After the phenomenal commercial success of Final Fantasy VII, Square was able to do some experimenting with the RPG genre.
As part of that, they bought out some of the developers who worked on Ogre Battle and its sequel Tactics Ogre, and put them
to work on a new game called Final Fantasy Tactics. The idea was to combine the Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy series, putting
an emphasis on the gameplay of the former and the symbols of the latter. Wisely, Square opted to treat the game as exactly what
it was, a side experiment, and released it as a spinoff rather than as a full-fledged installment of the Final Fantasy series.
The result plays like Final Fantasy V in three dimensions. Instead of a single-screen battlefield, the action takes place on
large grids, like an early real-time strategy game. Unlike more recent strategy games, though, which are controlled via the
right mouse button, Final Fantasy Tactics is still menu-driven; the game pauses the action when you have to give orders to a
character. It's also turn-based, so you can always take your time and plan your moves out. As in Ogre Battle, your characters
have different "classes" that they can move between, except these particular classes are inspired by Final Fantasy. Essentially,
Final Fantasy Tactics recreates the Job system of Final Fantasy V: the classes break down more or less along the same lines,
and have many of the same abilities (Ninjas use two swords, Thieves are fast and can steal items, Monks can heal themselves
and fight with their fists, Black and White mages use different kinds of magic, and so on), with a few new additions to account
for the new environment (i.e. abilities allowing characters to scale heights or move farther in one turn).
This is a serviceable system, but it decreases in usefulness later on. See, along the way, you can get many "hero" characters
with special abilities. These characters can only use these abilities when in their original class, so if you change their
classes, they instantly get much less useful. Their original classes, furthermore, can be ridiculously powerful, especially
once you get Cidolfas Orlandu. This character has a huge amount of HP, the best sword in the game, the most powerful techniques
in the game, and is very fast. After he joins, you can tear through the rest of the game with ease. Of course, you can opt not
to use him if you are so inclined, and stick with your much less powerful regular characters. In that case, the game will become
very difficult. In fact, if you're looking for some challenge in your RPGs, Final Fantasy Tactics is ideal for you. Many stages
are extremely hard, depend on precise timing and planning, and can take more than a dozen tries. Even the random battles can get
that way. One time, I fought (and lost) a random battle against twenty Monks. The game throws lots of enemies at you, but doesn't
allow you to deploy more than five characters at a time, which eliminates much of the tactics from Final Fantasy Tactics.
The game's world is very rigid. Like in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, you can only move in set paths on the overworld map, from
one location to another. When you get to a battlefield, you fight; when you get to a town, you shop. There's not much exploration
involved, and so the game is unable to give many of these settings a unique character; the castles and towns all look very
similar. On the plus side, the game can create an illusion of size in cut scenes and battles by staging them in small areas of
the towns and castles in question; since it doesn't have to recreate the entire area, it can make the towns as big as it wants.
Some points on the map act as permanent battlefields, so that when you touch them, you can enter a random battle. This way, you
have a way to build up your characters outside of the story battles. This can get tedious, since there's no way that I know of
to avoid these battles, and the story often requires you to travel across the entire map.
Speaking of the story, it goes as follows: you're Ramza, a young nobleman, and you've stumbled across a big
conspiracy involving the powerful lords and the church, and as a result everyone wants you dead. It's more complicated than
that, though. Many other people are involved, like Delita, a former friend of yours who has decided to cast
his lot with the other side. It takes a while before you can even figure out who's on your side and who isn't, and in the
mean time, a whole bunch of characters decide to join your party. It's the material of an epic, but unfortunately, it's
killed by a dreadful script. The game's translation is pretty bad, and often incoherent (many gamers love to mock the inanity
of Professor Daravon's explanations of the game mechanics), but even when it makes sense, the writing is just execrable. This
is the sort of game where every sentence is delivered with exclamation points: "'Ramza! You did not tell me you were
with the Hokuten!' 'Agrias! I did not mean to deceive you!! I am with the Hokuten!!!' 'It's OK Ramza! I believe you!!!!'"
This exchange just instantly resolved what could have been an interesting conflict between characters, with a better script. And
by the way, there's a lot of ridiculous-ass names to keep track of. This game has characters named "Larg," "Dycedarg" and
"Zalbag," for crying out loud.
The sophomoric writing really bogs down what could have been an engrossing storyline; unfortunately, the dialogue is only
used to deliver plot points, and characters rarely calm down and talk without exclamation points. Vagrant Story has a somewhat
similar plot (in fact, some claim that Vagrant Story takes place in the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics), but it has
a flawless translation into Middle English and a sense of dramatic restraint. Final Fantasy Tactics, on the other hand, gets
completely nonsensical at times. For instance, someone known as "St. Ajora" is a key figure in the plot. At one point, you're
given a book about him, but the book doesn't really explain why he's so important, and since no one else ever talks about him,
it's completely bewildering that you should meet him at the end of the game.
Still, if you can get past these flaws, the game does rehash the Job system fairly well, so you can spend some quality time
building up your characters. There's a whole secret dungeon for you to send them to once you do that, so it'll even be rewarding.
There's also a subquest in which you can get Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII to join you. (Unfortunately, he's a pretty
crappy character in this game.) And, even despite the drawbacks, the plot does manage to create a sort of doomy atmosphere
now and again. The ending, in particular, is quite good, very ambiguous and sombre, in great contrast to most cookie-cutter
RPG endings. So, this game may be worth a shot, but if you're just looking for a "strategy RPG," I'd recommend Kartia instead,
which I have a renewed appreciation for after playing Final Fantasy Tactics.