'Final Fantasy Tactics' PS1 Review

Game of the Month, January 1998

Nearly a year ago I said to myself, in a passing moment of genius or idiocy, that it would be a brilliant idea to sit down and play games that were released exactly 20 years ago, for a few hours, and then post online about my experiences with these games. This initially led me down a dark path; with 2017 being an overly busy year I experienced only a handful of my intended games—Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Spawn: The Eternal and Fallout—and that handful left me utterly disappointed.

However, in the new year I continue on this journey, and I began said journey with what I could only personally consider a masterpiece, Final Fantasy Tactics.

A spinoff of the main Final Fantasy series (now numbering up to 15, with numerous sequels and branches), Final Fantasy Tactics was Square's first look at the fantastical world of Ivalice. It should be noted that this was also my first foray into Tactics, and I would of course be playing it on its native console. After some 20 years, I strongly believe that Tactics remains a game worth both the time and energy it takes to enjoy.

Again, I only played this game for about 10 hours—as is my practice; I couldn't possibly complete 24 games per year while doing everything else on my plate—but these hours in Ivalice were more than enough to get a good idea of this impressive game and indeed to hook me on it.

Tactics puts the players in the shoes of Ramza Beoulve (Lugria occasionally), a nobleman by birth and squire by training. While the game of course starts in medias res, giving the player a brief look at Ramza as a mercenary in a band led by the Dark Knight Goffard Gaffgarion, it soon returns to the beginning of Ramza's story. I won't go into a great amount of detail regarding the story, but it is worth noting that this game does not fail in the grand story-telling schemes for which Square is known. Indeed the amount of moral gray area that the game exudes is magical and Ramza spends no small amount of time quite confused about how much of what he thinks he knows is completely wrong.

Instead, excusing the masterfully executed story, I would prefer to look at the medium in which the story is told, a series of battles placed on a massive world map and played out in 3D, isometric, rotatable battlefield grids. The player takes a group of 3-5-depending on the number of story assist characters-into each battle and through constant action improves each member of his party.

An expansive “job system” exists in Tactics, excusing the class system that seems omnipresent in most standard role-playing games. While the player begins with access to only six characters, each pre-assigned either the “Squire” or “Chemist” class, these characters will quickly begin to unlock new jobs as their skills advance. The simplest understanding of these two starter classes is that the Squire will lead into physical classes—such as the Thief, Monk, Samurai and Ninja—while the Chemist will lead into the more magical classes-such as the Priest (more classically White Mage), Wizard, Orator and Summoner. A brief review of the game's tutorial will reveal a rather sexist rule; generally speaking male characters will perform physical jobs better, while females will perform magical jobs better. What's up with that, Square, are you saying all men are bumbling idiots who couldn't read a spellbook to save their lives?

This system alone is a treasure in my eyes; there is nothing I love in a game more than—oddly enough—the ability to grind for endless possibilities and improvements. While one may look at this and ponder it, “Why not just pour all of your time into the best job?” the answer is rather simple-customization. While yes the Knight is probably the best physical job—excusing the high armament —the limited array of his abilities (all related to destroying equipment and reducing enemy stats) leaves him lacking on some fronts. To compensate for this, every job features the ability to equip one secondary skill set from another job the character has some experience with. This can open many routes up to the night, he could invest points into the Monk job, gaining access to deadly physical attacks, removing his need for weapons-taking advantage of the monk's powerful unarmed strikes-or he might even benefit from the Monk's Chakra ability, restoring HP to himself and his allies. But then, if your Knight is out restoring HP, perhaps he could spend sometime studying the arts of the Priests and become a Paladin of sorts, charging into the front lines, sword flaying his foes left and right, while also saving allies from the brink of death with holy magic.

There's so much about this game I love, and so little about it that I dislike, until it's hard to even mention the negatives—like the sometimes shoddy camera control. There were points, on occasion, where I might miss incredibly important spells due to a poorly placed hill combined with an awkward viewing angle. Of course there is also the sheer necessity of grinding—one does not become a samurai without first becoming a talented Knight, Monk and Lancer—a.k.a. the Dragoon. There's also the small, insignificant detail that—for whatever reason—Square decided this would be the Final Fantasy game that did not use classic class titles. The Black Mage is a Wizard, the White Mage is a Priest, the Lancer is a Dragoon, the Black Belt is a Monk—this one has become a basically universal change; Monk is the more commonly associated class title at this point-and the Fighter or Warrior is a Knight. Actually, Knight/Warrior/Fighter seems to be an often interchanged title for these guys.

I think that's it. I loved the game, I have played it in my downtime quite a bit since finishing my 10 episodes of gameplay recordings. I haven't experienced more than 80% of my game list for 1998, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Tactics is going to land in my top 5, maybe even my #1. 

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