Final Fantasy Tactics
Peace. That’s what the victors of war get. As for the losers…The 50 Year War may have ended, but it came at a steep price. Cities burned. Countless innocents were slaughtered in the name of conquest. What’s left of this ruined, rotting wasteland is a mere shell of its former glory. Order is just a memory; like his country, the king is on the verge of death. Weary veterans return only to find a devastated economy and no pay in sight. Justice is a luxury that too few can afford. The same goes for morality; hard times have driven some desperate citizens into thievery and mercenary services. Downtrodden survivors find themselves slowly starving as the upper classes enjoy what remains of their dwindling power. The War of the Lions, the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts, will determine the political landscape and future of the country. Assuming, of course, that there is still a country left to rule.
Welcome to Ivalice.
It‘s a messy situation, to say the least. There are so many different sides, so many different people and organizations scheming and manipulating their ways into power. It can be a little difficult to keep track of who is working for whom and the individual stakes in the grand scheme of things. But beneath the constant barrage of plot twists and cutscenes, the Final Fantasy Tactics focuses on the exploits of Ramza and Delita. Neither character is anywhere near perfect, and their flaws balance each other throughout the narrative. Ramza comes off as a somewhat typical RPG protagonist; he is young, idealistic, and just beginning to get a taste of the grim reality of civil war. He is spoiled and naive due to his life in the upper class, but he lets his morality and incorruptibility guide him through the toughest of times. Delita is the other face of that proverbial coin; he is cunning, constantly brooding, and already jaded despite his young age. Unlike Ramza, he has more focused, tangible goals and understands the steps needed to take them. These little paradoxes are worked into a larger themes of conflicts between social classes, the impact of religion, and morality versus duty, and other problems. It’s not the best written (the translation is occasionally atrocious) or extensive story ever conceived, but it delves deep enough into its issues to keep you interested throughout.
Considering how Ivalice is in a perpetual state of political, social, and economical anarchy, it’s not surprising that several of its inhabitants have resorted to violence to define their lives. The progression of Final Fantasy Tactics revolves almost entirely around battle after blood-drenched battle across Ivalice. The basic mechanics and layout of the combat are essentially the cornerstone for all tactical RPGs today: turn-based fighting on an expansive, isometric battlefield cut up into individual panels. Where you move can make all the difference; while sidling up to an enemy and hacking his guts out might sound like a good idea, a well-placed (those high ledges and rooftops are oh-so accessible) archer or mage can wreak havoc. Nor should your characters be clumped so close together; a bunch of samurai or fighters might be able to dish out ungodly mounts of damage, but it can only take a few powerful spells to slaughter them all en masse. Not to mention the fact that magic users can’t take much punishment before keeling over. Thus the battles boil down to carefully choosing your positions to keep your team alive while attempting to kill the opposition as quickly as possible. When you factor in things like terrain advantages, movement costs, the time it takes to charge up spells – that particular one can be tricky – you’ll be in for an involved and challenging experience.
What the combat mechanics lack in style, they make up in substance. One of the biggest factors contributing to this game’s longevity is the extensive job and ability systems used to develop the characters. Aside from the ever-changing lineup of guest characters and non-controllable allies, you’ll be able to recruit several warriors for your cause. The lion’s share of Final Fantasy Tactics isn’t the fighting, but the development of your party. Nearly all of your characters have the capability to learn any job class in the game, from the lowly squires up through the thieves, ninjas, summoners, mediators, and all the rest of the unlockable positions. Developing a character merely involves having them use a certain job long enough to it level up, then changing it to something more higher-end when it becomes available. Each class also comes with its own set of skills and abilities, all of which can be purchased with the experience points you’ll accumulate with each successful move in battle. The beauty of this system is that it allows you to combine some job skills with others; even if the squire is the lowliest job any character can have, it has a few key skills that make leveling the other jobs a breeze. Imagine having a mage dual-wielding both black and white magic; he or she could be dealing death or life with every turn. The trick is learning how to combine these classes to make more balanced and/or powerful characters; with the right skills set (Blade Grasp with boosted Bravery and Accumulate come to mind), your units could be nigh-unstoppable. Thus the game is just as much about unlocking all the jobs and abilities as it is about strategic combat.
The problem with this is that it undermines the importance and necessity of items. Don’t get me wrong – those Phoenix Downs are very useful early on – but you won’t find much need for them as you progress. As difficult as some of the battles are, many of them are won by what abilities or skills you have. A character with a good reaction ability can work wonders in even the most dire situations. In fact, it’s entirely possible for you to hold your own while being completely unarmed. Thanks to the frequent random skirmishes you’ll have to endure between the plot-centric battles, it’s quite easy for you to over-level your characters, unlock better jobs, and ravage those poor little story mode bastards that don’t automatically level up to stay competitive with you. The tradeoff is that you don’t get access to a lot of the useable gear or weapons until much later on, thus leaving you unequipped for a considerable portion of the game. But the thing is that you don’t necessarily need to worry about that stuff; if you spend the time crafting your party, you won’t run into much trouble. This is not necessarily a flaw as much as it is another way to approach the game; it’ll be fun either way.
What might not be so enjoyable, however, is getting used to its menu system. Final Fantasy Tactics provides tons of useful information and options, but newcomers might find it a bit awkward to use. If you don’t experiment a little, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to access the jobs and abilities pages, or how to manage the placement of your units before each battle. Not to mention the fact that you can’t take back movements once you’ve made them. Even if the camera can rotate and zoom to get a better perspective of the battlefield, it’s still possible to screw up because you didn’t take the time to check all of your surroundings. Considering how many rocks, trees, ledges, and buildings make up each of the battlefields, checking your position is something the game expects you to learn and master. That’s not a bad thing, though; many of the places you’ll fight through are well-designed and detailed given the Playstation’s capabilities. The game is all about presentation; even if the characters are utterly pixilated, they’ll get to traverse across collapsed buildings, slosh through murky bogs, and brave Ivalice’s worst storms. Sure, the maps may be blocky, but they’ve got more than enough style to make up for it.
If you haven‘t played this yet, you‘re missing out. Badly. You know that, right? Final Fantasy Tactics set the standard for the modern strategy RPG genre; what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in substance. The story is a dark, convoluted tale of individuals struggling over ideals and ambitions. Even if the translation can prove horrendous, it still manages to pull off every stunning revelation and dramatic exchanges well. The combat itself is SRPG gameplay in its most basic (and arguably finest) form: two opposing parties dealing with tons of potential strategic options. With several unlockable job classes and even more awesome abilities, it’s possible to meld your characters into ultimate fighting machines. While there is an overemphasis on such abilities, you’ll at least have plenty with which to work. It’s a fun, absorbing experience that keeps you hooked from its first cutscene. There’s a reason why so many other Square titles have incorporated it into their canon. Why so many other games emulate its design. Why gamers remember Ivalice. It’s time that you find out why, too.