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SummaryCompared to the original it's greatly different, but also differently great.
The GoodFinal Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite games, so I had pretty high hopes for this portable followup. While it's not everything I'd wish for, the most important thing remains: fun tactical battles. Move characters on a grid, perform an action, choose which way to face, and on to the next. The types of items, actions, characters, and stage hazards are largely the same as before. The biggest change in battle is that actions now always take place right when they're used; in the original the actions themselves had a certain charge time, so if one character was the target of a spell he might have time to move away from the effects, or if the spell is centered on him to move where it will collaterally damage someone else. The other big change is that in most cases, people who are knocked out at the end of a battle will remain alive and in your party. The exception are battles taking place in the lawless jagds.
And battle, battle, battle you will. As I write about in The Bad, FFTA's story is pretty much throwaway. Most of your battles will be as part of a clan/mission system, a small part of which was used again in Final Fantasy XII. As part of a clan, you accept missions and complete them. Some involve battles, while others involve sending off some character to complete a mission apart from you; depending on their level and random chance they'll eventually come back having completed or failed. In total there are 300 missions, which should definitely keep you busy. Each time I've played FFTA has taken me 60 or more hours; about twice as long as a play through of the original FFT. It is a pain, though, that if you ignored certain missions or threw away certain items when you were holding too many, that it will then become impossible to take on other missions later since you don't meet the requirements, making getting the full 300 impossible. My first time through the game I hit 258. The second time, 299. ARGH. It's possible to link up to another player and trade items, if you know someone else with the game who doesn't mind losing their own important items.
As part of your clan duties, you'll also liberate more of the map as time goes on. Once a land is part of your territory by earning it in a mission, occasionally it will come under attack, at which time you have several weeks of game time to defend it in a battle before you lose it. Along with the other clans wandering the map, this adds to the amount of fighting you'll be doing in addition to the story and regular mission battles. If you free a town the prices in the store become lower for you, but really past the early stages of the game it doesn't make a big difference.
Audially and visually, FFTA is tops. The isometric+portraits view is nothing you haven't seen before, but it's done as well here as anything else you'll find on the GBA. There's no ability to rotate the battlefield as in the 3D areas in FFT, but they're designed so you don't need to; very rarely will a character be able to stand where a cliff or other obstacle hides it from view. The game sounds great, too; much of it isn't done by previous FFT composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, and FFT's other composer Masaharu Iwata isn't present at all, but if I hadn't paid close attention to the credits I wouldn't have been able to tell. Like most of the game it's cheerier than its predecessor, but keeps a similar sound and matches its quality, as far as GBA sound output physically allows.
As mentioned earlier there is a link aspect, but I can't say too much about it; I linked... once, I think. It doesn't have the main feature people would probably want, directly battling your linked opponent, but instead allows you to fight in some cooperative battles or to trade items/equipment/characters.
This game's closest comparison on the GBA is Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for two good reasons: A) The FFT series was started by prominent members of the SNES Tactics Ogre game who left to join Square, and B) Square later purchased the remaining development assets of original Tactics Ogre developer quest, so Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was actually made by many of the same people who worked on Knight of Lodis. They are thus very similar games, but I come out preferring FFTA for three main reasons: more character customization through the job system, more length through the mission sysem, and the method of taking turns in battles. The latter means that in Knight of Lodis, each side in the battle had all their characters take turns one after another, while FFTA's turns depend on a speed statistic, and thus switch back from one side to the other. FFTA's battles just feel much more active when you don't have to wait for every single enemy unit to take all their turns before you can do the same.
The BadI loved FFT for not only its battling, but its story. I love FFTA for its battling. The story is almost completely throwaway. Main character Marche and a few others wake to a changed world, their town of St. Ivalice become the land of Ivalice based on Final Fantasy games. I liked some of the moral and philosophical questions it brings up, like is it really OK to change things back when not everyone wants to? What would happen to the inhabitants of this new version of the world? However, it never goes into any real depth on these issues. A heavily story-driven game like FFT's wouldn't have meshed well with the clan-based design of this game, so story was the victim.
The law system is... there. For each battle, there are certain laws you must follow; more simultaneously as the game progresses. Perhaps in one battle you shouldn't heal, but attacking with swords is rewarded with a bonus. It's usually easy to work around restrictive laws by walking around on the map since they change with each day, or anti-law cards you begin to earn which can cancel certain laws, but that's more avoiding a gameplay feature than having it be something useful. For me the main time the law system would come up would be far into a battle when I'd forget some law in effect and end up earning a mark against my characters, which come in two flavors: yellow (a fine--usually lack of battle reward) or red (go to prison for several battles). A bother.
The job system is much more restrictive in FFTA. There are five different races (human, moogle, bangaa, nu mou, viera), each which has a "different" selection of classes. I say "different" because many are much the same. A human white mage is more or less the same a a moogle white mage, and a human fighter is similar to a bangaa gladiator. However, because some classes remain mutually exclusive, your ability to mix and match abilities is somewhat lessened. Moogles are the only characters with a gunner class, but since they have no archery class you'll never be able to use Aim or Hunt skills with a gun. It does go to make the characters a bit less cookie-cutter, but the old way was more fun. Earning abilities within jobs is very different, too. Rather than earning JP which you then spend on various abilities from a menu, you must equip the right piece of equipment which can eventually earn you the ability after enough battles. This means in many cases if you want to learn all the skills, you'll need to regularly use statistically worse items. Combined with the menu weaknesses I describe in the next paragraph, I really stopped paying attention to specific equipment stats.
The menu system outside of battle is perhaps one of the worst things about FFTA. The original FFT had a great shop feature where you could try out equipment on a character to see how it would alter their stats, but no such feature is present here. To even see if a particular class can wear something you must hit Select where it will show you an entire class grid with certain classes lit up. To learn what special abilities a piece of equipment can teach, you must hit R; which then covers up the weapon's main stats, so you can't easily scroll through and see both. The main party equipment screen outside of battle is not better. You can't even directly see the changes when equipping a new weapon; you just choose it from a list and would have to pay attention to how the numbers change. It doesn't even show the weapon's base stats unless you go to the separate item listing area, which is also a trouble to scroll through once you get dozens of weapons and there are no scrolling shortcuts. It feels like there's always information you wish would be shown that isn't. What with the extra screen real estate available on the DS, this is the number one thing I hope is improved upon in the sequel.