Embark on an odyssey through the captivating realms of Ivalice as we delve into the intricacies of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. This installment, straying from the conventional path of classic Final Fantasy, tells a politically charged story never before seen in the series. Join us as we dissect the game's narrative, explore the breathtaking landscapes of Ivalice, and encounter a diverse cast of characters on a quest to prevent a war of epic proportions. From the inspired art and graphics to the innovative battle and customization systems, we'll navigate the strengths and nuances that shape this RPG experience. So, fasten your seatbelts for an in-depth exploration of why Final Fantasy XII stands as a distinct masterpiece in the ever-evolving world of role-playing games.
Story - 8.5
The story of Final Fantasy XII feels like a seamless blend of the storytelling of Final Fantasy Tactics and an entry in the Tales series, as this game is able to balance the serious tone of the story with lighter undertones of friendship, loyalty, and adventure. It impeccably pulls this off in a satisfying way, bringing more levity and believability to the table than Tactics and more severe conflict than a Tales title. Final Fantasy XII focuses on a party of six characters attempting to prevent a war between multiple factions, with this entry being far and away the most political-centric in the series. While the plot of this game is surprisingly simple compared to the PS1 Final Fantasy entries, Final Fantasy XII perfectly executes its simple plot with much grandeur, akin to Star Wars, to which people often compare it. While its lack of complexity makes it fall short in comparison to the storytelling of many previous entries in the series, its balance of grandeur, lightheartedness, hominess, and political tension functions as a lightning-in-a-bottle blend of ingredients that makes this title a unique experience that still feels very much like a classic Final Fantasy story.
Locations - 9.5
While some areas had a little bit too much space or annoying treasure chests, that's my only complaint with this game's terrific locations. The world of Ivalice is vast, beautiful, and inspired, with each location being more awe-striking and distinct than the last. Final Fantasy XII easily has some of the best towns and dungeons in the series, and this game has perhaps the best exploration in the series, save the second half of Final Fantasy VI. In the end, this world is sprawling and full of life, as tedious as a couple of the locations may be (looking at you, Garamsythe Waterway).
Characters - 8.5
Lots of people either hate Vaan or the implementation of this game's ensemble cast, but as I said about the story, this cast reminded me of a Tales game in all the best ways. I liked how Vaan was caught up in the story as a relatable, sort-of-self-insert character, with Penelo being a fun best friend who has always had his back. I also loved Balthier and Fran's close friendship, as well as the intriguing backstories of Ashe and Basch. The villain, Vayne, was also utterly fantastic, and supporting characters like Larsa, Gabranth, Reddas, and Reks added an extra layer of flair and depth to the grandiose story. There were also tons of charming NPCs, especially in the city of Archades, where they felt the need to constantly tell you their life stories in the most bizarre of ways. Ultimately, while this game had a slightly weaker character cast than some of the other standout games in the Final Fantasy series, I still loved this cast of characters and am excited to see their story continue once I play the sequel, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings.
Art & Graphics - 9
While the art design of this game may not be as inspired as Final Fantasy X, I applaud the developers for creating a fresh style for this title! While some characters give off uncanny valley vibes, and some areas become pretty drab at times, for the most part, this game did a phenomenal job at presenting the beautiful world of Ivalice. My favorite part of the style, however, would have to be the outstanding UI—it is stylish and unforgettable all these years later. Overall, this was one of the best-looking PS2 games, and its style holds up in the modern day, something that cannot be said about most games on that system.
Sidequests - 9
The majority of sidequests in Final Fantasy XII are related to killing powerful monsters to gain rewards. Whether tracking down enemies through the Tavern, Clan Centurio, or the Hunt Club or besting Espers to retrieve their magicite, monsters (and their loot drops) are the main focus of sidequests in Final Fantasy XII. While this game has many fantastic fights, a couple more non-combat quests could've fleshed out the game more, and for that, I can't give this game a perfect score.
Music - 8
While I'd argue that Final Fantasy XII has the least memorable soundtrack in the series, that certainly doesn't mean it's the worst. What Final Fantasy XII set out to do in contrast to previous entries in the series was to make a more atmospheric and subtle soundtrack, more comparable to the likes of a sandbox game or a film score. I, like many, don't think this was the best way to go for an RPG like Final Fantasy, but it perfectly pulled off what it set out to do. While this game doesn't boast a plethora of unforgettable motifs and melodies like the previous entries in the series, the soundtrack is able to convey the life of Ivalice magnificently, allowing Final Fantasy XII to have an above-average soundtrack.
Quality of Life - 8.5
With four times speed, fast traveling, and skippable cutscenes, this game is usually very well optimized. However, there are a few issues here. First of all, unlike previous entries, there's no evacuation spell like Teleport. While this may not have been egregious in a game like Final Fantasy X, this game constantly urges you to trek through dungeons to fight different Hunts and obtain different drops from enemies for the Bazaar, needlessly padding out the game's already long runtime. Secondly, there are a few areas in the game where zoning from one area to another glitches and will freeze the game, causing you to reload the game. While this only happened to me while exploring the Pharos at Ridorania and the Nabreus Deadlands, it was still incredibly frustrating. However, due to this game's great autosaving system, you'll never lose any progress, so I can forgive the game for this flaw. Last of all, this game has an overabundance of obscenely rare drops, steals, and treasures, making external RNG manipulation programs almost necessary for completionists. However, in the end, while these issues may be slightly annoying, they never made me actively want to stop playing the game; therefore, this game deserves an above-average score in this category.
Battle System - 10
Final Fantasy XII diverged from the incredible battle system present in Final Fantasy X, yet it still created a brilliant combat system that may even surpass its predecessors. Final Fantasy XII retains turn-based combat from the older games (unlike the most recent entries), but it allows for free movement that completely switches up the time and tempo of battle. Gone are the random encounters of previous entries as, in Final Fantasy XII, you fight battles in the game's open and robust areas where combat and exploration are absolutely seamless. This way of approaching combat was perfect for Final Fantasy XII, as it synergizes with the idea of hunting and looting that the game heavily promotes, and due to the loot system surrounding the Bazaar, Centurio Clan, Tavern Boards, and the Hunt Club, Final Fantasy XII has the most rewarding combat the series has to offer—getting your hands on Gil has never felt this good. While the combat may be slow at times without fast speed settings and Gambits, once you get used to the game's intricate systems, you may come to agree with me that this is the pinnacle of Final Fantasy combat.
Customization System - 10
I believe this game has the best customization system in the series and one of the best customization systems I've ever seen in an RPG. There are three primary forms of customization in this game: the Bazaar, License Boards, and, the most famous of the bunch, the Gambit System. The Bazaar allows the player to sell loot obtained from monsters to obtain the game's best equipment and items, incentivizing the player to hunt rare monsters and collect unique items to power up their characters. The Bazaar makes securing equipment much less monotonous than in other RPGs. Yet, it also doesn't go overboard with an overly complex crafting system that disintegrates the pacing of the game. However, none of the equipment options accessed by the Bazaar can be equipped without utilizing the game's second customization system: License Boards. These tile-based boards are essentially elevated skill trees that allow you to buff stats, learn innate and action abilities, and learn how to use new weapons, armor, and accessories. Each character gains access to two License Boards throughout the game, and there are 12 total to select from, each of which is assigned one of the twelve Zodiac Signs eponymous with the name of the game. Each job has its own License Board skill tree, which provides a unique twist on previous job systems in the series. While having one job is already tons of fun, once the player gains access to their second License Board, this game truly starts to shine. Having two jobs allows you to create some entertaining job combinations without limiting you to just a few skill slots like in Final Fantasy V. Want a White Mage and Machinist combo that can heal and buff the entire party while staying out of range and doing fixed damage that ignores defense? Go ahead. Want a Red Battlemage and Archer that will be your most versatile character while dishing out massive damage with the infamous Burning Bow and Ardor combo? Do it. Want a spear-wielding tank that can support the team with buffing and debuffing Time Magick spells? Combo the Uhlan and Time Battlemage. Want a powerful physical attacker that can also utilize high-level White Magick and low-level Black Magick in dire circumstances? Go for a Knight and a Bushi. Want a physical attacker that will consistently dish out thousands upon thousands of damage on top of crippling enemies? Go with a Shikari and Foebreaker. Or my favorite combination of all, the Monk and Black Mage? This combo has phenomenal physical damage and access to every Black Magick spell, as well as all of the high-level White Magick spells, with the only downside being subpar armor selection. Outside of the job classes, characters can learn two types of ultimate abilities: Quickenings and Espers, both of which function like Limit Breaks in previous titles. Quickenings are like weak Limit Breaks, but with one catch: they can be endlessly chained together, freezing time until the player misses an input. Espers are summoned and are controllable, with the Esper and the caster replacing the party to have access to powerful skill sets that can change the tide of battle. Yet there's still one customization system that somehow outshines all of the previous highlights I mentioned: the Gambit system. The Gambit system allows the player to program each of their party members with glorified if statements to perfect the AI and their party members to their whim. Want to set up Gambits that make you use a Remedy any time you are inflicted with a status ailment? Go ahead. Want to make a Gambit that heals your allies when they are on low health? Do it. Want to make a Gambit that casts Dispel on an enemy as soon as they cast Reflect on themselves? By all means, give it a shot. Gambits allow you to micromanage everything down to the last detail, and by arranging them in specific ways, the player can create the best AI in a video game to date. While all three of these systems are impressive on their own, the amalgamation of them all makes Final Fantasy XII one of the most fun RPGs ever made. This is one of the few games I've played where I could spend an hour coming up with strategies in the menu and not be bored—it's that stellar. This game is jam-packed to the brim with ingenious game design, and I doubt I'll find many more video game progression systems that can top those found in Final Fantasy XII.
Fun Factor: 10
Overall Score: 91%
Letter Rating: S+
Final Fantasy XII strayed from the tried-and-true formula of classic Final Fantasy, offending many people in the process. Still, for me, all the changes made allowed Final Fantasy XII to soar above its contemporaries and become a distinct entity—an eclectic masterpiece. With addictive gameplay, an excellently executed story, luscious locales, and tons of baddies to slay, Final Fantasy XII goes to show that, sometimes, innovation can triumph over re-creation. As somebody who was skeptical about playing modern Final Fantasy titles for years, Final Fantasy XII has rejuvenated my interest in the series and is now one of my favorite games of all time. While it isn't perfect, it's phenomenal, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a unique RPG experience like no other that still brings all the best things about Final Fantasy to the table.
P.S. - You may laugh at me for the not-so-punny title, but once you've played the game, you may just think me a comedy genius. Just saying.
Primary Version: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PC)