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.

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.

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