by - January 03, 2019

 First of all, I wish you all a happy and blissful new 2019 filled with love and magic! May it be everything you hope & more!

 I've posted a review of this game on Steam already, but seeing as a few lovely souls over on Instagram showed an interest in it, I may as well revise the latter and make it a bit more accessible to a public which may be unfamiliar with the original version. To clarify, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a remastered version of Final Fantasy XII which just so happens to be my favourite instalment in the series! So, what was the original like, what's new and should you give this game a shot (spoiler: yes).

 Final Fantasy XII was launched back in 2006 on the PS2 and it changed many aspects of the series which were, up until that point, basic or even signature to it. Amongst other things, it gave you control over the camera angles, it got rid of the loathsome random encounters battle system in favour of actual visible enemies (sounds useful, eh?) and it introduced a gambit system which allows you to "program" characters to perform given actions under specific circumstances. All of these changes gave rise to some overwhelmingly negative feedback from the die-hard fans of the series, and yet the game triumphed and won a number of prestigious awards for various aspects of it.

 The story is fairly straightforward (and riddled with clichés): in the world known as Ivalice, where magic is commonplace, a merciless war rages between the Archadian and the Rozarrian empires. Caught in the middle of it are a number of smaller countries and cities and many have already been subjugated by Archadia, including the main "hub" of our game known as the city of Dalmasca. Within, a young "street rat" by the name of Vaan has a big dream of roaming the realm of Ivalice freely as a sky pirate aboard their magicite-powered airships. On one of his larger-scale missions to wreak havoc, he just so happens to stumble upon an unusual bunch of characters: a duo of sky pirates, a traitor-knight and a princess who's lost it all and is determined to get it back. Along with his childhood friend who's "just there to keep an eye on him", Vaan sets out on a larger-than-life quest to overthrow the Archadian forces and return the throne of Dalmasca to its rightful heiress.

Fran is a babe and also goals.
 So it's fairly clear from what I mentioned that this did not became one of my favourite games ever by virtue of its story-line, nor on account of the characters whose surface personalities peel away to reveal only a deeper layer of the same familiar tropes (I still like Fran, though. Go figure). In order to gauge exactly why the game stands out to me as much as it does and why I love this release as much as I did the first, I will have to make a comparison between the two.

 Alongside some welcome updates to the graphics (we're finally at 60 FPS here, lads!) and a newly-orchestrated soundtrack which retains all of the magic from the first one, Zodiac Age added a "Trial Mode" which lets you battle different-level enemies in an arena (it's a good way to get items, too) and introduced some drastic changes to its character growth system. The latter novelty is the one I was the least thrilled by. Essentially, each character has a "board" whose elements you unlock to cast spells, equip armour, wield weapons, etc. In the update, you may now choose a specialisation for your character to focus in. In theory, it sounds much neater to be able to give your party a conventional game "job" (archer, black mage, etc) than to wander aimlessly around their license board, looking for appropriate skills to unlock. You even get to select a second job later on, how useful would that be!

 Unfortunately, if you fail to go about this strategically (like I did) and don't read up on a guide or two, you may end up with a rather unfortunate setup, such as a White Mage who can't cast Esuna, a Black Mage who can perform Curaja but not Darkga and a tank whose MP and magick potency far surpass their attack power. It also isn't of much help that you now need to mind which Summon gets assigned to which character, because some of those very useful skills and weapons may forever remain outside of your grasp if they are not linked to the main board via Esper square.
 (Summons/Espers are creatures which you defeat and then "recruit" to fight for you, and they are all based on the traditional Zodiac signs.)

 Granted, this is the only major issue that I experienced with this game. One of the improvements that is not included, but I would have loved to have, is for the non-leading characters to have the common decency and path-finding ability to NOT walk straight into a trap which the leader has spotted and ever-so-delicately avoided.

Okay, cons are out of the way. What did Zodiac Age retain and improve from the original series?

 The soundtrack. It is divine, area- and mood-appropriate and I was very happy to be able to discover elements to my favourite tracks like "Eruyt Village" and "To Walk Among Gods" whose complexity had hitherto gone unnoticed. Have a listen down below:

 What I was the most ecstatic about, however, was that the designers did not stray from the original "painted" feel of the game, in favour of a more realistic version. Whilst it certainly is not a bad thing to see 3D characters come to life through the magic of advanced technology, part of what made the original FFXII so beautiful to me was precisely this artistic approach.

 Back when the original game came out, many were unhappy with the developers' choice to approach the graphics "artistically", rather than realistically. FFXII is loaded with breathtaking landscapes, creative takes on monsters and beautifully intricate detail. Paradoxically, the artistic and less-realistic graphics do not diminish their beauty, but rather create an even more immersive atmosphere. If you ignore the fact that Vaan probably drew his own arm muscles with contour & highlight, this touch really does leave players feeling like they're experiencing a piece of illustrative artwork.

 I also loved witnessing the re-interpretation of Central and West-Asian creatures and motifs through the eyes of Japanese culture. Although the game terrain is very diverse and we do get our fair share of our beloved woodlands, A vast expanse of Ivalice is actually desert terrain. Dalmasca itself is reminiscent of an Arabic city (just like Doha, which I wrote about last time here) and that is reflected even in its residences' clothing and speech. As a matter of fact, my absolute favourite characters are the Viera which I would describe as "Indian bunny elves". You'll catch my drift when you get to that point.

 Finally, I can never play through this game without succumbing to the urge to fill out my bestiary which not only provides us with incredibly detailed information about the creatures in question, but also with the lore and history of a world which could easily be passed on as two-dimensional by those who have not bothered to read through it.

 In a nutshell, the reason why Final Fantasy XII (and Zodiac Age) remains one of my top favourite games to this day is because it is so immersive and such a welcomed change from the Nordic and Celtic-themed games which I am an absolute sucker for. Even after years of replaying it (and it does take a while to do so), I still find myself searching for every last secret and every bestiary entry that the realm of Ivalice has to offer.

Or it could just be me liking pretty things. In any case, I do think that this remaster is worth it to both old and first-time players alike, and I am grateful that I can once again waste weeks of my free time just like I did nigh on twelve years ago.

 If you managed to get through that expanse of information, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading and next time I will be back with a non-video-game post, promise!

Unlike my long-winded writing. *ahem*
P. S. It's nice to see that you can still cheese Fafnir behind that rock, like in the good ole days, haha.
P. P. S. The Moogles in this game are the most adorable creatures in existence.

I want to snuggle them.

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