Game Name: Final Fantasy Tactics (1997, War of the Lions remake 2007)
Developer: Tose, Square Enix (Bravely Default, Kingdom Hearts, Tactics Ogre: LUCT)
Platform: PS1, PSP, PS Vita (reviewed on the Vita), Mobile and Tablet versions exist
Categories: Turn-Based Tactics, Squad Based, sRPG, Single Player, Bare Bones Mechanics, Sprites, Symphonies, Side Quests, Inventory Juggling, Team Management, Endless Overworld Battles, Heretical Plots, and Bourgeoisie Backstabbing
May Appeal To: armchair tacticians, Final Fantasy Fanatics, grid and turn-based gamers, or anyone hungry for lasting revenge against a too-hard challenge that previously thwarted them *cough, erm*.
May Repulse: the apparent target audience for modern Final Fantasy games: either Jpop quaff-wearing doofuses or fashion-forward boy band douchebags. This game doesn’t cater to the crowds lining up for immediate gratification. Anyone offended by time honored traditions of FF’s Christianity blasphemy, check out now.
Comparable To: Tactics Ogre’s artstyle and story, though this has simplified personal statistics, less cast members, and more concise and rewarding battles. Vagrant Story shares its world and design inspirations; Suikoden 3’s harder battles are reminiscent. Growlanser had a more compelling positioning and magic attack system. And FF Tactics A2: Grimoire (the sequel) had better team management, a lighthearted story, improved presentation, but a worse -or at least a childish- theme.
Learning Curve: Low, you know this curve already. The only conceptual challenge might be in managing your “away team” missions IF you even play the meta game.
Game Length: 40 hours maybe
Difficulty: I’ve deliberated and pronounce this to have extreme difficulty. 20 years ago, I overwrote crucial save slots and found the later game was especially prone to this pitfall due to: being able to send your high-level crew on long term contractual missions, being ambushed by storied battles, your main character getting placed towards the center of most maps as scripted, actually impossible duels with your MC, and successively unrelenting tiered battle sequences. It comes extremely recommend to have 4+ save slots that are well organized. And if you’re not using a mid-game Spellsword acquisition named Orlandu, you’re trying too hard.
Mastery: I hope you like the team harmonization, leveling mechanics, item purchasing, and management because this would be quite the grind and timesink to unlock the randomly acquired relics (50+ of them), unlock all classes (30+ of them), and allow the 14+ characters and guests to join your party. There’s only one ending vs Tactics Ogre’s 30 something individual branches leading up to 4 endings. You can ultimately tweak your equipment and ideal strike force battle abilities for an eternity.
Story: Despite this version’s careless Engrish that anchors us to a quaint time when localization and quality control on a AAA title was permissible, very little stands in the way of the player getting swept up in a fully realized world of kings and castles, knights and knaves. For the record, my attitude about Engrish has come full circle and I now delight in the haphazard placement, use, and organization of words that evoke some incorrect and mutant form of their original meanings.
It’s not an entirely coherent universe but the fact that FF12, FF14, FF Tactics, FF Tactics A2, Crystal Defenders, and Vagrant Story are all said to take place in the land of Ivalice is a point of interest, considering that the Final Fantasy games were keen on rebooting worlds to save and less so on sequels. For the geographical references and pervading, general mood of its history alone, that might make at least a couple of these games worthwhile as counterparts of each other.
Final Fantasy Tactics does its best to lose you in the shifting alliances and glut of named characters -think Game of Thrones but without noses- though it has an undeniable charm and rooted lore that is assumedly crafted with love, care, and a map of headshots connected by multiple strands of colored yarn. Your main character is the youngest of a noble family in dire straits to win a war in the name of their liege, whom is locked in a mortal struggle against an equally powerful foe. This is a ‘Final Fantasy’, so a hop, skip, and a historical prophecy later and you have the zealous forces of a corrupt church looking to usurp the highest seats of power and the emergence of mythical Zodiac stones that bestow great power and greater ugliness upon those that would strike a deal in order to wield them. What unfolds is a twisted, epic, rich melodrama of familial fruit withering on the vine, duty, honor, and more underhanded dealings than you can waggle a bloody bastard sword at.
I hope you fail less than I did, otherwise, you’re going to get an eyeful of unskippable cutscenes and paragraphs of ye olde exposition from the mouths of friend and foe alike. The geography of weird nomenclature like Zeklaus, Zeirchele, Zaland, Zeltennia, and Ziekden are all as convincingly detailed as they are unapproachably difficult to memorize but the in-game person, event, and place data glossary is a nice and welcome reference. Too bad the 7 kingdoms you are fighting for/against are ill-defined politically and that the player’s map is encrypted in a farcical language….
Presentation: No real time lighting. No fancy shaders. Like many of its sRPG ilk, FFT depends on a sprite-heavy blend for character/creature design and superimposes this on a polygonal landscape of varying tile heights. The familiar problem with this is the isometric viewing angle since sprites are of varying size and occlude those behind them, as well as only smoothly rotating the background, leaving characters to cut between four different perspectives. If a multidimensional viewpoint is needed for playfield assessment you usually end up rotating the thing 360 degrees and using the tilt playfield button which ends up being functional though ugly.
Regardless, I’m a sucker for hand-drawn sprites and this game has them in spades, adding more than just palette swaps for its 18+ monsters, 30+ named characters, and 44+ common job sprites (male and female). Similarly, spell effects are a combination of 3D particle sprays and artwork, infrequently bogging down your unit’s processor as it chugs to catch up. Fortunately, the acclaimed, elegantly stylized work of Akihiko Yoshida (of Ivalice and Tactics Ogre contributions) seals the deal and shellacs any shortcomings elsewhere in the presentation. Never mind that the chubby, noseless characters you control do not meld seamlessly with the leggy, noseless characters that represent them.
Audio is often a quality I disregard unless it is appallingly bad. However, the swelling orchestral symphonies found within are utterly appropriate and play puppeteer to a broad range of human emotion. If the YouTube vid I referenced is to be believed, there’s two and a half hours of original music here and of a quality you rarely find.
Unique Features: For better or worse, “break” attacks destroy armor pieces permanently – devastating to your team and not so useful on its own merit. There is an entire system built around zodiac birthsigns which governs the amount of damage or healing performed against units. However, I have trouble recalling a more untrackable system of useless complexity and fully ignor it since it never factored into or shaped my tactics at hand. Similarly, your characters’ Bravery and Faith stats are definitely a force to be reckoned with and you’ll promptly forget about. For the most part, these will independently govern the success rate of reaction skills/magic and marginally improve the afflicting attack. Statisticians with a smaller backlog than I will live and die by these features as they weave the ideal team out of logarithms and saliva-drenched Cheeto powder. The “away team” missions are a fun little management diversion though one can easily hamstring their success chances by diving too deep too quickly.
Gameplay: Bare bones battle at best. This is not a great game to introduce the cookie-cutter realm of sRPGs since it lacks many options of modern convention and punishes for the slightest misstep. The character stacking, team attacks, weapon transmogrification, item boosting, and puzzle mini-games of Disgaea had not been invented yet though FFT is rife with its own brand of mission management (a handful of characters get assigned to a bland side quest you don’t interact with) and the robust jobs system.
I’ve got to say that customizing a teammate’s skill set and experimenting the outcome of “gray” Mage abilities (black and white) and throwing in some Ninja dodging for good measure is enticingly addictive. My main dude went through several conversions over the course of the story and ended up with the best parts of Warrior, Dragoon, and Alchemist – sort of a leaping, unkillable cleric. Team synergy is king here, even if half the jobs feel underpowered and a mere stone in the path to greatness. This robust character creation barely makes up for the inherently basic one-tile attack patterns, general immobility of your fighting force, and the difficulty in training lackluster crew members into something worthwhile.
It’s a plus that there are so many maps and set pieces and even better that your team’s backtracking has you emerge on a differing map sides, but so much drudgery in combat lowers the enjoyment several notches. An auto-battle toggle or even the ability to remove random encounters altogether would remedy much of the tedium. As it stands, it’d take more than a phoenix down to instill life in a game’s mechanics overshadowed by 20 years of progress in the genre and the turn-based gameplay is -sadly- one of its poorer facets.
Additional Comments: What do those damned side mission rewards do?! I mean I’m pleased when I collect a named, illustrated relic to throw in the pile, but seriously!
What I Liked: The sound and music were excellent. It’s a treat to re-enter the lands of Ivalice for me since the rich lore and ongoing history is fully realized, convincing, and immersive. The story is solid, the complex motivations of villain and heros, alike, even more so. The jobs system made character evolution and team composition the highlight of the actual game elements here. I never felt coddled or patronized by a game tailored to meet my difficulty level since I was forced to elevate my own strategic and organizational skills. For this reason it was a great feeling to finally overcome and defeat one of the progenitors of this genre.
What I Disliked: You can’t skip dialogue – especially confounding for grueling replays of a particularly cheap or challenging series of battles! On that note, I’m on the fence about unannounced story sequences that have you draining your stamina and sanity with a chain of potentially-unbeatable ambushes. However, I definitely don’t like that these situations can have the player ‘save slot’ themself into a corner! The isometric camera is obnoxious as always and you end up counting tiles manually when a digital dip in the landscape obscures precision. There is no ‘undo move’ option and CT attack timing can be very unclear when attempting to stack damage before an enemy takes their turn.
Magic knights (spellcasters with no mp and instant effects) are overpowered but there are useless classes. Monsters aren’t as versatile as humans but are doubly-difficult to obtain. A unit cap prevents true experimentation and you may be forced into an awkward Sophie’s Choice of releasing ‘A team’ members if your B team reserves are on assignment and a named character offers to join your merry band. (You can’t release even low-level junior members if they’re on a mission.) On THAT note, retrieving your B team is a chore in that you must traverse map nodes to accelerate the calendar, manually find where you left them 15 some-odd days ago, and return to that position to recant the retarded tale of how they partially-failed the mission before reuniting the disposable agents and your ability to remove them to make room for characters that can pull their own weight.
Also, just like any other far-reaching war epic the character relations, their positions, allegiances, and even entire kingdoms become muddied and unclear over extended play, despite the in-game glossary.
Glitches Experienced: It’s well put-together. I only witnessed framerate dips during storms of particle effects.
Hours I Played: 55
My Personal Reaction: Final Fantasy rarely fails to cast the social establishment or religious figurehead into some overarching, over-reaching mustache twirler hell-bent on destroying this plane of existence. This story isn’t too far off but I appreciate the more nuanced approach of framing it in a bleak, medieval age of perpetual war and feudalism. I resonated with many characters and was about as fed up with shifting alliances and vassalage as they were, though the reasons for doing so never felt petty or arbitrary like the Gundam Wing saga. Instead, locals and even the locales of Ivalice have this solemn, quiet dignity that is outright missing from the bombastic creations of wide-eyed, color-vomiting shrillness to be found in too many modern titles.
There is something positive to be said here for this proponent of fantasy opera, a feudal web of denizens mired in futility, loss, regret, and a hope to make the proper decisions to bring about a brighter future.
The story kept me coming back for more in the year I played and the presentation made it even more palatable. Although I had small, sharp pebbles in my shoe regarding game design choices and features, it was a challenging experience I’ll recall fondly. Its advantageous perks lie just on the periphery of tedious mechanics and tiresome battles though I suppose Final Fantasy Tactics can be said to whittle down the player’s endurance in parallel to the very personalities you commandeer around a simple grid as they reach the apex of their weary journey.
That being said, there are tons of interesting allies to join up with, a story to plumb, endless hours of minute configurations, jobs to master, a team to balance, covert unlockables, and unexplored corners of possibility.
Noob Tips: The main character is often displaced ahead of the chosen starting square and can even be ambushed by a story-driven 1v1 duel. To avoid late game grinding, I recommend tailoring them into a high HP/Damage class or even a jumpin’ Dragoon.
Depth and Replayability: High Depth in terms of customization, growth, and optimization – this is useful for the numerous side missions and infinite random battles. However, a replay isn’t warranted due to the finality of the story (har har) and lack of significant decision-branching other than party composition. Saving your game file into a corner would force a replay…. don’t make my mistake.
Suggested Value: $20
Where to Buy: Playstation Store, dlgames.square-enix.com
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