I don’t have insider information. I am not a world record holder. I have, though, played more games on more systems than almost anyone I’ve ever met. The games I write about here are The Greatest Games I Have Ever Played.
In the late 90s, Squaresoft was on top of the world. Their defection from Nintendo to Sony was a major driver in the Playstation’s success, and 1997’s Final Fantasy VII made role playing games the most popular genre in the world for a while. For a time it seemed as if everything Square touched was a major hit. FFVII was a genre defining megablockbuster of course, but Bushido Blade was a revolutionary fighting game, Einhander the best space shooter available, even Brave Fencer Musashi, a bland Zelda wannabe, sold well over a million copies worldwide.
More or less in the middle of their time with the Midas Touch, Squaresoft released Final Fantasy Tactics. Not a traditional style Final Fantasy game, FF Tactics is a turn based tactical fighting rpg. The battles take place on chess-board like battlefields, as large as 16×16. The game was made with heavy creative input from the team behind the Ogre Battle series and Tactics Ogre is very similar to FFT. FFT, however is a lot more user friendly, easy to get into and more visually appealing.
Graphically, the battles and cutscenes in FFT take place on polygonal backgrounds with the characters being sprites. This allows the game to take full advantage of the playstation hardware, and it looks good from start to finish. Some of the spell effects are particularly impressive. The overworld map is a fixed flat background with lines drawn on it, not particularly impressive.
The plot in FFT is best described as Byzantine. An insane amount of detail has been poured into the fictitious history of Ivalice, and all that history has led to the current struggle for power between rival princes. Not all is as it seems, though, as the princes are being manipulated by the church… and the church is being manipulated by… other parties. The sheer volume of backstabbing and underhandedness would make Machiavelli blush.
Ramza Beoulve is the youngest son of a noble house, and he is a stalwart, steadfast champion of the ideals of his father. His older brothers are more involved in politics and scheming, and eventually they end up in direct opposition. As you move Ramza through the world of Ivalice, he discovers more and more of the corruption around him and fights to maintain a semblance of justice in the world.
I noted the incredible level of background detail. At any point on the overworld map you can access extra information about any of the characters you’ve met. When you complete “propositions” at bars, you can find new areas and items. These also have history attached, accessed in the same place. You find other works of history as you go through the game, notably the Germonik Scripture, and can read that as well. Unfortunately, all of the care that went into building the fake world was not shown in the translation/localization efforts. There is an abundance of poor grammar and Engrish that mars the experience.
Although Ramza may be the main character, the real star in this game is the job system. Yes, the thing that makes the game the most fun is jobs. It is well balanced, rewarding, insanely detailed, and gives you virtually infinite ways to go about winning.
Every character starts with access to two job classes, Squire and Chemist. As you advance in the game, the Squire opens the warrior tree and the Chemist opens the magic tree. When you perform actions in battle, you receive experience points (XP) and job points (JP). These job points level up your job class. For example, getting your chemist to job level (not character level) 2 opens up the Wizard (attack magic) and Priest (healing magic) classes. Leveling those classes up in turn opens up more, until there are 20 different jobs available. Some of them require specific levels to be reached in more than one other job to be available – these are the best jobs for the generic characters. Every job has different “base levels” for things like HP, MP, movement, speed, attack power, magic power and more.
The JP system serves another function as well. When you first open up a job class, you have no abilities. A Priest with no healing magic is pretty useless! As you earn the JP, you spend them to “purchase” new abilities. For example, you don’t have to learn Fire 1 before moving on to Fire 2. Heck, you can skip all of those and go straight to Fire 4 – after you’ve earned enough JP. This allows you to skip abilities that seem useless or uninteresting – why waste points on them?
There are several different classifications of abilities as well. I have already referenced some of the magic abilities – those are action skills, and every character can have two sets of action skills at once. For example, a Priest can learn all the white magic spells, then switch to Wizard and have white and black magic available in battle. You automatically carry your class’ native skills, and select the second set from what you have learned. There are also reaction skills like counterattack or auto-healing actions for when you get attacked. These have different triggers, which are indicated in the in-game descriptions. The third set of abilities is support abilities. These skills allow various effects like increased JP in battle, wizard classes wearing heavy armor, equipping multiple weapons and more. Finally there are movement skills. In addition to the obvious Move +1, +2 and +3 abilities you can also get things like Move-Get HP or Move-Find Item (automatically searches the ground at the character’s feet for random items). For reaction, support and movement skills every character can choose one.
At first, all of your characters have access to all of the same jobs and skills. As the game progresses, though, you will get unique characters that have their own special skill set. The most common sets are various “sword magic” skills that do damage at a distance and inflict status anomalies. Late in the game, you get a character, Orlandu, that can learn all of the various sword magics. He is devastatingly powerful, and is like a built in cheat mode.
The other major factor in your characters’ effectiveness is equipment. With so many different job classes, there are some that share equipment but they generally vary quite a bit. Armor, helmets, shields, weapons and accessories make up your equipment pool. Armor and helmets add to your hp and mp totals, and sometimes have benefits like protection from status ailments or increased magic power. Shields increase your evade ability versus both physical and magical attack and also can give status benefits, typically in the form of lessening damage from a specific element like fire. Accessories give various bonuses depending on the type from protection against negative status to increased movement to higher magic power to permanent positive status effects.
The variety of weapons in the game is truly amazing. Archers use bows or crossbows, knights use big swords, thieves use daggers, ninjas use ninja knives. The various mage types use staves and rods. Mediators and chemists can use guns. Lancers use (what else?) lances, while Monks fight barehanded. There are also samurai swords and specialized weapons for bards and dancers. Some weapons have a range of one panel, lances and some types of rods two panels. Bows have a variable range depending on the height of the battlefield – shooting downhill adds range and damage. Guns have a fixed range of 10 panels. Like the other equipment, weapons can impart all sorts of status benefits. When Orlandu joins, for example, he is equipped with a knight sword that adds “haste” to the bearer. It makes his lethality even more pronounced.
Other items are of the classic Final Fantasy variety – potions, ethers, phoenix downs, etc. The chemist character is able to “throw” these items across the battlefield to other characters, another ability that can be learned and used with other characters. The ninja class can throw too, but the results are quite different!
The actual gameplay is straightforward. On the overworld map, you pick a spot and travel to it. Sometimes, you get into random battles (meaning you can level grind, and you will need to) and occasionally set events pull you in at spots you weren’t expecting them. Once you enter into a battle, you can choose from your available roster of characters to fill out the available starting positions. Random battles allow 5 participants clustered around the same general area, while set battles sometimes allow more or fewer characters, and sometimes set them apart from each other.
From there, your team enters battle mode. The isometric perspective is easily shifted with clicks on the shoulder buttons, and it isn’t difficult to see where everyone is on the battlefields. Generally, the battles aren’t insanely hard – although there are at least three that might lead to broken controllers. Characters can move and act (attack, spell, item, etc), in either order, in any given turn.
An interesting feature of the action system is the charge requirement. Archers particularly have the ability to “charge” their attacks, meaning they will wait a predetermined number of moves before unleashing a more powerful attack (the characters in the above image with the “C” over their heads are all charging abilities). Magic spells and certain other abilities also are forced through the charging system. There is a charge counter listed with each spell before you cast it, and pressing “select” on the controller shows the move list and when the spell will hit. This lends an extra element of strategy to spellcasting – after all, it wouldn’t do to have a target move next to Ramza before an ice 3 spell hits them, or a cure 3 spell hits Ramza.
The enemies are a mix of humans, with the same mix of classes available to you, and classic Final Fantasy monster like Chocobos, Bombs, Goblins, and more. Boss monsters of course don’t follow the trends.
In addition to the regular storyline and playthrough, there are a bundle of side quests in this game. I already mentioned the propositions. These are jobs available in every town that you can send your characters – the generic ones only, not the unique ones – out on the job to earn JP, experience, gold, items, and lore. There is a quest to find Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII. There is a quest to find a 13th Zodiac Stone (the storyline revolves around these) that takes you to the Deep Dungeon. The amount of content that is beyond the main story arc is impressive, and adds easily 10+ hours of gameplay.
The Verdict: When this game hit the market, it was a revelation. The Shining Force series was the best known turn-based strategy RPG series going. Advance Wars and Front Mission were still in the future for the American market. The intense storyline, cutting edge graphics, revolutionary gameplay and outright fun factor put Final Fantasy Tactics in its own class. RETRO RATING: 10/10
When I popped this game into my Playstation to replay it, I was excited. I thought it would still be fun – it was. The graphics hold up better than I thought they would, the storyline still has numerous “WTF!” moments, and the job system is still incredibly rewarding and balanced. On the other hand the bad localization sticks out more than it used to, and the graphics are still PS1 caliber no matter how well they hold up. The various sidequests are rewarding, but overly tedious, and the “fresh” factor can’t make up for it almost two decades later. Still, it is a solid game and I very much enjoyed my return to Ivalice. REPLAY RATING: 8/10