Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age is the definitive version of an all-time classic, but it's still not for everyone
Final Fantasy 12 is an acquired taste, but it's amazing because it's different.
Just how different Final Fantasy 12 is from the rest of that big-ticket series is difficult to overstate. Final Fantasy 12 has a hell of a lot going for it, but its greatest asset is also what makes it fairly divisive, regarded as either the very best or one of the weakest in the series depending on who you speak to.
Not long ago I previewed this release and said it "looked to be the definitive version of a classic." Well, consider it confirmed - see the title. It is. But it'll still be divisive.
I remember this phenomenon when FF12 originally launched. It had much critical success and remains the joint second highest-ever scoring FF game on MetaCritic behind the unassailable Final Fantasy 9, but behind that success there was a frequent narrative to the contrary. A decent section of the fanbase found it all just a little bit too complex. Where most FF games are focused on telling an epic story with decent but relatively easy-to-understand combat and gameplay, FF12 flips that script. The typically vibrant, over-the-top characters of your average FF are substituted for a charming but more understated bunch, though that group isn't really the focus anyway.
The characters are bit-players in a larger story of empires and kingdoms rather than world-saving heroes. Their actions ultimately have major consequences, but the tone is without a doubt very different from the rest of FF. The world is richer for it, but the broad narrative strokes painted by a game like Final Fantasy 7 are missed by some.
"If you like strategy and tactics and are really willing to throw yourself into it the clinical nature of FF12's sytems help to make it one of the most strategic, engaging and rewarding Japanese RPGs ever made."
This shifted tone matches what happens with combat and structure, too. Where FF games tend to funnel you along a relatively plain path (even the half open world FF15 does this), FF12 tosses you out to explore far earlier on. There are hunts to take part in, and a general openness that reminds me of Dragon Age Origins more than other FFs. The combat isn't about twitch reactions and flicking between presets like FF13 or turn-based action like the series' golden age, but instead is all about preparation. This, by the way, is where FF12 is at its most brilliant.
FF12's 'Gambit System' is really a programming tool in disguise, with you using 'and' or 'if' arguments to tell each member of your party what to do. Here's a simple one: IF a character is afflicted by Blind, CAST Esuna. That tells a party member to cure a status effect (and FF12 sure loves its status effects), and in no time at all you'll be stacking orders like this on top of each other to create misleadingly complex AI sequences. In battle micromanaging is actually very difficult, and I tend to only intervene if my AI sequences aren't doing the job correctly. I might hop into menus and adjust the gambits to change how characters behave to better combat an enemy or I might take over directly, pausing combat to take a tactical overview of the situation.
This is the greatest asset of FF12 but is also the thing that is a problem - it's far less accessible and isn't for everyone. One of the biggest FF fans I know recently described it to me as "clinical", and it's not an incorrect description - but if you like strategy and tactics and are really willing to throw yourself into it the clinical nature of FF12's sytems help to make it one of the most strategic, engaging and rewarding Japanese RPGs ever made.
The Zodiac Age basically aims to take these systems and mechanics, enhancing and tweaking them to near perfection. It's absolutely still an acquired taste, but this is the best version of this recipe ever presented. It's the third attempt: there was FF12, then the Japan only International Zodiac Job System, and The Zodiac Age iterates on that second version of the game. For my money this gets pretty close to perfection for these mechanics.
If you played FF12, here's what's changed: rather than every character able to learn anything as a jack-of-all-trades, The Zodiac Age asks you to pick a single job for each character. Jobs determine your available abilities and gear and include the obvious stuff like Black Mage, White Mage and Knight, but also more unique classes like Bushi (a samurai) or Machinist (a technology specialist).
With twelve classes to choose from and only six characters, you have to pick carefully. Each character becomes specialized, and later you're given the opportunity to choose a second job for each character in order to craft a unique hybrid class. This leads to a ridiculous number of potential combinations and deftly does away with one of FF12's biggest issues, character similarity, while providing even more depth to the strategy of building your team.
It's difficult to understate just what an enormous difference this makes to the gameplay of FF12, and the second job is an addition just for this version. This is one HD Remaster that is far more than a visual upgrade, and FF12's brilliant systems are better here than they've ever been.
But, still, I feel pressured to add: they remain clinical. As such, they still may not be for everybody. If you love strategy, however, you're in for a tremendous, time-eating treat. The late-game optional bosses, which are plentiful, offer an incredible test of your strategic thinking and team building skills.
Other small changes add up to be significant. You can control guest party members and Esper summonable beasts directly now. The game can be fast-forwarded to breeze through trash mobs. There's a convenient map that can be accessed without pausing. Key items, including the infamous Zodiac Spear, have been moved. The game has been rebalanced, of course, and feels better for it.
The only major criticism I still have is that the game takes too long to fully hand the gambit system over to you and give you full control of everything. The game is a little too scared to give you access to everything right off the bat, and it's easy to understand why - there's a hell of a lot to it.
"If you love strategy, you're in for a tremendous, time-eating treat. The late-game optional bosses, which are plentiful, offer an incredible test of your strategic thinking and team building skills."
There's even a new trial mode which focuses entirely on combat - you port your story save characters into it, and the game encourages and gives incentive to tackle it a few times as you progress and grow. This being the main addition over FF10's HD Remaster's added story content speaks volumes about FF12's focus: it is and always will be all about those gameplay systems.
The story isn't bad, mind. Ashe is a great lead (even if she isn't technically the lead), and the complicated story of political intrigue is fascinating if a little on the heavy side. The story stumbles in its late stages and that sadly hasn't been addressed at all, but it doesn't matter: by that point you'll likely be knee-deep in systems and planning to take down optional mega bosses. That's certainly what happened to me.
Beyond the changes to gameplay this is still a competent HD remaster. It looks and sounds better, and though less work has been done than was on FF10, FF12 is also a much better looking game in the first place and so shoulders the resolution bump much more effortlessly.
This is pretty much what you'd expect, looking gorgeous but with the lower-poly geometry you'd expect from a PS2 era title. It looks amazing for its time, and sounds better still thanks to a rearranged soundtrack. If you want the original that's there too as an option, as is Japanese voice over and, if you pre-order, the soundtrack CD version of the original score as well.
Pretty much every option has been considered and catered for up to those things that are possible within the realm of upgrading but not outright remaking the original code - but honestly, I'd have taken this release even with less effort in this area. This game is all about those wonderful gameplay systems and how they interact, and they've honestly never been better.
The Zodiac Age is a definitive version of a classic - what should now be the final iteration on one of the genre's best. But as mentioned... it is an acquired taste. It certainly isn't for everyone, and people who like FF's usually carefree brand of JRPG have been burned on FF12's complexities before. Go in expecting to be challenged and anticipating a lot of thinking, however, and you're going to have a blast.