Sunday, 16 June 2013
Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alright enough shopping, time to check out the pub. They've no doubt heard some good rumours down there.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the immortal words of war hero Ramza Beoulve: "I guess we must fight. Eaaagggghh!!"
A COUPLE OF TURNS LATER.
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?
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.
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'.
Now I just have to figure out how to win the random battles.
SOME FIGHTS LATER.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Speaking of the prologue...
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.