Where to start with a game like Final Fantasy 12? If it's not exactly universally recognised as the greatest game in this most storied of series - for shame - then perhaps it can at least lay claim to being the quintessential Final Fantasy; divisive amongst the fans, subject to a tortured development and ambitious to the extreme. Forget airships, moogles and summons - that's everything a Final Fantasy should be.
It's been lovely getting reacquainted with some vintage late 90s and early 00s Final Fantasy via their re-releases on Nintendo Switch recently - and, if you're of a certain vintage yourself and can remember one of the great dramas of 90s video games, there's an illicit thrill in being able to enjoy the PlayStation era games on a Nintendo machine - though it all feels like it's been building up to this. Yes Final Fantasy 9 is a grand old thing, and yes Final Fantasy 10-2, that awesomely camp, free-wheeling spin-off, deserves a place at the top table, but really it's all about Final Fantasy 12 finally going portable.
Oh how long I've waited for this moment. When the PlayStation Vita revealed itself as something of a powerhouse for playing through the Final Fantasy back catalogue - armed with an overpriced memory card, you could have the first ten entries to call wherever you might go, and also have space for essential detours such as Final Fantasy Tactics - I always left a little room aside in the hope that Final Fantasy 12 might join them. It never did, sadly, and when the Final Fantasy 12 remaster was announced without mention of a portable version, that dream was scuppered.
For a short while, anyway. Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age is finally out on Switch, and playing the 2006 RPG on the go is every bit as wonderful as I'd always hoped it would be. There's something about the nature of this particular Final Fantasy that makes it perfect for portable play; spend a commute fine-tuning a set of gambits for your party, then put your Switch to one side once at work to let them do their worst in a fit of power-levelling. It's glorious, and helps put one of the most fascinating RPG mechanics into sharp focus.
The Zodiac Age version of Final Fantasy 12 - released internationally for the first time alongside the PS4 remaster in 2017 - really helps refresh it all and lend new depths too, thanks to a flexible job system that provides near endless permutations. It's even more flexible in this new Switch and Xbox One version of Zodiac Age, with the option to re-spec at will once you've reached a point fairly early on in the story (and, curiously, this is an option that isn't yet available in the PS4 edition).
Those mechanics shine just as brightly now as they ever did then, and not just because of the polishing they've been given in the new Zodiac Edition. They've never really been attempted since - maybe because it was a folly in the first place, or maybe because the execution was so on-point first time around. They're so defiantly against the grain, too, and it's a joy to go back to a game that's so sure of itself.
There's an identity, a strength of character, that seems oh-so-rare in modern big budget games (though let's politely overlook the decision from up on high to replace original leading man Basch with Vaan in order to play to a younger demographic). It's there in the battle system, and it's there in the setting which still seems gloriously exotic to this day. And it's there in the exceptional localisation, delivered with a density and depth that I don't think has ever really been bettered.
I was lucky enough to speak to one of the key talents behind that localisation, Alexander O Smith, on the release of Zodiac Age. I'd implore you to give it a read - not just because it's my piece, but because it helps give an insight into what makes Final Fantasy 12 special. "They just don't make games like that anymore," Smith told me. "I don't think they ever really made games like that." Amen, brother, and what a pleasure it is to have, in this, the best version of it yet.