In the world of Ivalice, every child knows the tale of the War of the Lions, and the legendary hero Delita who was its foremost champion. Records are not always accurate, however, and one historian claims that the true hero of the war was not Delita but his best friend Ramza Beoulve. Delve into the past and discover the story never told- the tale of Ramza, a man who became a heretic just to protect what he believed in.
Before all the fancy battle systems of Nippon Ichi and its peers, there existed a strategy RPG that was to shape all that came after it. Bearing the Final Fantasy name, this game was a niche title whose general lack of availability doomed it to obscurity for many years, until finally it was dusted off, re-released and brought out into the light where it belonged. For obvious reasons, that game was none other than Final Fantasy Tactics.
Many years ago, I started FFT, but because I found the game so incredibly difficult I ultimately gave up and put it to one side. Ironically, however, it was not the recent PSP remake that brought it back to my attention, but a desire to play and complete all the classic PSOne RPG titles that I had, for whatever reason, missed out on in my teenage years. So it was that FFT re-entered the scene, and this time, I was going to complete it- no matter how long it took.
The world of Ivalice
Final Fantasy Tactics takes place in the world of Ivalice, a land threatened by war thanks to the ambitions of both the nobles and the Church. As Ramza, your goal is to rescue your sister from the madness, which in practical terms means moving across the world map fighting battles on different maps. The world map is a simple affair, consisting of connected points which you must travel between (it takes one day of in-game time to travel between one point and the next). Red nodes indicate that there are battles to be fought to advance the story, green nodes have been cleared but can be revisited for random battles, whilst blue nodes are towns and cities.
As well as being the obvious place in which to buy weapons and items, town also provide other services in the form of the pub and the soldier office (a few towns also have a fur shop where you can sell monster remains). The pub is the home of rumours that will explain the situation of the game and let you dispatch generic characters out to handle missions on their own, whilst the soldier office is the place to recruit new generics to bulk out your team while you wait for the story characters to join your team (remember that you can never have more than 16 playable characters at any given time, although you can dismiss units to make room for more).
As with so many other games, job classes are all in Final Fantasy Tactics, determining a character’s stats and abilities. Generic characters always join at level one with only the Squire (basic, no frills fighter) and Chemist (item user) classes open, and it is only by levelling up in these classes that better options will become available. Those familiar with the Final Fantasy franchise will be right at home with the range of classes, which includes staples like Black Mage, Priest (white mage), Summoner, Knight, Samurai and Ninja along a few more exotic options such as Dancer, Bard, Mime and Calculator (no, really). Story characters also have their own unique classes with skill sets that generics cannot learn.
Once a character is in a particular Job, you’ll need to go out and fight in order to accumulate the Job Points (JP) needed to master the abilities of that class. There are a range of command and support abilities available in each job, and it’s up to you to decide which ones to master first- bearing in mind that even using a particular item such as a potion requires you to have mastered the related abilities (that’s right- just setting the item command isn’t enough).
With all the requisite skills learned and equipment bought, the time has come to equip your characters for battle. Depending on their job, each character can equip a weapon (one or two-handed), shield, helmet, armour and accessory (not all options are available to all classes), with the game will automatically furnishing you with the best setup from your inventory unless you choose to customise. For skills, each character can set up to two command types; the one that corresponds to their job, of course, and another command from any other they have unlocked (for example, a Black Mage would obviously have Black Magic as their first command, but the second could be White Magic, Item and so forth). You can also set up to three support abilities- one relating to how you counter enemy attacks, one relating to movement (increasing range, letting you heal as move, etc) and another that lets you add extra commands such as Defend and Equip Change, gain extra JP in battle or just equip a type of weapon or armour that your job normally wouldn’t allow. Having just one slot for each support ability may seem rather restrictive, but it ensures that you have to think carefully about your choice.
With all that in mind, the time has come to head out to battle, which, in true SRPG fashion, takes place on isometric maps of varying altitude and terrain. For most battles, you are able to deploy up to five characters from your party, usually as one team, but sometimes in two squads. Unfortunately, whilst you are given an area of squares in which to place characters prior to the battle, you won’t know how these squares actually relate to the map and the enemy positions until the battle begins, which is a bit of a blow to any tactical formation you might want to make (then again, for the battles where tactical formation is that important, you’ll probably get killed and be forearmed for your subsequent attempts).
Once battle actually begins, characters get turns according to their speed, which is represented by the filling of the Charge Time (CT) gauge. Once the gauge reaches 100, a character can take their turn, with turn order visible via selecting an action and then pressing Left. As per usual, each turn lets a character move once and act once (provided they are in deep water, which prevents action), although unlike later games of the genre, if you move and haven’t acted yet, you can’t undo your move if you discover you’ve gone somewhere where no enemy is in range of your attacks. Battle objectives are of course the usual range of “defeat all enemies”, “defeat the boss” and “protect pathetically weak ally NPC who likes to make suicide attacks on the enemy”.
Whilst normal attacks and certain abilities take place immediately, spells, summons and various other special abilities require charging time of their own, meaning that several other characters may get to take their turn whilst the caster is preparing their spell. If the ability in question is targeting a particular unit, then it will always strike that unit even if they move (the only way to evade is to use the Lancer ability Jump), but if it’s aimed at a panel, then, with luck, you’ll be able to move out of the way. It’s also worth noting that most spells have a five square cross shaped area of effect and will target enemies and allies alike (the same goes for other abilities that target more than one square)- only summons differentiate enemies from allies when it comes to healing or dealing out damage.
With that in mind, it’s clear that battles require some thought, but there’s one more reason not to embark recklessly on a fight, and that’s what happens when a character dies. Excluding guest characters, as soon as someone is struck down, a three turn countdown begins, after which point they disappear, leaving behind either a treasure chest or the crystallised remains of their soul. When this happens, that character is gone forever- regardless of whether they were a named story character or your best generic. If you want to avoid this, you’ll have to revive them or finish the battle before the time is up, although conversely you’ll want this to happen to enemies so that you can pick up the items they drop and use the crystals to either inherit new abilities or replenish your HP and MP.
If human characters aren’t enough for you, then you may be pleased to learn that you can also recruit monsters using the power of a Mediator. If your Mediator is successful, the target monster will join your party and become fully playable, with the added bonus of it regularly laying eggs to add more monsters (some with better stats than the original) to the team. Unlike humans, however, monsters have a fixed skill set- they cannot equip items, learn new skills or have jobs. These limitations aside, monsters can be useful allies- especially chocobos, which have the added advantage of allowing humans to ride them.
In typical SRPG fashion, the battlefield also plays host to ‘guest characters’, ally NPCs who usually have to be protected from death at the hands of the enemy. Guest characters are often powerful, but they are also unpredictable- they’re just as likely to run away and save their own skin as to pitch in against the enemy, and when they do go on the attack, they’re as bad as the Americans for instigating friendly fire incidents in their eagerness to carve a path through to the enemy.
As well as all the usual stats, character strength in FFT is determined by three unique factors- Brave, Faith and star sign. Brave is a measure of a character’s courage and hence controls the success rate of physical attacks, whilst Faith measures a character’s belief in the supernatural and thus the success of their magical attacks; both of these stats can be raised permanently by repeated use of certain special skills. Meanwhile, star sign is important because when the in-game date matches with the dates of that sign, a character’s power is increased. That being said, the mechanics of star signs and character strength can be ignored throughout the game without too much ill effect.
In practice, what all this means is that Final Fantasy Tactics is not a game you can brute force your way through- if you don’t unlock the right classes and skills, much of the game will be hard, and even a slight change in strategy and character level can change a seemingly impossible battle into a manageable one. Even if you find most of the game a struggle, however, the last few battles are almost disappointingly easy, because once you recruit the deadly Orlandu, almost nothing can stand in your way.
Ramza: As the main character, Ramza has to be at the forefront of the action, even getting the dubious pleasure of having to fight one or two story battles alone. Although his default class is Squire (an extended version of the Squire class available to generics, with some useful support abilities), you can of course take Ramza in any direction you wish- for much of the game I alternated between Monk and Knight; the former for its range of attack and healing abilities, the latter for the ability to break the weapons and armour of strong enemies.
Agrias: A Holy Knight by trade, Agrias is a robust character whenever she has a sword in her hand, but without it she can’t use her Holy Sword abilities- which is why you’d better prioritise teaching her the Equip Sword ability.
Mustadio: An Engineer with a gun specialty, Mustadio’s unique skills are rather limited, which is why I took him the route of learning Equip Gun and prioritising Chemist skills so that he could become a roving item user with a ranged attack.
Orlandu: As a knight, Orlandu has a skillset that overlaps with both Agrias and Meliadoul (another playable story character who joins up too late to be of much use). Although he only joins late in the game, Orlandu is such a powerhouse that he can carry the later battles pretty much by himself, making the end of the game generally rather easy.
Red Chocobo: The most powerful of the three chocobo types in the game (yellow, black and red), Red Chocobo doesn’t have the healing skills of the yellow, but its powerful Choco Meteor attack has been known to take down bosses on its own.
Rad: The one generic character that I’ve worked on, Rad was well-used until Orlandu came along, acting variously as a Mediator, Geomancer, Oracle and Summoner throughout the game, usually with Item as his secondary skill.
A cut above the average RPG fare, Final Fantasy Tactics attempts to bring us a comparatively complex tale of church politics, intrigue and plotting, even spicing proceedings up with darker topics such as implied rape. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite succeed- not so much through any story failings as from the fact that this version of the game is so poorly translated that it’s hard to understand any of the plot nuances. Hopefully the PSP version with its better translation has rectified this problem.
Visually, Final Fantasy looks much like every other SRPG out there, using isometric maps and sprites, and despite its age, the overall look is quite pleasant- in fact, the sprites have more range of movement than some in more recent games! The background music isn’t as memorable as that of mainstream FF titles, but it still serves its purpose well enough.
A rough gem in a world that would later produce more polished titles, Final Fantasy Tactics is nonetheless a worthy game in its own right, and one that proves as addictive as the SRPGs that would follow it. Although the PSP version is all the rage at the moment, we mustn’t forget the original incarnation that started it all.