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Majority of development time was clearly spent figuring how to make this as easy as possible, and then making it easier.

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    Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

    Rating: 2.5 – Playable

    Majority of development time was clearly spent figuring how to make this as easy as possible, and then making it easier.

    Mixed feelings on this one. I loved this on PS2, it was my favorite game on the system, even beating out Final Fantasy X which when I first played thought was impossible to top. However, too much is lost in translating that experience to International Zodiac Job System (referred to as IZJS from here on out) and then through that, translating to this new-wave Zodiac Age release that is so easy, I have to wonder how anyone could possibly have a party wipe.

    Let’s start with a quote from the HD remaster’s producer, Hiroaki Kato:

    "We overhauled the game balance so that it would be easier for players ¡ª closer to the feel of a classic Final Fantasy title."

    Classic Final Fantasy games are known for their difficulty. What’s actually being said here is that they made the game easier for the new wave of gamers, also perhaps they want people to breeze through it and then purchase another Square-Enix title asap (part of the reason games used to be so challenging was there wasn’t a lot on the market from the same developer, and it gave them time to build the next one while their fans were immersing themselves in these hundred hour experiences – now Square-Enix is literally flooding the market with their titles and if that same principle applied, you would only ever have the time to complete one or two their games per system as a moderate gamer). The bit at the end about "closer to the feel of a classic Final Fantasy title" is just to remove the sting behind one possible interpretation of this statement: "We think the Vanilla version, or even the IZJS version this game is built on (which was easier than the Vanilla version), would be too hard for modern gamers. So we had to make it quite a bit easier." The bit about it being "closer to the feel of a classic Final Fantasy title" reads as nothing but "please don’t feel bad about this".

    This game is just very, very easy. I can’t stress that enough. They really dumbed this down.

    Aside from that, the biggest change here is in the visuals. There is a significant resolution bump compared to the PS2 releases (on my PS4 Pro I get to see it in 1440p on my native 4k display, however comparing it with 1080p I don’t see any difference – it is just a PS2 game at the core with some minor modern tech flairs lopped on with ease, 1080p I see no jaggies, at 55" the bump in resolution to 1440p still isn’t significant enough to create a discernible improvement in image quality), however anyone that’s played either of the PS2 releases in HD has seen the benefit of this resolution hike already. So that is not the big sell here. What it comes down to is a few other adjustments. The font is in high-res (the main reason I purchased this, as playing the PS2 versions at HD resolutions, while a significant quality leap, still has low-quality font that is a massive eyesore at HD resolutions, and at the time of this writing, there is no workaround for this), and character portraits have been redrawn to be high res as well. Beyond this, the textures in this title are the exact same assets as they were in the PS2 release (same resolution and everything), but with some bump-mapping added to give them more depth. This looks good in some areas but some textures the bump mapping makes it painfully obvious how dated the recycled assets are. The lighting system has been enhanced, likely just ported the game from a DX8 or so engine to something more modern, it’s an easy way to make the world look more lively without actually doing in-depth texture work. The draw distance has been improved as well, which means far less asset popin, though it does still happen. Shadows also are no longer blobs, they are actually proper casts of the character or creature in question that animates accordingly. They do appear of high quality. I did not sense the presence of any form of ambient occlusion.

    The next addition is the new soundtrack, though from my perspective this wasn’t necessary. The original soundtrack was already a high sound quality recording and in surround sound. The money would have been better spent on the visuals, which again are largely just PS2 plus resolution bump and a few easy tech adjustments made. The biggest adjustment that could have been made to make this really pop compared to its predecessors would have been genuine 60fps, though that would have required a total engine overhaul most likely (many games from that era had the game timings tied to the frame rate, so in order to make this run at 60fps they would likely have had to recode a significant chunk of the game).

    Zodiac Age is significantly easier compared to both Vanilla and IZJS versions. IZJS made the game easier by restricting players to one class per character to reduce character planning requirements, but by doing so they had to make the game world "dumber" since characters could not be as versatile as they could in Vanilla. In Zodiac Age, they not only made the world tuning dramatically looser, but also gave players the ability of giving each character two license boards instead of one. Hence, they not only made the game easier by reducing difficulty of the world, but by increasing the ceiling of individual character power levels. Once again, the main focus of this game seemed to be figuring out how to make it as easy as possible, while still requiring some kind of human input to progress.

    Other "additions" are only new compared to the original PS2 release. Trial Mode was present in IZJS, as was the removal of damage limit, the ability to control Espers and Gambits of Guest characters.

    At the time of this writing, the game is $65CDN, when it is really just a barebones remaster made dumber. That’s the premise of $30 – $40CDN digital re-release titles when brand new. At $65CDN, there should have been far more here, mainly in the visuals. I did buy it, mainly due to the font issue of the PS2 versions on bigger screens (that’s really all it came down to). When you need to scratch the itch, you need to scratch the itch, but this is most definitely a price gouge.

    Remaster review aside, the core game has not been entirely lost through this severe, methodical dilution process. It does still clearly fall apart when you get to Archades. The original game director of the original release – Yasumi Matsuno – did leave at some point during development, to me it seems like this is where he would have left the shop, just because of how much the pacing of the game changes. It doesn’t become unplayable, but it definitely becomes more cumbersome, like the entire staff breathed a sigh of relief that the guy that truly cared was gone and now they could just crunch mode and finish it off. Overall the concept of the game holds up quite well, the beginning is still a little slow (common with JRPGs from that era) but it is alleviated by the fast-forward feature (which was present in IZJS, the only new bit here is that you can flick it to 2x instead of being normal or 4x), and while 2x can be argued as "it does run at 60fps", it isn’t doubling (or quadrupling when 4x) the frame rate, it’s just a 30fps game being fast-forwarded. Displays at 30fps, game timings simply moving faster. So while accelerated, it’s still a choppy ride.

    Square-Enix really should have included an option in this to play with the Vanilla board and world tunings. And due to storage capacity, could have allowed an option for IZJS board and world tunings as well. If Zelda 1, a NES game from 1986, can store two entirely different world builds in its programming, then Zodiac Age could have as well. It isn’t about duplicating assets. It’s simply "look at the Vanilla document for the ruleset if they choose that option. Look at the IZJS ruleset if they choose that one. And if they decide to go the New Wave Zodiac Age Super Easy route, look at that ruleset document." It’s very lightweight. The big lift is the assets, they didn’t go nearly as far there as they could have, but that’s where most of the storage capacity requirement comes from. The rest is just code, which is minimal impact on size requirements. It absolutely could have been done.

    If $30CDN for what’s here now, would be a 7/10. If $30CDN for what’s here now with the option to play with the three different rulesets, would push it to a 10 for sure due to Vanilla being the best ruleset for this game by far (it’s what it was built from the ground up for after all), while also providing longevity to the title because if someone become truly hooked, they would have three different ways to approach the same asset collection in one package. If $65CDN for what’s here now but with improved art assets to match the price point, it would be a 8. The drastic reduction in difficulty really changes the tone of the game. This desperately needed more options to suit more playstyles, the other difficulties were already written so why not include them? Seems odd.

    Regardless, 5/10 for what it is. It does the trick, though barely. It’s always painful to go back to something and see how much of its soul has been stripped out for the sake of making it as easy as possible for anyone who picks up a controller – even if they’ve never played a game before in their entire life – to digest. Pacing improvements could have been made from Old Archades onwards and the visuals absolutely could have received far more attention (especially at the price point), instead Square-Enix decided to focus entirely on making it a PS2 game with some modern tech flair and making it as easy as they possibly could so people could make the game run as fast as possible and forget what they were doing with their life the whole time they were consuming this release. Which is OK if that’s what the consumer is going for, but again with multiple player perspectives and more options already written, it’s confounding that they were excluded!

    I bought knowing all this, but needing that HD font. That was the only reason this was a sell to me. I really wish I could get a re-release of the Vanilla version in 1920×1080 with HD fonts and character portraits and nothing more. This could have had that option worked in. Incredibly disappointing that this package is what I have to settle for just to get an FFXII dose with font that doesn’t make my eyes immediately bug out on modern displays. If only CRTs were more readily available or more cost-efficient to repair, I could have spent the rest of my life pretending this release didn’t exist, happily re-consuming the perfect version of Final Fantasy XII that has currently ever existed: the first one to hit shelves in 2006.

    But I needed that HD font for my modern HD displays, and had to consume all this filth along with it to get a bit of that FFXII dose I was craving so heavily. 5/10.

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