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Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review: A Near Perfect Remaster of an Underappreciated Gem

Time to give Final Fantasy XII some of the love it deserves.

Review by Kat Bailey, .

A possibly apocryphal story has it that when Final Fantasy XII first came out in Japan, the first fan in line bowed to the president of Square Enix and said, "Please remake Final Fantasy VII."

That's been the unfortunate legacy of Final Fantasy XII through the years. Squeezed between the more popular PlayStation games and the more infamous follow-up on the PS3, Final Fantasy XII has mostly been known for its troubled development and quirky battle system. It hasn't helped that it's only been available on the PS2 until this point, making it one of the only games in the series to not be re-released across multiple platforms.

Now shorn of its original context, where all anyone could do was complain about how different it was from the rest of the series, it's much easier to judge it on its own merits. It helps that Square Enix has once again put together a first-class HD remaster, featuring all of the content from the heretofore never released International Zodiac Edition, as well as a number of new features. Regardless of how the game itself holds up, this is easily the best and most complete version of Final Fantasy XII to date.

But of course there's also that burning question: Does Final Fantasy XII deserve its black sheep status? Or is it time to give it a second look?

A fresh coat of paint has done Final Fantasy XII a world of good.

The Remaster

Well, let's talk a bit about what the actual package contains first.

Square Enix has put a tremendous amount of work into updating Final Fantasy XII's visuals, and it shows. While there are still plenty of artifacts from the PS2 era—blocky architecture, the awkward scampering run motion—the improved characters models, lighting, and particle effects all represent a massive step forward from the original.

The result is that Zodiac Age looks really great, particularly once you leave Rabanastre and step into some of Ivalice's more exotic locales. I was constantly struck by how lush each environment felt—the burning desert, the dark jungle, the deep mines. About the only time I was disappointed was when I was stuck exploring an indoor dungeon, where the drab PS2 era textures were a bit more apparent. Everywhere else it looked magnificent.

But what really impressed me is how far Square Enix has gone to make this the truly definitive version of Final Fantasy XII. The soundtrack has received a full orchestral remaster, and it's night and day from the synthier PS2 version (which is available for purists). In a nice touch by the localization team, the original Japanese audio is also available, though you owe it to yourself to hear the high-quality English voice track at least once. Basically Square Enix has thrown the kitchen sink into this version—if it can be included, it's in there.

Of special note is the Zodiac Job System, which was introduced in the aforementioned International Zodiac Edition, and can now be enjoyed by Americans for the first time (you can also play with the original board if you want). [Correction: Upon checking back to confirm, the original license board is not available as I had thought.] In essence, it takes the original license board and refocuses it around 12 discrete classes, forcing you to give some thought as to how they fit with your party members. It's the still the same, slightly messy format in which you use License Points earned by killing enemies to unlock weapons, armor, and abilities, but it benefits from the increased structure offered by the classes.

One quick thing: Zodiac Age also includes the ability to unlock a second license board, giving you access to a second class. It's a well-intentioned addition, but it feels like it kind of negates the original point of the classes in removing some of the limits. Sometimes it's good to have to make hard decisions.

Anyway, the real game-changer for me has been the ability to play at 2x or 4x speed and just rip through dungeons. It's admittedly a little weird to basically hit fast-forward and watch the game play itself, but it does much to resolve Final Fantasy XII's inherent pacing issues. Let's face it: Vaan is kind of slow, the dungeons are really long, and sometimes it's nice to be able to just fast-forward through it all. It's thoughtful additions like these that make The Zodiac Age such a smart, well-rounded package.

Taken together, it feels like a tribute to the original game—an attempt to give Final Fantasy XII the spotlight that it was denied the first time around. Regardless of how you feel about everything else, it's a thoughtfully constructed, high-quality remaster that is better-looking than many of the JRPGs available today.

The Zodiac Job System is among the major additions in The Zodiac Age.

But Does Final Fantasy XII Hold Up?

Alright, with that out of the way, let's talk a bit about whether Final Fantasy XII actually holds up.

I'm of the opinion that it does. There's certainly room for criticism, but it feels like a more cohesive package than either of its successors (Final Fantasy XIV is its own thing), with both a more interesting setting and a stronger cast. Epic was a word that repeatedly sprang to mind while playing Final Fantasy XII this last time—it was a big world that kept me invested in the big events that defined its story. Take note, Valkyria Revolution.

It opens with a brilliant succession of scenes in which we see a prince and a princess happily married; followed by the invasion that takes the prince's life, followed by the events leading up to the core of the story. We're introduced in relatively short order to some of the major players, including Basch—a scarred warrior who brings a notably different energy to the usual Final Fantasy melodrama. A little later we also meet Balthier, a sky pirate whose snarky comments make him the Han Solo to Vaan's Luke Skywalker.

Vaan, for his part, is ostensibly the main hero, though he winds up largely taking a backseat in his own story. He mostly exists as an audience surrogate, there to comment on what's happening and provide a little dramatic tension with Basch. Vaan tends to get a bad rap, but I like that he provides a ground level perspective of life under the Empire, particularly in the very beginning when you're still getting acquainted with the setting.

Once Vaan meets the main group, the story progresses at a good clip from setpiece to setpiece before losing some of its momentum in the desert, at which point it starts to feel a little directionless. You get a basic sense of what's happening above you through conversations between the Emperor, the Senate, and his son Vayne, but the middle portion of the story in particular spends too much time wandering from location to location without a real sense of anything significant happening. More than a few areas, particularly one where you venture into a mine to battle a handful of experiments gone wrong, feel like pure filler.

It ultimately winds up being sustained by its cast, particularly Balthier, and the wheels-within-wheels politicking of the Empire, which makes you want to continue just to gain a better understanding of what the heck is going on. And if you ever start to get bored with the story, you can always take on more Hunts, which eventually become an involved series of optional boss fights that yield some outstanding loot.

Balthier's back!

As is the case with any good battle system, it's during the Hunts—and boss fights in general—that Final Fantasy XII's peculiar Gambit System starts comes into focus. The Gambit System has long been one of Final Fantasy XII's most polarizing features, dividing the fanbase between those willing to embrace change and those longing for a return to the series' classic turn-based combat. As a fan back in 2006, Gambits mostly left me feeling bewildered and unhappy; but with The Zodiac Age, I've come around to them somewhat.

In essence, the Gambit System revolves around a series of scripted commands that allow you to automate lower-level encounters. As you advance, you gain access to more and more Gambit slots and commands, which in turn lets you craft more sophisticated instructions. You can take over in a pinch, but it's usually better to let the computer do its thing.

Whether you like the Gambit System is mostly down to how you feel about it comparative lack of interactivity. It can be really satisfying to see your carefully crafted instructions play out in complex encounters, but it's hard to disguise the fact that most dungeons consist of you pushing the control stick forward while your party members hack, slash, and heal their way through enemy mobs. It's only when you battle bosses, where circumstances tend to change rapidly, that things start to get really interesting.

This doesn't make Final Fantasy XII that different from traditional turn-based games, by the way. Persona 5 is a perfect example of an RPG where you basically loop through the same commands in every encounter. But I do think that the mere act of pressing a button can do a lot to break up the boredom of repetitive action. Final Fantasy XII doesn't have that, which can make it feel like a monotonous churn.

I suppose what keeps it interesting for me is that status effects play a much greater role than in other game in the series, which forces you to give some thought to your equipment setups, Gambits, and the rest. It also has the familiar loot treadmill that drives the greater MMORPG genre (and many other games, like Diablo), with enemies dropping parts that can be sold for tons of money and the occasional special item. It's never entirely brainless, and there's enough of an interesting loop that it always keeps you engaged.

High-quality lighting helps elevate otherwise last-gen environmental textures.

As always, the greatest satisfaction in Final Fantasy XII is derived from leveling up, unlocking new abilities, and earning new equipment—the bread and butter of every RPG. Final Fantasy XII has that, and when combined with the Zodiac Job System, it's deeper and more interesting than most of its peers. In that, Final Fantasy XII is hardly the game that "plays itself" that detractors make it out to be. There are a lot of interesting decisions to be made before you ever set foot into battle.

In that light, Final Fantasy XII still feels good, and even holds up better than many of its peers. Indeed, the only real element that feels "dated" to me is the fact you have to use hard-to-find Teleport Stones to fast travel, making some hunts more annoying to pursue than they otherwise should be. But then again, with so many people extolling the virtues of walking across the entirety of Hyrule and Skyrim, some might see it as a feature rather than a bug.

What emerges is a game with some really strong ideas that doesn't always make good on its lofty ambitions, but nevertheless manages to hang together thanks to its incredible art, entertaining cast, and interesting battle system. If nothing else it's unique, and the mere fact that you can skip cutscenes and speed up gameplay makes it feel far more playable than Final Fantasy X, which feels agonizingly slow these days.

After missing out on Final Fantasy XII the first time, I feel like a lot of people are wondering if they should finally tackle the Final Fantasy that time forgot. As something of a former skeptic myself, I can definitely say, "Yes." It may never have the mass appeal of some of its peers, but it's time Final Fantasy XII received some of the love and attention it deserves.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Interface: The license board is a hodgepodge of icons that is honestly messier and more confusing than it should be. The rest of the interface holds up just fine.
  • Sound: Final Fantasy XII's remastered soundtrack is a must listen, with the boss themes being particular standouts. The inclusion of the Japanese audio track is a great touch.
  • Visuals: A few artifacts from the PS2 era aside, Square Enix has done a fantastic job of remastering Final Fantasy XII for the PlayStation 4. The clothing and the environments both look phenomenal, which can likely be owed to the new lighting system. It also supports 4K and HDR on the PS4 Pro.

Final Fantasy XII has really managed to get its hooks into me this time around, which I credit to Square Enix's excellent remaster. If you missed it the first time around (and you probably did), then now is the time to give this underappreciated gem a second chance.

4.5 /5

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review: A Near Perfect Remaster of an Underappreciated Gem Kat Bailey Time to give Final Fantasy XII some of the love it deserves. 2017-07-10T12:00:00-04:00 4.5 5

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Comments 43

  • Avatar for link6616 #1 link6616 2 months ago
    While I'm not thrilled on the price of this remaster, I am really looking forward to playing the game. And I'm a little bit relieved to hear about the second job options, as I was always concerned about being tied to one job when trying out the fan patch for ZJS.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #2 Mr.Spo 2 months ago
    Really hope this makes it over to PC.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #3 touchofkiel 2 months ago
    I never understood the Gambit system criticism. It's totally optional and the game can be played command-by-command in a traditional FF style if you wanted, except with a (VERY welcome) lack of combat transition screens. It's just a detailed version of what games like Dragon Age offer, though I can understand being annoyed at how Gambits are locked behind stores and licenses.

    Though it might be my favorite FF, I think the real flaw is how the narrative really loses its urgency with the big areas, which can take a while to get through. The game is full of possibilities for some character-developing stops along the way, but cut scenes are mostly plot, plot, plot.
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  • Avatar for Kwakerjak #4 Kwakerjak 2 months ago
    Hold on, you can still use the original license board? I thought that wasn't going to be available for the remaster (and this is the first time I've heard ANYONE say otherwise).
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #5 Kuni-Nino 2 months ago
    Basically mirrors my thoughts on the original release way back when. I never thought the game was underappreciated. I think it got a lot of love at the time since it's metacritic score is outstanding. Don't let a few FFVII fanboys dictate the legacy of a good game.

    I don't think FFXII compares favorably to FFX, but it's still pretty awesome.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #6 kidgorilla 2 months ago
    I can't wait to take a weekend and figure out how to break this game over my knee. Gaming its systems was one of the best parts about the original.

    Tomorrow cannot come soon enough
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #7 Roto13 2 months ago
    Final Fantasy XII was ahead of its time, and I think this remaster is when it will finally find its audience and get the appreciation it deserves. As a long time Final Fantasy fan, I still think Final Fantasy XII is the best of the 3D games.
    @kidgorilla I love that! I love any game where I can dig in and exploit the system to build a crazy powerful team because I have tons of control. XII, VIII, V, Tactics. Love them all.Edited July 2017 by Roto13
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #8 NateDizzy 2 months ago
    It's been a while, but one thing I distinctly remember about FFXII was loving the first half of the story because it was essentially Final Fantasy Tactics with better graphics...but then hating the second half of the story because it went full animoo. Was that all in my head? Mind you, I do love animoo JRPGs (Falcom's Trails series is one of my all time favorites) , but it needs to be tonally consistent from the get-go.
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  • Avatar for BrianClark #9 BrianClark 2 months ago
    This and Persona 5 have been my most anticipated games this year.

    FFXII is a game I put a fair amount of time into, but I think my WoW habit and the release of the Wii/Twilight Princess a few weeks later ultimately distracted me away from it. I always wanted to go back to it, but I feel like the transition into the new generation of consoles made it more difficult. That, and the damn PS2's disc read problems.

    I enjoyed the logic that went into the gambit system. Fine tuning your party's behavior and watching battles play out exactly how you intended was immensely satisfying, and unlocking another slot or action was always very exciting.

    Count me in as someone who was hoping for a PC release, but I've realized having PS4 remote play as an option is a huge plus for me.

    Can't wait to dive back in. I've had it preordered since January, but Amazon's currently delivery estimate is Thursday, which sucks but you can't beat the Prime discount!

    Edit: Of course, I'd prefer it on Switch!Edited July 2017 by BrianClark
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #10 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @Kwakerjak Upon checking back it appears that I was mistaken. I've included a correction.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #11 SargeSmash 2 months ago
    @touchofkiel : I'm not sure that's entirely true. Sure, you can root around in the menus, but chances are you're going to get pounded while you do. The Gambit system is optional, but not using it reduces your efficiency significantly.

    Full disclosure: It's not my favorite. I actually liked XIII more, flawed as it was. It's still a good game, evidenced by the fact I did play through it, but there were too many little things that bothered me throughout. I preferred the slightly more visceral Xenoblade's combat to the way it's handled here.
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #12 himuradrew 2 months ago
    Now this is a game I wish was coming for the Vita (or Switch cough cough).

    I'm finding it difficult to park myself in front of my PS4 for long stretches of time because of my 2 kids.
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  • Avatar for rommy667 #13 rommy667 2 months ago
    Yawn...............FF games are so dam boring idk how ya dont fall asleep playing em and yes i even hate ff7 and even 3 from snes days.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #14 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    @touchofkiel I would do that at times. Just turn off all the gambits and set the battle mode to wait . It helped alleviate some of the boredom I felt from the automated battles. Now if only they had fixed the summoning process somehow.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #15 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @rommy667 Thanks for the insightful commentary
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  • Avatar for rommy667 #16 rommy667 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey Np glad you enjoyed it :)
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #17 TheWildCard 2 months ago
    @touchofkiel It boils down to wanting to play a game, not program one. Now I myself didn't mind the gambits, but I can see how little input you need to take down common enemies in the later half of the game would put people off. It kind of highlights some of the inherent problems with friendly AI. People grouse about many games having bad party AI, but if you take the FF XII approach and give you extensive control over their programming you then turn off other people with how automated it is. I'm with Kat in that selecting commands in menus has a certain rhythm and cadence that helps with the repetitive nature of rpgs.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #18 TheWildCard 2 months ago
    Good review Kat. Still not sure XII didn't really get it's due though, it's just inherently divisive because it's so different from the other games in the series. It's got it's fair share of lovers and haters, and there's people like me who think it's good, just too flawed to be in the same league as the great FFs.

    Kat, I must ask how do the vocal tracks sound? One of the biggest problems with the original is that the vocal tracks were compressed to the point of marring the otherwise great dub. Is it clearer now?
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #19 Roto13 2 months ago
    @rommy667 If you're going to shitpost, at least be funny or something.Edited July 2017 by Roto13
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #20 brionfoulke91 2 months ago
    It's a good game. It has some big flaws: the soundtrack is pretty weak compared to most other FFs, and the narrative really loses a lot of steam. But the gameplay makes up for it: the gambit system was very original and very well executed, and a lot of fun. This is one of those FFs that is worth playing just for the gameplay.

    I also have the exact same opinion about FF13. Weak soundtrack and story, but worth playing just for the gameplay. FF12 and FF13 actually have a lot in common if you think about it, they both have a gameplay system that people complained was too "automated," but they both are very original and have a lot of depth if you give them a chance.
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  • Avatar for CipherStone #21 CipherStone 2 months ago
    @touchofkiel This is actually how I played most of FF12. The only Gambits I left on were attack and I think maybe a basic heal when HP went below 30% or so. Otherwise, I turned on wait mode and issued commands myself. Personally, I had a lot of fun playing this way and think it's totally viable.
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #22 DrCorndog 2 months ago
    Don't believe Ondore's lies; this game is actually awesome!
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  • Avatar for choog #23 choog 2 months ago
    Thank you for the review.

    I haven't played many of the modern Final Fantasy games. I did start this one soon after release but stopped somewhere around the Mines. I don't remember why. Mayby a difficulty spike I wasn't ready for?

    From this review, I'm more eager to try again.Edited July 2017 by choog
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  • Avatar for paulhurt95 #24 paulhurt95 2 months ago
    Most important question for me is how do saves work? Does it have a modern save system or do you have to find silly save locations as per the final fantasy norm?
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #25 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @paulhurt95 You have to find save locations.
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  • Avatar for jihon83 #26 jihon83 2 months ago
    Please re-review Final Fantasy VII!

    That annoyance aside, I am so very happy the best Final Fantasy has returned, and excited for this week's AotBG, even if I will end up booing at whomever Kat brings on to hate on this game.
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  • Avatar for NightingaleXP #27 NightingaleXP 2 months ago
    I'm definitely interested, but there's no way I'm re-buying this game at this price point. I'll wait for a sale in the next year or two.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #28 cldmstrsn 2 months ago
    @paulhurt95 there is an auto save Everytime you go to a new area
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #29 brionfoulke91 2 months ago
    @paulhurt95 I prefer the old saving systems anyway. It's better when saving is a conscious choice, and restricted in some way.
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  • Avatar for spiffsneed #30 spiffsneed 2 months ago
    How are the load times? When I recently went back to play the PS2 version, the loads between areas were what ultimately stalled my replay.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #31 cldmstrsn 2 months ago
    @spiffsneed load times are fast
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  • Avatar for BrianClark #32 BrianClark 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey So silly you still have to find save points, but thank goodness sleep mode is now a standard.
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  • Avatar for tenaciousck #33 tenaciousck 2 months ago
    Perhaps it's terrible to say, but I can't wait to pick this game up on Black Friday. I loved FF XII back in the day. Can't wait to replay the classic again sometime this fall.

    How amazing would it be if it got ported to the Switch?

    HOW. AMAZING?
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #34 Vonlenska 2 months ago
    This is a game I've tried and largely failed to click with multiple times, and I look forward to trying and failing to click with it again in a prettier form that won't give me headaches and eyestrain on an HD display.

    Mostly I'm excited about the rerecorded music!
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  • Avatar for adamacuoadamacuo #35 adamacuoadamacuo 2 months ago
    Will wait for it to hit the PC. I still have my PS2 version and my launch day fully bc PS3 - I'll revisit it there for now.
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  • Avatar for alxr #36 alxr 2 months ago
    Put me down as someone else who really appreciated the gambit system. In fact, I wish they'd taken a leaf out of FF13 for this remake and added something like 13's paradigms. I'd envision them applying to 12 as basically being able to set up and quickly swap between various gambit setups, so you could go from, for example, a more aggressive set of gambits to one that emphasises buffing and healing as necessary.
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  • Avatar for Arvis-Jaggamar #37 Arvis-Jaggamar 2 months ago
    So, it looks like when some of the commenters here discover "Wait" mode their minds will be blown.

    Excellent review as always, Kat. You continue to be my favorite journalist in the industry.
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  • Avatar for paulhurt95 #38 paulhurt95 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey Oh man! Thank you Kat. As an RPG fan with kids, I find this the biggest barrier to playing JRPGs. Most of the time I try a squeeze a few minutes in at a time but Im not usually able to allocate the chunks of time required between JRPG save points. It means I can play as much Bethesda and Bioware as I want without losing game-play, but I have totally missed out on the Persona series. I find its one of the biggest factors when deciding weather to invest in an RPG but unfortunately its hardly ever mentioned in reviews so have to find someone else who has played it.

    Its especially disappointing as Ive always been intrigued by the game since playing the pseudo gambit system in the original Dragon age.Edited July 2017 by paulhurt95
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #39 odaiba-memorial 2 months ago
    @alxr Honestly, I'm surprised they don't have a feature that allows you to have multiple Gambit sets AT ALL. I think being able to swap between them during battle would change the original game a bit too much, but one of my only major complaints with FFXII was how painful it was to trudge through the menu and change everyone's Gambits back to normal after tough boss fights that required more unique set-ups.
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  • Avatar for Zenbojay #40 Zenbojay 2 months ago
    This is the only FF that I never finished, I always felt that this game was dull and or slow paced.....
    The fast forward x2 and x4 make the grind less painful.. I truly hope I can see it through.
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  • Avatar for paulhurt95 #41 paulhurt95 2 months ago
    @brionfoulke91 thats cool. It just doesnt work with me trying to juggle kids and pets and everythinbg else.
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  • Avatar for dbjordan #42 dbjordan 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey It supports HDR on PS4 Pro? How do I enable that?
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  • Avatar for alisajohn #43 alisajohn 2 months ago
  • Avatar for jacksmith11 #44 jacksmith11 13 days ago
    Deleted 2 weeks ago by jacksmith11
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