Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age – A classic perfected – Review

Gare – Tuesday, March 13, 2018 2:12 PM
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Final Fantasy XII is somewhat of an odd entry in Square Enix’s decades-old franchise for a variety of reasons – one could even label it the black sheep of the series. Originally released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2, FFXII followed FFX as the next single-player-focused mainline entry (XI was an MMO, if you’ll recall), and in doing so, left the fan base seemingly divided. The game broke away from its predecessors’ turn-based combat system, instead opting for an MMORPG-ish approach, but that wasn’t the only semi-experimental aspect of the project – the game was a fundamentally novel experience that drove the franchise in a different, albeit hardly unfamiliar direction, provided one is aware of director Yasumi Matsuno’s oeuvre. Spunky teenagers taking up arms against moustache-twirling villains was a thing of the past: instead, Final Fantasy XII took you on a journey rife with political intrigue and moral ambiguity, adopting a tone far more reminiscent of Matsuno’s earlier RPG classics, including Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, among others.

Wings of my own

Final Fantasy XII’s humble beginnings place you in the role of Vaan, an orphaned young man whose older brother was killed two years prior to the events of the main storyline, and who dreams of one day becoming a sky pirate in hopes of steering his life towards a better future. Without going into the nitty-gritty details, one thing leads to another and Vaan, along with a number of other characters, ends up making contact with the thought-to-be dead princess of Dalmasca, and from then on out, the journey largely focuses on said princess’ attempts at restoring her kingdom’s independence, wresting it free from the menacing grip of the Archadian Empire. Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XII is very much a story centered around Ashe, the princess I’d just talked about, and even though you control Vaan in a lot of situations, he soon ends up feeling inconsequential at best – someone who’s largely just along for the ride. Narratively speaking, the game is not necessarily the most mind-blowing tale ever seen in the medium, but the way it’s told – with all its political treachery, poignant speeches, and frequent talks of queen and country – make it feel more like a genuine costume piece rather than a gung-ho world-saving adventure smelling of teen spirit.

That's what a sky pirate does. You fly, don’t you?

Similarly, the game’s main cast is hardly ever set back by arguments, awkward misunderstandings or love triangles, as other JRPG protagonists so often are. There are duties to fulfill, kingdoms to reclaim and emotional wounds to soothe, but the plot does it all with subtlety and restraint, rarely ever opting for melodramatic confrontations or flamboyant displays of the power of friendship. That is not to say that such an approach would be wrong – as an avid fan of such JRPGs, it would be silly of me to judge that colorful and entertaining slice of the genre – yet Final Fantasy XII’s method of presenting characters and building atmosphere is certainly one I find myself fascinated by. It is not without faults, though: if I were to take issue with something, it would be the game’s insistence on getting caught up in its kingdom-spanning quest at the cost of further fleshing out its otherwise interesting characters. The most we get are implications and brief flashes, executed beautifully but perhaps not often enough: be it Balthier’s complicated past, Fran’s bittersweet familial troubles, or Basch’s conflict with his embittered brother, Final Fantasy XII offers glimpses of powerful character moments that, with a more generous usage of flashbacks and dialogue, could have truly shined. Instead, the narrative ultimately decides to only briefly brush against its main cast’s personal demons before hurriedly marching onwards to save the kingdom for Ashe. And while the ending is adequate enough, especially if viewed in the context of Final Fantasy or JRPGs in general, I wasn’t entirely happy with how the game’s primary antagonist was handled in the finale.

Ah, stunning is Dalmasca’s desert bloom

Yet whatever shortcomings the game may have in terms of characterization or plotting, it makes up for it elsewhere, delivering one of the most immersive, breathtaking worlds found under the Final Fantasy banner. The land of Ivalice, serving as the setting for FFXII’s grand adventure, is one rich in culture and variety, so much so that one almost forgets that this was all originally brought to life on almost 20-year-old hardware. Granted, the remaster’s graphical facelift does lend the game a somewhat shinier, more modern feel, Final Fantasy XII’s world has always been brilliantly designed, oozing a sense of wonder that lesser titles may rightfully be envious of. From Rabanastre’s bustling, crowded streets to the modern metropolis of Archades, and from Vagrant Story-esque catacombs to humble oases tucked away in unseen corners of the Dalmascan desert, Ivalice is a genuine treasure trove for those with an eye for vibrant worlds, never once failing to impress its would-be explorers.

Zodiac Job System

The real meat of Final Fantasy XII lies in its gameplay, and this is where the current version’s subtitle – The Zodiac Age – must be mentioned. Based on the Japan-exclusive International Zodiac Job System version, The Zodiac Age revamps the original’s character growth system in fairly drastic ways. Instead of allowing each of your six characters to potentially learn every single skill and spell available in the game, as the original did, The Zodiac Age forces you to pick two specific classes – Jobs – for your heroes, thus limiting the number and type of abilities, spells, and passive bonuses they can obtain. These Jobs include classic roles such as White, Red, and Black Mages, Uhlans (peculiarly named, but nonetheless filling in the familiar role of the Dragoon), Knights, and so on – their total number goes up to twelve, so there’s plenty of variety to be had when planning your party. And planning is indeed part of the deal, at least to a certain degree, as choosing a Job is very much a permanent thing and cannot be altered later on. And although this new system may sound restrictive at first, I didn’t particularly mind it as much as I thought I would: it managed to streamline character progression in a way that made it difficult to mess things up, seeing how each Job has its own little care package of sorts, containing the necessary skills for that given Job to be effective. And with the ability to assign not just one, but two Jobs to each character – potentially using one class to make up for the shortcomings of another – The Zodiac Age makes it very easy to craft a reasonably balanced team of adventurers regardless of what choices you end up making.

Once your Jobs are selected and your team is assembled, it’s time to head out into the vast unknown to do battle, and – as stated earlier – The Zodiac Age drops the turn-based I-go-you-go style of its predecessors in favor of something you’d find in an MMORPG. But what elevates the system above its peers is the so-called Gambit system – a functionality that you may have also seen used in Dragon Age: Origins – allowing you to custom-tailor your characters’ AI behavior to a certain degree. The basics are simple: each character can be outfitted with a set of rules they will follow in combat. These rules are called Gambits and operate with a set condition, as well as the action to be taken when that condition is met. To give an example: if you set up a Gambit that says “if your HP drops below 70%, use a Potion” or “if an enemy is weak to fire, use the Firaga spell”, then your character will automatically carry out that action during battle under those specific conditions. The result of this system is quite easy to grasp: you can set up Gambits to automatically do the basic stuff (who wants to select Attack from the menu every time an enemy shows up, anyway?), letting you only manually intervene when you truly have to. Having said that, FFXII’s main storyline of roughly 50-60 hours rarely ever provides much of a challenge, and – though this may just be my mind playing tricks on me – even felt a touch easier compared to the vanilla release, with a few bosses that used to be somewhat threatening on the PS2 going down much faster this time around. If you really want to find out what your team is capable of, you’ll have to look for alternate options, which leads me to my next point.

Champion of Ivalice

The game does offer a whole array of potentially challenging side content, primarily in the form of optional dungeons and boss fights, which, if tackled at the right time – that is, before getting too powerful and over-leveled – should provide for an entertaining enough distraction from the main plot. And if that wasn’t enough, you could also fire up the so-called Trial Mode from the main menu, which technically serves as a boss rush mode for those hoping to test their mettle against some of the toughest foes in the game through a hundred different stages, or start your adventure anew in New Game Minus, a special game mode that forces all your characters to stay at Level 1 forever. What’s also worth noting is that a considerable chunk of FFXII’s areas are entirely optional and are never once visited during the storyline, meaning that straying off the beaten path – provided you’re a high enough level and sufficiently prepared, of course – is more than recommended to get the most out of your experience, as many of these extra areas are just as, if not more interesting than those you do visit during the main plot. Overall, there’s a satisfying breadth of additional activities to sink one’s teeth into: completing various mini-events across Ivalice, visiting optional areas, collecting all the hidden Espers, or tracking down unique monsters are just a few of the many ways in which you can extend your already lengthy stay in Final Fantasy XII’s world.

Remastered and perfected

The improved graphics and reimagined Job system aren’t the only additions The Zodiac Age has to offer compared to the vanilla release of 2006. Right off the bat, it includes a wholly reorchestrated soundtrack, elevating composer Hitoshi Sakimoto’s original score to new heights, while also adding a handful of extra tracks created specifically for the remaster. Despite my initial skepticism – borne primarily of a deep-rooted love for the original – the new soundtrack quickly won me over, and although the game does give you the option to switch between the old and new music on the fly, I would certainly recommend giving the fresh rendition a shot, especially if you’re a veteran who’s already listened to the classic version a hundred times over. One of the most important gameplay additions is the fast-forward mode, which allows you to speed up the flow of the game with the press of a button – much like in the case of Trails of Cold Steel, a game that featured a similar functionality, this is an extremely convenient, albeit somewhat ironic feature. Indeed: although its very presence inadvertently admits that the game contains an element of tedium here and there (and certain dungeons do absolutely wear out their welcome and start to drag after a while, forcing you to walk long distances), the speedup mode serves a valuable purpose for the time-strapped gamer, to the point where I now almost can’t imagine playing Final Fantasy XII without it. In addition to all the above, the PC port of The Zodiac Age finally uncaps the framerate and allows the game to run at a silky 60 frames per second compared to the PS4 version’s 30, easily making this release the definitive edition of the title.

The leading man never dies

All in all, although the game may not be as strong in the storyline department as other titles, its shortcomings pale in comparison to its wonderfully realized world, tight battle mechanics, and mature presentation. I could find faults with it, and indeed I have in this very review, but to me, Final Fantasy XII is an exceptional video game that – even over a decade after its initial launch – remains one of the most fascinating, cleverly-designed, and content-rich titles that ever bore the Final Fantasy name. It is a timeless classic now honed to nigh-perfection, yet also a game that will not appeal to every type of JRPG fan: for many, Ivalice’s song will fall on deaf ears, and that is perfectly okay. However, if you happen to be receptive to Final Fantasy XII’s poem of war and Gambits, you’re in for a truly exceptional performance.


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