In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Square tried to create a game that kept a lot of the mechanics that made the original Tactics great while giving it a plot that would make it more accessible to some younger players. The end result is a game that you will see has a massive amount of mechanics and systems that certainly makes the suffix of Advance credence. Let's take a closer look and see how this game holds up today.
The story of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is certainly nothing novel. A bunch of kids with social issues, who like to play Final Fantasy, happen upon a magic book which transports them into the game. One of the kids wants to escape the game and sets upon figuring out how to do so. He first finds five crystals which are supposed to bind the world together... but destroying them does nothing other than giving your party the ability to use special summons. He finds out the world is REALLY held together because there are people who wish it so. We're talking about our main characters. Marche is a new kid and thus picked on. Mewt has an alcoholic dad and is picked on. Doned is Marche's brother who is bedridden in real life, and Ritz is a friend who doesn't want to return to the real world because she has white hair. I know, that last one is a bit of a stretch isn't it. So, Marche gets over his issues and decides to convince everyone else to return home. The only real holdout is Mewt who's mother has appeared in this world and is dead in real life. Turns out the mother is just the manifestation of Mewt's wishes... so we destroy her and the world is saved!
While all this is going on, Marche is getting involved in the conflicts going on in the Final Fantasy world. Apparently, in this world everyone belongs to clans. The clans fight each other and can take on missions posted at local pubs and given to you by bartenders. The clan fights are refereed by judges from the palace... namely Prince Mewt, his mother, and father, who rules all judges in the land.
The core of the gameplay in Tactics Advance is the same as the original tactics. You fight on an isometric battlefield, and move around the battlefield to attack your opponents until a condition is met. Tactics Advance changes some things up here as well. As I said before, each battle is governed by a judge, and the judges do various things. They keep the battlefield from getting too cluttered with corpses. They give out judge points for doing favored abilities and killing people. Also, they send people to jail for breaking the law. There is a list of laws which rotates based on what day it is. These laws are made to force you to play in different ways, with some actions being outlawed in a battle, but maybe being favored in another. In theory this is a good idea, forcing you to not just force a certain build for a character... but in the end it turns into just a big annoyance of avoiding doing what is against the law. The laws can be changed with cards. There are cards that create laws and some that will destroy the law for the fight, so you have some control over it... again though, for the most part, it is more trouble than its worth. These points the judges give can be used for two things. They can be used to allow a character to do a combo attack with other characters, or to perform a special totema summon after that ability has been unlocked in the plot.
Of course, one of the great parts of any tactical rpg is building up your character. Here is where Tactics Advance has probably made the most changes. In the original Tactics, every character you made had the same job tree, and really eventually, these were all outclassed by plot characters who had specialized jobs available only to them. This really does not happen so much in Tactics Advance. In fact it doesn't happen at all until the postgame. What Tactics Advance has done is given you the ability to recruit characters of 5 different races, each with its own job tree, with about half the jobs being unique to that specific race. The advancement system has been redone as well. Abilities are no longer learned via JP, but instead by gaining AP while having a specific item equipped. This is really the same thing they did in Final Fantasy IX and allows the game to gate certain abilities until after certain parts of the plot. Certain jobs can't be used until the character masters a number of action abilities from other classes.
Before I move on to the other mechanics, I want to focus a little on one of the very strong points of the game which is its ability balancing. Almost every ability in the game and every class in the game is useful, and useful throughout the entire game. Yes, obviously you will figure out certain ability and equipment sets you like more than others, but you can really make anything work. What works well is you don't need every character to pump out massive amounts of damage. Yes you will need a couple of these, but there are a number of support roles that are equally as important. Debuffs in the game are plentiful and game changing. Damage output is on the low side for the most part, so a single heal can also really change the tide of a battle. Some of the most fun I had in this game were fights where I didn't take a single heavy hitter in, but relied on my different debuffs and what not.to get through.
Let's talk a little bit about how you can gather items in the game. There are a number of different methods. The first, and most obvious are the shops. A large percentage of all the weapons and armor in the game are available near the beginning of the game from the shops, giving you at the least basic access to all the jobs in the game as long as you put some work in. The next obvious method is from completing missions... we'll talk more about that in a bit. The third is from stealing. You can check any characters equipment when you get in a battle, and you can steal anything, except shoes. One minor annoyance with this, is that there are some characters who can reequip weapons... and they have the chance to reequip a rare weapon. There are abilities that can help figure out who can do this, but honestly, the amount of time that would take is incredibly annoying. I don't like this feature. Also, stealing is a bit odd. Technically, you can get the ability to steal any item from VERY early in the game. The thing is, though, you are not SUPPOSED to gain the ability to steal weapons until VERY late in the game. How is this? Well, as a clan you have certain stats based on what mission you can complete... as these stats reach certain levels, you automatically get certain items. One of these items gives you the ability to steal abilities from other characters. The problem is you need to really massively grind to do this. So, to steal weapons, you need to get this item and then find a character with the ability Steal: Weapon and steal it from them... yeah... at least there's nothing permanently missable because of this. The final method of getting items is from treasure hunting. This is probably the oddest system in the game. As you progress through the game you get to place new areas on an overworld map. Depending on how you place the areas you can get to treasure hunt in the areas and in some cases gain some really rare items. Unless you really know what you're doing with this though, you are going to just get bad items.
Now let's talk more about missions. As opposed to the orignial tactics where you just went from story fight to story fight, in this game almost everything you do, you do by accepting missions. There are two types of missions in the game. Battle missions and Dispatch missions. Battle missions are just as they sound. You accept them, go to a specific area and fight a battle. You win, you profit. Dispatch missions, you send a character out for either a certain number of days, a certain number of battles, or until you kill a certain amount of enemies. From there you have a random chance of completing it, with the chance affected by the character that you sent's class, stats, and a random number. Like the laws this is interesting in theory, but not great in practice. The main problem is that the game can only track 16 missions at a time, both ongoing and available. There are certain items you get from missions which cannot be equipped, but are used as prerequisites for accepting other missions to create kind of a mini storyline. While this is fine, often times, you can see missions at the pub that require mission items you can 't get until WAY later in the game. Now, yes, you can trade to get around this, but for the most part all this is is a major annoyance as you're trying to clear out quests as they take up space on the pub list. Oh yeah, these mission items can also be used to increase your abilities while on a specific mission, but this is NEVER explained to you in the game.
So, as you complete missions, you'll inevitably complete ones that let you free areas. So, now if you want to increase your levels, or grind AP for abilities you have a couple of choices. You can fight random clans that wander around the map... or you can wait for areas you've freed to come under attack. This is both awesome and incredibly annoying at the same time. First of all, it is worth mentioning that as in the original tactics, all random battles are fought with enemies whose levels are based on the levels of your party, so you're rate of levelling is constant throughout. Most random clan battles are fought 6 on 5 while under attack battles are fought 4 on 4 and give a large amount of AP, making them great for learning abilities. The problem is, if you don't fight that battle within 40 days of it coming under attack, you lose the area and have to do a dispatch mission to refree it... and you want to keep the areas free, because the more areas you have free the more items become available in the shops. So, if you're trying to complete a dispatch mission that takes a lot of time or just trying to get to a story mission, sometimes an area will come under attack, and you'll have to stop what you are doing and go fight a battle. It really is something I wish I could turn on and off.
Alright, so let's talk about the difficulty and postgame. The difficulty of this game, as with most tactical RPGs is generally low. Higher at the beginning, and getting easier as you gain more abilities and weapons. One of my main complaints is that the AI in the game really doesn't improve very much as the game goes on. Also, as I said earlier, debuffs are amazingly useful in this game. Enemy characters really don't use them as much as they should, and I wish as the game went on some characters would get immunity to some, as they make what should be more difficult missions completely trivial. There are really two separate postgames to talk about. The first are the 20 or so missions that become available after you beat the game. These include missions where you fight some high level monsters, participate in a tournament with special battle rules, and battles where you can get the 3 strongest weapons in the game. Also, you can recruit a number of characters with unique abilities. So, you complete all of them. This then unlocks a special postgame questline where Cid joins your party and you go after some corrupt judges. This is actually really fun if not fairly simple mostly because you're no longer worried about having to complete missions and you can really just go from one story mission to the next. I honestly wish the game had some more things that could be done like this, and it is a shame that such a large percentage of people who play this game will probably never get to play this part.
Next lets talk about the graphics and sound. For the first time in a while, I really don't need to be overly critical of the graphics in the game. Being a Game Boy Advance game, this game basically has Super Nintendo style graphics with sprites. Its really hard to screw up sprites and they never really look all that dated. As far as the music goes, it is notably a very upbeat soundtrack. Actually, it probably is a little too upbeat. I have no complaint with the music getting tiring or anything like that, but honestly, they made a choice that for any tense parts in the game, of which there are relatively few that they cut the soundtrack entirely and rely on sound-effects alone before bringing back in an upbeat battle theme or the like. It is a very odd choice, and a rare misstep as far as audio goes in the series.
In conclusion, this seemingly innocuous game actually had quite a large effect on the series. As you know, Ivalice is one of the few locales in the Final Fantasy multiverse which is revisited on multiple occasions. The races and concepts introduced in this game were carried on in Final Fantasy XII and then in Tactics A2. The developers were not shy about trying to make some changes and improvements to what was a critically praised game in Final Fantasy Tactics. Of course all these changes did not work out perfectly. Still, though, this is a very enjoyable game, though one that can be very frustrating if you don't know the systems very well. I recommend this game for people who are familiar with tactical RPGs and who've read up on the game before. Also, I highly recommend playing the game on an emulator to minimize frustrations from forgetting a law, or something like that.