Final Fantasy XII came out during an especially tumultuous time for the long-running series. Thanks to multiple delays, the game made its debut on the PlayStation 2 during the tail end of the console’s lifespan, launching the same year as the more powerful PlayStation 3. It was also the follow-up to FFXI, which saw the series pivot from its single-player roots to the ultra-competitive massive-multiplayer online game space. Not only did the game launch on dated hardware with no online features, it also introduced multiple new concepts to the series, including huge worlds to explore and a complex, programming-like system for controlling a team of adventurers. That combination — bad timing, dramatic gameplay changes, a lack of trendy features — prevented FFXII from finding its proper place in the pantheon of Final Fantasy games. Many players dismissed it outright, while others skipped the entry, moving on to their shiny new PS3s.
Now FFXII gets a second chance. Today sees the launch of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a high-definition remaster of the game, available on PS4. More than a decade later, FFXII no longer feels like a strange curiosity. Instead, it’s a fantastic role-playing experience that, thanks to its risks and ambition, feels as though it’s hardly aged.
The Zodiac Age
In addition to revamped visuals, The Zodiac Age also features a handful of other notable improvements. Those include a completely remastered version of the beautiful score from composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, and — perhaps most importantly — a revamped job system that streamlines the process of customizing your character. Many of these features were included in a Japanese re-release of FFXII in 2007, but are making their English-language debut with the release of The Zodiac Age.
Despite its huge shifts in structure, in many ways FFXII was a return to the series’s roots. For one thing, it’s a purely single-player release, and it also brings FF back to more traditional, Western-style high fantasy. Don’t expect any luxury cars or trips to outer space; this is a world of swords and sorcery. The setting is one of the game’s high points, though at times it also leans a little too hard on its fantasy backdrop. Much of the experience, especially early on, is spent explaining the politics and history of far-flung cities with hard to remember names. During these early moments FFXII suffers from Phantom Menace syndrome, extolling the importance of political machinations at the expense of developing its cast of characters. It takes many hours before you really get a sense of why you should care about the sky pirate Balthier, his mysterious companion Fran, and the rest of the crew.
The realm of Ivalice — the same setting as the FF Tactics series and a handful of FFXII spinoffs — looks incredible in the new remaster. Rather than overwhelm the player with hardware-crunching spectacle, FFXII excels with a cool and clean sense of style. Ivalice is a grand setting, with detailed architecture and packed, bustling streets. It’s the kind of place where I find myself stopping on a bridge just to take in the view, whether it’s the floating city of Bhujerba or the thriving metropolis Rabanastre. Even the grim, monster-filled dungeons — places like sewers, mines, and oil refineries — look wonderfully ornate. The world is vast in a way that no FF was before it. There are huge, open areas to explore, and cities and dungeons consist of myriad interconnected spaces.
The scale and beauty of the world keep FFXII from feeling dated, but it also plays like a refreshingly modern game. The main reason is something called the “gambit system.” Like most RPGs, FFXII puts you in control of a small band of adventurers, each with their own unique strengths and skills. In some games you can control all party members, and in others they act on their own. FFXII takes a different approach. Gambits are essentially rules and scenarios that you use to assign actions to characters. It’s sort of like rudimentary programming. You can have a character set to heal allies when their health drops below half, for instance, or attack the weakest enemies first. As you unlock more options, things can get very complex, letting you heal specific ailments or unleash on enemies with particular weaknesses.
All of this unfolds automatically. As you explore the world and come across enemies, your team will act autonomously based on the gambits you have in place (though you can also pause the game and issue direct commands if need be). All of this — the exploration and combat — happens seamlessly in the same location. In practice, the setup can make it feel like the game is playing itself, especially when you make your way through some of the easier areas filled with not-so-powerful enemies. It was especially jarring in 2006. Up until that point, the FF series had been defined in part by its strategic, turn-based combat, where you were in direct control of everyone’s actions. The somewhat more hands-off approach of FFXII was a huge shift that felt very strange for series veterans.
In 2017, FFXII’s combat doesn’t feel quite so weird. It takes getting used to, to be sure. Even though I played through the original on PS2, it still took me a few hours to feel comfortable again with how gambits work when I jumped back into the remaster. In many ways the system feels like a compromise. It’s not quite the menu-based battles of its predecessors, but it’s also not the full-on action of many later RPGs. It’s something that sits somewhere in between, and it feels completely distinct. It’s also interesting playing FFXII after FFXV, which took many of its ideas — most notably a seamless open world and more action-oriented gameplay — and brought them a step further. FFXII’s gambit system isn’t perfect. It requires a lot fiddling about in menus to really exploit its benefits, and figure out what works best for you. But it’s also the kind of thing that gets better the more time you spend with it, as you unlock more options and learn the intricacies of FFXII’s combat, magic, and other various systems.
Not every aspect of FFXII has aged quite so gracefully. Its camera is often fiddly, and its sprawling dungeons necessitate a lot of tedious level grinding and backtracking (something that’s alleviated somewhat with Zodiac Age’s new fast-forward button). But for the most part, FFXII holds up remarkably well, which is an especially rare feat among role-playing games, where new gameplay advances can make older titles feel frustratingly dated. While many of the tweaks to the FF formula initially made FFXII controversial, today they feel almost contemporary.
The past decade hasn’t been especially kind to FFXII. Over the last 10 years, the 12th entry in the series feels largely forgotten, while fans focus on past glories like FFVII (and its upcoming remake) and the unlikely success of the long-in-development FFXV. FFXII has felt like an afterthought, that weird game that played itself. Zodiac Age is a chance to remember the important place that FFXII holds within the series. That’s the advantage of being ahead of your time — eventually your moment will come.