Back in 2006, you couldn’t convince me that Final Fantasy could do anything wrong. It was, for all intents and purposes, my favourite video game series. After helping Tidus fight his daddy issues in the tenth entry, I devoured anything related to the franchise that I could get my hands on. I remember, vividly, the anticipation I felt for Final Fantasy XII. I read every preview, watched every trailer, and begged my parents to pay off a preorder for the snazzy collector’s edition. When I finally got my hands on it, however, I remember feeling a gradual deflation. “This is it?” I asked myself. “This is how they follow up Final Fantasy X?” That deflation wasn’t outright disdain, per se, so much as a reaction of genuine disinterest and confusion at what Square Enix was trying to even do.
I think, looking back on it, that I was much kinder at 12-years-old than I am at 23. Because “disdain” is practically all I can feel towards Final Fantasy XII—even if my opinion differs from that of others—one of the lowest points that a mainline entry in Square Enix’s series has reached, now repackaged with touched-up music and some tweaks from the Japanese PC release . But some minor window dressing can’t hide the fact that much like when it came out in 2006, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is outclassed in virtually every department by its peers, including entries in its own series.
This outclassing starts at a very basic narrative level. Final Fantasy XII’s story is bad—very bad. Exceptionally bad. It’s also told in the most tedious, convoluted way possible. It’s a yarn that suffers from the franchise’s classic problem of using a bevy of made-up nonsense words in rapid succession, hoping that players latch onto them and trick themselves into believing that the whole thing is “deep.” In reality, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a rote story of warring kingdoms, battles for resources, and man’s endless ambition for power. Throw in some oppressive military regimes that dovetail nicely with a generic riff on “the proletariat versus the bourgeois,” and voila, you’ve got a story that’s done to death and, in this case, done in a way that isn’t even entertaining. All the airships, flying cities, fancy armour, and bunny women in the world can’t fix a story that’s uninteresting, unoriginal hokum from start to finish.
A particular sticking point for me is the cast. A good cast can often carry a bad story, as seen with this year’s character-rich but narrative-impoverished Persona 5. The cast of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, however, actually makes the narrative even less enjoyable. Street urchin cum sky pirate Vaan is an obnoxious twit, a dime store Naruto who doesn’t experience any significant growth over the course of 50 hours. The other characters are even flatter, with Ashe serving as a less-interesting Lightning, Balthier cranking up his smarm-o-meter throughout the whole game, and Fran acting as the questionably race-coded role of “wise, spiritual one.” The only character I like, honestly, is Penelo. She’s very much a worn tsundere trope, but I did feel a genuine kinship between her and Vaan that grew throughout the game. That said, I question her taste in people, considering Vaan is an insufferable nitwit whom the game would benefit greatly from by shoving into a support role instead of featuring him as the protagonist.
While Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age can’t really be faulted for the original having an atrocious story, it can be faulted for not touching up the gameplay. This is a game that felt cumbersome when it came out, and time has not magically fixed that. Instead, it’s remarkably hard to look at Final Fantasy XII’s half-baked compromise between turn-based and real-time combat in the face of a decade-plus of evolution in the genre and enjoy it in any meaningful capacity. There’s a lot of fat to the mechanics here, with players selecting their attacks and then basically running in circles until they can execute them. It’s a bad system that pads out the runtime by making the players do nothing for short stretches of time until the game decides to let them. Making players kill time doing jack-all until they can do a thing is bad game design, pure and simple. After several hours of this, I longed for XV’s instant gratification, X’s satisfying tactics, or even III’s mechanical sturdiness and reliability. By rate of comparison, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age feels like Square Enix has no idea how to make its mechanics accessible while still giving old players plenty to sink their teeth into, instead throws their hands up in the air and cobbles together some ill-conceived garbage in an attempt to satiate everyone. Even the enhanced job system—where players can choose between twelve roles from the get-go instead of the original’s one—does little to make the game feel compelling or deep. It’s a fairly shallow system, in reality, and a far cry from the excellent sphere grid.
Putting aside why I dislike Final Fantasy XII as a game, though, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is kind of a bogus remaster. This game is 41GB of upscaled PS2 textures, and while character models look pretty all right from far away, almost everything else just hasn’t held up. Environment textures are often muddy and ugly, something that not even the solid anti-aliasing can hide. Draw distance is woefully short, to the point where objectives won’t pop until you’re basically six or seven feet from them. Facial animations are angular and expressionless, never jiving with the game’s art direction. Even with the anti-aliasing and nice resolution making the art direction pop more than it did in SD, this isn’t a pretty-looking game by today’s standards, especially with the added issue of aliased rounded edges being “fixed” into jarring straight lines. Even Type-0, a remaster of a PSP spin-off, had more effort put into it than this—and that included raw PSP visuals.
Also lazy is the game’s inclusion of the original English voice acting, which is amateurish across the board. Characters speak in off-putting monotone, even when they’re supposed to be emoting during key moments, and the dialogue sounds compressed despite Square Enix’s promise of the audio being re-mastered. The Japanese voice acting fares a bit better, in my opinion, and I’m glad it’s an option this time around. In addition, the re-mastered score is pretty dang good. While I don’t think, musically, that Final Fantasy XII is anywhere close to the crème de la crème of this series, the score is still in a league of its own, managing to evoke emotion and immersion where the gameplay, narrative, and visuals fail to at every possible turn. It’s the best part of this Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, and the best part of Final Fantasy XII as a whole.
Which says a lot about the quality of the base product, I think. Final Fantasy XII originally came out in a year that also had Shin Megami Tensei: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army, Kingdom Hearts II, Disgaea 2, and the stellar DS release of Final Fantasy III. On arrival, it was already left in the dust. Fast-forward to 2017 and things are still dire. Tales of Berseria, Nier: Automata, Dragon Quest Heroes II, Fire Emblem Echoes… not to mention Final Fantasy XV still getting content, and the year only being half-over. In 2006 and today, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age was and is outranked by bigger and better competition.
No matter how many job systems, remastered scores, or upscales Square Enix slaps on it, Final Fantasy XII is a bad game. The Zodiac Age doesn’t change that, and no release that doesn’t drastically overhaul every mechanic—or include a better story—ever will. Charging $65 for an 11-year-old game that wasn’t good to begin with is a scam, especially when considering how little has changed.
For a different perspective on Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age check out our second opinion from Derek Heemsbergen.