Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Review

By Kevin Tavore,
Final Fantasy has always been a groundbreaking series. Each installment comes crashing into the fray with spectacle and creativity in a way that makes fans rabid with excitement. A new release is a celebration of the JRPG genre and a testament to what it can achieve in the eyes of the fans, and justifiably so on most occasions. That’s what makes the response to 2006’s Final Fantasy XII particularly interesting: many players really didn’t much like it. To be clear, the game has a 92 on Metacritic and it undoubtedly has its fans, but a lot of the game design simply didn’t resonate with players, and so it was reworked into the International Zodiac Job System re-release in Japan. That mouthful of a name essentially redesigned character progression and added a fast-forward function among smaller changes. And so, with all of that history out of the way, we have Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a remaster of a game that was once revolutionary but in modern times misses heavily on the story and has to rely on its gameplay to be worth recommending.


At face value, Final Fantasy XII’s story is interesting. We meet a cast of characters that are not as shackled to cliche as the average JRPG and they lead us on an adventure centering around political intrigue between an empire and a captured kingdom. Even saying it now, it sounds promising and so divergent from the norm that I want to experience it. Of course, I beat the game and so I did experience a story, but the end result leaves me feeling like I missed all of the good parts. To fully investigate everything that’s wrong with Final Fantasy XII’s story would require a dissertation, but I can provide some highlights.

First, there are Vaan and Penelo. Vaan is the main character but his role in the story is functionally nothing — no one ever justifies his existence on any of the missions the team embarks upon. Penelo’s justification is that Vaan is there. It’s a strange feeling to have the main character be so inconsequential that he’s not even deus ex machina’d into playing an important role. I’d say that’s poor design, though his character is awful and devoid of motivation beyond “I want to be a sky pirate!” anyway so maybe his relegation to background scenery is by design after it was too late to remove him from the game completely.

Second, there is exceedingly little character development beyond a surface level step in a direction they were already going. The Princess Ashe tries to reclaim her kingdom. Basch believes he failed the kingdom and attempts to find redemption. Balthier is a sky pirate who might or might not have a heart of gold. Fran is a mysterious exile who goes wherever Balthier does. Now imagine where a cliched story would take these character archetypes and that’s pretty much where Final Fantasy XII ends up without much trial. I'm not saying every story needs to be unpredictable, but it could at least feel rewarding to see the characters get to the end.

Worst of all, the whole story is mostly just incredibly dull. It’s an endless pursuit of power so that the resistance can properly resist and that’s pretty much it. I found the entire affair to be very hard to get into when it’s premised entirely on “the empire is bad.” Look, empires do what empires do — they conquer. You don’t hate the lion for killing the fawn. If the empire is evil, show us why and show us why Dalmasca, the homeland we’re fighting to save, is going to be better off outside of the empire’s shadow. A story should make me care about its outcome and I’d be very surprised if anyone truly cared about this one.


On the gameplay front, Final Fantasy XII shouldn’t be very good when analyzing it clinically. It focuses on passive combat in which you set up if/then programming, called Gambits, to tell your characters what to do and when to do it. For most fights and grinding, this meant I had two characters who simply attacked the same target until everything was dead and another who healed and attacked when she had nothing else to do. From there, I simply ran around the world, walked near enemies, and my characters killed everything without so much as a button press. The strategy even worked on literally every boss fight throughout the entire main story, though I’ll admit to occasionally directing characters to heal when the programming thought they should do something else. Even writing it now, this sounds dreadful. In truth, I found it very fun.

The fact that I enjoyed the combat is likely a testament to the game’s customization. New in this version is the Zodiac Job System. Ignoring the fantastical name, it’s a system designed around choosing two classes for each character and then developing those classes as you see fit during your time through the game. Creativity is encouraged and poor decisions are easily rectified as you can freely and without limit reset your “license” points and jobs if you find a different combination you’d like to try. If you want a crossbow mage, you can do it. If you want a healing knight, you can do it. If you want a thief with a greatsword, that works too. It's really exciting.


I liken Final Fantasy XII’s combat system to putting together a Rube Goldberg machine. Those are the engineering marvels you might remember trying to build as a kid where marbles go down a track and trigger various causes and effects that ultimately clear the path. It’s amazing to watch all your thoughtful design and creative choices come together, from class combinations to Gambits, and so running up to enemies and even bosses and essentially auto-fighting them might sound uninteresting, but it only works because you made it so. That makes the entire endeavor so much more satisfying than manually ordering all the attacks would have anyway.

Side content in Final Fantasy XII is plentiful but comes primarily in one form: hunts. These will task you with going back out into the world and completing missions given to you by various NPCs. The combat’s interesting and so these hunts are too; plus some of them can be quite challenging if you try to do them as you progress through the game normally. The downside is that they require an insane amount of legwork from picking them up to meeting the quest giver to actually finding the enemy, none of which is clearly marked on your map and instead is locked away in the menus for some reason. I can’t forgive that poor design, but the game does feature 2x and 4x fast-forwarding for everything and that cuts the time wasted down substantially. I began using that feature about 10 hours into the game and I can’t imagine playing any JRPG without it now that I’ve learned how not to run into walls and miss turns.


The achievements are typical of a JRPG: a paltry sum for completing the story and then a smattering of points everywhere else for all kinds of needlessly grindy completionist exercises. The most pointless in Final Fantasy XII is certainly uncovering all the maps — hope you didn’t forget to step into a little corner of a dungeon. The rest, though, will see you doing things that at least ostensibly you’d want to do if you wanted to do everything. You’ll hunt, you’ll kill everything, fight bosses, the works. With 4x speed, it’s not a 100-hour investment, though I suspect you’ll still be here for days of playtime.


Balthier often jokes that he is the leading man of this story, and I can't help but think it might have been better if he were. Final Fantasy XII's story begins with an excellent foundation and then never builds anything worth experiencing upon it. Instead, we're treated with a complete lack of character development, a lead character with no substance or purpose whatsoever and a storyline that ends in a boring and cliche fashion. Despite it all, I'd still say Final Fantasy XII is a good game. Its combat is almost entirely automated, but it's designed by you thanks to the programmable Gambit system, while character progression through the job system is deep and open to creativity. Running up to enemies and having the AI fight your battles for you may not sound great, but it is absolutely is. I'd be happy to play another forty hours, but preferably without any more story.
7 / 10
Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age
The reviewer spent approximately 31 hours playing through the game to the end, ultimately saving the world, developing his characters and taking on some fearsome foes in hunts. He unlocked 16 of 40 achievements during his playtime. The game was played on an Xbox One X. A review code was provided by the developer.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.
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