There’s nothing like a well-timed impulse play – that moment where you’re looking for a way to kill time in a barren release schedule and pick up something in your collection that you never really clicked with, thinking “why not”. In May of last year I played through the original FFXII on PS2 for the first time, remarking on how different it felt when compared to classic FF games, and how interesting the various gameplay systems were. Less than a month later, FFXII: The Zodiac Age was announced – a modern remaster of the original for PS4. And today fans are realising that it’s everything they could have hoped for.
FFXII: The Zodiac Age – still fun
More than that, players are realising just how well the gameplay of FFXII holds up. Zodiac Age may boast sharper visuals, better load times and other little tweaks that we’ll get to later, but the core of the exploration and battling remains as it is, because why would you ever need to change it? Gambits may feel like a means to let a game play itself, but FFXII always varied encounters enough to ensure that you could never leave things on autopilot for too long. Even if you’re automatically healing and curing all of the bad things, you still have to be wary of your remaining MP and wait at the mercy of those cooldown timers. At worst the gambits result in less busywork, and at best they allow for multiple situations to be addressed on the fly, as if you have a dozen more pairs of hands that are holding controllers and issuing additional commands. Licences remain as they were – earn points by defeating enemies and use them to buy the “licence” for a magic skill or piece of equipment. However, when you recruit a new character to the party, Zodiac Age now lets you choose from one of twelve licence boards for that character, all categorised into general roles or “jobs”. Do you want a heavy-hitter, someone skilled with bows, a healer? Zodiac Age has a board for everyone.
It allows for a lot of freedom in customisation, and this was a game that already seemed quite customisable before the job system. As I had never played the “International” version of the PS2 game, I went into things slightly blind, but my Knight, Uhlan and White Mage selections comfortably carried the primary team through the game’s opening moments. Whilst my progress through Zodiac Age has been fairly smooth, I am still curious about how much of a risk there is of choosing a bad selection of jobs at the beginning. However, you gain new additions to the party at a steady enough rate to allow for any holes to be filled, and one moment later in the game opens up even more customisation…
FFXII: The Zodiac Age – high speed
Weirdly, the addition of the job system might not even feel like the most important change in Zodiac Age, as the experience is transformed with a push of the left shoulder button. This activates High Speed Mode (a feature that I believe was in the PS2 release of International but was hindered by the console performance) – and yes, it literally increases the speed of the action, with animation cycles flying by, allies and enemies ambling around more briskly, and actions being played out much more swiftly. In most other JRPGs, this kind of feature would be pointless as it would be impossible to play at such speeds. However, when gambits are automating the battles, you can hurry through the safe moments and dial things back when you need to do more manual work in the menus. The other controller buttons still work as expected in High Speed mode, so you can still pause the action by bringing up the command list, fixing any issues that gambits have overlooked. Admittedly, this mode is best used in old areas that are deemed “safe”, but it still makes those return visits more bearable.
Also welcome is an autosave feature, which will save the game as you progress through each area. There are very rare moments where an autosave happens moments before failure and there’s no chance of rescuing your team (I think I had one save in a boss room where I was massively underlevelled), but most of the time the saves are in sensible places and can come as a huge relief when you’ve done lots of walking since the last save crystal.
FFXII: The Zodiac Age – the freshness
As for the game itself? It’s still Final Fantasy XII; still as good as the game I played in May 2016… still as good as the game originally released in 2006. The story can be a bit corny with some of its drama, and some people might not get on with the real-time/paused-time/gambit nature of combat, but it’s remarkable that the game still feels so fresh after more than a decade. There are still some dodgy character moments and dialogue lines, but it plays like a dream. Too often people roll their eyes at RPG battle systems – random encounters, fiddly menus, no satisfaction… the reasons keep coming. It’s a rare treat to be able to praise the battle system in something like this; a system which only feels so good because of all of the other supporting elements – the gambits, the licences, the jobs. I’ve enjoyed three mammoth JRPGs already this year (Nier, Persona and this) and I’m genuinely pleased to be able to recommend them all – for different reasons, of course – as it’s another reminder that 2017, just like FFXII, is something that keeps on giving.
FFXII: The Zodiac Age is out now for PS4.