Final Fantasy XII has aged very well indeed – and that's not something you can say about a lot of role-playing games that launched over ten years ago. Following on from the admirable remastered collection that is Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster, Square Enix has seen fit to rework one of the most divisive mainline Final Fantasy games in its portfolio. Enter Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
Right off the bat, it's clear that the company's taken great care with the rebirth of this grand adventure. The original PlayStation 2 title certainly looked the part back in the day, but touched up CG sequences, smoother character models, and enhanced texture work and resolution across the board make for a surprisingly pretty release even in 2017. What's more, a freshly composed orchestral soundtrack breathes new life into what was already a stunning musical score. In short, Square Enix has knocked this one out of the park in terms of presentation.
Meanwhile, on the gameplay side of things, The Zodiac Age transports us back to a time when Final Fantasy games asked much more of the player than simply holding down a couple of buttons. XII is an unashamedly intricate RPG, and all of its many complexities have been preserved here. From the sheer depth of the gambit system to the newly worked job system, the release slings you into a sea of gameplay mechanics and expects you to find your own way back to shore.
In the early hours of the game, this approach can be overwhelming. Those who missed out on the original release likely won't have any real grasp on what they're doing until they've fumbled around with almost every option available to them. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with gameplay depth, especially when it offers so much room for personalisation and experimentation, but The Zodiac Age could have done much more to lend a helping hand in understanding the opportunities that it presents.
Having said all that, even veteran players will need to open their minds to the aforementioned refreshed job system. Building on the job system introduced in the Japanese-only Final Fantasy XII: International Edition, The Zodiac Age lets you assign two different jobs to each permanent party member. Essentially defining a character's role in combat, jobs range from magical spell-slingers to heavily armoured knights, and as you can imagine, forming a balanced team that can handle any situation is the key to success.
With access to a second job for each character, the system truly blossoms. The ability to combine the skill sets of two potentially disparate roles changes everything. Suddenly, you're able to patch up specific weaknesses that apply to certain jobs or meaningfully build upon a character's existing role. Second jobs add a ridiculous amount of depth and rewrite the book on how to develop a seemingly invincible adventuring party. They're nothing short of a game-changing addition.
However, this major alteration may not be enough to sway those who disliked the gambit system the first time around. Gambits are basically automatic commands that can be assigned to each party member. They're fully customisable and demand to be tinkered with if you don't want to micromanage every little detail during battle. Set gambits up right, and your team will be able to tackle hordes of enemies without the need for any direct action, essentially resulting in the game playing itself.
This didn't sit well with some players back in 2006 and we doubt that it'll be to everyone's taste today. There's definite satisfaction to be found in watching your automated party make mincemeat out of anything that dares cross their path, knowing that your gambits are in full effect, but at the same time, repetition can start to creep in as you wipe areas clean of monsters. Divided opinion aside, though, there's no denying that gambits help define Final Fantasy XII. It's a relatively unique system that works well in practice, even if it's not universally appreciated.
Outside of combat and the exploration of bustling cities and expansive wilderness, The Zodiac Age tells a sweeping tale about an all-conquering empire and its march across lesser nations. Naturally, the narrative follows a ragtag group of characters who eventually come together to undo the empire's ambitions. The plot's long and winding with plenty of cutscenes and CG movies to keep you up to speed, and for the most part, it makes for a very entertaining story full of political intrigue and interesting characters.
As is usually the case, however, some members of the cast are better implemented than others. Widowed princess Ashe is headstrong and stubborn in her pursuit of justice, but there's an endearing softness to her character. Silver-tongued rogue Balthier is a smug sky pirate who steals the spotlight throughout the title, and wronged military commander Basch is a stern warrior who forms the backbone of the group with his calm and collected perspective. Any of these three characters could be called the protagonist, but Final Fantasy XII predominantly puts you in the shoes of Vaan – a pickpocketing youth plucked from the streets of his home by a series of events largely outside of his control.
Vaan's a decent enough character – he's not quite as despicable as some players may have you believe – but it does often feel like he's been shoehorned into the plot so that you can see the world of Ivalice from an angle of inexperience. He and childhood friend Penelo just don't link into the narrative as well as everyone else, and are never able to really establish themselves as important personalities.
Speaking of Ivalice, Final Fantasy XII's fantasy setting is one of the series' best realised worlds. There's a distinct richness to the game's environments that very few RPGs are able to match, and the release does an excellent job of making each location feel alive. This isn't a true open world title since areas are sectioned off into different zones, but journeying from one side of a map to the other gives off a palpable sense of adventure.
And then there are the hunts. The game's main side activity sees you track down powerful beasts in order to slay them and claim the bounties on their heads. Some hunts provide a real challenge, while others lay out enjoyable little side stories for you to follow. They're a fantastic way to further detail the title's world, and they're great fun to discover and complete.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a near perfect reworking of a PS2 masterpiece. The game's not without its minor flaws, but overall, this is a startling reminder of how magical Square's beloved series can be.