Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is the high-definition (HD) remaster of the 2006 Sony PlayStation 2 game. It was launched exclusively for the PlayStation 4 yesterday (Jul 13) at $68.10.
Announced last year, the Zodiac Age was reportedly green-lit after the success of the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD remaster. Virtuos Studios, which did the X/X-2 HD remaster, returned to produce the Zodiac Age, supervised by the original Final Fantasy XII team.
The Zodiac Age is not just a fresh coat of paint. While the story remains unchanged, there are some major tweaks, especially for non-Japanese audiences. Here are the reasons why you should play it:
It looks and sounds better
The game visuals have been given the full HD treatment to make it palatable for large-screen 4K television sets. The jagged, pixelated edges in the original version are gone, while game menus and text look sharp. Shadows are now properly defined instead of being roundish blobs. Metal objects like armour have gained a shiny sheen, while light sources appear more prominent.
It is not quite perfect though, especially on a Sony PS4 Pro. Some scenes look too soft and diffuse, as if they were upscaled for the Pro's higher resolution.
The soundtrack, too, has been reorchestrated, though purists can switch to the original version in the settings. There is also a new option to toggle between the Japanese and English audio.
The International Zodiac Job System
For those who have played the original Final Fantasy XII, the chief reason to replay it is to experience the new gameplay tweaks.
Most of these changes were actually introduced in Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System, a 2007 re-release that was exclusive to Japan. Most gamers would probably not have played this version, since it was only available in Japanese language.
This 2007 version brought the Zodiac Job System, which introduced 12 jobs or classes, including classic Final Fantasy jobs such as Black Mage and Archer. Gamers had to pick a job for each of the six playable characters. Each job had a unique license board that was used to customise the character. You unlock abilities and equipment for the character by spending license points gained from combat.
This was significant because the original 2006 version had the same board design for all characters, which meant that gamers could create six identical, cookie-cutter characters if they chose to.
In the remastered Zodiac Age, each character can now have two jobs, which meant even more customisation. For instance, you could bolster a mage character's low HP (hit points) by adding a second melee-oriented job for greater survivability.
The Zodiac Age also includes a challenging Trial Mode that offers gamers an attempt to beat 100 levels of increasing difficulty. Loot that are acquired in this mode can be transferred to your main game, serving as an additional way to get equipment.
Quality of life improvements
Again, some of the changes that improve the user experience are from the 2007 release, such as a Turbo mode that increases the game speed by four times, while keeping the soundtrack at normal speed. This somewhat reduces the tedium when you are grinding levels by killing monsters repetitively - this is a Japanese role playing game (JRPG) after all. In Zodiac Age, you can now switch between 2x or 4x game speeds. I found the 2x speed option to be just right - it gives me enough time to react if something goes wrong.
By clicking the L3 button on the controller, the game now overlays a map of the area over the screen to help you navigate its large maps.
More importantly, there is now an auto-save feature while moving between different zones.
I gave the original Final Fantasy XII a miss as I did not own a PS2 console back then.
It was loved by critics, garnering a metascore of 92 out of 100 on the Metacritic review aggregator website. However, the original game was disliked by some long-time Final Fantasy fans because its gameplay was a major departure for the series.
It had an open world, where enemies could be spotted from afar (and avoided) instead of the random encounters in the older games.
It also introduced the Gambit system, where players could program the behaviour of the game characters during combat using a series of If This Then That (IFTTT) conditional statements. This rudimentary artificial intelligence let gamers automate the combat even for boss fights.
These mechanics now seem contemporary where once they were divisive. After all, many mobile RPGs basically automate the combat for players, while an open world is the norm for games, including last year's Final Fantasy XV.
After spending over ten hours on the Zodiac Age so far, I do have some minor grouses. The camera can get finicky, especially when my character is next to a wall. The game also needs an option to sell all the items I picked up in the game at once, instead of having to tediously dispose of each type of item one by one.
I also dislike that I cannot rebuild a character by changing his job or abilities, though I understand the developers' sentiment that one should live with their choices. In fact, I am already planning to start a new game because of this.
Verdict: Final Fantasy XII has aged like a fine wine. The remastered version brings the visuals up to date, making it feel almost like a modern game.