Final Fantasy as a series has been around for thirty years now, and popular opinion among fans holds VI, VII, IX, and X as the best entries in the franchise (though it's kind of hard to pinpoint this). Even though it reviewed well for its time though, Final Fantasy XII never managed to garner the same reputation as its predecessors. Whether it was due to the release late in the life cycle of PlayStation 2, a different approach to storytelling, or potentially a series fatigue is up in the air, but with Final Fantasy XV successfully reclaiming the JRPG throne and rejuvenating the interest in Final Fantasy, what better time to dive back into the world of Ivalice and its complex characters.
When we visited Square Enix in London we had one question in our mind: had Final Fantasy XII stood the test of time since our first encounter 11 years ago? To try and answer some of these questions, we were allowed to try out three different areas of the game which showcased the graphical leap as well as the new features.
First on the list was Eruyt village and the Golmore Jungle, a vast green area filled with intricate paths between giant trees. The task was simple: explore the jungle and fight the elder wyrm at the end. Before heading out, however, it was imperative to get acquainted with the new mechanics, which have been revamped to be more reminiscent of the older Final Fantasy games. Instead of the Sphere Grid-inspired system found in the original version, the remaster adds The Zodiac System (hence the title), which is centred around character classes or jobs such as Black Mage, Machinist, and Knight.
Each character can equip two classes, creating characters perfectly suited for different sorts of magic or full-frontal combat. When a class is chosen, you receive a skill table where you have to use level points to unlock new abilities, and the skill table has the same basic mechanics as the original version, although it has been altered to fit the respective jobs. In regards to structural mechanics, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is ipso-facto quite different from the 2006 release.
In our interview with the creators of the game Hiroaki Kato and Takashi Katano, they also stressed the importance of creating the best possible battle system for the franchise, reciting their influences from older games such as the Final Fantasy: Tactics series and Final Fantasy V. The main objective, when revisiting the twelfth chapter, was therefore to first and foremost fine tune the already well-established mechanics. Newcomers who joined the franchise with XV will potentially have to get accustomed to deeper and more complex systems than the high adrenalin action found in Noctis' adventure across Eos.
As we made our way through the forest and faced off against the mighty elder wyrm, the graphical tweaks became apparent. Unlike the most recent remaster of the Final Fantasy X/X-2 collection, Square Enix's latest attempt at reviving an old chapter feels and looks more polished. Those who played the former undoubtedly noticed the gaps between NPCs and the main characters as well as the completely redone water effects, which looked a tad out of place. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age doesn't have the same inconsistencies and offers a more coherent and sharp image than the X/X-2 remaster. Furthermore, small character details have received an extra coat of polish, and for those who played the original, you'll be pleased to know Square Enix has finally fixed the main character Vaan's sixpack (Kato responded with a laughing "thank you" when we told him this).
The most powerful spells have received a visual overhaul as well, including the limit breaks, or quickenings as they are called in Final Fantasy XII. The extra particles and visual touches make them marvellous to look at now, and Square Enix undoubtedly seems to have been hard at work fine-tuning every detail.
We also asked Kato and Katano which element had been the most difficult to remaster, and we were told that the difficult part was grasping how to rework each part rather than actually doing it. Katano elaborated that each piece of music has been re-orchestrated from the ground up and they had gathered a large orchestra to make sure it wasn't just a brush-up, but rather a thoroughly performed new recording.
After the Golmore Jungle area, we tried the newly implemented trial mode. Like classic fighting games, the mode consisted of an abundance of battles against different enemies gradually getting stronger, and with each encounter the area changed, ranging from scorching desert ruins to giant arenas. It's a nice addition to an already solid package and lets you test the characters outside of the actual story.
We also asked Square Enix why they decided to make Vaan the main character of the game since the person at the centre is Ashe. Although initially just saying "because he is the main character!" Kato elaborated and said Vaan was chosen exactly because of his status as an outsider and we are supposed to understand the story from his point of view.
Lastly, after asking about story and gameplay mechanics, we got to play the Phon Coast level. This time around we weren't allowed to choose our own jobs for the characters and the goal was simply to show the details of the lush environments and introduce the hunts sidequests. As with our journey through the Golmore Jungle, the coastal landscape looked amazing, especially considering it's a remaster of a PS2 game. Having played all previously released remasters of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is by far the most well-polished.
After the presentation, we left Square Enix feeling very confident about Final Fantasy XII. In stark contrast with the highly successful fifteenth chapter, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age feels like coming home, as it's a turn-based, job-centred JRPG with a mature look and feel. As for now, it looks to be a breath of nostalgic air for those people who never got to try it the first time around, and a unique classic JRPG-experience for newcomers.
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