Final Fantasy XII has always been a bit of an oddball within the long-running series. Its real-time combat smacks of an MMO, like FFXI and FFXIV, but it’s still a single-player adventure centered around a core party of characters. Throw in a Gambit system that lets players “program” party behavior and a story more about political intrigue than gods or monsters, and XII just might be the weirdest main game in its franchise—at least compared to what passes for normal in Final Fantasy.
None of this changes the fact that FFXII is also a damn good JRPG. That fact might have been overshadowed by its eccentricities since the PlayStation 2 era. So it’s nice that publisher Square Enix is releasing a superior version of the game (itself based on a superior version that never came out in North America) in the form of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
International at last
If The Zodiac Age sounds familiar, it’s because Square also released Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System in 2007 in Japan (and only Japan; so much “for International”). That’s the version this latest remake is based on. It allows Western PlayStation 4 owners to finally enjoy Zodiac‘s many improvements over the baseline XII experience and a grip of new goodies that makes the game even more enjoyable.
The big change is the once-titular “job system.” For, as interesting as FFXII was in certain ways (real-time combat, Gambits, etc.), character progression was not all that interesting. Combat earned playable characters License Points and standard experience points that could be used to buy passive and active skills on a License Board. If you ever played Final Fantasy X, the board was a bit like that game’s successful Sphere Grid.
The problem was that each of XII‘s six playable characters had exactly the same License Board. Given enough time and grinding, every character could use the same skills, the same weapons, and the same armor. So the ostensibly suave and clever sky pirate, Balthier, could be a mace-wielding mega-bruiser if the player wanted. It allowed for a lot of experimentation but not much forced distinctiveness between characters or within combat encounters.
Flip the board over
Both past and present versions of Zodiac fix this problem. Instead of having the same License Board, players now permanently pick a unique board for each character, based on Jobs from classic Final Fantasy games. My version of Balthier, for instance, is a White Mage, a role I chose to match his strong baseline health stats. Meanwhile, Ashe, my team’s deposed princess, is also the squad’s Samurai.
Unlike the Japan-only version of Zodiac, however, this new remake allows each character to pick up to two jobs fairly early in the lengthy campaign. So you can still experiment—mixing and matching abilities and gear from all 12 Jobs across all six characters—while still maintaining a unique and permanent flavor to each.
The Zodiac Age also includes the international version’s fast-forward function. Just by tapping L1, you can double or quadruple the game’s speed. It looks ridiculous, but seeing your active party of three zip across the desert like in a Benny Hill gag is also amusing.
The addition ends up being worthwhile because there is so much desert to cover; not to mention forests, palace hallways, science-fantasy airship interiors, and dungeons. Final Fantasy XII is huge, both in terms of geography and overall scope. The game’s focus on resource disputes and a backstabbing war of succession, rather than immediately world-ending threats, feels more expansive than the usual Final Fantasy apocalypse.
Maybe Square just wanted to get as much mileage out of the game’s gorgeous, Vagrant Story-inspired art design as possible. Maybe the company had really unlocked the power of the PlayStation 2 and let ambition get in the way of proper pacing. Whatever the case, The Zodiac Age is a much nimbler game when you can drill through trivial distance—and zip around enemy encounters—at light speed. Speed also makes the Gambit system that much more meaningful.
Run the Gambit
Without Gambits, FFXII‘s combat isn’t very different from something like Final Fantasy VI or IX. All characters have an Active Time Battle gauge that fills up in real-time and, once it does, lets them fire off a skill or attack. At the same time, encounters aren’t random or unexpected. You see foes in the world before they engage you in the pseudo-real-time combat—just like in an MMO.
You can issue orders to every party member, individually. But using Gambits is usually much easier, especially when you’re running things at four times normal speed. These if/then statements command characters to automatically use spells, items, and abilities under certain circumstances.
A gambit directive like “If an allied party member is below 50-percent health, then cast Cure on them” can be a lifesaver. You’ll likely want to get more granular than that, though. With enough proper “coding,” trivial battles become, if not automatic, at least asynchronous (though you still have to go through the tedium of coding your Gambits beforehand). If things get too hairy, just hit L1 to slow the action back down.
This was incredibly cool to me in 2006. In 2017, my mostly improved critical thinking skills could use a bit more complex interaction. Different Gambits can’t really play off one another in any significant way. For instance, while I can tell my Red Mage Fran to cast Fire on enemies that are weak to the stuff, I can’t tell her to switch to healing if someone else in the party is already casting the same offensive spell.
Gambits are still mighty useful for what they’re best at: grinding down weaker enemies. I always turned down the speed and turned on direct control for tricky things like boss fights anyway, so the simplicity of the system isn’t that irksome. In fact, because it teams up with the fast-forward feature to make the game lightning fast in places it crawled before, it also really helps alleviate the grind for funds, which is otherwise pretty annoying.
Make it rain gil
Hardly any enemies in FFXII drop gil naturally. Instead, they have a percentage chance to drop loot that can be sold in stores. At the same time, nearly everything in the game requires gil: armor, weapons, and items, of course. But new spells and even new Gambit parameters also require a healthy gil investment.
There are many drains on your coffers, then, but not many ways to fill them. Being able to chew up enemies (and even undertake lucrative bounty hunts for specific monsters) in a few seconds rather than a few minutes makes all the difference in the world. Despite The Zodiac Age‘s many other quality-of-life changes, though, there’s still no “sell all” function for loot. That sure stinks.
The rest of FFXII, though? Still great. The game is a familiar throwback to a time when I couldn’t walk to my local video rental store without tripping over a dozen PlayStation JRPGs with novel hooks. It’s also a strange departure for the Final Fantasy series: thematically, mechanically, and artistically.
The Zodiac Age, specifically, feels like 11 years of FFXII-centric complaints, addressed in one tidy package. From that perspective, I could do with a few more modern conveniences. The lack of a “sell all junk” function seems like a minor complaint, but it adds up. I could also do with The Zodiac Age being less stingy about gil in the first place. The remake has been rebalanced to be easier, overall, but bottlenecking spells and Gambits through money are still frustratingly limiting.
That said, the fast-forward function and new License Boards are such fundamental improvements to FFXII that I can’t complain too much. It doesn’t hurt that the game’s art absolutely sings at modern HD resolution. That willingness to change where necessary while simply adding a fresh coat of paint where things were fine before tells me Square understands how to reinvigorate this old game. The Zodiac Age is a remake, sure, but it strikes all the right notes to be a worthwhile one.
- Fast-forward function saves time, improves pacing.
- Unique departures for the series, like Gambits and a politically driven story, still feel fresh today.
- Individual License Boards give party members personality, shake up gameplay.
- FFXII was always meant to be played in HD.
- Grinding for gil can still get tedious.
- Junk seriously needs a “sell all” button.
- Gambits are a little simplistic.
- Hemming and hawing for hours over which permanent Jobs to assign your party members. Seriously: hours.
Verdict: FFXII: The Zodiac Age offers some fundamental changes to make a great game even better—even if it could have used one or two more minor improvements. Buy it.