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Written by  :  M. Shaw (5)
Written on  :  Nov 20, 2009
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars

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A rich, highly replayable game that shows what difference a good story can make

The Good

Final Fantasy Tactics came out 12 years ago and I've been playing it off and on for 11 of those years. I never reviewed it before now, mostly because I didn't find it necessary, but after coming back to the game for the first time in several years I was struck by what an exceptional game it was--and is.

To start with, the basics: FFT is a 3D tile-based strategy RPG. You act out most of the storyline through a series of skirmishes in towns, wildernesses, fortresses, etc. (as opposed to large-scale pitched battles on a battlefield) You control 1-5 characters in each battle, and are occasionally aided by CPU "guest" characters. You win the battles by wiping out the enemy characters or by defeating their commander, if there is one. There are other, non-battle scenes interspersed, but their significance is purely cinematic; you don't have any control over them other than rare, inconsequential dialogue choices.

Outside the battles, you maintain a small troop of soldiers. You start the game with Ramza (the main character), Delita (a CPU character who joins you in most battles), plus 4 squires and 2 chemists. Other members join you as the game progresses, or can be hired at most towns and cities. All of the characters--except monsters, which you can also get to join you--have changeable job classes which open up different abilities. Characters can mix and match abilities they've learned from current and previous jobs, so you can have a knight with healing spells, a thieving wizard who wields a gun, and all manner of fun combinations. New jobs become available based on experience: a level 2 squire can become a knight or archer, a level 2 archer can become a thief, and so on. Some characters have exclusive classes available only to them; Mustadio (engineer) and Beowulf (temple knight) are examples of this.

One of my favorite things about FFT is the class system. Unlike other games of its era that sported similar mechanics (cf. Final Fantasy V) the jobs in FFT are, for the most part, excellently balanced. There are no useless or underpowered jobs. Even ones that seem fundamentally less powerful at first glance (oracle comes to mind) either become much more powerful when developed or at least have 1 or 2 abilities that can set any character a cut above if used properly. Most of the classes that are fundamentally more powerful (like ninja and... um... ninja) take lots of time and effort to train. There's only one "broken" character (Orlandu), and even he's not invincible.

The game mechanics are generally well thought out all around. Unlike some strategy games, battles in FFT are often decided as much (if not more) by actual strategy as they are by which side has the most powerful arsenal. A cautious player can take 5 people into battle against 8 enemies who are several levels higher and win. A player who spends all his/her job points on fighting skills and charges head-on into every battle will have difficulty.

Then there are the side-quests. While FFT's mechanics limit its ability to have a wide variety of mini-games, it is by no means lacking. Players can accept propositions posted in bars and send their characters off to find treasure, unexplored land, or just to earn money. There are a few optional side quests as well, one of which even allows you to recruit a character from a different Final Fantasy game.

But what really sets FFT apart--and this is the element that continues to amaze me, even after replaying it so many times--is the story.

I've noticed that another review on this site compares FFT to Shakespeare's "MacBeth." This does not do it justice, even by half. FFT's story is so richly layered, so well thought out and so _human_ as to put it on par with some of the most celebrated epics in the literary canon.

Of course, that description applies to MacBeth as well (my favorite Shakespeare play). But MacBeth is the story of one high-born man's (or possibly one high-born woman's) reckless ambition. FFT is about the reckless ambition of an entire decadent society in which the nobles backstab one another for political gain, alternately calling the meager masses to fight for their causes and leaving them to starve. We see disillusioned knights put their faith in God only to find themselves in the employ of power-hungry clergymen; we see peasants revolt only to end up killing each other out of blind fear; families are split, heirs are disinherited, innocents are sacrificed to make a quick profit.

We see all this through the eyes of Ramza, the third son of a high-ranking knight (and his acknowledged bastard, I _think_ but I'm not sure--see next section about translation) who abandons knighthood and the care of his elder brothers when he becomes fed up with the way they let (and sometimes make) their own people suffer. Most of the people he meets are, or will become his enemies--but few of them are genuinely evil. They're just human; faulty and misguided, sometimes even by idealism.

Writing of this quality is hard to find in a video game. I'd go so far as to say there was never anything comparable to FFT's story before it came along, nor has there been anything comparable since.

This game really shows what a difference good writing can make. Without it, it was just be fun. The story is what makes it truly memorable.

The Bad

I'm not entirely sure that Squaresoft--in Japan or in America--knew what it had in Final Fantasy Tactics. Brilliant as the game is, it is by no means without flaws, most of them probably due to a smaller budget and limited play-testing.

First and most noticeably, the English translation of FFT is really awful, especially for a game that was released this widely (and, I'm told, has subsequently been rereleased for PSP). By awful I mean that characters' names and names of abilities change. Parts of speech are not always what they should be. Details of relationships are unclear; I'm still not sure whether Ramza is his father's legitimate son or a castle-raised bastard. There are scenes where every line seems to have been translated by a different translator who didn't know what any of the others were writing. In one scene, a character is about to invoke the powers of a magical gem and another character screams "Don't open that!" This is neither the only example nor the most dramatic.

FFT's other big problem is one that many games share, though not necessarily to this degree. Too much of the game is crammed in close to the end. FFT is divided into 4 chapters. Chapter 1 is more of a prologue than part of the main story. No exclusive jobs are available, nor are any side quests or mini-games. Chapter 2 sees the addition of a few side jobs, with a couple special characters coming in at the end, and chapter 3 isn't much different from chapter 2.

Almost all of the special characters with awesome exclusive classes become available in chapter 4, as do all of the playable side quests (unlike the "propositions" of earlier chapters, which you can accept and will get you extra money and experience but in which you don't really do anything). The problem with this is that by chapter 4 you've spent more than half the game developing your bullpen of soldiers--and because you can only have a certain number, it's either kiss a bunch of them (and the effort you put into training them) goodbye or refuse to recruit the only characters who can use some of the funnest abilities in the game. There's a happy medium somewhere, but it could have been better planned. The side-quests particularly could easily have been stretched over 2 or 3 chapters.

Orlandu, a character who comes your way early in chapter 4, is, as I said, way too powerful. Not only does he come complete with a series of super-powerful abilities, he starts with some of the most powerful equipment in the game. Not sure what the developers were thinking here.

And finally one nit-pick about the propositions: while collecting unique treasures and finding unexplored land is cool, and it's fun to read about what you've found in the "Brave Story" section of the menu, the treasures do nothing, you can't actually visit the land, and the reward for collecting all of them is, likewise, nothing.

The Bottom Line

This game is practically a requirement for anyone who wants more from their video games. In an era when gamers were crying out for more of the same, Final Fantasy Tactics delivered a unique storyline, solid gameplay mechanics, great scenery (despite it being inhabited by characters who look not unlike Lego men) and infinite replayability.

If it's not the best Final Fantasy game, of its time or otherwise, then it's certainly the most-under-appreciated, even despite its enduring cult following.