Having never been a fan of Final Fantasy (FF), I can honestly say that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (FFTA) is by far the very best FF game I have ever played. I watched my friends play through the dialog heavy FFVII, I tried my hand at the demo of FFVIII, and even borrowed FFX, but none of them could get me in bed with the series. Tactics games have been few and far between over the years, presumably for a high learning curve, massive amounts of time needed to complete the game, and the speed at which they progress in an action packed world where furiously fast games like Serious Sam are all the rage, but the combination of the Final Fantasy series and tactics gameplay struck gold one before, and does it again.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance overcame most of the obstacles plaguing lengthy, drawn-out tactics games and transports you in to a truly rewarding experience where the real world is combined with that of Final Fantasy’s and gaming goodness results. In FFTA you take on the role of Marche, a young boy who loves Final Fantasy. When one of his new friends from school brings over a book based on the series the world of St. Ivalice is transformed into a mystical world where monsters roam and magic prevails. Overall the story is the weakest element of the game because of the heavy emphasis on progressing through the game via battles, but it does give you enough plot to follow the story and care about the characters.
FFTA eases you into the complex world of tactical battles with an excellent snowball fight tutorial which introduces you to the basics of gameplay. It teaches you about fighting, waiting, and, most importantly, facing after your turn is complete. Why is this most important? Well, the direction your character faces may determine whether or not your opponent will be able to come at you from the front, back, or side and that could be a matter of life or death in the heat of battle. You assume control of your character after the world has been transformed and you learn even more about battles, laws, and clans which are the three most important elements of the game.
Battles take place on an isometric “game-board” where the field is divided into squares. Your character has a set number of squares in which you are able to move, and, depending on your fighting class, a set number of squares from which you can launch an attack. The game allows you to develop your clan members in a variety of jobs including the powerful soldier, soothing white mage, or vicious black mage. Each class is important in the game because you won’t always be able to run right into battle and hack n’ slash your way to victory. You can only bring six units into battle so dispersing them at different times and building up the experience points is just one of the game’s many keys.
SquareEnix opted to include a new foil in your quest for dominance in the form of laws. Each battle lists forbidden actions and recommended replacements. The laws range from the small: not being able to use Phoenix Down or potions, to the large: not being able to physically fight an opponent. In the case of the latter you need to have well developed mages to win. The law system may seem daunting at first to players more akin to rushing into battle with high level, physical party members and laying waste to the competition, but this added complexity is what Tactics is all about. If you break a law you are first given a yellow card (much like soccer). If you are a repeat offender, or KO an opponent while making an infraction you are “awarded” a red card and sent to jail. Being in jail means your party will have to pony up bail and you will be suspended for a number of engagements as punishment. Yellow card infractions will cost you a piece of equipment as penance.
Once you appear in the newly reformed world you are confronted by some rather unpleasant looking fellows who aren’t very happy to make your acquaintance. You are befriended by rabbit-like fellow named Monteblanc who instructs you on the rules of this new world and invites you to join his clan. A clan is nothing more than your standard party from most traditional RPGs. From time to time new members will want entrance and it is up to you to accept or deny. Of course this may mean letting another member go, but what ever it takes to win is best for the clan. Diversity in your members is the key to winning later battles when the game’s difficulty takes a slope upwards.
Missions are delivered via pubs where you pay the barkeep for information on a mission. You can then set out to accomplish that said mission, or buy more information. Some missions have a time limit, meaning they must be completed in a set amount of game time. You will see the days pass in the lower right hand corner of the Overworld map when you proceed from province to province. Missions come in a variety of styles including dispatch, where one clan member is sent to accomplish the mission without your control, liberation, where you must liberate a town from a rival clan, encounter, where you engage a rival clan in combat, and standard battle, where you must defeat a group of enemies to accomplish your task. These tasks may be recovering a lost thesis, or killing off an infestation of monsters. As the game progresses you will add new “pieces” which represent new battlefields and new challenges. The clan element of the game institutes the standard RPG device of random battles. When on the Overworld map you will see other figures other than yourself moving around and if you run into one, or one runs into you a battle between the two clans will begin. From battle to battle your clan as a whole will level up in eight different categories.
With that said the game never really becomes as notoriously difficult as its predecessor. Although having never played the game myself I have heard horror stories of one particular mission that caused so many problems to so many differently skilled players. The biggest draw back is a somewhat cryptic menu system that makes it hard to navigate and perform tasks when not in battle. When equipping a character with items the game shows everything you have, but grays out the items that cannot be used by a particular fighter. It would have been much easier and less time consuming to just list the items that a specific player could use, thereby saving some space and making you scroll through less. SquareEnix made a valiant effort to fit a menu rich game such as FFTA on Game Boy Advance but the limited screen space is the biggest inhibitor. In relation to this limited menu space you never know what an item will do to your character until it is equipped, and then you needed to have remembered your stats prior to equipping that said item to see the different.
On the battlefield the game excels with deep, engaging gameplay, but FFTA’s biggest shortcomings are in some of the game’s most integral places. Still, even with this cumbersome drawback Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an excellent game with obviously high production values and scope. The massive amount of missions and game-link capability mean you will be playing this one for a very long time. If my pleasure is any indication, even non-Final Fantasy fans will jump right in and find something to enjoy, and that is the very definition of an excellent game.