Extended Play: How Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit Created One of the Most Distinct RPGs Ever

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Extended Play: How Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit Created One of the Most Distinct RPGs Ever

FFXII’s key creators on the RPG’s development and its rebirth in PS4 remaster The Zodiac Age

At the time of its original release more than 10 years ago, Final Fantasy XII received critical acclaim. Boasting incredible visuals that pushed the PS2 hardware to its limits, a unique battle system, and a strong cast embodying the classic thrills of a Final Fantasy story, it left a distinct impression on players.

Despite coming in the wake of a number of hugely successful entries in the series, its developers decided to take sizable risks with the franchise formula, while simultaneously paying homage to Final Fantasy traditions. It represented a bold, daring new vision for the series.

This is not just the story behind that gamble, but of the building of the game’s huge world and the rebuilding of the game itself both in the International Version, which tinkered with the gameplay, and the upcoming PS4 remaster, The Zodiac Age, which launches on 11th July. It’s a chronicle told by developers Hiroaki Kato and Takashi Katano, both of whom not only worked on the PS2 original, but have headed up development of the remaster as Producer and Game Director respectively.

XII’s extended dawn

Final Fantasy XII’s development lasted around six years. An unusual gestation length that – for a time – saw the game hold the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest development period for a video game production. Hiroaki Kato was project manager on Final Fantasy XII, and he was running the whole schedule for the development and production of the game.

Hiroaki Kato: “I remember one of the main things I did was trying to hurry up Mr Sakimoto, the composer of the original game, telling him ‘we need the music now, you need to get it quicker!'”

“Working on a game for such a long time was a difficult thing to do. When we look back at it today, a few reasons come to mind as to why it lasted this long. One of the things about the Final Fantasy series as a whole is that we try new things every single episode: new worlds, new characters, new game systems… Developing all of this from scratch always takes a certain amount of time.

“However, on FFXII specifically we were trying something that had never been done before in the Final Fantasy franchise: we wanted to transition from the kind of old traditional JRPG format that we were used to – shifting from field exploration to battle with separate systems – into what’s basically a modern open world game with a seamless transition from exploration to battle.

“We put a lot of our efforts into transitioning to a seamless automatic battle setup and how to make that fun for players. It took us long time to work this out. In fact, this concept was very set through the course of development but it is rather the volume of content in the game that exploded over time. Getting this in a state where it could be played and all fit together took a lot more time than we thought it would.”

Programming the Gambit system

It is this seamless transition focus that would lead to the introduction of what is probably the most unique feature of Final Fantasy XII: the Gambit system, a customisable battle system that very closely resembles programming code.

Thanks to the Gambit system, players can set up a list of commands for each character which they will perform automatically under the specific conditions they apply to. Setting up these commands and prioritising them with inventiveness is key to defeating many of the game’s encounters.

Hiroaki Kato: “Again, our concept for Final Fantasy XII’s battles was that it must ‘progress seamlessly in real time’. We feared that if we added just the real-time aspect to the command based battle system that other Final Fantasy titles had been following, controlling everything might be too fast-paced and difficult, so to solve this problem we adopted the Gambit system.

“In fact, Final Fantasy IV’s battle system already had a Gambit-like mechanic that controlled the monster’s AI behind the scenes, so we developed this into a different direction to make the Gambit System for Final Fantasy XII.”

“There’s a great feeling of triumph when you defeat a formidable enemy through a fine-tuned setting of your Gambits.” – Hiroaki Kato

Takashi Katano was the lead programmer at the time, and joins Kato-san again on the Final Fantasy XII remaster.

Takashi Katano: “From the very early stages of the project, we all knew the gambit system was going to be difficult to create, but we really wanted to go for that idea so we pushed on.

“I remember Mr Hiroyuki Ito, the main battle designer, saying – and the whole development staff, too – that it was really hard to gauge whether or not what we were doing was going to work nicely or not until the very end. We had this idea and this vision of what we wanted to achieve, of what we thought would make a good game, but when it was only part done it was really difficult to see.

“It’s only when we got quite close to the end of developing the battle system that it all came together and that we saw that yes, this is the vision we had in mind. It’s not something you’ll know from the start.”

Returning to Ivalice

Another particularity of Final Fantasy XII was its setting, Ivalice. The world, its colorful inhabitants and its detailed and seemingly infinite lore didn’t solely belong to XII, but were originally created for Final Fantasy Tactics…

Hiroaki Kato – “Ivalice is a world where the environment and cultures completely change depending on the location and the era, and between Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, the nature of the world itself and the stories told have changed completely.

“In a way, they both have completely new and different settings. However, there are key concepts that are shared between the two versions of the world, so for fans that have played Tactics, there’s a lot of fun to be had in solving the mysteries of the linked worlds using their intuition and imagination. Making that kind of thing possible is one of the reasons why we used Ivalice for Final Fantasy XII.

“The concepts that became the core pillars of the story were the idea of ‘duty’ and the ‘real meaning of freedom’. They seem like really heavy themes, but they are very universal and many people think about them – regardless of their age, gender, position and upbringing. We mixed these themes with the fictitious world of Ivalice and a war setting, and the story itself was woven together around the various main characters that have their own different ideologies.”

“Our idea for the Title Logo art was focus the “duty” theme of the game. We sent Yoshitaka Amano a request to draw Judge Master Gabranth, as he is the one who represents the idea of duty in the game. We had set out that the Judge Masters use two swords, so we were able to have Gabranth drawn in a very heroic pose holding his swords in both hands.” – Hiroaki Kato

The release of the International Version and the addition of the Job system

Shortly after the release of Final Fantasy XII, the International Zodiac Job System version was released in Japan and featured quite a few big system changes from the original.

Hiroaki Kato: “Compared to International versions that Final Fantasy titles went with before, Final Fantasy XII’s went through a very different approach introducing big changes to the core systems. “For Final Fantasy XII’s International version, it was decided that the director, Hiroyuki Ito, who was in charge of many of the battle designs of previous numbered Final Fantasy games and the creator of both the famous Active Time Battle and ability Systems, was going to re-create the battle system himself.”

Probably the biggest of these changes was the addition of its job system, with 12 jobs each related to a different Zodiac sign: Archer, Black Mage, Bushi, Foebreaker, Knight, Machinist, Monk, Red Battlemage, Shikari, Time Battlemage, Uhlan, and White Mage.

Hiroaki Kato: “My favorite Final Fantasy titles are Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics, because they both have job systems in them. When developing FFXII initially, we were already thinking of linking a Job System to the License Board, but with the seamless battles and Gambit system both being so new we feared that players would be overwhelmed if we put in too many new elements. So we decided to have just one type of License Board.

“The design know-how and techniques that Hiroyuki Ito had learned over the years have all been poured into the game, and it has been polished really well.”

Thinking and creating today’s remaster

The International Zodiac Job System version of the game was unfortunately never released in the West, so western players never got to experience the game with all of these additions. Thankfully, it’s the version that inspired the new PS4 remaster.

Takashi Katano: “We discussed this internally for about two months. Improving the visual aspect is what is expected from remasters so of course we did that, but the real concept that we had in mind for the remaster was to make it a lot easier to play. In fact, the whole team sat down and played through the original game from the start to the end, wondering how we could make it more comfortable, easier, and overall more fun to play.”

At the time of its release, FFXII was judged to be a difficult game, which was probably due in part to a player base that needed to adjust to the drastic changes implemented with the combat system.

Takashi Katano: “In the original International version of the game, you could pick one job per character. In this remaster, you’re allowed to pick two for each individual character and use the different combinations there to develop them in different ways. So there’s an extra tactical layer added in with this characterization system.

“We also made big changes in the game balance. The enemies’ strengths and weaknesses were adjusted, and their AI patterns and attacks will be different. The tactics you will have to come up with in order to fight them are going to be very different from the original.

“We also added a few quality of life improvements; we reduced the loading times, added a location map as an overlay to make it easier to navigate, and included features like auto save. We really wanted to make the gameplay experience smoother.”

Takashi Katano - “We really wanted to give something to players who were looking for all kinds of different things. For example, we have included a new mode where you have to play through the whole game without your level going up. Your team stays level 1 and it will be a very difficult challenge to go through the game with a very weak set of characters.

“Also for people looking for challenges, we’ve added in something called the ‘Trial Mode’. In this mode, you have to play through a hundred battles in a row against different enemies and a level of difficulty gradually increasing. You will have to master different strategies in order to complete this.”

A unique game with a forward thinking vision

In a number of ways, Final Fantasy XII set new standards for the industry. Modern RPGs have since commonly adopted seamless real time battles as standard, and the Final Fantasy series itself continued in this direction. The team, however, remains quite humble.

Takashi Katano: “We certainly did try new things, but we just thought of them as new challenges. At the start of the project, we were actually worried to see if our battle concepts would make for a fun game to play.”

Hiroaki Kato: “When we were making the original game we weren’t really thinking about how we could change the industry or anything like that. We really approached it more from the perspective of how can we make something that’s fun for the players to enjoy. We’re really happy that people said it’s new and innovative but it all came from what can we make fun for them.

“From a different point of view, the fact that seamless real time battles are very much the norm for the current generation of games is making me happy as a gamer.”

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age releases on PS4 on 11th July. If you haven’t had the chance to play this classic or want to go back to the stunning world of Ivalice, this is your chance!

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