Remasters, folks! Did you like a game as a kid? Well, here’s your chance to buy it again! Knock yourself out – your wallet might not thank you, but the industry sure will! Kidding aside, I’m not really on the “remasters are awful” train; if I liked a game before, surely I’ll enjoy playing it again with improved graphics, sound and gameplay, right? That’s certainly the case with the latest remaster from Square Enix, a new take on Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
In the land of Ivalice, a popular Final Fantasy setting where other titles like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Advance and (tangentially) Vagrant Story have taken place, war was beginning. Well, not really “beginning,” it had been going on for a while, and the small Kingdom of Dalmasca was trapped in the middle of the fracas. Dalmasca ends up conquered by the Empire of Archadia after the Dalmascan king dies under mysterious circumstances. Years later, the people of Dalmasca are held down by the iron fist of the Empire. We follow street rat Vaan as he’s dragged into an effort by Dalmascan heir Ashe, loyal knight Basch, charismatic sky pirate Balthier and others to restore the kingdom of Dalmasca and stick it to the Empire.
FFXII doesn’t play much like other titles in the series, opting for a sort of pseudo-MMO style. The player directly controls the movement of a single character and is able to command any members of their party to use attacks, magic or skills via menus. There’s a lot going on at any one time, so the Gambit system was also introduced, allowing players to automate their party members’ actions using what are essentially simple IF>THEN statements. This concept got a lot of flak at the game’s launch and still does for reducing the game into playing itself, but personally I’m a fan; the characters are doing what I’d be doing anyway (since I’m the one who determined their gambits in the first place) and I don’t measure a game’s depth by how much time I spend menu-surfing.
Unsurprisingly, FFXII looks a lot better on this hardware. As PlayStation 2 emulation has grown and matured, one of the more interesting points is that certain games look vastly better when they’re given a little space to stretch their legs, and the original Final Fantasy XII certainly falls into that category. The Zodiac Age offers PS4 players a chance to appreciate the improved visuals that players who sail the seven seas have enjoyed for years now. Textures are vastly less muddy and lighting is improved all around; it’s possible to really appreciate the detail put into this game now that everything is no longer slathered with vaseline.
Beyond the graphical and audio updates, the most significant change to this version of FFXII is the addition of the Zodiac Job System from the game’s international release. See, in FFXII, the gear, spells and abilities your characters can use is determined by licenses; basically, you have to find the item/spell/ability/whatever, then you have to pay License Points on the License Board to be cleared to actually use it. In the game’s initial release, it served as a sort of classless character advancement systems, allowing you to develop your characters as you choose; licenses that support a particular playstyle, like a light-armored skirmisher or a mage specializing in a particular kind of magic, would naturally lead into each other, but the character wasn’t restricted from pursuing other options later.
In practice, this isn’t how it worked out. Every character had access to the same gigantic License Board, meaning that given enough time and effort everybody was equally good at everything and there were no restrictions on anything. The only way that characters would differ was the animations for their special moves and some minor statistical variation. The Zodiac Age does away with that. Now when a character joins your party, they’re not allowed to earn any new Licenses until you choose a class-based License Board for them. These are all smaller takes on the greater License Board used in the original game that focus on particular skillsets derived from classic Final Fantasy jobs, as well as a few new concepts. You’ve got your White. Black, Red and Time mages, your Knights, your Uhlan (spearmen) and Foebreakers (axemen) and so on. When a character has selected a License Board, they’re stuck with it, restricting them and enforcing character variety.
This added layer of restriction makes for a refreshing take on this classic title. Combined with some game-wide rebalancing regarding when and where you find items and skills, options that may have fallen by the wayside in previous iterations of the game due to being obtained at inopportune times see new life in this setting. Take, for example, early Dark-element attack magic; in FFXII’s initial release this was a less-than-impressive choice since few enemies were susceptible to it and the license to use it was a bit out of the way. Here, it’s a readily available option for the Red Battlemage job, making that class a force to be reckoned with early in the game and giving you a reason to sling that spell around. Many of the Technicks, cost-free special abilities with esoteric effects, also see new life in a setting where they’re important tactical options for some jobs instead of a stepping stone to better things. All in all it’s a wonderful change that makes the entire game feel new again, especially when characters unlock a multiclassing option early in the game that allows further customization.
Other changes in this remaster include a much-appreciated fast forward mode that, combined with the automation-enabling Gambit system, makes grinding a snap, Trial Mode, a series of battles intended for testing high-level characters with the game’s best gear, and a New Game + option that allows you to use some badass characters to run through the game again or do the exact opposite and play through the game with characters incapable of gaining levels. It’s a nice chunk of bonuses for a game that was often criticized for having nothing to do once you’d built your heroes up enough.
I’ll admit to being a little biased, since Final Fantasy XII is one of my favorite entries in the long-running series, but I really think that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is one of the best remasters to come out of the trend. It takes a classic original game, pretties it up a little for newcomers and adds some more content on top for vets. That’s a hard combination to beat, and series fans, FFXII aficionados and newcomers to Final Fantasy alike can all find something to enjoy here.