A Return to Ivalice - Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Generally, I turn my nose up at games getting the HD remaster. Most of the time its publishers looking for a quick cash grab on last gen properties to be gobbled up by next gen gamers. Despite this, I did find myself greatly anticipating the release of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age for the PS4. Back in the heyday of the PS2 RPG renaissance, Final Fantasy XII was one of my favorite games of the entire generation. How it took the mythology of what makes a Final Fantasy title but give it a unique spin was hands down the reason this title still stands the test of time for me.
The world of Ivalice is the setting, a land gripped in the throes of war with two massive empires… Archadia and Rozarria… constantly fighting over both military and political control. Stuck in the middle is the sovereign state of Dalmasca, a small desert nation under the control of the Archadian. Dalmasca fell to the Archadian Empire when their king was assassinated, leaving much of the citizens wary of their Empirical overseers; here in this sandy little nation is where we meet our primary cast. Like other Final Fantasy titles, the cast is an ensemble of various different personalities that eventually come together for the common good. We have Vaan & Penelo, two orphans living in Dalmasca, Balthier & Fran, a pair of sky pirates with hearts of gold, and finally Ashe & Basch, the formerly thought to be dead Princess and guard captain of Dalmasca. While the game likes to tell you that Vaan is the “main character,” even going so far as to force you to control Vaan when strolling around towns, I’ve personally always felt that there was never one main character… instead the six of them made up a team all holding equal weight to the overarching narrative. There were times my head canon felt Balthier or Ashe were more the rightful leads rather than Vaan.
The game’s lore was also one of the most compelling parts of the package. Drawing heavy inspiration from other Ivalice based tales like Final Fantasy Tactics and in some respects Vagrant Story. There was a nice, balanced blend between the tried-and-true elements that make a Final Fantasy title while giving it a overall look and feel that shied away from feeling “too” Final Fantasy. Summons, a key feature in Final Fantasy gameplay, do hold a prominent role but the Espers you can attain are nothing like any from past titles. These Espers are unique to Final Fantasy XII and are yet to be introduced in any other main numbered Final Fantasy game. The names of classic summons are instead given to dreadnought airships of the Archadian empire, names like Ifrit and Alexander are present to name a few.
Gameplay is more so unchanged, for those who never played the original, Final Fantasy XII uses a system dubbed Active Dimension Battle. Playing like a pseudo MMORPG, there are no random encounters and all enemies are present on the map. Your party consists of three main party members with at times a fourth acting as a guest character. You are able to freely move the party leader around while your comrades auto attack. You can issue commands to your party members, selecting either a wait or active modifier to combat. As you progress through the game you eventually unlock the gambit system. Gambits allow you to set actions for yourself and your party members depending on the conditions of battle. You can have one party member heal others when their HP drops below a certain threshold, or set a party member to aggressively attack the enemy with the lowest HP. While the system is simple to learn and set up, as you acquire more gambits and your heroes learn more abilities you can further fine tune your gambits to, in a sense, let the game play itself.
Summoning Espers and using Quickenings (this game’s Limit Break) consume your mist gauge and allow you to unleash very powerful attacks. Couple this with the sheer multitude of spells and abilities, you’ll find yourself spending a good amount of time fine-tuning your characters as much as level grinding.
Everything that goes in to building your characters is on the license board. From what weapons, armor, and accessories you can equip to which magicks and technicks can be used. While you can buy that super powerful sword, it’ll be useless to you until you can learn the particular license for it. EXP and LP are your building blocks, active party members earn EXP after combat while both active and reserve party members earn LP for each enemy slain.
So far, I’ve touched on elements that have stayed the same… now let’s delve deeper into what makes this version different from the PS2 release. The biggest change was how they handle the license board. Now you are forced to pick classes for your characters, some familiar like Knight and Black Mage… others more inspired like the Uhlan and Time Mage. Initially pick one class with the chance to pick a secondary class after progressing further into the story. This forces you to build your character to the specifications of that particular job. In the original release, once you grind enough, your entire party ends up feeling too similar with every character able to use every weapon or equip every type of armor. This more refined job system forced me to use more of the cast and to better craft my characters as I explored their individual license boards.
Combat changes ever so slightly with the way Mist is managed, your MP (Mist Points) gauge was used for magick, summons, and quickenings in the vanilla game. This forced you to have to decide whether to use your MP to take down a foe or save it in case you need to use magick or heal. This lead many players down the path of rarely using quickenings or summons; something I myself did when I played on PS2. In regards to quickenings and summons, you now have a new gauge below your MP labeled the Mist Gauge. This separate gauge is independent from the MP gauge and allows you to go ham with a quickening yet still have enough MP to throw down a cure spell if needed. This greatly changed how I approached battles and better incentivized me to use my summons and quickenings during any encounter I saw fit to.
One bit I feel I need to touch on is the 2X/4X speed option. You can pick between the two in settings and at the press of a button you can channel your inner Sonic the Hedgehog and send your party moving at double/quadruple speed. This made traversing and constant backtracking way less of a pain. I remembered how big this world was on PS2 and the ability to speed up made for a more enjoyable experience. While gameplay and combat does speed up, the music doesn’t… which is personally a godsend because I don’t think I’d have done it so much if it did.
Visually, the game does suffer from some of the issues that plague HD remasters that jump two generations. While the game is beautiful in stunning HD, some of the texture maps still look dull and matter-of-fact look worse in high fidelity. The game’s FMV cutscenes were remastered as best as I can assume they were, but when comparing these scenes to the gameplay there was a clear disconnect hindered by the fact that they could only up-res FMV so much. In the thick of battle, my criticism of the visuals does fade away and I can simply enjoy the beautiful game for what it was.
A brand new orchestral score courtesy of a live orchestra heavily improves on gameplay, the new tracks are instantly familiar but sound better than ever. I wish the same could be said for the voice-acting. While the voice-acting is still stellar, when characters talk the audio always sounds muddled, like they didn’t have access to the original audio and the game’s voice-overs were compressed to death. For such a big game that fit on a DVD back in the day, it’s understandable they’d have to heavily compress audio… but it did stand out when compared to how wonderful the new orchestral score sounded.
Whether you are a fan of the game or new to Final Fantasy XII, there is alot ot be had in this remaster. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is the definitive version of this title. Improved character building, tweaked combat, the speed mode, plus a fresh coat of paint with an improved score. Final Fantasy XII sits as one of my favorite Final Fantasy titles, and one I feel every fan of the series should experience. This is a winner for the forever fan and newcomer.
4.5 out of 5
Damn good! A fitting return to Ivalice