You never know what you're going to get when it comes to an HD remake of a beloved game. Will it be one of those excellent BluePoint jobs, where everything feels better than ever? Or will it turn out like the Silent Hill HD Collection, which fell far short of expectations?
Thankfully, when it comes to Square Enix's remakes of its mainline Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, quality tends to be a primary concern more often than not. For every eye-destroyingly hideous Final Fantasy VI for iOS, you get a comprehensive overhaul like the Final Fantasy X and X-2 remaster. Thankfully, the latter's creative integrity looks to be the guiding directive for the next major Final Fantasy update, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, due out early in 2017.
Much about the original release of FFXII brimmed over with greatness, but it also had its rough patches. The game experienced numerous delays as a result of its turbulent development process, which included a massive personnel change as its original visionary Yasumi Matsuno left the company midway through, forcing quirky SaGa creator Akitoshi Kawazu to step in and see the game through to its conclusion. A heavily revamped version of FFXII called International Zodiac Job System Version followed a short while later, massively retuning the game's mechanics and systems, but due to the waning fortunes of the PlayStation 2 at that point (2007), the revamp never saw an American release... despite its name.
While an up-rezzed version of the International Zodiac Job System Version likely would have been more than sufficient to catch American Final Fantasy fans, The Zodiac Age goes a step or two beyond even that. Square Enix has been working actively to further refine and improve on the game beyond its Japan-only remake—and I do mean Square Enix. Rather than farm out FFXII's HD remaster to some external developer, the company has decided to take no chances; production planning and supervisions are happening in-house. More than that, the leads behind The Zodiac Age—Producer Hiroaki Kato and Director Takashi Katana—were intimately involved in both FFXII and the international version (Kato originally acting as Production Manager, with Katano serving as Main System and Event Programmer). Additionally, original systems designer Hiroyuki Ito, arguably the most influential mastermind behind Final Fantasy's inner workings for the past 25 years, has taken an active role in rebalancing the game's combat balance and its controversial Gambit system. (Square Enix tells me that "Mr. Matsuno and Mr. Kawazu, who were mainly involved in the original Final Fantasy XII, are not involved in Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age, but are given progress reports as needed.")
With such an impressive team behind The Zodiac Age—literally, the three people who know Final Fantasy XII inside and out are working hard to make it better—it's hard not to expect what might be the best Final Fantasy remake yet. The raw material present in Final Fantasy XII already made for a compelling if uneven RPG adventure. With those elements refined to look and play better, 2017's RPG roster is already looking extraordinary. (When our biggest dilemma is whether we should play The Zodiac Age, Persona 5, or Breath of the Wild first, life seems pretty good.) We spoke to Kato and Katano about The Zodiac Age and how they're revisiting their flawed masterpiece to iron out the flaws.
USgamer: Both of you have a lot of experience with the original — you really know the nuts and bolts of it.
Final Fantasy XII's Kato and Katano: Zodiac Age is being produced by the development team that includes not only us but the original core members who worked on Final Fantasy XII.
USG: Does that include [original systems designer] Hiroyuki Ito?
FFXII: Yes. The basis for the new remastered Zodiac Age is the International Zodiac Job Version, which was never released in North America or Europe. Ito-san is actually heavily involved in the re-balancing of the game, including the battle parameters and the placement of shops and treasures and such. So, this is really a culmination of Ito was able to do.
USG: So this is not simply an HD upscaled version of the International Zodiac Job Version. Would you describe it more as a top-to-bottom retooling of the game, then?
FFXII: There are three major points that we're improving on from the International Zodiac Job System. First, the visual presentation. Of course — it's a full HD remaster. And not just a high-resolution remake, but we're really revisiting the visuals. We're being careful not to ruin the feel of the original title, but paying attention to the texture of the metal on the armor, or the leather, things like that.
USG: I remember going to a GDC presentation, I think in 2007, where the art director talked about how the game's textures were actually created at a high resolution. Are you able to just take those straight across, or are you doing a lot of reworking on those assets, even though they already exist in HD?
FFXII: We're using those original assets, but we're reworking them, too.
The second element that we're improving on is the sound — the audio. There are two elements to sound. First of all, the overall sound effects. At the time, the PS2 hardware was only able to handle a quasi-surround sound, Pro Logic II. But with the hardware specs for the PS4, we can produce the audio in 7.1 for discrete surround sound. So, it enables you to give a truly immersive experience.
Then there's the music. So, in addition to the original soundtrack, producer Hitoshi Sakimoto has actually reworked all the pieces along with live recordings. So, depending on the user, you might want to hear the original soundtrack or the new soundtrack, and they'll be able to choose between the two. The playable demos we've shown actually have the new pieces of music.
You'll also be able to switch between audio tracks. Originally, the Japanese version, you were only going to hear the Japanese voices, and in the English version you'd hear the English voices, but in The Zodiac Age, you can choose between Japanese voice audio or the English voice.
USG: Are these the original voice performances? Have they just been cleaned up for higher-definition audio?
FFXII: The assets we're using are the original recordings, but we're able to reproduce those audio assets with higher quality compared to the PS2.
Finally, the third improvement that we made from the International Zodiac Job System version is the gameplay. So, we already touched upon the game balance, but there are a few more factors that we want to talk about.
We've added a high-speed mode for traveling between places. This is actually based on feedback from players, who made their voices heard about the fields being very vast and hard to get through. But it would be hard to play that same speed when you're in high transfer mode and field, as opposed when you're in a city or dungeon, it would be hard to maneuver at the same high speed, so, there's actually two times and four times fast that you can switch between.
Second thing with the playability that we want to talk about is the trial mode. Final Fantasy XII, the original version, already had a lot of ultimate monsters that you could really grind on and really draw down with. This adds still another element that you can grind on. What this trial mode is is that you take the play data from the main game and you go through 100 stages of various battle scenarios for you to challenge yourself with. So, say you've maxed out all your characters — it would still be impossible to get through all 100 without tweaking your characters. So, that's one element where you have to really be putting some thought into characters.
And, the third thing we want to talk about is the new job system. If you played the original Final Fantasy XII, with the character growth through the license board... if you go and advance far enough, you will notice that all the characters become these sort of supermen. To make the game more interesting and challenging, we've added the ability to assign jobs to each character. So, you’ll be able to enjoy the character growth through their jobs.
Oh, one other element we added was an autosave function. This enables you to save when you're moving between maps. You're no longer limited to saving the game at the crystals.
And the last thing we want to touch upon is the reduction of the load times between maps. We did the best that we can at the time with the original to keep them as short as possible, but PS2 had limitations. But this time, it's really quick. You hardly notice the maps chugging. So, those are the improvements that we made for the Zodiac Age.
USG: The International Zodiac Job System version had a new job system integrated into it. Is the one that appears in this new remake different from that one? Does it have changes from the previous job system, or is it pretty much taken over directly?
FFXII: There are improvements being made as we speak. We can't disclose what they are, but there will be further announcements down the road.
USG: I do think the autosave is a great idea. There were times when I was playing the original where I would get maybe an hour, an hour and a half out from my last save, grinding and getting new experience levels, and I'd realize, "Wow, it's been a long time since I saved my game. If something goes wrong now, it'd be terrible." So, it sounds like a good improvement, a good addition.
FFXII: [laughs] We revisited the game ourselves, and we thought the same thing.
USG: Can you talk a little more about the rebalancing that Mr. Ito is working on? What exactly does that entail, in terms of how is it going to affect the gameplay?
FFXII: We're making changes to the parameters of the monsters you actually fight against, as well as shop items. The timing with which they appear, at what price you can purchase them, those are things we're tweaking. Also, certain treasure boxes you come across, what you can find in them and their timing, is being adjusted.
In terms of the Gambit system, too, when you can obtain them and the kinds of Gambits you can obtain, are also being adjusted. Speaking of Gambits, you may have noticed there is a fire Gambit that you can obtain to use against monsters that are weak against fire. But, you probably fought enemies that you could use fire damage against early one, while you could only obtain the fire damage ability later in the original game. That kind of balance has been revisited and made easier. So, even for new users who might not have ever played Final Fantasy XII before, it should come across as a brand new game, really. For veterans who have played Final Fantasy XII, it's a game to delve deeper into.
USG: So, is the objective with the rebalancing to make the game more difficult or to make it easier, or something simpler than that?
FFXII: Ultimately, we're trying to make it more straightforward in terms of the main game. The challenges should come in in terms of the sub-quests, and especially with the mobs that you have to go out to hunt. And of course the new trial mode... that's where the challenge, the increased difficulty, comes into play.