Far ahead of its time, in 2006 and in 2017.
Final Fantasy 12 was… not necessarily under appreciated when it came out (reviews were glowing, and it holds a composite Metascore of 90), but curiously low key. It came and went, without the larger industry taking notice of it much. Those that did were split and divided on its merits. Final Fantasy 12 was divisive without necessarily invoking its fanbase’s passion- there were people who played it, and they liked it a lot. There were those who tried it, and didn’t find it to their tastes. Both parties moved on with their lives- the kind of fanatic discourse that surrounds a Final Fantasy game usually is almost entirely missing with Final Fantasy 12.
It’s this, as well as its lower sales (the game released right after the Xbox 360 had launched, and right before the launch of the PS3 and Wii, which led to it being entirely overshadowed), that has led to the game being a sort of ‘lost episode’ of Final Fantasy. Most people didn’t play it- those that did don’t have much to say about it.
The issue with Final Fantasy 12 was just how… weird… it was. It was entirely and totally different from everything that had come for the franchise until then. It was the first game to entirely do away with the series’ long standing penchant for menu based turn based battles, instead adapting a real time commands based system. It did away with random battles entirely. It introduced multiple complex new mechanics, including Gambits (that let you program battle behavior for your party members) and the License Board was dizzying in its complexity. And amidst all of this, it stepped away from the series’ history of epic, personal, character driven stories, instead choosing to make its characters a means to an end in an attempt to tell a larger, politically charged tale.
"In 2017, as the rest of the RPG genre finally threatens to begin to catch up with what Final Fantasy 12 was doing 11 years ago, its genius can now be better appreciated."
It was extremely different from all other Final Fantasy games, extremely different from all other RPGs of any ilk, and as a result, it turned off way too many people. Time has been kind to it, however, and the game’s estimation has grown over the years as more people have discovered it- and in 2017, as the rest of the RPG genre finally threatens to begin to catch up with what Final Fantasy 12 was doing 11 years ago, its genius can now be better appreciated.
In terms of what is new, Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age is based off of the International Zodiac Job System re-release, which was never made available outside of Japan. This remix rejiggered the game balance massive, with most of its improvements going into the License Board, to make character growth and customization far more powerful and flexible (the original game often felt like a prototype because its systems didn’t feel fleshed out enough, which was a problem addressed by IZJS). All of those improvements are available in The Zodiac Age; other improvements are minimal, outside of the touch up to the graphics. We have a fast forward button, that actually makes getting through the game so much more pleasant (Final Fantasy 12 is a massive game, and the standard speed simply is not quick enough), a re-orchestrated rendition of the original game’s stirring score, a far quicker opening than the original game’s, which frankly took forever to get going.
But apart from that, this is still the Final Fantasy 12 you know, which means it has the same strengths and weaknesses the original game did. Most notably, if the original game’s story, its almost cavalier attitude to how it followed characters narratively, and its lack of focus turned you off- all of that is still a problem here. I would go as far as to argue that those issues are compounded in Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, because now we also have to deal with stilted dialog and terrible voice acting, as well as sloppily directed cutscenes, all of which harken back to an era when maybe something like this could pass muster for a Japanese game, but only exacerbate the game’s flaws and age.
"The game’s core strengths – its open world, its total emphasis on player agency, its complex mechanics boasting oodles of depth, and its genius License Board and Gambit systems, have never been better."
On the other hand, the game’s core strengths – its open world, its total emphasis on player agency, its complex mechanics boasting oodles of depth, and its genius License Board and Gambit systems, have never been better. As mentioned earlier, Final Fantasy 12 was far ahead of its time- in today’s day and age, RPGs which take a hands off approach to storytelling, which empower players with tools to control every minuscule aspect of their character’s growth, RPGs which emphasize sidequests, RPGs which have vast open worlds, RPGs which let you program and dictate the behavior of your companions, are all pretty commonplace, so Final Fantasy 12 no longer feels jarring.
Bur rather than feeling commonplace and trite (which is the danger in the opposite direction that could have encroached on the game), Final Fantasy 12 still holds muster to, and even goes beyond, many modern RPGs. The simple fact of the matter is that the License Board – especially the redone License Board that we get in this edition – and especially the Gambits system were masterstrokes, impeccably well designed systems that gave players all the tools they needed, letting them get as much back as they put into the game. The Gambit system, especially, is emblematic of this- at its core, it is a simplified programming language that lets you dictate party member behavior. At its most basic, you can think of this as ‘Heal if health is low’, but the Gambit system lets you create and chain together far more complex commands, that lead to incredible payoffs in battle (such as, ‘douse enemy in oil, attack with fire’ to create an opening on a previously impervious enemy, and then to exploit it). Approaching a major battle with painstakingly put together gambits, and then seeing them bear fruit, has an adrenaline rush that is like nothing else- this isn’t a test of your skills and reflexes, this is a test of how well you understand the game’s intricacies and mechanics, and how well you are able to master them.
It is this gameplay that shines the most in Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, and elevates this remaster from just being a very good release to a truly great one. Eleven years ago, Final Fantasy was a pioneering franchise at the cutting edge of the wave. Since then, it has fallen behind, and is now trying to catch up with the rest of the world, rather than the other way around- but Final Fantasy 12 bears testimony to the silent genius of this series, and of just how bold and impeccably well designed it could be.
If you are a fan of Final Fantasy, if you are a fan of RPGs, if you are a fan of Final Fantasy 12 itself- you owe it to yourself to play this game. While the story and storytelling have not aged all that well, the rousing musical score, surprisingly strong visual direction, and its incredible, incredible gameplay, all cement this game’s place as a modern classic.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.
The graphics and visual style aged well; the musical store is stunning, and ranks among the series' best; multiple smaller QoL improvements over the original game; stunning gameplay depth and intricacy that is still like nothing else on the market
Awful voice acting, scattershot storytelling, poor story presentation
While the story and storytelling have not aged all that well, the rousing musical score, surprisingly strong visual direction, and its incredible, incredible gameplay, all cement this game's place as a modern classic.