Back in 2015 near the start of my re-rediscovery of JRPGs, I wrote a ridiculously long post on Final Fantasy XII. Somehow I even managed to weave Charles Norris Cochrane’s analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom into it. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to revisit VI, VII and X, and play XIII and XV for the first time. The short summation of all that has been: VI and VII are still great, warts and all; X is frankly a little bit boring; XIII is more interesting than X, but it’s falling apart at the seams; XV is a very enjoyable mess.
I said a few months back that XV was the best double-digit entry, although in my mind it’s a close call with XII. The salient factor hasn’t been quality so much as it has been opportunity cost: one of XV’s biggest assets is its ability to be taken entirely on your own terms – it can be as breezy or as long and involved as you want, which is an incredible boon when you consider that you’re not getting any younger and have other more fulfilling things you could be doing with your time. XII, on the other hand, presents itself as this monumental, lengthy endeavour for you to tackle. When I wrapped it up a couple years back, the question of ever picking it up again seemed dubious at best.
So of course when Square decided to release Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a souped up HD remake, I snapped it up like the slovenly fanboy I am. Even though I was anticipating a potentially dreary rerun through hoops I’ve already jumped through.
But two things almost immediately struck me: the first is that the game feels more like comfort food than anything really intimidating. I’ve already (perhaps unfortunately) sunk the time cost and brain space required to feel comfortable in its world. And so playing it yet again feels more nostalgic than anything else. The second thing is that this is a re-release actually worth a damn.
Final Fantasy remakes and re-releases potentially justify themselves in a manner that Square has seemed rather unable to rise up to. Most video game franchises are very iterative by nature, and this gives them the opportunity to polish their core ideas. But Final Fantasy loves to reinvent itself, resulting in a lot of games with concepts that are interesting in the abstract but feel somewhat haphazardly implemented. So there’s been a lot more room to make newer versions of the game that have their core mechanics more perfectly realized. This hasn’t happened, for the most part. Even the remakes and re-releases that have done some tinkering under the hood have wound up creating new problems in the process.
The Zodiac Age bucks that trend: it feels almost like the platonic ideal of what XII was trying to be (although still falling short of whatever mad dream Yasumi Matsuno had in his head), which makes it by default one of the most realized entries in the series. It’s still one of the most eccentric and uncompromising titles in the series, but as someone who is deeply sympathetic to its ambitions, this is as good as it’ll likely get.
Having gone through all those other FF titles, it’s clear that while XII’s overarching story feels more impersonal than usual, it nevertheless features some of the smartest writing and by far the best English localization and acting the series has seen. Even the dialogue just perfectly nails that slightly stilted, mannered style that fantasy writing often aspires to without actually reaching, bestowing just the right amount of class and gravitas to the proceedings. Since I already have that really long post which is mostly given over to story analysis, I’m not going to recap any of that here. The best way to describe it is: the Star Wars prequels, but actually good.
But I’ll at least start on an aesthetic note with Hitoshi Sakimoto’s musical score, which now exists in a revamped orchestral form.
I’m usually not particularly excited with the idea of re-recording older video game soundtracks. People forget that they were composed with a particular medium/quality in mind, and transposing them into another often just shines a light on that: for instance, a lot of orchestral remakes of older Final Fantasy tunes have a tendency to sound very syrupy. But Sakimoto’s music had the opposite problem: it deliberately forgoes the catchy tunes of older Ffs, in favor of a score that emphasizes Wagnerian texture and cinematic ambiance. And it sounds very muddy in MIDI format with a lot of the details slurring together. Hearing it performed by an actual orchestra is like hearing it for the first time, and it’s top drawer vidya game music.
Getting into the actual meat of what makes TZA a substantial improvement over the previous version requires getting into some nitty-gritty game mechanics stuff, but if you’ve read this far you’re likely nerdy enough to not be bothered by it. And I didn’t touch much on these things in my previous post, so this can be taken as a sort of very delayed addendum.
I don’t understand how XII’s combat is the most loathed part of the game, as it’s clearly one of the game’s most interesting and smart features. XII’s world is way too large and expansive to tolerate traditional turn-based combat, and so everything happens in real time, on the same map that you control. It’s no action RPG, though: a tap of the button brings up the standard combat menu from which you can issue specific commands to your party members. Since relaying all these commands can become very taxing in a real time situation, the developers came up with the Gambit System, which is a fancy way of saying that you can preprogram your characters to behave in extremely specific ways. For instance, you could tell one character to always check if there are any exploitable enemy weaknesses, and if so to use the relevant attack, and if not to use the default attack, and then afterwards check to see if anyone is in dire need of healing. The gambit set-ups can be as simple or as complex as you want.
This has led to the criticism that XII is a game that plays itself. But, really, in a typical JRPG fight, you’re usually just selecting the same commands ad nauseum, and the game is really just offering a more streamlined and honest take of what’s going on. Furthermore, to actually reach the point where the game “plays itself” in complex combat encounters requires an advanced knowledge of the game mechanics – you’re still doing all the work; it’s just that it’s all in planning and preparation rather than in execution.
But this also implies that how you build your party would be of key importance, and this is where XII fumbles a bit. In order to use a particular ability or piece of equipment, the character must first purchase the license for it. This is done by spending license points to to activate sections of a big checkers board called the License Board. You can only activate a section adjacent to one you’ve already activated, so you have to think about what directions you’re moving in on the board.
In and of itself I like this idea, but the problem is that there is one clearly optimal way to use the License Board, and every character has the exact same board. This, combined with all the level grinding the game expects you to do, encourages a situation where you have a lopsided party of three characters who can do everything and three useless benchwarmers.
In Japan, this problem was very quickly remedied with the release of an inappropriately named “International” version, which featured the fix that The Zodiac Age finally brings over here: character classes. Like the original Final Fantasy, you have to decide which classes the characters will spend the entire game in, each with their own unique License Board. There are twelve classes in total, which given that there are only six main characters, means that you have interesting decisions over what sort of party you want (although the game does allow characters to eventually take on a second class). Every character winds up unique, making who you take with you in any given situation an actual tactical decision.
There are other quality of life features that smooth over the game’s rough spots, but the important thing is that XII no longer feels like a novel approach to combat sitting on top of yet another semi-broken skill system. It’s a night and day difference in terms of how it feels in play, one which really encourages you to get into all the dorky D&D poring over of stat sheets and strategizing that the game wants you to do.
And that, for me, is pretty exciting: all the Final Fantasies I like come with an asterisk: “it’s a great game, but…” XII drops that and becomes simply great.