The year of 2017 is apparently determined to help me recreate my PS2 game collection on PS4. Particularly with the release of the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix on PS4, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time as a PS2 Classic, and now Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Final Fantasy XII was the first numbered Final Fantasy game I had played. Its world, story, and characters drew me in like few games had before then. Its graphics were at the top of their game, not to mention it took place in the same world as the Final Fantasy Tactics games. It felt amazing to explore the expansive world of Ivalice, feeling new, yet familiar, at the same time. Final Fantasy XII stayed as my favorite title in the series till a couple years ago when I finally played Final Fantasy IX. I mention this because I’ve noticed that many peoples’ first Final Fantasy game impacts which entries they like and which ones they dislike. While I understand people had plenty of expectations of what a FF game was supposed to be, I didn’t have any of these expectations and loved it. I found this to be fairly true of others who also claim FFXII as one of their favorites. So imagine my excitement with the announcement of the HD remastering, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
This review will be a bit different than most, digging a bit less into the original game and more into these questions. How does the game stand the test of time? What changes were made from the original? What is the quality of the remastered visuals? Does the remaster stay true to the tone, look, and feel of the original? And either way, is that a good thing?
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a political drama set in Ivalice, the same world that the Final Fantasy Tactics games are set in. Rabanastre of Dalmasca has recently experienced a rather charged military takeover from the Archadian Empire, setting things into motion. Fate delivers two kids, Vaan and Penelo, two sky-pirates, Balthier and Fran, the falsely accused Basch, and rebel leader royal Asche together to get all the pieces in order to free Dalmasca and reveal the corruption that lead to the Archadian Empire’s gaining of power. It’s a difficult plot to summarize in only a few sentences since there is a lot happening and a lot of pieces moving and can be hard to follow. Part of this is the story is above and beyond the central characters and is just as much about the kingdoms involved. This is part of why FFXII and FFIX are my favorite Final Fantasy games, both have elements of interesting characters being a part of something much greater than themselves. Epic stories sprawl across the world and impact people so much more on a personal level than the main characters and is a story I still found myself, again, becoming really engrossed in. This, in many ways, reminds me of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, which I am also a huge fan of. I’d recommend Final Fantasy XII to fans of political drama, fantasy elements, and long sprawling epics.
Final Fantasy XII caused quite a fuss when it originally debuted, breaking the traditional Final Fantasy turn-based mechanics for a more continuous action based mechanic set. Commands are still issued, and targets selected, but gone are turns and gone are random battles. All enemies are seen on the field as exploration happens. As combat progresses other enemies can notice and engage as well. Combat can be as laid back or micro-managed as desired. FFXII also introduced “Gambits”, combat based behavioral programming for the party; the Gambit system is impressively customizable. Setting magic users to cast heal automatically when a character goes below a specific HP percentage, or casting specific spells vs monsters that are weak to that spell’s element is all incredibly useful. However, turning all those off and regularly pausing the game to issue commands is available too, along with every mixture in between.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age does bring a couple changes to the gameplay from the original release. The first is the change in leveling up. While still using tiles on a grid to pay for upgrades spending Action Points (AP), Zodiac Age introduces a job system that wasn’t present in the American release. Originally, every character had the same sprawling grid. Without a guide, it was difficult to build characters in different ways. Creating a character that used axes required finding out where on the grid axes was (tiles were hidden till revealed by purchasing an adjacent tile) and purchasing every tile in between. This meant using AP on tiles that weren’t necessary. The job system allows for a much more direct approach from the beginning. Another addition made to Zodiac Age is “Speed Mode” that when activated causes the game to play out at 2x or 4x the speed. This is a welcome addition especially in getting through the long and drawn out beginning of the game, which even with the Speed Mode is a few hours long. It’s also a godsend when grinding for AP and leveling up! It’ll be interesting to see how this impacts FFXII speed runs. Speed Mode does have a draw back though, the faster you put it, the more difficult to control it becomes. I am sure though that given some time, one could get used to the game running at that speed.
The original Final Fantasy XII never looked bad and still holds up alright compared to others on the system. That said, it looked muddy. Lots of browns, earth tones, and blurring resulted in a unique look, but system limitations kept it from really shining. This is gone completely in Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. The HD upgrade is brilliant. The difference in the colors is more defined, and everything is crisp. Cutscenes have also been rendered in full HD. It’s a delight to explore the familiar locations and see all the new detail that was either hidden in system limitation on PS2 or added for the HD upgrade. It’s hard to say if more dynamic and realistic lighting would have improved the games look or clashed with the art style. With what’s capable these days and from what we’ve seen in Final Fantasy XV, I can’t help but wonder what differences it could have made.
Audio options are expanded to include both the English and Japanese Voice Acting, as well as the original soundtrack and a new, remastered, orchestrated soundtrack. The inclusion of both voice acting tracks adds replay value. Playing through the entire game to see every moment in both performances will be interesting at the very least, if not entertaining. For the soundtrack, neither are a poor option and will ultimately come down to a couple of things. Primarily a person’s preference and secondly the quality of the sound system it’s being played on. Just the speakers built into a TV will likely make the changes negligible. However on a high quality sound system or headphones, the orchestrated soundtrack does sound more organic and fuller, particularly in the strings and vocal sections. I found this enhances the game’s world, and the events unfolding in it, to be a bit more epic feeling and made it feel more on par with some of my favorite movies like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but the original soundtrack is still good and gives more power to the players to be able to select between the two.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is HD remastering at it’s best. The more defined job system, speed mode, voice acting and soundtrack options, and a phenomenal HD visual upgrade all come together to make the definitive version of Final Fantasy XII. It only adds to the experience and doesn’t take away or change how the game originally felt, which is great for fans of the original. There isn’t much there to entice those who didn’t enjoy the story or combat of the original. The pacing issues of the story are mildly addressed with “Speed Mode”, getting the entire party and to the meat of the main story is still slow going even with it though. It’s a grand epic that spans across the world of Ivalice and will take time to get through and to explore the various options available in terms of finding the best way to play. For those who have never played Final Fantasy XII or fans of the original, or those who want to give it a second shot, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is certainly the way to go.
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This game was purchased by the reviewer.