25 Reviews liked by blazing
A fantastic game just got better.
Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age is an HD remastered version of the original PlayStation 2 game released in 2006. More specifically it's based on the International Zodiac Job System edition previously only released in Japan which balanced out some of the gameplay mechanics among other things to improve the original. This PS4 release with higher quality visuals, remastered orchestra soundtrack and ability to play at X2 and X4 speed is sort of the ultimate release of the game and it is, in my opinion, fantastic.
The story of Final Fantasy XII is a very political one. Set in the world of Ivalice, more precisely the Kingdom of Dalmasca after a war where the Empire of Archadia has invaded and taken over. The characters are an assorted bunch from a pair of orphaned street thieves, a dishonored Knight, a Princess and a couple of sky pirates. They all get brought together for different reasons, some for their honor and duty and others just because they got swept up into events much bigger than themselves in an attempt to free Dalmasca from Archadia's grip. The story isn't a huge world saving quest like many previous Final Fantasy games or other Japanese role playing games in general and I kind of like it for being more grounded in many ways. That's not to say the story doesn't take the player to fantastical places like floating islands or towns full of strange races while fighting fantastical monsters or anything, only that the characters problems and motivations just seem much more realistic than previous games have gone for.
The gameplay on this quest is of course the most important aspect and I thought it was way ahead of it's time when it was released and didn't actually think I would like it, when I finally played it though I loved it. During the parties travels both between cities in the wilds as well as numerous dungeons they will cross paths with many enemies such as wild monsters or Archadian empire troops. During fights or traveling the player can use up to three characters on the field at any one time and as long as they aren't being targeted can be swapped with back up members at anytime. These three members in the field can be swapped between at any point and given orders to attack, use a variety of offensive/defensive and heal items/abilities etc. or they can be set up to automatically perform actions under certain conditions.
This is called the gambit system. Each character has a set amount of slots for these gambits which can be set up to target specific enemies, characters or themselves under a variety of conditions to perform an action. For example "Ally health <60% - use potion" so any ally who drops below 60% health that character will automatically heal them with a potion. It's a simple but effective system where you can assign priorities to which gambit they will use over others in different situations gaining both more slots for these gambits as well as conditions to use them and abilities as the game goes on both from leveling up and shops. It is a system people either love or hate but you can turn them off at any tame should you wish and control characters manually. I liked to set up my gambits and have my party take a boss out running on automatic without me even touching the controller if I've done it right but there is some flexibility if you want.
The big change to the game over the original is each character now take on up to two specific jobs that can't be changed, locking in what skills, weapons and armor they can use for the entire game rather than everyone being a jack of all trades super soldier as in the original. This makes for a much more interesting and strategic game where you have to choose characters jobs very carefully as you can't go back once they take on that job. I also found myself swapping between characters a hell of a lot more to use different skills such as various magic or long ranged attacks etc. How everyone plays will be entirely up to your job choices and it makes the party feel a lot more diverse.
Visually this game is just wonderful. It's obviously still a PlayStation 2 game and that must be taken into account but in many places it looks better than some PS4 games. It was cutting edge at the time of release and with higher detailed models, crisp outlines and better colors it looks much better. There are some blurry undetailed textures here and there for backgrounds compared with the detailed character models but all in all FFXII still looks fantastic thanks to it's great usage of color and design. I seriously love the overall art and atmosphere of FFXII from the normal citizens, the races, buildings, armor etc. It all looks great.
The audio and music are also fantastic. The whole soundtrack was re-recorded, you can switch between it and the original in the menu to see the difference and use whichever you prefer. I personally loved the higher quality new soundtrack, the music is exactly the same otherwise which is no bad thing because the soundtrack is great. A nice mixture of more upbeat tunes such as exploring the city of Rabanastre up to the more epic orchestral boss fights. As for the voice acting, I always loved it in Final Fantasy XII and the voice acting is exactly the same, no re-recordings of that. The cast does a great job of all standing out, from the British skypirate (Balthier is the leading man after all) to the enigmatic Vierra and grizzled sounding Knight, each part is really perfect for each character. The only problem is some of the voice acting sounds like it was recorded through a tin can or a tiny room and comes across as a little echoey, it didn't bother me much, just something I noticed people should be aware of.
Lastly on my standard review list is value. I got the platinum trophy in around 110 hours beating all super bosses, doing all optional hunts and side quests. I was however doing this having played it all before and a lot at x4 speed. For someone new to the game that's not hunting out every little secret or trying to take on the 100 levels of trial mode it's still a solid 40 hours experience which at £30 was good value to me.
In conclusion Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age is a great game. It improves on the original balancing out characters and combat with better visuals, improved music, an ability to speed run through the large open areas. It has a ton of content and is just an all round great game. I can see how some people may be turned off by both the gambit system and the story but it's worth a try as you may end up surprised and loving it like I did eleven years ago.
+ Gambit system is excellent.
+ New job selections make for a more diverse party.
+ Great visuals, color and music.
- Voice acting is superb but sounds like it was recorded in a small room. May annoy some people though I was fine with it.
Definitely one of the best Final Fantasy games out there, and probably has the tightest ratio in the series of "good game" vs "not acknowledged as much as the others".
The story is great. You'll find people that say the story is "just like Star Wars" or derivative. While these complaints aren't completely meritless, I can't help but admit that anyone who genuinely thinks this to be a mark against this game likely didn't play through it entirely. The moment-to-moment experience of playing through this story is consistently thrilling, and a satisfactory adventure. You're thinking about just this game while playing it, and nothing else, because it's one of the most tightly-plotted games in the series.
To the story itself, it tells the tale of Dalmasca, a desert country in continent of Ivalice, and the next target of the encroaching Archadian empire. Upon the annexation of the Dalmascan capital, Rabanastre, a small group of freedom fighters from all walks of life find themselves thrust together by fate in an adventure that will shape the very face of history. FFXII has you playing as all sorts; from larger-than-life heroes, politicians, and knights, to swarthy thieves and scoundrels, to the hoi polloi commonfolk. They all pepper the main cast, as well as the guest characters you find along the way. This game has little in the way of "hanging out with each other" among these characters, but it does have quite a bit of "hanging out in the WORLD" that makes it such an enamoring adventure. Beyond that, there are moments where your party shows unexpectedly-charming, teeth-clenched affection for one another, if the viewer is able to read between the lines of the fantastic voice acting.
And yes, the voice acting IS fantastic. I doubt it's a stretch to say Final Fantasy XII has the best English dialogue of any Final Fantasy game, and its place in the pantheon of dialogue for all games is quite high up there. You feel less like you're playing a quirky JRPG and more like you're witnessing one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. And yet, despite the characters' hifalutin, Byzantine cadences and vernacular, the viewer absolutely never feels left behind in the vocabulary. It's sharp and cutting, and it certainly does make every character feel like they're brimming with life.
The music is incredible. It's orchestral, it's heady, it's classical, it's weighty, it's just so good. The tracks range from light-hearted to heart-pounding, but not a single song in this DOESN'T inspire the listener to want to take up arms and embark upon a country-trotting adventure. I can't even begin to name all the most beautiful tracks in the game, but I'll go ahead and try: Flash of Steel, The Dalmasca Estersand, Nalbina Dungeons, The Tomb of [SPOILERS], Jahara - Land of the Garif, the Ozmone Plain, ERUYT VILLAGE (I really like the Eruyt Village theme), Discarded Power, The Stilshrine of Miriam, Respite, the Salikawood, A Moment's Rest, the Cerobi Steppe, Realm of Memory, To Walk Amongst Gods... and those are only the ones on my Spotify playlist. And I think I can safely say that the Final Boss theme of Final Fantasy XII is absolutely one of the most rousing, inspirational music tracks I have ever heard in a video game. If you can listen to it and not feel SOME sort of emotion come over you -- especially at the end of such a far-flung adventure, you would need to be either deaf, or a BORN. HATER (I'm kidding but seriously, it owns so hard).
Let's get to the gameplay. Many describe this gameplay as "MMO-like". I have dabbled in a few MMO's, but to be completely honest, I don't REALLY get the comparison, at least when compared to other Active Time Battle Final Fantasy games. Is it because the combat is seamless in the world? Probably. Moving along, the combat is quite good. The lifeblood of it is the Gambit system, a very rudimentary coding scheme that allows your dudes to automatically perform certain actions in a hierarchy upon the combat environment meeting certain conditions. For example, you could set it so Penelo will heal any ally of hers that dips below 30% health with a potion. If you place this at the top of the list, it will be her first priority, but she'll only perform it once that condition is fulfilled, so one could put BENEATH it "Attack any enemy" and she will attack. This is more or less how all your gambits will likely be organized; healing skills and curatives at the highest priority, followed by attack skills. It's both deceptively simple and... well, simple. It's not very hard. Which, in my evaluation, is good, as there's not much mental stimulation in the typical JRPG turn-based loop of "Run into monster" > "navigate menu" > "use effective skills" > "win" > "Run into monster" > "repeat". But there is still room for strategy, particularly with Final Fantasy XII's bosses and hunts, which offer the daring thrill-seeker a chance to stretch their tactical muscles.
That in mind, this game has quite the bevy of side-content. By some metrics, FFXII is even considered the mainline non-MMO Final Fantasy game that takes the most time to 100%, what with the dozens and dozens of side-quests in the form of the game's hunts. They're fun, no question, and they're quite challenging, but at the same time, I wish there were MORE sidequest mechanics. But that's a minor quibble in a game as stacked as this one; in addition to the hunts, there are multiple secret optional areas, optional summons, and hidden passageways, befitting of a fantasy world loosely based on a steampunk reimagining of the Mediterranean.
In conclusion, I have gone on record saying Final Fantasy XII is quite possibly my favorite game of all time, and it's definitely my favorite JRPG of all time. Is it a perfect game? No. Is it a really solid game for JRPG fans? Certainly. I hope this review might just convince you to play it if you're on the fence, and the Zodiac Age version is definitely the definitive way to do it.
MGR started an unfortunate trend with Platinum's games where their first playthroughs tended to be their strongest due to an increasing focus on spectacle and a decreasing emphasis on the mechanical foundation, but this was an early innovation on that trend by being bad its first playthrough too.
Garbage loot you wade through renders it difficult to tell whether your failures are from not getting the mechanics or from your numbers not being up to snuff, and playing it on hard first try makes it even worse by making everything dumbly spongy if you don't have a big enough number. Less a test of skill inasmuch as it's a test of patience, it disappoints greatly and speaks as to the game's poor balancing around its RPG mechanics.
The G1 Transformers fanservice definitely owns and getting a fucking authentic Vince DeCola track for the credits is an amazing pull, but style can only go so far when the substance struggles to cohere.
This game is so hard it makes me want to cry. It took me two years of off-and-on playing to get through this on Normal. Halfway through, I added a self-imposed challenge where I prevented myself from using continues, and due to the sheer damage output of this game this effectively locked me on Level DIE - if I was hit enough to get knocked down a level, I was fucked anyways and I'd be reloading soon enough.
This is not a good idea unless you’re inhumanly stubborn and willing to brute-force your system mastery of a game that requires an intense amount of system mastery to play just regularly, let alone on what amounts to Hard Mode Lite. However, this same insane and foolish idea forced me to contend with the game on a level that I never saw myself being able to contend with any game, and gave higher peaks and valleys of enjoyment and satisfaction than any other singleplayer game I’ve experienced.
Despite me being tossed into the deep end and forced to learn, I’m still pretty fucking bad at analyzing, or regurgitating mechanical info, so my thoughts on the gameplay wind up being a bit more general and towards its philosophy: it’s an absolutely incredible translation of 2D beat-em-up concepts, fundamentals, and designs into a three-dimensional, extremely shonen space. Undoubtedly a full-on cuhrayzee character action game with an absurd amount of customization that allow every single player to find their own moveset and express themselves, it also exemplifies the extremely strict positioning, borderline-unfairly high difficulty, and aesthetics of beat-em-ups. Committing to your attacks is always something to be considered, and enemies provide a fairly stiff amount of space control themselves, which is a sharp readjustment from other character action games, where positioning yourself feels more important for continuing your combo; combos which are disincentivized a lot of the time in God Hand, which will kick your ass if you stick too much to one enemy and juggle them into oblivion.
Your resource management centers around a DMC-esque Devil Trigger, sure, but the roulette wheel adds a variety of screen-filling giant hits that use resources much like Streets of Rage’s stars, and the presentation itself much more matches beat-em-ups: enemies are generally gigantic Fist of the North Star Villains, in gaudy and probably-offensive outfits, or are both. Going linearly through stages where enemies pop in from behind doors, out of walls, or sometimes from the sky, grants it a much sillier and more overtly gamey impression than even DMC’s red walls that block doors.
However, it’s not content to simply be an incredibly satisfying rendition of the positioning, spacing, and commitment-based combat of its two-dimensional forebears: it uses the three-dimensional spaces to add a dodging system that uses the right stick, preventing the player from using the camera like other third-person action games. Instead, the player is given an intuitive and incredibly nuanced reply to every attack in the game, sidestepping, headfaking, and backflipping in concert. It definitely takes some getting used to, but the generous auto-lockon is more than serviceable and once you translate it to highs, lows, and sides dodging becomes both second nature and endlessly cathartic.
This is pretty much the M.O. of the entire game. Its endless series of systems and incredibly poor tutorialization working in concert to make an already-intimidating game rendered even less approachable. The shoryuken and axe kick feel borderline-required on higher intensity levels, and there’s pretty much no way in hell you’ll learn about them on accident. The game’s aesthetic, while not lacking in charm, is also fuck ugly and environments are shockingly lifeless. Despite being infinitely more consistent than pretty much any of its compatriots, it’s unable to resist a few terrible bosses (that psychic midget on the rock can go fuck himself with a cactus), and even when it’s all strictly fair, getting your shit kicked in ad nauseam can be incredibly frustrating even if you love the hell out of this game.
I truly do think that anybody can beat this game if they put their mind to it, but getting to that point requires looking past a prickly exterior, a non-standard set of controls, and a growth mindset that is able to self-assess what made you get your ass kicked, try a new tactic or better understand the properties of your enemies, and get your ass kicked again.
It’s definitely not for everybody, if nothing else just for the mindset required, but I think even at its worst it’s definitely better than a 3/10.
edit: so, this is the most disgusting shill I'll ever do in my life but I started a patreon recently and the first (freely accessible) article i wrote is an expansion of and companion to this - if you like me talking about this then feel free to see me talk about it more!
No More Heroes
One of my favorite things about Suda51as a director is his total fearlessness. For over a decade, time and time again he had the chance to sell out, and instead he doubled down on his idiosyncrasies. As he became more aware of a worldwide audience, he made *some* concessions, but his tenure is one of the most baffling upward trajectories I’ve ever seen.
This fearlessness bleeds into his games, too. As a writer, Suda is laser-focused on themes. A lot of his works have dizzyingly complex plots, but that’s the bait: thematics are the hook. As the plots inevitably descend into incomprehensibility, his games’ finales make the underlying thesis statement clearer, and the ending is almost always a complete piss-take. The theme’s been stated, the characters reached some form of catharsis, what the hell’re you still here for? Answers?
His focus on these themes bleeds into the gameplay, as well: a favorite trick of his is torpedoing parts of his games in order to make a statement, and sometimes I approve of that! And sometimes I have very complex feelings about it!
No More Heroes marks Suda’s last hurrah in the director’s seat for almost a decade and serves as a turning point for his career and mindset. Going from visual novel, walking simulator, survival horror... rail shooter? to an open world beat-em-up action game with light RPG elements - emphasis on open world, by the way, check out 27:00 or so here! - it feels like a clear concession for marketability, and that shift from director to producer is markedly felt in Grasshopper’s future output.
Suda’s also really hammering into the mechanical gimmicks of its platform, and his childlike love of the Wii’s waggle honestly carries half of the entertainment value of any mechanical interaction in the game, whether it be caricaturing curls or suplexing somebody into the shadow realm. The kinaesthetics are one of the biggest benisons to the game’s brutal bouts - it’s hard to say if the combat is a step up or step down from Suda’s prior games when it’s the first one to have remotely standard action gameplay, and as such there’s actually something else to concretely compare it to.
...It’s alright. There’s a lot worse you could do with; some of the fights and enemies feel more annoying than they do interestingly challenging, but suplexing people doesn’t get old and even if the beam katana clashes fuck up my wrists a lot it’s hard to get too mad at them when they’re so hype.
I’m aware that this intro sounds like I’m saying Suda sold out with No More Heroes, but I don’t see it that way. To me, No More Heroes is him managing to stay true to his punk ethos while sneaking it into as many eyes and ears as he could.
It’s easily Suda’s most comprehensible game on a plot level, deciding to discard the ludicrously complex narratives of his prior outings and instead go for an extremely understandable structure that’s somewhere between Branded To Kill and an arcade game - explaining the dynamics of ELBOW, the Yakumo, and whatever the fuck is happening in Correctness takes a galaxy brain, but anybody can grok killing the guy who has a better number than you.
He also makes the themes much, much more apparent earlier on - Travis’ monologue in the first boss fight is pretty much directly stating the central theme of the game and the mindset Travis struggles with throughout its events, and that serves to throw the game’s plot in much sharper relief.
Despite this, it’s also Suda’s most personal game to that point - only topped by his return to the series some twelve years later. And the central theme of “chasing a potentially-illusory paradise through hard work that potentially won’t pay off in any way but self-actualization and vague catharsis” has a reasonably nuanced thesis statement compared to “kill the past.” Despite being wordy when I describe it, his message is something that I think is something pretty important to be said to his target audience, who might relate to Travis’ shortcomings more than they’d like to admit.
And, most importantly, he didn’t lose his edge. That trick I mentioned earlier about self-sabotage is in full force here, and No More Heroes’ presentation as a straightforward video game’s video game narrative makes his use of it even more ballsy, somehow. You expect weird subversive stuff when the game is constantly mocking you or is killer7, but when the game acts like it’s an arcade game dragged and dropped into a San Andreas knockoff, realizing that it still has a consistent thematic through-line makes it hit like a Full Nelson.
Despite my acting like its themes are a dagger to the back, cloaked in other stuff, it’s still not quite subtle. Every single time you get a new job, you’re straight-up told “may you find your true path.” The guy at the job center continuously assures you that, while you’re third-rate as-is, you can become something better through grunt work. Working out is how you keep up to pace damage and health-wise, and physically training yourself is also reinforced in Ryu’s dialogue. The world doesn’t particularly care about you, specifically, but everybody’s still rooting for you - even if it’s just so that they can get what they want from you.
The grind gates are the least subtle way that the difficulty of finding your true path is underscored, and the one that critics hammered into the most. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but I also slip into the same mindset I do when I’m at my actual job: just unhook the brain a little bit, focus on what’s funny, and ignore the dead time as best you can.
I also think that the game wouldn’t work nearly as well without them - not just on that aforementioned thematic level, but a literal game level; No More Heroes 2’s pacing being level after level after level winds up making the shallowness of its mechanics a lot more grating. No More Heroes isn’t focused on crafting a statement about capitalism per se; its focus on finding yourself would happen even in a socialist utopia, but cash being an omnipresent concern works really well. It gives the game level a constant goal and consideration to work towards that rewards skillful play in the battle segments and justifies the open-world sections, it grounds Travis’ character in the setting very effectively and reinforces that he needs to take these odd jobs to get by, and it also just lets Suda do some wacky bullshit I can’t help but love. Who can really get mad at getting paid to play with cats?
And as you and Travis alike go on these strange sidequests, circling Santa Destroy, that listlessness can even get tamped down as you get lost in the weeds of each task and each goal you set - it’s a lot easier to say, “oh, I hate this job, but I just need to get the next beam katana,” than it is to just sit down and actually think about where this journey is going.
The ending to No More Heroes is true to the soul of the game, and it’s where Suda’s thematic self-sabotage might be its ballsiest. Travis’ character arc throughout the game is understated, slowly suggesting a self-appraisal slightly shedding cynicism, sincerity shining subtly - but his arc is completely derailed at the end, resting on his laurels after reaching No. 1 Assassin and, when Henry arrives, literally summoning the credits because he’s not capable of wrapping things up.
There’s no real other way it could’ve ended while being true to itself. The central question the game ponders is what paradise even is, let alone if it exists, let alone if it’s attainable, let alone if any average schmuck can reach it. To give a concrete answer would undercut the relatability of Travis’ quest, mired in the realities of the life of somebody working odd jobs.
The real enemy of No More Heroes, I think, is complacency. Of stopping what you’re doing because you think it’s paradise, of getting trapped in your ways and thinking there’s nothing you can do to change them. Not every fight directly ties into this theme, but such a good amount do that I think it’s absolutely an intentional and recurring theme. Shinobu’s quest for vengeance is so single-minded that she mistakes her father’s killer for somebody who just watched her dad’s moves on VHS. Doctor Peace’s gluttonous feasting on blood feels like a vision of a dark future for Travis, entirely abandoning any pretense of caring about anybody else and slaking his id.
The tutorial fight is the most direct about this, of course - and Travis’ monologue there is what’s paralleled in the ending, because Travis can’t stop living his life. He’s made his choices, and that’ll affect what he can think and what he can do, but in the end? The future’s wide open.
It’s this interplay of optimism and cynicism that really defines No More Heroes, and the protagonist is one of the best ways to illustrate that. Before Suda entered the gaming industry, he spent his life traveling Japan with his wife, doing odd jobs and looking for something to spend a life doing. In an interview published the day after its release in Europe, Suda said this about Travis and himself:
I want their name to have a certain 'feel'. Travis Touchdown, for example. It's [a] name that sounds cool to a Japanese audience, but if a westerner hears it... well, then maybe not so much. That's where Travis is in life, really.
But just one question later, he adds:
I wish I could live like Travis. React to things the way he does. Face something different.
Travis doesn’t have a lot going on in his life. He lives in a motel inside of a shithole town, his jobs are grindy chores, and he’s so starved for affection that he immediately falls head over heels for Sylvia despite how obviously she’s taking advantage of him. He has a friend at the video store, but other than that one single guy, Travis seems to mostly spend his life watching porn and assembling gunpla.
With this, the plot’s call to adventure immediately adds a certain air to his quest to become number one. Every step of the way, Travis’ source of satisfaction in life takes time, takes money, and takes genuine hard work. No matter how big a part of his life it is, he has to support it through other means.
It’s hard for me to not find immediate, personal resonance in this. The concept of making money doing something I like feels like a pipe dream. The world I live in is empty, and every step to living a life closer to what I want takes effort that is spent just getting out of bed in the morning and just writing these words.
I've done over thirty jobs in my lifetime. Some were better than others, let's leave it at that. [...] We want to include the message in our games that "some jobs aren't important, and you may hate them, but if you do them to the best of your ability, it'll turn out well. Better times will come.
No More Heroes isn’t my favorite Suda game - hell, it’s not even the Suda game that most emotionally wrecked me, that goes to the 25th Ward, but I think it’s the Suda game that I need most. It’s the Suda game a lot of people need, and I feel like the people who it’s trying to level with are the least likely to recognize the place it’s coming from.
It’s so easy to assume something is coming from a place of pure negativity. And a lot of people, myself included, Suda included, self-insert as Travis to a degree. And I won’t speak for all of them, but having some distance from myself lets me talk about me to others in ways that I can’t, not even in my inner monologue.
A virgin otaku who fails at almost everything they do. A slob who only works shitty jobs because they’re not worth anything more. They live in a shithole. How can people like this stupid asshole? Why do people want good things to happen to this guy? They don’t deserve good things. What’s there to redeem? They’re a scumfuck murderer.
And Travis himself grew as a person, he realized his calling, and he ran from his problems only to face them. As he further escaped me, as he further came into his own, I was only then able to look back and see him instead of myself. And then I was able to like him.
Suda wrote from a very personal place with Travis, and he wrote just as much from Johnny Knoxville and a host of negative stereotypes. Blending the two, he created the ultimate trojan horse, attempting to bring his anarchic vision to a wider world than ever before, secretly talking directly to his target demographic.
I hope they’ll listen.
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