It's pretty incredible that after so many years of mainline Final Fantasy games skipping over Nintendo systems, the Switch has played host to several titles that past Nintendo consoles have missed out on, including Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Originally released in 2006 for PS2, the game has gotten an HD makeover for this edition, as well as updates to the soundtrack and various gameplay adjustments such as a speed-up ability to make battles progress faster. Add in the Switch's portability and you've got arguably the definitive edition of a now classic RPG.
The Zodiac Age takes place in Ivalice where the empires of Archadia and Rozarria are locked in an on-going war while the small kingdom of Dalmasca is caught between them. Like most Final Fantasy games you play as a ragtag group of heroes who band together purely from chance and yet must work together to stop the tyranny of the Archadian Empire. Unlike other titles in the series though there isn't much emphasis on your characters' personal journeys—the focus of the story in The Zodiac Age is more on the overarching political conflict. As such the storytelling feels a bit bare-boned. Without strong characters for the player to focus on it's hard to get fully invested in the conflict, and too often cutscenes feel rather boring as the characters simply go through the motions of finding a mystic power that can be used to stop the evil empire—pretty standard stuff in the realm of video games. It doesn't help that the writing seems to be made to mimic some sort of Shakespearean loftiness, but the execution falls well short of that mark. The writing is necessarily bad, but it never hits the highs that normally make RPG tales so engaging.
Although The Zodiac Age retains all of the recognizable, trademark creatures and traits of the Final Fantasy series (chocobos, Moogles, character classes like white mage or black mage, etc.) there's a huge difference in how battles work here compared to previous entries in the franchise. For one thing, battles begin seamlessly—if you see an enemy in the field you can run up and attack it with no transition to a battle screen. You also only directly control one character at a time, though you're able to quickly swap characters (and even change characters in your active party in the middle of a battle). The key to the battle system here is the Gambit system, which allows you to essentially create auto-commands for your AI controlled party members to follow. For example, you might have your healer set to cast cure on an ally if their health drops below 50%, that way you don't have to manually enter that command any time it occurs during a fight. Every action, spell, or item can be set with the Gambit system, and you can purchase new commands to target a huge variety of enemy types to cover any situation.
There's a degree to which the Gambit system makes it feel like the game is playing itself, but the benefits outweigh that minor annoyance. Standard battles fly by thanks to this feature, and given the real-time combat structure the alternative would be a tediously slow process of making sure each character is fighting intelligently. Plus you can always assume direct control over any character's actions anyway if you just need them to quickly do one thing, such as throw out a quick healing item. As is, the Gambit system feels like a happy medium—you have enough control over the AI that you won't feel stymied by their inability to adapt to changing circumstances during a battle, particularly a boss fight (and by the way, Gambits can be easily toggled on and off at any time as well) and at the same time you don't have to micromanage your party through every enemy encounter.
This Final Fantasy game also has its own slight variation on character classes. You're able to choose a character's job (or license) right from the beginning—or at least, once you've unlocked it after a couple hours of playing—and from there you have access to a job board with various abilities that can be unlocked with license points. There are some similarities between boards but each class's most defining features are unique—for example, both white and black mages can unlock mystic armor to equip, but their respective white and black magic spells are unique to their job boards. You're able to select what to unlock or upgrade so there's a decent amount of freedom in choosing how your characters grow, though you're still limited by what equipment or spells you can buy in stores—unlocking the ability to cast Firaga early in the game is all well and good but useless until you've actually purchased the spell. There's something oddly addictive about opening up your job boards and poring over what to upgrade, though it's a shame that the physical classes have quite limited variety in terms of what they unlock. You're able to purchase non-magical techniques, but they're few in number and even more limited in use. It would've been nice to have more variety among the physical classes outside of weapon choice.
A new feature for this edition of the game is the ability to swap licenses (in the original game you were stuck with whatever you initially chose). This is a great help in figuring out your ideal party structure, especially since each character can more or less excel in any job, and simply makes the game more convenient to play since you don't have to restart completely if you find a certain set-up just isn't to your liking. With the aforementioned speed-up ability as well, The Zodiac Age makes some valuable quality of life improvements that make the game more accessible.
It wouldn't be a Final Fantasy game without a healthy dose of optional content, and The Zodiac Age features plenty of nooks and crannies to explore that are only safe to venture into once you've reached a decently high level. There's also the hunt system which tasks you with tracking down powerful monsters and defeating them. This process can be a bit tedious when the path to a monster is particularly obtuse, but hunts pose some good challenges that thorough players should enjoy tackling. This edition of the game also includes Trial Mode for an extra challenging gauntlet of fights that rewards you with rare items that can be transferred to your main game, perfect for players who want to put their skills to the test.
The remastering of the game's visuals has done a great job of polishing the graphics. It is unmistakably a game that was originally released over a decade ago, and the art style has its ups and downs—from varied and imaginative creatures to some of the most ridiculous outfits, even by Final Fantasy standards—but the new coat of paint gives it a nice HD sheen, especially the full motion cutscenes. The voice acting, unfortunately, isn't quite able to shake off its clearly dated quality as several of the major characters sound rough, either from an acting perspective or just a sound quality perspective. This probably doesn't help with making the characters feel memorable and engaging. The soundtrack doesn't feel dated at all though and music fans can enjoy three versions of the soundtrack: original, orchestral, and OST.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age introduced some innovative game mechanics into the long-running RPG series which are just as fun to play around with today as they were thirteen years ago. Some of the game's unique features might feel passé today now that ally AI has become a little more sophisticated and commonplace in RPGs, and the storytelling doesn't quite hit the high marks of other prestigious RPG titles, but the Gambit-focused battle system and satisfaction of building up unique job combinations proves plenty engaging for hours upon end.
Rating: 8 out of 10 Gambits