Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit
Completion Level: Finished @ ~120 Hours
Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT) for the Playstation was our first foray into Strategy Role Playing Games. It was a pleasant surprise for multiple reasons. It showed a level of quality, depth, and attention to detail we would later find uncommon. This game is often cited as the leading exponent of the SRPG genre. It’s become the standard by which other SRPG’s are measured, and with good reason.
In terms of balanced gameplay systems, map design aesthetics, and music, FFT deserves the top spot among SRPGs of the Playstation era. (No small feat considering many studios took a stab at SRPGs at that time.) This game is good at making fans of the genre, if they are a little patient. To some extent every SRPG that has come after must fight to get out of its shadow.
It took 120 hours to finish FFT on our terms. How does it take that long to play this game? Our preferred style is about recruiting troops and and raising them into effective and diverse fighters. We generally prefer not to use the story characters given you. However raising multiple teams of recruits and protecting newbies takes careful planning and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Also, if you play like us, characters matter and you don’t want to lose any of your team. As a general rule, we refuse to replay a level, so each battle is for keeps (barring unintentional moves, or outrageous cheese by the AI). If we lose a fighter nobly in battle, then so be it. We remember their bravery. FFT supports that kind of adventure.
The format for FFT is about as classic as it gets. You have a variety of fantasy themed sprite characters, both ranged and melee. You move them upon 3D battle maps that can be rotated. Movement and ranges are organized by grid.
- Sakimoto, Iwata, and friends composed most engaging music: There’s a good number of tunes. They’re amazingly resistant to driving you over the edge when listening for long battles or through tough decisions. We enjoy listening to these songs outside of the game. Our all-time favorite SRPG soundtrack.
- The job system is very diverse. You can pursue most any style of combat you like. High hit-point sword wielders, ranged attackers, and status altering specialty characters are all contenders. Some, of course, are easier to become dominant with than others.
- The story is serious and deep. It’s not one of those stupid, shallow affairs where a character trashes an entire platoon of enemies because of a perceived insult about their hair. Life and death situations call for serious stories of equal weight. Save a world, save a country, something. Not, “Let’s get those guys back for shoving you in a locker last week.”
- The game engine cut scenes are well crafted mini-plays: They make you believe that the little sprites running around in these rooms and terrain have lives and live them in these environments. If a game can get you to care, they have achieved something indeed.
- Visual Refinement for the civilized player: Everything visible is polished to a state of acceptable luster. The PlayStation graphics do not blow us away, but they are, more importantly, clear. The respective terrain types are distinct for gameplay purposes. The interface is solid and readable.
- Archer’s arrows fly farther from high ground: A detail yes, but archers sometimes get hosed in these games. We like archers. This kind of extra depth is evident in various class attacks and adds real value to the gameplay.
- “Facing” matters, so don’t turn your back: The direction characters are attacked from matters when it comes to their ability to dodge and limit damage. Attacking from the rear is the most effective way—for both your team and the enemy, so beware. This is an important element for the genre and should not be neglected by any SRPG similarly crafted.
- The art direction and character portraits please the eye: While there is a bit too much similarity among them, none are displeasing. The costume takes on different classes are great. FFT charts its own course with stylized portrayals, and yet retains recognizable familiarity for the types of combatants.
- If you lose someone in battle, they’re gone forever: This is, unfortunately, a rare mechanic (Fire Emblem also does it). It makes every encounter significant. Nothing makes a game boring faster than taking out all consequences. Trust us. We have experience developing a Superman game and know how hard it is to work with invulnerability.
- Death is not the end… sort of: A character fallen in battle has three turns to be revived by a “Phoenix Down” item. If not revived they are truly gone forever. This system adds tactical drama in a big way. Something like it should be more widespread in the genre.
Too big for a bullet point: 3D Map Design
The third dimension done right. Where most SRPG’s built up to 1998 are 2D, this game, powered by the PlayStation, embraces 3D environments. They aren’t just 3D versions of 2D maps either. Each is crafted extremely well. They’re 3D for strategic reasons, often using the third dimension to define the challenge. Much fun can be had rotating 3D geometry, planning strategy and maneuvering separated characters. It’s a level of 3D map creation rarely equaled.
The Good & Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- The information is there, but… While we mentioned that the interface is visually clear, that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to use. Oh you can get used to it, but, for example, finding out who goes next is a step removed. Finding out when a long charging spell will take effect is two steps removed. Not the best.
- There’s a lot of equipment: Much is designated for use by a specific class. But when multiplied by over a dozen classes it becomes equipment overload, especially considering the interface to manage it isn’t perfect. Thankfully, the multi-class usability of accessories somewhat eases the burden of filling character’s four equipment slots.
- You want to feel as though you’re using the best equipment: The pricing for good equipment is fair, and the game avoids being all about equipping—an easy pitfall. However the best equipment needs to be stolen and the ultra-rare requires guidance from a FAQ. We disdain FAQ reliance (not occasional help). It’s a design crutch. Such tasks can be made into fun, optional mini-quests instead.
- Use your crew, story characters, or a mix: The game adds story characters, there’s a narrative to be supported after all. You don’t HAVE to use them most battles. Some throw the balance of the game off. One in particular (Orlandu) is universally noted for being way overpowered and destroying the challenge for those inclined to use him. Let us earn victories.
We recall one FAQ noting the introduction of Orlandu, stating something like: “Do you hear that hissing sound? That’s all the challenge draining from the game.”
Too big for a bullet point: Skill System Options
The skill system is very flexible when it comes to choosing skills and new class upgrades. It’s a smart system that rightly allows you to retain some old class skills in your new class. This is a real boon for creating your own characters with truly unique or even strange skill set mixes.
However this flexibility can allow (with effort) classes that bend the classic rules. Like fully armored magic-using knights. Depending on how “pure” a fantasy experience you want, this may be troubling. It’s not an issue if you don’t mind bipolar white mages who now prefer to hack enemies in twain. We prefer characters to stay true to the spirit of their classes.
Too big for a bullet point: Job Choices & Effectiveness
The diverse job system is a font of fun gameplay options. It appeals to us. We enjoy composing teams from the most obscure classes. It’s a different challenge battling in the field with mediators, oracles, and dancers.
However, while nobody expects these secondary classes to be the most powerful, they shouldn’t be useless either. Some classes seem little more than a stop to qualify for one higher, or to get a particularly handy skill. The practical value across all the classes plays too many favorites.
Additionally, even some advanced combat classes, ones you’d expect to kick more butt than a dancer, require too much effort and experience to do so. Others are just disappointing no matter what skills are earned. A dragoon, for example, has an awesome jump skill, but sadly little else to make you want to stay in that class.
- The tutorial is complete… and completely dull: It’s dry as a bone, or something even drier than a bone. Those familiar with SRPGs can chance skipping it, as can those allergic to boredom. Additionally, if huge amounts of adequately but not perfectly translated text make you cringe, you should also go straight to the game. The opening scenario allows you to gain your wits before risking any of your permanent team.
- FAQ reliance. The advanced classes require leveling in other initial classes. But there’s no natural, in-game way to tell how many levels of knight, archer, and thief are needed to open up the ninja job. Or any advanced job. That’s scandalous. You can spend hour after hour leveling various combinations in vain without using a FAQ.
- Archers can hit harder. They are (sadly) less useful compared to other classes that manage to keep up as the game advances. A less than optimized class, and one we dislike seeing get “shafted.”
- “What’s the story?” We mentioned liking a serious story for serious action, however this one is seriously dry, convoluted, and sometimes unintelligible. It’s not the strength of FFT. Too many characters, political factions, and questionable translations. Motivation plays a key role in SRPG’s. If it’s lacking or the player has lost his cause, the whole game suffers.
- Forking paths: Miss out on a fun battle no matter which path is taken? No thanks. We’re not talking about world map routes, rather chained scenarios which force a choice and do not allow you to play both. Real hand crafted scenarios, not random encounters or AI generated content, will never see the light of someone’s screen.
Too big for a bullet point: The “Ending”
Remember Star Wars: A New Hope? Yeah the one with the great ending where the Death Star blew up? That was fun. (Spoilers ahead.)
- Let’s see, in this Prozac sponsored ending the historian/narrator is burned at the stake (although maybe it served him right for that dull tutorial).
- The foolish princess is killed ridiculously for unfathomable reasons.
- Your whole carefully wrought team is never seen again. (So much for making an impact.)
- The hero and his sister ride off alone past a grave site, disappearing from history.
The ending is unworthy of the game. Matsuno, the developer behind this and other amazing SRPG’s, has one area that needs improvement in our opinion: Story endings.
Some of the fine campaign story battle environments can be reused for “random encounters.” The random encounter maps are excellent, but why not add to their ranks with additional carefully crafted 3D gems?
Many SRPG advances occurred after this game was released, but quality doesn’t go out of style. While resolution and processing power bring advances that make understanding a game easier, few have impacted a genre like FFT. VFX have greatly improved, but we still remember with awe the time mage’s colossal “Meteor” spell.
Meteor was hard to get and took (very) long to cast, but it was terrific and memorable coming down—even more so if you actually managed to catch a group of enemies under it. This was one of the few spells the time mage had that was an immediate tide changer, although its support spells were no-doubt handy to some. The time mage is fun, just know going in that it’s a secondary class, and not very well-rounded.
The plot twist of one encounter separates your main character from the rest of the party. He must alone face the main early game boss, Gafgarion. If you manage to bring the boss to the point of defeat the old grizzled veteran looks up and says, “Is this the end?” It’s poignant and a little sad. Your hero says to his once mentor, “Good-bye Gaffgarion.” Then the boss dies in a puff of VFX.
Depending on your mindset, you might really come to appreciate the characters on your crew. During the difficult gallows rescue mission my female ninja fought above and beyond the call of duty. They eventually, with great effort, felled her and she was too far away for me to revive though I tried. She bought the time to win that battle with her life. Those kinds of game memories are all too rare.
If you appreciate SRPG’s at all, you need to play FFT. It stands out in its time and beyond as one of the finest examples in the genre. It has minor flaws (barring the ending), but the core mechanisms, well crafted maps, diverse classes, and great music are a hard act to follow. History acknowledges this to be the case. All the SRPG’s we’ve played since have shown this is the case.
Updated Feb 2016. This benchmark game deserved another pass. Text refined and numerous pictures added.
If you like Final Fantasy Tactics, try: