I have a long and complicated history with Final Fantasy XII. Despite owning the 2006 PS2 release for a good five years, I could never get into the game. I sat down and restarted it multiple times, leveling grinding harder, attempting to be more strategic, but each run ended with me reaching a certain plateau where I would just sigh and give up.
Part of this was admittedly due to my lack of skill. When I first tried to play the game back in 2012 I had only just become accustomed to JRPGs. But even without considering my ineptitude, I had a lot of problems with the game’s core design. The license board was an unwieldy upgrade system that left each of my character’s without any real focus in battle, the battle system could be slow and confusing, and in general I found it hard to get a grasp on the game’s mechanics. It was a game I wanted to appreciate as a fan of the franchise, but couldn’t.
So with that in mind, it may come as a surprise that I was immediately excited upon hearing the announcement of the Zodiac Age PS4 remaster. After all, with so many failed attempts to enjoy the game beforehand, you’d think I would have given up on it a long time ago. But really, the main selling point for me wasn’t the improved graphics or the fact that I had another chance to try out the game again, it was the Zodiac Job System.
If you want to know what makes this version of Final Fantasy XII the best one, at least in my opinion, it would be the complete retooling of the license board system. While it may seem like a more limiting design choice to restrict everyone to a single job, the result is a much more balanced and enjoyable. Like I said before, one of the main reasons I found the original PS2 version of this upgrading system so frustrating was how unfocused it was. Now I will admit that some people may enjoy the original version better, it can be fun to fill out the entire board and make your party members jacks of all trades. However, like the Junction system in Final Fantasy VIII, an inexperienced player will likely end up off track due to the overwhelming amount of options.
The Zodiac Job system provides clear, easy to understand choices, made even better in this PS4 version which allows you to give each character two classes. Not only does this help less savvy players in the long run, but it still allows for unique and experimental character customization for the hardcore crowd. Want to create a spear wielding black mage? Go ahead. Would you rather make a character purely focused on support? You can do that to.
In fact, one of the best things about this version of the game as a whole is how it manages to create a game designed for a hardcore audience that can still be enjoyed by casual players. Combat can be difficult and the infamous Gambit system can seem daunting at first. The amount of debuffs, magicks, and status effects is impressive and scary, especially in the game’s final hours. However, the game is easy enough that player’s can opt for quicker head on attacks, or more slowed paced and detailed tactics. If you want to, you can set your party members to cast status effects at specific times, hit each enemy with just the right spell, and make each character perform at maximum efficiency. Or if you’re less interested in the strategic side of the game, you can just have everyone attack and have a healing gambit set to go off every time an ally reaches a certain percentage of their HP.
This same level of choice extends into the game’s side quests and hunting system, which features a ton of challenging optional content. People who are really into the game’s more complex elements can farm EXP and top tier items in order take on intensely challenging bosses like the infamously punishing Yiazmat, or they could take it easy and solely focus on main story content. Both methods are valid and will provide each player with a unique and satisfying experience.
Personally, I can’t imagine trying to one hundred percent this game. Some of the optional areas I visited were utterly insane and having watched a number of videos on Yiazmat, I have no clue why anyone would attempt any of the harder hunts. But I appreciate the fact that it tries to appeal to more tactical players, even if a lot of it seems like busy work to me.
Speaking of things I appreciate, this version of the game adds a ton of minor but beneficial changes alongside the aforementioned Zodiac Job system. Even when compared to the improved PS2 Japan exclusive International version, there’s a lot of minor tweaks to help improve the game’s pacing. At first the 4x and 2x speed feature may seem like something just for speedrunners, but I found myself using the 2x speed option a lot during overworld travel. The maps in this game are massive, which can be impressive at first, but after thirty or so minutes of battling enemies while traversing one, things can start to feel a bit slow.
They’ve also remixed a lot of the item placements from the original, placing powerful spells in higher level areas, and even making the much maligned Zodiac Spear less of hassle to get. So even if you’re a fan of the original PS2 version, you won’t be playing the exact same game. In my opinion this makes it a much more impressive remaster than Final Fantasy X HD, which just released the International PAL version without any gameplay rebalances or changes. Plain old HD remasters certainly aren’t a terrible thing, but a little extra effort can make one seem a lot more valuable in retrospect.
Anyways, when it comes to the quality of the remastered graphics, I ended up coming out of the game impressed. You’d think a PS2 title wouldn’t look too hot on modern consoles, but I always thought the original was way ahead of its time. Akihiko Yoshida’s background and character designs are detailed and enchanting, and the HD only helps their impressive amount of detail stand out. It’s not perfect, there are some blurry moments here and there, but for the most part it looks pretty damn good.
Now although I’ve been praising this game quite a bit, I want to make it clear that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age isn’t perfect. When it comes to the game’s storytelling and structure, there are still some nagging issues. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the plot and characters here! The writing and worldbuilding does a great job at portraying a more mature and political Final Fantasy story, one where there aren’t any clear heroes or villains, and our protagonist aren’t the only ones leading the fight. Every character feels like they come from a real living world, which is no more evident than in the game’s controversial protagonist Vaan.
Oh Vaan, how my thirteen year old self hated you… Now I’m not saying Vaan as a character doesn’t have his problems. After the opening hours he lacks any clear development, and his overall status as leading man is shaky at best. That being said, his writing issues could also be applied to any of the other main cast members, and even if he was technically created to be a more marketable protagonist, he’s important when it comes to establishing the story’s overall tone. Vaan isn’t some special super soldier destined to destroy the Archadian Empire, he’s a normal kid from Rabanastre who just happened to lose his brother during a bloody war. In that sense, he’s a way more down to earth protagonist than most of Final Fantasy’s other ilk, and I can get behind that.
Like I said before though, the plot’s structure is a bit messy. This game had a very troubled development, and while the gameplay has aged like a fine wine, the story has some obvious missing pieces. By the time you reach the two thirds mark in the game, cutscenes and story content notably decrease, with a lot more time spent walking around in dungeons. Sure, the game ends on a strong note, but it feels like every character deserved more time in the spotlight. We should have had more moments between Vayne and Larsa, and we should have seen more character interactions between the main six party members. As it stands, the story is fun and interesting, but lacking a strong emotional core.
It also gets off to a very rocky start, taking players through a long and boring tutorial before throwing them into a sewer and mimic dungeon back to back an hour or two later. Yeah, the game’s first dungeon is a sewer level, it’s about as generic as you think it is.
Still, there are a ton of good moments peppered throughout. From quiet scenes of introspective contemplation, to a ton of other juicy stuff that ties into the game’s central theme of forward momentum and peace. The central conflict of the game is less about whether or not the Archadian Empire will destroy Dalmasca, and is instead a tale of acceptance on the part of Ashe and the other party members. Every main character has a reason to destroy the Archadians, and it’s up to them to decide whether or not they’ll move on from the tragic past to create a better future.
Basically what I’m trying to say here is that if you put down the original Final Fantasy XII all those years ago, you should really give this remastered version a chance. It’s rebalancing of the original game’s complex mechanics is fantastic, and the story has a lot to offer in spite of some questionable moments here and there. It may have taken a bit of time, but we finally have a version of Final Fantasy XII that everyone can enjoy.
When it comes to packaging, I personally prefer the limited edition steelbook, which comes with some incredibly nice cover art courtesy of the fantastic Akihiko Yoshida. It’s honestly my favorite of the steelbooks I own, with a smooth slip on cover and finish. That being said, it is out of stock on from regular sellers on Amazon, so you’re probably better off just getting the normal version. The cover design may be less impressive, but hey, it still has that classic Yoshitaka Amano logo.