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March 25, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Final Fantasy Tactics

I can still remember the first time I discussed Final Fantasy Tactics with my colleagues at LucasArts. Chris Corry, lead programmer on Star Wars: Starfighter, had gone to a GameStop or similar to purchase some older PS1 games for our new PS2s, which had been given us by the company for Christmas. He had picked out Final Fantasy Tactics on the recommendation of Andrew Kirmse, and when he got it up to the register the young clerk tried to warn him off of it¹, saying, "Dude, you might not want that one. It's like... chess."

We had a good laugh at that, because this young guy completely misread his customer; why should we be concerned that a video game evokes one of the deepest Western board game experiences? Indeed, this was a selling point. Of course, the game is only like chess in its tactical battle aesthetic; the whole experience is quite something else, and I'll get to that presently.

I don't know why I never got very far with Final Fantasy Tactics when I first started playing it, a dozen years or so ago. When I looked on the memory card for saves this time, I discovered an 8th level character save, which likely represented fewer than ten hours in the game, though I didn't check. I blew it away and started from scratch.

The genre, for those not in the know, is generally referred to as the "tactical RPG" or "strategy RPG" and this particular entry was preceded by games like Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, as well as many others (Fire Emblem, which continues to this day, is also well-known and dates back at least to the SNES and perhaps the NES, as are the Disgaea games, which launched in the PS2 era). There's a storyline and characters which accompany the role-playing choices of different character types and builds; combat is resolved in turn-based tactical grids.

A dizzying array of choices faces the player of Final Fantasy Tactics, which distinguishes it quite substantially from chess, though indeed any individual tactical battle is chess-like, because during battle, the capabilities of each combatant are fixed -- varied, certainly, but fixed for the course of that single combat. However, it differs substantially from chess in that its central focus is not so much on the fight for control of certain space on the board but for the elimination of the entirety of the opposing set of pieces. Though there are occasional story battles in which one character is the goal of the combat, and in these cases defeating that single combatant wins the round, in most cases there is no enemy "king".

Instead, the focus of the game is really on the development of certain capabilities, drawn from RPG commonplaces such as healing, melee combat, ranged combat, summonings, elemental magics, and the like. As the player uses his the capabilities of his pieces on the board to defeat other pieces on the board, the pieces gain strength and additional capabilities.

At the heart of this is the "job" system, whereby individual pieces can be extended into different classes of character and thereby different capabilities in tactical combat. Various jobs require certain levels of other jobs to be available to that character; interestingly, the space of available options to the player is unknown at the outset, and jobs must be discovered by moving about in this space, trying on different jobs and leveling them enough to unlock others. When I ended the game, my stable of pieces was almost entirely in jobs of which I was unaware when I started playing. The game therefore marries a core tactical component with a substantial exploration mechanic, which is certainly one of its strengths.

The accompanying weakness, however, is that pursuing various jobs and capabilities through "grinding" combats thins out the pleasure of overcoming its more difficult story missions. At various points, the game can be moved further towards its greater difficulties by engaging in special story combats, which typically involve greater challenge against pieces with superior skills or gear to those available to the player. However, it's almost always the case that these are too difficult to surmount when initially encountered, and so the player must spend time wandering about drawing random encounters to level up his pieces. These randomly generated combats rarely contain much of interest, as the pieces fought are intentionally weaker to permit such grinding.

So, in the end, it's much less like chess and much more of an exploration of a wide possibility space that influences individual bouts. One distinguishing characteristic of chess is that players can be ranked against one another fairly straightforwardly, by direct play over a number of matches. But it's impossible to say with any certainty what makes a "good" player of Final Fantasy Tactics; although I've just finished the game, I frequently found myself making tactical errors even into the final battles, the last set of which I had to make a run at three or four times.²

I loved playing the game, though at a certain point I had to completely turn off my brain when it came to the story-line, which sought after the pleasures of political intrigue and couldn't remotely deliver. The final cutscenes try to resolve how it is we came to learn this story -- the writings of a character within the story who was burned at the stake, we learn, as a result of telling us all this -- and we also are treated to a view of a homicide whereby one of the characters we spent time journeying with kills another. It was a bizarre way to end the story, and I suspect they were ham-handedly seeking a depth of meaning they simply couldn't achieve. Story aside, I'm completely happy with having gone back and played through this; the aesthetic of exploring a vast possibility space and applying those skills one finds to various challenges is a terrific one.

¹This was in a time when you could go to a GameStop or Electronics Boutique and get an actual opinion of a game, not a constant upsell, or quest for pre-orders, or a suggestion that you buy the used copy and save yourself a few bucks. These are the reasons I no longer go to these stores, though even if they weren't so obnoxious the convenience of Amazon Prime would likely still win.

²In many cases in the story battles, one battle will immediately follow the other, allowing the player to save between them. Games have definitely gotten easier on this point -- had I simply saved into a single save slot, I would have quickly reached an impasse where I'd be unable to win the next battle, but would also have been unable to move back to a point where I could grind to improve my scores. Game design has thankfully evolved away from such mistakes... had I sunk thirty or forty hours into the game and found myself unable to finish it, I think I would have snapped the disc in half.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)