A new look and a noteworthy gameplay revamp of an RPG classic.
The original Final Fantasy XII was a great game that came out at the wrong time. Launching on the PlayStation 2 distressingly close to the release of the PlayStation 3 and Wii meant that it was overlooked and underplayed by many. Those who did stick with it, however, were rewarded with a superb RPG adventure, filled with beautiful visuals, an engrossing world, and a unique free-roaming approach to exploration and combat. Now Final Fantasy XII is back as The Zodiac Age on PlayStation 4, polished with a high-definition coat of paint and a host of minor – but mostly positive – changes, giving players both old and new a second chance to experience the world of Ivalice.
Final Fantasy XII’s refreshingly down-to-earth story focuses on the struggles of characters caught up in a web of politics and war, rather than a stereotypical cataclysmic “saving the universe” sort of JRPG adventure. The focus on the characters and their small but important roles in a larger struggle makes the various twists, betrayals, and triumphs of the story feel more impactful. It’s helped along by one of the best localizations ever, which makes reading reams of dialogue learning more about the world feel rewarding on its own. This is a game where I thoroughly enjoy talking to each and every NPC, which is especially impressive when you consider that a playthrough can range from 60 hours to over 100, depending on your pace.
While the story is linear, the world is semi-open and allows you to explore large portions of the map from the beginning with only a few restrictions. Wandering off the beaten path can yield rewards like treasure and high-grade loot, but it also offers the risk of wandering into the territory of high-level monsters who can easily eat your party for lunch. The rewards for exploration are manyfold: areas that look like dead ends can contain noteworthy treasures, high-level enemies might drop loot that opens up new items for sale in the bazaar, and secret bosses lurk in totally optional areas that you would otherwise completely pass by.
FFXII cleverly alleviates the problem of CPU-controlled party members behaving badly.
Combat takes place directly on the map and is an interesting variation on the real-time, menu-driven battles of previous Final Fantasy games. You only control one party member at a time – the other characters are all directed by the CPU. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XII cleverly alleviates the problem other RPGs have of CPU-controlled party members behaving badly through pre-programmable commands called “gambits” which let you direct characters on how to act when certain situations arise. For example, you can tell an ally to use healing items and spells when your characters are hurt or suffering status ailments, target high- or low-hp enemies, or use elemental skills when an enemy vulnerability is known. Set up your gambits well frees you up to spend your time focusing on more interesting things like positioning in order to maximize area-of-effect attacks, while still issuing extra commands to your comrades when necessary.
It forces you to give every character a distinct purpose in the party.
All of that is virtually identical to the original version of Final Fantasy XII, but one of the biggest and most meaningful changes in The Zodiac Age is the complete revamp of the progression system that determines everything from the armor you can equip to the skills you can use. Called “License Boards,” these grids open up things like passive skills, magic spells, and weapon and armor equip abilities through spending points you earn. In the original version of FFXII, every character could unlock all of the potential skills available on their license board, which made different characters play very similarly over time. With the revamped License Boards of The Zodiac Age, characters instead pick two boards (from a pool of 12) that correspond to classes like Knight and Black Mage, each of which has a more limited and specialized skill grid. While this makes potential skill pools far more limited than the original version, it forces you to give every character a distinct purpose in the party, and that prompts you to be more thoughtful and creative with both assigning classes and spending license points.
Another new addition is the Trial Mode, an optional challenge that puts you in a brutal rush of 100 consecutive battles, starting from the easiest sewer rats and ending in a fierce run of free-for-alls against the most notorious foes in Final Fantasy XII. While you can try it at any time, it’s designed primarily as post-game content – you’ll need an incredibly high-level party, some fast reactions, and a carefully selected array of gambits and skills in order to succeed.
Final Fantasy XII has also received quite the visual overhaul for The Zodiac Age. While it’s more of a high-res texture remaster than a full-on HD remake, it still looks amazing, filled with breathtaking vistas and fantastic creatures — a testament to how strong the original game’s art design was. A gameplay speed-up function (either double or quadruple speed) also makes things like wandering through towns or farming loot in areas with easy-pickings low-level foes less of a chore.
While most of the additions and enhancements are very good, there are also quite a few missed opportunities to improve various interface issues the original version had. For example, the speed-up function is nice, but it still feels like a chore to wander through a big city to get to a particular location at any speed. Why not add fast-travel in towns instead?
Other additions don’t feel well implemented. For example, you can press L3 to get a full map overlay of the current area you’re in – but there’s still a chunk of screen real estate in the upper right being taken up by a redundant area minimap even when you turn this on. Also, while most of your funds are earned through looting items from monsters, you still have to manually sell these items one by one at the store, which is more time-consuming and tedious than it needs to be. Perhaps the most egregious oversight are the hunts: Finding the clients and areas where hunts take place is still a royal pain in the butt, as they aren’t marked on your standard questing map even when you have acquired information on where things are located. It’s understandable that some monsters should be trickier to hunt down than others, but if I’m told it’s lurking in a particular area, why shouldn’t my map reflect that knowledge?