Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review
As an avid fan of Role-Playing Games, I’m a bit ashamed to admit I’m not much of a fan of Final Fantasy as a series. I respect and acknowledge the ambition of earlier titles, and on the whole, I tend to regard the anthology with a unifying vision: titles that push the standard of presentation and storytelling within the genre. Sometimes, this has resulted in soulful original soundtracks like those of Final Fantasy VI and VII, other times, we have seen new combat systems like those featured in Final Fantasy IV, X, and XV. This desire to present something daring and new does not always result in a stellar product, however, and no game represents the attempts – and trappings – of this philosophy better than Final Fantasy XII.
First, some history. After the success of Final Fantasy XI, the series reached something of a crossroads – the MMORPG was the first title in the series not to feature random encounters, and also translated many of the staple combat concepts from previous Final Fantasy titles into a more active means of battle. While Yasumi Matsuno – director of the well-received Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre titles – was originally brought on as a director and contributed much of the preliminary scenario and design for Final Fantasy XII, he would leave the project due to health reasons and a bit of an irate temperament in 2005. While this was only a year from the game’s original launch in 2006 and a long time since his assignment to the project back in 2001, the game underwent a number of changes since his original established concepts, and the end result is something of a mish-mash of ideas, both well-intended and poorly implemented.
In short, Final Fantasy XII is a mixed experience. But what elements are successful, and what falls flat? Of course, as a review from a Final Fantasy skeptic, one might assume that my views are somewhat skewed. However, in the scope of what exists currently within the Switch’s library of RPGs and even the scope of the Final Fantasy anthology, there are critical issues that XII possesses that make it one of my least-confident recommendations. These are baffling design choices disguised as steps forward for a series so heavily reliant on tradition. With all this said, let’s delve into Final Fantasy XII, and see if the Zodiac Age made worthwhile changes to a game that desperately needed them.
Narrative and Aesthetics
I tend to start my reviews with an analysis of gameplay, but I’d rather get the strong aspects of The Zodiac Age out of the way first. The world of Ivalice is a delightful one, featuring a Mediterranean flair that is undeniably unique, feeling rich and expansive in lore and complexity. The small kingdom of Dalmasca is literally caught between two large continents, the Eastern Arcadian Empire seeking to invade and gain control via force. From the start of the game, the Empire is in a mostly-successful position, with much of their political and military opposition taken care of in dramatic fashion.
That doesn’t leave room for a great deal of fantasy, however, which is where the rascal Vaan and his friend Penelo come in – relative nobodies plucked from obscurity who become embroiled in a rebellious attempt to reclaim Dalmasca with the help of a pair of sky pirates and another duo of disgraced and jaded members of the Dalmascan hierarchy. It’s compelling stuff, but what adds to all of this are the machinations of an Empire equally consumed by political subterfuge and deception, the iconic judges and ruling family of Arcadia, and the resistance efforts supported by various other surprising races and creeds.
If it seems like I’m glossing over several aspects, that’s because XII’s narrative is delivered in such a way that makes it difficult to describe. In fact, I would say that the game’s narrative is one that benefits from its medium and genre immensely, allowing for a mixture of experience – and narration-driven moments in order to fully appreciate. Some have called it “fantasy Star Wars,” others “Shakespearean,” either way you put it, the melodrama and character driven nuance is all there. While some characters seem a bit superfluous and introduce interactions and scenarios that really aren’t all that necessary, they’re all very well-defined and ultimately feel essential.
Plus, characters like the plucky Penelo and dense Vaan add odd dynamics to a group that has a potential to feel overstacked with seriousness, as Fran, Ashe, and Basch often come across. Despite all the annoyances that Balthier presents from a gameplay perspective, he is a delightful and much-needed source of whimsy. While Final Fantasy XIII’s playable cast often felt like a dysfunctional collection of characters belonging to several other games, The Zodiac Age’s party is present, focused, and offers a variety of perspectives on the world they inhabit.
Despite this strong sense of individual perspective, the game sometimes feels the need to spell out plot twists and details by offering multiple accounts from different characters. While this can be beneficial for hammering the importance of events, it can also feel superfluous and undermine a revelation for another character. Though the term “Shakespearean” is often associated with “quality,” it is also used to emphasize this exact point – his writing was full of repetition and commentary on events from multiple character perspectives. Likewise, Shakespeare was all about gravitas, and XII’s narrative certainly has this in spades.
XII’s Ivalice is touted as “a seamless open world,” and though the developers hoped to deliver, “seamless” isn’t exactly the word I would use. This isn’t to say that Ivalice isn’t large – it is, definitely – but it’s a patchwork world, if anything, with small areas linked together with multiple exits. If you are familiar with Monster Hunter’s level design pre-World, Ivalice seems very similar, though there’s a decided lack of vertical space in the world design, most often appearing as narrow stairwells and ramps that don’t imply much variety in terrain. Map design in interconnected worlds almost demands a proper minimap, and this is one area where The Zodiac Age fails – its minimap is a bit too zoomed in and nondescript, but the expanded version obscures a good part of the screen in almost every scenario. There are a few baffling choices, as well, as exits to other areas and their labels are often oddly spaced apart, and exits occasionally shortcut to other zones far across the map, but anyone firmly dedicated to exploration and discovery will find this map function a necessary evil.
The overall aesthetics, architecture, and color palette of Ivalice are still worth appreciation, sometimes sandy and muted, but impressive on the whole. Equally gorgeous are the cutscene and cinematic choreography, with the in-game cutscenes possessing dramatic quality and thoughtful cinematography that heightens the drama, heartache, and excitement of each moment, all the while accompanied by a sweeping and stellar soundtrack from a trio of composers. There are only a few moments where the music grates a bit from looping in massive environments, but for the most part, it is all rather fitting for a game of such scale and scope.
The Active Dimension Battle System is not a very offensive combat system, but the synergy that exists between it and the Gambit system presents one of the most absurd and incomprehensible design choices I have ever encountered in an RPG. It’s unfortunate, considering one of Matsuno’s greatest projects, Vagrant Story, possesses a system that isn’t all that far removed from the ADBS, but there are specific choices made here that negate the agency of choice and are, in the opinion of this writer, insulting for an RPG enthusiast. To clarify, the ADBS calls up a menu whenever the player presses the interaction button, which often overlaps with other interactive elements throughout environments that, for some reason, require extremely precise positioning in order to engage with.
This menu allows the player to access attacks, magick and techniks, items, and other commands that might be useful in battle. After selecting an attack, the player then picks a target and watches the character perform the action, waiting for their cooldown period to end before they can input another command. On paper, it sounds like an ATB-like system, though for some attack commands, the character selected will continue to perform their inputted command until the creature is dead. That’s all well and good, though enemies also function on their own aggro settings and cooldowns. Mind you, none of this is necessarily insulting, as you can change up your tactics on the fly, and issue new commands even while a character is in their cooldown period between actions.
The problem, of course, is that enemy encounters on the whole are pretty painfully shallow, with status effects and enemy number being the only concerns that are present. If your party of three (with an infrequent fourth “guest” character popping in from time to time) is met with around four-to-five aggressive combatants, the odds of your success are slim, which is why you can hold down the right trigger in order to book it out of wherever you are. Likewise, status effects are often deliberately designed to be as much of an inconvenience as possible to the player- like early-game enemies in dungeons possessing Silence, the bane of spellcasters and healers alike. You can either dump money into item-based curatives, or book it back to the nearest save crystal in order to cleanse yourself of these effects. The issue, of course, is that you might not have access to either of these two thanks to the convoluted dungeon designs or a lack of resources. These issues do pop up, infrequently, and the only way of circumventing them is via grinding.
Everything about Final Fantasy XII seems geared towards its grind, which is painfully non-interactive. All enemies in the game drop loot, not money, which needs to be sold to merchants or in shops in order to get curative items, every spell in the game, equipment, and one other little item that I’ll speak about in a bit. Everything is expensive in Ivalice – ridiculously so, and the method of getting the money to buy them is killing enemies for loot, with enemy chaining – continuously fighting specific enemy types in order to get better rewards from them – being the best way in order to do so. Getting a decent enemy chain requires upwards of twenty to twenty-five enemies slain, so in order to feel properly prepared, you’ll need to invest a good half-to-full hour into each exploratory segment in order to have the money you’ll need to tackle a dungeon proper.
Selecting one or two commands per battle is straightforward, but often the most decision-making you’ll need to do. If that seems too mentally strenuous, you can just turn on the Gambit System for all of your playable characters, at which point they will initiate and complete battles for you. Let me restate this: the Gambit System is a series of commands that you can create for each playable party member that issues automatic commands to them depending on specific “states”: If a party member is below 40% MP, you can have them or another party member give them an ether. If your healer is being targeted by enemies, you can have you attackers target and deal damage to that enemy.
If an enemy is weak or vulnerable to a specific element, you can have your mages target them with an element of that type. These are AI commands invented for one reason: Square Enix wanted to make a party-based RPG utilizing MMORPG-like combat, but forgot to factor in how unbearably slow issuing commands in game would be. And this is in a game where, on the whole, character attack speed is unbearably slow. The only way to circumvent this is the speed-up mechanic, which then takes the game’s pace from “unbearably slow” to “a bit too fast,” as most enemy encounters in the field are brief and require almost no strategy, with the exception being enemy encounters in dungeons, where enemy gimmicks are a bit more well-defined, and theming comes into play. This is when Gambits are strongest, as the decision making needed to keep pace with the engagements unfolding onscreen would either a) slow the pace back down to a crawl or b) be ineffective due to the enemy attack speed outpacing each decision. Which is often does.
The result is a game that more or less plays itself. And yes, you might argue that one could disable gambits in order to play the game with agency, but then you would stretch a 70-hour RPG into a 200-hour RPG. You might argue that a player with optimal Gambit selections is playing the game the right way, but if the only actions one needs to perform outside of a boss fight are movement – with every other action being performed by the AI – what is supposed to be engaging about this system? As the player progresses, they’ll gain access to the Limit-Break like “Quickenings” as well as Esper Summons, which are some of the only options that might require optimal timing in order to utilize. For the most part, however, there’s nothing to really do during combat in Final Fantasy XII. Other than switching out characters, of course, which is another painful relic of the past, as characters who do not participate in battle gain License Points, and not Experience Points.
Speaking of License Points, most decision-making takes place on the menu screen, and while this can be accessed – and the Gambit System screen along with it – at any time, it’s a fairly bland menu. Here, the player can pull up a world map, equipment screen, party setup, and take a look at the Zodiac license board, where you’ll spend most of your time wallowing in misery. These license boards are a convoluted way of either limiting your party’s potential or causing you to chase long-term goals that you want for the present scenario. Either way, the method of working through this is to waste more time grinding. Although you can take a sneak-peek at any of the license boards before locking your character into them, each tile on the board requires a specific amount of License Points in order to unlock, thereby revealing up to three more adjacent tiles. These license tiles allow players to wear certain kinds of equipment, wield certain tiers of weaponry, and utilize technicks and magic spells, but they can also be straight upgrades to HP and attack and spell powers.
Keep in mind, in order to unlock certain areas of a job board, you may have to purchase a tile that has no usefulness to your character whatsoever, which means you’re wasting your points on something that does not allow you to optimize your current character’s build. Also frustrating is that the game provides characters with certain weaponry when they are first met that one might think is optimal for their build, but is actually anything but. My Balthier was one of my least used characters simply because he starts with a musket when his stat distribution favors melee and speed-based options, which are most certainly not fitting for a Machinist. Likewise, my Ashe proved only semi-useful until the point in the narrative when shops finally started stocking Green Magick, because I spent License Points on using it in order to access more magick potency, but couldn’t actually use the spells until I bought them.
Now, as someone with little love for Final Fantasy, I suppose a longtime fan would be more readily aware of the nature of purchasable spells, and why I should avoid spending License Points in that area. Likewise, I was told that I could reset my License Points if I spoke with a certain character in Rabanastre, which caused me to spend upwards of twenty minutes redistributing them throughout the license board. But my real question is, “why?”
Why is Final Fantasy XII so obsessed with making me jump over hurdles in order to play the game in the way the developers imagined?
Why can’t I just purchase a license for a technick or magick and be able to use them?
Why do I have to buy Gambit commands in order to utilize them in combat?
Why does my character need to level up via experience points when I could build them in whichever way I want on the license board?
The answer to all of these questions is more or less obvious – because Square Enix seems to assume that the longer I play the game, the more I will enjoy it. Which is far from the truth. I enjoy playing an active role in combat, where my choices facilitate the conclusion, not slow the pace of battle down. I enjoy exploring environments and avoiding battles unless I want to engage in one, not being shepherded down a path with multiple enemy encounters in my way. I enjoy feeling like the time and effort I’ve put into a game, no matter how large or small, has led to a worthwhile reward, no matter how incremental. Final Fantasy XII does not make me feel this way. It is a game designed in every way to be uninteresting.
Impressions and Conclusion
As a game where the story is extremely important, I can understand why the developers wouldn’t want players to be able to make decisions that massively impact the outcome of certain engagements. But the real problem is that barely any of the enemy encounters are designed in a way where it feels like any of the work put into the game is rewarded. Characters who are unable to function because of the design layout of their license board are shelved until they have enough License Points to be deemed useful. The set of purchasable spells is only useful when tackling the threats the developers have prepared for one specific part of the story. The game isn’t even able to sell unique enemy behavior or new strategies well without telegraphing them in cutscenes. For example:
Upon entering a new zone, I was told to look out for a beast that was rampaging in the area. Believing this to be a side quest that would grant me a worthwhile reward, I decided to spend time looking for this engagement, only to find it directly in my path. I defeated the creature, triggering a cutscene that added a degree of lore and understanding to the culture of the enemies in the area. The reward for doing this was a main-quest-based item that I had to use on the next boss, something that was communicated to me by both the item description and an NPC who appeared just before the boss encounter. Uncovering this secret took no strategy or alteration of my party setup. It was lazily communicated to me via text. If I had chosen to avoid killing the monster, I would have not received the “reward” that was, in reality, a key designed to stop me from moving forward.
Maybe Final Fantasy XII’s gameplay wasn’t made for me. I can safely say that I have found its narrative surprising, engaging, and delightful, but the moments in between have felt like nothing more than tedious, inconsequential baby steps towards the next important event that is ultimately beyond my control. Save for Quickenings, I cannot honestly say that the game’s combat animations are even enjoyable to watch, most being brief swings of a weapon or some bland elemental effect. When I think of compelling RPG gameplay, I think of Dragon’s Dogma, where every choice made during a side quest has some sort of consequence, or where every input made in battle has a tangible and visceral effect.
When I think of strong turn-based combat, I think of Etrian Odyssey or The Alliance Alive, where positioning on the battlefield or in the game world means something, and where each ability is used with a level of measured risk. When I think of intense real-time combat, I think of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s cancel system, which causes players to pay attention to their auto attacks in preparation for a damage-boosting effect. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 even makes player customization more objective-oriented and satisfying, as the player unlocks new levels of abilities through thoughtfully hunting down specific enemy types and performing certain attacks. Final Fantasy XII has none of this.
The point I am trying to make, I suppose, is that if someone were to ask me if they should buy or play Final Fantasy XII, I would answer that watching a video of someone else playing the game would achieve roughly the same effect as playing the game themselves. If you enjoyed Final Fantasy XII upon its original release – bless you – having the opportunity to play it three times as fast is a godsend, as the plodding pace of all of its playable characters both in and out of combat is surmounted and its near-excruciating grind is made one-third as fast. But otherwise, I can see no reason to look into this game outside of watching a Youtube video.