“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
― Sun Tzu,
Square’s first Final Fantasy foray into the realm of the strategy RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics, has one foot in the past and the other in the future.
FFT brought back and enriched the beloved job system which had been so integral in the early entries of its franchise, and at the same time (together with FFVII released the same year) it helped usher the series into the 3D graphics world of the PlayStation. It even utilizes classic bitmap sprites for its 2D characters over its 3D environments. This seems to be distinctly Japanese: a fusion of embracing the past while looking forward into the future. FFT opened up new possibilities for less traditional RPG gameplay, embracing a slower, more methodical approach to a battle system than what previously characterized Final Fantasy.
As a tactical role-playing-game, Final Fantasy Tactics might prove to be too slow to be accessible to some players. A typical RPG pushes the limits of one’s patience, sometimes, with long dungeons, hundreds of battles, collecting items and actual reading. Hours of levelling up can wear one down. But FFT can make your typical RPG seem like an action blockbuster. By contrast, its strategic battles play out more like chess tournaments.
However, this is definitely not a title to be overlooked, if you can stomach it. Final Fantasy Tactics should be remembered for two things it does best: its complex, thematic narrative and its complex, tactical gameplay. Considering both of these will form the body of this post and may eventually spill over into another post altogether. Because this game is bloated. It’s thicker than a Fat Chocobo!
First, the narrative, which is told through several “chapters”. Note that this is for the original PlayStation version as retranslation changed some aspects of the tale in the PSP re-release.
Final Fantasy Tactics follows Ramza Beoulve (Bee-oo-vel? Byowlv? Bay-olf-ee?), the son of a noble family. The story takes place in the well-developed fictional world of Ivalice, a medieval, war torn kingdom caught up in a power-struggle known as the War of the Lions which forms the background conflict of the game. The Ivalician monarch, King Ondoria, has died and the heir to his throne, Prince Orinus, an infant, is too young to rule, therefore a regent to the throne must be appointed. The kingdom, however, is divided over who should be selected.
The weak monarchists and loyalists to the Ivalician crown elect Duke Larg to serve as regent beside Queen Louveria, while the truly powerful aristocracy of Ivalice backs Duke Goltanna as regent and the ascension of Princess Ovelia. Both Larg and Goltanna served as generals in the Fifty Years’ War when they fought under the banners of the White Lion and the Black Lion, respectively. Beside them, the powerful Glabados Church swears allegiance to neither Larg nor Goltanna, and indeed the leaders of the Church possess far more sinister and manipulative aspirations. This great struggle for power across the kingdom forms the backdrop for FFT’s events.
A wise decision on the part of the developers was to make humans the dominant sentient race in FFT. This seems to embue its themes of political intrigue, ecclesiastical conspiracy, and broken society with a kind of historical realism. Indeed that’s the angle the game begins with when it opens with the words of the theologian-historian, Alazlam Durai.
The scholar explains from the vantage point of several years after the events of the game that the real facts have been uncovered in a report that had long been kept secret by the church, that the true hero of the “Zodiac Brave Story” is not the one history remembers, Delita Heiral, but the “heretic” Ramza Beoulve.
This forms the premise of the game and one of its primary themes: the search for Truth. The later theological implications and terminology used can briefly come off as ham-fisted but I believe that the premise is served well by its presentation and firm setting in a fantastical world. Surely, the real world church is not above reproach and she has had more than her own fair share of controversy, conspiracy and obfuscation thanks to wolves among the sheep. Personally, I think a fictional setting is a great place to have a free discussion and exploration of ideas like this about religion, which should be talked about. Evangelicals and atheists should both be able to have a discourse without resorting to bitter argumentation. Okay. Taking off my preacher hat.
When FFT’s story opens, Ivalice has just seen the close of the Fifty Years’ War with a neighboring nation, Ordalia, and the power struggle of the War of the Lions is on the horizon. The Fifty Years’ War left many in poverty, increasing the gap between the wealthy nobility class and the desperate peasant commonfolk. Commoners were forced into crime, and one of the major themes of the game, specifically in the early chapters, is about Ramza’s developing empathy with the plight of the poor and the uncaring disdain with which their treated by the noble class. This is highlighted in chapter one by Ramza’s relationship with his lowborn, childhood friend, Delita, as well as the relationship Ramza makes with the arrogant noble-born, Algus.
(spoilers: highlight to reveal) The rift between the nobility and the lowborn is further emphasized by the growing detachment between Ramza and Delita after Delita’s innocent sister is mercilessly killed during a military operation under Algus’ command. Again, real-world themes like empathy for the poor and their abuse by the rich lend Final Fantasy Tactics a richness of narrative.
The storyline of Final Fantasy Tactics with its huge cast of characters is so involved that it really requires its own page. I’ll eventually create a post to discuss this, one of the most incredible stories of the Final Fantasy series, at length. Its themes are really worthy of that kind of examination and anyone who doesn’t have the time or delve into access Final Fantasy Tactics will be able to get a summary of its storyline.
Let’s move on to the tactical gameplay.
A variety of characters join Ramza’s party as the game progresses and they each come with their own unique skill-set and abilities and equipment, but the real bulk of your time in the game will be spent with male and female mercenaries who join Ramza, either through events that transpire or through hiring them in local towns. Each mercenary will function like the rest and begin as a Squire. After levelling up in that job, players can open up the possibilities to change jobs and turn their Squires into a number of other specialized classes. For example, if you want a character to learn to become a Summoner, you must gain Job Points for them and reach a certain level as a Chemist, a Black Mage and a Time Mage, first. Then the Summoner class will open up for that character. Below is a brief explanation of each.
Squires are the basic job class and can only use rudimentary skills and equipment.
Chemists use items out of your inventory as supporting characters.
White Mages are your classic healers using Cure and suffer from a low defense and offense.
Black Mages are just like their white counterparts only they use offensive magic like Fire to devastating effect.
Archers can equip bows and charge up their attacks to make them stronger.
Knights are the first of the powerhouse classes, able to equip beefier armaments and break the equipment of their opponents.
Oracles (also known as Mystics) wield terrible and awesome status affecting abilities like Blind, Silence and Sleep.
Time Mages are a supporting class with abilities that slow enemies and hasten allies and a few offensive powers.
Thieves are agile with weak attacks but they make up for it with their ability to steal weapons, items, money and even the hearts of their enemies.
Monks are bare-fisted fighters whose focus is raw power.
Mediators (also known as Orators) are monster tamers and capable of invited wild beasts into your party using the power of simple words.
Summoners use some of the most powerful magic in the game when they summon fantastic beasts to your aid.
Dragoons are heavily armed soldiers armed with spears and lances who can unleash the classic Jump ability.
Geomancers are naturalistic mages who draw their power from the land around them.
Calculators (also known as Arithmeticians) are peculiar scholarly warriors that use complex mathematical processes to annihilate their foes.
Samurai are like more advanced versions of the knight class, wielding unique weaponry and drawing their powers from the art of the sword.
Ninja are extremely quick and stealthy, able to walk on water, turn invisible and use two weapons at once.
Bards are male singers whose voices encourage and bolster your forces.
Dancers are female performers whose seductions tear down the defenses of your opponents.
Mimes are a strange class that mimic the moves of their characters around them.
Clearly, all of those choices present quite a few possibilities for your party. Different selections of job classes will let you bring an array of strategies to bear and indeed you won’t be able to pass a few bosses without using a great combination of job classes. Oh and once a character changes jobs, they’re allowed to use some of the abilities they learned previously as secondary skills. That means a Time Mage can still use healing magic or a Dragoon can also sing like a canary or a Knight can dual-wield like a Ninja, and so on. This is the best thing about Final Fantasy Tactics, the level of customization possible.
Besides for the basic stats, HP and Mp, further complicating things are the base Bravery and Faith stats for each character. There are entire FAQs written about these two unique traits and the algorithms involved, so I won’t go into depth here. Suffice it to say that Bravery has to do with how well a character will perform in physical combat with things like hit rate and success rate for skills. Faith has to do with how good a character is at using magical abilities and how well those same abilities will affect them.
Given this level of detail, some battles can last for an hour. Particularly grueling battles, like the boss fight against Velius or against Elmdor and his twin assassins, will make you think, then rethink, then second-guess almost every move you make. Just like in chess, one mistake can be fatal. Range is an important factor when taking battles into consideration. Many abilities are affected by different heights and varying topography, possessing a maximum and sometimes a minimum range. You might move a character into position but find that you accidentally moved them out of range, or if you’re particularly careless, you might trip up and move a character into the range of enemy fire or your own massive AOE spell…
It might be turn-based, but there are some very intense moments of measuring, guarding your flanks, hitting the enemies’ weaknesses, taking even minor details into consideration, and of course, watching your plans fall to pieces.
Final Fantasy Tactics solidified its place among the giants of the series and proved successful enough to sire a spin off, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance, and a direct sequel, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the Nintendo DS. The land of Ivalice would also return to gaming when it served as the setting for games like Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings. In 2007, Square put out an enhanced PSP re-release, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. There are many ways to enjoy this game and its world. I just wish it hadn’t firmly moved into the territory of handhelds.
The 8-Bit Review
A lot of the visuals in Tactics are lifted from the character concept art, highly detailed and childlike. I’m not sure I ever wanted to see a female Black Mage, but love or hate the weird, pseudo-cartoonish body structures and noseless faces, the period-piece costumes are intricate and seem like they represent a wealth of history and culture. As we’ve seen, the summon animations are taken from similar art, as well.
Further, FFT’s fully immersive, rotatable 3D environments were immediately impressive, though there are moments when the background visuals clash with the 2D sprites of the characters, especially when rotating perspectives. FFT also opens with an introductory cutscene, which you can watch below. It looks pretty stiff now but it was a real treat upon its first appearance. Since the 3D backgrounds are purposefully blocky and tiled, I think FFT’s finest visual qualities are its sprites. Though they don’t possess a huge amount of animations besides for walking, casting, attack, dying and so on, they’re bright and colorful and eye-catching. The job classes in a mixed party especially are a fun visual. Seeing the classic Black Mage, White Mage and Lancer in crisper details is a delight, if you grew up on their more rudimentary 8-bit versions. It was one of the earliest FF’s in the new 3D era!
While not the best in the series, the soundtrack serves the medieval setting well. There are only a few notable and memorable tracks, in my opinion. Most of it seems like filler to me. Actually it’s funny, my wife overheard the track that plays over the cutscene which plays before the title screen, with its descending chimes, and noted how it sounded pretty 90’s. This is probably due in large part to the absence of series legend, composer Nobuo Uematsu. This soundtrack was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. Uematsu’s trademark melodic tracks leave a hole. Don’t get me wrong, now. The soundtrack is far from terrible. The celtic-ish, renaissance-y orchestrated music is quite beautiful, especially when compared with the more rudimentary sounds capable on the earlier entries in the series. It’s just that, even being so beautiful, it doesn’t really stand out that well when compared to other OST’s under the Final Fantasy umbrella. And yes, the song below is called “the Pervert” but it’s referring to perversion of righteousness. The synth in it is pretty frightening. Get used to it. If you ever play FFT, this track will lodge in your head on those boss fights you can’t beat.
If you’re playing this TRPG, you’re playing it for the gameplay. It’s either going to turn you off or you’ll be able to get into it, but that’s entirely on you and your level of patience. The gameplay is extremely well done and finely tuned. There’s a sense of balance and there’s no easy way out of battles. A tactical RPG should test your wit and your ability to think ahead. Final Fantasy Tactics does that very well. Clumsy players aren’t welcome here. FFT takes time to savor and enjoy but it rewards gamers with incredibly engaging combat and narrative. Speaking of which…
Just try to find another RPG from the era with a plot as convoluted (in a good way), as winding, as intricate and as sprawling as the one in Final Fantasy Tactics. Not even FFVII was this daring in terms of its scope and the amount of characters acting in it. It’s The Tale of Genji or War and Peace of the Final Fantasy franchise. If it were novelized, which somebody needs to get on that like yesterday, than it would have to fill a multi-volume series. Final Fantasy, while one of the greatest gaming franchises in history, has this as one of its faults: predictable themes.
Most thematic elements in Final Fantasy games involve the abuse of power, mistrust of organized religion, the corruption of authority, the apocalypse and end of the world, and the battle between good and evil. While all of these themes are indeed present in Final Fantasy Tactics, it seems as if they’re all bathed far more in realism and historicity than in most other titles. Abuse of power isn’t just dished out from an omnipotent empire. Abuse of power comes from all sides, the peasant mercenaries, the nobility, the aristocracy, Larg and Goltana, and the Church. Because the world of Ivalice is so layered, the storytelling of FFT is easily one of its strongest components. And that’s in a franchise renown for its storytelling.
FFT is hard to play casually. Unless you’re really paying attention, you might get wiped. If you don’t level your characters right and get into some of the more advanced jobs, you haven’t got a chance in some of the later story battles. I made it my goal to steal as much equipment as possible in battles and that sounds easy but it gets really challenging. Tactics is much harder than nearly any other Final Fantasy before it.
I feel like its inaccessibility in terms of its difficulty and technicality makes Final Fantasy Tactics an RPG that not too many gamers will be quick to return to. Personally, I’ve played it through a couple times, but that might be because it feels so much like my bread and butter. The meat and potatoes. I’m just not sure that too many other folks would feel the same way about it. What kept me coming back every few years was the level of customization and the huge storyline. Like, I feel as if I still don’t really have a firm grasp of all of its arching plotlines and who does what and what happens next as a reaction to this effect and so on. The customization was always exciting for me. I’d nix the story-related mercenaries and go get my own, then build my own themed party based off of favorite Final Fantasy characters outside of the game (Tifa, Tidus, Sephiroth, Squall, Steiner, Terra, Cecil, etc.) or one pop-culture icons (once made a superhero team of Batman, Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, etc). To me,themed parties was a big draw.
It’s only the second PlayStation Final Fantasy and the second step into the 3D graphics realm. It’s the first time that a Final Fantasy occupied a tactical RPG classification. It’s one of the best examples of the beauty of the job system. It still stands out as the best TRPG, in my opinion, and one I’d recommend above the rest. Its special use of 2D and 3D in harmony was more visually successful than its contemporaries. Its “hand-drawn” art gives it a distinct appearance. This is a unique game and one of the standout titles on the original PlayStation.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
While Final Fantasy Tactics might be too much of a good thing, too much strategy, too much RPGishness, too much tactics for too many people, it really is one of the most balanced, groundbreaking, innovative, concrete and fresh entries in the Final Fantasy series. Its graphics are not yet so out of date, so at least there’s that to assuage its inaccessibility issues. Finally, it is one of the most substantial examples of the kind of storytelling it is possible to achieve in a video game, and for that it is a milestone of the art form. I commend it to you.
Aggregated Score: 8.5