The history of the Final Fantasy series has been one consistently marred by controversy, anger and discontent. In particular, since the release of Final Fantasy VII, there have been few entries in the franchise that have managed to satisfy the series’ ever-increasing number of fans and Final Fantasy XII was no different. At the time it shook up some of the key elements of the series to much furore, yet eleven years later, there’s been a growing sense of expectation for the game’s remaster and a return to the world of Ivalice has, it turns out, been long overdue.
Appearing in the twilight years of the PlayStation 2, FFXII was an impressive looking game for the time, and of course boasted the series’ trademark CG cutscenes, all of which have been remastered in HD for this release. It all holds up well and there’s a great sense of solidity to all of the characters throughout, just as there is in the often impressive locations that are full of personality. Sure, things are blockier than we’re used to these days, but the art direction is so strong, whether it’s the characters, monsters, or setting, that it’s still utterly beguiling and wholly enjoyable.
The only slight wrinkle is the oddly offset cutscenes. Instead of standard letterbox effect, they’re pushed up to the top of the screen with one large black bar at the bottom. Even after hours of play it was off-putting, and though I expect it was originally intended to make things easier for those using subtitles, it just looks odd.
While the remastering process has seen that the game holds up visually against more modern offerings, it’s the characters and story that remain as fun, exciting, and well rounded as they were over a decade ago. From the forthright street orphan Vaan who becomes swept up in the political machinations of two rival empires and the Dalmascan resistance movement, via the eternally cool sky pirate Balthier and his rabbit-eared Viera companion Fran, through to the disgraced knight Basch, this is a group of people that you’ll come to love spending time with. You can switch back and forth between the Japanese and English language tracks as well, should you wish to, though this is one of those rare JRPGs where the English offering feels just as good.
Aside from the characters and story, FFXII introduced some genuinely revolutionary elements into its combat system, elements of which still feel fresh and new. While these have been copied over the years to varying degrees, few games have nailed the sensation provided by the Active Dimension Battle system, which pulled in influences from the burgeoning MMO scene.
With your character’s positioning controlled in real-time, you’re tasked with designating targets and deciding when to use your special abilities or items, all of which gives it an completely different flavour from its staid turn-based predecessors. In a lot of ways it feels as though last year’s Final Fantasy XV was aiming for something as revolutionary from its action-heavy combat, but it was ultimately far less refined.
The game also introduced the Gambit system, which in essence allows you to program your party member’s behaviour during combat. It’s a wonderfully intuitive set-up, with you able to add an expandable number of commands from a simple drop down menu that’s based on what or who you’re targeting and what action you want them to perform in that situation. So you can tell one of your AI controlled party members to heal any characters below 50% health with a spell, or to automatically revive a fallen teammate by using a Phoenix Down. It’s simple to use, but hugely effective and rewarding, and once again, while it’s a system that’s been adopted by other games, FFXII’s original rendition remains the most comprehensive.
FFXII The Zodiac Age takes its new subtitle from the expanded range of jobs your character can now be pulled into. Based on the twelve Zodiac signs, from Knight to Black Mage, each of the jobs offers a bespoke range of enhancements that appear on a license board. You unlock more tiles as you progress, which in turn grant you new abilities or improvements. The original version of the game basically allowed all characters to learn all of the abilities in the long run from a single job, which besides making a mockery of their individuality, also made the game overly easy. The remaster’s response to this is to allow each character to choose two jobs, with two distinct license boards and abilities, creating characters that are much more unique and malleable.
Once you’ve lovingly built your characters up, you can also take them out within the new Trial Mode – well new to us Westerners who never saw XII’s Japan-exclusive International Zodiac Job System version of the game. Here you face wave after wave of steadily more powerful opposition, with 100 levels of what undoubtedly becomes crushingly difficult combat. It’s a fun diversion, and one which can pay off with rewards that you then take back into your single player game, but it’ll be the toughest challenges that the most committed fans will appreciate.
While I loved Final Fantasy XII the first time around, it wasn’t without flaws, and one of its key downfalls were some seriously slow paced moments, exacerbated by your character’s relatively slow run speed. The Zodiac Age remedies this by adding in a fast forward function whereby you can speed things up by either two or four times.
Though it does occasionally make for some Benny Hill-esque running – you can probably find the right song on Spotify – it makes travelling and grinding much less time consuming, and thereby much more enjoyable at points, particularly when you’re making your way across some of the larger locales. Overall there’s a lightness brought to proceedings that wasn’t there before, and whether that’s due to the hugely improved loading times, introduction of autosave, or the PS4’s ability to suspend everything in rest mode, these modern improvements just make the game feel much more approachable.
Though I remember having a huge amount of fun with XII when it came out, it’s always been Final Fantasy X that was ‘my’ Final Fantasy game growing up. However, having replayed them both again in remastered form, it’s clearly XII which comes away the winner. A wonderful remaster with welcome enhancements, it’s remarkable just how fresh, fun and involving Final Fantasy XII feels over a decade later, with elements that still feel modern in a franchise well known for hanging onto the past.
Version Tested: PS4 Pro