Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age showed me that change can be good.
In the years since Final Fantasy 12’s 2006 release, I've put around 300 hours of playtime into it over the course of multiple playthroughs. It's one of my all-time favorite games, one I know inside and out. I've found every secret, finished every side quest and at least made attempts on the ridiculously difficult optional bosses.
That’s been enough to keep me returning to the world of Ivalice, but there's been more of it out there, just out of my reach. In 2007, Final Fantasy 12 International Zodiac Job System added additional features and improvements to the game, but, unfortunately, only for Japanese PS2s.
I didn’t import this altered version; I was content playing and replaying the original version, minorly inconvenienced by setting up my ancient backwards-compatible PS3 any time the itch struck me. But after 10 years, Final Fantasy 12 has been reborn on the PS4 as Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, with all of the features of International Zodiac Job System, visually updated for 2017.
With older “comfort” games, even the smallest alterations can disrupt satisfying familiarity. And while many HD re-releases aren’t much more than a fresh coat of paint for release on a new system, The Zodiac Age alters some of the fundamentals of how the game is played. These changes run the risk of alienating a devoted fan like me; it wasn't broken, so why did you fix it? But when I played I found that the core of the game I love so much is still there, even surrounded by an exciting newness.
Final Fantasy 12 offered a refreshing change from previous Final Fantasys in 2006. It put aside the modern-futuristic settings of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 and the cartoonish nostalgia of Final Fantasy 9 for a return to something a little more serious, with more swords and shields than motorcycles and machine guns.
Part of this departure arose from Final Fantasy 12’s lineage and setting. The game’s original director, Yasumi Matsuno, made a name with genre fans via original PlayStation classics Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, which take place in the world of Ivalice, and, in turn, so does Final Fantasy 12.
These games stand apart from each other, but Ivalice is a setting that tends more toward intrigue and politics than great threats that might destroy the world. Because of this, Final Fantasy 12 is just different from the games in the series before it, from the structure of its plot to the fundamentals of its gameplay, putting aside random encounters and turn-based battles for something quicker and more open.
The reaction in 2006 was divisive. Some players rejected it as being a proper Final Fantasy game at all, but I loved and still love it, 11 years later.
The majority of what makes Final Fantasy 12 what it is — the plot, the characters, the battle system — remains unchanged in The Zodiac Age from 11 years ago. The storyline full of sky pirates, princesses in exile, disgraced knights and warring empires is what grabbed my imagination on the game's initial release, and it's all aged very well — save for some standard JRPG third-act confusion when the stakes slip upwards to a more cosmic scale. Final Fantasy 12's story is most compelling when it's about people pulling themselves up from defeat and clashing political ambitions; it loses me, though, when it pulls in magical crystals and mythical otherworldly spirits. But what's a Final Fantasy game without a few crystals?
What's helped it remain timeless is the absolutely excellent translation and localization. The script is peppered with words like "sellsword" and "churl" and manages to avoid ostentation. There's a new option to switch the spoken dialogue to the Japanese language track, but with the English script and voice acting as excellent as they are, I couldn't see a reason to ever bother. Not many games have characters that speak only in iambic tetrameter, but Final Fantasy 12 does, and that's one of the reasons it's so special.
The gambit system of combat, which centers around setting up a series of if-then commands that the party automatically follows, also remains essentially unchanged. This system was also controversial. Many complained that Final Fantasy 12 played itself, but now it just seems like the gambit system was ahead of its time. Recent games like Final Fantasy 15 give AI control over most of the party; with Final Fantasy 12, I get the satisfying pleasure of winding up all my little soldiers to automatically behave precisely how I want them to on the battlefield.
Hitting the groove of figuring out just the right combination of gambits feels good, and just pointing my party from one monster to another, watching them take them out enemies without needing my help, is one of my favorite ways to chill out. Final Fantasy 12 is a game where you can just put the controller down completely sometimes, and that doesn’t bother me; sometimes I need to eat dinner or pet my cat and the party can keep itself busy killing skeletons.
Everyone in The Zodiac Age acts the same and sounds as good as before, but now they do it while looking good, too. In addition to now displaying in true widescreen, The Zodiac Age's HD re-texturing looks fantastic, doing much to smooth out the differences between the in-game models and those in the pre-rendered CGI segments. Finally, main character Vaan’s abs don’t look like they were airbrushed on anymore, even if the presentation isn’t quite up to modern Final Fantasy standards.
Matching the revamped visuals is a re-orchestrated score, which is so good that I spent most of the game playing with headphones, just to savor all the real bursts of trumpet and trills of flute. As with the dialogue track, there's an option to switch back to the original score, but it's really only useful for comparing it to the new and improved version.
The most significant change in The Zodiac Age is, as suggested by the 2007 PS2 release, the addition of a job system. In the original release of Final Fantasy 12, all characters had the same license boards, where they could unlock the ability to use different weapons, armor, skills, and spells with experience points gained from battle. With everything open to everyone, it was easy to make characters that were essentially exactly the same under the hood. I gave different characters different weapon specializations, but that was really just for flavor; it was entirely possible to make it so every character could have the exact same powerful weapon.
The Zodiac Age's job system forces each character to choose a job (one to start with, and then a second later in the game) that limits them to a unique license board, which defines what they can do and learn.
In the early sections of playing through the game with these new limitations, I didn't notice much of a difference. But as the difficulty level ramped up and monsters started throwing more and more status-effect causing attacks at me, I realized that Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age was not a game I could play on autopilot. I couldn’t let the if-then magic of my perfectly set up gambits play the game for me. I was going to have to strategize, and plan my parties, and alter my gambits on the fly. I no longer had the convenience of everyone serving as a tank, a healer, and support all at once. Boss battles that I previously knew how to sleepwalk my way through now took my full attention. And after 11 years and 300 some-odd hours, that was thrilling.
This makes The Zodiac Age more fast-paced and less meditative. Adding to this is Speed Mode, which doubles or quadruples the game’s speed. While this feature makes it easy for an impatient player to get across Final Fantasy 12's wide and winding expanses quickly, it’s an absolute revolution in the field of grinding.
I've never minded grinding in Final Fantasy 12; because of the automation of the gambit system, it was a nice way to zone out for a few hours while pointing myself at the little red dots on the mini-map.
With Speed Mode going at full tick, there isn't time to zone out between monster encounters. There's a section early in the game in the Lhusu Mines where it's possible to kill nearly infinite skeletons, gaining bonuses for chaining kills of the same enemy type in a row. In a usual playthrough, I'd spend an hour or two there to give myself a little level boost, racking up about 150 dead skeletons before I got bored.
With Speed Mode doing quadruple time, I found out in my usual hour or two that Final Fantasy 12’s chain counter maxes out at 999.
I can't say I felt good about gaining levels and loot that way — it felt a bit like cheating — but I learned something new about a game I've played so much.
The Zodiac Age provides a place to put any of of that hard- or speedily-won grinding to use. Trial Mode places your party in level after level — up to 100 — of non-stop battles, from regular groups of monsters to reliving boss battles — all for the fabulous prizes, money and items every 10 levels! The challenge in these trials is no joke; even with my party leveled up and outfitted for the final battle, I still found myself topping out at a particularly tricky group of monsters with death spells at level 17. I'm not one for endless challenges like this one, but it's there if I run out of other things to do.
And I am going to keep doing things in The Zodiac Age. It's taken the game I already loved so much and given me more. The Zodiac Age doesn’t add things for the sake of adding them. I can see myself putting 300 more hours into this version of Final Fantasy 12, trying different combinations of job classes and testing out new tactics on the optional bosses I could never quite conquer in the original game. The Zodiac Age takes a game I could play in my sleep and makes me wake up and appreciate it again.
Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age was reviewed using a pre-release “retail” download code provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.