I did not play Final Fantasy XII when it first released. Although it featured a couple of interesting departures from the Final Fantasy formula, the excessive grind found in the later parts of the game alone would have frustrated me far too much. The added issue of Western audiences never being allowed to experience the International Zodiac Job System added for the Japanese market would have made it untenable for me even bother with.
Thankfully The Zodiac Age remaster is more than just a visual buff and shine – it actually attempts to resolve these issues that even the faithful took issue with. The formerly Japan only International Zodiac Job System has been added to expand character build options, and a new Speed Mode has been implemented to relieve some of the grind. These additions far outshine the visual upgrade the game has been given, as without them I would have struggled to complete the game despite the epic and wonderfully melodramatic story it tells.
In The Zodiac Age, the heroic personal journeys of previous FF titles is moved aside for a grander scale tale of global conflict, political intrigue, and the struggles of the powerful. It is about a titanic conflict between nations, where your parties’ actions constantly feed into the larger story in which where the powerful use the lives of the populace as currency to be spent at will to buy power and influence. It's grandiose, and can feel too broad at times, with a lot of finer points left unexplained or merely hinted at. It's a minor issue, but it does create a disconnect between the player and the events unfolding around them.
This focus on the broader strokes also leaves a lot of character detail simply brushed over. As such, connecting with protagonist Vaan is difficult, as he is never really fleshed out. Instead, he just serves as the lens by which you view the events unfolding within the world. Sadly, this disconnect also extends to the other party members as well, with them all placed at arm’s length.
This isn’t an oversight, but part of the narrative design. It's a decision that's been implemented to pull focus back to the bigger picture, but it left me feeling a little too much like an observer rather than a participant. However, these irks never fully disengaged me from the story. The lack of personal moments is sorely felt, but it’s hard not to be caught up in the sweeping epic that unfolds around you – even if it’s more than a little ham-fisted in many places.
While the characters don’t get a lot of love from the writers, you have a great deal of control over their actual progression within the game. With the addition of the Zodiac Job System, players have more than enough tools to customise and refine each character’s build to an almost dizzying degree.
My only complaint is this system can be more than a little intimidating at first. There are two core parts: license boards and jobs. License boards are where you can allocate specific skills to each player by filling licence markers on a checker board. Licenses allow players to use certain items, unlock skills, and improve proficiencies.
Your available licenses and the custom board to acquire them are dictated by your job. Jobs act as character classes or archetypes, and range from Mages to Machinists, Archers, Monks, and more. With 12 jobs in total and up to two license boards per character there is a lot of space for you to forge your own build, and what it lacks in elegance it more than makes up for in utility.
Coming into Final Fantasy XII cold offered up one rather pleasant surprise – the Gambit system. Where all previous Final Fantasy games (at least to my knowledge) relied on turn-based combat to resolve conflicts, XII forges a new path. Now battles play out in real time, but with one very important difference – player defined AI. As someone who lamented the purging of the combat AI systems in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Gambit system reawakened my inner obsessive strategist.
Based on a very rudimentary “If – Then” structure, it allows you to tailor every party member with a playbook of responses, tactics, combos, buffs, and counters to almost any situation. Mastering this system requires you to take note of how each encounter evolves, before and adding, removing, or refining the responses your party makes to each situation. From there, you can build out better strategies for future battles.
The level of control you are given could daunting for some, but for those who want it, there are hours upon hours of rewarding AI scripting for you to tinker with. The beauty of the system is that is only as complex as you want it to be, but getting a solid grip on which character should respond to whatever threat or event will make encounters later on far less frustrating.
The only real downside is that actual combat can feel a little hands-off once you have a full repertoire of Gambits locked in, but for me this is more than compensated by watching my team work together like a well-oiled machine, or further refining my party once holes were be exposed in a particularly sticky fight.
The actual game aspects of Final Fantasy XII – The Zodiac Age for the most part feel solid and rewarding, but there are also some irks that knock it down from reaching greatness. Despite the addition of the new Speed Mode, there is an awful lot of grinding, in fact even at 4x speed the level of mid to late game filler becomes excruciatingly tedious. How players dealt with this back in 2006 is completely beyond me, and it was only my desire to see how the story resolved itself that kept me trudging on. Without this addition I would likely have thrown in the towel.
The rest of my issues are more nit-picks than anything. Those returning to the game after a decade will no doubt feel an instant familiarity with the look of the game, but for new players it looks old – very old. Textures are flat, and displayed in a much lower resolution than I expected, even on a Pro. Character models are lacking in the polygonal area, and the world geometry is shockingly basic. These are all areas that could have seen a lot more work put into them. Thankfully, the game sounds gorgeous. Music, voice, and sound effects are clear, sharp, and uncompressed. The music deserves special mention as a strand-out, and has all the richness you’d expect from a modern release.