For some reason I find myself playing through at least one Final Fantasy each year. Even if summer vacation would usually be a better time for lengthy JRPGs, there are so many games vying for that hallowed time slot that I decided to get this weird formality out of the way now. Instead of the latest game in the main series, I’ve gone with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which is a HD remaster of the 2006 PS2 classic. Then again, calling it a classic is open to debate. For me, XII was the breaking point of having to grudgingly admit to myself that Square Enix was never going back to the PS1 mold that it used to fabricate three of the perhaps most loved games in the entire series. As much as I still tried to like XII, I gave up on it. Twice. Now, coincidentally 12 years later, it’s as good a time as any to see if third time would be the charm.
If anything’s to blame, the story isn’t it. XII takes place in Ivalice, a world wreathed in magic and technology. It is populated mostly by humans and some Moogles, but also lizard-like Bangaas and hare-like Vieras. Although the various races live in relative harmony, mankind is once again showing its uglier side. The two superpower states of Archadia and Rozarria are on the brink of a global war and Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom wedged in between them, is but a pawn in their power play. Its king is assassinated and although the country still holds on to formal independence, its woeful fate is to fall into an Archadian vassal state.
Two years later, Dalmascan war orphans Vaan and Penelo try to fend for themselves in the kingdom’s occupied capital, Rabanastre, running miscellaneous errands and occasionally getting into mischief. A crafty burglary into the palace treasury is a bit too much, though, and with one thing leading to another, the two find themselves caught up in events that will eventually decide the destiny of the whole of Dalmasca. They are soon joined by suave sky pirates Balthier and Fran, as well as treasonous knight Basch and princess Ashe, both of whom were rumored to have died after the original coup d’etat. These six then run hither and yonder Ivalice, trying to find ways to end Archadia’s oppression.
From the very beginning, the game’s highly original battle system is questionable at best. It feels like an action-RPG with all encounters taking place in the maps without transition or victory screens whatsoever. Although it is possible to move freely at all times, actions won’t take place until a traditional battle gauge has filled up. Furthermore, when choosing said actions, the game pauses completely. At first the system feels (and looks) like a ridiculously cumbersome mishmash of real-time, semi-real-time, and turn-based combat. However, it doesn’t take long for gambits to be introduced. They are macros that can be set up for each character in an effort to automate combat altogether. These macros consist of simple little rules such as “focus attacks on the foe with the least health”, “use a recovery potion if an ally has less than 50% of health remaining”, “activate a buff at the beginning of each encounter”, etc. There are hundreds of such variations and by coming up with a suitable set of rules and then prioritizing them properly, it is possible to come up with strategies that work in almost every occasion. Sure, it’s still possible to throw in manual commands as well but on whole, the aim is definitely to fine-tune the gambits of each character so that in combat, the game practically plays itself.
It’s a quirky system but also a welcome one, given how heavy XII is when it comes to grinding. After an introductory tunnel of about four hours, the world of Ivalice slowly opens up to provide vast areas teeming with monsters. Fighting is a constant must as leveling up is fairly slow and bosses show absolutely no mercy towards weak adventurers. The bigger baddies become even more annoying when nearing death by suddenly throwing themselves into a truly incomprehensible rage mode that causes all player attacks to suddenly do almost no damage at all while they start throwing crippling attacks with such power, speed, and ferocity that even everyone concentrating on healing might not be enough.
Thinking back, it’s precisely this excessive amount of combat and the utter cheapness of the bosses that drove me away from the game all those years ago. Thankfully The Zodiac Age introduces a bunch of handy little improvements such as being able to fast-forward. With the press of a button, the game can be switched into 2x or even 4x speed mode. This is more than enough to turn boring grinds into slapstick comedy of suitably macroed heroes scurrying to pummel mob after mob for some welcomed experience. This also makes overly long transition legs of the journey a breeze. It won’t help in boss fights but even they are doable by keeping each character’s strongest special attacks in reserve and then unloading all of them on the boss in an uninterruptible barrage as soon as the so-called normal rules no longer seem to apply. It’s not a particularly elegant approach, sure, but hey, whatever works.
Thankfully all balancing and pacing problems fail to take away from what seems like a very intriguing story. It’s a nice change of pace to be worrying about the fate of a small kingdom rather than saving the entire world, especially when the surrounding global politics are full of internal strife and ruthless back-stabbing. There’s plenty of stark drama and it’s always a plus when even the bad guys have a hard time getting along. Even Ashe isn’t just compassionate and cute royal baggage but a distressed, battle-weary princess, torn emotionally asunder trying to ensure a future for her country even when all the options available seem to range from bad to worse. As a nice bonus, The Zodiac Age also allows all of this to be experienced in original Japanese audio, so this remaster is certainly a bit more than just a hasty coat of new paint. It it wasn’t, I might already have walked away from it for the third time but at least for the time being, I find myself quite interested in finding salvation for Dalmasca.