23/05/2020 - Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
Well this was a long time coming. I bought this for the PS2 back when it came out, but I didn't get very far into it. I already had a 360 at that point along with a snazzy new "Technosonic" 720p TV, and it was tough going back to 576p fuzzovision, or less as it turned out in widescreen mode. It also failed to grab me like the earlier games in the series, for reasons that still apply today as it turns out.
This time I played the Zodiac Age remaster on the Switch, so that sorted the fuzzyness issue. The opening made for a promising start, presenting a distinctive world blending high fantasy with something out of the Star Wars prequels. The switch from fixed cameras in FFX to full 3D environments was impressive at the time, and still look cool today, but there's a weird blockyness to the world that make it less distinctive as a result.
The story was intriguing to start with, and seemed to be going for a very different tone to most games in the series. Vaan is introduced like a leading man, but turns out to just be along for the ride in a properly ensemble cast. If anything Ashe is the closest thing to a lead, and she didn't join my party for quite a while. A lot of the story focussed on the politics of two warring nations, with the more fantastical elements being mostly a means to an end. I liked the idea of it, but felt it was quite underplayed and not helped by the overly flowery dialogue. The actual voice acting was pretty good though, in spite of the awful encoding quality.
Most of the game is spent traversing the environment and fighting stuff anyway, and it's here where I had the most issues. In a brave move, FFXII threw out random battles entirely in favour of something reminiscent of a WoW (or I guess FFXI) style MMO. Mobs wander around the world minding their own business until you agro them, at which point you trigger actions which fire after a short timer. What makes it really interesting is the gambit system, where you can automate your party with situational actions, which is particularly useful for your healers. It's really smart, but after a while I found that my party was so automated that there was nothing left for me to do. Traversing the world was reduced to holding the left stick, waiting for my party to autokill everything, then move some more and repeat. Bosses tended to require more interaction, especially later in the game, but there was still an awful lot of downtime regardless. I've never used a speed toggle more in a game than I did in this.
On top of the mindless world combat, the world itself just wasn't an interesting place to explore. Environments looked nice enough, but had little in the way of distinctive landmarks and required a lot of map reading. I probably ended looking at the map more than the world!
I wanted to talk a bit about the License Board system, which governs what skills are available to the characters, what weapons and armour they can equip and even what certain items do. Every character has access to any two boards, effectively multiclassing, which offers a huge amount of freedom in how you construct your party. This was a little paralysing to me to start with and spent a lot of the game wondering if I'd made some bad choices. You can reset any of these decisions for free in this version of the game, which is cool, but you still potentially need to spend a lot of gil to buy new equipment if you do.
Anyway it's done now. I've criticised a lot in this writeup, but in reality I found my opinion wavering many times as I played it. Sometimes I quite enjoyed the laid back adventuring, but at others I found myself very bored. I do wonder if I've just been missing something, as many people rate this as the best in the series, but for me it's my least favourite so far out of the ones I've actually finished. I'm definitely going to check out a Let's Play at some point to see someone playing it who loves it.