Final Fantasy XII was originally released on October 31st, 2006 in North America for the PlayStation 2. It was widely praised for its amazing graphics, addicting gameplay, and being the first game in the Final Fantasy series to allow you to avoid random battles. However, despite all of the initial enjoyment over the game, I feel as if this is one of the lesser appreciated titles in the series for many reasons, some reasonable and others unwarranted. So much so, that I believe the game was just forgotten by many especially after the release of Final Fantasy XIII, which has gone down in infamy at this point as one of the worse titles in the Final Fantasy series. However, like most gaming companies do nowadays, a HD Remaster was surely on the horizon, and after the announcement of Final Fantasy X/X2 HD, it was only a matter of when this game would come out. In 2016, Final Fantasy XII was finally confirmed for a HD remaster. Similar to FFX, Final Fantasy XII would come with all of the international re-release changes that North America never received, such as a class system, a gauntlet-like challenge mode, and some other interesting changes. So now that it’s here, let’s finally go all out and discuss Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
Set in the continent of Ivalice (the same universe as the Tactics games), two kingdoms, the kingdom of Dalmasca and the kingdom of Nabradia, join forces with the marriage of their two royal children, Princess Ashe of Dalmasca and Prince Rasler of Nabradia, in the hopes to use their combined might to fight back the oppression of the mighty Archadia Empire. However, despite their best efforts, the Archadian Empire easily defeats these two kingdoms. Even though the King of Dalmasca had hoped to sign a peace treaty with Archadia, he is murdered his own soldier, namely Captain Bosch from Ronsenburg. With the king’s death and Prince Rasler’s deaths, Dalmasca is left in Archadia’s control and Princess Ashe’s fate is currently unknown.
Two years pass and we change our focus on a young boy named Vaan, a victim of the war and a resident of Rabanastre, Dalmasca’s capital. Vaan plots to “take back what’s their’s” and infiltrate the royal castle in the hopes to steal the castle’s treasure. When he locates a peculiar stone in the castle’s vault, he runs into two Sky Pirates known as Balthier and his partner Fran, who are also interested in the stone. A chase begins between the three just as an attack is set on the castle by the remaining forces of the Dalmascan Residence. During the chase, the three land in the sewers and are forced to cooperate together in order to escape. Later, they run into one of the leaders of the residence who refers to herself as Amalia. With her help, the three almost escape the sewers until they are caught by the current leader of Rabanastre and one of the heirs to the Archadian throne, Vayne Solidor.
Vayne reveals Amalia to be the thought-to-be-dead Princess Ashe, captures her, and sends Vaan and company to the Nalbina Dungeons. Once Vaan reunites with Fran and Balthier, the group decides to find a way to escape the dungeon. On their way, they encounter another ghost from the past, the traitorous Basch fon Ronsenburg, who offers to assist them in exchange for his freedom. Balthier agrees much to Vaan’s dismay, as it is revealed that Basch murdered Vaan’s brother, Reks, at the beginning of the game. However, Basch vows this not to be the case and that he has been set up by Vayne and his twin brother, the judge known as Gabranth. Later on, when the group escape Nalbina, they eventually find Princess Ashe aboard one of the Empire’s war fleets. Aided by one of Basch’s old friends and a member of the residence, Vossler, the group is free to explore the ship and save Ashe. Once they find Ashe and escape the airship, Ashe claims that she must find proof of her heritage in order gain an audience with Archadia’s Emperor in order to sign a peace treaty between her country and theirs.
Final Fantasy XII has probably one of the weaker plots in the entire series, along with undoubtedly the weakest cast in the entire series. Fans can complain about Final Fantasy X’s main cast all they want, but at least most of them have something interesting about them that the game explores throughout the plot. Half of the main cast in Final Fantasy XII are not even relevant to the plot of the game. Honestly, this game is a mess narrative wise and I think it all starts with the “main protagonist,” Vaan. After a certain point early on, Vaan adds nothing to the overall plot of the game. Same goes with his childhood friend, Penelo. These two were literally slapped into the game so that the target audience of the game could have a character to relate to by age. Originally, Basch was supposed to be the main character of the game which makes a lot of sense from a story stand point, but nope! Gotta make No-Shirt Mc. Boring Kid the main character.
Honestly though, I think this game just has a lot of wasted potential character wise. None of the main characters are that interesting to follow other than Balthier, and most of them serve no purpose to the plot like Vaan or Penelo. The funny thing is that there are a few characters that temporarily join the party who are much more interesting and add something to the story. For example, let’s take the guest character Larsa for example. He is the complete opposite of his brother Vayne, he wants to resolve things with Dalmasca peacefully. Seeing these two bump heads more would be far more interesting than hearing Vaan’s naive comments. Likewise, though, more character development with Basch and his twin brother would have been really great to see instead of it just being shoe horned at the end of the game. Ugh… The plot is just a mess and it really could have been ten times better if they had focused on the things that actually mattered, instead of who they want to market the game to. It’s just another example of how corporates can screw up media.
Luckily though, the game isn’t entirely doom and gloom. Because the one thing that ultimately matters in the end is if the game plays well. And it does. Very, very much so in fact. Final Fantasy XII has elements of an MMORPG mixed with turn-based RPG functions that the series is known for. The player will traverse an open world consisted of several different maps, and for the first time in Final Fantasy history, there are no random battle sequences. Instead, enemies can be found wandering the area and you can choose to fight them if you want or run away from them (provided they don’t see you first). If you choose to engage them in battle, you’ll participate in a battle similarly found in most MMOs but with a Final Fantasy spin on it. Like the previous games, you can use the Attack, Magics, and Item commands whenever you wish. Or you can also use the Mist command to summon an Esper (basically the summons of the game) you have claimed to do battle with you or you can use your Quickenings in combat which or pretty much the Limit Breaks of the game. With that MMO vibe, it definitely makes plaything the game extremely addicting to play. I mean, every time I’d get to a cutscene, I’d be tempted to skip it just so I could go back and play the game.
In order to use whatever you have at your disposal, you have to make sure you’re licensed to use it. In vanilla Final Fantasy XII, the License Board was a system that let players customize their characters into learning whatever ability, spell, or equipment they could use in battle. In the original version, any character could learn every single License, basically allowing them to be well rounded for any given situation. But in the Zodiac Age, the License Board has been severely nerfed and now instead of everyone having access to the entirety of the License Board, every character has to pick a class (Knight, White Mage, etc.) and they get a small License Board that has abilities reminiscent of that particular class. For example, the Black Mage has Licenses that would increase a character’s magic tremendously as well as having various spells to case on enemies. This is actually a very good way to balance out the game and to even help give players a reason to go back and play through the game again to create multiply different party combinations.
This game is also extremely huge. When Final Fantasy X came out, many people complained about how linear it was, and the developers definitely took note of that in preparations for this game. While some parts of Final Fantasy XII can, and will be, linear at times, there will come several parts in the game where you can just go and complete side quests. Most of these side quests consist of hunting boss monsters and collecting a bounty on them. These will often vary from easy to hellishly difficult. However, of course, like any JRPG of this caliber, high risk means high reward. Some of the side quests you partake in can grant you powerful optional Espers to command and battle or even game-breaking equipment early on. This is arguably the biggest Final Fantasy game in the main series (excluding the MMO’s of course), so there is always something optional to do if you feel the need to take a break from the main plot.
I think Final Fantasy XII is somewhat of a hidden gem in the entirety of the series. While the plot is nothing special and the characters feel completely wasted, the gameplay more than makes up for all of its shortcomings. It’s just that it is really disappointing to come across an amazing game like this and just not have anything interesting come out of it from a narrative perspective. I definitely recommend fans of the series to pick this up, as I think the changes made in The Zodiac Age are significant enough to give you an entirely different experience while playing it, but if you’re looking for a story with a good plot, definitely look elsewhere as this game will not satisfy your needs in that department.
Final Verdict: Wait for a Sale. While Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age’s plot isn’t the greatest, the gameplay is and will always have something for you to do.