"...Many people who were frustrated by the limitations of the original Licence Board, the slow walking or the lack of an autosave might now enjoy the game far more than they did a decade ago."
Here we are again: another year, another Final Fantasy classic in HD. Just to be clear, like Final Fantasy X and X-2 before it, The Zodiac Age is a tweaked remaster, not a remake. In this case though, The Zodiac Age is actually a remaster of a version of Final Fantasy XII that was never released in the west, the ironically titled International Zodiac Job System (IZJS). IZJS featured numerous gameplay improvements, notably the introduction of job classes so that the party could take on more diverse roles. The Zodiac Age retains all of these changes as well as adding some new updates of its own. This preview is based on approximately 2.5 hours of playtime, mostly from a middle section of the story.
Final Fantasy XII takes place in the high fantasy world of Ivalice (the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics). The story follows a group of heroes led by a youth named Vaan as they seek to save their homeland from an evil empire and restore the princess to the throne. It's not an original story, but there are some nice twists and turns that keep things interesting. The story and party characters remain unchanged from the original game.
The combat, however, is far from standard. If you take a look at the screenshots you'll notice what appears to be a turn-based ATB system. In some ways this is true: once a party member's action bar has filled up they can take a turn. But in FFXII this all happens in real-time. You can move your character around freely during the battle and issue them commands to perform when their bar has filled up. It's a little deceptive though, because even though you can keep your distance from an enemy they'll still hit you with their melee attack when their turn comes around.
So what do party members who aren't controlled directly do? They follow pre-programmed commands you can set up called Gambits. You can create tasks for the rest of the party to follow that they will then execute when the set circumstances occur. For example, you could set up a Gambit for Vaan that when another party member drops below 30% HP, he will automatically cast Cure on them. There's a huge amount of diversity with the commands you can set (essentially any circumstance you're going to encounter in battle), which will likely either overwhelm or deeply engage you. If you don't like Gambits, you can turn them all off and go full manual, but that will significantly slow battles down.
There are no random encounters in XII. Enemies are visible on the field and battle begins when you move close enough to them. There's no transition either, so if you decide to flee you hold R2 and just run for your life. Ivalice is a huge world with many diverse areas, though it's broken down into much smaller sections that need a quick load to move between. With new shorter load times, you'll barely even notice.
In the original Final Fantasy XII game, defeating enemies awarded party members with LP as well as EXP. LP, or Licence Points, were used to unlock squares on a board that would give that character a new power, such as a new spell, the ability to wear a certain type of armour and so on (similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X). However, the Licence Board in the original game was identical for all characters, meaning they had all the same skills by the end of the game. One of the biggest changes in The Zodiac Age (and in IZJS) is allowing characters to choose two job classes, with a different licence board for each. Want to fling elemental spells around? Give a character the Black Mage job and licence board. Want to deal solid physical damage and keep up a good defence? Choose Knight. There are 12 job classes to choose from, most based on classic Final Fantasy jobs, allowing for tons more variety in combat, which is great.
The Zodiac Age introduces a new speed-up mode too; useful if you feel the game speed is going too slowly. By tapping L1 you can increase the game speed to 2x or 4x. I found 2x sped the game up a lot and allowed me to move around the world and through battles very quickly. At the same time, it sucked some of the fun out of the game, perhaps because the world and its inhabitants so quickly passed me by. Of course, since you can turn it on and off, you can use it as much or as little as you wish. Running around at 4x is certainly a hilarious sight to behold from an animation perspective.
The last significant addition is the new Trial Mode. Accessible from the opening menu, you can take on enemies in 100 consecutive battles that get progressively more difficult as you go. The fights are just recycled enemies and bosses from the main game, but with the added challenge that there's no rest in-between and you can't be sure what you might be up against next. If you like these sorts of gauntlets in other games, then you'll likely enjoy Trial Mode. I found it pretty dull though and lost interest after clearing a dozen or so encounters. It feels like a superfluous "hey, look guys, we added new content" addition.
There's a few other gameplay tweaks too, but most aren't notable aside from auto-saving between areas, reduced loading times, improved sound quality, newly recorded background music, and all the modern PS4 functionality like trophies and sharing images. The reduced load times were noticeable and a particularly welcome improvement. I am usually not especially impressed by the graphics in HD remasters and The Zodiac Age is no exception. Yes, they're better, but don't make them your only reason to buy.
Typically when I review or preview a remaster or remake, I tend to end with a comment that suggests if you never liked it in the first place then you probably won't like it now either. Yet with The Zodiac Age, I believe that many people who were frustrated by the limitations of the original Licence Board, the slow walking or the lack of an autosave might now enjoy the game far more than they did a decade ago.
"The improvements Square Enix is making to The Zodiac Age are merely helping it achieve its latent potential."
It wasn't long ago that an HD remaster of Final Fantasy XII seemed like a pipe dream. Back before the announcement and subsequent release of Final Fantasy X HD, Square Enix met fans' pleas to revisit Ivalice in 1080p with vexing silence. So what finally prompted the company to begin development on this long-awaited title, revealed to the world last week as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age? I had the tremendous honor of sitting down with producer Hiroaki Kato and director Takashi Katano at E3 this year to ask them myself.
According to Kato-san, their impetus for remaking FFXII was twofold: first, the members of FFXII's original development staff (previously scattered to the winds) finally reassembled to some degree and expressed interest in the project about a year ago. Second, and more importantly, it was the success of Final Fantasy X HD that proved to Square Enix that demand for XII HD was sufficiently robust. The perfect storm of conditions met, they began their work in earnest, and the rest will soon be history.
For most Western players, FFXII: The Zodiac Age will be our first experience with the Zodiac Job System that debuted in the game's ironically Japan-only "International Version." The Zodiac Age, built upon the foundation of IZJS, trades the freeform License Board for a more rigidly defined class system. The player selects from one of twelve classic Final Fantasy jobs for each character, making their roles distinct and, necessarily, complementary. Three Black Mages does not a balanced party make. Kato-san is fully committed to this new system, which replaces the original entirely in The Zodiac Age — that means no switching back to the old License Board. When I asked if this version will allow the player to switch classes mid-game, Kato-san said that FFXII director Hiroyuki Ito is currently reviewing game balance, and this would be among his considerations. Bad news for Balthier fans, however — hardcore players may remember that his gun attack animation is one of the slowest in the game, despite his penchant for sky piracy. Kato-san confirmed that the animation was created that way on purpose, and the team won't be changing it. Sorry, min-maxers. I suppose it's time to let that dream die.
Such a tiny issue is but a drop in the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea compared to the myriad improvements the team is making to bring FFXII into the modern age. Katano-san explained the main tenets of the game's development philosophy thus: first and foremost, they are taking advantage of the PS4 to bring Ivalice to life in ways not possible with the PS2's limited hardware. The original game used a combination of low-poly and high-poly models to create an illusion of visual fidelity scarcely realized in other games of that era. The team is now implementing high-poly models throughout the entire game, as well as re-texturing objects with new visual assets. A high-resolution UI, including a crisp font and new map overlay, has also been added. This is truly the definitive version of the game, finally backed by the processing power necessary to fully realize its gorgeous art direction. Composer Hitoshi Sakimoto returns to compose the score, which is being completely re-recorded with a combination of synthesizer and live orchestra in full 7.1 surround sound. My time with the game on the slow floor assured me that these compositions retain the spirit of the originals while sounding better than ever. The new recording of The Skycity of Bhujerba, alight with flute and delicate strings, is lush and crystal-clear. Katano-san even teased that some new music might be in the works, and when I asked about the possibility of Angela Aki returning to re-record her theme song, Kiss Me Goodbye, his coy reaction gave me the impression that he yet has something up his sleeve. There's even an option to select between the original score and this new version, as well as the inclusion of both Japanese and English audio tracks. Everyone wins!
More than anything, the team is stressing playability in The Zodiac Age. Katano-san notes that the very nature of gaming has undergone a change in the decade since FFXII first released. With the advent of smartphones and increasingly powerful consoles, players have more ways to game than ever, and in turn, more devices demanding their attention. With a smartphone, Katano-san says, a player can start a game and suspend it at any time, returning to it at their convenience. Console RPGs, on the other hand, are usually designed around save points, making them harder to pick up and play. His answer to this conundrum is the introduction of an auto-save system in The Zodiac Age, as well as a map overlay that makes game objectives clearer. Perhaps best of all, returning from IZJS is a two-tiered speed boost function for time-deficient players. (Katano-san recommends setting it to 2x for towns and dungeons and 4x for field areas!) This functionality is present throughout the game, in addition to the new Trial Mode, which features 100 stages of combat scenarios that demand strategic flexibility.
In Kato-san's view, Final Fantasy XII was already a fully-featured and densely-built game. The improvements they're making to The Zodiac Age are merely helping it achieve its latent potential. His final message to Western fans is that he hopes we look at this not as a mere remaster, but as a brand new title for the contemporary era. With the wild card that is Final Fantasy XV looming on the horizon (I hope it's fantastic, I truly do), it's comforting to know that one of the best games in the franchise is set to make a stunning second debut in early 2017.
RPGFan would like to once again thank Square Enix, Kato-san, and Katano-san for their time and energy in facilitating our interview. ありがとうございました!