There is, in theory, a lot of potential in Square Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy XII remaster, The Zodiac Age. Yet when it’s released on PlayStation 4 next year, it may not be the same game from ten years ago. Reportedly, Square Enix is taking great pains in rebalancing major aspects of the game, from the difficulty of some battles to various stats. Speaking to Polygon in a recent interview, producer Hiroaki Kato stated the goal was to somewhat re-align XII with the rest of the series.
“We overhauled the game balance so that it would be easier for players closer to the feel of a classic Final Fantasy title,” he said.
While it’s easy to assume the worst when presented with this kind of news, Kato’s words may be cause for some genuine concern in this case. FFXII’s unique flavor on the PS2 came almost entirely from Yasumi Matsuno, the game’s original director who had previously made a name for himself with Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story — all games that demanded a deliberate, tactical approach to succeed. Though he would leave FFXII’s development team before it was released, Matsuno’s design fingerprints remain all over the finished game.
And perhaps this is why, despite its attachment to the Final Fantasy name, FFXII never got a fair shake. Matsuno’s taste for the political complexity replaced the simpler, more traditional hero’s journeys of old, leaving fans of more popular entries like FFVII or FFX feeling a bit cold. The battle system was immediately divisive as well — melees took place in real-time, with brawls happening right there in the open world rather than a random encounter screen. More so than ever before, strategy was a significant aspect of play.
Players had almost limitless options to customize and switch tactics mid-fight through the game’s license board and gambit systems, which offered a staggering variety of commands, abilities, and stats they could subsequently tailor for use in battle as parameters that would change depending on conditions. While players might be able to spam their way through combat in any other Final Fantasy, FFXII always kept players on their feet, constantly thinking.
The game’s difficulty — and it is at times very challenging — came from having to learn the harsh lessons of its systems. The onus was on the player to pay attention and make proper use of gambit combinations (the mechanics of how moves work together in the game) best suited for whatever hostile situation the player found themself in. In a post-Dark Souls world, the joy felt with FFXII’s hardest-won victory should be a familiar reference point. And for players that got on board with the deeper approach this radical shake-up took, it felt like a stellar reinvention of what Final Fantasy could be.
Kato’s words sound closer to revisionist history. With few exceptions, Final Fantasy has rarely presented much challenge. And on the rare occasion it did, it was because characters hadn’t leveled up enough. The situation could then almost always be rectified by mindlessly grinding through encounter after encounter to gain more experience.
Anyone who remembers the original PlayStation entries can undoubtedly relate to doing exactly that at one point or another; if that’s the side effect of an easier Final Fantasy XII, the developers may neuter, or at least heavily edit, Matsuno’s intentions, remaking how the game feels as they see fit.
That’s a worst-case scenario. Though it remains to be seen just how widespread the balance tweaking for the game is, the fact that the developers have brought back FFXII’s director Hiroyuki Ito to help in the overhaul could either be a boon or a detriment. On the one hand, Ito did see FFXII through to completion, and worked as the principle planner for Tactics’ battle system.
Conversely, he also is responsible for the combat design in most of the other numbered Final Fantasies, and is supervising The Zodiac Age based on feedback from a fanbase who frankly may not have had the patience or interest in accepting Matsuno’s wildly different interpretation of the series in the first place.
And it isn’t just the idea that FFXII should be hard for the sake of it. Without a healthy (if fair) struggle, any need to take advantage of — let alone appreciate — the masterful intricacies of FFXIIs design may end up mitigated. As with any of Matsuno’s games, undermining that fulcrum too much would break it.
For now, it’s too early to tell how much closer The Zodiac Age may feel to the rest of the series. If the developers are smart, they’ll be subtle in whatever adjustments they make. (Kato has mentioned the remaster will have an harder unlockable game mode, but whether he was referring to the main game, or if it would just pile on difficulty for the sake of grief is unclear.) Otherwise one of Final Fantasy’s most interesting entries may end up compromised.