I may not be proud of it, but there are some blind spots in my Final Fantasy background — until this time, the most notable among them was Final Fantasy XII. Released by developer Square Enix as a swansong for the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy XII may not have the notoriety that Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy VII pulls but it still has a terrific reputation. So much so, it frequently tops rankings for the best Final Fantasy games of all time.
With no other way to play it other than dusting off my PlayStation 2 in storage, I had more or less tempered expectations and told myself it was a game I’d probably miss out on — until last June, when Square Enix revealed Final Fantasy XII would be receiving its own HD remaster.
Titled Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the brand new remaster isn’t actually a polish of the original version of the game. Instead, it focuses on the Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System — a polished Game of the Year-esque version of the massive JRPG that expanded the License Boards (the in-game job specialization), added a Trial Mode, and streamlined the game by adding a fast-forward option with the click of a button.
These additions alone would be enough to whole-heartedly recommend Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age to both newcomers and people who had grabbed the original game at release. One of the largest complaints about the game in its first run was the lack of job specialization — the addition of these Zodiac License Boards stymie any complaint in that dimension. I literally spent an hour or two delving into each board, determined to min-max the best customization options for Vaan, Ashe and Basch.
Meanwhile, the fast-forward option is a god send to those of us (myself included) who have gotten used to the streamlined nature of games. Final Fantasy XV may be the pinnacle of this — allowing players to quick-travel and drive between spots elegantly. On the other hand, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is filled to the brim with sprawling locales and environments that may (to some) have the players lose interest. However, with a push of a button you are able to move at two-times or four-times the speed of the standard flow of game — without impacting the music, of course.
That leads perfectly to some of the most noticeable and commendable improvements of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age — the polished graphics and re-orchestrated soundtrack. From the iconic intro, the music swells and crescendos to highs the title has never reached before. Obviously the Final Fantasy series is rife with stellar and iconic gaming soundtracks, and the re-orchestration will put previous Final Fantasy XII critics in their place. While it still doesn’t fall in the top place for the series (shoutout to Final Fantasy VIII’s “Liberi Fatali“) it is well within the running.
Meanwhile, the textures and visual polish are astounding — bringing Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age to how I remember the title in rose-tinted glasses. While the game won’t be mistaken anytime soon as a current generation experience like Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix has expertly toed the line between respecting the game’s original visuals and artstyle and modernizing it to be palatable to fans and newcomers alike.
Last but not least, the Trial Mode will add some bonus replayability and gameplay options for those who missed the International Zodiac Job System release. With over 100 different maps, players will be able to import their teams from their Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age campaign and take on enemies in arena-style combat, unlocking rewards along the way. While the Trial Mode pales in comparison to the main campaign, it is nonetheless an excellent addition to the gameplay options.
Enough on the improvements, how does Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age hold up in comparison to its modern counterparts? This is the bit I was most stunned by — it all comes together surprisingly well, even with more than a decade between the original release and today.
The story and combat are both, in turn, complex and intriguing. The former has an unmistakable medieval flair, rife with backstabbing and political skirmishes that easily falls in line with some of the best stories and tropes of Final Fantasy games. Meanwhile, the combat feels like a single-player online game — a mix of active gameplay and turn-based — that is made easier through the nuanced Gambit sections. Players are able to (for lack of a better term) program their team to follow commands. For instance, you can tell your team to attack, with a member of the team programmed to heal as soon as someone drops to 30% of their health. The result leans towards players creating and fine-tuning a team of slaughter machines for any type of combat.
Sure, the added polish and mechanics help round out that experience, but the game itself was (to me) a breath of fresh air into more old-school JRPGs. While I love Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV, both games absolutely have unmistakable modern flairs and segments of the game that cater to newcomers of the series and genre. Tutorialization is a very real thing, bringing both good and bad aspects to modern JRPGs.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is unabashedly retro, with often convoluted mechanics and systems that are both complex and sport looser-than-average explanations. The result means that beginners will have a harder time grasping onto the cores of the game (for instance, the excellent Gambit system) but the lack of explanation is oddly refreshing. To put it simply, there are very few games on PlayStation 4 that will give you the experience that Final Fantasy offers.
Final Fantasy XII is an epic, sprawling tale that many gamers — myself included — missed the first time around because of when it was released. Don’t make that mistake again. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is one of the best, if not the best, remaster of a Final Fantasy game in recently memory, and is objectively better now than it was a decade ago. For $49.99 on PlayStation 4, the game is a steal to fans new and old interested in an old(er)-school JRPG experience.