Like them or not, video game remasters are here to stay. Some are terrible, obvious attempts to cash in on nostalgia with minimal effort or respect for the source material. Others are great, giving us the nicest-looking and most feature-complete version of a beloved title made available again to anyone with modern hardware. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age goes one step further, by somehow making a game that was surprisingly divisive among fans ten years ago more relevant than ever.
Despite a fantastic critical reception, Final Fantasy XII didn’t sit well with some fans the first time around, with the change to a semi-real time battle system and an almost MMO-like approach to world and quest structure seen as an unwelcome rejection of the core ideals of the series. It’s fortunate, then, that Square Enix saw fit to take the definitive, and once Japan-exclusive International Zodiac Job System version of the game and give it a second chance on the PlayStation 4 – because the reality is that Final Fantasy XII should be regarded as not just one of the best in the franchise, but one of the finest JRPGs of all time.
You just had to stop and get potions. Those flights were non-refundable!
For the uninitiated, this twelfth numbered entry in the long-running franchise is set in Ivalice, a world it shares with other titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story – another departure from tradition in a series that typically builds new lore from scratch with each major release. The game follows main character Vaan, a plucky and ‘resourceful’ (see; criminal) lower-class citizen trying to make a life for himself in a nation struck by war and greed. What follows is a grand, sweeping tale of political intrique, rebellions and the power of friendship and crystals. It sits somewhere between Star-Wars-With-Sentient-Cactuses and Game-of-Thrones-With-Fewer-Penises, and it’s brilliant. The sheer scale and depth of Final Fantasy XII was leagues above its peers at the time and still holds up incredibly well today, with modern Final Fantasy games struggling to match the masterful character and world-building.
Not content with just raising the bar for storytelling, Square Enix took big risks with Final Fantasy XII’s gameplay both in and out of battle. In an effort to create a more seamless experience, random battles and overworld maps were given the axe. The world was now comprised of large, semi-open zones populated by enemies that could be seen and fought without switching to a separate encounter. This was supported by a wholly different battle system to the series traditional turn-based fights – character movement could now be controlled directly by the player in real-time, with attacks and abilities still mostly dictated by the staple Active Time Bar. The result was an experience that felt akin to something like an MMO, eschewing the slow-paced and strategic turn-based battles for a more hands-off experience where most of the strategy occurred outside of battle, in Final Fantasy XII’s other big mechanic – the Gambit system. Using a staggeringly comprehensive libray of if/when modifiers, party members not currently being controlled by the player could be made to execute specific commands dictated by their (or others’) immediate situation. For example, if the dashingly handsome sky pirate Balthier happens to have the power of healing in his repertoire, I can program him to use a Cure spell on any party member whose HP falls below a certain percentage. I can even have him prioritse certain other party members, or completely different actions, depending on the number of Gambit slots and modifiers I have obtained over the course of the game. It’s yet another facet of the game that flew in the face of convention and still feels surprisingly modern some ten years later.
Bunny and Clyde
It helps, of course, that this particular version of Final Fantasy XII is packed with a plethora of changes and refinements that bring it even more in line with more contemporary efforts and serve to make it a worthwile experience both for those who never had the chance to play, and for those who poured countless hours into the original. As I mentioned earlier, this release is based on the International Zodiac Job Edition of the game, which first released in Japan some twelve months after the original launch, but was never localised for other regions. Most of the ‘new’ features in The Zodiac Age carry over from this release, the most crucial being sweeping changes to the character progression and battle systems. Rather than all characters’ stats and abilities being upgraded on identical ‘License Boards’, there are now twelve classes to choose from, with the game asking you to make a permanent class choice for each party member (cue crippling anxiety). In battle, story-critical ‘guest’ characters can now be directly controlled for the time that they’re tagging along with the party, as can the summonable Espers that previously were stritcly AI-controlled. Less noticable but equally welcome are comprehensive tweaks to the game balance, as well as new items, equipment, rewards and treasures.
New Game Plus also makes an appearance, as does a new Trial Mode – a gauntlet of 100 battle stages with which to test the mettle of your party carried over from the main game. It’s a seemingly benign extra but does provide some tasty loot that can be taken straight back into the game proper. By far my favourite new feature, however, is the ability to speed up the entire game by double or quadruple time at the touch of a button – dubbed ‘Speed Mode’.
Tell me more
For anyone who’s played Final Fantasy XII in the past, the possibilities are immediately obvious – go from one end of the sprawling sky city of Bhujerba to the other in half the time, grind for LP in the Estersand with twice the effiency, or simply enjoy watching your party zip around the world with Charlie Chaplin-esque gait. For newcomers it’s a great way to acclimatise to the slower pace of a JRPG circa-2006. For someone like myself, who has already completed the game in their youth and is now replaying it in their responsibility-rife adult lives, it’s a much-needed timesaver and a bloody godsend. The best part is that while the original Zodiac version of the game topped out at double the regular speed, The Zodiac Age is content to let players crank the dial up to a ridiculous 400% pace. Check it:
Grinding Done Fast (also the name of my leaked adult film)
Brand new to this remaster are more typical enhancements to the audiovisual experience. Textures and lighting are vastly improved throughout, including completely new depth-of-field effects, bringing out more detail in characters and environments and lending greater depth to scenes than ever before. Performance is also improved across the board, remaining silky smooth throughout. Despite the still-woeful lip syncing and antiquated animation work, it’s often hard to believe that this is essentially a PlayStation 2 game. The only disappointments are the occasional still-very-muddy texture and unchanged, PS2-era motion blur effects in place.
Audio, too, sees an overhaul, with a true 7.1 channel mix and higher quality sounds and voices (including the welcome ability to switch between the Japanese and English dubs!). More importantly, the entire soundtrack has been re-recorded with a full orchestra. Going in I had concerns that Hitoshi Sakimoto’s original score might have been compromised in the process, but happily the new music is more or less the same – albeit much more grandiose and powerful – and can be switched out for the original recording should that still not be good enough.
All of these improvements, both old and new, come together to form an extremely polished and refreshingly modernised version of an already amazing game. Final Fantasy XII may not be the title that immediately comes to mind when discussing the behemoth franchise, but it deserves to be, and this near perfectly-executed remaster makes the best case yet as to why that is.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age gives this underdog classic the treatment it deserves, and proves just how ahead of its time the original release was by transporting players into a gorgeous, vast world of sky pirates and corrupt rulers that feels more modern and relevant than ever.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro