Well, it's finally happened: Square is working with Nintendo again. Mind you, all the major Square titles are still being
released for the Sony PlayStation 2, and the Nintendo releases are mostly limited to some reissues of old games. But unlike
Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls, or the more recent Final Fantasy IV Advance, the vaguely named Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is
in fact not a remake of Final Fantasy Tactics, but a totally new game.
Of course, "new" might be too strong a word, since the game does borrow very heavily from its 1998 namesake on the PlayStation.
If you played that game, then the gameplay of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance should require very little time to learn. In almost all
major respects, it's absolutely identical. The battlefield is divided up into squares, and you send out up to six guys against
six to eight enemy guys. All characters have "jobs" that give them various abilities. You can teach these different abilities
to your characters, and you can carry over some of them from job to job, and that's how you play the game. Many of the abilities
are the same as in Final Fantasy Tactics, too. The one big difference is in how you learn the abilities: in Final Fantasy Tactics, any character could learn anything over enough time, as long as he had the right job selected, but here, abilities are learned from items, like in Final Fantasy IX, so you need both the right jobs and some rare items in order to learn and use the best abilities. This change, actually, introduces some challenge into the game, because all of the best abilities can only be learned from very rare items, which you can't buy in stores. Thus, if you want to build up a strong party, you have to steal from enemies, complete side-quests, and so forth.
The other major addition is the notion of "laws." Basically, in every battle, the computer gets to set up to three rules that you're not allowed to break. For instance, you may be prohibited from using long-range weapons, or black magic, or physical attacks. Some laws are worse than others, and breaking them can lead to negative status changes, monetary fines, or even the game-over screen. It's possible to get used to the laws, but it's a very irritating process. On the plus side, though, your characters are instantly revived after a battle most of the time, so usually you don't have to worry about rejuvenating fallen allies in three turns, which was a very common source of frustration in Final Fantasy Tactics. In general, this game is probably easier than the older game. Once you can get the Last Breath and Double Sword abilities, you can coast through almost all battles with no problem. Unfortunately, there aren't many unique classes and hero characters, which were present in abundance in the older game.
Despite the similarities in the gameplay, the plot has nothing in common with the story of Final Fantasy Tactics aside from the use of the place name "Ivalice." But even Ivalice is very different this time around. It's a much more colourful, fairy-tale-like place, where the
cities have vaguely Middle-Eastern-looking architecture, and the population is divided into five different races, including
humans, the dog-like "bangaa" (who are actually supposed to be lizard-like, I think), a race of girls with bunny ears called
"viera," the magic-using "nu mou," and good old moogles. This division even leads to a slight change in the gameplay: now the
jobs are strictly divided among the races, so only bangaa can become Dragoons, only humans, nu mou, and viera can be white
mages, only moogles can use guns, and so on.
To match this more colourful setting, the plot is considerably less serious than the story of Final Fantasy Tactics, which was full of dread and betrayal, not to mention a really ambiguous ending. In contrast, this game revolves around a bunch of young kids from a modern-looking, realistic world who get magically transplanted into the fantastic world of a video game. The main character wants to go home, but some of his friends from home don't. Therein lies most of the conflict. But actually, despite its simplicity, the plot is quite appealing. The main character is a nice enough fellow, quite modest and unpretentious, and it's interesting to see how his friends turn on him in the new world. There is no main villain as such; most of the initial antagonists end up on your side in the end, and after the final battle, everybody just sort of learns to get along. This is actually kind of original and fun. At least you don't have to save the universe.
This only goes so far, of course. The game has a ton of side-quests. Out of the 300 "missions" (similar to "propositions" in Final Fantasy Tactics, and given a much greater role here) in the game, only 24 are part of the main plot. The rest are all optional. Doing some of these missions is a very good way to get rare items, which let you learn the best abilities and make the game much easier. But once you've actually beaten the main game, there is very little reason to go on with the remaining optional missions. If you finish all 300 of them, you can do some more side-quests and even recruit some hero characters, but the thing is, it takes forever to get that far. You can't do all 300 of them at once, you have to complete them in sequence, and some of them are only available at certain times, and some of them take set amounts of time to complete, and it's just a really tedious task to unlock them all. Almost all of them have no bearing whatsoever on the plot of the game, and if you've already found the best items, there's just no incentive to persist.
Even more tedious are the random encounters, which constantly clog up the map and hamper you when you're moving from place to place. Final Fantasy Tactics had that too, and it was pretty tedious there as well. In this game, though, you can also complete certain missions that allow you to "free" certain locations on the map. This accomplishes absolutely nothing, other than making these locations get "attacked" at random times, whereupon you'll have to go to them and fight battles to "free" them. This is a real waste of time. The attacks tend to come in bursts, too, so you might be trying to complete a more interesting mission, when all of a sudden you find yourself having to contend with four or five "attacks" at the same time. These battles aren't hard, and they give you a bigger reward than random encounters, but they still seem to take forever.
The game moves pretty slowly, as well. This may have been acceptable for Final Fantasy Tactics, but this game is on a portable system, for crying out loud. It should be really fast-paced. Characters should be able to zip around the battlefield and attack quickly, much like they do in the GBA remake of Final Fantasy IV. I would understand if the gameplay was really captivating in and of itself, but unfortunately, it's not. There just isn't enough variety in the missions to sustain one's interest for 300 of them.
So, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance improves on its predecessor in some ways, but also retains many of the older game's weaknesses, and doesn't really introduce anything radically new. The plot is pretty good, and actually stands up pretty well next to the storyline of the older game (it helps that Final Fantasy Tactics had a really bad translation, which is definitely not a problem here), but there isn't enough substance in it to keep the gameplay interesting for a really long time.