It's hard to believe that it's been more than a decade since I raced home with a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy XII, excited that I would be playing it before everyone else.
I vividly remember the arguments about the real-time combat; the snide comments about it "playing itself," the eye-rolling over Vaan. About all anyone could agree on when it came to Final Fantasy XII was that it was beautiful, especially if you turned on the right filters on the PlayStation 3.
Personally, I had no idea what to do with this weirdo game by Yasumi Matsuno--a name that I didn't even know back in 2006. I had yet to play an MMORPG at that time, and the very concept of the Gambit System was utterly foreign to me. All I wanted to do was pick commands from the battle menu as I always had. That, perhaps, was why it never really clicked with me.
All of this was very much on my mind as I played with an early copy of Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age--the long-awaited HD remake for the PlayStation 4. I was eager to see how I would feel about it after a decade; to know whether I would be able to accept it on its own terms.
Happily, my enthusiasm hasn't waned after my first 10 or so hours with the remaster. It's a handsomely made RPG that's smarter than a lot of people give it credit for, one that constantly hits you with a sense of wonder and majesty. In just the first few minutes it runs through a host of major events: a royal wedding, preparations for war, defeat, the assassination of the king, and occupation. By the time the story refocuses on Vaan, you feel like you've watched an entire war epic in the span of about 10 minutes. It's really quite breathtaking.
Some other things that jumped out at me about the first couple hours:
- Final Fantasy XII HD includes the Japanese voice track. Final Fantasy XII is generally lauded for its excellent localization, but I tend to prefer the original Japanese when possible, so that was the option that I rolled with. Not much else to say on this front save that I'm really glad that it's an option. I'm a simple woman: When I see that the Japanese voice track is an option, I praise it.
- You can also change between the original soundtrack and an orchestral mix that is simply excellent. I recall the re-orchestrated soundtrack being a source of controversy in Final Fantasy X HD, but I consider it a massive positive for Final Fantasy XII. Final Fantasy XII's soundtrack is energetic, even bombastic, and it does a lot to establish a sense of high adventure in a world full of knights and sky pirates. The re-orchestrated tracks really do it justice.
- On that note, I'm struck by how coherent Final Fantasy XII's setting feels in comparison to its successors. Final Fantasy XII is of course set in Ivalice, drawing upon elements of Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy Advance, and Vagrant Story for its overall aesthetic. Final Fantasy games have always been a jumble of competing elements, and Final Fantasy XII is no different, but its hybrid of medieval politicking, 1930s adventure, and high technology works because the characters all look like they belong in the same universe. The secret? I think it's the fashion. It really helps when the characters don't look as if they've stepped out of a GQ spread and into Game of Thrones.
- I should also mention that Final Fantasy XII generally looks very nice in HD. It's still undeniably a PS2 game--the buildings are blocky, the animation is occasionally stiff, and some of the facial features seem oddly smudged--but areas like the desert outside of Rabanastre really stand stand out with their high dunes and shimmering heatwaves. Moreover, the cutscenes are fantastic in HD, particularly in an era in which in-engine cutscenes are the norm. They represent Final Fantasy XII at its most epic.
- It's impossible to bring up Final Fantasy XII HD without mentioning the Zodiac license board--the system originally introduced in the Japanese-only International Edition. It's not as different as you might think--you still use License Points to unlock the ability to wear various pieces of equipment and utilize abilities--but it does require you to pick from one of 12 jobs at the very start, which has a focusing effect that the original game lacks. It can be a little daunting to start, but a little research was all I needed to find optimal roles for all of my party members. From there it was just a matter of following the license board and unlocking as much as possible. In that way, the Zodiac Age is much more straightforward than its predecessor, which I think is helpful in this context.
- Vaan. I think I like Vaan? Like most people, I was originally prejudiced against Vaan, mostly because he reminded me too much of Tidus. Worse were the reports that Basch was originally meant to be the main character, but that Vaan and Penelo were added to appeal to Japanese audiences. But after some time with The Zodiac Age, I appreciate the ground level view offered by Vaan, which gives you a real sense of the simmering resentment felt by the ordinary people of Dalmasca against the Archadian Empire. Crucially, Vaan also has a palpable hatred of Basch, who is blamed for the events that set the plot in motion. That might not make him much more than a plot device in the long run; but in the early going, his perspective is important in tying everything together.
Of course, in true MMORPG fashion, the first few hours of Final Fantasy XII consist mainly of running errands and exploring sewers. Playing as Vaan, you deliver items around the rather large city of Rabanastre, take on your first hunt, and get a feel for what life is like under the Imperial occupation. The story finally gets going when you sneak into the Imperial palace and meet Balthier, the grounded sky pirate, and his companion Fran, who is remarkably mobile in four-inch battle heels (seriously, her shoes even have a little bit of armor attached to them).
It's around this time that you also gain access to the Gambits, Final Fantasy XII's controversial collection of automated commands. When I played Final Fantasy XII back in 2006, and again in 2009, I had little to no idea what to do with them. I assigned basic loops to my party members; but otherwise, I mostly handled healing and other functions myself, which proved cumbersome in high pressure situations like boss battles.
Happily, whether because I was older and wiser or just more seasoned, I grasped Gambits pretty much right away in this version. I quickly set up a system whereby Balthier rapidly healed anyone who fell to 50 percent health, and Vaan used potions on anyone who fell below that. With that, I was pretty much able to leave everyone to their own devices as they slashed, burned, and healed their way through the bulk of the early challenges. It felt good.
As I worked my way through the first dungeon, one thing that gnawed repeatedly at the back of my mind was how passive it all felt. After getting everything set up, all I really had to do was push the stick forward and let everyone do their thing. I only got into trouble when I was hit by big area of effect attacks; and even then, my healers reacted so quickly that I was back up to full health in no time flat.
The charm, I think, is in setting up the Gambits in the first place--getting a perfect system going and watching it play out in front of you. As I recall, the original theory behind the Gambit system is that most encounters are automatic anyway--how many times have you performed the same series of inputs in Persona 5?--so why not reserve the most interesting interactions for the hardest battles. Later bosses in particular require very particular Gambits, which is where most of the strategy comes in. There are also Quickenings--Limit Break attacks that add an extra layer to the combat.
In the context of the modern era, Gambits are just one more weird and experimental Final Fantasy combat system. What was immensely controversial back in 2006 hardly seems strange when put against the real-time combat in Final Fantasy XV. Neither does it seem all that strange in relation to Final Fantasy XIV, which enjoys an immense and passionate fanbase to this day. In fact, I could almost see Final Fantasy XII being a gateway of sorts into Square Enix's MMORPG.
Alas, even with an attractive HD remaster, Final Fantasy XII is unlikely to shake its reputation for being a black sheep in the series. It's simply too weird and different; and as passionate as its fans may be, they are dwarfed by the fanbases that worship Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X.
But a decade on from its original release, Final Fantasy XII deserves its moment in the spotlight. After a dozen hours with it, I know I'm ready to give it another chance.