Review: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4, 2017) offers an improved, welcome return to Ivalice

While millions were playing World of Warcraft, or even the first MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, my first true experience of the open world format was with the game changing Final Fantasy XII in 2006; a title that helped bring an end to Square Enix’s PS2 era with one of the series’ most impressive entries. I don’t think I’ve poured more hours into a game before or since, as I fell in love with the game’s story and its expansive world. Interestingly, though the technology has allowed the series to do more with bigger worlds and better graphics, XII has remained a highlight of the iconic gaming series. Now, 11 years later, Square Enix are returning to the Ivalice and Kingdom of Dalmasca with a new version of the game for PlayStation 4, The Zodiac Age.

Let’s jump right in and talk about what’s new in the English language release of the game. The first thing that you notice is the fact you can listen to the score remastered, or as it was originally released, and you can play in Japanese (with subtitles) or English. I’ve been saying for years any Japanese title should give you that option – so it’s a welcome addition indeed. And as for the music, the new 7.1 orchestration is beautiful, highlighting the game’s excellent soundtrack while giving the title the true HD upgrade it deserves.

The graphics, meanwhile, are naturally improved – colours are brighter, the lighting effects are improved, there’s more detail in faces and the environment, and it feels more immersive than ever as a result. Though don’t expect this to have the quality of Final Fantasy XV – this is very much an update, and not a complete redo. The makers are able to maintain the essence of the game by doing this; the characters being much as you remember.

There’s a feeling of nostalgia as soon as you start the game, though you quickly realise that even after hundreds of hours of running around the game’s world, the storyline has somewhat slipped away from your mind. It’s been 11 years after all. What I thought would be an easy review comparison to a game that I felt like I played yesterday, actually felt like playing a brand new, yet familiar entry in the Final Fantasy series. But a few memories as to why I enjoyed the game came swiftly: the open fighting platform (“Active Dimension Battle” System), which moved the series away from “you stumbled into an enemy, now you have to enter a new turn based battle mode” that it was famed for, remains as strong as ever, with the ability to choose whether or not to have an active mode. The game is also filled with incredibly likeable characters, my favourite storyline in the series post PSX era, and an intricate, enjoyable levelling up system which has been improved for the Zodiac edition.

Being in the re-release’s title and all, it should be of little surprise that the Zodiac Job System sits at the heart of the game’s major changes, catering the levelling system to the player’s desires. Rather than every character having the same upgradable “license board”, you are able to choose two of twelve “jobs” for each of the game’s six primary characters and provide them with unique license boards customised to the job. Some will be more magic focused (e.g. White Mage), some more attack focused (e.g. Knight), and each offering the use of different weapons and techniques along the way. The addition gives you the chance to create a party more in line with the customisation of the modern RPG.

The ability to speed up gameplay in “Speed Mode” is helpful for those who want to save time in their battles, with the ability to move and fight at two or four times the speed. It makes gathering LP to level up that little bit easier, and is naturally designed with repeat players in mind. Watching the game at four times the speed, however, is a bit ridiculous – I feel like I’m in a Benny Hill episode.

And then there’s the 100 levels of the new “trial mode”, which provides a way to gain items and treasures, outside the main gameplay. I was reminded of a similar element in Kingdom Hearts, in the Hercules world, where you would play through levels of growing difficulty. You’re able to use your characters as they stand, from any save file, to enter the mode. Naturally the mode is designed for you to keep returning to as you have a bigger party and higher character levels – at my current place in the game I’ve barely made it into the double digits of this mode. There are some issues with the save file for this mode, and it’s quite easy to override it – but there are notes in the game to hopefully keep you from doing this. And you can only bring some items and treasures back into the main game; it’s not a way to level characters.

There are a few changes to gameplay mechanics too, as multiple characters can use magicks at the same time, you can steal treasures from monsters, and you have better control over your party and Espers. The final change worth noting is the fact you can add a transparent map overlay to the screen while you play, by pressing L3. It makes exploring the world just that little bit easier, and the design on screen is excellent. It helps that the developers have more room to play with in true HD widescreen.

Ultimately these changes are fairly minor – the storyline remains the same, and at its heart, this is still very much the same game. Just with a few improvements and enhancements along the way. Of the things that haven’t been improved, load times, which should be a thing of the past in the PS4 era, remain frustrating at times and the camera can be difficult to control – I remember having similar problems with both in the original. The game does promote itself as having faster load times, however, and it now has a welcomed auto save mechanism (though the original save points remain). I also still think the “gambit” system, which allows you to automate the characters in your party, needs a bit of work. But these are minor gripes on what is, overall, an excellent update of an old favourite.

Some have been surprised by the fact that both FFX and FFXII have emerged in remastered form over the last couple of years, ahead of the long desired Final Fantasy VII redo – widely considered the best game in the series. Word is that development of FFVII is quite far along (even further along than Kingdom Hearts III by some reports), but it still could be a couple of years before we see it. This comes down to the difficulty of bringing back games from the PlayStation One era: the PS2 and PS3 are simply easier upgrades from a technical level. Still, we can’t wait for that to happen. And can Square Enix throw us a Chrono Cross while they’re at it? In the meantime, the return to Ivalice is a more than welcome one, as well as an opportunity for the instalment to find an audience it may have missed out on the first time around.

Review Score: 9.2 out of 10

Highlights: Map overlay; the new Zodiac Job System and Speed Mode, as well as the ability to play the game in Japanese and with 7.1 remastered audio, all while revisiting one of the best games in the Final Fantasy series.

Lowlights: Save issues and inability to influence party levels with the “trial mode”; minor load time and camera issues. Not being the long promised remastered Final Fantasy VII.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Platform(s): Playstation 4

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is available now.