Being a long time fan of RPGs and a gamer of advancing years, I remember when The Zodiac Age was first released back in 2006 on the PlayStation 2. I vividly remember spending hours running around, trying to get my guys strong enough to put a dent on the Hell Wyrm, and reading through my guide book (remember those?) to find out hints and tips for getting better weapons. Now, 13 years later, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age has been remastered for the Xbox One, so the question is, has time been kind to this game, or should it have stayed in my fond memories? I dived back into the world of Ivalice to find out.
First things first, Vaan, the main protagonist, is still as annoying as ever. All the way through the game, Balthier makes comments about being a leading man, and I honestly think either he or Basch, the other main male character, would have made a better fist of it than Vaan does. In fact the only character that I really like is Fran, the Bondage Bunny from Euryt Village. Penelo is whiny, and Ashe, struggling as she is with the desire for revenge, just seems a bit wet, if I’m frank. Of the six characters, you can only control three at a time, so it is possible to reduce the amount of time you can spend with the less interesting characters.
However, this can lead you into a bit of a problem if you’re not careful, so here’s a top tip: try and keep all the characters roughly equal in level, and remember to upgrade the gear of the inactive characters too. The reason for this is that although your favourite three characters can be very strong, there are monsters that can wipe out the party in short order, and if this happens you have to drop the inactive characters into the fray. Imagine you’ve neglected them, and suddenly they are called upon to try and resurrect the stronger characters in the middle of a boss fight. They won’t last long, and before too much time has passed you’re looking at a game over screen. Luckily, rather than the save system being how it was the first time around, where you had to find a save crystal, now there is an auto save every time you enter a new area of the game, so you should never lose too much progress.
Now we’ve met the people, it’ll probably be a good idea to check out the narrative. Dalmasca, a country that lies almost smack bang in the middle between two large empires, has fallen and been overrun. Dalmasca’s King is dead, apparently slain by a member of his guard, the Princess has also taken her own life after her husband was killed in the war, and so Vayne, the son of the Emperor, has become Regent. Vaan’s brother also died in the war, so the scene is set for an almighty showdown. Fran and Balthier are sky pirates who turn out to have hearts of gold and help our party, and Penelo is an orphan who grew up with Vaan. Finally, Basch has a shadowy past, for it was he who was supposed to have slain the King of Dalmasca. Needless to say, no-one in The Zodiac Age is exactly who they seem to be, and unravelling their back stories is actually very rewarding. For instance, why did Fran, a Viera, leave the forest that her people call home? The story is expansive and enough to keep you playing until the bitter end, and while the ending is a bit disappointing if I’m brutally honest, the story arc is very well planned out.
So, characters and story are all present and correct – how does the game play? Well, at the time of release, quite unlike any Final Fantasy game that had gone before, thanks to the Gambit system. At the start, you have to direct the characters to make any actions, be it hitting an enemy or using a potion. After a while, the Gambit system is introduced, which allows you to automate a lot of actions. The way Gambits work is to set a criteria that has to be fulfilled, and then an action to be taken. For instance, Enemy (Nearest) can be paired with Attack, so any character with this Gambit will automatically attack the nearest enemy. Another example is Ally (HP<40%) which can be teamed up with Cure magic, keeping battered characters alive. The order that the Gambits are in on the screen matters as well, as they are activated from the top down, so if the heal Gambit is above the attack one, healing magic will be cast, as necessary, in preference to attacking. As the characters get stronger, more and more Gambit slots can be unlocked, allowing for truly specific sets of Gambits to be created to deal with very particular set of circumstances. This does take some of the skill out of long fights, and although the Gambits can be overridden if required, the joy of seeing your well organised team decimate a room full of enemies cannot be overestimated.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without a confusing character development screen, and XII has got you covered here. The first thing you have to do with every character is choose a “job” that they are going to do. Now, each character has a weapon when you recruit them, and these weapons relate to a particular job. For instance, Fran has a bow, so she should an Archer, and Balthier has a gun, which ties him to the Machinist job. You can of course disregard this completely and make them whatever class you prefer, but I like to think that the clues are there to nudge you gently toward a role they’ll be happy in.
As you progress, you can add a second class, so my Balthier became a Machinist and a Black Mage, adding magic to his repertoire of attacks. If I can make one suggestion, having at least one White Mage – the main healing class – will pay dividends in the long run. Each class has certain weapon types that they can use, so bear this in mind. Now, each time an enemy is defeated, in addition to the EXP that they give you, which deals with your levels, you also gain LP, or licence points. In the job board, every node that you want to activate, be it armour, weapons or magic, costs a certain amount of LP to acquire. You can see where this is going, can’t you? Batter enemies to not only grind levels but to gain new abilities via the licence board, and soon your team will be capable of navigating almost anywhere in the game without any difficulty, making you proud in the process.
Graphically, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on Xbox One is a bit of a mixed bag. The new cutscenes look very lovely, beautifully capturing important parts, but the cutscenes that are done in the game engine are a different matter. These look to be of something around PS2 quality, with the faces of the characters appearing almost flat and a little strange looking. And also, while the draw distances on the outdoor maps are impressive, the monsters that inhabit these areas pop in rather suddenly, leading to unexpected fights when you could have sworn the way to the exit was clear. You soon learn to look at the mini map, as the monsters appear as red dots, even if they aren’t visible on the main screen.
The main screen itself is very good though, with nice animations on the characters as they jostle for position and attack, and the monsters are an imaginative bunch, ranging from little Cacti to screen filling dragons like Fafnir. Sound wise there are no complaints either; all the usual battle effects sound good and the voice overs in the cutscenes convincingly acted.
As you may expect, side quests abound in FFXII – as they do in most JRPGs – and the main time sink will be the Hunts that you can engage in. In the Tavern in each town, there is a bounty board of monsters or “Marks” to be killed, and once you’ve joined Clan Centurio, a guild of hunters, you’ll have access to bigger and harder Marks than ever before. These again range from tiny, innocuous looking creatures to massive Wyrms, and to everything in between. Some of the Marks are incredibly hard, with Zodiark for instance having around 50 health bars you need to whittle down before he succumbs.
There are also the Espers to find, of which there are 13 in total. These are the equivalent of the Summons in the earlier games, but with a twist. Instead of popping up, doing an attack and running away again, the Espers stay on the screen, attacking until either they are defeated or their Summoner is, at which stage the rest of the team carry on. The Espers can be healed to extend their time, and when they eventually run out of time, they will depart, triggering a massive attack as they leave. If they are knocked out, this doesn’t occur, so keep them alive as long as possible!
All in all then, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on Xbox One can still hold its head up high today. There is so much content here it’s almost incredible, with a real openness to the gameplay that allows you to wander pretty much where you want, including straight into trouble if you aren’t prepared. With so much to do in the story, without trying to complete the Hunts and side missions, I can have no hesitation in recommending this game to RPG fans. The characters aren’t the best to ever grace a Final Fantasy game, and the story ends with more of a whimper than a bang, but despite this I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Ivalice.
If you missed it the first time around, then do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in the world of Final Fantasy XII.