Final Fantasy Tactics is what we’d call, nowadays, a “Strategy Role-Playing Game” in the Japanese vein. Basically, you use various units (here, depicted as people) with various abilities to achieve certain objectives on a battlefield. Tactics takes a turn-based approach similar to Matsuno’s Tactics Ogre, except mightily improved from that game’s clunkiness (I’m talking about the original, which received a horrible translation/release in the United States; the remake is an improvement on Tactics’ methodology). These can range from “defeat all enemies” to “save a particular person”, but much of the game boils down to combat segments with huge bits of story tucked in between. In that sense, Tactics’ story isn’t integrated much into the narrative so much as it represents the culmination of particular story events. Some battles exist just for the player’s enjoyment in figuring out, as the name of the game would imply, tactics.
Each battle takes place on a map made of individual tiles; although the game shows everything in an isometric perspective, it’s really a top-down board game with height and depth rules for the placement of units. This is difficult to convey in text, so watch this:
These events, supposedly, happen in real-time; it’s a micromanagement microcosm of what would actually happen in a minor skirmish. You’ll see that, like a traditional Japanese RPG, you get various party members with various abilities. Tactics uses a variation of Final Fantasy III/V’s job system, which allows for depth and variety in combat situations. You get the common stereotypes: a Knight here, a Black Mage there. Some classes only have situational use, such as the Orator (who can talk enemies into joining your party) or the Oracle who both inflict status ailments. These, unlike in most Final Fantasy games, have use because an incapacitated enemy can’t get into range, now can he? Others represent new and improved tactical oppotrtunities by giving reaction abilities (such as automatic potions on hit), passive abilities (preventing any gear from breaking) or movement aids (teleportation). These, and other class abilities, work freely among all the classes as long as you learn them from the primary job. The class’ ability slot is set, obviously, but secondary abilities and the like stay open. This allows, say, a Ninja with Bushido abilities, or a Summoner who can also cast Time Magic. There’s an infinite variety to how you can configure your class to suit your strategic preferences. Of course, some strategies work better than others, but that’s true of all games.
Knowledge of the field and the height/depth of a particular tile makes battles infinitely easier. Hiding behind a wall and casting a spell on an Archer who only has a crossbow, for example, means that their weapon doesn’t have the range nor the means to react. If they have a longbow, though, the arc will make your caster vulnerable. Knowing the CT system also helps; there’s a certain turn order, determined by a unit’s stats, that shows when they will perform a commanded action. A unit’s CT changing depending on whether they moved, to what place they moved, and what ability/spell they’re casting. All of this information is readily available, and isn’t hidden from the player. Knowing when enemies will attack and when they’ll move means an educated guess could spell the difference between victory and defeat. The developers, obviously, want you to think about your movements, especially in the early going.
Rather than giving a straight tutorial, the game introduces these various elements without annoying dialogue boxes or fanfare. With a limited ability set, the first battle of the game only gives you access to one unit to familarize yourself with the controls and the flow of the game whilst AI players show how battle progress. The second battle gives you control of a full complement of units, but only two classes. By forcing the player to use a limited tool set with the same tactical mindset as they just saw previous, it actually teaches the player effective tactics. Don’t rush into the fray or you’ll be surrounded; never expose your backside, as your ability to dodge melee attacks is reduced; protect your healers and put melee units in front of them if possible. These are true of all games, sure, but Tactics doesn’t need to tell you this information; they show you. It’s an excellent introduction, and I’m surprised more games don’t teach the player so elegantly. Each battle will, in success or failure, teach you new things about the game, and that’s pretty remarkable.
However, it’s up to the player to utilize or ignore the various options given therein. Like Matsuno’s previous games (though to a much more focused degree), there’s a certain freedom to the combat system. The game doesn’t straightjacket players into particular class roles, and you can make Ramza a master fighter or caster by game’s end. That could turn out to be a problem, especially in certain segments that don’t allow you to escape to the world map (Riovanes Castle is especially brutal in this regard). Some battles assume Ramza becomes a warrior, which doesn’t bode well for a cloth-wearing caster. This niggling design choices always struck me as odd, but I’ve never used Ramza in that fashion so it was never a problem. Not that it isn’t possible to succeed, just very difficult.
Furthermore, in the vein of a Final Fantasy game, grinding your problems away detracts from the overall experience. Surely, this will allow any player to reach the end of the game, but that would require an absurd amount of time wasted when a innovative strategy would suit the situation. This, to me, seems the deterrent to grinding; even though story-line battles remain fixed in level, an under-leveled party can win if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. That isn’t true in most Final Fantasy games, and this is a refreshing change. To be frank, the Final Fantasy moniker only serves to make the game sell more copies than it would have otherwise; it’s a unique experience in and of itself.
However, too much freedom causes the game’s mechanics to break and strain at the seams. For all intents and purposes, the abilities of the Calculator/Arithmetician (depends on what version) breaks the game utterly and without question. “CT 5 Holy” became a pretty familiar strategy for just about every purpose and every battle. To explain, a Calculator has bad stats, but his skills allow him to cast spells from other classes with no cost based on particular variables and multiples. You can use, for example, Level 3; this will cast the spell on any unit that has a multiple of three (that’s just an example, not an actual ability). You use the calculations going on behind the game to your advantage. So, take this powerful ability set, mix it with a caster with great stats (like a Summoner, say) and you’ve got a powerful unit. The most powerful of these is, obviously, CT 5, because every unit that hasn’t taken a turn will have a CT that is a multiple of 100 – hence, you can cast either Flare or Holy, the most powerful single-target spells in the game, on every unit. Now, we use Holy because some items in the game absorb Holy damage; Flare doesn’t have that luxury. Hence, you can literally destroy every enemy on the field and heal every unit to full with one ability. Some units will live, but it’s simply a clean-up job from there. Then you can cast it again (no cost, remember) This won’t work with every battle, but it does work with LOTS of them toward the end of the game. For even more fun, get a bunch of Mimes to Mimic the ability, then go get a cup of coffee; the game runs on auto-pilot. Enemies can’t move fast enough, nor can they change their equipment to suit your strategy – thus, they die. Bosses remain just as vulnerable if you cast CT 5 Demi 2. Demi 2 deals 50% of an enemies total health pool; you can see how that would work, but that requires some more finesse and gear finagling to prevent your own death.
It’s unfortunate that such seemingly obvious game breaker exists, and that you can stumble upon it so easily. That the game gives you “special” character classes (like Orlandeau, who has all the free ranged sword skills AND a sword that gives Haste – supremely broken) amplifies this as well, even if you didn’t find CT 5 Holy. I am not sure why Matsuno would put this in the game, seeing as Ogre Battle doesn’t ever provide a be-all, end-all strategy to its real-time combat. Still, this is part of the fun: to find tactics that work, and work well. I personally avoided this on my first playthrough long, long ago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It seems, then, that the game allows you to make these decisions on your own. The story will always proceed in the same fashion, and the characters you get will always have the same classes, but the player retains all the decision making prowess in battles. Heck, there’s PLENTY of people on the Internet who have completed the game with ONE CHARACTER or some other insane variation. The mechanics allow this to be successful even without grinding. That’s good game design, I’d wager. Challenge for those who want challenge, and story for those who want story (thus, grinding) equals a perfect combination.
Would it be better if someone rebalanced the game? Honestly, I’m not sure. The experience wasn’t designed for specific use of Job Points (which you use to buy abilities as you gain experience), nor does it require a mind for mastery of the system’s mechanics. Because most JP use is permanent (unlike in, say, other strategy games), reloading a save to reconfigure seems tedious and unecessary. In the same way that Dark Souls doesn’t need an “easy” difficulty level (contrary to this article), I find that Tactics doesn’t need additional difficulty either way. Improvements to the AI, however, would help immensely; they’re not always as smart as you’d like, replacing brains with brawn. They do take advantage of bad unit placement, though, and their added strength brings swift punishment (again, Riovanes Castle boss battles!). Still, some areas just make you laugh at how easy the game becomes toward its conclusion.
That’s all in the retrospective analysis. When I played as a child, I was equally enthralled and utterly frustrated at the same time. I persevered, felt shock at what was happening onscreen, and thoroughly enjoyed slaying everything with Ninjas and Samurai (which are both pretty powerful). It’s pretty satisfying to use Orlandeau, regardless of how powerful he is; you can’t send him into the fray without support, after all. The lack of knowledge on my part allowed me to gain new abilities and figure out how everything worked. The art design made the game attractive, while the mechanics sucked me into the story, even as the aesthetics made the blood and gore more abstract than they would be otherwise. The abstraction, however, works to its advantage by allowing anyone, and everyone, to understand what is happening. Even as a complex history unfolds before the player’s eyes, the conveyance of its mechanics and the striking nature of each important character’s design allows us to keep track of everything (bad translations not withstanding).
This makes sense to a child’s mind; they are allowed to engage on the level of the game’s appearance and its rules. Think of it the way Paul does:
11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
This isn’t to assume Paul is condemning children or anything of the sort; 1 Corinthians 13 uses the example as a metaphor for the incomplete nature of spiritual gifts. At some point, love will overwhelm all, but we now only see through a glass darkly. We only can see things through spiritual eyes because of Christ, and even then only what God wants us to know. This is very interesting when you consider that Paul calls Christians the “children of God”, Jesus as “God’s son”, and that we are now “co-heirs” with Christ. What do with make of all this? What we are, in a spiritual sense, is children. Children have minds, not yet fully developed, but able to comprehend what is going on if the information is presented in a way that makes sense. To treat them as lesser beings, or with little respect, isn’t right (as we saw earlier), but to give them a philosophical treatise on why God loves them, or why good people do bad things, isn’t helpful.
That’s why, in my view, the Bible exists, and why the Bible was originally contained in oral tradition – anyone can understand the love of God in this fashion. It’s the same reason why, at the Passover Seder, the Jewish children recite the traditional questions: to get them involved and to make them understand what God did for the chosen people in an interactive and fun manner. By analogy, that’s why you are God’s child, rather than God’s adult friend: we only see the imperfect, not the perfect.
Perhaps this, then, shows us why Final Fantasy Tactics was so effective: it reflect this method throughout by pushing reality into unreality. It’s realistic, yet childish. It’s complex, but easy enough for a child to understand. That’s a valuable tip for any game designer to emulate.