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Review: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

10 Jul 2017

Technology Marches On

Art is often limited by its canvas. An artist might be able to dream up a grandiose, majestic masterpiece, but if they don’t have the tools necessary to bring their vision into reality, compromise has to be made. When creating art in technological mediums, there are hard-line limits imposed by the actual system you’re using. You may dream about some kind of insane, intricately detailed work, but if current tech doesn’t offer enough power to bring it to life, you’re stuck either scaling it down or waiting until tech advances.

With game creation, that imposed limit is set by the hardware currently offered for the gaming market. Developing for PC may offer some leeway, due to the sheer amount of system configurations end users can create. Even then, the ideal presentation of the game may still be limited by the technology available on the market to your general PC gamer.

On consoles, though, developers don’t have as much freedom. The power and configuration of a console is set, and games must be created within its confines. Some developers do find ways to work around some limitations, pushing console hardware to near its limit. Despite this, though, compromises must be made in some elements in order to put more power into others.

Of course, technology marches on. A decade on, a developer may see that the technology now available will better fit the vision they had for a previous game. That’s when you start getting into the side of games that’s becoming more and more popular recently – the remaster.

Developed and published by Square Enix, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is set for release on July 11th, 2017, exclusively for the PlayStation 4.

Politically Inclined

The Zodiac Age takes place in the world of Ivalice, which has already appeared in a few previous Final Fantasy titles. This title, specifically, follows the story of the people of the Kingdom of Dalmasca, a small kingdom located in between two warring empires. The story begins with Dalmasca falling to one of these, the Archadian Empire, and coming under occupation.

Two years following Dalmasca’s fall, we are introduced to Vaan, a young thief living on the streets. Vaan fancies himself an honorable thief, trying to steal from the Empire and give back to the Dalmascan people. During one particularly bold expedition into the royal palace, he chances upon a couple of sky pirates, as well as a group leading a resistance against the Empire. Vaan is quickly pulled into their struggles, assisting in the resistance and learning some of the hidden history of Ivalice.

If there’s one thing that remains unchanged about The Zodiac Age from the original XII, it’s the plot line. It’s a tale steeped in politics, much more focused on nations than the characters themselves, and I feel that the game is much stronger for it. This focus keeps you connected to the world at large, rather than just your small party, allowing you to truly see the impact your actions are having on nations.

Admittedly, this causes the plot to seem a bit…dryer…than other Final Fantasy entries. The game is a slow burn and moves ahead methodically. The dialogue itself is steeped in Ivalice-related jargon, written in an older style of English, requiring you to pay close attention to understand everything that’s being said. That said, if you prefer plots filled with political intrigue and heaps of detail, as opposed to bright and bombastic storytelling, The Zodiac Age is a perfect fit.

Amp Up the Strategy

XII is rather famous for its departure from Final Fantasy’s traditional gameplay, and much of it remains the same in The Zodiac Age. Battles take place in semi-real time directly on the field map. Each action your characters take is dictated by a time bar, which has to refill between every action. In a comparison many are apt to make, the game feels very much like an MMORPG.

What makes the game more unique is its “Gambit” system – essentially a simplified programming language for your teammates. As you can only directly control one character at a time, the others are controlled by AI. Setting up Gambits (kind of like a series of “If/Then” statements for the programmers out there) lets you customize your party members’ AI, ensuring they heal others at certain HP levels, cast magic enemies are weak to, or even attack your own party member to wake them up if they’re put to sleep. The level of customization here is excellent and extremely flexible, and half the fun of the battle system is figuring out the best Gambit setup to slice through your enemies.

The biggest gameplay change in The Zodiac Age comes in the form of its character development system, the “License Board.” Everything about each character, from the skills they have to the items they can equip, has to be purchased using earned “LP” on this Board. In XII, every character had the same board. Unless you went out of the way to have everyone learn different skills, each of the characters usually ended up feeling like clones of each other.

Here, though, there are twelve unique License Boards you can assign to your characters. Each represents a certain job from the Final Fantasy universe, ranging from knights and archers to mages and ninjas, and contains a specific set of skills to learn. Each character can be assigned two of these Boards, giving each of them specific uses in combat and making them feel unique. However, Boards are assigned permanently, forcing you to decide how to develop each character relatively early. I didn’t pay much attention when assigning the Boards, and ended up with a main party that couldn’t use any black magic for most of the game…although they became powerful enough physically to tear though just about anything.

Much like the storyline, exploration and gameplay here can often feel long and drawn out. Grinding enemies is almost essential, especially if you want to develop both jobs for each of your characters, and battles can seem like they move very slowly. The field areas between dungeons and story points (and even some dungeons themselves) are incredibly long, with a lot of empty space.

Thankfully, there’s another function that Square Enix added to the game – the ability to speed it up. At the press of a button, you can set the game to move at 2x or 4x speed, which is an absolute godsend when running through empty areas or grinding enemies. I found myself using this function often. It reduces the tedium of much of the original game, and would let me press through an area quicker once I began getting bored with it.

Sharper Edges

The original XII was a stunning piece of work at the time, pushing the PS2 to its limits. Unfortunately, thanks to this, some compromises had to be made. Despite the detail in the environments and character models, the sharpness and resolution had to be reduced, leading to an often fuzzy-looking picture.

Two console generations later, though, The Zodiac Age realizes the intent of the original. With higher resolutions models and environments, everything here looks beautiful…keeping in mind that this game was developed for the PS2. Hair is still rendered in obvious layers, lip-synching doesn’t quite match up, and the models of unimportant NPCs don’t look as crisp and clean as main players (although not quite to the level of disparity as Final Fantasy X HD Remaster).

My other complaint here would be the repetitiveness of the environments. Much of The Zodiac Age takes place in a desert setting, so a lot of sand is understandable…but even with the newly attractive rendering, wandering through these areas just gets dull. Some of the dungeons are even worse, with obviously reused assets in portions of them.

In contrast, the characters look amazing. We’re finally able to see all the detail work put into the models, and (outside of the aformentioned lip-synching) they animate amazingly well in dialogue and in battle. Enemy characters are likewise highly detailed and well animated.

As a final point here, for some reason, Square Enix elected to keep the big black bar that runs across the bottom of all cutscenes here in this remaster. If you have subtitles on, they appear in this bar, but if you opt to turn them off, you’re just stuck with an ugly bar cutting off part of the screen during major story moments. I thought something was wrong with my game for a moment when I fired it up (as I had forgotten this being present in the original) but nope, this is a built-in part of the design, and an annoying one at that.

Just a Little Deeper

In the Final Fantasy series, there’s really no such thing as bad music. In fact, the soundtracks are one thing that the series is known for and prides itself on. For The Zodiac Age, Square Enix went above and beyond, taking the already excellent soundtrack and completely reorchestrating it. The changes aren’t overtly obvious, often just providing a new layer of depth over the original, but these subtle changes help to make the soundtrack stand out much more than the original.

Also notable is the voice work, as this is another aspect of the game that this remaster improves. In the original XII, much of the voice work sounded obviously compressed. Without DVD limitations now, we get much higher fidelity voices. With the amount of effort that went into the voice acting for XII, including bringing in trained theater performers, this is a much welcome improvement.

Finally Realized

Overall, despite containing some of the rough edges of the original, The Zodiac Age is an excellent game that improves on its source in just about every way. The addition of a job system creates much more unique characters and adds greatly to the strategic experience of combat, and the ability to speed up gameplay helps shave away some of the annoyances of tedious areas and grinding. Taking advantage of more powerful hardware allows this game to finally reach nearer its original vision, giving us a much more attractive and detailed presentation.

Outside of the new job system, though, many of the other changes are more subtle. The politically-intense plot of the original remains unchanged, and with that being a point of contention for some players of the original, the other improvements here may not be enough to bring naysayers back into the fold.

This remaster is definitely the way Final Fantasy XII is meant to be played. If you’ve already played the original to death, there’s enough changes and improvements here to warrant your time and money. If you’ve never experienced the twelfth numbered title in this series, now would be the greatest time to finally jump in.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.