Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review
Remastered games are typically ugly things. Too many publishers willing to push out lazy, sloppy ports from the previous generation leave a lot of consumers feeling cold about the prospect of spending hard-earned cash to revisit old favorites, especially if it’s for the 3rd or 4th time. Square Enix is no exception, as their overpriced and underwhelming remasters of previous Final Fantasy games have shown (particularly on PC). It is refreshing, then, that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age bucks this trend by delivering on all necessary fronts with a timely, intelligent update.
The original PlayStation 2 release back in 2006 was surprisingly divisive, leaving many longtime fans feeling alienated by the drastically different approach to both combat and narrative. Turn based combat and Active Time Battle were ditched in favor of a more strategic, high-level macromanagement system based on customizable AI routines. Suddenly, players no longer had control over every single action in combat, and while it was a hit with many it confused and upset others. Fortunately, most of the complaints with Final Fantasy XII’s combat can be attributed to the fact that it was simply ahead of its time. With a few tweaks here and there, for balance and speed among other things, The Zodiac Age fits right in with modern role-playing games.
Set in the world of Ivalice on the brink of world war, Final Fantasy XII tells the story of the orphan Vaan, of Rabanastre, as he stumbles headfirst along with his friend Penelo into a plot filled with political intrigue, royal shenanigans and sky pirates. Along the way they’ll meet a diverse cast of characters including Ashe, a princess determined to protect her homeland from foreign invaders; Basche, a former King’s Guard turned traitor; Fran, a Vieran smuggler and her partner in crime, Balthier, the aforementioned sky pirate and self-proclaimed leading man. Together these six will be tasked with saving the world from a barrel full of JRPG story tropes and the crazed Vayne Solidor, who has surprisingly bland aspirations toward world domination. The underpinnings of the plot are as generic and boring as they are irrelevant. It is in the personal relationships our heroes build (or destroy), and the behind-the-scenes political machinations of the antagonists, where Final Fantasy XII’s story truly shines. Ultimately it is the same plot, featuring the same cast, that we got back in 2006, and if it didn’t work for you then, it likely won’t now. It’s still glaringly obvious that Vaan and Penelo were shoehorned in after focus tests demanded a more ‘traditional’ Final Fantasy hero (i.e. a young androgynous boy with an odd sense of fashion and an even odder hairdo), and it’s still unfortunately kind of a mess that at times leaves you without much motivation to progress the narrative. It’s also not the best reason for why anyone should revisit the game. Where Zodiac Age truly earns its price tag is in the modernization of the gameplay, with a slew of tweaks and additions that fundamentally alter the way you approach things.
The most immediate difference for western audiences is that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is based on a 2007 Japanese-only version of the game called International Zodiac Job System. The primary change in this version (and Zodiac Age) is the introduction of classes. Originally, every party member in Final Fantasy XII was given the same License Board (much like X’s Sphere Grid, or XIII’s Crystarium), through which they acquired new abilities. While each character started at different spots on the board, all eventually ended up with every possible ability and stat buff, rendering party composition entirely meaningless. In Zodiac Age, this is no longer the case. Each character, when initially recruited, can choose from one of twelve different classes, ranging from Monk to Time Battlemage, each with their own unique license board, each designed to complement various other classes when used in tandem. As characters level up, they can eventually unlock a second board to progress through, allowing for the possibility to eventually select every single class in the game, if you desire. This new system makes party composition a fundamental aspect of the gameplay; taking the wrong combination of classes into a boss fight can lead to a quick and ugly death.
This makes the addition of automatic saves between level transitions a welcome new feature in Zodiac Age. Instead of retracing your steps through half a dungeon to get back to the boss who just killed you, the game automatically saves your game every time it loads a new portion of the map, which is often. In addition to simply saving time and frustration, this allows for more freedom and experimentation in combat. Where before you may have shied away from larger enemies in the area for fear of losing valuable progress, now you’re free to take a whack at anything without fear of penalty.
The most important addition, however, is certainly the ability to fast forward. The world of Ivalice is big, much bigger than any previous installment in the series, and like any JRPG there is a good deal of side questing, exploration and all the backtracking that goes with it. Fast forward allows you to run through the world, and the combat, at either 2x or 4x speeds, which you can change on the fly with the tap of a shoulder button. A seemingly small change, it makes every curiosity worth exploring, every fight worth fighting and every side quest worth doing. No more running past low-level enemies because they’re not worth the time; at 4x speed you can pick them off in the blink of an eye and still pick up valuable license points. Huge, sprawling dungeons can feel like a breezy walk in the park.
It also does not hurt that the game has received some subtle, but significant tweaks to both balance and core mechanics that smooth out the difficulty, which could be annoyingly uneven in the original. Boss fights that used to be tedious slugfests can now unfold in a matter of minutes, especially if you have the right party for the job, and the new class system ensures that most of the time, you do. Quickenings, this game’s version of the tried and true limit break, also seems to have received an overhaul. Unlike traditional limit breaks activated by one player at a time, quickenings are designed to work in concert with your full party to create quickening chains. Each character can learn up to 3 different quickenings of varying levels and elemental effects, each requiring a different amount of “mist charges” to power them. One quickening by itself is useless, especially low-level ones, but it is possible to chain them together up to 15-20 times to create devastating combos. The bigger the chain, the more damage is unleashed, with higher chains creating more powerful finishers to pile on extra punishment.
These fantastic, over-powered magic spells look great, especially for a remaster of an 11-year-old PS2 game. The original Final Fantasy XII pushed the limits of the PS2’s hardware, requiring Square Enix to create some rather ingenious workarounds to get everything looking right. The result was a fine-looking game with some forgivable visual hiccups. Zodiac Age’s visuals benefit from the increased power of the new hardware, but some lingering graphical issues do persist, particularly with regards to the characters. Vaan and Fran now seem to be suffering from vitiligo, with splotchy patches of differently colored skin. It’s not always noticeable, but in the scenes where it does crop up it can certainly be distracting. Thankfully issues like these are few and far between, and while Zodiac Age isn’t the game you would break out to showcase the PlayStation 4’s graphical chops, it is more than serviceable visually, and the difference between the original and the remaster is drastic, indeed.
Even more impressive, in terms of audio-visual upgrades, is in the re-orchestrated soundtrack. Final Fantasy has always been known for rich, diverse and evocative musical scores, and XII was and is no different. The newly orchestrated soundtrack in Zodiac Age is a cut above the rest, having been recorded live and ditching the synthetic undertones that always plagued previous entries’ in-game tracks. If you’re the kind of person who has ever purchased a Final Fantasy soundtrack on CD to hear the music the way it was always intended, this is the version for you. If you’re more of a purist and want the nostalgia trip that comes with hearing the music the way it originally sounded, there is always the option to toggle between the two versions of the OST.
There are some issues with Final Fantasy XII that a simple remaster cannot address, however. If there’s one problem with the newer version’s sound, it is that the voice acting has not received similar updates in terms of audio fidelity, and dialog is occasionally lost under the weight of the music and ambient noise. Some gameplay tweaks are also less welcome than others, such as changes to how certain magic is acquired. Several important magic spells can no longer be purchased at any shop in the game, and must be located in specific chests scattered throughout the game. There is no indication as to which magic must be acquired this way, nor any help as to which chests may contain them. The only reliable way to find them is through online strategy guides. Worse, even once you’ve located the exact chest you need, many of them only offer a small chance that the magic in question will actually be there. If not, you will need to exit the area, re-enter and try again. With some of the more powerful spells, it may be necessary to do this as many as 20-30 times. It is an inelegant and arbitrary solution to a problem that did not exist before.
More problematic is the laughable, perhaps even cringe-worthy objectification of women in this game. While past Final Fantasy games in general were simply products of their time on this issue, and while Final Fantasy XV proves Square-Enix hasn’t made as much progress on this front as one might like, XII will always hold a special place for being more egregious than most when it comes to sexualizing not only its female protagonists, but women in general. Ashe, ostensibly a princess raised to rule an entire kingdom set in what can only be an analog for real medieval period cities, sports attire that is more suited to a strip club than any royal family or high political office. Fran and the rest of her people, a race known as the Viera, strut about in skimpy lingerie or BDSM outfits. Fran must find sky pirating hard given she’s forced to traipse about in six-inch leather heels and what appears to be a rubber thong leotard. Random women throughout the game’s major locales will walk around in little more than their underwear. Problems with perceptions on gender in gaming aside, it’s just embarrassing; at some point video game developers decided that this level of juvenile titillation is what the typical male gamer wants, whether we do or not.
Overall, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is mostly a triumph. The few issues that do exist aren’t enough to detract from the overall quality of the underlying game, and most of the updates, upgrades and tweaks really work in the game’s favor. For too long, Square Enix has let one of their most compelling and ambitious games languish while lesser titles received multiple and unnecessary re-releases. Now we have what is not only the definitive edition of Final Fantasy XII, but perhaps the definitive Final Fantasy experience. If you’ve been longing to revisit Final Fantasy XII, the overall quality of The Zodiac Age more than justifies the wait, and if you’ve never played it before this is certainly the version to get. For those who tried it back in 2006 and walked away unimpressed with the gameplay, this new version may surprise you, though waiting for a sale or price cut would be wise.
8/23/2017 Ryan Hartmann