Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (2017) REVIEW

The shortest possible personal history of Final Fantasy I could give is to simply state that I’ve been abused mercilessly by anime tropes as I’ve tried to ‘grow’ along with the series since it’s inception. I don’t want to be that anti-anime guy, I’m honestly not a for-reals hater outside of some hyperbolic shaming I do for the sake of posterity. The trouble I have with Final Fantasy 7, 10, 10-2, 13, 13-2 and to some extent 15 are the gasping, belabored anime drama tropes, essentially Barbie’s Sci-Fi Adventure 2 Self-Esteem: Japan Edition, that have focused too much on the dwindling Japanese RPG market while not even attempting to write for the “western” audience. Who do I blame? Kingdom Hearts fans and people who support the absolute trash factory that is Tetsuya Nomura’s creative team at Square Enix. I have never liked his character designs, his meager design contributions to Final Fantasy VI are negligible, and it has been a wicked sore point for me since Final Fantasy X blew up in popularity. I hate his designs. Anytime he has headed a game in the last ten years it has gone off the rails into development hell and you can’t blame Square Enix for everything. The point?

Final Fantasy XII was different than any other main entry in the series before it: It was a forward-thinking reduction of JRPG tropes that simultaneously retained the core essence of the series SNES popularity while making bold, modern choices with the battle system.

The trouble I have with Final Fantasy XII’s place in history is that it was so maligned for it’s resemblance of a MMORPG that it sits at the bottom of many FF fan’s favorites lists. I sit scoffing on the side of justice and truth, and posit that those who disliked the game were scared, conservative JRPG fans whose thought crimes were perpetuated by casually RPG fans who feared that RPGs would trend into messy, pointless MMORPG experiences sans personality or story. (Or hey, lots of folks don’t like it just because it wasn’t more Final Fantasy X, a putrid brain-dead abomination of a game.) History is on FFXII’s side! Why? Because it wasn’t actually an MMORPG at all, it just looked like one. Fact is that FFXII’s battle system does not resemble an MMORPG outside of how it looks when you initiate battles. Having the decision to choose how automated the repetitive tasks of moment-to-moment FF battles are is not a bad thing. In 2017’s live-action cyberpunk dystopia JRPGs have stagnated into cheaply made anime showcases full of juvenile coming-of-age stories for giggling hentai-obsessed Vita owners. Final Fantasy XII was the right way to start modernizing the series and Nomura’s Final Fantasy XV totally felt like his team came to the realization that FFXII had already done things right. Having played both games again within a month of each other gives me confidence that the core experience of Final Fantasy XV is a polished up, shiny version of XII (not including the cringefest boy band ensemble). Anyway, the twelfth main entry in the Final Fantasy series was a revelation back in 2006 and I’m still salty that the rest of my JRPG fandom didn’t join me for the ride and instead chose the incredibly shallow and embarrassing world of Kingdom Hearts. Into the storm-like cyber future the JRPG continues to dissolve into the creepiest of niche fan service, here I am barely still a fan and damn happy to be playing this game again.

Screenshot taken of my team/progress as a whole during the final boss battle in the game. I played this game for almost 84 hours total and there was about 10 more hours of content I could have done involving trophies, four optional boss battles, and several rare game hunts for the Bestiary. I was sadly not up for the grind as I have a huge backlog of other great things to play.

Why is Final Fantasy XII so different from every other Final Fantasy game? Simple: The core creative artists and design team were almost entirely ex-Quest (Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre) folks who cut their teeth with Square making Vagrant Story and the Final Fantasy Tactics series. The world of Ivalice is some of the most detailed and mature world-building of any Final Fantasy related projects. Their stories are mature, political, and have easily understood overarching themes that never dwell in the teenage, unformed frontal lobe, conflict-with-gawd, emotional catastrophes that are Nomura’s character examinations. Whoa! I love Final Fantasy Tactics. I have the original PSX game, and the ‘War of the Lions’ version on Vita and on my iPhone, too. I love it, but I can’t beat the game. For whatever reason I’m too impatient and have trouble sticking with it. Chalk it up to just being too stupid for chess or whatever. Regardless of my skills, I ended up buying their next game Vagrant Story, which served as sort of template for a lot of things the team would do in FFXII: The use of precise texture drawing/painting on relatively blocky polygons to great effect, the restrained and intentioned palette, and everything from character design to a story chock full of political intrigue and examinations of social structures. That game was amazing. So, back in 2003 I bought Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for GBA and loved it simply because it was the baby version of Final Fantasy Tactics made for a younger, dumber audience. I was obsessed with the game, going out on missions and skirting time limits and modifying jobs. I was addictive as all hell, I played it about three times in a row the month that I bought it. That game is one of the many reasons I still love my GBA more than any other Nintendo handheld. For my taste, the general creative team behind these games were on a roll. I’d spent years playing each of their games. But the reality was that ‘who’ had been making these games was a complex shuffling of artists and producers with each project and as these projects grew bigger, so did their budget and staff. Yatsumi Matsuno was apparently kind of awful to work with, he didn’t like co-chairing the production with Hiroyuki Ito and his illness had troubled him for years. For a fan like me, Ito’s involvement in XII was cause for excitement when it was announced because he was a big part of Final Fantasy IX, which had the best world of the FF games on PSX (the ending was completely befuddling, though). Ito would eventually fully take the helm for XII after Matsuno had left, along with a lot of the original FFXII team (who went to work with Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker instead.) So, I waited about four years for the game to come out. It was the catalyst for me digging into more and more stuff outside of the RPG genre, with only The Last Story on my radar. Oh man, The Last Story is another game I could write thousands of words on. If you are reading this because you just kinda love Final Fantasy XII and you haven’t played Mistwalker’s The Last Story, that game is entirely a reaction to FFXII and featured a ton of folks who left FFXII mid-production before the final push to finish. There are many artistic similarities between the games, with the Last Story perhaps being sorely disaffected by the Wii controls.

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Final Fantasy XII’s story is mature and focused. It never depends on belabored suffering or childish frustration for impact, and the presentation of the story emphasizes a desire for resolve above dwelling on problems. In this way FFXII is inspiring and feels more “adult” compared to the more teenaged focus of the PSX era of Final Fantasy. It also never veers off into obscure garbage-assed metaphysical chatter. Fans who express frustration with Vaan and Penelo are likely to have never finished the game, as they are not a huge part of the game’s plot after the first 5-6 hours. They are lighthearted curs who are just along for the journey and offer a unique point of view for a JRPG of its time. The two function just like Locke in Final Fantasy VI, where they provide a neutral point-of-view to observe the main protagonists (Baltheir, Ashe and Basch.) Their story is remarkably succinct, builds an intriguing open world and places you into it with frequent updates to the changing climate of the war sweeping over southern Ivalice. The political intrigue never teeters too far into complex or overtly personal storytelling like FF Tactics. The esoteric Japanese ’emotional journey’ of the main hero is so tastefully downplayed in FFXII that it makes Ashe likable, strong, and simple as a story focus, with the competing analog of Vaan serving as emotional solidarity rather than cheesy corny anime trope focus. The people of Ivalice are cunning, witty, and speak in arcane English a half step removed from Shakespeare. Baltheir was perhaps the best character to come from a Final Fantasy game since FFVI and it’d be a shame if you missed any of his contributions to the story both as a confident sky pirate or disenfranchised heir. The story is one of revolution, resistance against oppression and defiance of those who lust for the power of crystals formed by puppet-master false Gods. By eliminating the coveted crystals, a destructive power divined by false Gods that allowed man to rule over others, the conclusion of Final Fantasy XII offers a moment of freedom against tyrannical leaders. I appreciated the implications of the fable.

Because I was already familiar with this game, I had spent over 120 hours with it on PS2 back in 2006, I decided to try to include every possible class into the game without doubling up on any of them. These choices were made without a guide and my only real regret was that I didn’t choose Penelo as a Red Battlemage, I’d rather Baltheir was a Shikari/Red Battlemage.
Vaan is an easygoing, positive young man who gracefully gets over his need for vengeance as the story moves along. While he looks fairly stupid in his vest, a unique fashion choice compared to EVERYONE ELSE IN THE GAME, but it’s no big deal. He is a powerful character and I chose to start him with the Uhlan class because I needed a spear user as my main attacker so I could defeat flying enemies without relying on ranged attacks or swapping weapons. I chose Bushi because I already knew that two-handed samurai swords have the potential for multiple hits and adding the Genji Gloves meant that I could hit for 4000+ damage up to 14 times during one single attack. Hate towards Vaan as a character is kinda funny because he’s not so different from Marche or any other FF Tactics lead character.
Balthier is the witty, wry soul of FFXII and he is probably the best voice actor as well as the most charismatic of the main cast. I mistakenly gave him the Time Battlemage class without realizing that Haste is less important because of some new strategies available in the Zodiac Age version that make superbosses easier to beat. I’d already had him stick with ranged on my first playthrough, so I chose Shikari again for the sake of doing multiple chains of hits per attack sequence. If you don’t like Vaan, simply make Baltheir your main character once you’ve recruited everyone.
Fran was my favorite the first time I played this game. Her story seemingly had more nuance to it back in the day, now I see she’s really just there to support Baltheir and their agenda together as she supports his ‘Sky Pirate’ intentions that turn out to be much more. She is like Vaan, great in any class but I chose her for White Mage and Archer because she could attack and heal while staying far from enemies. Her casting speed isn’t quite as fast as Penelo at some point, but she is overall more desirable as a healer than a tank in my head canon.
Basch is one of the main characters who seeks redemption after being framed by his twin brother. His support for Ashe is as steadfast as any Judge in the game, and hey he becomes one. He is worthwhile in any melee class, I found Foebreaker to be effective but slow in terms of damage output. I made him a Monk with hopes that his healing abilities would be useful but his Swiftness licenses are hard to come by and he is too slow to be an effective healer.
Ashe is at the heart of the story and she is understated and somewhat realistic as a character. Her resilience and rational nature are simple, yet avoid the tropes of past games by simply being strong enough to not remain conflicted over doing the right thing. I made her my Knight and then Black Mage. I don’t find black magic particularly useful in this game, most enemies are easier to kill with sheer physical damage but she later learned useful Green and Time magic. I barely used her in the game.
Penelo is Vaan’s street kid friend without benefits, shes got a positive attitude and only really offers herself as a foil to Vaan’s rebellious nature early in the game and then she later largely shuts up. I didn’t intend to make her a big part of my team but I needed two characters capable of White magic and consistent healing on my team. Making her a Red Battlemage meant I could use maces most of the game, but later got more powerful bomb tossing weapons. The machinist class is largely useless and weak, but not a bad choice if you want a second ranged healer with a greater variety of spells and technicks.

Coming back to this game and experiencing the story, cut-scenes, and exposition only reminded me how jarringly bad FFXIII was at the time with it’s childish, teenage anime heroes, glossy world, and pretentious, long-winded meaningless story. How fucking abstract did sci-fi Final Fantasy need to be? On the flipside Ashe’s story of overcoming the need to use the crystal’s dark power to avenge her dead husband is humbly performed, but remains a powerful parable. Her story is one of the most concrete and mature central plots to a Final Fantasy game, ever. The game itself is remarkably “grounded” in terms of the oldest SNES games as well: FFXII doesn’t go to space, doesn’t fight surprise incomprehensible Dark Lord figures you’ve never heard of, it stays in the world of Ivalice. Granted it is a big ass magical world. Ivalice’s mixture of high fantasy with hints of steam-punk is exactly in line with games like FF 4, 5, 6, and 9 but contains the series greatest diversity in terms of races (uh, ok but I will concede that all humans in Ivalice are white.) It is worth noting that Matsuda’s original vision for the story is remarkably in tune with the first Star Wars movie and some of the battle scenes among ships feel like they were ripped out of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’m not a big Star Wars guy but the influence on the first half of the plot and presentation is undeniable and hey, pretty good too. The absolute best thing about experiencing Final Fantasy XII again in 4K is seeing the story play out and remembering how beautiful and huge the game was. It should be pretty concrete by now that the game was ahead of it’s time in an era where JRPGs, and their fans, were becoming regressive and preservationist.

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There are many flaws that couldn’t be ironed out of FFXII with a graphics filter and up-res: The camera sucks, the voice acting is wildly inconsistent, and once you’ve used fast-forward it’s hard to stop and smell the roses. Voice acting is plentiful throughout the game but is generally a mixed bag. Most of the main cast is amazing but a few are decidedly awful: The Marquis’ accent is basically a Apu from the Simpsons, the romantic Rosarrian guy and his silly Zorro accent needed an Ennio Morricone guitar number for how cheesy it was. Judges, law-bringers and protectors of royalty, speak within their helmets like Stormtroopers (or conversely Bane) making for an oddly canned vocal effect. Flowery olde-English speech is sometimes silly when paired with the decidedly UK-based cast, but it works well enough the same way it did in Dragon Quest VIII and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. It’s a shame they couldn’t clean up the actual quality of the voice cast’s tracks for the remaster as some of it sounds compressed and cheaply done. Think of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night‘s voiceover as a reference. The music is another story, this is probably my favorite score for a Final Fantasy game as it is very fitting for the locales and the fantasy setting. Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for some really incredible soundtrack work: Radiant Silvergun, FF Tactics/Ogre Battle, and most all of the Vanillaware games (Dragons Crown, Odin Sphere etc.) and his collaboration on the soundtrack is exceptional. The re-orchestrated soundtrack is very similar to the original but features some extended pieces and different placement of tracks in some locations. While I enjoyed the re-orchestrated version, most of my playthrough stuck with the original score as I felt it was already very effective.

Oh the places we’ll go.

The controls are just fine but my major gripe with FFXII is the awful camera positioning and field of view, the vision cone is (like most PS2 games) set so intensely close to the party leader that you miss the vistas in the game and you can’t literally see the screen filling mega-bosses simply because you’re stuck behind your leader’s shoulders. It made sense in 4:3 but not in widescreen 4K on my giant TV. Enemy designs are pretty awesome in this game, so it blows that you often can’t get a good look at them. So, the camera sucks. Well, how does it play? Oh, you didn’t know? Final Fantasy XII can eventually be set up so that you can set AI parameters for each member of your party and battles will play out automatically. Does this work very well during boss fights? Well, I wouldn’t recommend relying on the Gambit system entirely. Not only is that kind of boring, but you’ll need to exploit weaknesses and be able to adapt during fights. Most of the late game bosses, Esper fights, optional hunts and final bosses require you to strategically prepare and adjust tactics on the fly. Bosses have phases of attacks, and often use palings (buffs that can’t be debuffed.) The great secret of FFXII’s gameplay? It can be played like an Action RTS game that has more in common with Dragon Age: Origins than any other Final Fantasy game. The second best secret of FFXII? You don’t have to automate anything. You can finish the whole game making every single decision in the battle menus as you would in any previous entry in the series. On paper it really is just the ATB system from the SNES games from the perspective of a third person action game. Having the choice to automate things such as automatically using a Phoenix Down when KO’d, or using Fire spells on an enemy weak to Fire spells, is incredibly useful.

Never did complete the final Hunt. The last one is Zodiark, the 13th Esper and I gave up because the battle involves a phase change at the end where he can one-shot with every attack and he’s got a Haste paling that you can’t dispel.

Much like Final Fantasy XV, you’ll likely have the most fun doing Hunts for Marks, side-questing, and the rare game hunts. But hey unlike FFXV if you decide to forego the greatest challenges and side-quests of the game, you’ll still get a great story. I had my fun replaying FFXII in HD, and the amount of changes they’ve made in the remastered version are substantial. I feel validated in keeping it up there as one of the very best Final Fantasy games in the series. It absolutely has flaws and battle system quirks that only reveal themselves when fighting the game’s hardest bosses, but as a full JRPG experience it is still peerless in world, story, and design.

Should have fixed the camera. 4.75/5.0