Greets, mortal creatures! Can you believe it’s been an entire year already? One year ago, while wandering very lost and alone, I came upon this small little corner of the internet, and honestly my thought process then was something akin to “well, I can kill myself, or I can start imparting my nihilistic rants and ramblings on the web for nobody to give a damn about.” I decided to go with the latter, and much to my surprise – many of you DID in fact give a damn, and came to enjoy my modest blogging efforts. Perhaps more importantly to me personally, you gave a damn about me, and I found not just fellow bloggers or followers, but a new circle of friends – which for someone like me, that struggles mightily to find friends at all, has been very special. To those of you who have chosen to share this journey with me, to help me along in my efforts to find my voice in my blog, and to share in my struggles that have led me to where I am, I thank you.
And what better way to celebrate than to also celebrate the HD revival of one of the most unsung, amazing Final Fantasy games of all time – Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Originally released in the dying days of the PS2, Final Fantasy XII was the poster child for a late-console-cycle video game – Square Enix squeezed every last little bit of power possible out of the aging PS2 architecture, and it showed in every aspect of that game. The visuals were absolutely gorgeous, outshining many PS3 games – and depending on your views of art direction, even many modern games. The gameplay systems were incredibly ahead of their time – a blending of classic single-player Final Fantasy RPGs of days past, and its MMORPG predecessor Final Fantasy XI. Its plot returned players to the world of Ivalice, previously explored in the seminal Final Fantasy Tactics – another first, as it was the first time a Final Fantasy world – Ivalice – was home to multiple games. But it wasn’t without its detractors – its massive world consisted of large, sometimes empty feeling zones, which could lead to long stretches of time spent simply traveling from one point to another. Character progression was conducted via spending AP on a massive License Board, shared by all characters, which unlocked all weapons, armor, skills, and spells. Because the entire board was open to all characters, it led to most of the party characters eventually feeling relatively indistinguishable from a gameplay perspective, as it was relatively easy to give all of them all of the “best” equipment and abilities.
As far as the original PS2 release of the game, I come down squarely in the camp of it being one of the greatest Final Fantasy games of all time. The story of a small band of rebels, each with their own personal motivations and brought together by circumstance, standing against the overwhelming might of an Empire bent on dominating all of Ivalice may bear more than a few similarities to Star Wars, but the plot and characters are masterfully written and developed, showing their own small part in a greater overall struggle. For me personally, I rank it essentially 2nd/3rd all time, with it and FF IX flipping back and forth depending on my mood (VI is 1st by a mile). But that said, I recognize the flaws in the game as described above – I remember much of the hours I spent with the game spent running all over creation, and I am guilty of turning every character into an overpowered clone of each other. But I’m here to say that The Zodiac Age enhances everything I loved about the PS2 version, and improves every weakness.
As with any HD remaster, SE has brought the already beautiful visuals of Ivalice up to modern PS4 standards. Previously blurry or softened textures are sharp and crisp, and the game puts many, if not most current generation games to shame with its gorgeous art direction. There is a fly in the ointment – some textures, in particular Vaan’s face during the in-engine cutscenes, didn’t survive the upgrade so well, and appear a bit…wonky. But this is just nitpicking – overall, this is a stellar graphical upgrade for an already lovely game.
SE solved the problem of the License Board some years ago, actually. Shortly after the original PS2 release, SE release an updated PS2 version of the game entitled Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job Edition. This version of the game never saw official release in the US; however, SE took the Zodiac Job system, improved it even more, and incorporated it into The Zodiac Age. In this new system, the License Board has been sundered into 12 separate “jobs” – combinations of equipment, skills, spells, and stat growth that fulfill different roles within an overall RPG party. For example, White Mage has almost all the healing magic, Black Mage gets the nukes, Archer rains physical damage from afar…you get the idea. Each character in the party gets to choose a total of two of these Boards, thus locking them into the character roles those Jobs represent. There is some overlap – Knights can unlock some white magic skills, Red Battlemages unlock the same heavy armors as the tank classes, etc. – so players with some foresight and planning can create complementary Job pairings for their party. But even then, having the right roles filled at the right times against the right enemies is MUCH more prevalent in this edition of the game than it ever was in the original. Some creatures are highly resistant to physical damage – so you’ll be swapping out your Knight and Bushi for your Black Mage and Red Battlemage. Other fights are just wars of attrition – and you’ll be well prepared with a White Mage, and a Time Battlemage to keep the party alive and kicking while you whittle away at the opponent. This adds an entirely new element of strategy to the game that just wasn’t present by the latter stages of the original, and it is a very welcome improvement.
But THE improvement, the one that absolutely changes the face of RPGs, and maybe gaming as a whole, is the one that I’m sure SE thought was just a tiny afterthought, thrown in as a bone tossed to people playing through the game again after enjoying it on the PS2. FAST. FUCKING. FORWARD. With a simple press of a button, you can cause the entire game – everything – suddenly shifted to 2x or 4x speed. I cannot possibly overstate what an incredibly goddamn fantastic feature this is. As the combat is a hybrid real-time/turn-based system that mimics MMO combat, and traversal across large, open zones is the basic mode of gameplay, being able to double or quadruple the speed at which everything is happening is an absolute godsend, not just for returning veterans, but for anyone who is crossing the Ozmone Plains for 243rd damn time on the way to track down the next optional Hunt side-quest boss, or exploring the labyrinthine Barheim Passage, or perhaps most crucially, grinding away at trash monsters to level and accrue AP to improve your party. The amount of time this saves is quantifiable, but the level of frustration it alleviates is not – even if a four-minute trip is only cut to two, it feels so much faster. After playing the game with this feature, I quite honestly think that any game developer, particularly a RPG developer, that does not shamelessly rip off and incorporate this feature into all their future games is just flat not doing their job right.
A few last things about The Zodiac Age – if you have a Vita and have ever lamented that the Remote Play feature between it and the PS4 was just kind of left on the vine to die, then first, good job owning a Vita, (#TeamHandheld); and second, this might be the title that renews your faith. I have Spectrum broadband internet, allegedly at 70 Mbps, but in practice somewhat slower due to living in an apartment building with a LOT of conflicting signals in close proximity. My PS4 is plugged directly into the modem/router in my living room, and in my second floor bedroom, Remote Play on my Vita is absolutely silky smooth. The controls map perfectly, there is no discernible input lag – JRPGs and turn-based games will always be the best choices for Remote Play for those very reasons, but even in some of the more fast-paced and hectic boss battles, I experienced no issues that I would chalk up to being due to playing remotely on the Vita. While an actual Vita release would have been GREATLY preferred, this is absolutely the next best thing! Finally, this game has firmly convinced me that Ivalice is quite possibly my favorite setting in all of gaming. Please go back to it, SE. Preferably in a true Final Fantasy Tactics II.
Before I go, kiddos, I’ve been avoiding commenting on Charlottesville and the response to it by the walking clusterfuck of mental illness currently disgracing the Oval Office. Not because I don’t have strong thoughts on it. Not because it isn’t important. But mostly because of this – I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t fucking have to. It is 2017 for fuck’s sake. If I need to tell you that being a white supremacist Nazi is a BAD FUCKING THING, you serve literally no purpose on this planet, and I should save my breath, time, and sanity, and just lob a meteor at you. – EWE