Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (Video and Text)

Originally released in 2006, Final Fantasy XII quickly became one of my favorite games once I got around to playing it. It was beautiful, fun, and had plenty to dig in to. This year, the Zodiac Age remaster presented a spiffed-up version of the game, combining the best of the Japan-only “International Zodiac Job System” (IZJS) version with plenty of new improvements.

The gameplay is definitely the highlight. However, it’s something that I could certainly understand other people not enjoying. I love it though. So, here’s the gist of how it works. Normally in games, character actions are based directly on player input. You choose an option or press a button, and the character does the corresponding action. Here, that’s not quite the case. While you can manually choose commands, the more efficient method is to use the “gambit” system and program your characters. You put in a target, action, and prioritization, and then the character will act automatically when the condition is met.

Here’s an example: target – Ally: HP < 50%; action – potion. When an ally’s health drops below 50%, the character with this gambit will automatically use a potion on them (provided you have a potion in your inventory). Another example: target – Enemy: fire-weak; action – fire. If an enemy that is weak to fire is in range, the character will automatically attack with the fire spell. Despite the flexibility of how you can set up your party, the game can’t simply play out without player interaction in battles. This system is best used for wiping out basic enemies and providing a general backbone to strategy. But, it truly shines in high-level boss battles, hunts, and the trial mode, situations where you are often forced to tinker with the programming, manually input commands as necessary, and keep on top of everything for the best possible result.

Another means of customization is character classes, or “jobs.” The biggest change from the original game, this allows the player to choose from 12 classes for each character. These include black mage, white mage, knight, machinist, and so on. Each class has access to specific weapons, skills, and armor, along with stat boosts to complement their arsenal. While this means of customization felt a bit limiting in the IZJS version, Zodiac Age includes the option for each character to eventually add a second job, allowing the perfect degree of both freedom and specialization to your party. For example, rather than having one person as a black mage and another as a red battlemage, you can have a single character as both, allowing for them to use a wide range of spells, and giving them an extremely high magick stat. You can have multiple characters take the same job, but I opted for a full spread for maximum skill and weapon variety.

Combining this character job variety with the Gambit system, you can optimize your party for any specific situation, or you can create a general setup meant to handle most situations with minimal effort. You can choose to forego the system entirely and simply go with manual actions, but I wouldn’t even remotely recommend it. My one complaint about the battle system is quickenings, “super” attacks your characters can use. They sucked in the original game, and they suck now. You mash R2 while hoping that a command will show up as a possibility, then you hit the corresponding button. But if you mash R2 one too many times, you can miss the window of opportunity, waste your time, and accomplish nothing.

Where the majority of the battle system is the clear highlight, the obvious low point of the game is Vaan, and to an extent, the main story. FFXII is about Dalmasca, a small kingdom set between warring empires. The majority of the characters are relevant to this conflict in some way, particularly Ashe and Basch. Vaan is a different story. He’s supposed to be a younger, relatable character, more as a lens to view the story through rather than an acting force within it. Unfortunately, he nearly always feels out of place while listening in on conversations that don’t concern him, remaining largely ignorant, and asking women how old they are. Fortunately, the true (self-described) leading man is Balthier. While his connection to the main plot is also less direct upon first glance, he not only plays a more important role in the story, but he’s just a better character. He’s not an angsty teen who acts on whims, but rather rational and quick-witted, and he adds to the story rather than detracting from it.

Besides all that, the main story isn’t bad. At its core it’s nothing particularly unique or unpredictable, but it’s pulled off well enough to remain enjoyable. One part of that is how the antagonists’ mantra – “putting history back in the hands of man” – plays out. How they try to achieve their goal, and how the main party also pushes forward without necessarily disagreeing with that idea, results in a rather satisfying conclusion, even if the finale is a bit by-the-numbers. So the story’s fine, but in the context of the rest of the game it definitely feels to be lacking.

Where the story isn’t quite anything special, the world more than makes up for it. The game is rife with distinct and beautiful sprawling areas, well detailed and with plenty to explore. With areas such as the haunting ruins of an obliterated city, a massive lighthouse at the edge of the known world, and a Great Crystal presided over by the gods, the game puts many memorable regions on display. Different races in the world, like the viera and garif, also provide different perspectives on life and the land. Enemies and NPCs, particularly bosses and hunts, help to fill out the world with context, connecting areas and strengthening everything as a whole.

Side content within the game is plentiful. Outside of the main story, a handful of areas are completely optional. Bosses, espers, and hunts are spread throughout, providing the greatest challenges in the game, along with the greatest rewards. Even side quests generally feel worth the effort. Many lead into other things or open up areas for further exploration. At one point, a woman is caring for a sick man and needs ingredients for medicine. This can be completely ignored, but following through provides a key that opens up a new area, full of stronger enemies and an esper battle. This sense of exploration is one of the greatest strengths of the game – probing each and every area always provides rewards, whether in challenge or equipment.

The greatest challenge of the game is trial mode, separate from the main game. This is an optional challenge where you go through 100 “trials,” fighting a variety of enemies. Some of these are simple enemies you’ll find in the main game, but as you get to the end, it becomes the greatest challenge the game has to offer. While the difficulty takes a steep incline at stage 90, the last one is truly fitting as a finale, offering a completely new battle that wasn’t in the main game, and pushing the player to pull out all the stops to succeed.

Aesthetically, this game has plenty on offer as well. As a PS2 game, Final Fantasy XII looked great for its time. Even upscaled via emulator, it looked pretty good. But, Zodiac Age provides a proper update – improved character models, textures, color range, and more, along with consistent performance. Many environmental textures stand out for being bland, some uses of skyboxes still look goofy, and the characters’ faces look like they could have used more work for cutscenes, but otherwise it’s all very easy on the eyes. The most beneficial improvement can be seen in the models for enemies and NPCs such as the garif. While color and detail used to blend together in a muddy mess, seeing these in clear detail does a lot to strengthen the appearance of the world as a whole.

The music is a similarly positive experience. The game isn’t overflowing with memorable tracks, but that’s hardly an issue. The greatest strength is how many of the songs settle neatly into the background to strengthen the atmosphere, especially in the world’s more mysterious areas. But even for impact, the esper and Gilgamesh battle themes bring it in spades. One big change for Zodiac Age is the actual instrumentation for the music. Sounds in the original were provided via samples, not live instrumentation. Zodiac Age corrects that, with all music re-recorded by an orchestra. For those that can take advantage, it also has a 5.1 surround sound mix. The game’s improved audio and visuals elevate it well above what the original could offer. There’s just one problem – the vocal audio. While the music and sound effects could be updated, the audio quality of the characters’ voices sounds stuck in the PS2 era. Their voices aren’t nearly as clear or volumetrically dynamic as current standards. Unfortunately, it’s just the kind of thing that can’t really be helped short of re-recording, which is far from ideal.

Altogether, Zodiac Age is a fantastic game. Where Final Fantasy XII was already a great game and a personal favorite, this version only brings improvements. If anything, its greatest flaws are a handful of things that they didn’t try to improve, like quickenings or vocal audio. But beyond that, Zodiac Age works as the best introduction to Final Fantasy XII, and well worth playing for anyone who enjoyed the original version of the game.

+ Gambits
+ License/jobs system
+ Difficulty
+ Amount of side content
+ World design
+ Music and visuals
+ Balthier

± Story

− Vaan
− Quickenings

Play time – 80 hours

Rating – Nifty/10.
Recommendation – Play it.

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