Reviewed on: Playstation 4
Final Fantasy sure is undergoing something of a resurgence of late. There have been a whole host of releases from Square Enix for its flagship RPG series, not least of which is the excellent Final Fantasy XV. Alongside this, and titbits of news about the in development remaster of the beloved Final Fantasy VII, we now have Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a remaster of one of the most experimental outings of the series.
Now, you may be confused here. Fans of the game’s original release will likely be a little unsure of the added title of Zodiac Age. You may wonder exactly what’s going on here, and you’d be forgiven, as unless you’re a hardcore FF fan who keeps up to date with the Japanese side of the gaming world, you’ll be unfamiliar with this remaster’s original outing.
Final Fantasy XII originally had a remixed edition released only in Japan. Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System (catchy, eh?) was its name and it was essentially the same game, but one that featured a tweaked job system. There were other tweaks too, such as the ability to control guest characters in your party, a new game plus and minus mode, a trial hunting mode, and the ability to actually speed up the game. This is essentially what we have here in Zodiac Age, only in remastered form for current hardware. There’s no new story content, and this isn’t a side story or sequel, it’s simply a remastered global release of a previously Japan-only version.
Visually, FFXII has received a good deal of attention, and whilst it’s still a remaster of an 11 year old game, which obviously shows, it does have a much better level of detail and sharpness. Textures have been improved, especially on characters, and although it certainly has a little bit of retro feel to it (can a PS2 game really be retro?), it looks decent nonetheless.
The audio is much the same in terms of VO and SFX, but the new orchestrated score is excellent, with themes that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Star Wars movie. This isn’t entirely out of place here, with the story involving air pirates, an evil empire, a princess, and a young boy hero who amounts to much greater things. Actually, Final Fantasy XII basically is Star Wars.
The game itself is nigh-on identical to the original release, with few changes made to the core formula. The battle system is the same mixture of Final Fantasy turn-based control and MMO style action, with characters able to freely move around, executing commands when their action bars fill up. Coloured lines indicate friend and foe targeting, and you can control any one of your party when roaming the world in non-hub areas, and are not limited to the game’s sole protagonist.
The world is open, broken up into individual sections you can wander through, and it has that definite MMO feel of being able to explore and wander into an area you really shouldn’t be exploring at lower levels. This can make things tougher early on, but also opens up some great power-levelling zones where you can grind for experience.
The changes from the vanilla version begin with the revised licence system, which is now split into several ‘jobs,’ each of which has its own unique board. Previously, all characters in your party used the same licence board, and so this meant you could end up with identical characters and little variety. Now, there are specific job boards, each of which contain specific skills, abilities, and gear licences not seen in other boards. The Knight license board, for example, focuses on swords, shields, heavy armour and more martial skills. The White Mage board, on the other hand, focuses on healing and support spells, with a use of staves as weapons.
This may sound like a relatively small feature, but in terms of the overall gameplay, it’s huge. It means that you actually have to build your team up carefully, picking out roles and skills that can combine to make a party that’s able to cope in various situations. As you can change the three-person party at any time, it gives you the chance to spec your heroes in very specialised roles that can be swapped in and out to suit whatever situation you’re in.
It really makes you think when levelling up your heroes, and as each license is permanent, and can’t be changed (changes do come later, though), you’re forced to pick a suitable job for each hero that can suit your play style. It’s a great addition, and is much better than the system employed by the original game. The various job boards are themed after the Zodiac, hence the game’s title.
Additional changes I’ve mentioned include the ability to speed up the game, which is done by tapping the left shoulder button. This means you can quickly traverse the open world, fight simple battles much more quickly, and generally spend less time wandering from A to B. It’s also a great tool for grinding, as even low level foes that don’t grant much XP can be farmed as speeding up the game means you’ll kill more enemies in a shorter time.
The Gambit system remains one of the game’s best features, and although it’s not been changed here, it’s just as important. Ahead of its time in 2006, and still superior to most games’ attempts at party AI, the Gambit system lets you use a simple if/then command language to script your parties actions when not under your control. You can set healers to auto-heal allies when their health falls below a certain percentage, set mages to attack the highest level foes with more powerful magic, assign your tanks to head off attacks to shield your weaker foes, and so on. Couple this with the new speed boost, and you can almost auto-grind your character experience if you use the system correctly. It’s very impressive.
Other extras such as trophy support and the new game plus are welcome, as is the new trial mode that lets you hunt various creatures over various maps (and can earn items and experience that carries into the main game), but the revised job system is the main draw here, and it really does alter how you play the game, making if feel different enough, but retaining the same excellent gameplay fans came to love in the original.
The lack of any actual extra content may put some people off, but as someone who’s already sunk a lot of time into the original, I found The Zodiac Age to be a genuine triumph, once again drawing me into the game. This is no small achievement given some of the advances made in the RPG genre since the game’s original release, and only serves to prove just how good FFXII was, and still is.