Memory is a funny thing. I am a big fan of old-school JRPG turn-based combat, and don't mind a good grind as long as I feel sufficiently in control of all the aspects of battle. That's why pretty much all Final Fantasy games, up to and including FFX, have a soft spot in my heart, possibly even FFX-2. That all changed with the release of FFXII, which debatably allowed players to more or less "put it on autopilot". It's been just over a decade since the game released in 2006, and time has colored my memories of the experience in a less than flattering fashion. Playing through the first several hours of the upcoming Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age gave me some initial ideas of how the game has changed, how it's stayed the same, and whether it will leave a more favorable taste in my mouth for the next ten years than its predecessor did.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age brings the game's visuals and audio into a more updated form. The soundtrack has been fully re-recorded, though the option to stick to the original sound is still available. Visuals have received the HD treatment, with touch-ups in areas like lighting effects. Though these advancements are welcome, it's worth noting that this is not a whole new experience built from the ground up, simply an improvement on what was already there. Luckily, the original Final Fantasy XII was already a polished game in its own right, and seeing and hearing that quality bumped up a bit is welcome. Obviously, the hardware has advanced a couple of generations, and most of us are probably playing the game with a more advanced display as well.
Then there's the host of minor tweaks and additions to the gameplay, user interface, and customization options that make the game so much more accessible than its predecessor. To test these out, I went back and played the first thirty minutes of both versions side-by-side, and the differences are immense. Camera control is much more fluid and in line with other contemporary games, and the option to have one-button access to the area map, not to mention a full-screen overlay, makes such a big difference. Many other small changes abound, like access to English and Japanese voice-overs, subtitles in multiple languages, small tweaks to the combat display, and on and on. Honestly, most of these implementations would likely go unnoticed, as the majority of them are simply common in modern RPG design, but that's not to minimize their importance. A handy new speed mode makes grinding less of a chore, and is available at the press of a button. It comes in two varieties, 2x and 4x, and affects both combat and world exploration. It replaces the previous menu option that only changed the speed that combat gauges filled up at.
All of these additions and changes are great, but there's only one that's the main attraction of the show, and in this case it's the newly-implemented Zodiac Job System. Some players have already seen this in the Japane-exclusive Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System, but for most of us, this is an all-new twist on the game's character customization system. Characters still improve stats and the ability to equip new gear by purchasing the corresponding licenses from the license board, same as before. However, where the original game threw all six playable characters onto the same board, essentially giving all characters the same options, The Zodiac Age takes a cue from some of the series' previous installments and lets characters specialize in unique jobs. There are twelve possible jobs, including everything from straightforward tanking and healing roles to the more eclectic Time Battlemage and Machinist roles. The most exciting thing here is that each job has its very own, unique license board, with abilities and equipment geared towards that job, eliminating that element of sameness the original game had. Having unique license boards for each of the twelve job classes could explode the potential for strategic combat wide open.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and in my short playtime so far all I've been able to experience for myself. Combat itself, especially once the party expands, is essentially the same as it was before. The game's Gambit system lets players learn and assign commands to squadmates ahead of time, basically programming their combat behavior. Even though each character can be manually issued commands, players really only need to control a single character during combat. It's even quite feasible to just turn on everyone's Gambits and watch the battles unfold without direct intervention. This was always the part of the game that bothered me the most, and time will tell if the improved strategic elements of the Zodiac Job System offer enough of a trade-off for me to make combat feel more worthwhile.
Finally, without giving away any spoilers for those who've yet to play Final Fantasy XII in any of its forms, it's worth noting that the game's story remains unaltered. While nothing has been changed or deleted, there have also been no additions to the narrative, at least not up to the point I've gotten to. Not that this is a bad thing; Final Fantasy XII's story is certainly one of its high points, with a somewhat more intricately fleshed out and mature world in the throes of hostile invasion and civil uprising as its setting. I, for one, look forward to seeing just how deep the rabbit hole of tactical party customization goes, or whether the changes end up being largely superficial and only skin-deep.