My Unhealthy Obsession With Final Fantasy Tactics
It started sometime in the early 2000’s. While everyone else had a PS2 or a Dreamcast, I was just getting a PSOne. I was late to the console race, having only ever owned an NES and a Gameboy prior. But dammit, I didn’t need any fancy graphics and DVD players in my console; I didn’t need hit games like Shinobi and Power Stone when I had my Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit, NBA: Shootout 98, and 40 Winks, and my Super Mario Land II: Six Golden Coins and Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Not to mention all the PC DOS demos a kid could dream of.
But soon after, I played Final Fantasy VIII, and my love for Final Fantasy VIII (my first FF game) led me to pick up a little title called Final Fantasy Tactics. I had no idea what it was about, but I figured, hell, if FF VIII was great, Tactics would be the same, right?
I was completely wrong.
It wasn’t just that it was great: for me it would become the most engrossing game of my life.
The game opens up on a rainy day with your character, Ramza Beoulve, in the midst of a struggle; a struggle that includes political intrigue and a battle. As the game unfolds, players are introduced to Ivalice, a kingdom recently torn asunder politically and economically in a conflict called the Fifty Years War. At the end of that war, the king of Ivalice died, leaving behind a teenage daughter and an infant boy. With a regent needed to rule in place of the youthful royalty, a power vacuum is created with two factions warring over which child should rule. This divisive campaign between either faction’s leading noble–Prince Goltana “The Black Lion” and Larg “the White Lion”–leads to what is called the War of the Lions, and is the backdrop for everything that happens in the story.
While at times admittedly confusing, especially in the original game’s translation, careful attention to detail and a better translation in the later PSP release, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, gives gamers an intricate story filled with an elaborate conspiracy. The game’s narrative follows themes regarding political leadership, monarchism, classism, honor, virtue, and friendship–themes normally found in historial fiction and medieval fantasy, and themes that were not abundant in games of the time. Plot twists are abundant, especially later in the game, and there comes a point where a player questions just who exactly is friend or foe. What starts as a simple black and white conflict later involves various royal members, several factions, religion, a variety of personalities, and then a conclusion that ties all of it together with a surprise twist ending that boggles the minds of many players to this day.
Final Fantasy Tactics was the game that introduced me to the TRPG genres (Tactical Role Playing Game). If you’ve ever heard of or played one of the games in the popular Disgaea series, the beautiful and enticing Jeanne D’arc, or the surprisingly addictive games of the Advance Wars franchise, then you’ve played a TRPG. Hell, even the critically praised Valkyria Chronicles, a blend of the RPG and FPS genres, is really a TRPG, with its emphasis on character placement, movement and strategy. Tactics was my gateway drug into this genre and made me really appreciate how fantastically deep this genre can be.
Final Fantasy Tactics is an advancement on of the critically praised Tactic Orgre’s engine, just infused with the heart of a Final Fantasy game, complete with longtime Final Fantasy spells, job systems, and items. Tactics is like a compilation of everything “FF”: just about every spell, weapon, armor, and item has an origin in some FF game.
More importantly, ever since the very first Final Fantasy, job classes have been hugely important to the franchise, with series mainstays like the Black Mage (who uses Attack Magic), the White Mage (who uses Support Magic), the Knight (a strong attacker) and the Thief (a fast moving light attacker) defining pretty much every group of characters in any FF game. In Tactics, players are given the ability to switch between roles, which determine what abilities and attributes they can learn, level up, and unlock. With the more abilities learned, players can then mix and match what their characters have mastered, using two different types of job role skill sets, and passive buffs, weapons buffs, and movement buffs.
What this means is that potentially I can–once I’ve earned enough JP (or Job Points) to unlock these abilities–have a character who has been leveled up largely in a Monk Job Class to have high HP and Strength; switched to the Ninja role to level up speed, and then switched back to the Squire role to hold weapons like Excalibur and Save the Queen. With the “Double Sword” Ninja ability unlocked, I could use both those weapons at the same time if I didn’t care about having a shield. With the “Teleport” movement buff unlocked from the Time Mage skill, my character could then teleport to different areas of the map regardless of the terrain that usually restricts movement and finally I could give my character the “Hamedo” (First Strike) Monk buff that allows him to attack just before an enemy strikes–attack twice if I have the “Double Sword” buff equipped.
Or, with the “Teleport” ability and either “Hamedo” or “Counter” on, I could have a gun weilding character coupled with a Knight’s “Break/Rend” abilities… meaning I could have a potentially lethal sniper who can teleport in and out of range and break enemies’ equipment from afar, rendering them slower, weaker, and less dangerous. Or, if I combine the Engineer’s “Seal Evil” ability (which instantly turns undead enemies to stone if successful) with the Oracle/Mystic’s “Zombie” spell, I could turn enemies into the undead in one turn and then instantly petrify them the next turn.
Or, lastly, I could learn as much magic as possible from all of the “Mage” job classes, and then use the Calculator ability to use magic with no MP (magic points) cost, and hit as many enemies as I’d like, as long as their Level, Experience Points, and other factors are multiples of 3, 4, 5, or a prime number. This can affect strategy entirely, where like-leveled enemies can all be hit with powerful spells like “Flare” or “Holy” with no wait and no penalty all at the same time, or I could dispatch particular allies and cast “Protect,” “Shell,” “Cure” and “Haste” one after another as necessary, again all at once.
This is the beauty of Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s the philosophy of chess with the soul of a Final Fantasy game.
I could go on forever, but clearly the power of Final Fantasy Tactics is its ability to give you choice. The ability to build characters however you like, to choose how you attack on the battlefield, to choose how you prefer to tackle obstacles. With enemies that range from soldiers with the same job-roles (and same advantages and disadvantages as you) to soldiers with unique, enhanced job classes, and monsters that range from easy, weakness-exploitable enemies to long-range, powerful foes, players are always kept on their toes and forced to adapt to whatever the next random battle brings. Couple this with the ability to unlock/recruit new characters for your team and convert monsters to your side, and Tactics is the ultimate RPG for the ultimate fan.
While this game gives literally thousands and thousands of options, its downfall comes from just that–too many options. For some players, this game can feel too immense to really understand. It took me hours (and multiple playthroughs) to really get a grasp of everything I could do in this game, and I’ve had several friends who felt the scope was too large to dive into. Plus, the pacing of the game is just as I described above–like chess–meaning it’s more a thinker’s game than your average RPG or button-mashing action game.
The game really only comes alive when you begin to creatively apply and combine certain abilities with others, and apply all of that into certain situations. Otherwise, instead of the mega-badass “Teleporting Squire With Ninja Speed and Double Swords and Monk-Reflexes,” “Teleporting, Knight-Breaking, Undead Killing Sniper,” or “Super Mage With Unlimited Power” characters described above, you get “Ordinary, But Pretty Strong and Slow Knight,” “Extremely Slow And Largely Sucky Calculator,” and “Average Mage With Only One Type of Magic Power.” Then throw on a plot that may be confusing (especially in the original translation) and so laden with twists that it’s hard to keep up with, and players just feel like they’ve stumbled into the middle of a bad 10,000 page medieval fantasy novel. And with stories like that, the only thing you want to do is close the book.
Still Too Damn Good To Put Down
Nonetheless, the game is just too damn good. For a teenager I understood the plot well enough to not be deterred by its vastness or complexity; as an adult I took to it even more. For a teenager the gameplay was not only intriguing, but incredibly addictive, especially as I replayed it and understood it better. As an adult, I became a master of my craft, though I admit to using a FAQ or guide every now and then for hints. As a teenager, the game was so appealing to me that, like most RPGs I dove into, I played it well past the 99 hours the save file counted up to. As an adult I’ve played it numerous times, with the same PSX disc I originally bought: I’ve played it on the PSOne, the PS2, the PS3 (and I still have it!). And then, the release of The War of the Lions, which came with a multiplayer mechanic, more job classes, and beautifully rendered cel-shaded cutscenes (however few), became a must-have game on the PSP. And I’m fairly certain that when I get the PS Vita I’ll download it to that and I’ll be playing it there, too.
From the first time that I partook in a half hour battle (mainly due to my inexperience and ineptitude), to the time I was ambushed by the fast attacking, healing yellow Chocobo, flying black Chocobo, and meteor dropping red Chocobo, it was challenging. From the time I tackled the entire “Deep Dungeon” secret sidequest, to the time I unlocked a killer robot, a dragon, Beowulf, and Cloud himself in another sidequest, it was rewarding. From the first time I pressed “Accumulate” to find the easiest way to accumulate experience when idle, to the time I defeated the ultimate boss with my most efficient group of ass-kicking soldiers, Tactics has pushed the bounds of how I approached strategy in RPGs, and left nothing but pleasant memories in my mind. This has been, by far, my favorite Final Fantasy game of all time, and I’d be lying if I said that I had enough of it.
It may not be a game for you, but try it. If you love it, don’t thank me: play me one day in multiplayer and give me a damn good match, and we’ll be even.
(Ths post originally appeared on Infinite Ammo)