Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The PS2 era saw the absolute best of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy XII being the apex. It is, along with Star Ocean 3 and Persona 4, one of the best games the system has to offer and easily the best Final Fantasy game yet. With FFXII, long gone are the one-dimensional characters, anime tropes, stock personalities, and decades old combat system. The developers of FFXII took a page from Western RPG game designers, making character development much more open-ended, and combat real-time. In fact the entire game feels distinctly less Japanese in a good way.
The international version offers a treasure trove of new goodies with everything excellent about the original game left in place.
As with my other reviews of remixes and remakes, I will focus mainly on the differences from the original game. For a detailed description of gameplay, check out this review.
The basic mechanics of combat, equipment management, and plot advancement are the same. There are some small changes in the names of magic spells, a handful of new gambits and weapons, and a revised quickening system that no longer uses magic points; taking and dishing out damage recharges quickenings over time. This time around, the player can take direct control over guests and summons. I really liked being able to lead the party with Larsa and Vossler.
Definitely the most significant feature is the one that gives this version its subtitle; the zodiac job system. Instead of one big license board, there are twelve smaller ones based on the twelve zodiac signs representing the following jobs: white mage, dragoon, machinist, red mage, knight, monk, time mage, breaker, archer, black mage, samurai and thief. You can probably guess the differences in skills, magic, and equipment in each board. There are also differences in status upgrades between boards, meaning that some gain HP licenses and other boosts much faster than others.
You can examine the different boards in depth before deciding. I spent a good twenty minutes examining boards before deciding with each character. Why take all that time? Because FFXII International does not allow you to change jobs once you pick a board. While some may take issue with this, I think it balances the game while making it both more difficult and more manageable. It adds to the difficulty by forcing you to plan ahead more and create a party that can adjust to various challenges, and it saves you from wasting license points chasing specific skills or armor between multiple boards. It’s a fantastic system that gives you more freedom and incentive to envision characters in unique ways.
FFXII International also allows you to fast-forward the game by tapping the L1 button. I love this feature, as I am very much pro event skipping, attack animation omitting, and fast forward type features in RPGs. These are games, not movies, and such features are courtesies to gamers who do multiple runthroughs. Set your gambits right, and you can fast-forward through battles and long treks across the massive plains and marshlands of Ivalice, almost like taking the express lane. Having more choices is always good, and of course you can always not use it and play the game at a normal pace.
FFXII International also has a new trial mode and two new game plus type features. The trial mode is a series of 100 battles, starting with Rabanastre’s rats, to an insane battle against all five judges at the end. Characters gain license points throughout and you can save progress after a set number of battles, but cannot transfer your progress onto a regular story game save file. The later battles are, to use the parlance of our times, epic. You can earn two new play modes by beating the game or the trial mode. Defeat the story game, and you earn Strong Mode, which starts your characters at level ninety. Defeat the trial game, and you earn Weak Mode, where characters do not gain any experience points. Neither mode carries over equipment or skills.
One disappointing thing for people looking to import is that the game is not fully bilingual. The voices are all in English but menu and dialogue text is Japanese. This can make equipment and skill management tricky, and adds difficulty to a few puzzles. If you have already beaten the game, you will not have too much difficulty. Trial and error will allow you to figure out most things. If you have the time, I recommend taking a few hours to learn how to pronounce katakana symbols. If you can read them, you’ll see that most weapons, items, and spells have names that are basically English words pronounced in Japanese, thus they are analogous to the North American release. Of course there are also several translation guides available on the Internet as well.
Easily one of the best looking RPGs of its generation, FFXII offers some of the most intricately detailed environments and character models I have ever seen. From the dusky streets of Rabanastre, to the forests of Golomore, each town presents its own unique building designs and fashions among local citizens. The FMV scenes are also impeccable, well integrated, and refreshingly not overlong or gratuitous, most of them under a minute in length. While most of the character designs and fashion are creative and cool (is staring at Fran’s ass a sign of furryism? It’s not me, my friend really wants to know…) there are some misses, most notably Ashe’s ridiculous outfit, which looks as though she just grabbed random items while locked in a dark closet.
Fashion critique aside, FFXII is a beautiful game. Visually, the game is more than a worthy sendoff for the PS2 era of the series.
Having experienced a lot of movies, anime, and games in both English and Japanese, it is rare that I can actually say this: The English voice acting is better than the Japanese. Whereas with most games something is lost in translation, FFXII actually gains. The minor touches of characterization added by the mixture of English accents, many of them with touches of Spanish, Irish, or other languages, creates fully realized personalities in only a few sentences. The period English is fantastic; the vocabulary is challenging at times but invigorating for grammar nerds like myself. It isn’t dumbed down or phony; too often games have elaborately realized medieval worlds with characters that sound like they’re from the Jersey Shore.
The music is also a treat. FFXII’s soundtrack is one of Sakimoto’s most consistently good works. The overworld, cave, and dungeon themes are beautifully orchestrated, and the village themes, while not as memorable, are easy on the ears. The soundtrack is thematically integrated to an extraordinary degree, which adds cinematic feeling.
FFXII features an unusually mature and rich story. It is that rare game that deserves to be much longer; I would have really loved if they had started much earlier in the time line and explored more characters in depth aside from the core six. Starting with Vaan’s brother Rex’s prologue, then moving two years into the future following Dalmasca’s defeat, FFXII is a grand tale of empires, medieval conspiracies, and war. It is both character and plot driven; the characters are realized to a degree that makes their motivations and actions consistent, while the intrigues of the world the player inhabits give the story a brisk pace.
The characters are perhaps the best part. It is to the game’s credit that none of them feel hackneyed. No one fits the classic JRPG hero mold. Vaan is a thief, whose moments of gallantry and wit are exceptions to his fundamentally immature dimwitted personality. You have your scoundrel and knight archetypes in Balthier and Basche, but they are both so well written that their personalities do not feel stereotypical. The women overall are not as good, especially Ashe who is infuriatingly naïve at times, but Fran’s mystique and Penello’s likeability make up for it.
As I said earlier, perhaps the game’s biggest story achievement is how much it does not feel like a Japanese game. There’s no contrived unrequited love story between the protagonist and heroine, no cutesy throwaway characters, no causeless formality or paranoia about romantic intentions, no surly adolescents who suddenly turn super powerful because of “destiny.” Instead of all that, you have an epic tale of swords and sorcery with its only significant flaw being the somewhat abrupt ending.
The original game was so strong that it honestly would have been hard for them to screw up this enhanced version. The gambit system gives FFXII a strategic depth that rivals good SRPG’s while allowing full manual control at any time with the push of a button. The story and characters are fantastic, as are the graphics and music. FFXII was my favorite Final Fantasy game, until FFXII International came out. The option to use the original license board would have been nice, though on the other hand, being restrained to the twelve new boards balances the game nicely and really makes it a different animal from the original. Having more control over guests and summons, the fast-forwarding feature, and the trial mode all sweeten the deal as well. This is the best Final Fantasy remake I have ever played, rivaling Star Ocean 3: Director’s Cut for best RPG remake of all time.