Each Final Fantasy comes with changes that may or may not throw the community surrounding the series into rebellion, as well as staples that fans can expect to find in every game. Every Final Fantasy has a character named Cid. Every Final Fantasy has chocobos. Every Final Fantasy even has that classic battle victory fanfare (yes that one: buh duh duh dah dah dah duh duh duhhh.) Changes to the franchise are just as present as the staples are and no Final Fantasy game at the time demonstrated this better than Final Fantasy XII. This game was dethroned by not-so-fan-favorite Final Fantasy XV (although personally, I enjoyed my time in the world of Eos) in 2016. With the release of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, it’s fun to go back and play the game that changed the Final Fantasy formula far better than Final Fantasy XV, and long before as well.
From the game’s start you are thrust into battle and if you’ve played any of the previous entries in the franchise you’re immediately thrown into a system you’ve not seen the likes of. Gone are the glass-breaking surprises indicating that it’s time for a fight. Gone is your ability to simply utilize the flee option, which if successful ends your battle right then and there. Gone is your reliance on the ability to count moves your character has left before being wiped out. Instead, you find yourself casting a line at an enemy you wish to attack and waiting as your character’s action bar fills up before the attack can actually occur. Of course, like other Final Fantasy games, you’ll still have time to determine what your next move is–although that can be turned off in the menu if you prefer a faster fighting style. You’ll still see magick attacks like Blizzaga, or items at your disposal like Phoenix Down, but at the end of the day this battle system is brand new and will force you to learn its ways.
As if changing the battle system wasn’t drastic enough, step-in director Hiroyuki Ito–who took the reigns after Yasumi Matsuno’s departure–decided that Final Fantasy XII’s combat could benefit from essentially allowing the player to become an AI programmer. Yes, you read that right. What I’m referring to is the game’s system of Gambits. In the essence of clear and easy explanation, I will give you an example.
EXAMPLE: You select a character’s gambit from the main menu. You select his first gambit. You choose who this gambit action will affect from hundreds of different options. There’s “foe: party leader’s target,” “ally: hp<30%,” and more. You choose “foe: party leader’s target.” From there, you’ll select the action that occurs. You select “Blizzaga.” You turn this gambit on and in your next battle, you’ll see that this character will automatically battle based on the gambit you just created for them. When you, the party leader, selects an enemy. That character will automatically target that enemy and cast Blizzaga on it.
Now, each character in your party has gambits at their disposal and each can have upwards of ten or more gambits. You can have gambits for a character attacking an enemy with full health and a gambit that makes that same character use a Phoenix Down on a fallen ally. The system can quickly become overwhelming but as you spend more time with the system, you’ll grow to feel like a master programmer–simply program your gambits, put the controller down and watch as your party slaughters a cute, little Giza Rabbit.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age contains all of these changes the original made and more. My favorite addition to remaster is the option to speed things up by either a factor of two or four. Four was a bit too fast for me but two was just right. My character moved through the city of Rabanastre or the Giza Plains twice as fast, with every battle occurring in between sessions of exploration that took half the time, making my time with this game much better spent. Why cross Giza Plains in 30 minutes when I can do it in 15 minutes and still collect every treasure and defeat every enemy. For those returning to Ivalice a second time, I imagine this feature will be a welcome addition.
For those who especially fall in love with the game’s combat, The Zodiac Age comes packed with a Trials mode, which is essentially 100 rounds of battle with enemies from the game giving rewards aplenty for those who continue advancing to the end. It’s a fun mode if you are craving more combat but in a game that’s already easily 40 hours, the Trials mode wasn’t for me.
If you’ve never played Final Fantasy XII, you’re in for a real treat. Originally released in 2006, I can without a doubt say, (although I have zero confirmation whatsoever from anyone who worked on this game) that this game’s story and world were inspired by recent movie releases–at the time–Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean. From the moment I stepped into the game’s main city, Rabanastre, and saw its many different races interacting with each other at the town bazaar, or grabbing a drink at the local pub, The Sandsea. I immediately felt like I was in a Star Wars world. You play as Vaan, which for all intents and purposes, is a boring human character and easily the weakest part of the game. His character progression is boring and his voice actor is, simply put, awful, but I digress. Walking through Rabanastre, the city he’s known for years, was like watching Anakin fly through Coruscant.
To further add to the Star Wars allusion, the game’s story is basically a Star Wars story. You’ve got an encroaching and seemingly all-powerful imperial force threatening to take over the world of Ivalice and opposing them is a group of rebels. You’ll quickly make friends with a suave sky pirate captain (there’s a lot of sky pirate stuff that feels very Pirates of the Caribbean to me) who is in it for money (looking at you Han) at first, but soon finds himself invested in the greater cause. There’s more Star Wars in this story than there is Final Fantasy but it works and it works really well.
By the end of the game, though, the story loses steam as things come to a head, but if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll care so much more about the individual characters than the overarching imperials vs. rebels story that it won’t matter too much. Save for boring Vaan and his just-as-boring friend Penelo–these characters pretty much goof off for the entirety of the game while the other four members of your party get things done. The interactions between sky pirate Balthier, his bunny-girl co-captain Fran, broken-down knight Basch and Princess Ashe, and the world and its circumstances surrounding them, are some of my favorite of any FF game. As you traverse through mysterious jungles, brutal tundras, beautiful-but-filled-with-monsters plains and more, you’ll find that these characters truly are the heart of this game.
As these characters battle their way through each environment, they’ll earn License Points, which can be applied to their License Board. The License Board determines what job they become, i.e. knight, red battlemage, monk, etc., and each character can have two jobs. Be wary though as your choice is final. After choosing a job, you’ll open up that character’s license board and bear witness to one of my favorite Final Fantasy progression systems. Using License Points, you’ll unlock new abilities, new armor capabilities, new weapons and more for each character. It’s quick and intuitive and you’ll find yourself spending quite a while in this system, not because you have to necessarily, but because you’ll want to.
As far as remastered versions go, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age sits somewhere close to the top. Watching gameplay from the original 2006 version and then quickly jumping into The Zodiac Age is astounding. The game looks night and day. As these things go, the characters still have strange faces and the cutscenes are a little blurry at times, but overall, the fresh coat of paint the game received looks great. Furthermore, the orchestral music that has been re-recorded sounds incredible. This game’s soundtrack is easily in my top three now. I always loved the game’s music but The Zodiac Age’s re-recording enhances some of my favorite tunes so well that I couldn’t help but put the controller down and just listen.
In 2006, I remember not being interested in what this game had to offer. I loved Final Fantasy X and I was disgusted at the changes Final Fantasy XII offered. To be cliche, I read the book by its cover and chose to leave it on the shelf. More than 10 years later, I’m left surprised by how great this Final Fantasy game actually is. With upgraded visuals, a re-recorded orchestral version of the score, a story that feels a little bit Pirates of the Caribbean and a lot like Star Wars–with characters to match–and a battle system to be remembered, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age has easily found its way into my favorites of the franchise.
A PlayStation 4 Review Copy of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was provided by Square Enix for the Purpose of this Review.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age$39.99
- The Gambit system allows you to become a master programmer
- The License Board makes character jobs and progression more fun than ever before
- The world of Ivalice is exciting to explore and filled with NPCs, environments and quests that never grow stale
- The story feels like Star Wars
- Vaan still isn't great
- Neither is Penelo
- Towards the end, the game loses some steam