While acclaimed when it came out in on the PlayStation 2 in 2006, Final Fantasy XII always felt like something of an anomaly. Square Enix, mindful that turn-based RPGs were beginning to feel like relics, made FFXII different to its predecessors in some fundamental ways, a change that left a section of Final Fantasy’s fan-base baffled.
Now, in the franchise’s 30th anniversary year, Square Enix has released the remastered Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which brings the full force of modern games development technology to bear on what for some is a classic and others an aberration. Happily, it’s no mere cut-and-paste job, with nicer-looking graphics tacked on and everything else left untouched. Various elements of the gameplay have been tweaked, a whole new section called Trial Mode has been added, and the hugely impressive soundtrack has been re-recorded.
The Zodiac Age had two fundamental systems which were completely new to the franchise and which, once you master them, work surprisingly well. The first is entitled Gambits, and lets you exert fine control over the members of your team, essentially by tweaking the A.I.. So you can, for example, set up one character to automatically heal someone whose health falls below 30 per cent, or instruct another to hit enemies with specific magic attacks. The possibilities are more or less limitless, and it pays to tweak individuals’ Gambits according to whether you’re taking on a boss or battling specific types of enemy. Extra Gambits can also be bought in shops, like potions or armour.
The other uniquely FFXII system is Licenses, which let you shape your characters as they level up, via what resemble oddly shaped chessboards. The License system has been overhauled for the remastered version of the game adding the ability to unlock a second board for each character. The boards themselves define each character’s “Job”, which could be White Mage, Monk or so on. New Jobs in the remastered game include the samurai-style Bushi and the mace-wielding Red Battlemage, while having access to two License boards lets you create super-skilled characters.
Elsewhere, The Zodiac Age provides lashings of classic Final Fantasy action. Set in the world of Ivalice, its storyline isn’t a million miles away from that of Final Fantasy XV. You mainly play Vaan, a slightly brattish late-teen from the city of Rabanastre, capital of Dalmasca, which has recently been invaded and subjugated by the evil Archadian Empire. In a prologue, Vaan’s brother Reks witnesses the murder of the King of Dalmasca, before being murdered himself. Vaan hooks up with a motley crew of characters including Princess Ashe, heir apparent to the Dalmascan throne, sky-pirates Balthier and Fran (the latter a Viera, so she dresses like a Playboy bunny except with real bunny-ears) and Basch, the supposed murderer of the king.
Story-wise, The Zodiac Age has everything that Final Fantasy fan could ask for, but the remaster really excels in visual terms — though it helps that the original set new standards for art-direction. Ivalice is a spectacular place to behold, especially in full HD, and benefits from some incredible level-design. The sky-city of Bhujerba, for example, is one of the franchise’s most memorable settings, and locations range from ancient tombs to a surprisingly space-age Imperial facility.
The remastered Final Fantasy XII might not be the most obvious purchase for non-franchise-stalwarts but it stands up against the very finest Japanese RPGs made up to this point. It should be an anachronism, but it isn’t. Mainly because it took a much riskier approach than anyone anticipated eleven years ago. If you’re a connoisseur of the genre, this comes highly recommended.