2006 was an interesting time for the Final Fantasy series, as Square returned to a single-player driven entry in the series after the MMO experiment of Final Fantasy XI. The development of Final Fantasy XII was rocky to say the least, as its protracted five-year development cycle cost Square close to thirty-five million dollars and its initial director, Yasumi Matsuno, suffered a mental collapse halfway through that saw him leaving the company for good. Fortunately, the final product turned out to be a reasonably consistent and high-quality JRPG; not the best in the series, but far from the back alley dumpster fire that it easily could’ve been. Now, Square has remastered the game as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which throws in improvements from the later-released international version along with a whole slew of modern nips and tucks, all of which come together to make for a wonderfully sharp experience that stands as the definitive way to play this classic.
The story of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age takes a less character-centric approach to its narrative, a move which certainly increases the scope of the plot, but at the cost of making it less relatable than some predecessors in the series. Echoing some of the earlier Fire Emblem games, this is more a story about the political intrigue surrounding an ongoing war between national superpowers. In the land of Ivalice (which acts as the setting of several other games from Square) the two nations of Archadia and Rozzaria are at war with each other, catching the much smaller kingdom of Dalmasca in the crossfire. After a lengthy and mildly confusing introduction segment, the plot picks up following Vaan, an orphaned petty thief with big dreams of one day becoming a sky pirate. Vaan leads a relatively simple life of being a sort of Robin Hood-like figure, but his misadventures quickly lead to him getting caught up in a resistance movement with Dalmasca’s princess, Ashe, who aims to reverse the annexation of Dalmasca into the Archadian empire.
It’s all rather high-concept - even for a Final Fantasy game - and this comes as something of a double-edged sword. While it’s impressive how much detail is put into the lore and history of the world of Ivalice, not nearly as much effort is put into making the cast particularly memorable or three dimensional. Much like how combat requires several different roles working in tandem, all the major players in the story are clearly there to fill a specific niche in moving the plot forward and they seldom break out of their cliché archetypes. For example, Balthier is the ‘cool’, roguish sky pirate out to fill his boots with treasure; he initially doesn’t want to get involved in the resistance movement because it’s not his cup of tea, but his kind heart eventually wins out and he shows there’s more to him then a trigger finger and one-liners. Everyone in the main party is like this to an extent. They’re likable and well-written, but predictable and rather boring as a result. Though the voice acting is spot-on, there’s a general sense of detachment one gets when playing through this story; it’s just hard to care about the plight of Dalmasca when the game doesn’t give you much reason to beyond the tired ‘empires are evil’ song and dance. There are much worse stories to be found in RPG’s, but relative to the rest of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is left a bit wanting.
Fortunately, the gameplay picks up the slack, coming off as something akin to a single player MMO. Though it’s not exactly open-world, the on-rails nature of Final Fantasy X is long gone here, replaced by a gameplay structure that encourages you to take frequent breaks from the main narrative in favor of some good old-fashioned side quest grinding. These take the form of ‘Hunts’, which see you fulfilling contracts for NPCs in towns who need you to take down certain powerful creatures in the surrounding areas for some contrived reason. More often than not, the locations of these creatures are generalized and require a bit of poking around the map, which naturally results in you finding treasure and hidden secrets as you fight your way through the countless fodder enemies that populate the environments. On paper, it all sounds rather cookie cutter, but there’s something about the reward loop of grinding hunts, getting more gil and better equipment, and using that to then do harder hunts that proves to be insatiably addictive. In this way, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age proves that innovation isn’t necessarily the only requirement to stellar game design, sometimes all it takes is brilliant execution of well-worn ideas.
That being said, one place where Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age definitely innovates is in its combat, specifically the Active Dimensional Battle system, which finally eschews the random encounters of the series in favor of a more active focus. Perhaps inspiring the Xenoblade Chronicles games that would come many years later, battles are simply started right there in the overworld as soon as you’re within the visual or attack range of an enemy. Once the battle starts, character actions are then governed by an ATB style system in which each character has an auto-filling bar that grants them an action every time it fills, but one way in which Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age puts all other RPGs to shame is in the depth of micromanagement it offers players through the “Gambit” system.
The Gambit system is a marketing friendly term for programmable actions, all of which can be set up in the pause menu. Essentially, every character has a set of Gambits that function as ‘if/then’ commands, and how you order the Gambits dictates how the character behaves in battle. Every Gambit slot has a ‘target’ and an ‘action’, and a vast list of selectable factors for each, which ensures that you have near-limitless amount of ways in which you can set up each character. So, for example, you can set a Gambit that ensures your healer-focused character will cast “Blindna” every time a party member is stricken with the “Blind” status effect by an enemy. Or, you can set multiple Gambits on your black mage to ensure that they’ll use whatever magic the currently targeted enemy is weak to. Unlike most other RPGs, you no longer have to worry about lackluster AI limiting the effectiveness of your team, as you can control exactly where, when, and how each party member reacts to certain scenarios.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but the true strength of the Gambit system lies in using trial and error to figure out how to turn your team into a perfectly balanced, unstoppable killing force that requires only occasional input from you. Some may think it sounds a bit boring to have a combat system primarily centered around playing itself, but the nature of the Gambit system always leaves room for a little more improvement or player interaction. Each character only has so many Gambit slots to fill, and even when you’ve found a nice equilibrium for the team, there are still plenty of scenarios where it’s simply quicker to tell a character to do a specific action. What’s nice about this system is how much stress it takes off the player in the moment to moment decision making; you can watch the action unfold automatically and intervene as needed, filling the gaps in as a sort of meta party member.
Character growth is handled in a manner akin to the Sphere Grid system of Final Fantasy X, but it’s slightly more freeform in its approach. There are twelve jobs to pick from and each character can be equipped with a main class and a subclass, each of which has a unique, chess-like board that charts their mastery of that class. Every job board contains a collection of “Licenses” which dictate the level of gear or the skills that the character can use. So, for example, you may find a fancy new armlet in a treasure chest that requires a level 3 accessory license to equip; only characters that have unlocked the “Accessory 3” spot on their job board will be capable of putting it on. Every enemy you kill grants each character “License Points” which can then be spent to buy more spots on their job boards, but you can only buy spots that are directly adjacent to any of the ones you’ve already bought. What’s nice about this setup is how it allows you to control your character’s growth within their class towards the way that you play them; if you feel comfortable with their current equipment setup, for example, then you can forgo buying higher ranks of armor licenses in favor of more direct stat buffs or skill licenses. And, unlike the Sphere Grid, there are no predefined paths here that you choose to follow, it all radiates outward from the starting point and you’re given complete freedom over what corners of the board to work towards.
Also, new to this Switch version, you’re allowed to respec characters and reclass them as you please, and you’re even refunded all invested LP. With this change, you’re now given greater ability to experiment with different party setups as you don’t have to commit to any string of decisions you make in growing any characters. It’s small, sure, but little quality of life changes like this can make a world of difference in ratcheting up the replayability and fun factor; it’s a lot less stressful knowing that you can undo your mistakes.
Speaking of quality of life changes, this Switch port also features the lovely inclusion of three swappable Gambit sets for each character, allowing you to create varying setups for different situations. For example, boss fights often like to throw some curveballs your way and introduce status debuffs and attacks that you likely haven’t predicted with your Gambit setups. In previous versions of Final Fantasy XII, you’d have to redo your party’s Gambits to fit that boss, then have to remember your previous setups and reimplement them again after you were done; this way, you can have one or two ‘main’ setups and use the remainders for specific situations. Another welcome inclusion (which wasn’t present in the initial PS2 release) is the ability to double or quadruple the speed of the game by simply pressing in the left stick, enormously cutting back on the downtime that grinding tends to bring. Especially when paired with a party that can fight mostly on its own, having the ability to expedite the process of fights that are otherwise set in stone lets you get to rewards that much faster and move on to whatever’s next. It’s clear that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is designed to be a game that’s respectful of your time, even if the nature of the genre demands that you pour in dozens of hours to get the ‘full’ experience.
From a presentation perspective, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age doesn’t necessarily impress, but it certainly satisfies. Updated character models and up-rezzed textures bring the PS2-era graphics into the modern age and provide some solid visuals, but character expressions and jagged geometry ensure that it’s still unmistakably a game from days past. That’s not to say it looks bad, but coming into this one with managed expectations is wise; next to other modern RPG’s, it can look a bit lackluster. The world is presented in a rather painterly look that brings to mind shades of the system used in the Valkyria Chronicles, characterized by soft colors that tend to blur together occasionally punctuated by loud, vibrant colors that all but pierce the screen, such as when a powerful magic spell is cast in battle.
This is all well and good, but the visual style feels a bit let down by the slightly more reined in fantasy elements, bringing a more grounded approach to the world. There are still dragons and magic and all the trappings that one would come to expect from a Final Fantasy game, but the decidedly more political approach to the storytelling seems to have rubbed off a bit on the art direction, which is concerned with making the world of Ivalice seem like a place that could almost be real, somewhere. Of course, it looks great in motion and runs at 30 FPS - whether you’re playing on the Switch or the TV - and as far as we could tell, appears to be mostly on-par with the versions available on other platforms. Also, for you music aficionados, there are three different versions of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s soundtrack work here - Original, orchestral, and OST - and though the differences won’t be too noticeable to an untrained ear, it’s nice to see that the developers went to the trouble of making sure the audio received the same TLC that the rest of the game did.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a great example of what developers should aspire to do with remastering old games; this is the best-designed and most enjoyable version of this RPG classic currently on the market, and it can all be played on the go, too. Though the story comes off as being rather disappointing and the visuals are a little dated, the Gambit-focused combat system still proves to be one of the best we’ve seen in an RPG to date, making it dangerously easy for hours to slip by as you work on min-maxing characters to the best of their abilities. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age may not prove to be the best Final Fantasy ever made, but it’s still a pretty darned great game in its own right; don’t miss out on this one, it’s certainly worth your time.