Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1 & 2

            Many years ago, when I was but a wee lad, there were a series of very popular JRPGs. It so happened that one year this series wanted to branch out and make a game in a slightly different genre. Rather than their usual style of game they instead opted for a more tactical one, with grid based combat similar to what one would see in, say, Fire Emblem. They brought their own flavor of individual character progression and classes to the table and the result was considered a rousing success. That game was called Final Fantasy Tactics. I…did not play that game.

Pictured: The game I’m not going to talk about

            You see, I didn’t own a Playstation 2 until 2002 and the PS1 completely passed my child self by. However, what I did play was Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, a GBA game with a similar combat system released in 2003. The game wasn’t a direct sequel, dealing with different characters and possibly(?) taking place in a different time period, but existing in the same world as the first. It was also a game I became mildly obsessed with, loving the game enough to beat it and play through most of it several times. In 2007 they released another mouthful of a sequel, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift, for Nintendo DS. I bought this game and played it a bit, concluded that it wasn’t as good as its predecessor and stopped.

            But just a couple weeks ago I decided that I never gave the game enough of a chance and tried giving it another shot. I still encountered things I didn’t like but have been able to power passed them to the core gameplay I love so much. Though I haven’t beaten A2 yet I’ve decided to write some things about it and its predecessor. Of course, in order to do that I’ll have to explain the basics of how the games work, so bear with me.

How It Work

            In the Final Fantasy Tactics games, battles take place on a grid in a similar manner to say Fire Emblem or Advance Wars, but from an isometric perspective (in this and many ways more like Disgaea, another game I should talk about one day). This adds the additional tactical element of elevation. When a characters turn comes, they can choose to move, perform actions or wait. How many squares they can move (and the maximum vertical jump they can make at one time) are determined by move and jump stats that change based on class and equipment. As far as actions go, players can all attack by default, usually only 1 square away but further if equipped with a ranged weapon. Apart from regular attacks, characters have skills they can use such as magic and special moves. These can do all sorts of different things and have varying ranges and areas of effect.

A picture of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’s first battle (not counting a snowball fight tutorial)

            After a character uses an action or waits, they are prompted to choose which of the 4 directions to face in. Which direction you’re attacked in changes things, though what way varies slightly between the games. In FFTA, attacking only determined the accuracy of the move. FFTA2 worked a similar way, but for damaging attacks had the direction determine the damage of the attack instead, having the accuracy be constant and generally high. Though it took some getting used to, this is one of the changes in the game where I prefer the sequel. Regardless of which game, attacking from behind is the best, attacking from the sides is alright, and attacking from the front is least effective.

            For each individual fight you can only bring a certain amount of units, usually about 6. However, you can keep far more than that in your clan at any given time (I usually don’t, as I’m the type to get attached to a set party, but you’re given the option at least). These clan members all belong to certain races, and which race they are determines which classes they can become. Every time a character levels their stats increase based on what class they are, so for example a black mage would gain more Magic every level than other stats. The other things your class effects are what equipment you can wear and what abilities you can learn.

This is another game where you can spend hours customizing things in the menu. Some may disagree, but I see this as a good thing.

            Abilities are tied to weapons. So for example a Short Sword might be able to teach Soliders the ability First Aid if they equip it. They’ll have that ability as long as the Short Sword is equipped, and if they keep it equipped long enough they’ll learn it permanently. There’s a catch though, and that’s that you can only have 2 types of Action Abilities used at any given time (the other types being passive ones). For example, we see above that Montblanc is an Animist, which gives him animist abilities or ‘calls’. But he can also choose one other class of abilities he’s previously learned, in this case Black Magic.

So your character can only perform the abilities of 2 different classes at once. However, some of the classes in the game can only be unlocked when you learn enough abilities from a previous class. For example, you can only become a Gladiator once you’ve learned 2 Warrior abilities, and so on. This means you could be using a certain class to get to a later class, to learn certain skills, because they’ve got good stat growth, or because they can equip certain things. The point is the system offers a ridiculous amount of depth to the progression.

This shot of a character choosing a job concludes the boring mechanics portion of our presentation.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance versus A2

            So what are the differences between Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and the sequel? Well, there’s the point I mentioned about facing above, for starters. Before I started writing this I thought that the original Advance would win out in most categories, but when I stop to think about it A2 has a lot of mechanical changes I do actually like. For example, in the original experience would be earned every time you performed an action, whereas in the sequel everyone who participates in the fight gets experience and then bonuses are awarded for how they did. The original system wasn’t terrible or anything, but it favored acting every turn regardless of results and was vulnerable to gaming the system. The obvious example is that you could literally just hit your own team mates and heal them ad naseum to level up.

            Another change A2 made was that your mana always started at 0 instead of the maximum amount, and would automatically regenerate 10 every round. This means that you couldn’t blow away opponents at the start of the match but also that you wouldn’t have to worry about completely running out of mana. These things in turn made moves that restored mana a bit more useful and though my feelings are a bit mixed I’d say it’s overall a positive change.

            One more positive change I feel A2 made to the original formula is the law system. In both games there were laws you would receive at the start of each match, guidelines of things not to do. As a side note, this system can be occasionally silly or frustrating. In the original game you would be penalized whenever you broke the law, with fines, stat losses and perhaps even being sent to jail until bailed out. In the sequel, the first time you break a law in a fight you lose the protection of the judges and can no longer revive dead party members, as well as losing some bonus items at the end. I feel the penalty of the second game is preferable, because it’s more like losing bonuses than things you already had.

A final thing in favor of A2 is the slightly improved visuals, most noticeable in areas such as these higher level spells.

            So if FFTA2 is superior to the original in so many ways, how could the first be better? Well, in just about every other way. Obviously the first game has the benefit of nostalgia, though that isn’t really fair objectively. Both games have stories wherein children are transported to the magical realm of Ivalice through a magical book. However, the original had interesting characters who dealt with problems of escapism and whether they wanted to go back, whereas the sequel is a bit more just a happy-go-lucky protagonist having adventures in fantasy land. The sequel isn’t really as strong musically either, as far as I’m concerned, with a large portion of the soundtrack just being more orchestral rehashed (and not always superior) tunes from the original.

            The remaining features the second game added that I tend to think of with indifference or as making things worse. You have to gather up materials to make items available at the store but given that you don’t know what materials you need until you have them it basically just becomes another layer of busy work. There are auctions for clan territory instead of handling it through quests but again it just seems to be another layer of abstraction with a confusing mini-game that isn’t very engaging. Some classes have to be unlocked with quests before they become available and though it’s a nice idea it’s quite bothersome for compulsive side questers like me who level up a ton before said quests become available. A2 added new jobs but a lot of them aren’t quite as up to par and/or look stupid. A2 added traps, which are randomly appearing annoyances that are invisible without one specific type of job, and these are even stupider.

Pictured above: Two different types of stupidity

Unrepentant Gushing

            But despite the pros and cons of each game, I want to make it abundantly clear that they’re both awesome. It may have taken a while to explain all the base mechanics, but it should be noted that normally they’d explain these to you slowly over time. And these are mechanics built to last, as both games feature somewhere around 300 missions to complete. This doesn’t even count reoccurring things like battling for territory or with enemy clans. The first game has 5 races and over 30 jobs, and A2 has 7 races and over 50 jobs. There’s a lot of game to experience here, and an equivalent level of customization for your characters.

            The combat system is also incredibly satisfying. Developing new strategies to use with different combinations of characters and skills is an engrossing enterprise. Even on a turn by turn basis it can give you a warm fuzzy feeling to get an attack just right and cripple the enemy team or wipe out an opponent with a well-placed attack. As the name suggests, tactics really do matter, and there are few things more rewarding than having a plan play out properly. Of course, likewise when you spend half an hour doing that only to fail it can be equally frustrating.

Oh shut up.

            But regardless of all the moments of frustration I really like these games. They’re good enough to be mildly addictive in the sense that you could always do one more mission (or even one more turn if you use the in-combat quicksave). They’re not completely simple to figure out but are fairly accessible as far as deep tactical RPGs go. They’re generally just really good games, and if you like strategy games and/or RPGs I can highly recommend them. If you ever come across either of these gems, pick them up. And buy them. With your money.

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