High-definition remasters are often a mixed bag of fun. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is not one of those mixed bags. It's just fun.
While a fresh coat of paint is sure to make the game easier on the eyes, many times the gameplay is too old-fashioned to compare to the reworked systems in place of games that followed. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age manages to overcome this, however, with some much-appreciated quality-of-life improvements and an overhaul to the character upgrade system so drastic that it feels like a completely new way to approach the game. These improvements manage to take the original Final Fantasy XII’s strengths – loveable characters, a fantastic setting, and unique battle mechanics - and send them to new heights, making the overall experience better than ever before.
Oddly enough, the visual improvements in The Zodiac Age are, in some areas, the most underwhelming element of this remaster. As mentioned in my preview, while environments are diverse, expansive, and a joy to explore, some just don’t seem to have received the same level of polish that character models did. On the other hand, the improvements made to character models are downright impressive. Designs are cleaned up, more detailed, and polished far beyond what was seen in Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster.
"Improvements manage to take the original Final Fantasy XII’s strengths – loveable characters, a fantastic setting, and unique battle mechanics - and send them to new heights."
I often found myself pleasantly surprised with the abundance of expressiveness in important characters’ faces. On a regular basis, you can see the amazement or feelings of regret emerging from Vaan’s eyes, or the shift from Balthier’s playfully arrogant grin to becoming lost in troubled thoughts. Considering the abundance of cutscenes and the character-driven narrative in The Zodiac Age, it makes sense that the characters were given the most attention. Despite a desire for some smoother looking environments, overall, Final Fantasy XII looks very good for its age. Combine this with the marvellous reorchestration of the already stellar soundtrack, and The Zodiac Age’s presentation shines.
While gorgeous cutscenes dispersed throughout the game’s lengthy main narrative still look attractive even now, what isn’t attractive are the jarring black bars that persist on the bottom of the screen. Put there to make subtitles more visible during scenes, they detract from the overall aesthetic. I tried turning off subtitles in the hope that the black bar would also disappear; instead, I was left with an empty black bar and no subtitles. I would have much preferred Square Enix to remove the black box – or drastically reduce its size – and allow the visuals to cover the entire screen. It’s also worth mentioning Square Enix has enabled the skipping of cutscenes for those looking to rush right back into the action.
The black bar is undoubtedly a nuisance, but in no way does it take away from the splendidly mature main story that still manages to hold weight. Between the grand political storyline that exists in the forefront and the smaller, intimate, character-driven tales weaved in the background, The Zodiac Age provides players with engaging story in spades. Each main character has their own goals and motivations that bring them into the group, and the moments of cooperation and conflict that ensue are at times heartwarming and other times infuriating. That’s what happens when rich personalities clash, making the character dynamics believable and easy and invest in.
Above and beyond, the most substantial change to The Zodiac Age is the incorporation of the Zodiac Job System. Whereas in the original game, characters unlocked abilities and upgrades on an identical License Board, this updated version splits the original board into twelve different boards – each paired with a specific job class (White Mage, Archer, Monk, etc.). Instead of having all characters feeling similar in late-game sequences, each character must now choose a job and stick with it.
Each board caters to the specific job class it is paired with, which both simplifies the learning curve of the upgrade system and makes characters feel tangibly stronger much sooner. Considering that License Boards also unlock the use of specific pieces of equipment, cutting out unnecessary weapon and armour nodes on each grid is a tremendous improvement. Not to mention, the amount of complexity and customisation that can occur as a result is incredibly enticing. As someone who logged over a hundred hours in the original Final Fantasy XII, I found this drastic change to be much appreciated, as it made me much more thoughtful about the roles I wanted each party member to play.
The battle system in itself is largely unchanged from its original version, aside from some difficulty rebalancing. While actions can be inputted manually, gambits are introduced early on, making micromanagement of character behaviours even more important than player input mid-fight.
Gambits are pre-set conditions that you can customise for each of your characters, prioritising specific gambits over others to determine how your party members automatically respond in battle. For example, on my White Mage Balthier, I set his highest priority gambit as “Ally: HP < 60% = Cure”, which means that he will automatically cast Cure on any party member (including himself) that dips below 60 percent of their maximum health. Below that as lower priorities, I set additional gambits that would have him heal status ailments, and below that the prompt to steal items from enemies. A black mage might have a condition that casts a Fire-element spell on an enemy weak to fire, and so on.
"Whether you’re a long-time fan of Final Fantasy XII or a total newcomer, The Zodiac Age marks a triumphant and memorable return to Ivalice."
If two or more of a character’s gambit conditions exist on the battlefield at the same time, the character solves the highest priority gambit first before moving down the list. While initially feeling a bit unwieldy, the upgrade system also helps ease players into familiarising themselves with gambits. While characters start with a finite amount of gambit slots, additional slots can be unlocked as needed via the License Board. Even then, I found myself swapping out gambits every so often as my characters learned new abilities and the enemies introduced new attacks and status ailments for me to deal with.
I was surprised to find that the difficulty balancing ended up making The Zodiac Age feel rather easy, once some useful gambits were set in place. So long as I managed to upgrade my characters each time I reached a new town and fit them with newer, stronger gear, I found that even some bosses could be tackled without even touching the controller.
Considering that Square Enix tweaked the difficulty to make it this way, a welcome addition would have been the option to revert to the original game’s difficulty, or even a hard mode. That being said, those searching for a serious challenge need look no further than Trial Mode. Featuring 100 stages of challenging battles, expect to change your gambit settings frequently if you expect to come anywhere close to completion. Although Trial Mode is best saved for last, the abundance of side quests in addition to optional boss fights and monster hunts are bound to keep you busy long after the credits roll.
Between battling and traversal, getting from place to place in the original Final Fantasy XII was at times a bit of a drag. Speed modifications in The Zodiac Age alleviate that feeling completely. Players can opt between 2x and 4x speed modification that drastically cuts down on travel and battle time. Whether you’re backtracking by foot or grinding a few extra levels, this is easily the handiest new feature.
Minor grievances aside, the fact remains that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is easily the best version of the game. Those who were deterred by it the first time around are unlikely to warm up to it this time, as its divisive battle system remains completely intact. That being said, the sweeping narrative and endearing cast of characters, alongside the drastically improved character upgrade system, provide an expansive and refined role-playing experience that still manages to charm even a decade after its original release. As someone who saw most everything that the original game offered, the abundantly challenging Trial Mode is sure to keep me grinding and coming up with new strategies until I overcome all 100 stages. Whether you’re a long-time fan of Final Fantasy XII or a total newcomer, The Zodiac Age marks a triumphant and memorable return to Ivalice.