Final Fantasy Tactics, released in February of 1998, was one of Squaresoft’s early efforts on the PlayStation console. Released with much fanfare, it marked one of the first major games released by the venerable publisher that wasn’t a standard or action RPG. Developed by the same team that produced another strategy RPG, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics attempted to balance an intricate plot with challenging gameplay. The end result, while flawed, is still an immensely rewarding and entertaining game.
“Destiny lies in my hands!”
Unlike most games, where the plot is open and yet to be determined, Final Fantasy Tactics tells a story of history – one that is fixed in its outcome. The land of Ivalice had just finished the immensely draining Fifty-Years War, and there was general chaos in the land – food supplies were low, the peasants were unhappy, and various ruling lords of Ivalice were feuding for power. Ultimately, a war broke out between two Princes of Ivalice – Larg, the White Lion, and Goltana, the Black Lion – so named for their crests. This war became to be known as the Lion War, and grew to engulf many factions within the land.
In the end, a man named Delita Hyral, a peasant, became the hero that stopped the war and grew to take the throne of Ivalice. Delita’s opportunity came when he was a young man, and friend to Ramza Beoulve – a member of a noble family, and a man later branded a heretic by the church.
As any scholar knows, however, the winners write the history books, and facts can be used selectively. In truth, Ramza Beoulve was the true hero of the Lion War. Final Fantasy Tactics tells the story of a man forgotten by history.
The plot of Final Fantasy Tactics is truly epic. Even though the fate of a small kingdom is at stake (instead of the entire world, as in many Square games), it packs more sub-plots and characters than many RPGs even dream of. While Ramza and Delita are the focus of the game, literally dozens of characters step into and outside of the main plot, each with their own dreams and ambitions. While many are sadly neglected (a result of the number of characters), it make sense that a story about a single man would not concentrate much on the overall motives and goals of those people peripheral to the events at hand. There are so many layers to the plot that playing again only serves to further the player’s understanding of the plot, as compared to many RPGs where you know everything after completing the game once. Comparisons can be drawn to various myths, and one sub-plot of the game even mirrors some aspects of the role of the church in our history. It’s refreshing to see a game tackle such an epic, structured plot, and succeed admirably.
One very useful feature that Square placed in Final Fantasy Tactics is the addition of the “Brave Story” (named after the “Zodiac Brave Story”, one of the legends integral to the plot). The Brave Story is accessible from the menu at most times, and is a comprehensive reference of the game’s plot. Characters are listed with brief biographies (updated to reflect the most recent events), important items can be viewed, and best of all, most plot sequences can be seen again. While dialogue that occurs within battles isn’t readable within the Brave Story, any other plot-driven sequence can be viewed at any time. It’s a wonderful way to see a particularly moving sequence again, or to refresh one’s memory of the plot, and I wish more games would offer such an option. It’s certainly no substitute for playing through the game to get the full effect, but it’s a handy reference.
It’s just a shame that such a wonderful plot is obscured by a horrible translation. Long-time gamers will remember a multitude of translation errors throughout gaming’s brief history (One example that springs to mind is Metal Gear’s immortal line “The truck have started to move.”). Tactics puts all of these games to shame. The tutorial is notable in its ineptitude, and Tactics’s Professor Daravon has become a cult figure in the video game scene for his interesting way of speaking. You name an error, and it’s in there – there’s unnecessary Americanization of names (the White Mage is now the Priest, the Dragoon is a Lancer, and so forth), there’s blatant incorrect spellings (when you summon Lich, the game informs you that “Rich” has been cast), there’s missing punctuation, and, lastly, there’s some sentences that are so badly mauled that you have no idea what they’re trying to say. It’s a shame that the plot of the story is so difficult to follow, in significant part, to the translation.
“All light, fall into darkness!”
The graphics are great. The battlefields are polygonal, and the characters are 2D sprites. The battlefields have an elegant simplicity to them – that’s not to say that they’re empty, but they have a certain look that helps provide a great diversity in locations, while not becoming overwhelming. The characters are well animated, with a variety of animations for each character class. While each class has 2 generic graphical sets (one male, one female), unique characters have their own animations and graphics. Palette swapping occurs, but sparingly, and only in certain groups of monsters. The problem is that generic soldiers all look alike, so some battles look like an army of clones running around. It detracts from the overall graphical scheme.
Spells are varied, and are animated well. Most have limited effects, but their animations all reflect their power. Weaker spells are smaller in scope, while more powerful spells overshadow the whole battlefield. Summon spells are done especially well, with very detailed artwork of the summoned creature appearing over the field, before producing a stunning display of power. The more detailed effects tend to severely tax the power of the PlayStation, slowing it down greatly, but the slowdown doesn’t detract from the visual beauty of the spells. There are a few FMV scenes, and they fit the graphical style of the game without being too flashy or out of place.
“Windy god, strike enemies silent!”
Sound effects are nice, but seem a bit off. Some sound a bit odd, such as people’s screams, and some combat sounds, like a sword strike, don’t sound very solid. Others are nice, though – spells are generally good to listen to, and weapons like bows and guns sound like they should.
Music is by far one of the game’s strongest points. The score, by Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto, is wonderful. There are a wide variety of battle themes, ranging from slow, methodical, creepy songs, to fast-paced, tense songs. Songs in towns and in the menus are upbeat, while the music during plot sequences range from epic, emotional tracks, to grim, moody songs, and all the way to light and cheerful tunes. Some characters have songs associated with them (impressive, given the large cast), and they fit their personalities wonderfully. It’s a suitably epic soundtrack to such a grand game.
“Spirits of time, hide us from the judging hand of God!”
The game plays out much like a standard strategy RPG. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it can be best likened to a game of chess – a small battlefield, filled with different units – and each unit has different capabilities. Granted, Final Fantasy Tactics is a bit more varied than chess, but the general idea stands.
Final Fantasy Tactics has a large number of character classes that you can assign your different soldiers to. They range from such standard types as Knights, Archers, and Wizards…and there are a variety of more unusual classes, such as Dancers, Calculators, and Mediators. Each class has distinct weaknesses and strengths, and their own abilities. Where Tactics throws innovation into the mix is through the use of the Job System (as seen in Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy V). It’s a complex system, but it can be simplified. When a character performs tasks as a class, they get Job Points, and each class has a number of abilities that can be obtained with the points. Once the abilities are learned, they can be used regardless of which class they currently are – so you could have a Wizard wielding Excalibur, a Lancer casting Summon spells, or a Bard using a gun.
The true depth of the system comes when you begin to specialize your characters. You can only assign a character so many abilities, so giving them a wide variety of unrelated abilities won’t help – a Wizard could wield Excalibur, but they’re weak to begin with, so it’s not going to give them an advantage in combat. Moreover, certain advanced classes are only available if you’ve become strong in other classes (you’re not going to be able to learn Summon spells until you have a broader knowledge of magic). By spending time to build up your characters, you can create some truly fearsome combinations – a Knight with increased movement abilities and 2 swords can inflict massive damage, and a Wizard with a variety of Math Skills and a few powerful spells can literally clear a battlefield in one or two turns.
There are also Guest characters, which you can’t control. Many of them do join the party later, and they all have various special classes available that normal soldiers can’t access, such as Holy Knight, Assassin, and Engineer. The usefulness of their special abilities varies, but it’s nice to see that Square gave important characters special abilities to distinguish them from each other.
You can have 5 characters in a battle (Ramza and 4 others of your choosing), though Guest characters let you have 6 on your side. The forces you face vary in size, from a single formidable beast, to ten or more different units. The terrain also varies, from swamps and deserts to cliffs. The landscape is another factor, with movement and height restrictions coming into play, as well as environmental hazards (falling off a ledge is obviously going to hurt a character) being present. The wide variety of locations helps prevent boredom. Random battles are also available in certain locations, which allows the player to make his characters stronger and experiment with ability combinations, while still allowing the player to focus on the plot of the game.
There are some problems with gameplay, though. The battlefields and army sizes are just too small. While it’s certainly rewarding to have your small force take out a great number of enemy units, the battlefields don’t allow for much strategy. That’s not to say it’s as straightforward as a standard RPG, but the fact remains that with all the possibilities for strategy, it’s still a matter of either having the right set of abilities to survive a particular situation, or just getting so much power that you can just blow your enemy away. It’s a real shame, because there are a lot of simple remedies that could have been implemented, that would have given the game much more variety.
The other major problem, and it’s a huge one, is difficulty. Simply put, it is all over the map. One battle can be amazingly hard, while the next few are insultingly easy. In some battles, you’re dead if you’re unlucky (if you can survive a battle at Finath River when you end up fighting 5 Red Chocobos, you’re either amazing, or just had to level up for a few dozen hours). The unique characters are a part of the problem – some have abilities that sway the battle so far in your favor (or against it) that it’s ridiculous. Some battles, though, are just poorly planned – ask any person who’s beaten Tactics about the difficulty of certain battles, and you’ll get common responses of places they got stuck at. Special mention should go to a certain character that joins midway through Chapter 4. I won’t spoil his identity, but it’s not stretching the truth to say that he could probably finish the rest of the game by himself, with little luck. It’s this lack of a consistent difficulty curve that hurts the game, and it severely detracts from it.
“Share lives with all things in nature…”
In the end, Final Fantasy Tactics is an immensely entertaining game. It’s got flaws, particularly in respect to difficulty and the limited battlefields. Still, it’s a joy to play – I’ve played 3 times, and each time I’ve used different strategies, found uses for new abilities, and had a blast each time.
If you want a game that’s pure strategy, you may want to pass on Final Fantasy Tactics. If, however, you don’t care so much about the somewhat limited scope of the game, or just want to have a really fun time, pick it up. It’s worth it for the plot alone.
That is, if you can follow it.