Zodiac Age: Final Verdict

Thursday, July 13, 2017

You may remember that about a year ago I talked about playing the demo for Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. You might also remember that my feelings on the game were somewhat mixed and that I wondered why this, of all the Final Fantasy games, had been slated for remastering. Well, the game is here, I've logged enough hours to feel like I can talk about it fairly and intelligently, so now I'm going to try and do that.

Many of the things I hated about the original version of the game are still there: there's still hyper-sexualized bunny women who are supposed to be a fantasy race but are basically indistinguishable from Playboy Bunny waitresses (not unique to FF XII amongst the Final Fantasy games but still stupid and needlessly over-sexualized beyond what is seen in other games where the species appears like FF Tactics) the main protagonist is still a blonde-haired blue-eyed Aladdin, and the game still has needlessly prohibitive flaws in its navigation. As an example of the navigation issues, when you start out in the city of Rabanastre, you have a decently sized city surrounded by a massive desert, all chopped up into various sub-areas. Each of those sub-areas has a name, and those names are often relevant to navigating the side-quests and hunts you'll undertake. Straightforward enough, right? Except, the only way to know which area is the Gizas North Bank or the Broken Sands while you're running around the desert is to open up your map while standing in that area and look at the top of your screen to see what area you're in. You can actually spend currency in game to get a detailed map of the entire desert and still have no idea where you're going because none of those named areas are actually labeled on the map. You don't have any way of knowing whether or not you're heading in the right direction until you get there and check, which was true in the original iteration of the game and contributed to people feeling as though the game was created to be an engine for selling strategy guides. The combat system, which was legitimately good for the time it first premiered, now feels even clunkier and dated than the traditional JRPG interface seen in even older games like the cartridge generation of Final Fantasies. The growing pains that RPGs were going through when this game was released are apparent and palpable.

Okay, so now that the negative feedback is out of the way, let me jump into the things that I liked about Zodiac Age. First and foremost, it's pretty, and the remastering did make a difference here. One of Final Fantasy XII's strengths was that it sat at a cusp in graphic development, not yet reaching the levels of realism seen in new games like Final Fantasy XV, but evolved far enough beyond earlier entries in the franchise that the characters are recognizable as fully formed beings, not  rough 8 to 16-bit approximations or representations, or polyhedral shapes built around a bipedal framework. The art and graphics of FF XII, resting as they did at a crux in the development of gaming graphics, lend the game a unique whimsy where a fully detailed and recognizable human being can chase around a tomato-headed monster and the effect comes off as charming, rather than absurd. The remastering process takes nothing away from this, and in fact makes the juxtaposition of the art styles even more visually appealing, which was not a result I expected.

The game has also streamlined the leveling system from the original FF XII, though not as much as I would have hoped. Instead of a single huge, directionless grid that requires a strategy guide or at least an open web browser to navigate, Zodiac Age uses a revamped "Job" system, where each character gets a smaller and more manageable grid built around a particular class theme like Machinist, Time Battlemage, Black Mage, White Mage, or other recognizable entries from the franchise. The blocks are easier to navigate and plan you progression around, though there are a few hiccups that still exist. I wanted to try a different twist and playstyle for my main character, Vaan, during this play-through so I selected the Time Battlemage job. Wielding crossbows and using Time magic to debuff opponents and buff allies, this seemed like a pretty cool class, and it is, but it also served to emphasize the areas where the team that reworked the Job system into the system failed to account for the other parts of the game that directly intersect with it.

You see, in FF XII you have to buy a "License" for everything you want to use. Want to wear the new armor the shopkeeper has for sale? You'll need to make sure that not only are you playing as a Job that offers access to that armor, but also that you've spent your LP to buy up the space on your Job grid that offers proficiency with that armor. You can't just play a Machinist, the gun-wielding class, and be able to use all the guns you come across, you need to make sure your Machinist has actually bought the licenses for that specific model of gun. Now, let me get back to the Time Battlemage thing; I mentioned Time Battlemages use crossbows, right? Well, in the original version of the game crossbows weren't something the main protagonist could just grab a license for right off the bat, he had to work his way along the grid to that section. As a result, there are no crossbows available anywhere in the game for about the first two hours of play. This meant that my character was stuck using the same crappy dagger he started with even though there were better weapons available, because the class I chose used a weapon that I wouldn't have been able to start with in the original game. Hiccups like this are ultimately minor bumps over the course of the game, but can be exceedingly frustrating when you find yourself caught up in them with no choice but to power through. I still consider the new job system to be an improvement overall.

The new sound and visual updates are well executed, making the game sound and look as good as it possibly can without a full remake. Given the whimsical edge and appeal of its particular art style, I would consider this to be the best version of this game currently possible from an audio/visual perspective. Important note here; some of the settings tied to sound output can be very finnicky. If you're not actually using a surround sound system, you'll want to have the game's soundtrack set to the Original setting instead of the Reorchestrated version, as the Reorchestrated version will make several cut scenes sound absolutely terrible, to the point that it's all but impossible to make out what the characters are saying (particularly problematic if you didn't have subtitles turned on since there's no way to activate them once a cut scene has started). Fortunately this issue is not something that you'll have to deal with constantly and has only impacted 3 cut scenes that I've seen so far, though it did significantly impact my ability to enjoy those cut scenes. Two of the times I simply skipped through the scene and picked up my previous save, changing my sound settings accordingly, though I wanted to continue with the Reorchestrated version since that's one of Zodiac Age's selling points and I wanted to know how big an issue it truly was. Ultimately, minor but annoying when it does become an issue, which is becoming my go to phrase for almost all of the remastered options in Zodiac Age.

How to wrap this up.... Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a good game. I don't want anything I've said to make you believe otherwise. The problem is that the same company is currently selling SPECTACULAR games like Final Fantasy XV, and many things that weren't really "issues" when Final Fantasy XII first released now feel clunky and obnoxious. If you've played with Final Fantasy XV's fluid and intuitively beautiful battle system, combat in Zodiac Age feels slow and forced, attempting to add the impression of fluidity and mobility to a battle system that, at its core, uses the same basic structure as much older entries in the franchise. If your party were lined up on one side of the screen with the enemy on the other in the old fashioned football formation associated with the cartridge generations of Final Fanstasy, most combats would be 90% the same. While the game is pretty, it's still clearly dated and nothing in the game's graphics is going to surprise or amaze you.

While the Job system is a strict improvement over the original game's giant and poorly laid out grid, it's still not perfect, even when viewed through the lens of the game itself and not viewed as a comparison to other games or entries, even within the same franchise. If you were a fan of the original Final Fantasy XII, this is probably a game to be excited about. If, like me, you weren't a fan of the original, there's still some things in this game that can be worthwhile, including a solid story and entertaining art. I will very likely complete my current playthrough of Zodiac Age all the way t the end, so that's certainly something. If you don't like relatively retro games, and you weren't a fan of the original FF XII, there's not going to be a lot here for you. If your first introduction to the franchise was a game like Final Fantasy XV, it's hard to say how you'll feel about this game; it doesn't compare on any level, story, graphics, interface, etc. but it is a piece of the franchise's history, and its a game that displays most clearly how the game grew from its early roots of immobile timer/turn based combat into the fluid and active system seen in the most recent entry to the franchise. Zodiac Age is kind of like a museum, showing what Final Fantasy was and how it grew to become what it is.