Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age review
Disappointing Finale On the PS2
Sometimes I seem to come across a game that seems to do a lot horribly wrong and yet garners the praise of critics and gamers alike, which leaves me in a peculiar situation where I'm struggling to understand how people can see the positives. It doesn't help that the Final Fantasy series is essentially seen as one of most iconic in the realm of JRPGs. Yet, I cannot bring myself to like this game. While the failings are few, they are significant enough to ruin the experience and make me wish I had picked up a different title instead.
But ho-hum, let's start the analysis on a somewhat more positive note. Gamers who delved into FFX will notice improvement in the visuals here. The game still uses FMV sequences for what it considers the more important cutscenes and while there is still a quality difference between them and the ingame graphics, it is noticeably smaller than that of FFX. Indeed, the ingame models manage to edge closer to the lifelike goal developers aim for, which combined with some artful character design provides us with a cast of characters well suited to the genre. Humans are joined by several other iconic races like the Vierra and the Moogles that brings their own unique element to the people you'll meet, especially granting the town and villages a sense of life as they are filled with NPCs.
The world of Ivalice itself has been built up well, giving us that sense of steampunk through the ideas of the rustic towns to the desert regions and the underground mines you'll have to travel through. These locations are vast and have been laid out in such a manner as to craft a convincing world to explore. That said, sometimes there is a minor oddity, like moving the camera in an aerodome sometimes causes the background to "stutter". These do not impact on the appeal greatly though.
Music is... well, it's Final Fantasy so you can certainly expect all the tracks to be suitably fitting to the setting and genre. Each piece is done in a fashion to enhance the events that occur and hum along in the background. This is a nice treat but it also means that there are few tracks that really stand out and impress the player. One Winged Angel? Nope, sorry, nothing like that here. Voice acting is done superbly in the game. The script in the game seems to love aiming for old style sentence structure, which the VAs manage to convey exceedingly well. You can hear the emotion in the scenes that require it and some characters just manage to hit the right kind of tone for the personality they need, such as the charming rogue Balthier.
However, while character portrayal through the voice acting is well done, the story feels a little basic and too familiar to really grab my attention. Maybe the gameplay was distracting me for all the wrong reasons but I found it hard to really give too much attention to the plot events that were running along. Something about empires invading and a rebellion and political struggles and a bunch of loveable rogues getting caught up in something that's much more than they expected. It's not exactly bad but we've been here so often and FFXII offers nothing to make it stand out. Character development doesn't seem especially strong here either, which may impact on things, but the pacing is also a factor that might have made me not care at all.
OK, so FFXII opts to make a few sweeping changes to the core of the game in the hopes of keeping things fresh for longer term fans and these are things I generally have a problem with. Let's start with the combat side of things then. The game uses what it terms as the Active Dimension Battle system, which is a retooling of the ATB systems of earlier games like FFVII. The big difference is that field and battle environments are now one and the same, meaning you can see the enemies on the field as you explore and when you get close you enter battle mode without any screen transition at all. This setup also means you still have the environmental layout intact and other wandering enemies may be attracted to the battle and join in. Despite other gripes I might have, I love this aspect and wish other RPGs would take similar note.
However, that's really the only aspect that manages to escape without criticism. When fighting you have freedom to move about similar to a real time battle system, but every other action is still subject to their own gauges that fill up once selected and executed once full, marking the game much closer to its own roots. You can select from a variety of actions from the basic attack (which helpfully repeats itself unless you choose another action) to techniques, magic spells or items. Some moves will cost MP that regenerates as you run around at its basic level (more on that later) and enemies typically have some kind of weakness in many cases that ties in well to the rock-paper-scissors aspect most RPGs go for.
Sounds good so far, but the key problem here is that for a large portion of the game you are simply not afforded much variety with this. I spent a good chunk of the game purely using the basic attack and heal spell, and while these are indeed the most common options when playing through many RPGs the combat in FFXII felt especially limiting. Of course there are other abilities but at first those you have access to are either limited in their utility (moves like steal and poach have no use outside of trying to increase your item gain) or prove too costly to use often (essentially, spells that aren't healing). This problem is fixed later on when more useful abilities can be unlocked for use and augments are obtained that facilitate faster MP recovery and lower MP costs, but that doesn't really happen until roughly ten hours into the game, and that is ten incredibly boring hours to be grinding through fights with the same boring tactics.
Once other abilities do become viable combat does start to show more promise. Damage options are now extended to powerful offensive spells. You can access buff spells to help protect you or dish out even more damage. Status ailments can be flung around to great effect, including bosses who thankfully have some immunities but are generally vulnerable to some ailments here and there. There's quite a large scope of options you can unlock for each character and the enemies themselves generally present a lot of variety for you to check out and fight. A little into the game you can expect your active party to consist of 3 or 4 people regularly so you find yourself micromanaging in places too (although worth noting that a 4th character in the active party will always be a "guest" who won't take orders).
Unfortunately, this is where other problems arise; less damaging than the previous but still enough to sully the experience. Allow me to introduce you to the License Board, which is FFXII's version of levelling up. When you defeat enemies, you gain experience points for traditional levels and license points. These LP are spent on the license board to unlock various things like abilities and augments, similar to the sphere grid of FFX.
There are several key differences here though. On the plus side, the idea of preset classes has been entirely ditched. Rather, every playable character starts with almost the same sets of tiles activated, with some minor variations. This means you can build the characters how you want, like taking the dagger-wielding Penelo and giving her bows instead or turning a sword fighter into a mage. This also gives you some control in what to upgrade first, as you can opt to learn spells or go for augments. The game does still pose some limits to prevent you for grinding LP and learning the most beastly elements at the start of the game, like you can only obtain licenses that are adjacent to those you already have so you have to make a path to the one you want (which are hidden until you have the option of purchasing them with LP).
On the down side, equipment has been tied into this same system and I've no idea why anyone thought this would be a good idea. Put it this way - you've just battled your way through a tough challenge and have been rewarded with an excellent item of equipment. Time to equip it! Oh wait, no you can't because you need to obtain a license off the board to equip it. Same with buying items from the shops. If you're struggling on a certain boss you can't just grinding for gil and buy equipment upgrades to help. You then need to spend LP on the licenses to use it, which might mean more grinding and/or not spending LPs on other abilities you might be needing. Essentially, they've made a system that forces more grinding than usual and that can lead to a lot of frustration. Bear in mind the equipment licenses aren't just "buy this license to use bows". It's "buy this license to use this specific bow and then buy another license to use the next box and then buy more licenses for more bows". It's needlessly complex but more importantly it does nothing but pad the game out with meaningless fluff.
Gambits is a system tied into combat whose success increases as you play. These are essentially the behaviour commands that tells the computer how to control your allies (although the player character can also have these set and respond to them). Using these you can instruct allies to target the same enemy, throw out cure spells when allies health drops below a certain amount or use support spells where necessary. There's a fair amount of intelligence to a degree too, like an ally won't try to use a phoenix down on an ally who isn't KOed but won't be able to tell the difference in what elemental resistances an enemy has by themselves. Fortunately you can also override a gambit at any time by issuing a direct order, causing a character to immediately cancel their current action and begin the new one.
So where does this system suffer? Again, at the start of the game, for two reasons. The lesser reason is that each character only starts with two gambit slots, severely limiting the number of behaviour options you can have active at once, forcing you to obtain additional slots off the license board. The other much bigger problem is that you have to buy gambit targets. Gambits are set up by specifying a target and a ability. Abilities are naturally added as you obtain them, but targets have to be found or purchased from a shop before you can access them. Which, of course, is incredibly stupid. Why do I have to buy the Ally<50% HP target for healing spells? I would expect that to be available immediately. Again, it seems like another poor attempt to pad out the length of the game by forcing players to grind more to buy these.
Exploration also seems to suffer a bit in the game, which is a shame. One thing I noticed is that I simply had no inclination to explore much past the earlygame. Part of this ties into the treasure chests scattered around, which tend to have somewhat random contents (in that a chest might contain a specific item but also might just have gil in it). This can lessen the desire to go explore when the rewards might just be a little extra gil instead of anything significant. This is compounded by a general lack of doing anything other than fighting in the field. OK, sure, there's the odd switch but it's so barebones compared to other RPGs that it literally seemed like the only point of the field was to go from point A to point B.
Layout and pacing are other key issues in the game. Viewing the map screen in towns generally shows a problem straight away. The game loves detours and scenic routes far too much, even for areas you've been to before. Towns and villages somehow become large and complicated affairs in scenarios where you may just be trying to reach a shop or speak to a NPC. Technically speaking, this might somewhat reflect real life to a degree, but when I'm playing a game keeping it more simple has its merits. At least give me more sideroads and alleyways connecting the different pieces of the towns so I don't have to spend such periods of time just going to basic areas.
Of course, complaining about complexity in open field areas like the Westersands would be odd. Rather the game seems to work well with multiple route locations. Of course the destination leaves little to choice but you are often given a variety of routes to take there that can offer some interesting variations. Some sidequests tie into this, like accepting a quest to hunt a specific special monster, then going to fight the monster and claim a reward for it. Other special battles and events can also be sought out if you want to put in the time to do so, which can also help with some of the aforementioned issues a little by offering stuff like gil or LP. It's just I couldn't help but be affected by the issues I mentioned previously. Pacing does still become an issue here sometimes where you find yourself running back and forth over the same area because the game decided you needed to do a meaningless task for something.
I realise my opinion on the game is something of a minority but I can't change how I feel about it. I gave FFXII a lot of my time but it got to the point that I was forcing myself onward in the hope that things would improve. While improve they did, it certainly wasn't enough to justify the terrible pacing of the earlygame nor the lacklustre elements that continue to persist as the game progresses. The PS2 is home to many RPGs, so I'm sure there are other games that succeed far better than what FFXII has accomplished.
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