Final Fantasy Tactics is Squaresoft's first major foray into the Strategy RPG genre. It was developed for the most part by former members of the developing team, Quest. Quest was responsible for the Strategy RPG's Ogre battle and Tactics Ogre Battle on the Super Nintendo system. So while this is a relatively new genre for Square, it is not new to the team that made the game. And their previous experience shines through in many aspects of gameplay. And they also didn't forget the usual Square flair in the aesthetic areas of the game.
"The flow of history is an unstoppable force."
The game revolves around an extremely complex story line of political intrigue and deception in the feudal society of Ivalice. This is probably one of the most linear games you will ever play because the whole story has already taken place in history. The outcome is set in stone and written history is something that is unchangeable. But that which is written in history is not always 100% accurate, and true heroes are often hidden or forgotten as stories are passed down through the ages. Final Fantasy Tactics places you in the role of one such hero.
The land of Ivalice was ravaged by the Fifty - Year War between themselves and a neighboring country. The war ended in peace, but the cost of war is always high. The people and resources of Ivalice were exhausted, and rebellion against the old ways was bubbling under the surface of the society. Lords of the six ruling families decided to unite to guide Ivalice back to prosperity and prevent rebellion. But the balance of power amongst them began to wither. The king had died suddenly and his daughter, the Princess Ovelia, had been kidnapped. A conflict between two of the royal families arose over the succession to the throne, and civil war broke out.
This war was known as the Lion War because the two princes on opposing sides were represented by different colored lion crests. Prince Larg of Gallione represented the White Lion, while Prince Goltana of Zeltennia represented the Black Lion. Larg was the elder brother of the queen, while Goltana was the younger cousin of the deceased king.
According to history, a young hero named Delita Hyrule, a peasant adopted by the Beoulve family, ended the Lion War soon after it began and became king. He ruled in peace and prosperity for a long time, leading Ivalice out of its depression. But another man played a larger role in the Lion War, but his name is not in any of the history books. Ramza Beoulve was the best friend of Delita Hyrule, was born to the noble Beoulve family, and is the true hero of the Lion War. Final Fantasy Tactics tells his incredible story.
The story features numerous twists and turns, and some very powerful emotional scenes. The characters of Delita and Ramza are wonderfully realized and will live in the player's memory for a long time. There is very little to find fault with in the story, and only one major problem. That major problem is the translation by Square. Now I do understand that translating a game is extremely difficult and that awkwardness between the two languages is common. I can handle a few awkward sentences as long as they are somewhat sensible enough to figure out and if they don't hinder the game in a major way. But key plot points and battle objectives are often lost because of some of the translations. One of the worst is during a battle later in the game in which your objective for winning is so confusing that I was sitting and staring at my screen for a minute or two wondering what was going on. Not only does the objective have an important word misspelled it is phrased so backwards that you could easily choose the wrong person to attack. I can understand some awkwardness, but not on something so simple and important. And misspelled words and improper word spacing simply do not have any place in an RPG from a company the caliber of Square. Any high school student can spell better, and they would know how to properly space words. I just don't understand why so little effort was put forth in such an important area.
The only other small gripe that I have with the story is that supporting characters receive very little development. Ramza and Delita are wonderfully drawn by the story, but those surrounding them are cliché or shallow. Some are more fully realized than others are, but for the most part there is little to build upon. But keep in mind that this is a Strategy RPG, and supporting characters are more often that not just cannon fodder to help you in battle. When all is said and done, Tactics has one of the deepest stories you'll ever come across in a Strategy RPG, or any RPG for that matter.
"It's been awhile since we sat and watched the sunset together."
The graphics for Final Fantasy Tactics are, in this reviewer's opinion, the best I've seen on the system to date. In terms of consistency, quality and visual appeal I am hard pressed to find something that is its superior. And I thought the Playstation couldn't handle 2D games of this quality. I'm glad I was wrong.
The graphics consist of 2D sprite characters placed on polygonal landscapes. The sprites are simply fantastic. They are solid even at the closest distance to them, and when the battlefield rotates they never seem flat or distorted. They are fairly large and seeing them in action is quite a sight. The animations are very well done and add a lot of life to the characters. Emotions and actions are clearly defined by the wonderful movements of the characters from a simple nod of the head to the desperate reaching out and clutching of the arms. All of it adds up to create a wonderful drama akin to acting on a stage or in a film. The sprites emote with the best of them and never appear to be overly dramatic. They are just as impressive in battle whether they are slashing downward with a sword to break an enemy's weapon or tossing a potion to heal a teammate, each movement is well thought out and looks great.
The landscapes are fully 3D and made up of textured polygons. And at times it is hard to believe that they are polygonal. The textures are so rich and the levels designed so well that they look almost hand drawn. From thick bogs to beautiful cathedrals to jaw dropping waterfalls, each landscape is well designed and very highly detailed down to the last brick of the catacombs to the final pain of glass in the monastery's stain glass window. And they never seem to get repetitive. You never say, "Been there, done that." Practically every scene is something new and fresh and beautifully conceived.
And both the sprite characters and polygonal landscapes work perfectly together. Despite being two separate mediums, they gel together better than some games with a single medium for graphics. This can be attributed to both the excellent textures used on the backgrounds as well as the well thought out shading and coloring of the sprites. It's obvious that both were designed with the other in mind and any conflicts that might have occurred were taken care of so that a solid and consistent visual picture could be achieved.
And did I mention the amazing spell and summon effects? While they are nowhere near as flashy or impressive at first glance as Final Fantasy VII's magic graphics, they are far from forgettable. Transparencies combine with polygons and sprites to create a wide array of spell effects. Fire spells go from simple flame spurts to gigantic fiery explosions and rains of fireballs. Summon spells use transparencies and the ability to rotate the battlefields to create the illusion of skipping into other dimensions as the summon monsters represented by hand drawn images appear and cast their spell. While the summon spell graphics are only inanimate hand drawn sprites, I honestly enjoyed them more than the giant polygonal summons in Final Fantasy VII. I have always preferred hand drawn art, and there is a richness and detail that polygons simply cannot provide yet.
I only had one small problem with the graphics. It wasn't a technical problem, just a purely aesthetic problem. Your soldier's that join you in battle are all generic in terms of on field and portrait appearances. It would have been nice to have a little variety in them so that they don't come off as clones. Even simple random changes of hair color, length, eye color or face shape would have added more than enough individuality to those characters and made them worth using.
The music in Tactics is simply marvelous. From the hauntingly beautiful intro theme to the never grating battle music, this soundtrack is impressive all around. The mixture of classical and Celtic instruments creates the perfect theme and personality to the world it surrounds. The compositions are complex without being intimidating. The sound effects are equally impressive from the death screams of players to the thundering explosions of the big spells. I could find no fault with music or sound and highly recommend the sound track that is very, very beautiful.
"You! Cover my flank! NO, the other one!"
I have truly mixed feelings about the gameplay. On one hand, we have a highly complex and detailed job system. Your characters can switch from class to class and gain new classes by raising the levels of others. Each class has its own set of skills covering offense, defense and movement. Switching jobs and learning the right skills adds a ton of depth to the battle system. Defeating a scenario often depends on having the proper balance of skills and classes. This system adds a whole new level to the strategy genre and it is very well done and balanced. No class is totally useless throughout the game. And you can equip two sets of skills at once to balance out your character between offense and defense. The system is so complex that I could spend 5 or 6 paragraphs explaining it. But I don't think either of us wants that, and I'm not writing a FAQ. But don't let it intimidate you because the game comes with an excellent tutorial that takes you through each aspect of the battle system. Even after reading the manual, the tutorial helped explain things much more clearly. I know a lot of you out there don't like reading manuals or listening to tutorials, but going into this game with no knowledge of the system is a death wish. You'll be lucky to get past the first three scenarios if you have no knowledge of the job system.
That takes care of the good part. The job system is wonderful, complex and adds unheard of depth to the game. But the execution of the system within battles is absolutely useless. I have trouble calling this game a strategy RPG when there is so little real strategy involved in it. First of all, you are limited to only five characters in battle. And second of all the battlefields are much too small for any kind of flanking or diversionary tactics to be employed. And with only 5 people, those tactics would be useless anyway. What the game eventually comes down to is strength vs. strength and proper spacing of troops when fighting magic users. Any strategy involved is of the most basic kind such as taking out magic users first or keeping to high ground. No diversion, no flanking, no trapping an enemy in a pincers movement, no sacrificing of troops to gain positional power. You're given a ton of options to diversify your characters and make a well- balanced group of fighters, healers and magicians. But when it comes down to it, you end up with using the most powerful class and the balancing secondary class and fighting the same basic battle plan over and over. Don't bunch up, take out magic users first and heal often. While this is not a bad way of making a game, it doesn't qualify in my mind as strategic. If you put the word "tactics" in the title I'm going to expect to actually be able to employ some kind of military tactics.
And the worst thing is that it could have been improved upon quite easily by expanding the battlefields and increasing the number of fighters you could use. Simply doubling it up to 10 fighters on a twice as large battlefield would have made things much more interesting. There would have been so many possibilities that battles would have been a strategist's delight rather than a strategist's nightmare, being trapped in a small box with no room to maneuver your troops.
The game is also very poorly balanced. Many battles are mind numbingly difficult and force you to level up to either get a certain skill that allows you to gimmick your way to victory or to simply make your troops stronger. Rather than being able to think your way through strategically, you have to find a simple advantage like running around and using the Yell skill so you can get multiple attacks or raising your levels to achieve physical equality. Either way is not in the least satisfying to someone that revels in finding the right weakness in the enemy's line of defense, or a way around that defense to take your objective by surprise. And if you level up during the early parts of the game in order to stay even, you'll find that the latter parts of the game have become far too easy. And once you have a certain character join you, it's a cakewalk. I had this character go into many battles all by his lonesome and not once was he even close to being defeated. The game's difficulty is way off kilter and balance is very important in a strategy game. All in all they had some tremendous ideas and innovations, but the execution fell totally flat. Strategy and Tactics are two words that mean something to me. I love all kinds of strategy games, real time and turn based. It drives me crazy to see those terms so poorly miss-represented.
Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the most beautiful and thought provoking games I've played in a long time. But the actual bulk of the experience, the battle system, left me feeling cheated. I know a lot of people love this game and will disagree with me and I am far from hating the game, but I can't deny that I was very disappointed with the gameplay. I love strategy RPG's, and I love Square's games. Final Fantasy Tactics was one of the most highly anticipated games for me and I had very high hopes. I guess they were just a little bit too high.