Many of us are hoarders when it comes to video games. You see something you think you want, that you think you need, and at that price it's rude not to pick it up. You'll get around to playing it soon, you tell yourself—then, years later, that you'll find a free weekend to dig out the now-mostly-redundant console it was made for, so that you can finally dig in. That time never comes, though.
This is the story of Final Fantasy XII and me—a game that I've actually owned twice in its original PlayStation 2 guise, but never played more than the opening cinematic of until I sat down with its PlayStation 4-destined The Zodiac Age reissue, coming out this July. And talk about going in at the deep end.
The lovely people working FFXII: The Zodiac Age in the UK tell me, ahead of rolling into Square Enix's London office, that this is going to be quite the trial by fire for anyone unfamiliar with the game. Thankfully, said lovely people are also incredibly helpful—especially when there's only one other journo sort in the session—so I get a personal guide sat down beside me for the duration of my preview. And while I usually hate this kind of hand-holding help, boy, am I ever glad of the backup here.
If you've played FFXII already, you know about the job system. Every character can be assigned a role within the party, which grants them particular powers and abilities, and a "job board" that slowly reveals its perks and skills as you earn points enough. These jobs aren't, y'know, so-and-so is a plumber, and ol' spiky hair over there's a decent sparky—it's all white mage this and foebreaker that, and the machinist role has nothing to do at all with a painfully skinny Christian Bale. (It means they're good with guns, obviously.)
Playing FFXII from the start, I'm assured, makes all of this stuff crystal clear—but dumped as I am around 20 hours into things, I need my guide to explain that unlocking this tile on the job board for my uhlan "employee" grants them the use of better-levelled spears and armor, while this other one will open an extra gambit option. Ah yes, the gambit system—that's a whole other rabbit hole of bewilderment that I'll touch on in a moment. Right now, though, jobs.
The Zodiac Age isn't just the PS2 game given a tickle of new paint and a rousing re-recorded soundtrack. In may respects it's the Japan-only "International Zodiac Job System" version of the game from 2007, carrying over that release's increased movement speed (you can explore environments at four-times walking pace, a neat touch for the time-poor RPG fan in spite of its inherent comedy value), and a trial mode, in which you face off against 100 rounds of monsters.
All new here, however, is the option to open a second job board for every main character—essentially doubling the abilities each can wield in battle, so that your red battlemage can also play at being a sword-swinging bushi, if you like. While new to this Final Fantasy series entry, this doubling up is very close to what you may have played in Bravely Default, where characters can learn a wave of supplementary abilities beside their main job's progression. As I'd played a chunk of said 3DS adventure, this is what I hung onto while making sense of the dual-profession setup.
Not that you need to control what everyone's doing in battle—that's where the gambit system comes in. Here, you can leave instructions for all in your at-the-time team—should anyone fall below 20% health, your white magic-caster will cure them, for example. This covers allies and foes alike, ranging from when to attempt to steal items, when and how to lay down an attack, and what enemies in particular to focus on. Basically, learn the mysterious ways of The Zodiac Age's many and varied menus, and you can eventually tear through the game's minor-to-moderate opposition without lifting a thumb to interrupt proceedings.
In my preview, it's only really when my party encounters a powerful "Elder Wyrm" that can cast damaging status effects with a "sporefall" ability that necessitate attention beyond the gambit system's automated actions, that I have to actively get into the nuts and bolts of personally directing healing items at individuals. Then, what was a cakewalk gets just a little tense.
After that, and a little exploring, I accept a hunt posted on a notice board at the Phon Coast, a beautiful beachside part of the game's world of Ivalice. (Yes, this is very similar to The Witcher 3's monster hunts—but what came first, eh?) To locate my quarry, I must first travel to a major town, Rabantstre, and find a dude in one of its drinking holes. He points me west, towards the dunes where said beast prowls. It's a pretty, but vicious, wolf-like creature—and the gambit system sees it dead inside seconds.
Now, you can turn this auto-murder off, of course—and when the time comes for me to take The Zodiac Age on from the beginning, assuming I don't put it off again, I just might. But there's no doubt that it, alongside the increased speed and job doubling-up, should make any returning fan's replay of the game a more story-dominant, less-grind-y experience.
Going into the deep end of this—from what I can tell—relative black sheep of the Final Fantasy family is a rather overwhelming experience. There's just so much going on underneath the hood, in what feels like countless menus—when I finally break out of allocating six different characters their second jobs and relevant skills, it feels like an amazing relief to actually push a little avatar around a jungle-styled dungeon. But I admire this customizable depth, too—I like how your bunny-eared Fran will finish her Zodiac Age journey as a very different character to mine. How, while he might brandish a gun in promo imagery, you can shape Balthier into a defensive-minded white mage—that choice is yours.
Course, starting from the beginning will better prepare you to make these choices. Because, bloody hell, I feel exhausted when I stumble out of Square, two hours after beginning my overdue and super-intense induction into Final Fantasy XII. Perhaps I should finally find that time to turn on the PS2 original, before July comes around. More of that wishful thinking, right there.