Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review – Grinding Made Easy
Originally releasing over ten years ago, Final Fantasy XII is one of the most polarizing games in the franchise’s history. I didn’t play the game when it first released, but I know its history. Some praise its Gambit system for the depth and strategy it offers, while others criticized it for basically playing itself. Likewise, opinions on the story and characters varied greatly. But the Zodiac Age isn’t just a simple high-definition remaster, as it not only offers improvements to the original’s presentation and sound quality, but also includes the features that were added in the enhanced version of the game that never made it over to North America.
My own experience with the game really was a tale of two halves. I started out thoroughly enjoying everything about the game, with me ready to proclaim it my favorite title in the series – then suddenly, I was no longer as enthralled. But before I get to where Final Fantasy XII goes wrong, I’ll start with what it did to draw me in so deeply.
Like the title would suggest, the most important feature added to this updated version of the game, and not to mention the highlight of my entire experience, is the Zodiac job system. Instead of having one large skill tree in the form a license board that is identical for your entire party, the characters now individually have two smaller license boards that are designed with the jobs you assigned them in mind. This does limit which skills, abilities, and weapons the characters can acquire over the course of the game, but also streamlines the entire character building process and makes it easier to maintain a more balanced party throughout. There are twelve jobs available in all, and choosing which jobs you give each character is a fun yet stressful process as there are no takebacks, so you are stuck with what you pick.
My investment into this leveling up process was greater than it is in most skill trees. Every time I gathered up what I presumed was a decent enough number of job points, which are gained through defeating enemies, I would eagerly check each character’s license boards to see what I could unlock now and plot future choices. On the downside, you are bound to unlock just about everything useful before you even come close to the end of the game.
Final Fantasy XII’s Gambits, on the other hand, remains remotely unchanged, yet still were a lot of fun to tinker with to a newcomer like me. Getting the chance to play the role of a game programmer by setting triggers for your characters and how they react when said situations occur in battle is something you don’t see often in games. While getting to watch your party tear through enemies like a well-oiled machine is just the icing on the cake. You can still control your characters during battle, though the system is set up in a way there is rarely a reason to do so. The combat can be a bit slow, but here’s where another new feature comes in handy.
The ability to fast-forward the game four times its normal speed is a stroke of genius, and something I took advantage of often. The monotony of grinding that accompany most JRPG’s is almost nonexistent thanks to this feature, and is also helpful in allowing you to navigate the various labyrinth-like cities or when dungeon crawling. One other ease of access mechanic is the addition of auto-saves, which cuts down on the backtracking you must endure if your entire party falls in battle.
Final Fantasy XII’s story is unique in the way that its protagonist, 15-year old aspiring Sky Pirate, Vann, plays such a small, yet pivotal, role in the overarching plot; he isn’t some chosen hero or remarkable gifted in anyway, but is more of a bystander who is just along for the ride. In fact, the way Final Fantasy XII opens by focusing more on the political intrigue and maneuvering of world leaders is a breath of fresh air. The lore you are introduced to early on certainly grabbed my attention, though it is heavy with expositional jargon. To top it all off, the characters on paper seemed to possess all the makings of being one of the series’ best ensembles – a rogue pirate and his mystical partner-in-crime, a princess turned rebel, and disgraced military captain; all of whom are excellently voiced.
Now, here’s where we get to Final Fantasy XII’s problems.
About part of the way through the game, it begins quite clear that the characters lack the depth they ought to. I’m not quite sure why Vann gets all the heat for fading into the background when the same can be said for any party member not named Ashe or Balthier. Take Basch for example, he first shows up, he seems like he is going to become a prominent fixture in the story, but skip ahead a couple hours and multiple cutscenes occur where he doesn’t even say a word. While Penelo, Vaan’s childhood friend, is so useless and inconsequential to the plot that I’m not sure why she even exists. The game teases you with tidbits about a few of the characters’ cryptic pasts, but then either fails to elaborate properly or just glosses over the details so fast that the reveals lack impact.
The cast had so much potential that it is nothing but disappointing to see them not get the characterization they deserve. I think part of the reason is due to the pacing of the story being so rushed that it doesn’t leave any room for downtime, meaning the interactions between the characters are so sparse and unlively that the player rarely gets to see any different sides of their personalities. This is a problem because all of them, except for Balthier, remain stuck on the same character trait throughout the entire game; Ashe is always solemn, Fran’s mysterious, Basch’s stoic, and Vaan’s immature. This results in the cast coming off remarkably flat not only in development but likeability as well, which in turn causes the narrative payouts to feel unearned.
The overarching story itself stumbles into a similar pitfall when the politics fade into background noise, so the familiar, and tired, plot of a villain with grandiose desires for unimaginable power can take center stage. It doesn’t help that said villain is excruciatingly bland and uncharismatic. The plot devolves into one MacGuffin hunt after another and begins to move as if on rails, with nothing unexpected or surprising happening. Things do pickup when the story focuses on the party members’ pasts, but, like I already mentioned, these moments are few and far between.
The story is not the only thing affected by this second half slump either.
After a time, your Gambits become stagnant, as you begin to routinely demolish your foes so easily that there is rarely a reason for you to interact with the game apart from moving the analog stick or occasionally triggering a Quickening (Final Fantasy XII’s version of a limit break). Some of the boss fights do offer a respite and force you to change your Gambits on the fly, though there are more that don’t. I will say, I was never bored when physically playing the game, but when I would stop, the realization that I wasn’t really do anything bothered me.
The later portion of the game is heavy with dungeons that are either annoyingly long, frustrating to navigate, or both. Many of them contain puzzles in the form of teleporters that aren’t particularly fun to solve. Several of the dungeons even felt like they were included simply to pad the game’s runtime, which is a strange decision if they were, because the game is lengthy enough when playing with the fast-forward button active.
For where remasters are concerned, this is one done right. Visual and audio overhauls are great, but going above and beyond by introducing new features and modernizing dated gameplay mechanics is what this industry could use more of in their remasters. I have no doubt those who loved Final Fantasy XII when it originally released will fall in love again, while those who didn’t, still won’t. But what about those who are like me and are new to the game? Well, just know a variety of pacing issues, chiefly in its storytelling, holds it back from greatness.