Final Fantasy Tactics is an offshoot of the main Final Fantasy series. Trading in its roots, for a standard but complex turn-based strategy RPG, in the spirit of such games as Ogre Battle. Does this game hold up to the test of time, or has it been left to the wayside. Let's find out.
The story of Final Fantasy Tactics is very complex. We start with a princess in the land of Ivalice being kidnapped, by who we find out very quickly is an old friend of our main protagonist Ramza. We then go through a flashback sequence where we learn how the two came up together. Ramza is of noble blood, whereas Delita, the friend, is a commoner. There are those in the kingdom who would like to see the nobility overthrown. This is spearheaded by the church of the kingdom who wishes to take power for themselves. Delita it seems is only too agreeable to go along with their plan. The plan involves collecting 12 stones, each corresponding to a sign of the zodiac with the power to turn their possessors into demons... and apparently power ancient technology. There is of course a greater evil, the Lord Folmarv who wishes to resurrect an ancient demon, the Seraph of Blood using these stones.
That's the main plot of the story, if I involved all of the subplots that really don't turn up going anywhere this could go on for pages. Suffice it to say, there is much political intrigue and figureheads and assassinations as we see Delita rising up in power and Ramza trying to figure everything out and collect the Zodiac stones.
One note I made about the story is its similarity in tone and content to Final Fantasy XII. Now this shouldn't be all that surprising considering the two share a world, but it still is just because of how much time there was between the two and how there really are no other Final Fantasy games that share this kind of tone. They do a really good job of showing what would seem to be a realistic medieval uprising... you know if everyone could cast magic and whatnot.
Now, let's go to game play. The gameplay is that of a standard turn-based strategy RPG. Most of the gameplay takes place in battles. You choose your party members, then are placed into a battlefield with a grid-based layout. Your characters can move based on their stats and attempt to clear out the battlefield of monsters. Your characters have both an experience and a job level. The job level affects how many job points a character gets when performing any kind of non-move action on their turn as well as unlocking new jobs. Each job has a number of abilites associated with it as well as a list of equipment that they are able to use. You spend the job points you earn in battle to learn these abilities, and you can combine these abilities into a set on your character. Each character can use the abilities associated with their current class, an ability set of another class of their choosing, a reaction ability, a support ability, and a move-based ability. The classes cover the range of what you would expect from a Final Fantasy title including Chemist, Black Mage, Summoner, Ninja, Dragoon, Samurai, etc. Also included are a few unique jobs not seen in other Final Fantasy games such as Mystic and Orator. The equipment in the game is divided into Weapon, Armor, Helmet, and Accessory. We'll get more into that later.
Now, as a strategy RPG, I would certainly consider this to be a Sandbox RPG, meaning alot of the fun is in learning new abilities and just playing around finding the best combinations and equipment, etc. So, to really analyze this game we have to go more indepth into the systems. Let's take a look at the base stats. Really, for a game of this type there are very few. We have HP/MP Move, Jump, Speed, Phys. Atk, Mag. Atk, and Evade. There are alot of different evade stats, but basically they are the same thing just coming from different places such as innate class evade, parry chance, shield, or accessory. The first thing that jumps out at you is that there is no defense in this game. Your defense is comprised of your HP which you get most of through your armor, and your evade. Now, this is a real problem, because as you get further in the game, you get more and more abilites which simply ignore evade. While useful early, and passingly later on, most of the dangerous attacks in the game really ignore evade completely, so what you're left with is an offensive heavy game in strategy. So, really we're going to look at the rest of the game through that lens.
Let's get into the skills you can learn. Each class has a real use in the game, even throughout the game. What you tend to do is focus on a skillset and then find a class that has an equipment set that compliments it well. Some classes have very useful skills but a limited equipment set. Some classes have not-so-useful skills but a very good equipment set. There are really very few skillsets that really compliment each other well. This is both nice because you can use that second ability set slot for a more specialized approach if needed, but also bad in the fact that it would be nice to see synergy. There are some skills that use a charge time to use, including most magic in the game. This means when a characters turn comes and you choose to cast a spell, it will be another few turns before the spell actually goes off. While this leads to some tactical decisions, such as, can I get someone in/out of range in time, etc. Most of the time, it is just incredibly frustrating, and you will find yourself gravitating away from these skills and towards instant cast ones as the game goes on.
There is a huge number of special characters in the game. Each of these carries their own base class which is unique to them. These include cameos from other Final Fantasy games such as Cloud and Balthier, as well as other favorites such as Cid (Orlandeau), Mustadio, etc. These characters' abilities become more and more powerful as you keep recruiting them through the end of the game and you usually have to do very little ability grinding them to make them some of the most powerful members of your team almost immediately upon recruitment. The problem with this of course is that by the end of the game you really have a huge, almost unmanageable roster if you like keeping everyone around. You are of course free to remove anyone from your team in-between battles.
Now, let's talk some more about equipment in the game. There are a number of ways of acquiring equipment. First, there are shops. You acquire money after each battle, and you can spend it on items and equipment upgrades in various shops in each town. Next, is stealing. Thief characters can steal items off of other humanoid npcs. This is doable throughout the game to get upgrades slightly earlier than you normally would, but doesn't become really useful until the very end of the game when you can start to get items not sold in shops. The next method is poaching. By equipping a certain ability, a character when killing a non-humanoid npc will collect its hide. You can then visit a special shop to purchase an item depending on what type of monster that was killed. There are a few really rare items you can get from this, but overall, its not worth the time. The next method is treasure hunting. Treasure hunting involves finding items strewn across the map. Most of the time you'll find common items, in a few special instances during optional content, you can find some of the best equipment in the game. Next, there's treasure chests. When anyone dies in the game, except for a few cases, a number will appear over their head. Generally, you have 3 turns where they can be revived, or they will disappear forever... yes that means you can permanently lose characters you've spent a lot of time levelling up. Once they do, they leave behind either a treasure chest containing an item, or a crystal which either restores HP/MP or allows the character to learn abilities that the passed on character had learned. Finally, there's catching. If you get your characters to REALLY high levels, we're talking in the 90s, you can encounter ninjas who will literally throw weapons at you. You can equip a certain reaction ability to allow you to catch these. Again, only really useful for VERY high level characters. So, after all this, you'll really find you'll do 99% of your item collecting in the shops...
Another odd system in the game is the fact that during all random battles, the levels of the monster scale with you. Yes, this game was made during the time of Final Fantasy VIII, so the same rules apply. Especially during the early parts of the game, before you have overpowered equipment and skills, you really want to keep your levels even, otherwise you're going to have some problems. I did say this was just for the random battles. The story battles are static in the game, so you can level up to help you with these if you are having trouble. However, the random battles are very numerous. You have a chance any time you move along the map on a non-town space to encounter one, and the rate is extremely high, between 30 and 50 percent I would say. Great if you're trying to grind, horrible if you're trying to get somewhere.
The final system I would like to talk about is the Errand system. Here, you send characters on a job for a certain number of days (1 day = 1 spot moved on the map) and when they return they get some gil, and some JP. You can also find special items which do nothing but show up in lore pages you can access in the menu. This is useful for getting abilities for jobs with very low innate speeds such as Arithmeticians. However, as I said the random encounter rate is so high, you can find yourself having to do 4 or 5 random battles just to finish one errand. It is very frustrating.
Now let's talk about the sidequests in the game. There are very few, and most of them only reward you with a new character to add to your bloated team. There are a few of interest, however, which are only access at the VERY end of the game, so they are basically post-game content. The first is Disorder in the order. In what appears to be a sidestory involving Agrias, it actually seems to be more of a tutorial in thieving. They allow the characters to never turn into crystals or treasure chests, so you have a lot of time to keep someone alive and resurrect other people to steal their equipment. This would've been a great sidequest way earlier in the game. The other is Midlight's Deep, a dungeon consisting of 10 levels that is completely dark and requires you to find the exit to the next level before clearing out all the monsters. On each level you can Treasure Hunt some very rare items including some of the best equipment in the game. The bottom level contains a hidden boss who carries the 13th Zodiac stone and can cast a hidden Summon spell. The fact of the matter is, at this point of the game, there's very little use for the extra equipment and the time spent to get everything is quite considerable. As you may or may not know, during my playthrough I did not get to go through Midlight's Deep, this is because I saved my game during the last sequence of story battles which does not allow you to return to the map at any point, including after you beat the game. A horrible programming decision.
The PSP remake of the game also includes a couple of multiplayer modes. There are special missions that can be undertaken by two teams and depending on how well you are able to do this you get treasure afterwards. The treasure from the final missions in the game is hands down the best equipment in the game. I did not get to try out any of these missions during my playthrough as it REQUIRES two people. Apparently the iOS version allows you to purchase these items after you beat the game (you mean you get to return to the map in that version?) to fix this. Also, there is a mode where two people can put their parties head-to-head to battle it out.
The graphics and music in the game are okay. The graphics have not really been updated since the Playstation days, and while graphics are not really the selling point of a strategy RPG there are a few hiccups. On boards with a lot of mountainous terrain, it can be difficult to move the camera where you want it to properly see a character or count spaces or basically do what you need to do. Also, the out of battle graphics are extremely primitive working completely out of menus. Some of the story is told through cutscenes which are very well done, I'll get to them more in a second. The music is what you would expect. Mostly good background noise for while you're making your next decision. Some of the boss battles have some nice dramatic music, but there are really only a couple of standout tracks.
In conclusion, Final Fantasy Tactics is a good game. It is extremely complex and very difficult, but well put together. My complain with the game is that for every real good point it has, there seems to be a bad to go along with it. There are a lot of mechanics which are very niche and limited in their use, and a lot of the core gameplay can be boiled down to figuring out the best ways to make your guys hit as hard as they can while moving as far as they can. That being said, the game is still a standard for tactical RPGs and does carry the feel of a Final Fantasy game very well. I'd be remiss if I did not include this. The fanbase for this game continues to this day with fans creating a mod that ups the already hard difficulty by many notches. I may give it a whirl one day if I ever feel I want to actually get a go through Midlight's Deep... we'll see. In the end, this game has certainly been passes by other franchises such as Fire Emblem and especially Disgaea, but like I said, it is a standard and is worth the playthrough, just make sure you have a lot of time.