In 1997, Square threw the FF fanboys a wicked curveball in the form of Final Fantasy Tactics.
Very rarely has a franchise title departed so strongly from the basic formula of the series;
even more scarce are the deviants that hold their own.
Tactics is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of the Shining Force series. Players control Ramza Beoulve, youngest son of a noble family renowned for its fighting spirit and sense of duty to the crown, as he strives to make a name for himself as a young military cadet. Seemingly innocent beginnings turn tumultuous as our young hero uncovers sinister plots of political manipulation and world domination, while the squad of cadets that Ramza commands increases in number and develops in power, as the player sees fit. At the same time, the player is forced to endure the worst case of engrish since a ship crewman declared, "Someone set us up the bomb!" Sadly, this dulls the luster of an otherwise brilliant performance.
The gameplay is undoubtedly FFT's strongest selling point. Players are presented with an overhead map of Ivalice with cities and locales and the paths between them. The color of a locale's "dot" indicates either a friendly city (blue), a chance at a random battle (green), or a battle/scene required to further the story (red). There are 4 chapters in the game; within each chapter are 10-20 required battles, as well as story sequences used to further the plot. The storyline is quite rich and thought-provoking, if not grammatically sound (more on that later).
For those of you who thirst for optional tasks, side quests exist in the form of Propositions, various undertakings that can yield gold or completely useless items that basically do nothing more but add a subjective aura of coolness in ownership. And if collecting every rare artifact and finding every lost civilization wasn't enough, there are a handful of optional characters to recruit and a rather difficult, completely voluntary dungeon that has "time sink" written all over it.
More than anything, Tactics is based around strategic combat. Individual battles take place on three-dimensional grids with varying degrees of elevation, terrain, and hazards. Once a battle is triggered, players deploy the desired troops and commence to dispense “High Justice”. Usually, the objective of a fight is to kill all your enemies (duh), but occasionally, you'll be required to kill or protect one specific NPC.
Sounds easy, right?
Let me be the 284,261,064th person to dispell that line of thought. Battles in Tactics are *hard*, much more so than what the average player might be used to. Monsters in random battles level up as you do, so there is usually a high degree of difficulty in building your characters. Also, a "quick" battle for the average gamer takes about 10-15 minutes, while hour-long wars of attrition are not uncommon. Consider the fact that, to build your levels and to fatten your war chest, you'll have to engage in at least as many random, optional battles as ones that you cannot avoid, and you'll have a vague idea of how much time will be spent at arms.
Those who have played Final Fantasy V will find similarities in FFT's character advancement system, but Tactics still veers from the traditional Square/RPG formula of characters earning a roughly equal lump sum of experience for winning an encounter. Characters gain a certain amount of experience and job points (JP) for performing certain beneficial actions in battles, as well as gold and random prizes at the end a battle. 100 experience points nets a new level, while job points are used, strangely enough, in the job system.
20 different primary jobs, many of which are based on classes from the classic Final Fantasy universe, allow for a wide range of character customization (tangently, unique “story” characters often have a special job with abilities few other characters can obtain). Each job has its strengths and weaknesses - Knights wear heavy armor and wield beefy swords, Wizards dish out crazy magic damage, Ninjas flip out and wail on their guitars - so your army can be tailored to your style and to the different challenges the game throws at you. While actualizing this versatility requires a healthy (or unhealthy, depending your take) amount of time, it's not exactly a problem RPG fans won’t be used to by now. Additionally, it should be noted that levels give small boosts to your HP, MP, attack and defensive powers, but are not the end all, be all of a character's usefulness. Judicious usage of job points is as, if not more, important than keeping your levels high.
So, how does all this look on screen? Well, FFT's graphics aren't as advanced as Final Fantasy VII's (for comparison's sake, both were released in the same Square "era"), but they're very clean and the well-drawn sprites have a charm all their own. Special particle effects, as in spells and job-specific abilities, are colorful and spice up the otherwise ho-hum visual aspect of battles. The few FMV scenes in the game (read: both of them) are polished and add a little full-screen tastiness to the mix. There's very little graphic slowdown, if any - the only reduction in FPS I recall is during the most complex of monster summons (which are rare, unless you choose to use Summoners, by the way) and during a couple of rather large particle effects. Loading times are a moderate hassle, and certain cut-scenes have the infamous slow-scrolling text that is even more profound in Xenogears. However, these are relatively small peeves that will not likely enrage you to the point of turning into a massive, musclebound man of green.
The interface is a little overwhelming at first, as there really is a ton of data to deal with. Even the zodiac signs that each character possesses can factor into accuracy of physical and magical attacks. Micro-management is huge in Tactics – you’ll spend at least several hours on a complete run-though in the character menu, puzzling over character development and job point generation and expenditure. However, the point-and-click menu system is by no means clunky or garbled - once you "get it," steamrolling Red Chocobos will be old hat.
While you're crunching numbers and learning the basics of the combat engine, the soundtrack will immerse you in the game. The tracks range from joyous and triumphant to morbid and haunting, almost always fitting the mood of the current scene or battle. You probably won't find yourself humming any of the scores (mostly because they're not really hum-able), but they are quite good in their own right. However, I wish I could say the same about the ambience of combat. Much like the graphics, sound effects are unspectacular yet functional. Thankfully, they don't detract from the game in any profound way.
What does take away from the game is the translation. I've said it in other places, but if Square had sacrificed a little more time and money to clear away all the engrish in Tactics, the game would be all but perfect. At times, gamers are left with thoughts of pure confusion or utter hilarity at the sheer nonsense that is Tactics dialogue. The final conversation is no exception; if anything, it's a shining example of how the original script writers' meaning should *not* be conveyed.
Also, it's not exactly a big secret, but the most efficient ways of building exp and JP are rather...cheesy, to say the least. It's quite possible, albeit very time-consuming, to level almost any character to 99 (and amass a crazy amount of JP in the process) in one battle. To me, at least, that seems cheap, but this "trick" can certainly diminish one of the more irritating factors of any RPG based on the classic form.
Then, of course, there's the debate about Cid. Cidolfas Orlandu is an extremely powerful character, powerful to the point of leaving a rather large hole in your force should you choose not to use him. Again, this comes down to a matter of personal taste, but the fact that there's the equivalent to a Gameshark code without the Gameshark, and one that doesn't require any outstanding amount of effort in enabling, is a sore spot for many.
Overall, Tactics appeals to a certain kind of gamer - certainly not the stereotypical FF fanboy who had a mild coronary when this game was released - and it is not without its problems that weaken the game in a gestalt manner. With that being said, it is still one of the best strategy RPGs out there, worthy of both the Final Fantasy name and your time, even in today's age of ultra-realistic, high-resolution visual gratification.