America - Front
America - Back
By DKII 31st Jan 2009 | 4,819 views
Final Fantasy Tactics started in the late '90s on the original PlayStation as what was at the time a radical departure from the Final Fantasy formula. Rather than selecting actions from a menu and then having them carried out automatically, the Tactics series has the player moving party members around on the battlefield, with each particular action having some range and area of effect associated with it. The series has basically replaced many of the exploration aspects that traditional Final Fantasy games have outside of battles with a more strategic style of gameplay during the battles themselves.
About five years after the original game, a sequel of sorts arrived on the Game Boy Advance, though the story was a much simpler affair about someone being magically transported into Final Fantasy land (Ivalice) from the "real world". Final Fantasy Tactics Advance also had a set of random laws to be upheld during battles to try and add more strategic depth to a battle system that was still mostly about grinding levels to overpower the enemy. Once another five years had passed, we got another sequel, this time for the Nintendo DS - Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift.
Very little has been changed in this latest Tactics game. You still have a system of judges and laws, though the punishment for breaking the law this time around is not as harsh. At the start of each battle, you can choose a privilege for your clan which applies only so long as you follow the law (such as extra speed, debuff resistance, or less magic point usage). At the end of each battle, you'll receive a few bonus items if you obeyed the law for the entire battle. If you break the law, you lose your privilege, don't get any bonus items after the battle, and you can no longer revive knocked-out characters. Some of the laws are rather silly in their logic - for instance, a law requiring you to not target distant units (more than 1 tile away) will be broken if during your action you knock the enemy farther away from you. In the end, the new law system is not very punishing and can be all but ignored in most cases, though there are a few side quests with difficult battles where you'll really want your clan privilege, and a few other side quests where the objective explicitly states that you must uphold the law.
The navigation system will be very familiar to Tactics veterans. You navigate around an overworld map from region to region, with each location displayed as a simple dot connected by various paths. Some regions will contain a city containing a pub, where you primarily pick up new quests, a shop for buying and selling items, and an auction house, described later. Quest objectives and random encounters will pop up on the map, and if you travel to that location you'll automatically enter a battle. There are random encounters where you'll suddenly be thrown into battle against your will, but you do have the ability to enter random battles to build up experience whenever you want, so much of the artificial gameplay-lengthening tedium isn't there.
Once you enter a battle, you're taken to a tiled map of that location, where you select your party members for the battle and line them up at the starting area. Each tile has a specific height to it, and every character has a maximum distance they can move horizontally, as well as a maximum height change they can jump to from one tile to the next. Certain spells and abilities also have specific ranges and horizontal and vertical limits on their area of effect. Each turn a character can both move and take an action, in either order, and turn order is determined primarily by the speed stat, along with whatever modifiers may be affecting it. In general, you have both physical and magical attacks, and the damage done is affected by your own attack or magic stats, and the enemy's defense or resistance stats, respectively. For physical attacks you'll do an extra 50% damage for attacking either side of the opponent, and double damage for attacking from behind. Also, all actions take place immediately (even the Dragoon's Jump ability).
The tactics mostly comes into play with the vast number of jobs and abilities to choose from for your characters - over 50 regular jobs and a few character-specific ones. Unfortunately there's not really much balance between them all, there are a handful of particular jobs and abilities out there, including a couple of job/ability combinations that nearly break the game, but most of these don't come into play until the very end of the game. In order to unlock new jobs you'll have to complete specific side quests and then master enough abilities in prerequisite jobs for a particular character to be able to switch into the new job. In addition, each race (Human, Bangaa, Moogle, Viera, Nu Mou, Gria, Seeq) is only able to learn certain jobs. For instance, only a Viera can become a Summoner, and only if she's mastered two Elementalist abilities, which in turn requires mastering two White Mage abilities (a starting job). Some of the complexity in the job system has been reduced, however, as there are no zodiac signs in the game, and gender is usually not a factor, with the exception of some specific characters (all Viera and Gria are female while other races are male), but you won't need to know this except for a few uncommon laws and end-game job abilities.
Abilities are learned from equipping certain items. Once you equip a weapon/shield/helmet/armor/accessory with an ability, you can use it in battle right away. Once you master an ability you can use it even if you're not wearing that item anymore and even if you change jobs, as each character is allowed to use abilities from their current job and one other job at the same time. Mastering an ability requires ability points, which you receive after successfully completing a quest or random battle, and can be enhanced with special clan privileges. You can win some items in battle, but most of them you'll have to buy from the shop after unlocking them in the bazaar by collecting certain kinds of special ingredients. The bazaar system actually adds an interesting flavor to loot collecting, since you won't necessarily know what you're getting until you take your haul back to the bazaar section of the shop to see what new items you unlock for purchase. There are some drawbacks to the system, however. If you're unlucky with your loot you might not be able to unlock the appropriate items to give your characters their next abilities in their jobs (it took me forever to be able to teach a Black Mage any spell from the Fira, Blizzara, or Thundara line, for example).
In addition to active abilities (attacks), you also have reactive abilities (such as a counter attack) and passive abilities (such as boosted attack), each of which you can equip only one at a time, and aren't allowed to change during the battle. Some abilities will do a particular element of damage (such as fire), while some items will grant some resistance to certain elements. Finally, certain accessories will allow you to summon Scions, powerful creatures that do a particular type of damage to all enemies at once (one Scion will fully heal your entire party, too). You can't use Scions until after that character has taken a few actions in battle.
All of this depth would be great if it actually mattered most of the time. In reality there are a lot of drawbacks. Most of your melee characters will just attack directly instead of using abilities until you unlock some stronger ones, which you'll then use almost exclusively. A lot of magic-based jobs don't even have useful spell sets (I'm looking at you Green Mage) thanks to most strong enemies having a high debuff resistance and a tendency to dispell all effects frequently. The worst offender however is the AI in the game, as both friendly and enemy AI are downright atrocious. You'll routinely be asked to protect a low-level NPC who thinks it's a good idea to run into the middle of a battle and attack a melee enemy that can counter. You will frequently be attacked by enemy abilities that you are immune to, or with elements that you absorb, despite the fact that all that information is available to you before each action. About the only smart thing the enemy AI does is gang up on one of your characters to knock it out of the fight. In addition, the battle speed is really quite slow, pausing for a second each time the opponent selects an ability, selects a target, confirms the action, and so on, to the point where the simplest of battles will still take 15 minutes - though there is at least a Quick Save feature for use during battles.
The main storyline is pretty short with only 20 quests, though you'll probably need to do at least some side quests in order to level up enough to complete the game. However, the side quests are actually pretty entertaining, and a number of them will have ongoing storylines of their own to give you more of a background to the area and its inhabitants, in addition to unlocking new jobs and items for you. Add up all the official side quests from the pub and you'll end up with 300 in total, not including a handful of random and triggered encounters available directly on the overworld map. However the last 30 or so side quests are extremely difficult and tedious, and only the most dedicated will bother to actually complete all 300.
In addition to the mission-based quests, you'll also be able to undergo clan trials, which are basically special difficult battles, such as defeat some tough enemies or find a rare item on the field in a limited number of rounds. Successful completion of a clan trial gains you clan attribute points (which are only used as a prerequisite for obtaining side quests and never really become a factor), sometimes a discount in pubs and shops, and most importantly a new or upgraded clan privilege. All of the rewards will depend on which clan trial you take (there are a total of fourteen) and which of the five difficulty levels you choose, but there are some powerful clan privileges to be won with this system.
The only thing to do in this game besides battle is the auction system, available at auction houses during the first month of each game year. At the auctions you can spend your clan points (earned by completing quests) to enter for a chance to "buy" ownership of each area. Once you own an area you get a discount on purchases made there, and you'll have a special quest pop up in that area to fight the local clan that you just ousted. The real fun comes in, however, once you win all of the area auctions for a given region - you're declared owner for life, never having to win ownership in an auction again. At that point, each auction is done for rare items, giving you access to rare abilities. The auction actually works by giving everyone a fixed number of tokens, each worth one, two, or three coins. Each auction consists of a certain number of rounds, and you can bid a token in each round, but your total number of tokens must be rationed for all of the auctions in a given region. It gets considerably easier to win the auctions, however, once you gain the ability to purchase additional tokens with your clan points (unlocked after participating in a certain number of auctions). You can also watch the AI characters as they're bidding and read their tells to figure out if they're going high or low.
The story itself a pretty uninspired affair, and will be pretty familiar to those of you who have played the previous game. A boy is magically transported via a book from our world to the world of Ivalice, and spends his entire time trying to fill up the book with his memories of events in Ivalice in order to return home. The plot picks up the pace in the last couple of battles, though it's still really just a beat-the-evil-people affair. The main character is not very deep or sympathetic (sound familiar?), but the supporting characters (especially Cid, Adelle, and a number of the allied and enemy NPCs) are crafted much better. There are also a few hidden characters who you might recognize from previous Final Fantasy games.
Visually, the game looks pretty good, though the presentational style is fairly simple. There aren't any animated cut-scenes, but the spell effects mostly look good and the Scion summoning is pretty neat, if a bit long to sit through every time you use it. Character sprites are well-detailed but there's a lot of re-use. However, each job for each race has its own unique sprite. The classic Final Fantasy art style is intact and as eye-pleasing as ever. The music is catchy and well-crafted, enough so that even though you'll mostly be hearing the same overworld and battle music you won't really get tired of it. Sound effects are passable, but there's no voice-acting in the game - all dialogue is delivered with static portraits and text. The interface is pretty standard, allowing for either button or stylus inputs, and either system works fine, though targeting a specific tile can occasionally be tricky with the stylus.
I spent over 100 hours in the game, completing most of the side quests along the way, until the payoff for the last dozen or so wasn't worth the hassle. If you want to speed through the main storyline, you can finish a lot faster, but you'll be skipping past a lot of the content - more than 90% of the quests, most of the dialogue and story, and well over half of the available jobs and abilities. The game does a pretty good job of not overwhelming new players by throwing all of its massive content at you at once, but rather bringing you into it gradually by forcing you to unlock new items, abilities, and jobs one at a time, but if you're looking to unlock something specific it can be a pain. It was a mostly enjoyable experience, but the battles themselves can get repetitive at times (and the really dumb AI was disappointing). Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is a sequel that successfully improves in a small way on most aspects of the previous titles, and while it doesn't really do anything new, what it does do, it generally does very well.