Most of my Final Fantasy experiences come from the so-called golden age of Final Fantasy, the PlayStation era – so Final Fantasy XII is a bizarre left turn compared to what I’m used to from the series. Gone are the traditional turn-based battles and the characters defined by their own personal melodrama – in their place, a character programming combat system and a story concerned with the rise and fall of empires. I never played Final Fantasy XII during its time, and so knew only of its reputation as being a bizarre black sheep of the series. The Zodiac Age was a chance for me to experience the game for the first time with the expectations of a player in 2017. It turns out I’d really missed out on something special until now.
To me, the defining aspect of Final Fantasy XII is it’s combat system. It is completely unlike any Final Fantasy title before it, and while different to what would come later it hints at some of the series’ future direction. Final Fantasy had flirted with the idea of making turn-based combat more ‘active’, specifically through the various iterations of the Active Time Battle system – XII takes this active combat concept and combines it with more MMORPG-style encounter design. Rather than randomly entering battles while in combat areas, enemies you encounter share the field with you. There is no separate battle screen and you are free to navigate and avoid counters at your leisure.
The MMORPG comparisons go deeper still when you look at how combat actually plays out. You can still give each character individual commands, but juggling a team of three or four characters in close to real-time is a near impossibility. This is where Gambits come into play, allowing you to utilise a series of if/then logical instructions to dictate how your characters will approach situations. As an example, I might choose to have a character use healing magic if a party member’s health falls below 40%, always attack the enemy targeted by the party leader, or use elemental magic when a nearby enemy is weak to a particular element. You can also assign importance to each command, so you can make a character prioritise healing over combat magic as an example.This change of combat style has huge ramifications on how you approach situations. Rather than primarily reacting to an enemy encounter, you’re pre-emptively trying to engineer the best set of Gambits for your three (or occasionally four) character party to deal with any upcoming situation. As encounters become more difficult and varied throughout the game you’ll need to re-evaluate your Gambit choices in light of new abilities and changing opponents. I found this idea of designing a combat recipe for success super engaging, and found myself examining the general strategies I used in turn-based games and mapping those to Gambits. Having characters play out your meticulously planned set of instructions is immensely satisfying. In a way, you’re becoming a junior AI programmer and watching your creations succeed or fail based on your design.