Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
The smartest game in the series, Final Fantasy XII : The Zodiac Age, has finally made it to PC.
Dalmasca has been invaded by the forces of Archadia and it’s up to a couple of street urchins, a resistance leader, a knight, a sky pirate, and a rabbit lady to save the realm. There’s an airship, of course, and there are Chocobos—so far, so Final Fantasy— but look past the iconography and you’ll find the boldest, most inventive game of the series, powered by a weighty squadbased RPG system and remastered to run at high resolutions on PC.
After a brief scene-setting prologue, you start the game in control of Vaan, a charmless teen from the streets of Dalmasca. He’s hitting rats in a sewer alone, and seems determined to give you the worst possible introduction to FFXII’s world and systems. As you guide him around town and into the surrounding deserts to hunt monsters you pick up companions like Vaan’s streetwise pal, Penelo, and the fantastic sky pirate Balthier, whose opening line “I play the leading man,” hints at a massive lost opportunity. Once you have a full squad the combat system oh-so-slowly reveals itself, and the fun can truly begin.
Fighting happens seamlessly as you wander around open areas—no separate battle scenes here. When an enemy attacks, everyone draws their weapons, then you’re free to give commands to any party member, which they execute as soon as their cooldown timer has expired.
However, FFXII isn’t really a game about micromanaging individual actions, but rather a design challenge in which you tailor the party’s AI to turn it into a selfsustaining death ball that rinses dungeons with deadly efficiency. You edit each individual’s behavior between battles with the Gambit system. This looks like a list of commands which you can customize and then drag around to create an order of priority. Let’s say you’re building a healer. You might create a priority command that makes them heal allies below 20% health. Slide that to the top of the list, and they will perform that action when possible before moving on to the next command. You can buy new commands from shops, which let you tailor the AI more intricately.
The License Board system adds to the appeal, allowing you to cast any character in any battlefield role. Each character gets to pick a board from a selection of 12, each representing a combat archetype. You then use License Points to unlock new squares on your board. These give you extra Gambit slots, health boosts, buffs, and the skills you need to wear better armor and wield better weapons.
The License Boards are skill trees, essentially. Together the Gambit system and License Boards make developing a party a satisfying exercise. Even though Balthier turns up with a gun and Vaan has a knife, you’re free to throw out the game’s idea for each fighter entirely.
Final Fantasy XII’s greatest problem is that it takes so long to get good. Without the full complexity of the Gambit system behind it, combat for the first third of the game feels boring. The plot front-loads a lot of repetitive sewer sections, and these boxy dungeons haven’t aged well since the original came out in 2006.
The remaster counters this with a fast-forward mode that lets you double or quadruple the speed of the action. This brute force gets you through the duller dungeons quickly, and clips hours of grinding out of the game. Plus while the dungeon layouts can be tedious, FFXII’s excellent art direction still shines overall.
Its opening third does it no favors, and the confused plot never engaged enough to pull me into the interkingdom squabbling. However, if you approach Final Fantasy XII as a vehicle for party experimentation then it’s easy to fast-forward to the quality extracurricular stuff, like the hunting lodge that lets you fight through a series of intense monster battles. The Gambit system is so good it deserves to be spun off into its own subgenre. If you like theorycrafting, clever levelling systems and lavish worlds, this could easily be your new favorite Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy XII’s greatest problem is that it takes so long to get good