Sunday, 16 June 2013

Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX)

Final Fantasy Tactics PlayStation Title screen
Here's another obscure cult Japanese RPG I'm sure you've probably never heard of, released for a classic CD based Sony console called the 'PlayStation'.

Final Fantasy Tactics was released a mere six months after Final Fantasy VII in the US and Japan, but took a little longer to reach Europe. Like, a decade longer. A strange decision perhaps considering how much cash FFVII was raking in at the time, but I'm sure they had their reasons.

Final Fantasy Tactics is more complicated and strategic than the average Final Fantasy game, so I thought it'd be a good idea for me to dive into the tutorial first instead and educate myself on how to play it.

This was a mistake.

I mean sure it seems to be a very in-depth tutorial that goes over every aspect of the game systems and menus, but that's exactly it's problem. It's a massive infodump and right now I don't have the context to understand how to use any of this information, so my brain refuses to take a word of it in. They may as well have left it in Japanese, I'd have learned just as much from it.

Yeah, I think I'll just skip the rest of this and go straight to the game instead. I mean I'm sure I'll be able to figure things out as I go. Probably.

Hey the game has a rendered CGI intro video, I'm honestly surprised (for some reason). These five chocobo riders gallop through fields and forests up to the doors of a church and... that's pretty much all that happens.

Our narrator explains that he is Alazlam, a scholar of ancient Ivalice history, and that he has uncovered information that sheds new light on the famous "Lion War" that once tore the kingdom in two. Everyone knows of course the role that the young hero Delita had in ending the war, but a recently released documents claim that a man named Ramza may have been the true hero.

Well this is all very interesting Alazlam I'm sure, but I don't see how this could have possibly threatened the world with total destruction. Also where are the crystals? The evil dark empires? The prophesied warriors of legend? How can this be a Final Fantasy game with a story so downright sensible?

Once the chocobo riders finally reach the church, things inside get a bit more... low polygon.

It's a bit surprising to me that Square went back to sprites for the characters so soon after going full 3D with FFVII, but the look works for it I reckon. These little isometic pixel people are very well animated and expressive, and the portraits look fantastic. In fact the artwork is so impressive that I almost hate to be the one to point out that, well, they forgot to give them noses.

Final Fantasy Tactic portraits noses
Not the best edit in the world, but I think they look a little more human this way. Plus they now have the sense of smell, which is generally a good thing I reckon. Unless there's a sewer level coming up.

Anyway, our chocobo riding mercenaries have arrived to guard Princess Ovelia, and just in the nick of time too as a group of Prince Goltana's men have arrived to capture her. I've gotta admit, I'm finding it hard to keep track of all these names and factions getting thrown my way, but I'm still finding the story more interesting then the average FF game so far.

Uh, why's everyone walking on the spot like NPCs from a NES game? Never mind, I'll let them stretch their legs for a bit first if they need it so badly, and then we'll go defend the Princess!

Battles play out on this isometric square of real-time 3D polygon land, where I get to move a selected character once and take a single action each turn, though not necessarily in that order. Each unit gets their own individual turn instead of the player getting to move their entire force each round, and weirdly Ramza's the only character not computer controlled in this fight, so I have to sit and wait for everyone else to make their move every time I'm done.

Straight away I'm awarding the game 50,000 bonus points for letting me switch the diagonal orientation of the cursor movement. It defaults to up on the d-pad moving the cursor diagonally up+right, but I'm more comfortable with it mapped to up+left, so that's one crisis resolved thanks to the miracle of options.

You know, I've just figured this level out. Characters are running around using special abilities, healing allies with potions, resurrecting fallen heroes... it's a tutorial battle! I'm supposed to be watching how it's done, so when it's my time to give the orders I already understand the basics.

Final Fantasy Tactics Delita blame yourself or god screenshot
But while my team was busy in front of the church, a mysterious knight has crept inside through the back door and swiped our Princess! What an asshole.

The PSP port of the game has a cool cel-shaded cutscene video here with voice acting and a new translation, trading some of the charm in exchange for dialogue that makes more sense. Otherwise the game seems pretty similar.

Ramza arrives just in time to catch a glimpse of the fleeing kidnapper and realise that it's his old buddy Delita! (You know, the supposed hero of the Lion War mentioned in the narration). Not only is he apparently working for Prince Goltana now, but he's also alive (and was presumed not to be!) Such a shocking revelation means that we need put this plot on hold for a while to set up some backstory.

Great, now I need to keep playing at least long enough to finish the flashback and catch up to the event of the intro.

Cut to: Gariland Military Academy auditorium, a year before the Lion War. Ramza and Delita have been studying here as cadets, but today they have a proper mission. A 'gang of tortured thieves' is trying to sneak into town, and the cadets been tasked with ending their immoral operation via the surgical removal of their life.

First though I get to choose a team. Only five people though, including my hero, which seems a little low for a game like this (but then what do I know about games like this?)

Also they've made it really easy to accidentally march Ramza out in battle alone. If I hadn't noticed the 'L1' 'R1' icons at the top I wouldn't have even realised that I had other characters to deploy here.

Alright, the first fight where my decisions actually matter! Nice looking place for it. Good music too (youtube link).

Most of the enemy units have already had their turn to move, but no matter, that's just put them in range for me to claim first blood. I'm controlling Ramza right now and the blue squares mark my range. If I send him up onto the roof of that house next to the thief I'll be able to slice her up with a melee attack.

The number on the top right indicates the amount of hours it'll take for me to get there. Or more likely it's the height of my destination tile, I dunno, I skipped the tutorial.

Once I'm at my destination I can either 'Wait', 'Attack' or 'Guts'. Guts brings up Ramza's special moves list, but all he's got right now is a skill that heals people at the cost his own health, which is pretty much the opposite of useful right now. I think I'll just stick to stabbing this time around.

Selecting attack brings up another window showing me the enemy's current stats (34hp), how much health my move is likely to take off (20hp), and the chance of it connecting (95%). They sound like reasonable numbers to me, I'll do it.


A FEW TURNS LATER.


I'm winning (I think), but I'm not liking these numbers appearing in red speech bubbles above the corpses. Especially as one of them is floating over a Squire on my team called Tracy and I've got no phoenix down to bring her back. But I've got a pair of Chemists (medics) running around literally throwing potions at the wounded and keeping the rest of my team on their feet, so if I can keep this up I think I'm in with a chance of ending this before Tracy's timer runs out.

Mission complete! The thieves are defeated and I'm free to march onwards along the road to Igros Castle. It seems that this map is the only place I'm able to walk around freely outside of battles, travelling from dot to dot.

Hey I just noticed it's Jan 1st, New Year's Day. Interesting how Ivalice uses the Gregorian Calendar despite being a make-believe fantasy world. Actually I'm lying, it's not interesting at all really.

But before I go boldly into the unknown, I think I'll hang around the Magical City of Gariland a little long and purchase some supplies. The 'Fitting room' opinion is pretty awesome, as it automatically selects the optimal gear for a character from the shop's stock. Though comparing weapons is still pretty straightforward without it. In fact this is probably the best shop screen I've seen in a Final Fantasy game so far, I'm impressed.

Alright enough shopping, time to check out the pub. They've no doubt heard some good rumours down there.

Uh, mate, that's not a rumour, that's a history lesson. This goes on for a pages and pages as well. If I wanted to know any of this I'd look in the convenient in-game encyclopaedia.

Oh by the way, pressing 'select' on basically anything in the game brings up a text box explaining what it is and what it does. It's a fantastic interface really, especially for people too impatient for tutorials (or manuals).

Tracy lives! I was worried that I'd lost her in that last fight, but we apparently killed the thieves in the nick of time.

Also look at this, I get to switch the class of any of my characters as often as I like with no obvious penalty, Final Fantasy 3/5 style! There's some classic FF designs in there too, though I don't like how Black Mage has been renamed to wizard. That shit just ain't right.

And to conclude my long drawn out impersonation of the game's tutorial, I'll just mention how the jobs seem to work. Actions successfully carried out in battle earn job points and experience. So a Chemist class will earn Chemist points for instance. These can then be spent after the battle on skills belonging to that class, which in the Chemist's case would be potion skills.

You know, I'm not entirely sure what I think about having to unlock the ability to use phoenix down items and it being a class skill. I get the feeling that I'm not liking it much at all though.

I only managed a few steps down the road before I was thrown into another story battle, with Ramza heroically throwing his team into danger to rescue a man called Algus who was being harassed by the Death Corps. It actually went pretty well for us, but now we've been tasked with rescuing the Marquis as well.

There really is a surprising amount of animation for these characters, for instance here Algus has just reached over to grab Ramza's little pixel hand. It's just a shame it's spoiled a little by the way the characters still endlessly wave their arms and legs around during battles. C'mon guys, Final Fantasy VI's characters figured out how to stand still three years ago, I'm sure you could do it if you tried.


LATER.


Same place, different battle. This time I got dragged here by a random encounter as I was passing through. There's no way to run so I've got to kill these chocobos to continue. Somehow I don't see it being a problem though (mainly because they're oversized chickens and we have swords).

Well okay Tracy's already near death, but that's nothing new. She's spent the last few turns of every fight so far laying face down in the dirt and changing her to the Knight class doesn't seem to have helped at all. If anything it's made things worse.


SOON.


Shit, this all fell apart fast. Those damn chocobos can continually heal themselves and groups of enemies, so they're surprisingly hard to kill. Still, there's always hope... or at least there was until Fordham's corpse ran out of turns and transformed into a crystal. That's it for him now, he's dead. Permanently.

Which means there's no point in me continuing to play really, as whoever I replace him with will be weaker and my team will do even worse next time. I suppose I should reset now and load the last save.

Man, wiped out by the very first random battle. I'm so crap at this game.


EVENTUALLY.


Okay this time I made it through without triggering the random battle, so I've got a nice normal story fight to play instead. We're here in the slums of Dorter looking for clues to the location of the kidnapped Marquis. Well I mean we're here to beat clues out of people, and these folks have just volunteered.

In the immortal words of war hero Ramza Beoulve: "I guess we must fight. Eaaagggghh!!"


A COUPLE OF TURNS LATER.


I'm having a little trouble with this guy on the roof. It seems that he's an archer with a massive range, and a skill that lets him supercharge his shots, which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage because I have no range. I don't know whether to rush at him and take him out quickly or just get the hell out of his way and hope that the computer controlled Delita and Algus team can take care of him.

Damn, wherever I go I'm getting hammered by ranged attacks! Algus was destroyed by a charged arrow, and Ramza was just targeted by a pair of mages. 37 damage, then 28 on the second shot, meaning they easily took off all his health in single barrage.

Still, I've taught my Chemist the phoenix down skill, so as long as she's still around there's hope. Those mages have to run out of MP eventually, right?

My Chemist, they blew up my Chemist! Well now I am truly fucked, this is a total massacre. It doesn't seem like I stand a chance against these ranged enemies with my melee combat team.

Haha, wow. One of my dudes was targeted by a mage, but his spell required a few turns to charge before he could fire it at me, so it seemed that I had a chance to run out of the way. But it turns out he cast the spell at the character, not the place he was standing, so when I moved the targeted character up to stand next to his attacker, the dumb wizard ended up in his own blast radius and blew himself up!

One mage down, one left. I think I can still win this, as long as my computer controlled sidekick Delita is competent enough to bring the fight to them instead of running away and wasting my last few turns.

Delita you traitorous bastard! You cowardly turncoat! You deceitful dumbfuck! He went and hid as one by one my characters turned to crystal. Game over.

Final Fantasy Tactics playstation game over screenshot
So that's 4 wins and 2 losses so far, but damn were they losses. Plus I can't exactly call any of my wins a resounding success, as poor Tracy always came home on a stretcher. It's pretty clear that even though I may have learned the basic rules, I'm a long way from learning the game.

And now I get to go through the Squaresoft logo, the title screen, the load game screen, the map screen and eventually the unskippable level cutscene again. Failure would probably be more bearable if it didn't take so long to get back into the game. Being kicked back to the title after losing a battle isn't exactly saying 'don't worry, just pick yourself up and try again' to me. More like 'yeah, why don't you go fuck off and play Quake some more, or something else that doesn't involve having to actually think. You're a goddamn embarrassment to me'.

Alright, I've given this a little thought and I think I've come up with a tactic that'll work on this Dorter Slums level: I'm going off to the woods and I'm going to mindlessly grind for levels until I am unstoppable. That way I can drag the difficulty curve down to a point where I can comfortably climb on board, and my unfair advantage should be cancelled out naturally as I progress through the game so it won't ruin thing for me in the long run.

Now I just have to figure out how to win the random battles.


SOME FIGHTS LATER.


Aww crap, they're doing the Choco Cure thing again! This doesn't seem to ever run out either. They can just keep healing themselves and everyone around them, every turn, forever.

Also I've learned another fun fact about the game: there's level scaling. Yep, as I'm marginally improving my team's stats to give myself a fighting chance despite my ignorance and lack of talent, the enemies are improving too. I'm getting the feeling the developers didn't want people to grind.

I've figured out that you have to level up the classes you have to unlock new classes, and you have to do it for each character individually. A small percentage of job experience spills across to the other characters during a fight, so I want to get someone to be... a Geomancer for instance, they've gotta spend some time as a Monk, or a whole lot of time around one.

And this is a game with permadeath. You can lose a character permanently and then have to level up their replacement from scratch. Well I'm presuming it'd be from scratch anyway, but I wouldn't know, because I'm not going to let anyone get killed! That'd be crazy.

Also I've finally noticed that there's multiple pages of job skills for different categories (actions, counters, movement skills etc.) Each character gets to use one ability from each of those four categories alongside their current class ability, so I've got a Time Mage here with the basic skills of a Squire and the counter ability from a Monk to go with his time magic.

I'd say it was a great system, except for one tiny little issue: Use Item is an ability. So if I want my character to ever heal themselves with a potion, or resurrect someone with a phoenix down, I need to waste a slot. I mean it's arguably a good idea as far as game design goes, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.


MANY LEVEL UPS LATER, BACK IN THE ACCURSED SLUMS OF DORTER.


Oh shit, I don't believe this! This story map didn't level scale with me like the random battles do, and yet these mages are STILL wiping out my characters in just one or two hits. Fortunately I made sure to give everyone the Item ability so they can all bring each other back this time. Plus I have another trick up my sleeve, a scheme I came up with back in the forest...

Here's a new ability I learned for Ramza called 'Yell'. All it does is raise Ramza's speed up by 1, so that he can take his next turn just a little sooner, plus of course get some job points and experience for completing an action. And then on his next turn, I use it again. And again. And again. Until Ramza is the only character on the board who CAN take turns; everyone else is basically frozen in time compared to him.

Then I start bring my other characters up to speed as well, one yell at a time.

This is incredibly unbelievably tedious to me, and yet far more preferable than the idea of having to play this battle again from the start because I fucked up, for some reason. Possibly because I'm able to watch TV while doing it.

Anyway against all the odds, my unstoppable team managed to defeat the frozen enemies, and we all went home to Igros castle to have a party. Unfortunately the Death Corps beat us to it and have kidnapped Delita's sister! I suppose this must be the tragic event that eventually sets him on the path of capturing Princesses himself. The tragic cycle of kidnapping.

Oh right this is still a flashback isn't it? I really need to get back to the present day already so I can stop taking screenshots.

My team immediately raced around the world map on kidnappers' trail, and were fortunate enough to catch up to them in the nick of time! The nick of time to watch My buddy Algus shoot Delita's sister dead with a crossbow that is. Why did he kill her? Simply because Ramza's brother Zalbag told him to. Plus she was a commoner, and he's a noble, and in his eyes the aristocracy is apparently born with the right to shoot innocent people with crossbows. I think Algus is a bit loopy to be honest with you, but it's nothing an amateur lobotomy with this sword of mine can't fix

Ramza may be a noble too, but you kill his best friend's sister and he's liable to run over and murder your mages. I'm level 23, they're level 8, this really isn't going to last long. I don't even need to wipe out his whole squad. As soon as Algus goes down, it'll all be over.

Aw crap! You see, this is what I was trying to avoid by running over! I'm obviously not going to win a battle against ranged characters unless I quickly close the distance, but all I achieved by running up to them was to put myself in an ambush. And now Ramza is on fire.

Ramza's out, my priest was soon taken out before she could resurrect him, it's all over. I am 15 levels higher than these guys and they still wiped me out in a handful of turns without taking a single loss.

I feel like a man trying to look at a magic eye picture with one eye closed here. There's a method to playing this game that I'm just unable to see right now for whatever reason and trying to smash through it with sheer brute force isn't working anymore.

Time to go back out into the wilderness and train. Only this time I must train my mind and learn new strategies. And they'd better be bloody good strategies as I'll be against level 23 enemies out there. I don't have any brute force level advantage out there in the wilderness.


ONE HOUR LATER.


Okay I'm back at the Algus fight with a new plan. Check this shit out. Four characters: Monk, Wizard, Monk, Wizard, in a row. Being grouped like this makes them incredibly vulnerable to enemy magic attacks as their spells come down in a cross shape 3 tiles across, but the Monks have a Chakra ability which heals HP and MP to nearby units. So I have infinite ammo mages that are healed every other turn, and the enemies are going to have to rush me this time.

Oh, and having Ice 3 magic doesn't hurt either. Well okay it hurts them, it hurts them for more than double their maximum health, but hey it's not my fault, I only attacked the ground in front of them; they were the ones stupid enough to move into the area of effect while it was charging.

By the way here's another thing I learned. Turn order is incredibly important if you're throwing spells around. If you want a spell to land properly you need to know what enemies will be able to move before the charging has completed. Otherwise they can end up simply stepping out of the way of your floor panel targeted spell, or worse they can walk right up to you and send a unit targeted spell crashing right on your own head.

Anyway Algus died in a handful of turns and everything exploded! It was very dramatic I assure you. Delita was grief-stricken after the murder of his sister and was presumed to have died in the blast. But he was alive in the prologue so he obviously didn't.

Speaking of the prologue...

This event finally brings us back to the present day, or at least the part of ancient history we're currently being taught by Alazlam, as Ramza continues to chase down Delita to recover the Princess. Which seems like a sensible enough place for me to quit.


Final Fantasy Tactics is one of those awkward games that radiates quality while it's kicking you in the face. Well it kicking me anyway, and to be fair I'm hardly an expert at the genre or strategic planning in general. But it's so well made, so beautifully presented, and so smart that it makes me assume that I must be the one at fault for not liking it more. I mean surely a game this obviously well thought out can't actually be so difficult at first that a new player would have to grind for hours or read a walkthrough just to beat the first boss? Or can it?

I think the most obvious of the flaws that I can be sure of, is the huge wait after a game over before you can jump back into the fight. It amplifies failure, makes it unbearable. Instead of immediately wanting to jump back in to try a different approach, I'm encouraged to take extra measures to avoid the possibility of defeat, such as grinding. It really kills off any interest I have in experimenting.

Here's another issue: permadeath. Some people like it, some people don't. For me it's like I'm playing the game on hard mode, as I have to restart a battle if even a single character turns to crystal. Considering the amount of time investment it takes to build a character in this, going through multiple job classes in each, I don't understand how anyone could justify this feature. Surely no one's going to continue playing with a character down. Unless there's something I'm missing

Plus I'm not sure level scaling for random battles was the smartest idea. For one thing it creates a situation where the player can continually challenge themselves with non-story levels, gaining tons of experience and skills, instead of reaching a point of diminishing returns. Not necessarily a bad thing I know, but if you're doing that you might as well put them into an optional random bonus dungeon with some kind of end point instead of dotting them around the main game path. Plus they soon become a more dangerous place than the story levels, meaning there's no safer area to practice with new classes, which also discourages experimentation. Of course for all I know in chapter 2 they might open up a training arena to fight in. Don't take my ramblings as a review of the complete package.

But does it get a gold star? Man, I'd put this back on any day just to listen to the music, and I did actually start enjoying it again after getting past the boss fights and reaching chapter 2. Plus the story's surprisingly mature and involving so far, and it even appears to be making sense, so I can't help but be drawn in by it.



If you have any cool and interesting opinions about Final Fantasy Tactics, what I wrote about it, this site, etc. please feel free to leave a comment.

7 comments:

  1. This game is so cool!! and really hard =(
    But I learned a good strategy, a team full of monk ninjas XD
    Grinding was my favorite part ^-^

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  2. At some point you start collecting named characters who join your team with powerful special abilities. So losing some of the random dudes you start with actually isn't as bad as it seems at first glance. That said, I always restarted my game when someone died too. Though after a few fights that stops happening as much if you keep a person or two as a monk for chakra and revive which is essentially a free phoenix down for someone beside you on your height level.

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  3. Great review!

    I don't remember ever playing this game, but I have played all of the way through Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and enjoyed it a lot, and the games seem VERY similar.

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  4. I have finish and replay this game countless time since the PSX era.
    The FFT Advance got nothing to do with this version. not event close, please try it out before saying it s "VERY similar". FFT ADV, it s a waterdown version with the randomness of the judge system. BUT, the graphic and 2d visual achivement is unmatch.

    I dont find it that hard the game, just dont level grinding. How the system work is that the more you level up, so does the monsters.

    -the anonymous-

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  5. I have played this game for some time on PSX, made it to the end of the II act,and I had no problems with any of it's battles.
    What made me stop playing was the realization of how time-consuming FFT is. It have become even worse after I read some in-depth guides. You can spent HOURS trying to achieve desirable class and/or abilities combination.
    On the other hand, permadeth is not an issue in regards of your party's strength, because you have a bunch of powerful named characters and possible recruits' level scale pretty well.
    Kudos for this review.

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  6. I LOVED this game. I which they'd make a sequel. The story was really creative. It was something about a dark Zodiac and the creatures that represented them. Anyway, the gameplay was awesome, and I really dug how you could hire fresh characters and really build them up with tons of different upgrade trees to change classes.

    Maybe I'll make my own version... I am a game designer/developer after all. ;)

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  7. I've played the remake on the PSP and it's awesome! It's on my favorite list with Gungnir and Ragnarok Tactics. Now Dungeons and Dragons Tactics sucked so bad!

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