Review: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PC)

Final Fantasy was a franchise that set the bar for Japanese RPGs back in the day. Whether it was Super Nintendo, PlayStation or PlayStation 2, SquareSoft was a developer that created enriching experiences like no other. Unfortunately, ever since their merger with Enix, the Final Fantasy series has never looked the same. Chalk it up to exceedingly high expectations, a focus on marketing during the last generation or just the ever changing environment, but Final Fantasy changed dramatically and only recently has the developer been exploring what made the franchise so monumental. Last year, Square Enix released a remaster of one of the last remnants of their old JRPGs with Final Fantasy XII and it sparked a tidal wave of support. Due to its success and Square Enix’s willingness to expand their outlook, the twelve-year-old JRPG has finally come to PC with a number graphical improvements that only help strengthen its experience. Let us dive back onto the continent of Ivalice once more, and follow our unsuspecting hero as he traverses a new platform.

Final Fantasy XII starts off in the fictional nation of Dalmasca where a devastating war has been waged, and their king and princess lost in the process. The evil empire Archadia has taken up reign over the region, but not everyone is standing idly by and doing nothing. You follow Vaan and his childhood friend Penelo as they’re swept up in a conflict between nations after a botched heist in Dalmasca’s royal palace. Oddly enough, most of the world building elements actually take place in the background as you progress through the story. There are of course overlaps between events, but the protagonist and his crew are doing their own things as The Empire plots in the background, with characters dying and fortunately major planning feeling naturally written in. This has been done very well, unlike the more recent Final Fantasy XV where they don’t give any context to what happened, and there’s a sense of, not everyone in Archadia is necessarily evil, just complex. It’s a fascinating story that really needs to be experienced to appreciate, even though a lot of the events your party will encounter is done in a very straightforward way.

The problem one might have with the story is the protagonist, Vaan, feels like he’s just along for the ride. He and Penelo stand out as characters that feel incredibly out of place for the events, especially when you considering how little background you get on the two, yet they can slay monstrous enemies with relative ease and takedown trained, elite soldiers. Vaan never really recovers from being an out of place protagonist, although Penelo has her moments and actually contributes to the more emotional moments in the story. Fortunately, the rest of the cast of characters are some of the best we’ve seen in a long time. Ashe is the royal princess who wants nothing more than to bring peace back to her nation, Basch is a knight who was framed for the murder of the King, Balthier is a suave sky pirate that has a mystery surrounding him, and Fran is a Viera warrior (essentially a rabbit tribe that’s the equivalence of wood elves) who I wish spoke up more as she’s quietly in the background for a lot of the game – even though her actions speak louder than her words.

Combat is what made Final Fantasy XII stick out as it wasn’t necessarily the slow-paced, turn-based battle system we’ve come to expect. Sure, you’ll still have to wait for bars to fill up before you can attack, and in the settings you can active either wait or active mode, but is was more in line with an MMO than it was with a traditional Final Fantasy title. This was the first mainline Final Fantasy game, outside of Final Fantasy XI, that tossed away the random encounter system and went with a more traditional action-oriented approach, having enemies appear on the field as you travelled. Because of this, you won’t necessarily gain control of your entire party at any given time; you’re still able to swap between each character on the fly, but you have to give them tasks to complete in the Gambit System. So for example you can assign a character to use Cure after someone’s health becomes too low, or attack a specific target that meets certain parameters. Unfortunately, while the Gambit System works well, the party artificial intelligence isn’t always there, with maneuvering through traps being incredibly difficult and more than often frustrating.

This is also one of the biggest and most open Final Fantasy games for its time. Final Fantasy X’s approach was that of a more linear design that, while helped tell a compelling story, felt like a disappointing departure in scale. Fortunately, Final Fantasy XII is far more open, with tons of large open areas to explore and little secrets spread across the entirety of the world. You can even bypass specific bosses by taking secondary routes, but you will have to maneuver through dangerous territory in the process. It really does feel like an MMO in this sense, having a number of interconnected areas, all based around a handful of major dungeons and towns to flesh out of the world. It certainly allows for far more adventure than ever before.

High Speed Mode has also been added, just as it was in Final Fantasy X, but it works so much better. It helped Final Fantasy X speed up traveling across the land as it was a game that retained random encounters, but thanks to Final Fantasy XII being action oriented, it cuts down on grinding significantly. You can just put it in auto for the majority of the standard fights (it might be difficult against bosses) and you’ll make significant progress quicker than ever before. Other than that, there’s an auto-save feature every time you enter a new area, you have the option to use the newly re-recorded soundtrack, and the map can be brought up at any time, without forcing you to stop the action. In addition, the load times are insanely quick, with changing out characters being instant instead of taking a few seconds to render them in. It certainly helps going from area to area also takes a mere second or two.

As for the License Board, it has been completely reworked in The Zodiac Age, with the player being able to choose a job for each character individually instead of having to branch off into specific directions on a general leveling tree. As the player kills enemies, they not only will receive experience points, but License Points which help unlock nodes on a board dedicated to a specific job. In addition, as you progress through the game, you will obtain a second job for each character, alongside Esper summons, although only one person is able to obtain these. The License Board has changed for the better as, not only are you able to properly spec into one specific class, but you can plan ahead in which directions you want to go and unlock. Finally, a new trial mode has also been included from The International Version, which puts players up against specific enemies (generally paced as the story progresses), allowing you to gain exponential License Points, alongside earning specific rewards after around 10 stages. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of content here those in North America have yet to experience.

Now let’s talk about the changes that The Zodiac Age brings forth into the current generation. Visually, Final Fantasy XII was absolutely gorgeous back during its debut in 2006, but now it’s even better. Square Enix has remastered the sixty plus hour RPG with grace, rendering the visuals as high as 4K and adding shadowing to characters. Some of the shadowing can darken the characters a bit much, but they look significant smoother with the higher quality in-game models. There also seems to be bump mapping applied to most of the world, which most of the time it works in the game’s favor, while other times it can look a bit off. Outside of that, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age just looks significantly cleaner, with finer details being for more apparent. The textures for the most part haven’t been reworked all that much, although there are a couple of accessories on characters that have been redone. Suffice to say, having gone back to look at what the game looked like on PlayStation 2, this is one of the better remasters available.

While Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was visually impressive when it was released last year for PlayStation 4, it’s even more enhanced for PC. Granted, it’s not leaps and bounds better than its console counterpart, but Square Enix has does just enough to make it a better experience. Firstly, there are a number of graphical options to go through, such as anisotropic filtering, shadowing, post-processing effects and so forth. It isn’t on the level of most modern PC games in terms of the sheer number of options, and the lowest settings compared to the highest settings aren’t night and day from one another, but it’s more than enough for something that was released in 2006. Best yet, The Zodiac Age supports higher resolutions (not to mention ultra wide resolutions) along with the ability to hit 60 FPS. The latter is more of a game changer than anything else as Final Fantasy XII benefits from running at double the frame rate. Unfortunately, those looking to double dip may want to hold off until it’s a tad cheaper. 60 FPS and the potential to hit 4K are great options for those who can run them, but that’s more or less what you’d be paying for.

The controls can be a bit overwhelming outside of the graphical changes, especially if you look at the sheet in the main menu. There’s a lot of functions, even allowing you to avoid using a mouse all together, but it’s still more intuitive to play with a controller in the end. It’s not a bad system, even though we had multiple occurrences where the playable character would randomly disengage from battle, but the controller is the ideal way to play this. The big benefit of going between both keyboard and controller, though, is using the F1-F3 keys to change the speed, which normally would require you to go through multiple menus. The port also supports New Game Plus and New Game Minus modes from the very beginning, cheats, Steam exclusive items such as trading cards, and various other additions that should please PC players. Unfortunately, we did run into a couple of crashes, namely when switching screen modes, but that comes standard for PC games.

Closing Comments:

Final Fantasy XII is a forgotten gem in a sea of RPGs. While it sold well back in the day, thanks to the new generation at the time, it was as if everyone was more interested in what Square Enix would do for the future of the franchise. The Zodiac Age brings what we loved from this twelve-year-old release to a new set of gamers in the best way possible. The PC version is an added bonus for fans, not to mention newcomers, as it’s easily the best way to playthrough the lengthy adventure, provided your machine is capable of running it well. Sure, the protagonist doesn’t seem all there and is arguably one of the worst in the entire franchise, but we are treated to an intriguing political plot as it unravels slowly in the background. This is a remaster for the ages, introducing high speed mode to eliminate the needless grind and the various new graphical options only help exemplify the quality of late-PS2 games. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age for PC is the complete package.