For several decades, gamers have been in awe of what the number one Japanese Role-Playing Game series, Final Fantasy, has offered to the world. Square-Enix has brought us what is now a veritable feast of gaming's best food; it offers amazing characters, fantastic visual experiences, and well-fleshed out stories that can bring a tear to even the toughest of individuals. It's not a secret how popular and well-received Final Fantasy has become, and for a good reason. Every few years they manage to cook up just the right ingredients to craft us another unbelievably mouth-watering dish. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails. This year, for better or for worse, Square-Enix decided to give us a new and improved taste of their pride and joy from twelve years past: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
After all these years, Final Fantasy XII looks just as good as you remember. Of course, this is assuming that you thought highly of it to begin with. After the original release of the game on PlayStation 2, many fans felt that this new entry to the franchise was a bit weaker than the previous titles. It was different; nothing was similar to any other Final Fantasy game that had been released before. The story felt less dynamic and barely focused on our main hero. Combat was seemingly more action-oriented, dropping the more static battle system that the series was known for. Was the direction of Final Fantasy finally lost? No, absolutely not. Where the game lacks in some areas compared to other titles in the franchise, there isn't anything bad here. It's just different.
For those who have not played the original Final Fantasy XII, the story can best be summarized as a political space drama featuring the Rebellion versus the Empire. Sound familiar? The tensions are high between the kingdom of Dalmasca and the Archadian Empire. The Imperial army has just usurped the throne of the royal city of Rabanastre. You play as Vaan, a kid from the recently usurped city of Rabanastre who dreams of becoming a Sky Pirate. By means of getting into trouble, Vaan finds himself a band of adventurers alongside the Princess as they make their way to Archadia to take back Rabanastre. All the while, the adventure gives Vaan the escape he needs in order to fulfill his personal dream of societal liberation. While the idea behind it is great on its own, it's actually an extension of a pre-existing title in the franchise.
Something interesting to consider about the game is the setting. The world of Ivalice, where Final Fantasy XII makes its home, is the same Ivalice that you come to know and love in the fan-favorite, Final Fantasy Tactics. This provides a good bit of familiarity to those who might already know the lore behind the world. There are some really cool nods and mentions to Tactics hidden around which can really enhance the experience.
While the story is very heavily rooted in politics, the characters you spend your time with feel somewhat distant from reality. Considering that your party is made up of royalty and thieves, I found it somewhat difficult to truly relate to any of these characters, albeit I did still find them very fun and charming. The only big problem I have with the cast is the main protagonist and his companion. Vaan and Penelo are ultimately irrelevant to the plot and only exist in the story because of fate. Vaan's brother had fought and died in the war preceding the usurpation, but this is really the only drive he has to get his revenge on the Empire. Panelo only exists as the tag-along to make sure Vaan doesn't get into any trouble.
The rest of the party all have important roles that give them better reasons and therefore drive a much heavier portion of the plot in comparison to our main hero. This being said, I don't think the plot is entirely lacking. The political affairs are interesting, and the dialogue between the party members are almost classically derivatives of fantasy style story-telling, but with a more modern twist. In most cases, I also found the charm of some of the characters to be extremely enjoyable. The journey builds a very nice world that ultimately outweighs the destination.
The combat is very similar to what fans of Final Fantasy XI might be familiar with, just without the massively multiplayer world. Fighting is much more active now than it ever has been. It's not just a screen where you tell commands. Now you can move around and cancel actions, all according to your time and position. It feels much more alive than in any other Final Fantasy before. It's interesting that you technically don't have to ever control your characters' actions. You can create what is essentially a program script that runs through, called the Gambit system. It can perform actions for your character under specific circumstances. For example, if an ally drops below 30% HP, Panelo will cast cure, or if an enemy targets a party member, Basch will attack. And so on. Gambit system is a unique take on battles, and it's constantly changing.
Gambits aren't just made, they're perfected. The challenge of Final Fantasy XII more or less comes from your ability to create Gambits in order to progress through the game. You start out with three slots, and gain more through the Licence board, which is essentially your skill tree. You must also purchase all of the commands in the shops in order to use them, so there's some amount of effort involved in the system. Sometimes it can seem a little too simple, but often you're forced to make your own decisions as well. Either way, you can always turn the gambits off or cancel the actions by yourself. It all works well and is certainly innovative.
Final Fantasy XII was a remarkable technical achievement back in 2006. The amount of detail and polish in the design was undeniably brilliant. For that alone the game definitely deserves recognition in the form of a remaster. The problem is that The Zodiac Age is essentially the same old game. Regardless of the visual updates, it still can't compare to today's standards. The opening cutscene tricks you into thinking that they went beyond the idea of a visual remaster. It's an absolutely gorgeous piece of eye candy; it looks as if they really wanted to make the game look better than it ever has. Once the cutscene ends, the game looks just like it did back on the PlayStation 2. It was confusing, and admittedly I was a bit angry with this, but kept on playing anyway.
Graphics aren't everything, though. While the visuals may have been the cream of the crop in 2006, it's no secret that games from the era need a good coat of paint to really bring out their beauty. In some ways though, I almost feel that the clean-up to fit modern resolution monitors and the lack of texture blurring combined makes the design style a bit less charming. The older hardware had blurring that hid the low-resolution textures. Now the game looks a bit too clean, despite its gritty aesthetic nature. Some textures simply look unnaturally sharp and break the immersion.
This isn't to say that the remaster doesn't have any positives to its visuals. Some of the shadows and lighting look more natural, and some of the clean-up actually does help present the game in a better light. All of the menus look nice and very smooth. The in-game character models aren't as jagged as before and they show more detail. Again, that comes at the cost of breaking a certain barrier of immersion. It's not so bad that it looks awful, at the very least you might notice things that weren't there before. I feel like there just wasn't enough time or effort put into making remaster look better than the original game. A good amount of time was, however, put into some other areas that both make and break it in a few different ways.
The Zodiac Age brings some interesting changes to the original concept. The combat has been reworked to fit a job system into the mix. Each character may select one of twelve jobs, and later in the game, they may select an additional job to help them learn more skills or use different weapons. Alongside this, there were some tweaks to make the game a bit more fair in difficult areas, as well as a button to fast-forward the gameplay by two or four times the speed. This is exceedingly helpful to players that want to get through the game quickly, but I feel that these changes make the game far too easy. There's very little sense of challenge to the point where it gets boring. There are many tough optional hunts, but it doesn't change the fact that the game is much easier to play through because of the additional damage and health buffs that each class can provide your characters.
There are some interesting new additions too that might be worth your time if you enjoyed playing the original version. New Game Plus is here, and it's about what you'd expect. It loads your completed save file in order to start a new game at level 90. More interesting is the New Game Minus that starts you off at level 1 and gains no experience whatsoever during your playthrough. It's an interesting challenge at first, but with the Zodiac Job system, it isn't quite as hard once you've earned enough Licence Points.
One more newly introduced game mode is called Trial. This is bonus content that will load your characters stats from a save game and put them through 100 floors of boss fights to test your strength. It's a fun little mini-game that gives you a reason to go beyond the call of duty, and it can even reward items for your party. All of the additional content is really nice, and I can see many fans going back for some much-needed challenge after they finish the main story.
The remaster might have some flaws that could have been prevented with just a little bit of effort. Despite that, Final Fantasy XII is still solid and just as fun as we remember it. Some aspects might be a bit too easy now, but perhaps the New Game Minus mode will encourage players to challenge themselves for a new kind of experience. All in all, I didn't regret playing the game again, but I also feel that there could have been a little bit more love put into it. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is definitely a feat to be remembered, even if it's ever-so slightly odd when compared with the rest of the Final Fantasy series. It's different, but that doesn't mean it isn't good.
Most of my time is dedicated to tearing apart games and movies, then telling you what I think about it. I've been a gamer since birth, practically born with a controller in my hand. I've always spoke my mind, so critique was a natural fit. Twitter: @Jsrf38