Oh god, Final Fantasy Tactics. What I knew in my youth as the Bane of Academia, the Unholy Timeslayer. It's on a shiny new platform and has a nifty subtitle now, some additions and new job classes, but it's the same game and even now threatens to consume us all!
Don't you feel the pull? The temptation? Only 1200 more JP 'til I get Calculator, then I can level up my White Mage and use brlaglhgpgigh no! I shall not be tricked again -- tricked into dumping solid days into this game until I've no time to give, unemployed and without a home, searching for unclaimed power outlets in shopping malls and bus stations to charge my PSP long enough for just one more battle, just one more battle--
Er, sorry. Please excuse me. That was... y'know, a Nam flashback or something. Anyway, I love Final Fantasy Tactics, and yeah, there's this new version of it on the PSP now, and I've reviewed it and stuff. Don't tell anybody about my little outburst. Hey, there's a jump! Hit that jump and read the review and let's never speak of this again.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (PSP)
I've poured a lot of time into FFT, as evidenced by my somewhat rotund physique. Hours upon hours that might not rival even the most casual MMO player, but a substantial sum of time nonetheless -- probably in the two to three hundred range. The only notion that keeps that figure from being the most depressing goddamn thing I've ever typed is thus: it was worth every minute. Sure, I didn't do the things that most blokes did in high school like study, socialize or date, but fuck it. There was JP to be earned.
It's been nearly ten years since Final Fantasy Tactics was originally released in the states. Old though it makes me feel, a span of a decade is the kind of time that usually merits a look back -- hell, in our cash-hungry remake-fueled industry, ten years might even be considered late. The original game was a triumph; it introduced scores of gamers to the tactical RPG within a universe that they could feel comfortable with while still finding room to innovate the genre. It became the gold standard for the tactical RPG, and informed development for leagues of games to follow. Tactics was a damn good game.
But much like your brother who plays a mean game of basketball but can't quite spell basketball, Tactics' advent was early enough that it fell victim to the same weak-sauce standards of localization that the industry had back then, which is to say that it read like the booze-fueled ramblings of an aging historian struck with dementia. Not all of it, mind -- just enough that the story, already quite complicated, was made more difficult to follow (names changing randomly, some awkward wording, etc). The tutorial and battle cries were so bad, in fact, that they stood alongside some of the earliest "A Winner Is You"-level writing as the dumbest shit ever realized in text. If there was any part of Final Fantasy Tactics that demanded an overhaul in War of the Lions, it was the translation.
Tom Slattery, who previously worked on the Final Fantasy V and VI Advance retranslations, really went above and beyond with his work in cleaning up War of the Lions. The backdrop of Ivalice and the middle ages sort of tone inherent to the world (further developed in the Ivalice-centric Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII) prompted language appropriate to the period, which in short terms means that War of the Lions reads like a Shakespearean drama -- a little heavy-handed at times, but very interesting to read. Everything's been changed, from the ability names to the battle cries, the intro movie text and the job reports. Though Slattery's work on VI Advance got some purists up in arms over a distinct lack of submariners in the new script for that particular game, it's hard to imagine much upset over War of the Lions' new script. A game with a story this complicated demands text that can keep up, and the new script is a rousing success.
Also new to the PSP port is a collection of cinematics which replace some of the more important cutscenes in the plot. It's likely you've seen these before as part of Square-Enix's marketing campaign, but I can't overstate just how beautiful they are -- managing to capture Akihiko Yoshida's character designs (read: noseless kids with swords and guns) in full motion while maintaining a sort of storybook aesthetic. It's almost hard to believe it's actually 3D when you see it in motion. Shitting one's pants over CG cutscenes in a Square-Enix game seems a weird throwback to 1997 when we gave a crap about that kind of thing instead of flaring our nostrils and threatening brutal dismemberment, but War of the Lions introduces some of the most tasteful, appropriate FMV in recent memory, so it earns a pass. Beautiful stuff.
But there's a game here too, y'know, to play. And where previously mentioned improvements turned your faithful reviewer from a thinking, reasoning being into a stuttering lovestruck buffoon, the romance comes to a halt from the first battle, due to a bit of slowdown. This is different from frame rate issues; the game actually slows to a grinding pace during certain sprite animations in battle, causing a desync between the audio you're hearing and the sprite effects you're seeing. It happens for just about every ability that isn't a basic attack like sword skills, summons, Cure spells, items, et cetera.
And though a small minority of previews, reviews and PR companies have said different, this is not something that happened in the original PSX version. Just isn't. Go back and play it. It's not there.
The game is still fun, mind. But while the lag itself isn't game-breaking, it is showstopping, and will smack you out of your "holy crap this is awesome!" trance the minute it gets rolling. Load times are to be expected, as they go hand-in-hand with the UMD medium, but once a match is queued up I was hoping things would go a lot smoother. This sort of technical screw-up is inexcusable, particularly when working with a ten-year-old game that was relatively visually simplistic even when it was new back in 1998. The first rule of the re-release is to repair the failings of the original, not add to them.
As far as fresh additions go, War of the Lions doesn't stop at cinematics or translations -- there are new battles (most of 'em brief and almost always winnable, but still pretty neat), new characters and new job classes. Luso from the forthcoming Final Fantasy Tactics A2 and FFXII's dreamcake Balthier show up well into the plot's progression, but not so late as they can't be whipped into shape before the climactic string of battles that make up the endgame. To accommodate War of the Lions' burgeoning list of unique playable characters, the party roster has been boosted to 24 total members, meaning you won't have to ditch Rafa and Malek (now Rapha and Marach) as soon as you get them. Except that you'll probably want to anyway, because they still suck. Jerks.
Mainstays of the series Onion Knights and Dark Knights make a return as new classes in War of the Lions, neither of which you'll be seeing much of without some serious grinding. Moreover, the best items for both classes are usually only to be found as rewards in the game's multiplayer component, in which you can play versus or cooperative missions via ad hoc wi-fi mode -- no internet play here, unfortunately. Should you be so fortunate as to find a partner, the available matches are livened up with a slew of options to make things interesting, including some Paper Mario-esque timing and button-mashing commands that allow you to lock swords with an enemy, knock them back and lay traps that must be disarmed with complex button sequences. It's a nice diversion, but sort of broken if both parties aren't pretty evenly matched -- a disparity in levels means a quick and crushing defeat in versus or enemies ranked as high as the team's biggest character laying waste to the weaker characters in co-op. With no option to level the playing field, it's hard to recommend the multiplayer beyond wasting time or collecting those hard-to-find items for the new classes.
And speaking of the items, I'd like to make a plea to Square-Enix: stop it. Similar to some of the new additions to Final Fantasy III for the DS, Square-Enix makes the mistake of restricting content to circumstance, and much like how I didn't want to send a bunch of Goddamn letters via the Nintendo WFC to unlock dungeons and classes in FF3 DS, I don't want to rely on having a readily-available second PSP to get my hands on all the new stuff War of the Lions has to offer. It's a stupid trend that Square-Enix needs to abandon outright, or at least find some decent "I Don't Have Friends" kind of alternative.
I'll say this again: Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the best titles in Square's catalog, and one that most certainly merits a revision. But War of the Lions' technical issues and lackluster multiplayer component represent a missed opportunity to make this the truly definitive version of Tactics. I can't recommend this game enough to newbies -- it's likely that the game's failings won't sting quite so much for all y'all, and the game itself is an amazing experience that simply should not be missed. For us veterans, the new translation alone merits the price of admission, but like the original, War of the Lions falls short of what it rightly could have been with a little more time in the oven.