Fantasy title. Now, more than a decade later, Square Enix is about to release an HD remaster of the game for the PS4, called Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.

Intriguing narrative

The story of FFXII is simply put fantastic. It is best described as Game of Thrones but without all the gory scenes. Twists happen unexpectedly throughout the game, which makes you want more. Instead of focusing on giant celestial beings that are out to destroy the world like other FF titles, FFXII tells a much more grounded and mature story. Its narrative is centered around politics, betrayal and military dominance. Right from the prolog at the start, you’re immediately sucked in the fictional world of Ivalice. The story starts with an invasion of the militaristic Archadian Empire into the kingdom of Dalmasca. After a futile act of resistance, the King of Dalmasca has agreed to sign a treaty which gives Archadia occupational right in exchange for peace. But before he can sign the papers, the king is assassinated. Two years go by and Archadia now occupies Dalmasca, which is not to the people’s liking. One of those people is Vaan, a young thief who feels compelled to take back his homeland from the invaders.

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Penelo and Vaan, two members of the main cast

While the story of FFXII was praised by both critics and FF-fans back when it first came out, a lot of people complained that Vaan was a forgettable character and thus a bad protagonist to play as. While it’s true that Vaan’s personality is not that intriguing, it must be made clear that he is not the protagonist of FFXII’s story. Yes, you do follow his character throughout the story, but the narrative is not centered around him. The developers of FFXII chose to focus on multiple characters to tell the story, instead of choosing one main character. Vaan is part of a small group of people that consists out of well-developed characters that all have their own stories to tell. That’s why advertisements for the game always displayed the same six characters that form the main party. Whether you play as Vaan, Penelo, Balthier, Fran, Ashe or Basch, you’ll always have a character that’s unique in its own way. By the end of the game, you’ll love all of them.

MMO-inspired combat

The combat mechanics were probably the biggest point of discussion after its original release. Many people mistake the combat in FFXII as a real-time system, but that is not (entirely) true.  FFXII ditched the turn-based combat system that most other Final Fantasy titles had and implemented a system that builds further on the combat mechanic of its predecessor, Final Fantasy XI. While it’s true that during combat you can walk around and turn the camera, you still have to wait for an action bar to fill up in order to execute an attack, which means you still have to wait for your ‘turn’ to attack. The same goes for your enemies, they have their own action bars and can attack you while you’re waiting for your bar to fill up and vice versa. This means that you don’t have much time to think about your next move and thus have to act quickly in order defeat your enemy. Luckily, it’s easy to execute commands, especially if you make use of the Gambit system.

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The yellow bars on the bottom have to fill up in order to execute attacks

The Gambit system gives you the ability to set up specific commands for your party members to execute during combat. For example, Penelo can cast a healing spell whenever you’re below 50% health and immediately follow that with an attack move towards the enemy. These commands can be quite helpful, especially with tough bosses. Just don’t expect to be able to use the same commands over and over again. The enemy AI can often be quite challenging and forces you to change tactics every now and then. If you don’t want to waste time messing around with the Gambit system, then don’t worry, you can play the entire game without using it. Just know that I will make some of the fights quite challenging, especially if you don’t have that much experience with JRPG’s.

Zodiac Job System

The original FFXII introduced the License Board as its leveling system. The License Board basically gave you free reign over what skills and bonuses your party would unlock when leveling up, instead of assigning typical RPG classes to them, like mage or warrior. This system offered a great way to make your playthrough a unique experience since you could literally create any type of character you wanted. The downside with the system, however, was that near the end of the game you would have equipped every party member with the same skills to maximize their attack power. It also made them quite overpowered, making every enemy a one-hit kill. FFXII: The Zodiac Age tries to improve this system by giving you the ability to assign up to two roles towards a character.

The are twelve roles to choose from
The are twelve roles to choose from

After assigning a role, you still gain access to the original License Board. The difference with the new system, however, is that the License Board is now somewhat limited. You can still choose whatever skill or bonus you like, but your options are now centered around the job you have chosen. For example, you choose warrior as a role and have to choose a skill to assign to your character. You’ll have a wide arrange of physical attack focused skills, but not that many that are magic focused since the warrior is not a Magic-centered role.

This improved system is, in my opinion, better than the original. It still gives you a lot of options to play around with, while still making sure that every party member will remain a unique character thanks to the different roles you’ve assigned to him/her.

Not actually new additions

If you happen to be a collector of Japan imported games, then you may have noticed something about this supposed ‘updated’ version of FFXII. The improved License Board system that I’ve described above can also be found in another version of FFXII, called FFXII: International Zodiac Job System. This version of the game is a Japan-exclusive edition which was released in 2007, a year after the original game came out. The western videogame market had to miss out on this version. Until now, that is. FFXII: The Zodiac Age is actually an HD remaster of FFXII: International Zodiac Job System. All of the improvements and additional content compared to the original version are thus not made for the HD remaster but were already present in the Japan exclusive version. The additional content consisted out of the Zodiac Job System, a fast forward button to speed up grinding, a horde mode called Trial Mode and a New Game+ mode. All these additions are also present in the HD remaster.

The HD upgrade works really well with the art style
The HD upgrade works really well with the art style

So what does FFXII: The Zodiac Age bring to the table as new content? Well, not that much, to be fair. It supports Playstation Trophies, some technical improvements like bug fixes and comes with a reorchestrated soundtrack. The new soundtrack sounds good, but if you’d prefer to hear the original, then you can do that with a few simple button presses. If you have the PS4 Pro, then you can also enjoy the game in a 4K resolution but unlike other titles like Final Fantasy XV, it does not give you the option to choose between a higher resolution or a better framerate. The game plays at a locked 30 fps so it’s far from unplayable, but it would have been nice to have the option to increase it to 60fps on PS4 Pro, especially if you take into account that the graphics are from a 10-year-old game.

Verdict

FFXII: The Zodiac Age is, like I said before, not that much different from FFXII: International Zodiac Job System. One could say that this HD remaster does not offer much extra besides the improved graphics and other minor things. However, FFXII: International Zodiac Job System was not available outside of Japan, so the HD remaster finally gives the western Final Fantasy fans the opportunity to enjoy all the extra content they’ve been missing out on for ten years. That said, even without those improvements, FFXII was still a fantastic game in its original version. Being able to replay a great game like this with all the improvements and upgraded visuals is a wonderful experience that every JRPG-enthusiast should try out. Fantastic story, well-written characters, fluid combat and great visuals, this game has it all. If you haven’t played FFXII before and have a PS4, then I highly recommend playing this game.

9/10