[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
When I first read that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was going to be subjected to a remake, I had to think long and hard about which one it even was. First released in 2006 on the PlayStation 2 and winner of numerous Game of the Year and other awards, I’m really not sure how I missed it. Even with hindsight, I can’t work it out, so I’m just going to assume that it’s because I was focused entirely on Xbox, portable and PC gaming at the time. In any case, it was a real pleasure to discover that I would have a second chance to experience FFXII, especially considering that it might be one of the best and most unique games in a truly iconic series.
The game opens with a rousing and moving sequence of both cut scenes and short playable sequences that introduce players to the fact that their homeland, Dalmasca, is being annexed by Archadia as part of an endless war between it and its rival state, Rozarria. From this grand opening, FFXII briefly reverts to type, introducing us gradually to a cast of characters that includes the archetypal band of orphaned youth’s, princesses, grumpy war veterans and more.
During these first few hours of gameplay, players also learn about several features that were, in 2006, completely new to the mainstream Final Fantasy series. XII was the first entry in the series (except the online-only FFXI) to introduce a more traditional, semi-real time combat system that replaces the often frustrating random encounter system that exists in previous entries. Playing it today, I feel like combat in FFXII is still kind of clunky by comparison to more modern systems, but nonetheless, I like it a lot more than the turn based combat that features in the previous games.
Early in the game, players could be forgiven for thinking that combat in FFXII is a simple rethinking of turn based combat that applies a veneer of real time movement and targeting, but little in terms of tactical difference. Dig deeper however, and you’ll discover the Gambit System, which is a really interesting (and not often repeated) means of programming team AI to respond to various situations. To use a simple example, the Gambit System enables players to set a specific character to attack the weakest enemy continuously until they fall, and if their own health drops below a certain point, to use a Potion.
More complex examples enable teams of AI controlled players to chain buffs, attacks, spells and other actions in such a way that they can dismantle enemies very quickly. For example, you might setup a situation where by default, one character buffs the party, another weakens the enemy, another taunts them to attack and occupies the tank role, and then a second sequence of actions would target the enemy weaknesses directly. As the game goes on, this system moves from being just interesting, to being absolutely fantastic and incredibly powerful. Fail to use it correctly however, and tougher opponents will absolutely devastate your party.
Having a huge variety of attacks, buffs, status effects and so on is nothing new in a Final Fantasy game, but the way FFXII presents them to the player is also more interesting than it is in most other games, including entries within this series. The game provides ultimate flexibility through use of a license system, which basically allows players to customise their party in more or less any way they want to. Want to be a Red Mage with a specialisation in mace damage and fire magic? Sure, you can be. A White Mage who focuses on healing, buffing and defense? That’s fine too.
This synergy between the hugely flexible (and powerful) Gambit system and the equally customisable license mechanic for character development is by far the most enjoyable thing about FXII in my opinion. These systems work together to provide the kind of non-linear progression that has never seemed to be present in other Final Fantasy games as far as I’m concerned, and I loved playing with them. The game even features a kind of arena mode where players can test their Gambit setups against endless foes, specifically built to force players into making continuous adaptations.
Final Fantasy XII has perhaps my fourth favorite story in the main series, falling behind VII, VIII and X, but it is still deep, engaging and often quite touching. This is partly down to the exceptional music, which as I mentioned earlier begins with a rousing introduction. The level of quality is maintained throughout the game, and I think FFXII has perhaps the best musical score of any game that I’ve played in the last year or two. Voice acting is of a similarly high standard, and really enhances the connection with some of the key characters, although not all scenes are voiced.
On a slightly less positive note, I didn’t think the sound effects were up to much, but that is likely just a product of this being an eleven year old game. Graphically, the game still has the incredibly imaginative cityscapes, characters and monsters that the Final Fantasy series is known for, but some of the characters look dated and wooden up close, having simply been remastered at a higher resolution. I played in 4K on a PS4 Pro, and I have read that this less of an issue on a standard PS4, but I can’t confirm or deny that.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. This game was a real hidden gem for me, and it was a delight being able to discover it in a remastered form eleven years after its original release. The Gambit and license systems are challenging to learn, but incredibly rewarding and uncommonly flexible, not just for this series but among all JRPG’s. FFXII is a long enough game to deliver a deep and enjoyable story, and the systems that I’ve already waxed lyrical about work wonders to maintain interest throughout. Whether you played the original release or not, but especially if not, you should certainly: