If I could describe Final Fantasy’s road-map for releases over the last decade or so in a few words, the first that would come to mind is “unmanaged gravel road”, which is a pretty accurate description when talking about the re-release of Final Fantasy, to the current re-release of Final Fantasy XII. Some games have been given the port treatment to devices with next to no additional features or content whatsoever, HD remasters to appeal to the eye just a little more, or full blown overhauls like 2006’s Final Fantasy III for the DS or the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake slated for episodic release starting (maybe) this year. We are slowly reaching the end of this road map in the current day after over a decade of making the entire mainline series available on modern systems (whether it be on mobile, console or PC) and we now arrive at the re-release of Final Fantasy XII, now re-titled as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac age. Originally released in June of 2017 for the PS4, followed by a release on Steam in February 2018 and finally a release on both Xbox One and Nintendo Switch April 30th of this year, the game has finally come full circle and released on every major gaming platform, making this the perfect time to talk about the game without having to worry you’ll miss out because of your platform of choice. Today though we’ll be looking at the Switch version; not only because it’s cool to have large scale RPG’s on the go, but because it’s a largely different experience when comparing it to the other three platforms.
Before I really dig into it though, I just want to sing an appraisal to the console of choice for this review. It’s no secret I’m a Nintendo fan, after all, I’ve co-hosted a podcast centered around the company for the last 2 years. Regardless of that, I’ve always been very critical of somewhat lazy ports that are mostly aimed at a quick cash in on the Switch’s success and even some of Square Enix’s other ports have been swift on my criticism list due to poor implementation, like the bugs that were present in the Switch port of Final Fantasy VII which were in the original PS4 release that was released 2 years prior to the Switch version. I’m very happy to say that it does not seem to be the case here. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age runs just as good as it’s sister version on other consoles, and I’ve experienced no abnormalities between the PS4 and Switch versions whatsoever. The digital version ensures that it is only installed on either the consoles internal memory or external media so that there isn’t any chugging trying to read from 2 separate memories, which is where a handful of the Switch’s ports fall short. The fact that the game natively supports pausing in every scenario is great for the Switch, too. Having the ability to pause in the middle of a large cutscene or battle and put the console to sleep and take it with me has been a godsend in writing this review. It’s allowed me to make the absolute most of my time in the world of Ivalice whether it be at home or on the go, even if an emergency arises and I have to suddenly stop playing, and in the busy life I currently lead it’s certainly become almost a necessity to have these features when I want to play something as story heavy as Final Fantasy XII.
Speaking of, the opening of this game is something I feel I’ll never tire watching.
The game opens amidst the tidings of war and gives a very heartfelt feel of the experiences to come throughout some incredibly directed CGI cutscenes and a tutorial that throws you right into the action. For the first 15 minutes or so, you are sent through telling tale of the sacred unity of marriage between royal families and it’s affect on the political tides of war, the struggle of loss of a loved one, the fall of a nation that was once built on the pride of it’s citizens, and the betrayal of a trusted comrade. This opening is one of the strongest openings of any game in the series, and it’s honestly hard to believe that the most that was upgraded in terms of graphics is the textures. Both during CGI and during gameplay the characters have more expression than some games today, and this game is over a decade in age. The opening proves that even expressions alone can tell a strong story. Not only is this opening a treat to people who have played before, but even to new players it’s a hell of an experience. The best part is it doesn’t really end there either; throughout the whole game you will see an myriad of amazing scenes that look like this that really bring the land of Ivalice to life, which the new gameplay systems also help achieve.
Final Fantasy XII was released during an era where the series was going through massive changes. After Final Fantasy X, there were some massive changes in how the series would act mechanically, evolving with each game starting with Final Fantasy XI and all the way to the current age (XV and VIIR). The first massive development was XI becoming the first game in the series to become an MMORPG, becoming one of the true forerunners alongside games like Everquest, World of Warcraft and Runescape. Using the fundementals of the way XI worked, the team behind XII tried translating a similar experience into single player form, which at first sounds a little odd. Implementing MMORPG mechanics into a game that was a single player based party RPG sounds like a real mess, but in reality, it opened a rift to what would be a very lively experience. Enemies are now active in the overworld and the only “encounter” battles would now be down to specific Hunts (A monster hunting based system) and bosses at the end of dungeons, meaning that any enemy you could actively engage would be viewable in the overworld and would not require a transition to encounter them. As the player, you actively control one party member and you are able to move about the battlefield freely, either giving your allies commands manually through your typical Final Fantasy style while combat is paused or through a new active mechanic known as Gambits, which will become a huge chunk of your party organisation. Gambits are a huge array of what is essentially bot commands, ranging from anywhere as simple as “Target the Party Leader’s target” to something as specific as “Use Cure to restore any party members HP that is under 30%”. Setting up Gambits to suit each battle will be a huge core of your time and they are almost a requirement if you want to complete some of the hardest parts of the game at a relatively pace.
Gambits is a great system but is also an extremely finicky one. Sometimes you’ll find yourself amidst a battle and the boss will execute a phase change, which will more often than not force you to change your Gambits to suit the new scenario placed before you. This will happen a lot as you hit the late game, and while the game offers interchangeable Gambit “sets” you can pre-pack before a battle, sometimes you will be required to change some on the spot. It’s a good time to pause and take a breather from some of the larger fights in the game (One of the largest has roughly 12 million HP) but it also demands you take your organisation seriously. Because the scale of what exactly you can Gambit is so large, it is VERY easy to make mistakes when resetting them, and this could cost you what has already been an extremely long battle. At the end of the day, Gambits are a bit of a chore to manage. Mastering the system is well worth your time if you decide to go above and beyond the story and try to conquer the end game, but party management is also quite important too and that brings me to the biggest change in the game overall.
The Zodiac Age isn’t just a name for show, it’s actually a very big point in difference between the original Western release from 2006. Around a year after the North American release of Final Fantasy XII, Japan received an enhanced version of the game that would not see North American release until the current remaster that you are now reading this review for. In this version, the entirety of the license board has been completely overhauled and is now seperated into 12 seperate jobs represented by the Zodiac signs. This means that throughout the course of your adventure your entire party has access to 2 jobs each which are not interchangeable throughout the rest of the game once they are picked. Picking a class combination for one character can make or break that characters usefulness for the rest of the game, but also means that every character isn’t just a simple “clone” with a different base stat total like it was in the original game. Let’s say for example, you promote Vann to an Ulhan, which will give him access to Heavy armors, Spears, and a handful of Black magic spells, and then later also give him access to White mage, which will give him access to Rods, select Greatswords and Daggers, and White and Green magic. By doing this, you have now locked those two classes to Vaan, and now will no longer be able pick them for your other characters. Picking and choosing 2 boards that synergize well per character will come down largely to personal preference, but will also determine how versatile your characters are in the battles ahead. This offers a unique combat personality to each character and overall makes use of all six of your party members, rather than just heavily relying on only three for the majority of the game, which is a hugely appreciated change.
Lastly I want to talk about the game’s score, which was re-orchestrated by none other than the original composer of Final Fantasy XII himself, Hitoshi Sakimoto. Known for his work on the tactics series, it’s no wonder that he could create another Ivalician masterpiece when he composed the original soundtrack of Final Fantasy XII, but the re-orchestrated soundtrack of The Zodiac Age adds a whole level of WOW. With the option to switch between the original soundtrack and re-orchestrated at any time through the options menu (Which does take a few seconds between switching) it becomes clear that this man loved composing the music of Final Fantasy. Every track sounds as if he processed it through some sort of magical machine that just makes it all sounds so much better, and I’ve loved every single second of it. Even just strolling through the streets of Dalmasca feels so much more vibrant than I remember it, with every wind instrument having a super clear pop at the top of a note, and the hum of the violin strings acting as a siren song to my ears. The amount of dedication that went into making sure that it was the absolute best it can be is very clear here, and I have to say I’m extremely impressed with it. If you’ve ever been fond of the music of Final Fantasy then I highly suggest a listen to the re-orchestrated soundtrack of The Zodiac Age. It’s absolutely magical.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was the wonderful reunion with Ivalice that I needed. At every turn I was met with an overwhelming sense of not only nostalgia, but also a huge amount of relief that this remaster was as carefully and professionally handled as it was. Time flew by every time I started a session as I was lost in a world filled with areas to explore, stories to unfold, and marks to hunt down and kill. Not only is Final Fantasy XII one of the finest RPG’s out there, but Final Fantasy: The Zodiac age is also one of the finest remasters of a true classic out there. Well done, Square Enix. You caught me hook, line and sinker with this one.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
– Bandai Namco AU