When Square's Final Fantasy Tactics debuted back in January of 1998, few people seemed to really care. While the Final Fantasy brand had become increasingly popular (thanks in no small part to the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII), not even that could lure the average gamer into picking up a strategy role-playing game (RPG).
Things changed over time, though, and the game garnered a cult following not long after it disappeared from store shelves. Soon, the title was fetching more than $70 on eBay and was one of the more sought out games of the PlayStation era. To make some cash off the newfound demand for the title, Sony and Square eventually re-released the game as part of the Greatest Hits line of budget-priced games, thereby exposing a whole new generation to the joys of the strategy RPG.
For those unfamiliar with strategy RPGs, they can be described like this: they're essentially a toned-down version of chess with fantasy-themed characters instead of pieces. Battles are waged on isometric grids that are broken down into squares—players can move a certain number of squares per turn and then perform an action if an enemy is in range. Different factors like elevation, the side from which the player is attacking, and what kind of weapon or spell the attacker is using all can affect the amount of damage dealt or if the attack is successful at all. Outside of battle, the games play like traditional RPGs, complete with towns to visit, items to buy, a generally convoluted epic storyline, and so forth.
Thanks in no small part to the success of Final Fantasy Tactics, American gamers have been treated to a mini-renaissance in this niche genre. Games like the Game Boy Advance (GBA) version of Tactics Ogre, Atlus' recently released Disgaea for the PlayStation 2 (PS2), and the much anticipated Fire Emblem for the GBA are dishing out loads of strategy RPG goodness to a market starving for more.
Never one to miss out on cashing in on a craze it helped inspire, Square (along with new partner Enix) has jumped into the mix as well by releasing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the GBA. So, does this title live up to the legend inspired by its predecessor? Generally speaking, yes.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is that it's sort of a dumbed down version of the original game, at least in terms of story. While the first game featured an epic (yet poorly translated) tale of honor and betrayal, this new release has a much more 'kiddie' feel to it. The whimsical plot involves three young kids who live in St. Ivalice named Marche, Ritz, and Mewt. All three are generally outcasts—Marche is the new kid in town, Ritz seems a little bossy, and Mewt is dealing with the death of his mother and the fact that his father is basically now the town drunk.
Things change after Mewt finds an untitled book in the local bookshop. It's a fantasy tale filled with wizards and warriors, monsters and more. When Marche awakens the next day, he finds that St. Ivalice is gone, replaced instead by the country of Ivalice, a land not unlike the one described in Mewt's book.
The rest of the plot revolves around Marche's quest to find his friends and get back home. Naturally, achieving this goal will require far more fighting than diplomacy or brainwork.
The ads for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance brag of a game that could last forever. And while there's a certain amount of hyperbole inherent in that statement, it's no stretch to say that the truly ambitious and industrious could be spending well over 100 hours on this game.
First off, the title features a mind-boggling 300 missions for players to undertake. Granted, the vast majority of these are sidequests and are not essential to beat the game, but they're still there if you're feeling adventurous—and since the typical strategy RPG fan is generally a completist, I have no doubt that a lot of people will work until they've finished them all. One should also factor in that a number of these quests aren't actually battles—they're simply dispatch missions wherein the player sends out one of their stable of fighters to handle the situation. Sending the right character (with the right amount of enthusiasm for the job) will help ensure a successful outcome.
Each mission (be it a dispatch or an actual battle) will net the party loot—including money, items, weapons, etc. Finding specific items can open up new quests, so there's always a reason to engage in one more battle with this game.
If the 300 missions and all of the battles contained therein weren't enough, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance also features random battles and clan fights. Random battles are essentially self-explanatory; players will encounter enemies while moving between the locations on the world map. Clan fights are battles between rival gangs in the world of Ivalice, usually over turf. Winning a clan fight will free the location in question from the tyranny of wicked menor monsters.
So, what keeps all this fighting fresh and interesting? The job system, of course. Unlike the original Final Fantasy Tactics (wherein everyone could learn every job), Final Fantasy Tactics Advance makes many of the jobs race-specific. Whether this is a good or bad thing is entirely up to the individual, but I found it to be an interesting choice since it makes players concentrate on all the different races of characters instead of just building up a few powerhouses for the long haul.
In an interesting twist, the game borrows the skill system from Final Fantasy IX, meaning that weapons and armors have skills that can be learned and utilized instead of the classes simply learning things at level up. Each skill or feat requires a certain number of AP points acquired in battle, and once the skill is learned it can be utilized without having the weapon equipped. What this means is that it's entirely possible to have a ninja who can also use white magic, which is very cool.
However, in order to keep the game balanced, characters can only utilize the skill sets of the class they currently are, and one other that they've mastered. So, switching skills before a particular fight is essential to surviving.
Graphically, the game is a throwback to the 16-bit era. The isometric grid maps are all 2D with 2D sprites representing the characters. It may seem archaic in this generation of blow-your-socks-off 3D graphics and particle effects, but it works quite well for games of this genre. About my only complaint with the graphics is the lack of variety in many of the sprites. Since lots of guys look the same, I've had characters die from "friendly fire" on a few occasions thinking they were bad guys.
What doesn't work so well are the camera, the menu system, and the idea to implement laws into battle.
Simply put, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance doesn't have a camera—it offers up one static shot of the battlefield and that's it. There's no rotating it, no zooming, nothing—one default view is all the player gets. Generally, this isn't too big a problem, but every once in awhile an enemy will hide out in a corner, or a tree will block a view. It seems odd that this problem couldn't have been remedied.
The worst offender by far, though, is the menu system. For a game with such a simple storyline (which would seem to be designed to appeal to kids), the interface is completely out of whack. Trying to find vital information can be like looking for a liberal on Fox News—you might find one by accident, but it's not going to be easy. This is particularly true when trying to buy weapons and items for the party. There's no way of telling if an item will make a certain character stronger or not while in the shop. The only way to really find out is to buy it, then check it before you equip it to a certain character. Then, and only then, can you access a screen that says whether or not the piece of equipment positively affects the player's stats. To say this is an enormous pain is an understatement.
Because of the clunky menu system, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance features a bit of a learning curve. I'd played the original game and quite a few other strategy RPGs, but it still took me some time to get the hang of everything happening in the game. This could have been fixed by including a few tutorial fights, but Square-Enix apparently decided against it.
The law system was just as bothersome to me as the menu interface, but it's a subjective thing—I've actually run across other players who like it. Essentially, it boils down to this: any time the party engages in battle, a judge comes out to view the event. Before combat begins, he announces what laws will be in effect for the fight. These laws can be just about anything—from banning the use of swords or knives, to not allowing healing magic. Breaking these rules will result in the judge issuing your player a red or yellow card. Red cards send the player directly to jail (and if that character happens to be Marche, it's game over) while yellow ones accumulate before requiring prison time.
The problem with this system is twofold. First, since the menu interface is so unhelpful, players will have a hard time knowing if they have a great sword equipped or not. There are a multitude of swords in the game, but many of them are different kinds. Because of this, players can spend awhile figuring out if they're within the law limits or not.
Second is the fact that some of the later battles are governed by laws that are just absurd. It starts out with the "no fight" law, meaning the player will have to kill all of the enemies with magic. It gets even more extreme later when laws like "no damage" come into play. The only option then is to confuse enemies and wait for them to kill each other. That's not a fun way to wage a battle.
Of course, to counter the law system, there are law cards that can be played in battles. These can negate the laws the judges have put into play, or put laws of the player's choosing into effect. The sad thing is, players can only carry 15 of these cards, so you may not have the right one when you need it. Plus, since the whole law system can be countered, it seems pointless to begin with. I'd have preferred the game more without it.
Finally, since this is a portable game with fights that can take awhile to win, saving is important. Fortunately, you can save anywhere on the world map in the game. Should a player find himself needing to take a break in the middle of a heated battle, there's a quick save option as well. Choosing this will return the gamer to the title screen, and the save is erased once they re-start the battle.
Oh yeahI'd love to comment on the new feature that allows players to go head to head in battle through the GBA's link cable—but I don't have any friends and therefore couldn't experience it firsthand.
While it's not without a few flaws (including that it can become insanely tedious to keep fighting over and over as the player advances), there's still no denying that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a great game and a worthy successor to the PlayStation original. Strategy RPGs may remain a niche genre, but thanks to crossover titles like this one, gamers can rest assured they'll be seeing more of these style of games in the future. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.