Game Review: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4)

If I was to tell you a tale about a young blonde kid, while traveling with a smuggler of sorts and his animal companion, had met up with a princess to thwart an evil empire, you’d probably assume I was talking about Star Wars, and you’d be mostly right in that assumption, but that is still very much the premise to Final Fantasy XII, a game that originally released on the PlayStation 2 way back in 2006 and has since been re-released for the PlayStation 4 as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.

While the Final Fantasy games haven’t been some of my favorite games I’ve ever played, I have enjoyed several of them, but I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan. I’ve tried playing through VII but I only get so far and then quit. I wasn’t a huge fan of VIII or IX and despite liking much of what I saw about X, I never did play it myself. I really enjoyed XI; the online MMO and played it for around two years. I also played quite a bit of XIII and XIV, and you can read my review for XV here.

My main issues with the series, up until XI, was that I was never a fan of the wait and see approach to turn based combat, and this was something that XII changed, as it was the first of the main series Final Fantasy games to do so. While I never fully completed it at the time, and frankly, I can’t recall what made me stop playing it, It was easily my favorite of the series and one that always stayed with me, despite the fact I had never fully completed it.

While Final Fantasy XII was released back in 2006, it was a short time after that it was re-released in Japan as ‘Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System’ and this recent remaster is based upon that version of the game, featuring some changes to the job system, whereas the original release didn’t really have defined job classes. This release also features a wealth of other adjustments, improvements, and some fresh new additions that make this game even better than before, and yes, this time I did fully complete it.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age brings with it a lot of changes to the game while still having a few issues remain, many of which I will talk about near the end of the review. The positive changes that are present are the revamped Job system, a better on-screen map, auto-saving, faster loading times, 7.1 ch sound support, new items, spells, revamped shop inventories and tweaks to the difficulty due to the addition of the job classes. They even moved the secret shop you discover late in the game, it’s still in the same central area, but it has been relocated nonetheless. There is also a Trial mode added that has you face off against 100 floors of enemies while you earn rewards for your group. Those looking to jump right back into the game will notice a new game+ mode added to keep the adventure going.

Lastly, is one of my favorite new additions; Speed Mode. This allows the game to be sped up, making encounters and grinding fly by so fast that you don’t feel almost any of the repetition that comes with EXP grinding or traveling the large sprawling open-world. Thankfully, the music stays at the normal speed, so you don’t have to listen to sped up versions of the fantastic score, which has been completely re-recorded, but you do also have the option of listening to the original music.

Final Fantasy XII is probably one of the least talked about in the series despite Famitsu, Japan’s most widely read and respected game magazine, giving the game a perfect 40/40 score, not to mention being the first PS2 game to ever hit that high on their rating scale, it was still a game that many fans of the series weren’t interested in singing its praises and many just flat out hated it. The game was – is – very different than what had come before and it didn’t follow many of the past conventions of what fans had come to expect from the series. Different doesn’t always mean better, but in this case, at least for myself, it definitely did.

The game takes place in the land of Ivalice, a name that should sound familiar to those who have played Final Fantasy Tactics and the seemingly unrelated RPG, Vagrant Story, as these games all share the same world. The empires of Archadia and Rozarria are at war with one another and Dalmasca, a small kingdom that borders each of these lands is caught in the middle. When Dalmasca is forcefully claimed by Archadia, its princess, Ashe, who is claimed to have taken her own life during this unlawful conquest, secretly went underground and created a resistance movement.

We are also introduced to Basch, a man marked as a traitor to Dalmasca, as well as Vaan and Penelo, two citizens of Dalmasca’s Royal City of Rabanastre. Vaan, while breaking into the Royal Palace, meets up with the Sky Pirates Balthier and Fran, the two best characters in the game and eventually the whole group of freshly made allies then takes the fight to the evil Archadian Empire.

The cast and even parts of the central plot are directly influenced by Star Wars, which is the reason for my intro at the start of this review. You have the young boy who wants nothing more than to fight the Empire, as well as the Princess who shares the same motivation. There are Balthier and Fran who easily fit the mold of Han Solo and Chewbacca and you even have black armor clad Knights and a single green colored bounty hunter than wants revenge upon Balthier.

Before I dive too far into the combat, I’ll need to explain a few mechanics first. Characters can be equipped with Gambits, preset commands that provide instructions on what to do under certain circumstances. You can have characters use certain spells or attacks when a set number of enemies are nearby or use a specific item when under the negative status effect of something like Poison or Petrify. There are thousands of different combinations and how well you set the Gambits to each character and what role they have in the party can make or break your group during difficult encounters. Gambits need to be purchased via shops and you need to be able to use certain attacks or spells, and this is where the License Board comes into play.

Upon selecting your starting job for each character, you’ll need to purchase tiles on the Licence board to unlock the ability to use certain weapons, gear, spells, or boost HP amounts or how fast your Action Bar fills up. You’ll purchase these tiles with LP, which you earn alongside EXP. Where EXP is used to level up and boost central stats like Strength and Speed, LP is used to define your character within their role. When you can eventually select a character’s second job, you’ll be given a second board to unlock more from, so choosing what you want your second job to be may be based upon what you feel is missing from that character’s first job.

The original Final Fantasy XII didn’t have defined job classes and this meant you needed to work your way across a massive license board that had you unlock a bit of everything in order to make your characters fit certain roles within the group. This in some ways made them a Jack of all trades, but master of none. By implementing job classes and changing the License Board to accommodate this, it allows each character to find a role within the group and since that board is then tailored to that specific job, it makes them far more efficient as well. The jobs you have to choose from in The Zodiac Age are Archer, Black Mage, Bushi, Foebreaker, Knight, Machinist, Monk, Red Battlemage, Shikari, Time Battlemage, Uhlan, and White Mage.

As you progress through the game and unlock many of its secrets, you’ll encounter Espers. These are meant to be semi-powerful creatures that you can summon into battle should things get a bit difficult. There are better ones than others but mostly I found them far too weak to really be that great at all. Several of them would die after taking a few hits and their attacks weren’t really anything special. The battles to get them are thrilling, but the prize of then using them in battle just isn’t as rewarding.

Now that I’ve explained the basics of combat, let’s flesh out the structure of how fights go down. Combat is based almost entirely on how you’ve set up your Gambits, and what jobs you have given your teammates. Attacking or being attacked will be indicated by colored lines that flow out to your target, or to you if an enemy is then targeting the character you are currently playing as or the other two members of your group. There are times where you will have a guest character and you can fully control them as well, you just can’t give them Gambits or equip gear or weapons to them, they are generally set up to be helpful but I found them to not be nearly as durable as my fellow party members.

Combat is semi-real time and you’ll automatically attack once your active time bar is filled up. You can set the game to pause while using menu’s or items or have the action continue while you do so. These repeated attacks or actions, like healing or using items, are based upon your Gambits. I usually would roll as Vaan as I tend to get right up in the action, so my healers Penelo and Ashe would chill in the back, along with my range attackers Balthier and Fran, and Basch would be right alongside me on the front lines, depending on who I would have in the group at the time. I would set Vaan to auto attack whatever is nearby and my teammates would then target who I was attacking and the Gambits of casting Protect and Regen would fly out to my teammates once the conditions of the Gambit I gave them were met.

Once I unlocked certain spells and found them in the shops to buy, I found a certain rhythm to how I set up my team. I would set Gambits up in such a way where they would use items efficiently and the better part of my teammates were fairly self-sufficient. You also need to set up Gambits in order of priority so that you are performing the proper actions at the proper times. You don’t want your healers removing poison from a teammate if their health is critical, you want them to use a cure spell and then remove the poison.

As you vanquish foes and explore the various chests and caches around the map, you’ll earn gil and various items to sell. Most of the items that drop from enemies are able to be sold at shops that in turn unlock bundle packs that you can purchase via the Bazaar tab. These are packs of items that are generally cheaper to get than buying them separately. This is also how you’ll unlock the Grimoires; items that increase the chances of rare drops from certain types of enemies. You’ll also need to pay attention during certain weather storms as this will also change the types of enemies that spawn in the zone.

You can earn more items and a wealth of gil through Hunts; rare monsters that you will kill through contacts. At first, these are simple Hunts that you’ll find in Rabanastre (and a few other locations) and eventually through the Hunt Club in the Phon Coast. The Rabanastre Hunts are easy enough and the rewards are fairly low-key, but the Hunt Club is where the real meat of the rewards are but you’ll have to choose what you want to unlock as you won’t be able to earn every single reward. It’s actually designed to be impossible to unlock everything.

FF XII has seen a fairly substantial visual upgrade without the game being entirely remade. It still is very much the same game, it just has far better texturing than before and characters have a more painted look to their faces and characters like Balthier have some incredible detail work done to their hair. There are still some issues of poor outdated textures sneaking their way in and not every NPC seems to have had much improvement given to them. The overall look of the game is smooth, crisp and looks extremely good for a remaster of a game that came out over a decade ago. The way I explain it to friends is this is how I remember the game looking like back then when visuals were what they were back in 2006.

While I absolutely enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XII, with approaching almost a hundred hours or so in-game, there are still a few issues that not only plague this remaster but that of the original release as well. The camera in small tight spaces isn’t great and even one shopkeeper is out of frame in one awkwardly designed shop. I’ve never been a fan of games that combine the action button with the open a chest button, and this game has that in spades as it’s annoying when you are just not close enough and your action menu pops up instead of that chest in front of you opening. Hunt’s also don’t show up on the regular map and the number of menus you have to navigate to get to them (and subsequently, out of them) is a bit much.

There is also some slow pacing later on in the game that tends to really grind the game to a halt, and characters like Vaan and Penelo can sometimes feel like they don’t really belong there and serve almost no point to the main story. I also didn’t like that you couldn’t bring up your map unless you backed out of every action menu prompt. It’s a minor issue, but one that became a bit of an annoyance with how long the game can get.

Apart from those issues, I was incredibly happy to jump right back into Final Fantasy XII and actually complete it this time. This is a game that has aged remarkably well and is a model example of how you do a remaster. While a few characters and story bits don’t quite hit the highs of everything the game can offer, the overall package of what XII brings to the table is a worthwhile investment of your time. The semi-real time nature of the combat is really enjoyable and the fact that you can speed up the game to bypass that feeling that comes with the RPG grind is one of pure genius on whoever came up with that addition. Final Fantasy XII is easily my favorite of the series, and one of my favorite RPG’s of all time. I still have over a dozen or so Hunts left to do and secrets to explore.

This game isn’t done with me yet.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro on a retail copy of the game. All Screenshots were captured on a Playstation 4 Pro and altered to fit this review.

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