As Square Enix continues its sequel and spin-off marathon, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift has landed on the DS, tying some fan faves from Ivalice to a relatively new plot, characters, and deeper version of everything else.
Let's get one thing out of the way early on: I never played FFTA on the Game Boy Advance. However, I did spend a good bit of time with FFT on the PS1 many years ago, and even fired it up again during my time with A2. Many regard the original FFT as the best in this tactical branch of the franchise, so I figure that's as good a comparison point as any.
The first thing to consider is that this is a DS game, and in a marketing meeting somewhere deep in the bowels of Square Enix, it must have been decided that "cutesy" and "portable" go hand in hand. This applies not only to the overriding aesthetic of the game, which I can live with, but more importantly to the story, which never gets terribly serious or emotional, especially when compared to the original. There are no war-torn lands with homeless, starving soldiers returning home from the front lines to find they have no jobs and everyone resents them; the early setup in the original FFT could be compared America's involvement in Vietnam, and no amount of noseless anime heroes and heroines can sugarcoat that sort of backdrop.
Rather, A2 begins with Luso Clemens (whom I promptly renamed) getting detention after school in a modern-day world. His sentence is to go clean the library. When he arrives and finds no one there, he starts thumbing through an old book that's lying around, and when the mischievous urge to vandalize it overcomes him, writing his name on a blank page in the book suddenly whisks him away to medieval Ivalice. He's quickly befriended by some locals who are trying to keep a monster chicken at bay, and he's invited into their clan (which I also renamed). The deal is that he'll help the clan any way he can, and they'll try to help him find a way to return home. Naturally, we skip past the logical leap that this average schoolboy knows nothing of magic or how to wield a sword (though does so perfectly on the first try), and it also sets up the inevitable, "Oh, but I love all you guys; I don't want to leave!" interaction. I'm not saying that's what happens, just that it's fairly predictable.
Fortunately, while the story is fairly thin, it doesn't railroad you into a bunch of unnecessary dialogue or quests specifically designed to drive the plot. If you played the game and ignored the central plot, you'd do just fine, save for a few bottlenecks where you kind of have to take a quest or two to see where the overarching story goes next. For example, someone sets you on the trail of a magician who might know something about how to return Luso to his own world. You may or may not ever actually find the guy, but you get in plenty of fights along the way.
A2 is definitely rich in terms of customization, even if the story is puddle-deep. You gain specific abilities from a combination of class and gear. A soldier can only use a particular set of weapons at any given level, though it's not always clear what they are, short of going to the fitting room and goofing around for a while. You may even end up with gear that's the best for your class while simultaneously granting your class absolutely no new skills, or only has abilities for other classes. However, if you find a combo that works, the upside to all this busy work is that once you master an ability with one class, it stays with you even if you change classes. Swapping gear may affect your overall loadout (having to "equip" the ability to use basic items is dumb and a waste of a slot to me), and changing classes almost always changes equipment automatically as well. On the other hand, this at least opens up to you the option to make a healing warrior thief, or any other combination of over 50 jobs, ranging from Moogle Knight to Templar to Time Mage to Sniper to Beastmaster. However, not all classes are available at all times. You unlock some by meeting new characters with those jobs who will teach them to you, and even if one is available in the list, you may need to learn a certain number of skills in another job before you can switch to a new one.
You manage things for your character, your regular party, and your clan as a whole. There are some general abilities like Teamwork and Adaptability that can affect your group's overall skill on the battlefield. These can be leveled up by improving the stature of the clan via training exercises. It's important not to bite off more than you can chew, and there's certainly no rush. I tried my first clan trial at the Novice level and got my butt kicked. I went out, did a few more quests, just happened to pick up the Regen privilege and beat the trial with little trouble, on the next difficulty up from that, Journeyman, to boot.
The main reason I lost wasn't because my team just wasn't buff enough, but rather due to the law in place for that particular fight. The Judge returns from FFTA to impose a particular governing law on every battle, which range from easy (don't use Ice or reactionary counterattacks) to difficult (don't use any MP, no healing allowed), to impossible to abide by because you have little to no control over it (not allowed to miss with any attacks). The law for the fight in question was no use of MP allowed. This immediately ruled out even bringing my Black Mage, and forced me to convert my White Mage to a Fencer (Swarmstrike poison FTW). Without healing, though, we were still screwed. It turns out that gaining the Regen clan privilege automatically took care of that healing, for the most part.
As you can see, keeping all this stuff in mind can be daunting when going into battle, and you won't find out some things until it's too late. For example, my clan entered a tournament, but two fairly important things were left out of the description. One, there are several rounds to this, but that could be guessed from the whole notion of a tourney. The second was less expected, which is that I go from one round to the next with all of the injuries incurred in the previous bout, though the guys we went up against in round two were fully healed. What's worse, the laws you have to abide by (lest you lose your clan privilege for the match) do not apply to the opposition. This makes for some really unbalanced fights, as I went up against a clan of all area-of-effect magic and haste casters with nothing but melee on a cramped map, and the law is still that I can't use any MP for healing, casting, or anything else. We didn't last long once they got to casting lightning and fire AoE on us. At that point, even breaking the law wouldn't have saved us.
There are also a few quests with objectives that were not entirely clear. In a sense, they lead you to water, tell you it's wet, and then ask you about its molecular structure based on what you've been told. It's sad to say, but I had to look up what the heck I was doing wrong or had missed a couple times, only to find out several other players were also flabbergasted by the quests in question.
So again, with all this sort of complexity in mind, it's hard to fathom why the story and vibe of the whole game was skewed so young. Honestly, if a kid isn't old enough to grasp Brain Age, he's going to be completely lost here. However, for the thinking gamer, there's definitely a ton of bang for the buck. It sports around 400 quests in all and tons of job and item customization, as well as "online" raffles for rare items, and item creation at the shop. You just bring in a bunch of random loot, align the odds and ends by class and specification, and <i>voila</i>, fancy new gear becomes available for purchase.
A2 lacks a true multiplayer of any sort, which is kind of a shame. I thought it would be kind of fun to square off against or team up with a friend's clan to quest together or bash in each other's brains. Alas, no such feature exists. Also somewhat disappointing is the much-touted touch-screen interface. Basically, it works just like the d-pad, but obscures part of the screen at the same time. If you tap somewhere to the left of the cursor's current location, it goes a square to the left rather than jumping right to where you tapped. If you're on the overworld map and tap somewhere, you may have to hold it down till the cursor gets there. It works okay in item lists and whatnot, but that's a no-brainer. Also, if you decide to just skip using the stylus, you can't disable the touch sensitivity entirely, meaning accidentally bumping the screen with your knuckle or whatever may result in you missing dialogue or making selections you didn't mean to. All in all, the stylus interaction could have been a lot cleaner.
What doesn't need work are the sights and especially the sounds of the game. The look of it is clean and vibrant, with easy-to-read fonts and information wherever you need it. The 2.5-D isometric view surely saves on battery life as it doesn't kick in the juice needed for full 3-D rendering, though it also makes rotating or zooming the battlefield not an option. Only when you have several characters piled up next to one another in adjacent squares does it start to look a little cluttered and difficult to discern, but with the unit info popping up on the screen on a cursor-over, you don't have much excuse for accidentally using Rend Magick on your own mage.
The soundtrack is particularly strong here, and not just for a cartridge game. Tunes become familiar very quickly, and you'll be able to know you just entered a pub or started a battle just from the opening notes. It's best enjoyed with a set of decent headphones, as the full range of the orchestrations really shines. The tiny built-in DS speakers can't do it justice.
Picking up the controller for PS1 FFT felt instantly familiar after playing A2 for several hours. The button mappings on the DS mimic the layout of the PS1's controller very well, and playing one acquaints you with the other. Another nice control perk is being able to move to different points on the battlefield to see what your options are, and then undoing it all to try out something else. However, casting or doing physical damage or any other action can't be undone. Still, compared to the PS1's "move, accept, done" schematic, being able to test the waters before committing to a move helps you see whether you'll do more damage below and behind a target, or in front of and above it (the answer is below and behind, FYI).
All in all, the gameplay is solid as ever, the visuals and music are well worth a look, and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is a very solid game for anyone in need of a Final Fantasy or turn-based strategy fix on the go. It even allows for mid-battle saves, so you have no excuse not to whoop some tail on the ride to work. The sometimes-uneven difficulty and unclear objectives, as well as the underwhelming stylus functionality mar it slightly, but as ambitious as it is, it's hard to knock them for it. Taking a lovable loser and building a clan around him, and then staking claim to various territories and developing your mini-army through a deep system of customization and abilities is not for the meek, but for those with the chops and interest, it's a very worthwhile experience. It's not the second coming of the gritty and emotional original FFT, but RPG and TBS fans still have much reason to rejoice with A2.
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