Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Interview: Developers on tactical gameplay, cheats, legacy and more
It's sort of snuck up on us, but Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age isn't far off now. A surprise announcement at last year's E3, the remastered, rebalanced version of the classic Ivalice-based and tactically-driven epic that is FF12 will finally arrive a little over a year after its announcement in July. That's a pretty fast turn-around for a Square Enix Japan game - even the FF10 remaster took a couple of years.
It's an impressive-looking remaster, too. That's partly thanks to just how good looking the original Final Fantasy XII was in the first place, but how this do-over impresses isn't all about visuals. The Zodiac Age also makes significant changes to FF12's gameplay systems, outright overhauling some to make for a very different experience.
Characters can now choose between two different jobs that define their role in battle, while other changes from the Japanese-only 'International' release of the game such as a fast forward option also make for a world of difference.
A few weeks ago we got to sit down with FF12 The Zodiac Age Producer Hiroaki Kato and Director Takashi Katano - both are veterans of FF12's development and of Square Enix in general who seemed to be excited to be returning to a classic game they worked on in the past. You'll find our chat below.
RPG Site: This is obviously a very large game, systems wise. Where do you even begin when thinking about how to remaster it?
Takashi Katano: When we first started thinking about how we were going to change and improve the system, first of all we got a lot of feedback off players of the game and paid a lot of attention to that... but also, all of the developers actually sat down and played the game again in order to get a feel for it again.
When we sat down and played the game, we were obviously checking over and understand what the feedback was saying and trying to get an idea of what the fans wanted to see. Also, to look at it from our own perspective as game creators creating modern games, we were also looking at what would stand up and what wouldn't in this modern age. Deciding that was the real purpose.
I was the lead programmer on the original game, and one of the things I really wanted to change was the loading times - I really wanted to reduce those. One of the other things was introducing an auto save function - you'd experience dying in the field in battle and then have to go a long way back to carry on. That was annoying, so we really wanted to improve that.
There's one other thing that we felt... when you're exploring the game, sometimes we thought it was quite difficult to find out where exactly in the area you are, so we wanted to have it so that you can press the L3 button and bring up a real time map overlaid over what you're seeing rather than forcing you to open a separate screen.
One other thing of course that was first introduced to the game in the Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System - this edition was only released in Japan, but that's the high speed mode. We've added in an even further improved, tweaked version of that into the game as well.
Obviously as a HD remaster we were going to include the things that everyone expects - the cosmetic changes, the graphics, the sound upgrades... but the real purpose of what we were looking into with these discussions was how to improve the accessibility and the ease to make the game as stress-free as possible. That was the main direction of the improvements we tried to do this time.
RPG Site: To my mind, FF12 is a very prescient game - it was sort of ahead of its time, and systems and ideas in it kept cropping up in games released after it. Were you conscious of its pedigree and its legacy going into this project?
Takashi Katano: We didn't have such grand ideas and visions when we were making it...! [laughs] We were concentrating much more on what was at hand and thinking... well, the reason we did all these things, the vision was simple: we just asked what we could do to make the game more fun for the players now - 10, 11 years ago.
We were asking what players then wanted to see, what we could do to make it a fun game for them. The whole idea of the seamless battle system came from that, the gambit system came from that... we thought it'd be a fun system for players, and so that's why it went in. It was only later we started to realise that this was a bit more revolutionary.
RPG Site: FF10's HD Remaster was overseen by its original director and producer - was it daunting taking over what is Hiroyuki Ito and Yasumi Matsuno's baby?
Takashi Katano: The way we approached it really... we didn't feel foreboding or any kind of fear or worry about destroying or changing it because... well, basically it's the same team that made the first game! It's all the same development members on board. Mr. Ito was involved in this version as well as the supervisor.
It's more a case of looking at the PS4 and saying well okay, what can we do now with this extra power and these extra specs... how can we add to that and take it even further to make it an even better product. That was the approach. In that sense we weren't really worried about going deeply and changing anything major because we knew it all worked already.
RPG Site: I suppose getting Mr. Ito's blessing was vital? Among many fans, he is considered royalty.
Hiroaki Kato: [laughs] A lot of people say a lot of things about him... and he's clearly a genius game creator in many ways. In all the games he works on he really leaves his mark, but perhaps in FF12 is the one where it's the most obvious - so it's good that people realise that.
RPG Site: Speaking of FF10 HD Remaster, one thing that strikes me is how that package included some all-new story expansion content, but you've left FF12's story alone here. What was the thinking there?
Hiroaki Kato: One of the things about FF12 as a game itself maybe in comparison to FF10 and other games is... well, the world itself is a massive volume of content. There's a lot of stuff to discover and see and dig into. We got this feeling that a lot of people who played 12 back in the day when it first came out might not have seen all of that - that they still have discoveries that they didn't see in the original game. One of the big things about making it more accessible and easy to play is that it will motivate people to go back; they'll want to dig deeper into the world and find those little things they missed before.
Rather than adding something to the main story, we've created an opportunity for people to dig in and see the good stuff that's been there from the beginning. That kind of influenced our thinking on why we said... 'right, we want to concentrate more on that'.
RPG Site: With that said, I think a lot of fans think very fondly of and would like to see an expansion of this world...
Hiroaki Kato: That's very true! If we do get a good response to The Zodiac Age and people are calling for more games in an Ivalice series, we'd very much look into doing them - that's something we'd like to see.
RPG Site: After spending a few hours with the new systems both from the International Zodiac version and the all-new changes, the game seems really different. Can you explain your thinking?
Takashi Katano: The biggest change of course is the fact that in the original Zodiac Job System version you could pick one job for each character, whereas in this version you can pick two and combine them together. The real big point of this is basically... how you combine those two jobs together. It's not only the abilities they give you, but the equipment you can use with each job will change as it did in the original.
What combination of equipment you want to stick together with which jobs, and also they can have different gambit patterns as well - so then there's how you can combine the different gambit options together, as well. That tactical and strategic thinking of how we create the characters has really been expanded by the option of combining multiple jobs together rather than just picking from several presets.
RPG Site: If I choose my two classes for a character, is there a way for me to reset and respec, or am I stuck with that job for the duration?
Hiroaki Kato: There's no job which it's impossible to clear the game with - you can basically win using any combination of jobs. If you've got one set you like that's your favourite, say you just want to go for attacking or if you want to have a nice combination of attacking and healing, you can pick that and play through the whole game with that.
For a lot of players who want to experiment more with the system and try out different combinations in different battles we've got extra options that'll help with that. The high speed mode, for example, lets you get through the game quicker - so if you want to go back and try different combinations that'll make it much easier. For that depth and that replay value, it really does offer a lot of different options... you can pick the one style you like or try out every different one.
RPG Site: One of my favourite things to do in FF12 was break it. Infinite attack loops, level grinding formula you could leave on overnight, that sort of thing. Did you endeavor to remove any of that stuff, or did you decide to leave it for players to rediscover?
Hiroaki Kato: It's... we understand that a lot of people like doing that! [laughs] There are some things which having the two jobs makes a lot easier, and you can breeze through using that... but we really want to open it up for the creativity of the player, giving them the freedom to experiment. We want to make people experiment. Certainly outside the main storyline there are some replay elements there and side contents that's very challenging - you're really going to have to think hard about what to do with that.
Also there's the trials mode, as well - that's a very tough tactical challenge, too. So yeah - we wanted to let players have the creative freedom to experiment with different things in the game. We haven't really changed that balance that much.
Takashi Katano: Because the actual tempo and the pace of battles has been changed since the PS2 version, there are some methods which may have been a cheat or worked very, very well on the PS2 which won't work so well now because there are different patterns. On the other hand there'll be new options to find in the way the system works in the new game.
RPG Site: I have to wrap up with the question I'm forced to ask or our readers will scream for my head- about other platforms. PC and Switch in particular are platforms people would love to see this title on, so - what's the deal?
Hiroaki Kato: We understand that very much - it's obviously something we want to see on other platforms. The way the game was created at the time, it was really built to exploit and really use the full power of the PS2. In the same way this time it's very much been optimized to the PS4 and the extra things we can do with that console now.
Then again, it's not out yet on PS4 - so I'd like to see that, the results of that, and how people react to that, if they like it, if they appreciate it. Based on that feedback, if there's a lot of calls, we'd very much like to do something more.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is out for PS4 in July, and is available for pre-order now alongside its snazzy new Limited Edition Guide.