Gaming has been a Godsend in lockdown. I’ve managed to fill the otherwise long, boring hours with new experiences and nostalgic re-treads courtesy of my trusty PlayStation 4. The numbers tell me that I am not alone in this, the gaming industry being one of very few that is experiencing a period of growth whilst the rest of the economy languishes, suspended in stasis. Against this backdrop, I’ve decided to write my first ever game review.
First, a little about the scoring system. I’ll follow the usual formula, touching on graphics, soundtrack, story and gameplay. However, my review scores will also be expressly affected by time – that is, how much of it the game in question deserves or demands. Why? Well, because I’m a 31-year-old man who loves games and has done his whole life. As many of you will know, being a 31-year-old man does tend to come with a long list of responsibilities and competing demands on time including but not limited to: a professional job; a child; a girlfriend; caring for parents and grandparents; friends’ social gatherings; work social gatherings; household chores; educating oneself; trying to cobble together a pension plan that will allow said man to retire before he’s 90; an exercise regime designed to assist in getting to 90 and, worst of all, being expected to read the newspapers.
That is all to say that, when all is said and done, there is (usually and excepting the unique circumstances of the day) little time left for the playing of videogames. As a result I need to be much more discerning when it comes to deciding where to allocate that time. Unfortunately, I’m yet to read a review that explicitly takes the factor of time into account. This is despite the fact that the games media industry is almost exclusively populated by 30-something year old men (a diversity issue which is improving but would require a dedicated article written by somebody better qualified than me (and by that I mean directly affected by the issue) to address) who must share all of these responsibilities with a great number of their readers. My hope is that by using this system, I can fill a little niche for those of you who, like me, are starting to question whether or not “more” must necessarily always mean “better”.
For me, extended play time can be a double-edged sword. If a game is very long but is so damn good that it demands my time for the vast majority of its runtime, then the extended hours spent with the game are a boon. Games like The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy VII Remake, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey are so damn good that I found myself actively carving out hours that didn’t really exist in order to play them. They are necessarily 9s or 10s on this scale. Ditto for games like the recent Resident Evil remakes – expertly paced, taut experiences that prioritise quality over quantity.
Contrast a game which contains endless content for content’s sake, where much of it is boring, repetitive, cut and paste filler. Games designed to waste time. Games like Spiderman or pretty much anything made by Ubisoft these days, these games will suffer point deductions on the scale. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will get a bad score, but score will be affected.
Then there are the inbetweeners – The Irishmans and the Red Dead Redemption 2s of this world – experiences chock full of quality throughout, but which would probably benefit from having an hour, or ten, stripped out. There’s nothing at all wrong with being both overlong and extremely good, but that fact will at least be mentioned. Forewarned is forearmed!
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (“TZA” hereafter).
Final Fantasy XII features one of the best stories in a Final Fantasy game to date. The story is Star Wars meets Gladiator meets Game of Thrones. If that sounds excellent to you, that’s because it is. There is nothing wrong with derivative storytelling where the inspiration is of high quality and that is the case here, the best elements of those stories having been soundly repurposed. The ragtag group of misfit protagonists – comprised of the orphans Vaan and Penelo, the exiled sky pirates Balthier and his partner/lover Fran (my personal favourites), the disgraced knight Basch and the dethroned Princess Ashe – all have very personal scores to settle with the evil, expansionist Archadian Empire. The story is grounded in history as well as fantasy and the narrative benefits greatly from honing in on the personal motivations of the characters. The overarching narrative is replete with crossings, double-crossings and fraught families straddling both sides of a tale of conflict and political intrigue. The game touches on a broad range of themes including anti-imperialism, disarmament, legacy, freedom, family and grief. Though strange to say about a game which still features the series’ staple summons, airships and magic, this all feels very real, almost plausible. Here there is no late stage hidden-space-demon-representing-an existential-threat-to-the-galaxy reveal (there are hidden space demons of course but not of the hugely overbearing kind) to undermine the story at the last hurdle. The result is a game that sticks the emotional landing where others in the series have had a tendency to falter.
In the gameplay department, TZA is a vastly improved re-release of the original Final Fantasy XII. The quality of life improvements (x2 and x4 speed options chief among them) are nice to have but the headliner is the revamped jobs system, which restricts the spells and stat boosts available on the licence board according to character classes. The new system makes progression and party customisation a joy. Each of the six playable party members will eventually be able to access two jobs from a list of 12. This means there are an almost dizzying number of combinations possible using the system and it also means that each job (and therefore each party member) has a useful role to play, at least right up until the endgame when your favourites will step into the foreground.
The system expertly encourages experimentation and versatility because it is almost vital that even your physical damage dealers have access to some healing and/or buffing skills, and vice versa. I paired my katana wielding Bushi with the Monk job so that he could access some healing and buffing abilities. The “common sense” combination of, say, a White Mage combined with a Time Battlemage (responsible for casting spells like slow and haste) is certainly viable, but I did not find this as useful as having a white mage who could also use guns to hit troublesome flying enemies and contribute to damage when not healing or buffing. Assigning the Time Battlemage secondary job to one of my damage dealers made them a more well-rounded and useful addition to the party, because spells like haste do not rely the magic stat to improve their effectiveness and using a damage dealers’ MP to cast those buffs also preserves the healer’s MP for the casting of those all-important healing spells. The Time Battlemage class also gave that physical damage dealer access to powerful heavy armours that he otherwise would not have been able to wear. The Red Battlemage is a jack-of-all-trades and probably the most useful of all the classes early on, but their limited arsenal of healing spells will be outpaced by the White Mage’s specialised healing skills later on in the game. My Black Mage was of limited use toward the end of the game but absolutely decimated enemies with elemental weaknesses in the challenging mid-point of the game, taking out fiends in droves with AoE spells before they could surround my party. Give your Black Mage the Monk job as a secondary and you have an elemental damage dealer that can double-up as a secondary healer and physical damage dealer. This is all without considering the special skills accessed by assigning particular summons to particular job classes. For the min/max crowd (of which I am a member), there is plenty to think about here and it is immensely satisfying to tinker with.
The game remains pleasing to the eye even 14 years after its original release. Yes this is an HD remaster of PS2 era graphics but the aesthetics are far from ugly and certainly not jarring by any stretch of the imagination. The FMV sequences, as we expect from Square, are still a sight to behold even after all this time. My girlfriend saw the ending sequence and was blown away by the spectacle of it. The soundtrack is also typical Square excellence, though it lacks a stand-out composition to really stick with you (a minor gripe as the same can be said of the majority of videogame scores).
TZA bursts with an absolute embarrassment of side content, mostly in the form of “hunts”. Hunts are essentially bounty contracts on monsters that have been terrorising the lands. The later hunts are a lot of fun to complete, with the caveat that you must complete the earlier hunts to access them. Unfortunately, many of the earlier hunts are uninteresting and this is not helped by the fact that the rewards for completing them are scarcely worth bothering with – so much so that when I played the original game, I didn’t progress with the hunts at all after the first few missions. That was a mistake. I missed a lot of great gear and content later in the game as a result. Stick with the hunts and these side missions become worthwhile, serving up some of the most enjoyable and challenging battles TZA has to offer. It’s important to note though that the hunts are this game’s double-edged sword. They are massively time-consuming and, if you only have time to play for an hour or two every couple of days, you will likely become bored long before you see the best of them.
As far as cons go the game is light on them but those that do exist have a real detrimental effect on the user experience. The battle system, particularly in the early stages, is very simple and can at times feel like you are watching the action as opposed to creating it. As long as your gambits (manually programmed AI parameters/instructions) are set up correctly then it is entirely possible to clear entire areas by “doing” nothing more than running into enemies. Characters will attack automatically and can be programmed to cast healing and elemental spells appropriate to the situation. Early encounters can feel a little like playing a middle-management simulator. Provided that you have done your job right - given the right instructions, trained and properly equipped your charges - the team can pretty much get the job done without any further involvement from you. The excitement comes when things go wrong, but they rarely do outside of the game's most challenging optional areas and bosses. It is still better than Final Fantasy XIII's, but the combat system here would benefit greatly from the FFVII Remake treatment. It is difficult to be too hard on TZA for this though, as the technology just wasn't there to support such an ambitious system at the time of FFXII's release.
One might argue that I could simply have ignored gambits altogether, but in response I would say that doing so would result in the runtime of this game extending well beyond the already mammoth 80 hours I spent with it (much of that on x2 or even x4 speed) and that ignoring gambits would be a strange thing to do given that gambits are so clearly intended to be a core element of the game’s combat design. That being said, once I had persevered through the first 10 hours, widened my skill set and seen my first couple of game over screens the game does offer strategy and challenge in abundance. Frustration with the battle system is also mitigated by the MMO inspired gear and loot systems which (though not without problems, more on those below), keeps you invested in fighting enemies in order to obtain loot, which must be sold in turn to enable the crafting and purchase of increasingly powerful gear.
My real issues with TZA are all related to one thing – time. The game has absolutely no respect whatsoever for your time and you should not attempt to play and enjoy it unless you have an abundance of it on your hands! The early hunts are boring, and the rewards are as poultry as to make no difference. Sadly, you must complete them in order to access later hunts, which give access to vital gear (without which you will find it all but impossible to take on the game’s greatest challenges).
Some of the dungeon design is obtuse in the extreme. An area called the Pharos Subterra, a late game example, forces you to run around in dark rooms fighting enemies that can’t be seen. Why? To farm a huge number of orbs, which are required to light up the area and allow you to progress. It is time-consuming, the antithesis of fun and, unfortunately, not the only such example.
The loot and gear systems, governed by an RNG system ticking away in the background, can inspire madness as well. Like most RPGs, powerful late-game items are locked away in chests in challenging dungeons. The kicker here is that in many cases these items are not just desirable but nigh-on essential for success in the later hunts. The best part is that the chests which contain these essential items have ridiculously low spawn chances. This mechanic necessitates endless phasing in and out of an area until that Ribbon or Yagyu Darkblade deigns to spawn. This is regardless of the fact that you’ve already endured the wrath of endless waves of tough enemies just to reach the area where said chest can spawn. Running back and forth along the same corridor, fighting the same enemies, for an hour, just to spawn a chest is not fun and has never been fun!
Even worse are weapons which can only be crafted, like the Khumba. This ultimate katana has high damage and a high combo rate. You will very much want to obtain it but in order to do so you will be forced to grind for rare loot for hours in order to craft it. The Khumba is even more deadly when paired with the combo rate increasing Genji Gloves. The Genji Gloves can only be obtained by stealing from Genji (a high-level hunt mark) himself, or by completing another lengthy side quest. There is no ability which allows you to see what an enemy is carrying so unless you are in the habit of stealing what are usually pretty useless items from enemies, or are referring to a guide, it is quite likely that you will miss the Genji Gloves when fighting Genji. Once Genji has been defeated, you’re forced to do that lengthy side quest I mentioned to get your hands on his gloves, and you’d never know they exist at all (or how to approach that quest in order to obtain them) without referring to a guide.
I’m struggling to think of a game that makes the acquisition of key items as painful as TZA does, or goes to such great lengths to obscure them from the player’s view. I’m not a fan of it. I understand that making ultimate weapons hard to obtain is a deliberate design choice, intended to increase the high that comes with acquiring and using them. No one enjoyed running around powering up the Caladbolg in FFX for example, but the actions required in order to do so are linear - there is a clear end in sight - and so it would be worth it. The problem here is that the acquisition of comparable weapons in TZA is governed so much by RNG randomness that the process can become a truly dire slog, forcing the player to question whether or not the grind can ever be worth it. The Khumba WAS worth it, but once I had obtained it and the Genji Gloves my patience was expended. I never bothered going after the ultimate weapons for the other characters.
The counterpoint to my complaints here is that none of these items are necessary to easily complete the main story. If you are not a completionist nut-job like me then you won’t be affected by these gripes! If you are though, this all adds up to 80 or more hours of your life in order to really “complete” this game and take down the game’s toughest boss – the dreaded Yiazmat. Yiazmat and his 50 million (!) hit points will in all likelihood take the best part of an hour to take down, PROVIDED you have AT LEAST all of the gear specified above AND don’t die. The other side of that double-edged sword is that, in Yiazmat’s case at least, taking that bastard down was all the sweeter for it! On the whole though, the game could be improved by paring down some of the elements that offer nothing more than a test of time and patience.
TZA is a masterful reworking of an already good game. It boasts an engaging story, a glut of challenging optional battles and enough play time to sink a battleship (or a marriage). TZA is not without its frustrations, but it is worth your time – provided you have plenty of it to spare. Only attempt during lockdown, Christmas holidays, or whilst off sick. You have been warned!
· Story is amongst the best this venerable series has to offer
· Gameplay is ultimately rewarding and satisfying
· Deep character progression and customisation system
· Tons of content
· Still looks and sounds great 14 years later
· Combat and side content both take a while to get interesting
· Some frustrating level designs
· Not all of the tons of content on offer is pleasing (dear God the grinding)
· Obscures so much information for no good reason. Surely impossible to really finish without a guide.
Overall score 8/10
Next up – The Outer Worlds! My initial impressions are very positive. Aside from FFVII Remake (a special case), I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by the opening hours of a game.