Today I thought I'd take things in a slightly different direction and cover a game that, by itself, wasn't really that bad. The problem was that it followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, and they were awfully big shoes to fill, in my mind, at least. In truth, it's not even technically a sequel, but more of a follow-up
. That's right, today we tackle...
SUBJECT IV: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
As always, let us begin at the beginning!
: Final Fantasy Tactics
I can say pretty easily that my two favorite genres of games are RPGs and turn-based strategy games. So you could imagine my thrill at hearing that Square would be putting out a turn-based strategy game in a Final Fantasy universe. Many a day I had spent huddled in the basement, SNES beside me, making my way through FFII and FFIII (IV and VI for you purists in the room). And at the same time, many days were spent huddled in front of the PC blasting alien kiester in X-Com . This idea of a tactical Final Fantasy game that mashed both these things together literally blew my mind. Games like Ogre Battle were not yet on my radar, so this entire concept was new to me. FFVII had recently come out and was, to me, a pretty big disappointment (that is a discussion that I won't even get into here...), and FFT looked like it was getting back to the more "traditional" FF that I was fond of.
When the game hit the shelves in June of 1997, I immediately rushed over to my friend's house. I didn't actually own a Playstation, so I had to do this gaming vicariously for a time. What I saw of it at the time was fantastic, and I knew that once I could, I would totally be wasting hours of my life on this game and would enjoy every minute of it. That opportunity finally arrived in the year 2000, and it lived up to all my expectations.
The game itself breaks down into some relatively simple pieces by themselves. Players manage a squad of (slightly androgynous) units led by the main character, Ramza. Travel takes place on an overhead world map with direct paths between locations. At towns, simple menus drive you through your general options (shopping, recruitment, etc). Where the real fun starts, of course, is in the battles. All battles take place in an isometric view, with the terrain divided up into a square grid. Players deploy their chosen team members, and then move out to face off with the enemy.
Again, it sounds simple enough, but beyond just basic tactical thinking, the game possessed a rich Jobs system that allowed you to build up characters' skills and abilities to your liking. Starting from the basic Squire or Chemist, players could mix and match jobs and skills to create units of unique and awesome power. Blade-dodging Ninjas wielding two knight swords: totally awesome. Some jobs were more difficult to open up than others, but you really didn't need them all in order to progress through the game; they were just more options available to you if you felt the desire to pursue them. The game had plenty of secrets available if you took the time to look for them, which is always a nice bonus.
It's the Wheel of Jobs!
Now, the game was not without its flaws, the biggest and most obvious being the terrible, terrible translation job done on it. The story itself is a very long, very complicated tale of class warfare, political backstabbing (quite literally), and an out-of-control church. There was a lot of reading, no doubt about that, and if you don't like reading in your games, stay away from this one (personally, I'd much rather read than listen to shitty voiceacting, but that's a story for another day...). With the sheer amount of text in the game, combined with the fairly short window Square allowed to get the game out in the US (assumedly to cash in on the FF name), the translation was in danger from the start. Beyond basic grammar issues, character and place names are really inconsistent throughout the game, and even sometimes within single cut scenes. After a while, you start to realize which misspellings and misnamings apply to which characters, and it starts to sort itself out in your head. But, yes, it does require some extra thought.
Calculators: They will fuck your shit right up.
Overall, though, the translation problems were not enough to dissuade me of my love for the game, and so I waited and waited for the day Square would announce the sequel. Because, let's face it, Square never met a sequel or pile of money it didn't like. My waiting paid of when word finally arrived of...
: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
Ok, so this wasn't technically a sequel. Slated to come out in late 2003 for the Gameboy Advance, the game was described not so much as a sequel, but more of a related follow-up to the original title. As information about the game started to trickle out, it was pretty obvious that it was "related" in only the vaguest sense of the word. The core gameplay looked very similar, but the plotline, as opposed to a rich tale of political intrigue, was instead focused on some kids and a magic book. Knowing that I could forgive the strange shift in tone so long as the gameplay was solid, I resolutely kept excited about the game. Finally, on launch day, I brought it home, unwrapped it, popped it in, and...
Well, it wasn't quite what I expected. The gameplay that I adored of FFT was still slightly present, but had undergone enough changes as to somehow be entirely different. The job system was still there, but in a heavily modified form. Suddenly instead of just plain ol' humans, there was a whole bevvy of adorable/sexy/weird creatures I could command, and they each had their own separate job options. Skills were now learned from items ala FFIX. And in the battles themselves, Judges now set down laws that changed the rules of every encounter.
Hey Marche, I think I know why they make fun of you at school. Here's a hint: IT'S YOUR HAIR.
The changes to the job system were what really got me at first. Figuring out exactly what jobs went with which races, and how they all fit together took a while to really sink in. And, as it turned out, despite the fact that twenty-five jobs were advertised, many of them were inherently the same and simply had some minor variations in skills. Overall, it felt like I had less control over creating the units I wanted to, and was more being herded along with more limited options. On top of that, the skills-from-equipment system encouraged buying everything possible, as well as equipping your characters with sub-par items simply to make sure they had all the skills they could. This led to endless periods of equipment shuffling and checking, all of which felt like too much work for too little reward.
And then, finally, the Judges. At the start of every battle, the mystic Judge would lay out a series of conditions on the battle; no weapons, no black magic, no healing, etc. He would also lay out a series of bonus conditions; spear attacks, fire, etc. If you performed an action that was illegal, you got a penalty. Perform too many illegal actions and your unit would be carted off to FF prison, most likely to be anally violated by a Moogle gang. If you performed the bonus actions, you would get points that would allow you to summon powerful Totemas to wreck havoc.
My problem with the Judge system was that it felt so arbitrary, and made any sort of preferred strategy difficult to stick with since you never knew what would be illegal. It also was terrible if you got stuck with the wrong party makeup to mesh with the laws, and suddenly find your heavy-hitting melee squad not allowed to actually attack anyone directly. It wasn't a huge
problem, but it was just annoying enough to make me grumble about it. Where It Went Wrong
See, the real problem here isn't one of actual game execution (FFTA is not a bad game by any stretch); the problem here is one of denied expectation. Square, who is normally quite good at pumping out the sequels, made fans wait six years for a follow-up to FFT. When we finally heard that one was coming, we naturally assumed that it would be at the very least a direct sequel, and at the worst a new game using the same mechanics. What we got instead was something that was somewhere in between. The game world, Ivalice, was named the same thing, but was clearly something else entirely than what we had gone through before. The tone of the story was also a 180 degree shift from what most of us were expecting. Add to that the fact that it felt like the game mechanics most of us loved had been switched up and stripped down, and our disappointment is pretty understandable.
To be fair, Ramza also had some hair issues, but at least he had great taste in armored sweaters.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, standing on its own, is a good game and a great start to what will probably be yet another long-running Square franchise. FFTA2 was just recently released in Japan and slated to come out in February in the US, and I will probably end up getting that, too. But as a sequel to the original FFT, the game just doesn't live up to my personal expectations, and perhaps there is no one to blame for that but myself.
In the meantime, though, I can at least console myself of dreams of the day they get around to releasing the next Chrono Trigger title...