31st Jul2017

‘Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age’ Review (PS4)

by Matthew Smail

ff12-zodiac-age-ps4-cover

When the re-release of Final Fantasy XII was announced, I really began to wonder if I had been living under a rock at the time of the original release, way back in 2006. I’ve always been a huge Final Fantasy fan, and I love FF VIIVIIIIXX and X-2. What I really don’t know, upon reflection, is why I never played XII. There are only two explanations I can think of; number one – I simply assumed it was another online-focussed MMORPG like XI, or number two, I had already migrated fully from the PlayStation 2 onto Xbox 360 and more specifically, I was entirely engrossed in Oblivion.

You may be thinking, “why the preamble?” And that is a perfectly fair question. Completing Final Fantasy XII should be an epic undertaking of at least sixty or seventy hours for an average player, and as someone completely new to it, the last couple of weeks have been a blur of cramming Final Fantasy XII into every single spare hour or two, just so that I could finish this review. The unusual thing here though – the thing I was not expecting – is that Square Enix have included a feature that allows players to speed the game up to four times normal. Thanks Square Enix! You know what though, I’m glad they did, because I think Final Fantasy XII might be my absolute favourite in the series, except for VII, which had me so emotionally involved that I cried like a child. Twice.

So why is Final Fantasy XII so good? Firstly, it has everything that makes the best Final Fantasy games excellent. Visually, and through an epic and beautiful soundtrack, it has a real sense of occasion. The graphics in this remaster do show some of their age, but the character designs are nonetheless bright, bold and distinctive, and the architecture is nothing short of breath-taking. The orchestral score has not aged a day, and from the rousing opening sequence to the J-Pop closing credits, it is entirely fitting.

More importantly, Final Fantasy XII has a story to rival at least that of FF VIII or IX, even if it shares the usual copy and paste crew of cute orphans and surly teenage rebels as its cast.  The tale is one of vast scale and high drama, and in true Final Fantasy tradition, entire nations rise and fall throughout the time you’ll be playing, despite the humble stature of most of the characters you’ll be playing as. There is something I have always loved about RPG’s that are capable of delivering a story that is both unique and personal to the characters involved, whilst still retaining a sense of grander purpose. Final Fantasy XII is certainly such a game.

Players are initially introduced to several characters in the nation of Dalmasca. Following a royal wedding that was intended to ally Dalmasca with neighbour-state Nabradia, both nations are invaded by the Archadian Empire, setting in motion a sequence of events that resonates throughout the entire game. Over the course of the next few hours, players are steadily introduced to the majority of playable characters and one of the key antagonists. Whilst we’re not talking about Sepiroth levels of cruelty here, I did find this particular bad guy to be a much more interesting foe than those in most of the Final Fantasy games, which certainly adds a sense of purpose to the task at hand.

Of course, there are many twists and turns in Final Fantasy XII, and players will be exposed to a wide cast of characters including resistance fighters, sky pirates, princesses (and other royalty) and many others who are involved somehow in the broader plot. Vaan acts as the central protagonist, and unusually for a Final Fantasy lead male, he is actually fairly upbeat and likeable. Other standout characters include the plucky Penelo and Amalia, leader of the Dalmascan resistance, but there are many more who pull their weight to ensure that the story remains engaging and satisfying throughout.

Despite all these positives, I still haven’t covered what really differentiates Final Fantasy XII from the rest of the series, and even from most other RPG’s to this day. That difference is through the two core systems that reside at the heart of the game. Firstly, there is the license system, which is how Final Fantasy XII enables players to create unique characters that have almost limitless build potential. The second is the gambit system, which is a complex but incredibly powerful combat automation engine that really allows players to take control of characters within their party, and set how they will fight.

The license system is actually quite similar to skill development systems seen in other games, but the surprising part is how much flexibility it provides players with. From the very start of the game, players can immediately set characters to a particular job (white or red mage, for example) which then enables them to access abilities (licenses) associated with that job. These licenses appear on a grid, and can be bought for differing costs using the accumulated XP. As each license is purchased, others appear on the grid, and so depending upon which direction you develop each character in, you will access different options. Later, it’s possible to add a second job as well, increasing the range of potential licenses and allowing the potential for powerful combinations.

The gambit system on the other hand is more or less unique to Final Fantasy XII, and hasn’t really been reproduced since, or at least not in a mainstream title that springs to mind. The idea of combat automation is a really simple one, but as the characters progress and combat becomes more complex, it becomes more and more powerful and important to enabling progress. A simple example would be to set a healing character to heal allies at a certain health point. You might then add a rule to keep them away from combat. You might then program a mage to use fire attacks on enemies that are weak to them, or the opposite to enemies that might be healed by it.

The gameplay nuance here is in ensuring that you continue to develop your gambit settings as enemies and combat become more varied. This system has to be used to do much more than just basic attacks and healing – it has to be programmed for different situations at least as and when you encounter them, but ideally before. The gambit and license systems are also inextricably linked, because weaknesses in your gambit system will lead to you making different choices in license selection, which feels like a really nice interaction to me.

Whilst I’m still on the note of combat, Final Fantasy XII was the first mainstream title in the series to introduce a version of real time combat. Enemies appear on-screen and can often be chased down and confronted (or fled from) but the main thing is, you’ll always know that an enemy is present. Again, this works well with the gambit system because you are likely to have some information about what you will face in the area ahead, and what (if anything) your foes might be vulnerable to.

This combination of freedom to create any character and program them to deal with any situation is incredibly empowering, and harking back to the fast forward feature that I mentioned earlier, you can literally fly through sections of the game at breakneck speed with total confidence that your gambit configuration can deal with whatever the game throws at it. Until it can’t and you die. And then you have to work out what went wrong and reprogram it. Now that last bit might not sound like fun, but trust me, it is.

And so Final Fantasy XII is big, bold and confident. It is dramatic and beautiful. It is cumbersome and complicated. It is long and filled with interesting characters and beautiful scenery. Sure, there are some issues. Enemy characters sometimes pop into view from about twenty feet away because of some throwback to the PlayStation 2 graphics engine that sits behind the modern remaster, but the minor issues really don’t matter. Final Fantasy XII is fantastic and if, like me, you’ve never played it before, you really owe it to yourself to get involved.

****½  4.5/5

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