Not every story can speak to every person at every stage of their lives. The beauty of diversity in media is such that where one person sees a reflection of themselves, another might see a window into a world altogether alien, and both parties emerge richer from the experience.
I was working a midnight launch at GameStop in sunny Tucson, Arizona when Final Fantasy XII first released back in 2006. It was the night before Halloween, an occasion during which I availed to besmirch the good name of Final Fantasy VIII with an embarrassing attempt at cosplay. Dressed as Zell, I was joined by a meagre crowd including two friends (portraying Squall and, breaking with consistency for whatever reason, Final Fantasy VII‘s Yuffie) and no more than a handful of customers. Despite the small turnout, the air was abuzz with enthusiasm as we all waited for the clock to strike midnight, each of us anxious to discover what bold new direction Final Fantasy would move in next.
In the following weeks of marathon play, my attitude towards Final Fantasy XII shifted from optimism to outright bewilderment, settling somewhere around righteous indignance. Between a completely unrecognizable battle system, a cast of characters who were mechanically identical, and a drastic shift in tone, it didn’t feel like Final Fantasy to me. Not at first. Yet as the months and years passed, I found myself drawn back to Ivalice time and again by the sheer exoticism of its design. There was something special at its core, to be sure. I simply wasn’t ready for it in 2006.
As pretentious as it may sound, I find that Final Fantasy XII demands a different sort of mindset to fully appreciate—one that is difficult to achieve using previous Final Fantasy experience alone. Final Fantasy XII is anything but traditional, so why approach it as if it were? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my hang-ups with the game had more to do with mismanaged expectations than anything else.
Final Fantasy XII was never without its issues, particularly with regard to its truncated narrative arc and character homogeneity, but I started finding avenues to work around these shortcomings. I made elaborate charts to map out my characters’ License Boards, giving each unique and complementary roles in battle. I started listening—really, truly listening—to NPCs throughout Ivalice, coming to sudden revelations about people and places I only heard mentioned in passing throughout the main story. I ran my fingers over the texture of its world, savouring the quiet poetry of its prose, drinking up its rich atmosphere. I had to train my mind to think differently about Final Fantasy XII than any Final Fantasy before it, and once I did, I discovered a world teeming with vitality.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a shortcut to developing that mindset, complete with quality of life adjustments that draw out every bit of its abundant potential. As both an audiovisual remaster and a reinvention of the game’s core progression system, The Zodiac Age brings Final Fantasy XII into the modern era without altering its indelible essence. For one, the addition of a fast-forward feature all but eliminates the tedium inherent to travel and combat. Final Fantasy XII demands a macro-level approach to strategy; it’s about building a synergistic team that the player can make fine adjustments to in order to overcome a given encounter. The replacement of the original License Board with twelve distinct character classes (first featured in the Japan-exclusive Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System in 2007) adds a much-needed sense of structure to character growth.
These tweaks, however small they seem, make The Zodiac Age exponentially more playable than the base game was eleven years ago. It’s a far more focused experience, one that rarely wastes the player’s time and provides ample recompense for daring to venture off the beaten path. Sometimes that reward is simply a beautiful vista or a morsel of fascinating lore. Other times, it’s a battle against one of the game’s many hidden Espers, a pantheon of fearsome beasts with some of the most interesting designs this side of Shin Megami Tensei. There is a wealth of content buried beneath the surface of Final Fantasy XII, and The Zodiac Age makes it easier to access than ever.
I still cannot begrudge those who remain unfond of Final Fantasy XII. It’s wildly different from every other game in the series, and takes a fair amount of mental investment to truly enjoy at its highest capacity. For my part, I eventually came to see it as a flawed masterpiece. The additions made to The Zodiac Age do not make it utterly flawless, but I’ll not budge on my assertion that it is assuredly flawed less.