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FINAL FANTASY TACTICS ADVANCE / Squaresoft / GBA
I'm an anarchist-leaning, freedom-loving, pro-non-coercive-but-still-cooperative-society sort of guy. Still, I don't like much of Web 2.0, and I truly hate the GameFAQs review section. It's a great illustration of why a *little* rational authority, hierarchy and enforcement of standards is a good thing here and there.
See, they let pretty much anybody write anything there. This being the case, it's almost inevitably a mess of incompetent, useless, headache-inducing reviews. There's less than ten user names I've seen on there that consistently seem to deliver thoughtful, intelligent reviews, and the rest is basically sugared-up kids spouting off idiotically, making the whole thing fundamentally just about worthless in evaluating the quality of a game. Reviews either tend to be mindless fanboyism ("10/10 THIS GAME IS A BREATHTAKING MASTERPIECE") or mindless vitriol ("2/10 WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING DONT BUY THIS CRAP"). I won't even get into the awful grammar, terrible parsing and formatting, incoherent organization of thoughts, complete lack of research, obsession over the superficial, and blatant factual mistakes/lies that have come to comprise the GameFAQs Standard of Quality.
So it goes with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The primary cause of vitriolic, irrational NERRRD RAAAAGE with this game? It didn't have a similar plot and setting to that of Final Fantasy Tactics. In case you're new, FF Tactics fused the incredibly boring quasi-medieval-European "political intrigue" of the Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre games with the heavy-handed religious commentary and hard-on for killing Jesus that Japanese RPG producers had a faddy streak of in the late 1990s, bringing it all to you with dialouge rendered almost totally incomprehensible by a terrible localization. Still, it somehow managed to pull through and be a good game, thanks to the strength of its gameplay engine, which FFTA actually polishes up and makes better in a number of ways. But you'll yet see plenty of 1,2,3,4/10s out of the GameFAQs Kiddie Crew because it didn't have the Matureness and Violents that they were expecting.
FFTA pretty much ignores everything that occurred in Ivalice in the previous game, which is wise, since no one in the English-speaking world probably ever had much idea what was happening anyway. Instead, it propels us into modern times in the Real World, where a group of outcast kids become friends and discover a magical Final Fantasy book that sucks them into a more family-friendly, Disneyfied version of Ivalice. Marche, the player-character of the story, eventually figures out he's been sucked into an alternate world created by the imagination of his friend Mewt, who is in possession of the magic book and who doesn't want to go back to the Real World where his mom is dead and his dad is a pathetic drunk. Marche is determined to get back to reality, however, in spite of the opposition of pretty much everyone else in the game to the idea, so the quest here is to track down five Crystals of Elements or whatever and smash 'em up in order to wipe Epcot Center Ivalice out of existence.
It's not a very good or original story, and though it actually has a few semi-emotional moments and interesting points here and there, it's pretty weak on the whole and the characters are for the most part underdeveloped and not very good. That was true of FFT also, however, the only difference being the Jesus-killing and the medieval-My-Liegeing replaced with Disney-esque Moogles and bunny women who fight it out under the watchful eye of omnipotent Judges who insert themselves into every fight to make sure nobody actually dies for reals. So you can't really criticize the story for taking a massive step downward - it's only really changed tone and setting.
What makes it worthwhile is the strategic depth and the raw amount of gameplay to be had here. This is a strategy-RPG for those who really appreciate the mechanics of strategy-RPGs. Unlike FFT, it is very difficult to make broken, beastly, godly characters. There are also no secret characters, or even any real plot-related characters who are Jacked And Stacked and who end up dominating the roster - your army largely consists of home-grown characters until you beat the game, at which time you can get a few uber characters as a bonus to take on the unlockable "expert missions" with.
The game accomplishes this via a number of means. The first is the new race/class system. There's five races in the game - human, Moogle, Viera (the bunny women), Nu Mou (some kind of donkey-dog-elephant thing) and Bangaa (lizard-men.) Each has roughly ten classes or so available to them, which are largely unique to each race. Like FFT, access to new classes involves mastering a certain amount of skills in the classes currently available, but the Job Points system is gone, and instead you learn abilities by equipping weapons and armor. There are a few jobs shared across classes - Human and Viera can both be Archers, and Black Mage is available to everyone but the Bangaa and Viera, for example - but most are unique, with unique abilities. The Bangaa tend to get tough, physical fighter classes, the Moogles get a lot of gimmicky shit, the Viera are speedy fencers and archers, the Nu Mou focus almost totally on magic use, and the Humans get a little bit of everything to work with.
The second important factor is the Law system. Each battle is presided over by a chocobo-riding Judge who enforces the current Laws, which prohibit the use of some ability or another. At the beginning of the game there's only one Law per battle (they rotate on a fixed schedule according to the game's yearly calendar, and can be planned for ahead of time), but as the plot progresses you'll eventually have two and ultimately three in play at a time. If you use an outlawed ability to land a hit, you get a "yellow card", for which you are assessed some sort of penalty at the end of the battle (becomes harsher as you accumulate transgressions - at first you might lose a cheap piece of equipment, but regular hooligans soon get hit with permanent downgrades to their statistics.) Also, get two yellow cards in one battle, or land a fatal blow on a foe with an outlawed ability, and you "Go To Prison!" - the character is teleported out of the battle immediately and stripped of their equipment, to await you to either come bail them out, or let them serve their "sentence" of two or three battles before being released free of charge. About midway through the game (when the Laws in play are upped from one to two) the concept of Anti-Law Cards is introduced, which helps ease the burden of Laws a bit. These cards can either nullify a Law currently in play, or add a new Law to a battle (to tactically remove an ability a foe might be strong in.)
The Law system seems like it might bog the game down, but for the most part it doesn't, because you can see potentially crippling Laws coming from a long way off, and in a pinch can just use an Anti-Law to do away with one. What it does do is force you to both field a diverse army and think strategically, however. You can't just load up the same six characters in the Best Classes over and over again, because if you hit a battle that outlaws Fighting or Color Magic when you rely on those, you're basically effed. It doesn't wholly prevent you from fielding a broken army, but it helps to make it a whole lot tougher to manage to do it.
You also have to raise just about all of your own characters from scratch, which means you have to pay attention to what they are equipped with and how they are progressing. This is where lazy gamers who are used to the standard of button-mashing Final Fantasy battles will likely roll off the train, but those who enjoy building their armies carefully in games like Ogre Battle will really appreciate the depth and balance. The enemies tend to be about the average level of all your forces, so unless you game the system, you're usually up against a fairly even battle each time out. Now, the computer is kind of dumb, which skews things in your favor, but they progress and learn unique class and ability combinations as you go forward, which also keeps you on your toes. Between the Laws, the diversity of types of foes sometimes pulling unexpected tricks out of their bags, and the generally at least modest caliber of the opposition in terms of levels and stats, the game forces you to actually engage your brain and think in a chess-like manner much of the time.
The game plays faster and smoother than the Tactics Ogre game on the GBA, and doesn't have the perma-death stress of the Fire Emblem games hanging over your head - I think there was only one battle in the game that was mandatory where characters could be permanently killed (there's several other optional ones.) Win or lose, characters in a battle with a Judge present (which is like 95% of them over the course of the game) all automatically come back to life at full health at the end of every scrap, and losing the vast majority of missions means you just have to dust yourself off and try again. It also looks about as good as you can expect for a GBA strategy game with this much going on, and the music is passably good as well. It does lag a bit when you have twelve characters present in a battle all standing in the same general area.
If you don't really care about the story and just want a very consistent and solid strategy-RPG with good character creation and growth, this game is a great pickup, but it isn't total sunshine and roses. Aside from problems already mentioned, there are a number of little niggles keeping it from a top rating. The game touts 300 missions, but something like 150 to 200 of them are "dispatch" missions, which are similar to the ones in FFT where you just send one character off by themselves to automatically win or lose off-screen after a certain amount of days. As there's about zero gameplay involved in those, the advertising seems a little deceptive, but even with <100 actual playable missions, there's still shit tons of fighting between defending territory you've liberated, engaging with random roaming clans for EXP, and doing replayable missions for extra items and experience. Plus, there's the Link cable option, which is fairly robust here, opening up unique missions and items as well as offering both co-op and competitive play between two people.
The game also has a rather sloppy system of menus, particularly when it comes to lists of things, like your inventory and available missions. There's no options to sort these things, and there's literally hundreds by the end of the game, forcing you to scroll down a linear list every time you want to find something. A few of the Laws and abilities could have stood to have been booted from the game, too. A lot of missions require that you fight nothing but monsters, but there's actually a Law that can come up that prevents damage to monsters, forcing you to surrender and auto-fail if you can't nullify it when it happens to pop up. The distinctions between Sabers and Knightswords and Greatswords are unclear and not always denoted in the inventory screens, so when one is banned, you might just end up keeping out all your sword-swingers to be safe. Also, claws count as a "blade"? Seriously? Oh, and there's archer/sniper abilities called "Break Armor" and "Break Weapon" that are abused by the computer during certain battles later in the game to drive you mad by irrevocably shattering your rare weapons that can't be replaced and that imparted abilities you can only get from those weapons. That shit should just not be in the game to begin with.
In spite of all these little things the game holds up well as a strat-RPG and I think fans of the genre will appreciate the actual need to strategize, field a varied army and switch up your tactics regularly rather than just bulldozing through with Rain Strife and a complement of the Uber Abilities. The game might be a little much to manage for those not already initiated to the genre, though.
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