Square-Enix, the console RPG giant of Japan, is about to treat gamers everywhere to the sequel of their heralded strategy RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics. Originally released in 1998, Final Fantasy Tactics helped to create widespread interest in the SRPG genre; one which includes Fire Emblem, Shining Force and the Tactics Ogre series. In fact, many fans debated on whether or not FF Tactics was merely a clone of Tactics Ogre, but regardless of that, the game was a bona fide success. Now, four years after release, FF Tactics is given a sequel: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance.
Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a sprite-based strategy RPG with battles that takes place on a grid. Using varying terrain to augment how combat proceeds, the game is played similar to an advanced form of chess. However, unlike its prequel, FF Tactics Advance features rule sets for each individual battlefield, ranging from the moderate to the extreme. For instance, in certain battles, characters may not be allowed to use magic and must rely on their other talents. In others, characters may not be allowed to use items. All rules are decided by a "law card" system which is integral to gameplay. At first, the areas players come across have fixed cards that can't be changed. However, as players progress, they can swap cards to augment the rules. Players can also trade law cards via the GBA's link cable.
On the battlefield, a player is required to follow the law cards. Break too many rules and the character involved may be removed from the battlefield as a consequence. This is done using a penalty system similar to soccer. One breach will earn characters a yellow card, while two results in a red card and ejection from battle. If the main character gets excused, the game is over. All other characters are merely removed for a temporary period and sent to jail. Jail time can be alleviated by paying a fine, and if a character has multiple yellow cards from a series of battles, voluntary jail time can wipe their record clean. Players must win battles to obtain new law cards, and can trade them at special stores in certain cities on the map.
Graphics in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance are entirely sprite-based. Gone are the polygonal maps from the original FF Tactics, as is the ability to rotate the map. However, this shouldn't prove any obstacle as most maps seem to be laid out in such a fashion that one viewpoint is sufficient. Backgrounds are also far more detailed than those of their predecessor's. This comes as no surprise, seeing as the GBA is built for 2D graphics whereas the PlayStation was focused on more 3D applications.
What may strike players as the most bizarre feature of the game is the character art. Outlandish, almost other-worldly, the designs are fresh and original, although some are just downright odd. Rabbit-folk, magicians carrying teddy bears and guitar-like combat weapons are all elegantly rendered in storybook fashion throughout. The main character's resemblance to Ramza from FF Tactics is probably not coincidental, but is sufficiently more stylized and child-like in many regards.
The soundtrack to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance will be composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who was responsible for the orchestration of Vagrant Story and the original FF Tactics. Fans of his work should look forward to another quality composition, although headphones or another external device are recommended for maximum enjoyment when playing the game.
The literary premise of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance seems simple enough and underscores a lighthearted adventure. That's not to say the story is superficial, but seems geared toward more casual enjoyment. A boy and his friends find a book called Final Fantasy, written in a language they cannot decipher. After attempting to find some clue as to the book's contents, they finally retire for the night with the hero turning in for bed. When he awakens, he no longer finds himself in his hometown of St. Ivalice. Rather, he is now in the Kingdom of Ivalice, a land of adventure waiting to be discovered.
Players progress through this world of myth by completing quests. Some quests are tightly linked together and vital to the story's progression, while others are side occupations and disposable yet enjoyable. As each quest is completed, a new area of the map opens up, similar to the system used in the first FF Tactics, but with an additional level of complexity.
Battle in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance takes place on a fairly symmetrical grid of varying size. Players move their miniature army around the board and battle the enemy while striving to complete the objective listed before every battle. These goals can be as simple as eliminating the enemy army or slaying the enemy general, but the objective must always be attained before the battle is complete. When in range of an enemy, players can order their characters to attack with weapons, spells, or other abilities. Support skills such as counter-attacking and defending are earned from the variety of characters jobs available. There are even secret skills to be learned, one of which is summoning majestic creatures to assault the enemy.
For players familiar with the first game's job system, there's much to look forward to. Jobs open up as a character becomes more experienced, and skills can be earned depending on occupation and equipment. The amount of character customization is reportedly overwhelming, not only because of all the factors players must account for, but also because of the GBA’s small screen. There is also the need to re-equip a character every time they change jobs, as the automatic “best-equip” feature from FF Tactics has apparently vanished.
The "clan system" in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is also integral to gameplay. The main character will eventually join a clan and travel around the world map, facing other clans. Clan battles are supposed to be more difficult than regular battles. As an alternative, players can pay a fee to have the opposing clan look the other way, but the cost can be rather high. From time to time, characters will approach players seeking membership, and players can recruit new units as the need arises.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance promises players a familiar romp with a fresh outlook and in-depth gameplay. Featuring a lighthearted atmosphere with compelling gameplay and innovative concepts, RPG fans are surely in for a tactical treat. The game will be released in North America during the fall of 2003.
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