The trials, tribulations, and Trial Mode of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

The project leads behind Final Fantasy's latest HD update share some insights into how their remake maximizes the original game's unique mechanics.

I've been looking forward to an HD remaster of Final Fantasy XII since about, oh, 2007, when I learned at a Game Developers Conference panel that Square Enix had produced most graphical assets for the game at better-than-PlayStation-2 resolutions. The original game debuted just a few weeks before the launch of the PlayStation 3, and its elaborate visuals simply begged to be rendered in proper high resolution splendor. That long-awaited overhaul arrives in just a couple of weeks as a PlayStation 4 exclusive called Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.

I interviewed director Takashi Katano and producer Hiroaki Kato last year at E3 for USgamer. As key personnel on the original release of FFXII, Kato and Katano have unsurprisingly treated The Zodiac Age as more than simply a spit-shined rehash of an old game. The Zodiac Age doesn't simply incorporate improved visuals, but also newly recorded arrangements of its extensive soundtrack, a comprehensive rebalancing of its mechanics and systems, and entirely new content. As befits a game of FFXII's stature, The Zodiac Age appears to be on track to establish a new standard of quality for HD remakes. I recently met with Kato and Katano again to hear their thoughts on the remake now that it's effectively complete. 

Hiroaki Kato: It's pretty much finalized and production-wise, just waiting for launch and focusing on promotion in the meantime, both here and in the EU and NA regions.

Retronauts: So this is a simultaneous worldwide release, right? There's not much lag between regions in terms of the launch?

Kato: Roughly simultaneous.

Retronauts: These days, when you launch a big game, there tends to be a lot of ongoing support with DLC and patches... that sort of thing. Do you anticipate continuing to support The Zodiac Age beyond launch, or do you feel like it's pretty much a case where once it ships, that's it, and you're on to the next project?

Kato: We don't have anything like that planned. To be honest, the original had a ton of replay value in it to begin with, so part of the motive behind this remake was to make that more accessible. The other side is that there's also the Trial Mode. It's a combat mode that contains the volume of what another title's DLC would, along with the replayability. 

Retronauts: Can you tell me a little more about Trial Mode? I don't think you mentioned that at E3 last year.

Kato: No, I didn't mention this at E3, but... It's about 100 stages where the player uses their party members and have to kind of fight their way up through the stages. These stages have a kind of different configuration than a lot of the normal dungeons you encounter in the main game. The idea is for players to kind of use trial-and-error and find new configurations for their Gambits. It really lets them explore the Gambit system in a new way.

Note: The Gambit system that appeared in Final Fantasy XII functioned almost like a simplified programming language, allowing players to automate the actions of their party in order to free them from the need to issue constant commands to three or four characters. By setting up Gambits in advance, you could tell each party member to take the initiative upon encountering monsters, guiding their behavior according to a hierarchy of rules and conditional actions. Because FFXII broke from the Final Fantasy tradition of setting battles in separate scenes and unified exploration and combat into a single, seamless viewpoint, Gambits allowed battles to proceed without the constant interruptions of menu screens — though the automated element of combat was complemented by the player's ability to jump in and issue new orders at any time.

Retronauts: Is there something like a randomization element to these stages, as in a roguelike, or are they preset? Are you fighting through dungeons? Or is it more like open spaces?

Kato: Each stage... there's a variety, you know, whether it's dungeon or field, and lots of different enemies. We've used all the different elements and situations of the game to design the trial. So each one kind of has a different theme or point to it. For example, even if you're at level 99 but you don't fix up your Gambits, you can't get through this one. Or one that's specialized for using magic, or one that's kind of a war of attrition. Each stage kind of has a key to it, in the gameplay, for players to discover. 

In the main story, one of the mobs, Yiazmat, has I think about 50 million hit points. In these stages, you'll encounter things — not just in terms of hit points but in terms of, you know, difficulty as well — some stronger enemies.

Retronauts: As in, on par with Yiazmat?

Note: Yiazmat, a variant of the classic Final Fantasy foe Tiamat, was Final Fantasy XII's infamous "ultimate" optional super-boss. It was the most difficult and time-consuming fight in the original game. 

Kato: Yiazmat himself will be in the trial mode, but there'll also be some enemies stronger than Yiazmat. So it'll come down to how you put together your Gambits and items for those situation. 

Retronauts: How are those 100 levels structured? If you get to a point where can't beat a boss, is that as far as you can make it into the trials? Or can you skip past a stage and then come back to that one and play it later?

Kato: It's level by level, one at a time. So hit points and potions and so forth carry over between stages as you play through. On the other hand, you do have auto-saves. If things do get too rough, you can fall back to the last checkpoint.

Retronauts: Do you save after each level? Or is it more, say, the Chrysler Building in Parasite Eve, where you can save every 10 stages but you have to fight all the way to the next save point in order to hit that checkpoint?

Kato: The auto-save happens after each stage. Every 10 stages, you'll find a standard save. That traditional manual save is so if you realize, oh, I used too many potions or elixirs, I need to go back. You can manually choose that and try again.

Retronauts: So what is the relationship between Trial Mode and the main game? Is it actually a separate menu item on the main menu, apart from the main game? Or is it something within the game, like Midlight's Deep in Final Fantasy Tactics, where it's a map location you can leave and go back into when you like?

Kato: It's an option on the title screen, alongside "New Game" and "Load Game." When selecting that option, you also choose which of your saved data to use.

Retronauts: But once you load in a specific save data from the main game into the Trial Mode, then you're committed to using that saved data, correct? Like, through the entire Trial Mode?

Kato: Yes, that's correct.

Retronauts: Are there rewards or items that you can earn in Trial Mode that you can carry back into the main game — import back into the saved file?

Kato: (laughs) I can neither confirm or deny that at this time. I'd like to leave that as something for players to discover.

Retronauts: Fair enough. I think the biggest change to the game design, since we spoke last year, is the fact that you've expanded the Zodiac Job System to allow each character to specialize in two classes as opposed to one. Can you talk about how that decision evolved and how that changes the game?

Note: The original version of Final Fantasy XII allowed players to customize their characters with something called a License Board, in which traits ranging from buffed statistics to the ability to wield specific weapons had to be "purchased" with Ability Points. While this versatile system allowed players to build a party however they preferred, it resulted in largely identical characters at the end of the game, by which point everyone had more or less opened up their entire License Boards. The International Zodiac Job System update to FFXII, released exclusively in Japan in 2007, reworked the License Board into 12 different restricted variants tied to both a Zodiac sign and a traditional Final Fantasy class such as Monk and Time Mage. The game required players to commit each party members to a specific Zodiac sign and its corresponding class. While some skills overlapped between boards, the single-class restriction created more clearly differentiated characters and resulted in a more pressing need for strategic planning.

Kato: In 2007, when we released Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job Version for PlayStation 2 in Japan only... originally, you could only use one Job per character. Of course, in the original XII, you had the License Board. The dev team actually wanted to put the Job system there, but with the Gambit system being such a new concept, they didn't want to overwhelm players. So we added it in later, in the Zodiac Job Version release. So, for the Zodiac Job Version in 2007, that Job element was kind of the bonus feature included in that rerelease. 

The revised Job system was designed by Hiroyuki Ito, who is the father of the Job system and the traditional Active-Time Battle system. That was kind of his specialty, and he crafted the experience around that. So when approaching Zodiac Age, we looked at giving characters two jobs this time around, and it really had an interesting effect on the equipment balance. Pairing this with the Gambit system made for kind of fresh gameplay. Allowing players to have two Jobs is something we see as another step forward for the title and something new for all players to enjoy.

Retronauts: To clarify, was Mr. Ito involved in the further balancing for Zodiac Age? Or has he kind of been more hands off in this remake?

Kato: He worked in a kind of supervisory role. He'd crafted the battle design to fit for the Zodiac Job Version and had in mind certain points he wanted to fix. So, we discussed those things with him at the beginning of the project, to decide which points we would work on together, and kept him in the loop throughout. So that was his role in the rebalancing.

Retronauts: You mentioned that having two Jobs selections per character changes the balance of Gambits and weapons. Have you added new Gambits and weapons from the original game? Or is it more that you've rebalanced the workings the existing elements of the game? 

Kato: In the International Zodiac Job Version, you already had different weapons and Gambits from the original XII. A lot of our work this time focused on bringing out the Gambits' playability early on. For example, in the original, you could set it so that, on the condition that enemies that are weak to fire, that your character would use fire spells against them. But that weak-to-fire condition really only came out towards the game's end. So one adjustment we made was to include more enemies weak to fire available early on, so that players could really enjoy the strategic aspects of their Gambits early on. And then, of course, we had to tailor the License Board of XII, which was allowed all characters to learn skills to the new Job system. So basically, there weren't any huge, overarching changes to balance. Just touches here and there. It was really about cost-effective changes — minimal touches that gave us the most bang for the buck. 

Takashi Katano: I'd like to mention that the License Board for each Job — they're all tied in to each other in some ways. If you double your hit points with one Job, that carries across both Jobs. It's not like you would double it here and double it there and it would break the game's balance. There are no changes so huge that having two Jobs will break the balance of the game.

Retronauts: How many of the changes that you made were based on fan feedback? I know there was a lot of frustration about little things that people wanted to do with the Gambit system but couldn't. For instance, people wanted to steal from an enemy with a Gambit — but you couldn't set your character to stop trying to use the Steal command even if you'd already stolen the item. So you tried to steal from enemies that didn't have items anymore. Have you made tweaks like that?

Kato: Well, just speaking to that one feature in particular, you know, there is the way to have it steal only from enemies with 100% HP.....

Retronauts: Yeah, that's what I always did.

Kato: Yeah, at the outset of the fight. So, you know, the Gambits do account for that particular one... but I'll let Katano-san speak more on the user feedback.

Katano: Well, first... this kind of doubles up on something he mentioned when we spoke at E3, but we've tried to mitigage the game's repetitive elements. Things like traveling on the map. We're trying to speed those up as much as possible. That's one element of user feedback reflected in the remake. The auto-save is also something people wanted. So these two elements are something that should appeal to both casual fans and hardcore players — and replayers! 

For a lot of casual players, you know, they're wandering outside in the overworld and  encounter an enemy that's too strong, they get killed, and they have to go all the way back to their save point. That was a source of frustration for many of them, so we've made that process a lot easier in terms of redoing what they had to do. Auto-saving also appeals to the hardcore players who want to play Trial Mode. They can, without fear, test out different Gambits to beat the strongest bosses they encounter. So we think the auto-save is something that will appeal not just to casual players but also hardcore players as well. 

Secondly... I don't remember if I mentioned this last year or not, but while walking the Overworld, players can press L3 and they'll see a map of where they are. It'll help them get their bearings. And then we've also updated the speed-travel mode that we introduced in the International Zodiac Job Version by having both a double and a quadruple setting. Obviously, in dungeons, quadruple speed is a little too fast, so to keep it playable, you can tone it down to just double speed. 

As for play improvements, like what you mentioned with the stealing Gambit, we definitely didn't want to make it too convenient. We wanted to keep that element of trial-and-error, that sort of healthy player frustration that makes the game fun. We left that in and tried to emphasize the environmental improvements more than anything else. 

The combat design, we feel, definitely pays respect to Ito-san. Combat is very easy for players to get into, so it was just a matter of kind of updating it in terms of accessibility. 

Also, in terms of treasure that you get, we updated one of them: The strongest lance you can get in the game. In the original version of the game, you could unwittingly do something in the beginning that would prevent you from ever finding the spear it originally, but we've made it so that you still have a chance to get it even if you perform that one action in the beginning. 

Note: The Zodiac Spear, one of the game's most powerful weapons, was included as a secret treasure. The process of acquiring it involved an obtuse, hidden process, and opening specific treasure chests early in the game could prevent it from ever spawning. It has been one of the single most controversial facets of the game, infuriating fans who aim to earn 100% completion of the game. 

Retronauts: Yeah, I know a lot of people who got angry about being locked out of getting that, so I think they'll be happy to hear that. One last question: It's very unusual to see a game announced for just one platform these days. Are there any prospects of bringing Zodiac Age to other systems right now?

Katano: Part of the reason for the single-platform release is that the original Final Fantasy XII came out in 2006, towards the end of the PlayStation 2's life cycle. At the time, it really pushed specs of the hardware, and we wanted to do that again with the PS4. That was our primary mission: To see how much we could push out of the PS4.