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 colourful 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 favourite 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 characterisation 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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  • Why doesn’t the game downsample for 1080p displays on PS4 Pro?

    Why in general is there a growing trend of games that provide no benefits for PS4 Pro owners with 1080p displays?

    Why is it impossible to get a response from anyone on this, be it Sony, Shuhei Yoshida, Square Enix, and other developers?

    Square Enix games that provide no downsampling/graphical benefits on PS4 Pro for 1080p display owners:

    Kingdom Hearts 1.5/2.5 HD

    Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD

    Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age

    Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

    Why? Why? Why? Why have 1080p owners been misled and deceived since the initial PS4 Pro unveiling?

    • Agreed. We need answers from *anyone*. Sony, Square, anyone. This growing trend is making me regret purchasing a PS4 Pro.

      The silence regarding this issue is infuriating.

    • You get a ps4 pro for sony exclusives, the last of us 2, god of war, days gone, spiderman etc. Expecting 3rd party developers to adhere to some expected standard of pro support was a fools errand to begin with. Also, buy a 4k tv. Problem somewhat solved. Maybe they will port this to PC down the road and you can get your downsampling or native 4k fix there.

    • Buying a 4KTV is not a solution.

      At the PS4 Pro unveiling Mark Cerny and Andrew House promised benefits for 1080p display users too. While most games (that render higher than 1080p) do downsample and/or provide other graphical and framerate improvements for 1080p displays, there are a growing number of games that discriminate against 1080p displays and lock them out of Pro features.

      Digital Foundry has tested this with a game that doesn’t support downsampling for 1080p displays: Pro connected to a 4K TV, setting the output to 1080p, the game downsamples.

      Connecting the Pro to a 1080p TV. The game doesn’t downsample. The feature purposefully disabled despite having no performance issues when performing the same feature when attached to a 4K display.

      When the Pro first launched, The Last of Us had performance issues on the Pro, regardless of whether connected to a 4K or 1080p display. Naughty Dog fixed these issues through patches and the game performs better than ever. In these same performance updates, they patched out downsampling. Read that again, they FIXED PERFORMANCE for both 4K and 1080p, and REMOVED DOWNSAMPLING for 1080p displays. Yet 4K displays can force downsampling by setting their console to output 1080p at no performance deficit.

      The solution to this is simple, Sony needs to add systemwide downsampling in the next major firmware update to allow 1080p display Pro owners to have their console treated as if it was connected to a 4K display. This would totally eliminate the downsampling issue.

    • I’m a bit confused. I thought the whole point of the PS4 Pro was to use with a 4K TV and it’s a bit wasted without one. Like how I was still stuck using an SDTV for the first year of owning a PS3 and then I finally bought myself a HDTV and it was like the PS3 itself had got upgraded. Several games didn’t support SDTV particularly well (and games often used tiny fonts which were so difficult to read when you didn’t have access to HD). That’s just my thoughts on it and why I have not (yet?) replaced my PS4 with a Pro cos there’s no way I’m affording a 4K TV anytime soon either.

    • No, downsampling is likely the best form of anti-aliasing you can have. Most Pro titles that support it look very crisp on a 1080p display with little to no aliasing.

      At the Pro reveal they touted benefits for 1080p displays too. Most Pro games downsample for 1080p displays. There are also games that have 1080p specific-modes too where they dial-up other graphical settings other than resolution.

      The Pro is in no way a 4K TV-only device.

    • Where have you read/heard/saw from Sony that has them saying “PS4 pro will automagically enhance games when connected to 1080p TVs”?

      From the announce, Sony has said that it would be up to the developers to decide what if any improvements are made to games running on a PS4 pro when connected to a HDTV.

      The only thing that the PS4 pro will do automatically is detect what TV type you hooked it up to and tell the game what features to enable for the user (i.e HDR, 4K, better framerate).

      And why waste processing power to down sample from 4k when it can push standard 1080p out and use whatever spare CPU/GPU power for other tasks?

      You haven’t been deceived or misled by anyone.

  • Am I on my own in thinking this FF had the worst combat?

  • there where some roumors that be final fansty collection for PS4 all 9 games for 30 years of final fantasy. I guess was fake news because seem not coming ☹️

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