"What this means is that if you're willing to devote enough time to the effort, you can have a kickass warrior who isn't afraid to cast a healing spell every once in awhile. Of course, the downside to all of this is that while you're learning those killer mage skills, you're weak to physical attacks from enemies. Or while you're learning how to handle a sword, you're dumb as a post and can't use magic."
Few games are so lauded as Final Fantasy Tactics, one of the first role-playing titles Square released for the Playstation after turning traitor on Nintendo. The title, which was released initially in limited quantities, was at times known to sell for over $100 in the right conditions before it was finally released again as a Greatest Hits selection. Fans clamored for a sequel for years. Yet when the sequel finally was announced, many just scratched their heads in wonder. Square, traitor to Nintendo, was going to release a game for one of Nintendo's systems again. Once everyone got used to that, a new question arose: how in the world would the sequel perform given the inherent limitations of the portable Game Boy Advance? And the answer, time has revealed, is that it performs quite nicely.
By no means a direct sequel, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance doesn't even bear the customary 'II' or '2' in its title. It clearly is a game for the Game Boy Advance, and we may safely assume it is sort of a sidelight for Square. Indeed, there's more than just the title that makes this apparent. From the story to the combat system, everything is skewed toward the younger audience on the go. There's a lot you might be expecting from the game that you simply won't find. If you're prepared to give it a chance, however, what you will find is a game with surprising depth and emotional intensity that belies the syrupy presentation.
As the game opens, it becomes immediately apparent that you're not particularly concerned about an epic scheme involving the Church, or about anything along those lines. Mostly, you just want to survive a snowball fight. And so you will, as you learn about the mechanics that will be in place for the rest of the game. The snowball fight over, you head home to read a book with your wheelchair-bound brother Doned. Overnight, something goes wrong and suddenly, you and your friends are wrapped up in the mysterious world of Ivalice. Much to your surprise, it's the same world you just left, only with enormous changes. It's also populated by people and creatures who have no recollection of the way things were before. Only a special few have any clue, and enough things have changed for the better in their lives that they don't particularly care to remember.
The whole story is told with astounding production values that might come as a shock if the source were any different. Square has always been known for class and attention to detail, and that applies here, as well. Just in the first few areas, you'll notice the way snow drapes buildings and trash cans, the sharpness of each texture, and their variety. In any given area, you'll be hard-pressed to find needlessly repeated patterns or anything that looks out of place. All of the art direction comes together precisely as it should.
This is true even of the characters, who are as bright and varied as the world they inhabit. Though the screen is quite small, things are never so hectic that you'll have trouble recognizing who is who. Mages wear robes, samurai wear armor, and ninjas look stealthy.
Speaking of all those classes, well, there are a lot of them. The class system feels different from the console version, both in name and execution. Most of what I liked about that system from Final Fantasy Tactics has made a return, though: you can still learn skills from one class while practicing to master a new one. What this means is that if you're willing to devote enough time to the effort, you can have a kickass warrior who isn't afraid to cast a healing spell every once in awhile. Of course, the downside to all of this is that while you're learning those killer mage skills, you're weak to physical attacks from enemies. Or while you're learning how to handle a sword, you're dumb as a post and can't use magic.
Where I'm going with this should be more apparent than I'm making it: the system has just enough complexity to keep strategy fans engaged and generally satisfied, but it lacks the overall depth from other recent titles in the genre such as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. Part of this is also necessity. There are some pretty cool classes, but the structure of the game is such that you feel almost obligated to go with a few core classes. Branch out and you're wasting your time developing characters that may or may not develop into useful companions.
One reason every member of your team needs to be valuable is that the game has what I would call a flaw with the hit rate. While the enemies seem to have only moderate difficulty pelting you from insane distances, your own party members seem to need barn-sized objects in order to have any chance of success. The game employs a familiar system through which the side you attack from determines your success rate to a certain extent. Hit the enemy from behind and you're going to do more damage. Your hit rate will also be better. But around halfway through the game, it seems like you only hit your opponents half the time, whether you're assaulting their flank or striking from the rear. It not only lengthens battles but also adds an element of cheapness.
Something else that makes things seem cheap from time to time is also a bit of a blessing: the judgment system. The world of Ivalice is populated by a group of high-ranking officials known as judges. They pass laws on all battles between clans (another cool aspect of the game I'll get to in a moment), and breaking those rules can cause a given member of your party to head straight to jail. At the start of a battle, three cards will be drawn. One might prohibit attacking animals, while another might restrict the use of rapiers. For the most part, this is random. However, while you have to scramble to adjust to such things, the enemy almost always handles such things with relative calm.
If you break a rule, you get a warning. Break it again and your character is whisked off to jail. Of course, this means you're struggling a whole fight to remember not to cast black magic. Then the only enemy left is a black mage. He's about dead, but so are you. No problem, you tell yourself. You can pick him off with ease because he can't use black ma--oops, you thought too soon. Knowing it would take two transgressions to wind up in jail, the black mage cast some powerful spell and now you're dead and he's grinning while the judge of the area slaps him on the wrist with a fine.
If I've made the whole judgment thing sound stupid, don't worry; it really is a nice innovation and arguably the thing that works most in this game's favor. Another change I like is the clan system. It's everything you might expect: warriors of the world are divided into groups known as clans and they are competing to secure the most territory. Keeping given areas under your control means you can get better prices at the shops and also means you're more powerful in general.
Players who tire of the main quest, then, needn't worry that the game is over. Instead, they can easily blow ten or twenty hours making the whole of Ivalice theirs. The more land they make their own, the harder it is to remain in control. You'll find yourself battling twice the enemies if you choose to go that route.
Another innovation I should also mention isn't so much an innovation as it is a relic of past titles like Legend of Mana. You see, the world map starts out mostly empty, with a bunch of slots. As you clear one area after another, you are awarded new 'lands' that you get to place. Placement is supposed to affect attributes (and you get to see nearby zones shake like a hula dancer), but I couldn't really find any difference to speak of. What you do need to consider when placing areas is how difficult you're making things on yourself. For example, it makes no sense to place all your towns on one end of the world, or traversing the whole map to get some more healing items will be a monumental pain in the butt.
That's the funny thing about this game: there are so many parts of it that can easily become irritating and cumbersome, yet when I bought it I found a few days later that I'd played it more than 30 hours without a second's thought. It's a long game, somewhere around 30 to 35 hours depending how much you let the clans distract you, and even more if you want to beat all the (sometimes optional) missions. But somehow, the robust class system and the genuinely intriguing story (along with all its discussion of wants, desires, and reality) propel the player along until all that time is gone with only Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to blame. The long and short of it is that if your system of choice is the Game Boy Advance and you like strategy titles, you'll have to look long and hard to find a better game.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (December 06, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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