When offered the chance to review Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age and delve back into the nostalgic pit of my late teen gaming years, I’ll admit I was a tad nervous. Having last played the original over ten years ago; being the bright eyed gamer geek with little concept of honestly critiquing this role-playing game, I was not sure if fond memories and a love for this classic gaming series would be enough to keep me engaged. However, I was nothing short of blown away when returning back to the world of Ivalice and playing, once again, a Final Fantasy that’s story, gameplay, and overall experience was, and still is, a definitive success.
The story of The Zodiac Age tells the unique tale of the Kingdom of Dalmasca, whose sovereign land has been thrown into anarchy after the nations of Rozarria and Archadia, began waging war between one another, with Dalmasca’s kingdom located between the two of them. Soon the fall of Dalmasca came, as Archadia invaded their land to gain the upper hand in the war, seemingly to have also destroyed the Dalmascan royal family in the process. Two years later in the city of Rabanastre, we are met with Vaan, a young street urchin and his friend Penelo as they struggle to survive their daily lives in a country torn apart by war.
Dreaming of one day becoming a Sky Pirate, Vaan is not content with his lot in life and seeks to change this by hatching a plan to steal hidden riches from within the palace’s treasury. During his exploration however, he meets Fran and Balthier, a pair of real Sky Pirates, and after a messy escape from the palace, they happen to come upon a mysterious young woman by the name of Amalia. This seemingly fateful encounter intertwines their lives and the future of the Dalmascan Kingdom together; only their bonds of trust and comradery would see them through until the end.
The battle system of The Zodiac Age is, and was in 2006, an evolutionary step forward for the gaming series which had, up until now, employed the tried and true ‘Active Time Battle’ system. With the introduction of the Active Dimension Battle system, random encounters, something any true Final Fantasy player would say was the bane of their gaming existence, have been done away with. Players now have the option to take enemies on in battle and are able to make swift attack plans – or avoid a fight altogether, if the target is too overpowered.
Battling enemies is made all the more easy with the fact that at any given moment a player can hit the menu button and interchange between fighters. This fluidity in battle is one of the best changes the series has made after adopting the practice in Final Fantasy X. Lastly, any Final Fantasy battle system would not be complete without its repertoire of battle techniques and magick’s, of which there are plenty to choose from. It’s important to always know where your team is, due to the Active Dimension Battle system which takes into account your position when area based magick’s like Cura are used. If a player is out of spell range, they may miss its beneficial effects.
Gambits return to the foray in what can be described as one of the most complex battle mechanics the series has churned out in its past 30 years. During battle players will only be able to control one character and their teammates will automatically act based on the Gambits you assign to them. Both a blessing and curse, gambits serve to keep the battles in The Zodiac Age smooth and effortless, with commands in mind for just about any combat situation. With the right combination of attacks, techniques and magicks, monsters stood little chance of victory against me.
What excited me most about The Zodiac Age was getting the chance to play with its updated ‘International’ release, Zodiac Job System. The licence board for The Zodiac Age has received an impressive overhaul which refined the job system. It’s effectively restricted free movement on the board when levelling up, but increased a player’s proficiency in their chosen job classes. There are twelve jobs in total to choose from including such classic tropes as white mage, knight, and black mage, and the introduction of other less well known classes like machinist, and bushi.
Each player starts off with one class, so take care what you chose as there is no going back once your decision has been made. After meeting certain in-game requirements you are then granted the selection of a second licence board, which you can choose to align with your first pick or completely contrast, the choice is yours. Personally I opted to choose roles that suited each characters disposition and was able to spread all twelve classes among the six. Players progress through the board by earning Licence Points (LP) in battle, and once enough has been collected you can unlock your chosen ability, weapons, armour, stat bonuses and limit breaks, known as Quickenings.
Quickenings in The Zodiac Age have also been given some much needed love. In the original release Quickenings possessed a fatal flaw in that when you used your attacks you depleted your MP bars instantly. This usually meant that they were only used in dire situations when there was little need to use magic after. Now that they have their own Mist charge bar separate from MP, players have more freedom to continue battling on unimpeded. Used by stringing a combination of three players Quickenings together, the limit on how much damage a player can dish out depends on how fast you can select your next attack.
Summons in The Zodiac Age make a return once more, and are known in Ivalice as Espers; great summon spirits that once brought forth granted the summoner great power and protection. Obtaining an Esper requires you to best them in battle, and once defeated will appear on a players licence board. When called upon, Espers will travel alongside you for a limited time, performing devastating attacks, casting wicked spells and acting independent of you, but always staying close by. Summoning them requires at least one full mist charge bar, and at the end of its depletion they will vanish until summoned once more.
“Item hunting and level grinding feels effortless, when set up with a perfected gambit system”
The world of Dalmasca and greater Ivalice is vast and has been lovingly redone in all its glory. World exploration in the game is a decent combination of linear and free roaming, with Ivalice becoming more freely available as you progress through the main story. One of the best new features of The Zodiac Age is the option to play the game at twice or quadruple the speed as you move along the game map. This certainly makes both item hunting and level grinding feels effortless and when set up with a perfected gambit system – twice the work in half the time. However, be wary, the feature acts as a double edged sword: if when faced against stronger opponents and you are unprepared, their flurry of attacks will obliterate you.
Despite all the praise that I can give to The Zodiac Age, there are still some issues that detract from what feels like a near-perfect remake. Even with all the new gorgeously retouched character designs, there appears to be some lip-syncing problems that stick out badly. Also, the hunting side-quests, while fun, can be arduous. You first need to accept the hunt, and then find the petitioner, then once again go out to find and defeat the mark before once more returning to the petitioner – it’s all a bit much. Lastly, I found it odd that little information was provided on how players obtained both gil and items, including magicks, and gambits. It was as if it you were expected to know the ins and outs of it all from the start.
The Bottom Line
Despite it being one of the more divisively received Final Fantasy’s amongst fans, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is one of those rare RPG’s that really pushes the envelope and challenges expectations. Its story did not follow the classic ‘end of the world’ scenario that so many of its predecessors did, all the more to its benefit. It allowed this brilliant Final Fantasy instalment a chance to shine on its own and not its past successes, and also bring an already established world full of history and lore through its Roman numeral release. With an engaging story, well designed battle system and updated gameplay mechanics it is without a doubt one of the best Final Fantasy’s you’ll ever play.