Today is basically Christmas Eve, because tomorrow will mark the day Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the remastered version the secret best Final Fantasy game, will be released for the PlayStation 4. It boasts fancy new graphics in the H-est of Ds, an orchestral soundtrack and an expanded Job system that was previously exclusive to the Japan-only rerelease of the original game, Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System.
To say I love Final Fantasy XII is a bit of an understatement. I’ve been known to shout from the Twitter rooftops about how much I love composer Hitoshi Sakimoto’s work and the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XII is just sublime. The game’s soundtrack has a very distinctive, ethereal arrangement of strings and winds that’s so awe-inspiringly beautiful that I just want to swim in it.
I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this and I think I’ve said the phrase “God I’m so happy” about twenty times, no joke. Ask my wife.
The music is just part of the deal though; the world of Ivalice is a beautiful one and the story combines Final Fantasy with Shakespeare and throws a bit of Star Wars into the mix. The central conflict never becomes about saving the entire planet from some sort of demi-god and remains centralized on a small part of the world. This seems like it would be a step down from previous games in the series but the focus on political intrigue, while not told flawlessly, helps things feel more grounded and a little bit less crazy-out-there-anime-bonkers.
While many people heartlessly brand cover boy Vaan as a whiny, unrelatable protagonist like Final Fantasy X’s Tidus before him, he’s not nearly as grating as the internet Cool Guy Squad would have you believe. Yes, teen heroes Vaan and Penelo were inserted into the story later in development, stealing the spotlight from the older, tougher Basch, but they add a much-needed softness to the cast. Of course the rest of the party is fantastic as well (I don’t need to tell you how cool Balthier is) and all feature top-shelf voice acting. Fran’s voice is so smooth I just want to rub it on my skin.
The game was divisive when it was released, with people complaining in the same way you can give a child prime rib and they’d whine it’s not a hot dog. The main complaint was (and still is to this day) about the battle system and its departure from the traditional turn-based system employed by basically every JRPG released before. Battles in Final Fantasy XII take place on the overworld in real time without cutting to a separate battle screen. You see the enemies roaming around, you engage them (or they engage you) and the battle plays out seamlessly. It’s great! Skirmishes are breezy and take little time, which is a very nice change of pace from being attacked by invisible enemies every six steps and being pulled into a separate battle screen whenever some level 3 demon birds want to peck at you.
Besides, I can’t be the only person who thinks that this just a teensy bit more immersive than two groups standing in lines, taking turns hitting each other.
The biggest innovation Final Fantasy XII brings to the table is the Gambit system which allows you to essentially program your party members with “if/then” commands. You can assign Gambits such as “if party member’s HP < 50%, cast Heal” or “if enemy status = Oil, cast Fire”. They provide a ton of versatility and let you really get into the nitty gritty of how battles should play out. As the game progresses you can find and purchase even more Gambits, keeping your strategies evolving as your party grows stronger and faces down more daunting foes.
The biggest criticism of the combat system is it’s “just a single player MMO,” which is highly reductive and doesn’t even begin to address the complexities and intricacies involved. Yeah, in a lot of MMOs combat involves you auto-attacking an enemy while waiting for your abilities to come off their cooldown, but saying Final Fantasy XII and World of Warcraft have similar combat is like saying Star Wars and Sharknado are the same because they’re both movies.
One of my other favorite RPGs is Persona 3 FES for the PlayStation 2. It features a traditional turn-based combat system where you have three party members at your disposal in battle. You only issue commands to one of them, though, with the other two controlled by the computer. This led to endless frustration during a pivotal boss battle, where the boss would go into a mode where they would counter after any attack on them. My AI compainions (that’s a typo but I think it fits so I’m gonna leave it) would keep charging at him headfirst, dying over and over. I sure wish I was able to tell them not to do that! Being able to customize the AI of your party, rather than just letting them stumble all over the place, gives you a much better connection to them and it’s much more satisfying taking down a tough boss when you know that it’s due to your strategy and planning rather than the game doing you a solid.
The main thing most people who gave up on Final Fantasy XII so early don’t realize is you can actually pause the combat and issue commands to your party members at any time, overriding Gambits. If an enemy does a big AOE attack and everyone is in big trouble you can actually stop the action, tell everyone to cast Cure or use Potions, and then have them go back to their business. It’s not as masturbatory as “the game just plays itself, lol” makes it sound because more intricate fights still require a lot of direct input. The Gambits provide the foundations for your various strategies but you’ll still be doing a lot of management when things get hairy.
One of the biggest compliments I can give the game’s battle system is that I’m pretty stupid and I was still able to get a lot out of it. Imagine how satisfying it must be for people who are smarter than I am! I wish I was those people.
I’ve seen a few reviews now from people who said they really didn’t care for Final Fantasy XII when the game originally came out in 2006 but find themselves really digging the remaster. It warms my heart so much to see opinion starting to sway, because I think the game was ahead of its time and a victim of misplaced expectations. It does start very slow but when things pick up and the game is firing on all cylinders it’s honestly something really special, and I don’t think they’ll ever make another game like this one. It’s unique and misunderstood but I honestly and truly think it’s one of the high points for the Final Fantasy series. It’s only $40 now, and with it looking better than ever, sporting the Job system for the first time outside Japan and also featuring tweaks to make it less punishing than the original, I think it’s worth a look even if it didn’t hook you eleven years ago.
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