Somewhere in the real world, 4 bullied kids with low self-esteem are brought together after school. Mewt is the runt of the class and too smart for his own good. Doned is a poor unfortunate soul in a wheelchair. Ritz has the displeasure of being a young girl with white hair. Doned’s older brother Marche catches flack for being “The New Guy”. After losing a snowball fight with the school bullies, the kids gather together in a lonely room and pick up a copy of
The Never Ending Story Final Fantasy: The Book and get sucked into a fantastic world known as Ivalice.
His friends lost to him, protagonist Marche has trouble adjusting to the fact that he’s not in Kansas anymore. In Ivalice, bands of adventurers known as clans cross the country side looking for bounties, treasures and… well… adventure. Clans often compete against one another and/or monsters in battles known as “Engagements”. Each engagement is presided over by a Judge, the law enforcing class of the governing body of Ivalice. Marche joins a clan, figuring that they’re his best hope to finding his friends, and a way back home. Over the course of the game, Marche discovers that his friends aren’t as eager as he is to return home, and that convincing them–and himself–to go back home is going to be difficult work.
Released in 2003, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (FFTA) is a pretty standard tactical RPG. You control a party of up to 24 characters, using 4-6 of them per battle. There are five races that exist in Ivalice, and each race has at least half a dozen classes they can become, with several different abilities and specialities. What’s interesting about FFTA’s mechanics is that they are simplified enough that this would make an excellent introduction to the Tactical RPG genre, while having enough complex, in-depth variety to satisfy most veterans of the genre. The variety allows for a number of different ways to attack a situation. However, when push comes to shove in a game like this, variety is nice… but once you find that special combination of abilities that really clicks with your play style, it’s very easy to abandon everything else.
FFTA attempts to attack this situation of stagnant gameplay head-on with the Judge System. According to the in-game lore, Ivalice is presided over by a faction of Judges, which enforce the country’s laws… which, in a frightening example of heavy handed government, change daily. In game mechanics, what this means is that every time you enter an Engagement, up to four laws are in effect, rendering certain types of abilities, weapons, defenses, status effects, etc. unplayable. At first glance this seems like an innovative and fantastic way of overcoming the desire to min-max abilities and force you into trying different strategies. In practice, it just creates more grind, once you begin to understand the system, and discover that you can choose to begin engagements only on days when your preferred strategy isn’t against the law. So what really happens, is that the Judge System creates an even bigger grind as you walk around the world map waiting for the laws to cycle back around to ones that work for you instead of against you.
At first glance, the story of FFTA seems like little more than a fluff piece we’ve all seen, read, heard ad nauseam. You’ve got a group of bullied kids in school trying to escape into something else, only to discover in the end that it’s not only okay, but absolutely fantastic to be different. You’re the only you there is, and whatever other Sesame-Rogers-Neighbour-Street-Kangaroo message you want to throw in there. From the moment this game fires up, you know that’s where your headed. But as the story develops, you begin to realise that while you’ve seen the message a thousand places before… this is really the first time a video game has called out kids on playing too many video games.
You have to applaud Square-Enix here, because while it may be over-used in other forms of media, they’re remembering here that we need to teach the difference between fantasy and reality. The importance of being able to healthily deal with what reality throws us isn’t a popularly used theme in video games, themselves. Video game journalists throw around the message a lot, but only in the wake of very adult-oriented controversies. Given that the target audience of this game is likely the impressionable ‘tween to early teenager trying out something a bit meatier than Pokemon for the first time, I think it’s a brilliant move–one that deserves praise–to cover this topic in a fantasy game’s story.
For an old fogey that grew up on pixelated sprites, like myself, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a visual treat. It uses 16-bit style sprite graphics for its characters, backgrounds and battle maps, and a mix of pixel art and rendered effects for its spells and special effects animations. These efforts combine to make FFTA one of the best looking games on the Game Boy Advance system. The Game Boy Advance system would have been capable of handling rendered characters or backgrounds, but probably not both. But with the choice to go with sprites instead of models across the board, 10 years later it still really holds up.
It’s hard to rate the sound on a Game Boy Advance title. The console’s sole speaker is just about the tinniest, most shrill thing you can imagine. Unless absolutely necessary I turn the volume down all the way. Hardware faults aside, the game has a wonderful score by Hitoshi Sakamoto, with a main title theme by the great Nobuo Uematsu.
Assuming that you end up enjoying the gameplay, FFTA is a completionists wet dream–or if you’re crunched for spare time… wet nightmare. There are 300 in-game missions to complete. There are secret characters. There are secret locations. There are hard to find weapons and armors that unlock the best abilities. I borrowed FFTA from my younger brother in September of ’06. Over the course of the years since, I’ve taken hiatuses but, in total, before beating the main story last night, I had logged over 60 in-game hours, and had only completed 164 of the 300 missions, and had never come across a secret character. Other than time-sink, if there is a drawback to all this content, its that once you find your particular playstyle that works, the missions’ similarities become glaringly obvious, and that feeling of grinding can start to develop further.
Fans of the tactical RPG genre will undoubtedly be aware of the existence of a little game called Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT) which came out on the Playstation in ’98. The name of this game implies that it is likely a port, or a sequel, of the massive Playstation hit. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Aside from the name and genre (and oddly, the physical appearance of the main protagonists) this game shares little more in common with that title than it does with any other Final Fantasy. But with the same name and genre it begs comparison regardless. This is where FFTA begins to fall flat.
As much as I love that Square-Enix decided to tackle the Fantasy vs. Reality subject matter, the story here is still way too cookie cutter. This isn’t a big problem, until you start to compare FFTA to FFT. The Playstation’s title has one of, if not the, best stories in any video game ever. It’s a socio-political drama set against a A Song of Ice and Fire-esque battle for the throne, with major religious overtones. Throw in a dash of “History is written by the victors” and you really have a detailed an immersive storyline that is arguably unparalleled in linear storyline games. FFTA’s story is well meaning, but at its core it’s still just “Be Yourself”.
Regardless, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is one of the best games I’ve played for the Game Boy Advance console, and is definitely worth of the Final Fantasy brand. I’d highly recommend it to anyone that’s a fan of the Tactical RPG genre, or has been looking for just the right entry title to try out the genre.
Final Fantasy-ness: 7/10