Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: October 9, 2007
It's no exaggeration to say that Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the most important games Square has ever published. Its popularity, spread largely by word of mouth, led directly to the creation of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in 2003 and Final Fantasy XII in 2006, and the upcoming "Ivalice Alliance" series of games: Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, and the subject of today's preview, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions.
War of the Lions is an enhanced port of the original Final Fantasy Tactics. The enhancements are extremely numerous and very well-integrated into the core gameplay, and include a new series of voiced cut scenes that help dramatize key points in the story (and the introduction of certain new characters). The new voice acting is extremely well-done, with veteran talent Phil LaMarr taking the lead as Ramza. All of the other casting is pitch-perfect, and follows the lead of Final Fantasy XII by casting most characters with a British accent. Likewise, the new localization plays with the concept of a game that takes place in a world going through the equivalent of the Middle Ages, and peppers the dialogue and terminology with authentic terms taken from Middle and Old English.
There are also numerous fixes for accuracy and flavor to the translation, such that many classes, abilities, characters and locations have totally different names. Final Fantasy Tactics always had an exceptionally novel-like plot, but the new translation really enhances this by giving the text the depth and sophistication you might find in an authentic classic novel like "Ivanhoe". For a fan of the game's excellent storyline, the new translation alone is probably going to be enough to justify a purchase.
Of course, enhanced ports like Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions are as much about introducing classic games to new generations of players as pleasing older players. When it comes to this job, the new translation and cut scenes do much to make the story feel vibrant and compelling. Certain in-game animations suffer from slowdown, causing the animation to desync with the associated sound effects, but fortunately, the bulk of the animations work smoothly enough that the problem doesn't become troublesome until after dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay.
The basics of the game are essentially unchanged from the original 32-bit era release of the title, which is one of the wisest decisions Square Enix could've possibly made. Final Fantasy Tactics completely revolutionized the tactical genre by introducing random encounters and an extensive "post-game" full of optional characters to recruit and bonus dungeons to explore. This encouraged what seemed, at the time, to be near-endless gameplay. Players would obsessively level characters up to 99 just to see what the result would be. Every major modern tactical RPG, from Disgaea to Luminous Arc, owes Final Fantasy Tactics an enormous debt when it comes to its core gameplay mechanics. Disgaea, in fact, is nothing so much as a formalization of certain gameplay techniques developed by high-level Final Fantasy Tactics players.
Essentially, players in Final Fantasy Tactics field anywhere from one to five characters per battle, from a pool of up to 24 (increased from the original 16). Characters earn experience as they level up, but also a more crucial stat called JP. All characters start with simple, weak jobs like Squire or Chemist, but by acquiring JP they can unlock more potent jobs like Knight and Black Mage. Leveling up more exotic jobs eventually unlocks extremely powerful or unusual late-game jobs like the Arithmetician (who uses mathematical rules to cast spells), Dancers, Bards and the PSP-exclusive Onion Knight and Dark Knight. Certain characters important to the story have "custom" jobs that also need to be leveled up with JP. Once characters have JP, they can opt to spend these points on acquiring a startling array of abilities.
What's really interesting about Final Fantasy Tactics is that characters have five ability slots, two for class skills and three for miscellaneous skills related to movement, defense and how characters respond to attacks. This means that at a high level, any single character can be built to have the main abilities from any two core classes, and then three passive abilities drawn from any class. Provided a character earns enough JP to buy all of the best abilities, you can build a lot of remarkably powerful or just plain weird and amusing characters. There is so much potential that the five-character limit occasionally grows frustrating, as you recruit interesting unique characters into your army much faster than you could possibly use them.
In part because of the Job system, and in part because of heavy use of randomization when generating enemy encounters, combat in Final Fantasy Tactics is deep and supremely addicting. Character damage is affected by a variety of unique stats like Zodiac, Bravery and Faith that really have no parallel in other tactical titles. Damage is calculated with formulas that tend to cause it to increase exponentially when a given character has an advantage over another. This means that a character who has an advantage over another often has a completely crushing advantage, and a character weak against an enemy for some reason becomes absolutely crippled. The randomization makes it a little difficult to keep characters from running up against Zodiac enemies they're weak against, but some of the jobs you can unlock later in the game allow the crucial Brave and Faith stats to be customized. You can raise Brave to increase melee damage and how effective skills are, and lower Faith to reduce the damage a character takes from magic attacks. A magician, of course, needs elevated Faith so that magic does more damage (or heals more HP, as the case may be). A party may end up fighting human opponents, who use the same job classes and builds, or monsters, who act more or less like typical Final Fantasy monsters.
Something that quickly becomes engrossing about Final Fantasy Tactics (other than simply following the course of the story and trying to stay alive during some of the brutal challenges it throws at you) is that the engine is deep in a lot of ways that aren't actively required to progress. You can easily beat the game without ever taking advantage of even half of the fun tricks and possibilities the engine offers, or even doing basic things like customizing your characters' Brave and Faith levels. Other options you can explore, but don't need to, include capturing and breeding monsters, poaching monsters to produce rare items, recruiting enemy human characters into your party and leveling characters to 99 multiple times to increase their stats. When a game engine offers this kind of freedom, you often find yourself doing unnecessary things just to see if you can do them.
This is not to say that following Final Fantasy Tactics for its story is not engaging enough. It's actually one of the best stories Square Enix has ever told in a game, featuring a baroquely huge cast of characters and a startling ability to evoke a realistic and vibrant setting with no more than basic 3D backgrounds and bitmap sprite characters. Ivalice in FFT is not just another fantasy kingdom where problems are easily set right by slaying the appropriate villains and rescuing the allotted princesses. It's a complex world where wars happen for venal, pettily political reasons, and have horrible economic repercussions. Class conflict leads to violent unrest, and during the course of the game, blossoms into revolution and civil war.
At the heart of much of the conflict are selfish actions taken by a disturbingly small group of greedy, petty men who want to gain more power, be it temporal or spiritual, simply for the sake of having it. Naturally, the player ends up following Ramza, a protagonist who opposes the exploitive ways of the upper classes and is branded a heretic and outlaw for simply wanting to spend his life doing the right thing whenever possible. It's a fantastic story rife with double-crosses, clever deceptions and some touchingly heroic triumphs. It's also full of memorable characters, from the single-minded Holy Knight Agrias Oaks to the infamously overwhelming "Thunder God" Cidolfus Orlandeau. It's one of those games where playing it not only leaves you with a better idea of how deep tactical gameplay can get, but also just how easy it is to tell rich stories in video game format.
It frankly feels a little odd to write a preview for a game that's already been out for a decade, but that's just long enough for a new generation of gamers to crop up who've never played this particular title. If you haven't, then whether you go to the PSP version or not, it's just something you need to sit down and play at some point just for its sheer historical importance. If you do want to play Final Fantasy Tactics without tracking down a used copy on eBay, then The War of the Lions is an excellent way to approach the game. Many of the new features serve to bring down the sometimes-intimidating difficulty levels to approachable levels without compromising anything about the core engine or mechanics. Some of them, like recruiting Balthier, are just fun by themselves. While the PSP is, overall, not a must-own system yet, those who do own PSPs have every reason to consider The War of the Lions a game to prioritize in this year's crowded fourth quarter.