The more Final Fantasy changes, the more it stays the same. Outside of shared nomenclature and common themes, it’s difficult to find two—even among direct sequels—that share a mutual core. In 2006, Final Fantasy XII delivered a progressive wallop to conventions thought inviolable. It ditched random battles! Combat appeared to be automated! A political drama replaced a cataclysm but somehow the world, in the judgement of its prospective audience, was still ending.
Final Fantasy’s constant state of flux isn’t as much an open secret as it is a mission statement for amnesiacs. You may recall how 2014’s Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was more Dead Rising than Final Fantasy XIII. Search forum archives to see how Final Fantasy X-2’s popstar job system redux annihilated Final Fantasy X’s sacred turn-based contract. Final Fantasy VIII’s embrace of modernity required a sober third party to wheel out the fainting couch. The internet didn’t really exist for Final Fantasy II’s initial release but that game’s structural incongruity would have made newsgroups collapse and crumble.
Final Fantasy XII made radical moves that still haven’t been improved or adopted by its peers. That it accomplished this on the precipice of next generation hardware (the PlayStation 3 launched fewer than three weeks later) and against a troubled development (co-director Yasumi Matsuno left the project midway through its six-year development) makes it even more impressive. Final Fantasy XII was a game both out of time and of its time, fostering progressive concepts inside of dated technology. Even amid its obstacles, Final Fantasy XII eventually qualified as a classic.
Much of Final Fantasy XII remains appealing in 2017, especially with the improvements and adjustments arriving through The Zodiac Age. Included is all of the content from 2007’s Japan-only update, Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System. Added are someone quality-of-life options, technical improvements, and double down on the titular job system. The purity of vanilla Final Fantasy XII is indisputable, but it’s hard not to feel like The Zodiac Age is the definitive version of the intended product.
Final Fantasy XII’s combat never felt like an exact fit for its characters. This was evident by the necessity of a license board—you have to use License Points to buy licenses for any technique, magic, or piece of equipment you sought to employ—and the weird way it juxtaposed game progress against character performance. Much like Final Fantasy VII’s materia system, eventually everyone could be everything. With enough grinding (and proper Gambits) the license board could be conquered and combat could become trivialized.
International Zodiac Job System removed the temptation of homogeneity by dividing its license board into twelve different jobs. Forcing the player’s hand served as addition by limitation. When boundaries are enforced, creativity inevitably thrives. What’s most valuable to your party? Monks, knights, foebreakers, and bushis or time mages, black mages, white mages, and machinists (the answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle).
Restrictions are welcomed, but creating twelve jobs to spread across Final Fantasy XII’s cast of six characters engendered the dreaded fear of missing out. The Zodiac Age tweaks this system again, further adjusting its balance to allow two roles for each character. You still don’t have to use them all, but now all sorts of insane hybrid classes are suddenly available. I don’t know why you would want an archer samurai but by god The Zodiac Age will not try to stop you.
Another welcomed change comes with the ability to adjust Final Fantasy XII’s operating speed. International Zodiac Job System optioned the game to run at 2x speed. The Zodiac Age can bump it up to 4x, all at the push of a button. This is unwieldy and uncomfortable when trying to make your way through Rabanastre or Archades, but highly valuable when you’re out in the world. Crafting your Gambits into killing machines then wandering through fields and slaying monsters can transition from a slog to a gleeful process. You’re churning meat and reaping valuable rewards in loot, experience, and license points. Inevitably you’ll chance upon some high level or rare foe and die before you’re aware there’s even a problem, but it’s a worthy risk/reward between efficiency and trust in your own Gambits.
Presentation adjustments are The Zodiac Age’s most immediate improvements. All of the rough edges have literally been removed from textures and character models, meaning Vaan’s weird ass abs look almost human and towering architecture no longer disappears inside of itself. Digital Foundry has already outclassed any point of comparison I could make and, while I loved the way Final Fantasy XII made the fading PlayStation 2 sing, The Zodiac Age is a better way to look at it in 2017. Style obviously goes a long way toward surviving the ravages of time, but tiny touches like fluffy hair and severe restrictions in color allow The Zodiac Age to slip into the current generation neatly.
Other smaller improvements are abound in The Zodiac Age. The entire soundtrack has been re-orchestrated, and you’re free to switch between both recordings in the menu. Same with the original Japanese vocal track. An autosave is now applied to every zone transition and load times are drastically reduced. You can also invert camera controls, which is something we currently take for granted but previously condemned players to a life of backwards operating hell.
Not all of The Zodiac Age’s additions are executed equally. An instant map overlay is appreciated but kind of undercooked and messy. Creating a hard save is also weirdly cumbersome, demanding the player button through five different levels of selection and confirmation before agency is restored. I have no idea if that’s the best that could be made out of eleven-year-old code, but it’s less than ideal. Lastly, and entirely separate Trial Mode (which imports your campaign characters) provides 100 floors of arranged monster battles, but I’ve never been one to enjoy Final Fantasy’s coliseum dives. Still, it’s there if distilled monster obliteration is your thing.
Final Fantasy XII’s place in 2017 is also merits discussion. Many games, Xenoblade Chronicles and its sequel among them, have sought influence from the mid-aughts dominance of MMO’s. Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system still may have the tightest grip on how to accomplish this in a single player game. To put it as simply as possible, the player is responsible for creating a series of if/then directions for each character; for example, either have your white mage heal when someone’s HP is below a certain percentage and/or cast thundara on a group of enemies weak the thunder. It’s Extremely Basic Programming For Dummies, and while you can usually get away with autopiloting simple commands in the early game, later foes require a bit of customized tweaking. No peer, old or modern, offers this much customization and ease of use under a similar system.
The localization and general story outline also stand tall. Ten years later, it’s still the best localized and best voice-acted entry in the series. Balthier’s sincere commitment to theatrics, Fran’s unaffected sincerity, Basch’s dutiful remorse, and Vaan’s wild curiosity shine through interpersonal scenes. The larger narrative engulfs too many names in too many regions doing too many things to keep too much track of, although one can assign that fault to Final Fantasy XII’s place in the convoluted Ivalice saga rather than an individual narrative failing. The only legitimate tragedy is the narrative’s handling of judges, imposing bad assess that dominated marketing material but failed to do much of anything in the proper game.
The spirit of Final Fantasy XII’s population is another aspect the series has yet to overcome. A world populated by monsters is a Final Fantasy staple, but rarely is it ever addressed beyond a simple role-playing game necessity. Final Fantasy XII responds by overloading Ivalice with rare monsters and hunts designed to topple some of those monsters. Hunters can be found all over the world, too, including occasions where they’re out in the field with you. The entire economy of Ivalice, as far as you know, is fueled by killing monsters and selling loot. In all, there are 45 designated hunts available at job boards in taverns across the world, including Yiazmat and its legendary (ridiculous) ten hour battle.
Progression and pace are also carefully kept in check. The plot often moves and challenges the player to keep up, shuffling you off to different locations at a fairly fast clip. Early on the monochromatic assault can drag—Garamsythe Waterway, Barheim Passage, The Lhusu Mines, and The Tomb of Raithwall are all the brown you’ll ever need—but once the game opens up more appealing areas like Phon Coast, the Paramina Rift (which features the series’ best snow music), and Tchita Uplands become available. Final Fantasy XII also rarely halts your ability to backtrack.
Certain aspects of Final Fantasy XII are a bit fussier. Buying anything from a shop leads to an exercise where you exit the shop, see if you can afford the license for it, then go back into the shop and maybe buy it…for all six character’s weapons and armor. Selling individual pieces of loot, 96% of which exists for the exclusive purpose of being sold, is also cumbersome. Each environment’s zones are also separated by blue dotted lines, which feels dated in a time of seamless connections. I get why these lines weren’t erased—resetting monster spawns, agro, and treasure chests just to name a few reasons—but their inclusion betrays the Final Fantasy XII’s otherwise progressive ideals.
It’s hard to fault Final Fantasy XII for small mistakes. It was a frequently delayed project from a time before we really knew how bad delays could be and what kind of havoc they could wreak on Final Fantasy’s name. That Final Fantasy XII wasn’t a total disaster was comforting. That it was actually good—authentically inspired, genuinely advanced, and technically accomplished—was a small miracle. Time weakens the impact of innovation and exposes the subject to modern criticism, but it’s still easier to see what Final Fantasy XII got right over where it went wrong. Being perfect isn’t a requirement for becoming a classic.
The Zodiac Age eases Final Fantasy XII’s progressive engine into a modern chassis. Some of Final Fantasy XII’s problems were addressed some never will be, and that’s OK. It’s a one-of-a-kind model with tasteful upgrades and efficient tuning, and it leaves little doubt that The Zodiac Age is the best Final Fantasy XII has ever performed.