From the first time I saw a port of an old game on the PSP, I hoped for the day they would port Final Fantasy Tactics. When it came out on the original PlayStation in 1997, people raved about it. The gameplay, the story, I couldn’t remember anyone not loving it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a PlayStation, and as a poor college student, I found myself hocking even my Game Boy games from time to time, so buying a PS and a game was out of the question. Five years later, I had the equipment and saw FFT on clearance, so I bought it and eagerly started playing. I stopped about 2 battles later and never went any further.
What happened? Later on, I thought it was just that I got busy at work and stayed too busy playing other games that I never got back to it. It was only now, 10 years after the game’s original release, that the PSP version showed me both why I stopped playing and why so many other people couldn’t stop themselves from playing.
Many games have stories. Not many have great stories like Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. The story’s actually so good that it’s a noticeable factor in your enjoyment of the game. So how did I not pick up on it five years ago? Bad translation. WotL was completely retranslated, and it shows in a huge way. It features dialogue that ranges from very good to almost Shakespearean, whereas the original translation suffered from bad grammar and awkward word choices, and that change allows the plot to really shine.
Without giving too much away for those who haven’t played the original, I can say that the story in WotL is that of Ramza Beoulve, son of a nobleman, and his childhood friend, Delita Heiral, a commoner. Both play important but very different roles in the War of the Lions, a war that entirely changes the balance power in the land of Ivalice. There are a few clichés to be found, but they are far outnumbered by great elements that aren’t used so often, especially outside of Final Fantasy games.
Aside from the new translation, War of the Lions’ story stays very true to the original, but it is worth noting that a few new story battles were added. They aren’t a major addition, but they do make a nice expansion on Delita’s storyline.
Note for those who played the original version:
The core gameplay in War of the Lions remains unchanged from the original version, but there are two new classes: the Onion Knight and the Dark Knight (no, not Batman, but playing as Gotham By Gaslight Batman would be awesome). Unfortunately, the Onion Knight is extremely weak without putting a lot of work into mastering other classes with the same character, and the Dark Knight has so many prerequisites that you will have to spend more time than it’s worth just to unlock the class.
The other big gameplay additions are the expansion of your team from 18 to 24 slots, which means you’ll be able to keep all of the story characters and recruit all of the secret characters as well, and two multiplayer modes. There are both cooperative and competitive missions, but poor matchmaking keeps the addition from being as great as it could have been. The recent port of Disgaea also features this gameplay addition, but it surpasses WotL’s multiplayer by making special provisions to balance out parties with unbalanced character levels.
For anyone who wants more detail:
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is a very deep strategy RPG, featuring a wide variety of character classes (most of which are even useful) and an even wider degree of customization. Although characters who are added to your party through story events and the secret unlockable characters you can optionally recruit all function best in specific classes, you will also have a core party of characters who you can place in any of the game’s classes effectively. This allows you to build a party that is structured exactly the way you want it, to the degree that you can have gun-wielding healers (as I did) and dual sword-wielding knights who double as thieves.
As each of your characters levels up in the classes they have unlocked, new classes become available to them. Unlike some games, you won’t want to abandon all of the old classes as new ones open up, although you may switch a character that is focusing on one class into a different one for a time so that they can learn specific skills. Also unlike some games, I was happy to see that every action you successfully take grants experience, including healing or casting beneficial statuses on teammates. This is especially nice because of the fact that when a character runs out of HP, they are considered unconscious for a few turns, after which they die permanently, so you’ll want to be extra careful to keep characters you like healed up and revive them quickly after they get knocked out.
It is worth noting that there are a couple of classes that feel powerful to the point where you’ll wonder if there’s a balance issue. One is the default class of a story character, and the other is unlockable by anyone. In the end, though, my opinion is that you have to do enough work to unlock that class and make it incredibly powerful that you’ve earned it. There are also a few classes (like the aforementioned Onion Knight) that are so weak that you won’t even bother with them, but the number of good classes means that you probably won’t feel the lack of the few that are worthless.
WotL features both story battles and random battles, and it’s up to you whether you focus on one core team of characters and move as quickly through the game as possible or try to take a larger team through the game and unlock every class for them. Being picky about which skills you teach your team will take longer than powering through the game, but it’s a lot of fun, and you’ll have a challenge no matter which route you choose. This is true for several reasons; including the fact that your enemies level up along with you, the fact that their AI is pretty smart, and the way some skills require a charging up period before they are used. You will really need to think ahead to ensure that you get the most out of those skills rather than casting a powerful spell on an empty space (or even worse, on your own team) because your target moved out from under it before it finished charging. However, your enemies are under the same restrictions as you are, so you won’t feel cheated by having to wait, and you’ll love it when you knock them out before they finish charging up something that would have wiped you off the map.
Aside from battling, WotL features Errands. These are jobs you can send a trio of your characters on to earn some extra cash you can use for better equipment and points you can use on their skills. They’re completely optional, but in the earlier stages of the game when you’re relatively strapped for cash, they are useful. As you progress through the story, you’ll earn money after each battle, and the errands become less useful. Certain errands will result in your characters finding things like ancient cities or artifacts, but there does not seem to be any benefit to doing so outside of the fact that seeing items show up from other Final Fantasy games you loved is a cool piece of fan service.
As you play through the story of WotL, certain characters will join (and sometimes leave) your team without any effort on your part. Others will only join your team if you do the right things to unlock them. Among these characters are three from other Final Fantasy games: Balthier (from Final Fantasy XII), Luso (from the upcoming Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2), and Cloud (from Final Fantasy VII). Some of these characters are great, and will probably become part of your core team as soon as they join. Others are more disappointing, and you may not take them into more than one battle. Sadly, Cloud falls into the latter group, which is difficult to understand, especially because the path to unlocking him is the most lengthy.
Finally, it’s important to note that if you’re having a hard time getting the hang of the game, there’s an incredibly detailed tutorial that allows you to learn more about virtually any aspect of the gameplay. If you’ve played strategy RPGs in the past, you probably won’t need much help here, but it’s useful even for experienced players who want advance knowledge of ways WotL differs from other games they’ve played in the past. You can also go back and watch any story event you’ve already seen, so if the plot gets confusing or you just can’t remember something, you can always go back and brush up on the plot.
Aside from the differences I’ve already mentioned, War of the Lions features entirely new cutscenes, and they look amazing. They feature a great cel-shaded animation style with cross-hatching and other touches that will make you sad there aren’t more of them. They bring the characters to life in a whole new way. They blew me away right from the get-go. I just can’t say enough about how much I love the style of the cutscenes.
The actual gameplay graphics, though, had me less amazed. The graphics and battle animations haven’t changed at all since the original version on the PS1. They’ve even gone downhill a bit, because the PSP has framerate issues on a lot of casting animations, and runs more slowly all the time. The initial battle features you and several guests versus a number of enemies, and when I ran the PSP version side-by-side with the PS1 version, the difference in speed became apparent very quickly. The framerate issues are not bad enough in most cases that you’ll be really upset by them, but over the course of the 100 hours I played WotL, I’m sure that the general slowdown and framerate issues left me playing several hours longer than I would have been at PS1 speeds.
That complaint aside, I have to give real kudos to the animators – the animations in the game engine are outstanding, especially in plot scenes. They create real sympathy for the troubles of the characters, and are detailed enough to make it very clear what’s happening in each scene. They really made me feel a lot better about the fact that they look out of date, because I’d rather keep the great animations and old graphics than have shiny new graphics with animations that weren’t as good as these.
The music in WotL is great, and while much of it is in the original game, there were notable tweaks to some of the songs. I specifically noticed that the opening cut-scene has background music that features the same melody as the original version, but that is definitely not a remastered version of the original composition. It’s more of a variation on the same theme. Also new are the voiceovers in the cut-scenes, which are very well done and were another factor in my wish for more cut-scenes.
In battle, however, the sounds fall pretty firmly into the “OK but not great” category. If you are feeling nostalgic for the original FFT, you’ll like the fact that the attack, KO, and other sounds all match the originals. On the other hand, the sounds you hear when casting spells just tend to highlight the fact that there’s a framerate issue with the casting animation, because it stops them from syncing correctly. As I do in many games (mostly to conserve battery power), I played frequently with the sound off and didn’t notice myself feeling that my gaming experience was any less enjoyable because of it.
WotL has a consistent, logical control scheme for the most part, but it does feature both a few nice touches and an annoying item or two. To start with the good news, one thing you’ll probably appreciate is the fact that when you change characters, the game will automatically equip them with what it considers to be the best equipment for them. You may not always agree 100% with its choices, but the fact that it does so keeps you from switching someone around and then accidentally taking them into battle naked. You also have the option at stores of going character by character and optimizing your equipment, rather than having to select one piece of equipment at a time and then compare to see if it’s better than what you already have.
In other good news, each character has a certain number of slots where you assign their skills, and the game stops you from having the option to waste those slots. For example, ninjas dual wield automatically, so WotL stops you from assigning the Dual Wield ability to anyone currently in that class. Basically, it does a nice job of streamlining some tedious tasks and eliminating some of the micromanagement that other RPGs force on you. As a positive note for those who played the original FFT, this version features standard US controls, with X confirming selections and O backing out of them (rather than the other way around, the way FFT worked).
The bad news is really not that bad, but it is annoying. First, there’s no way to stop a battle that’s going badly and load a new save. If that happens, you’ll just have to get yourself killed and then load up after the Game Over screen or reset the game by hitting the Home button or doing a full reboot. If you’re careful with your choices, this won’t be an issue too often, but there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to go through the whole game without ever needing to load up a previous save. Second, moving your cursor around on the World Map is kind of clumsy, like many games where an analog stick attempts to be a mouse. You’ll get used to it, but it just could have been better. Finally, although the game allows you to change which direction the cursor moves in battle, your choice doesn’t carry over into the pre-battle choice of where to place your characters. As with the map, if it’s a problem for you, you’ll get used to it after a while.
What can one say about Final Fantasy Tactics that hasn’t already been said? Even with a bad translation, the original version is on many gamers’ and reviewers’ “top games ever” lists, and War of the Lions decisively eliminates that problem. It isn’t perfect, it introduces a few little issues that weren’t in the original, and you may start out by wishing that the in-game graphics were prettier, but these issues are easily overlooked given how great the game is. In short, this game is on many reviewers’ short list for PSP game of the year 10 years after its original release, and that says more about it than I ever could.