Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4)

Hoo boy, time to venture into the arena of Yasumi Matsuno. A critical darling of Square's late SNES-PS 2 era, his titles from Ogre Battle to Final Fantasy Tactics to Vagrant Story have shown up on countless best games ever list, or at the very least, "underrated" countdowns. To me, his games have always felt like a members-only club. I get it. They are ambitious, ahead of their time (Sometimes too ahead of their time), and most importantly, give a refreshingly adult story. They usually deal in mature themes with a Shakespearean flare, but God help you if you don't know exactly how to play them. God is usually a convoluted lie in Matsuno's worlds, by the way.

See, these games-at least of the PlayStation One/Two era-have a tendency to be ball busters after an all-too-brief brief acclimation to whatever newfangled system Matsuno's drawn up. Final Fantasy Tactics can get seriously brutal after a fair first couple of chapters, causing your party to get slaughtered before even being able to make a move (By the way, if you rushed to get to the cool classes, you missed the JP up Squire ability that is vital to your party's evolution). The handle system in Vagrant Story is frustratingly trial and error, and if it's error, enjoy causing minimal damage to a tough enemy and reloading your save point. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together would be one of my favorite games of all time if the story battles didn't consistently become unreasonably difficult after a certain point without some serious grinding. These are games that can easily become chores if you don't stay on top of what you need to do or exercise an inordinate amount of patience. If you want to pull snob ranking and tell me I'm just a crap player, hey, whatever makes you feel better.

Enter Final Fantasy XII, what was supposed to be the link between the massively successful franchise and Matsuno's high-brow Square games the audiences hadn't quite caught up to... until it wasn't. Matsuno left Square in the middle of making the game due to still unknown circumstances, the powers that be forced more Tidus-like Vaan to be the main character with his friend Panelo to attract a larger target audience even though they have next-to-nothing to do with the plot after a certain point, and the new gambit system virtually let the game play itself, leaving large swaths of time where you're just sitting there watching the party go about its business. Response was mixed with many loving the adventure and others trashing it. Aside from a few cherry picked aspects like the suave rogue Balthier, not much lingered over a decade later until Square-Enix announced a complete tune-up with The Zodiac Age. High-definition graphics, updated music, the "International" version that included the Zodiac class licensing system, and other tweaks all promised to make it a distinct improvement from its original release.

My memories of Final Fantasy XII are long stretches of misery with small bits of joy. When I say Matsuno was too far ahead of his time, his use of MMORPG-style exploration and battle was a precursor to titles like the Xenoblade Chronicles franchise that have similar field battle with packs of enemies roaming the wild and extremely high-level enemies occasionally wandering into the picture. However, FFXII is a rather dry, bare-bones version of this before many many refinements were added. You go around automatically fighting enemies, collecting their loot, finding treasures, and... killing more of the same enemies and taking their loot. New renditions of this kind of system at least give you some special skills buttons to press to feel like you're contributing (Except when there are enemies with status afflictions because your party will get ALL the diseases and you'll have to step in with potions). There are some variations in the main quest where you have different objectives like dipping your toe into information brokering, but it's mostly talking to a bunch of people and is more padding than adding depth to the game. The twists to battle are when you go on hunts to kill stronger enemies and invisible traps are randomly strewn about the place you need to use the skill Libra to see. On the latter, you can still be in trouble even after you see everything since the characters you don't control can trip them if you don't have a mage completely dedicated to casting float all day... and they WILL trip them. No, Panelo, don't do th... oh, good, now all of us are afflicted with petrify.... Golden needles, come hither.

The gambit system does give flexibility to take various approaches to battle as long as you purchase the proper gambit you need. Having to buy everything but the basics is a pain, but if you consistently purchase a little at a time every trip back to town, you should have everything you need and not have to worry about it rom about a quarter of the way in to the end. The ones you'll use 95% of the time are attacking nearest enemy and healing (keep it to magic healing or your auto-run characters will chug every potion you have in seconds). The game does have a moment where it suddenly flips from barely needing to know the finer points to it's EXTREMELY important you know everything fairly quickly like in most Matsuno games, but this happens far later than most of them. By the time you have to master gambits, you'll be able to cast protection spells that last awhile to your entire party in seconds while also dispelling your opponents' strengths with little trouble and not using a huge chunk of resources. It's great for the people who get into preparing for raids and the like, but I prefer feeling more like I'm more a part of the battle than simply chiming in on emergency situations.

I want to say upfront there are three improvements that rescue the game from the pitfalls of the original. The first is the ever-present auto-save features most of the latest games have that only backtracks you to the start of the current map you were on instead of the last crystal save point. I invented new swear words the day I had found myself in a corner of a deep dungeon and turned around to find one of my party members had irritated an Elemental (Balls of pure energy that can wipe a party in seconds), and with no proper place to flee, between one and two hours of work were erased just like that. Some of the later dungeons are simply massive as well, making huge mistakes even more costly. Not anymore. If you're a purist, it's still pretty easy to find your last crystal save if you MUST play by the rules (Hey, a part of me still has to play FF I without auto-targeting and Life working in battle. I am not judging). The second is a fast-forward button that can be used at any time to speed up the game while you're wandering the field. So much of the title is spent gallivanting around the sprawing overworld picking fights with minor enemies for loot, experience, and license points, getting incredibly tedious since there's not much to do otherwise.

The third major improvement is the Zodiac license system. To use most abilities, weapons, and get stat boosts for a more effective character, you have to activate them on a license board for each character. The individual boards were essentially the same in the original, so it could be difficult to get the ideal build you want without feeling like you're wandering aimlessly, triggering weapons and armor you'll never use. The boards are now divided into the signs of the Zodiac with each given a specific class. These boards are tailored for the class aside from accessories so you can far more easily manage everyone's progression. Later you can even get a second class to shore up your character's weak spots or make them even more devastating with the talents they already possess. This streamlining makes it far easier to give each character a role and not just leave all the experience to three characters like stupid me did in the PS2 version and I got annihilated on the last area of the game I couldn't escape. You can even give ill-fitting classes to certain people like making Balthier the white mage and everything works out A-OK.

The worst strike against the old version was not even its fault. I distinctly remember it came out just after Xenosaga Episode III. I was one of maybe ten people who hadn't given up on the series after the disastrous Episode II was cheap, slow, and generally a rotten game. Episode III is a masterpiece in over-the-top anime/JRPG style, blasting the audience with mile-high melodrama, easily one of the top three scores composer Yuki Kajiura has ever done, and massive showdowns that brought about one of the most satisfying conclusions to a middling franchise I have ever seen. Above all things, though, it is not nuanced or subtle. There was no palette cleanser between games and likely I wasn't ready for XII when it came along with its rather understated dramatics.

Upon reassessing the story, the first thing is it wasn't try to gussy up Star Wars (Or if you'd like, The Hidden Fortress). There are elements taken from it, but they are much smaller portions than I remember. The problem here is I remember these parts because the rest of the storytelling is so sleight and many of the elements are disconnected or never resonate that I forgot about most of them.

 The story takes place in Dalmasca, a mostly desert country in-between two colossal nations that seem to have constant tension. The Archadian empire strikes first, annihilating Dalmasca and neighboring Nabradia that had just united with the marriage of Princess Ashelia and Prince Rasler. Rasler dies in battle, leaving Ashe to figure out what to do one her own, while Lord Vayne of Archadia promises a peaceful transition.

The emotional thrust of the story at this point should be Princess Ashe as she seeks to assemble a rebellion against Archadia and unfolding their plot involving Archadia's heir apparent Lord Vayne gathering resources for a powerful mineral called magicite and its mechanically processed version nethicite. The nethicite not only has immensely destructive capabilities, but a hypnotic lure over people, as one piece shows Ashe visions of her former husband to keep her from destroying it. Can Ashe navigate her feelings of loss and the complicated political mess as the only one who can with the help of Balthier, a sky pirate with his own tragic history involving the empire?

...The key word here is SHOULD.

After a fantastic opening movie setting the scene and a related tutorial level, we switch characters to Vaan and Panelo, two street urchins in the dusty Dalmascan capital Rabinastre. They sort of stumble into the major players after a botched robbery of a palace, running into Balthier and his partner in crime Fran, a tall woman who comes from a race of woodland rabbit humans. Fleeing into the sewers, they uncover Ashe and a group of insurgents. Vaan does have a link to the main conflict in the death of his soldier brother, but it's quickly diffused after a weird subplot involving other party member Basche potentially murdering his brother but turning out he has a twin. This whole section has such needless complications while ignoring the emotional throughway of the venture. Vaan and Panelo are supposed to be portals into the others, making Ashe and the pertinent cast spill their guts, but they're more distractions, providing unneeded comic relief and unnecessary story sessions instead of just jumping into the thoughts of Ashe or having her have more meaningful conversations with Basche or Balthier, people who have weathered similar storms in their lives.

It's simply weird that one of the cruxes of the inner conflict is the unchecked grief Ashe has because everything else happened on top of it, and yet we get one flashback to a conversation they have that suggests the marriage of convenience has more substance than bringing their respective countries together. It's sincerely poignant, but it's one crunch berry in a box of Cap 'n' Crunch that has precious few crunch berries. I was happy when they had Fran stop in the woods to deal with her people she left behind as it was at least putting an emotional anchor on something for awhile.

The entire story has similar emotional disconnect. There's plenty of political intrigue and a ton of moving parts, but they don't strike any particularchords. The drama seems Shakesperian almost to a fault. It's probably Lord Vayne (A name just begging to become a super villain) being a hard-R villain in a PG-13 title with weird staging where most of his extreme actions occur off screen. He's a silver-tongued son of Archadia's leader who murdered two of his brothers, but most of his actions are conveyed after the fact or through dialogue than showing us what a conniving bastard he is. It feels like Hamlet when the titular prince is sent off to war; since it's a stage play, they have to read a letter stating what's going on with him. Vayne at least does get a creepy with the one younger brother late in the game. Also curious is the Judges, a direct riff on Judge Dredd where they act as Archadia's judge, jury, and executioners. Unfortunately, they spend more time being a danger to each other than being a threat to our heroes. And again, there's an intriguing character buried with the most off-the-rocker Cid in Final Fantasy history, a researcher who has become an odd husk of a human after his lab work consumed him. He's rightfully well regarded as a great character... and he's barely in the game. Sigh....

If I sound like I'm being overly harsh, perhaps I am. After all, I had just played a bunch of trashy space opera in 2006 when before I approached this work and was SO HAPPY doing so. Every piece of work has a different set of terms it either works on or doesn't, and XII's aims are higher than most, thus making it easy to be extraordinarily picky about it. It more or less works, but it rarely soars to the pinnacle of the franchise that it seems like it should.

At the very least, the hi-def edition makes it far more of the game it wanted to be from an aesthetic standpoint. The PS2 version was certainly one of the best looking games on the system, but it still felt a little compressed. The incredibly ornate style, borrowing from Persian and Ottoman architecture, gives most buildings complex and detailed geometric designs. With a huge amount of the fuzzyness gone, all that's left is gorgeous save a couple weird graphical issues (Vaan's abs used to look like they were Lego, but now they look like a portal to another dimension). I'm not even going to fault the characters for having sleepy eyes all the time since it fits. Old me used to complain that there was nothing that really popped out about the visuals and it was all crusty brown buildings or utilitarian Archadian strongholds, but this version cleans everything up to give proper awe to the various structures from the stunning entrance of the Stillshrine to an underground palace.

The music has the most substantial turnaround here. Hitoshi Sakimoto is an immensely talented composer and I can easily whistle a melody from each of his most well-known scores. The issues arise with his samples when he insists on using synth orchestra. One of my personal pet peeves is when people use terrible orchestral samples and pretend it's totally the real thing. The fake strings jab at my ear and the thudding brass punches my stomach. At the time Sakimoto was cranking out the tracks for the prime Matsuno joints, only Hans Zimmer could pull off the kind of synth orchestra sound these were looking for. Over ten years is an eternity for technology to catch up to certain things and Square-Enix now has he resources to get plenty of live musicians to add to the mix. The result is a sound that is a thousand times more rich and fully realizes its potential, turning one of the most annoying soundtracks in the series to one of the absolute best. The game's music is no longer only the source for "surprisingly" good performance pieces produced for the Distance Worlds and A New World concerts.

Shame about the voice recordings for the English VOs. The acting is perfectly fine. They got a wonderfully talented cast who did a splendid job. Something simply happened to the original recordings themselves where they were likely compressed for space (Not surprising, given the amount of graphical detail likely slammed the space limitations of a PS2 disc). Most of the dialogue sounds muffled, like they're talking through a silk cloth or something. It would've been a stretch to expect the original decompressed voice files were locked away somewhere, but it's still disappointing that with every other annoyance I had with the game getting addressed, this persists. It's not like I don't understand though, and you can switch on the Japanese voice tracks easily.

That's really the main theme to The Zodiac Age. It addresses, fixes, or gives alternatives to almost every issue that was annoying or repellant in the original. The too low-key story as well as the long stretches where the characters walk from seemingly endless fields chopping up baddies on their own to the next keep stop it from being a masterpiece at the top of the franchise in my book. However, this new version certainly makes it worthy of consideration instead of the lost opportunity the PS2 version felt like.  Rather than saying I didn't care for it and leaving it at that, I can now get what the people who love it see in the title.


Popular Posts