Columnist’s Note: This article has been edited from its original form to include some thoughts about the Master Calculator and the battle with Belias the Gigas in response to compelling arguments made in the comments. This was an important change, and it expands humankind’s capacity for growth.
Abbreviated boilerplate! Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?
I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!
As is customary, let’s start with some mood music.
Version Played: “War of the Lions” PSP remake, complete with incredibly Shakespearian translation.
Final Fantasy Tactics is sort of the gold standard for tactical RPGs. It is also a game around which many PSX-era Final Fantasy fans rally together as a point of shared joy. In my entire life, I have never met someone who actively disliked this game. That, in and of itself, is incredible. I mean, who doesn’t know someone who dislikes Final Fantasy 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. ? Tactics rises above that crop to my mind for three major reasons.
1) The gameplay mechanics are deservedly the gold standard for tactical RPG play. Yes, I love Fire Emblem too. But there’s something about the job system and the customization available to the player in Tactics which hits the spot. Oh, and you get a variety of broken NPCs if you’d rather just use the cheater sword abilities the AI has been trying to best you with all game. I won’t blame you if that’s how you feel.
2) The story appeals to people in a kind of ‘Game of Thrones’ way. Despite all of the magic present, it’s not utterly fantastic. The focus of the story is on ambitious jackoffs who would sacrifice anything to advance their own ambitions… and one guy who is kind of the opposite. It’s a semi-kind-of-realistic middle ages type setting. It feels to the player like a place that could actually exist, which is simply not the case for other Final Fantasy titles.
3) Ramza Beoulve, despite ultimately not being that interesting, is a very easy protagonist to root for. He doesn’t have the capital-letter ISSUES that plague Cloud and Squall. He doesn’t have a bizarrely oversized head and a tail like Zidane. And he doesn’t narrate the whole game with inner monologues that caused some people to bleed into their brains like Tidus. No, Ramza is quite straightforward, and quite heroic.
But it’s mostly about #1. The mechanics are deep (sort of. They’re deep if you’re not just chasing the absolute optimum party, at any rate). They’re fun to play around with. They can make the game either embarrassingly easy or fairly challenging depending on which route you decide to go. It’s like the awesome job system from Final Fantasy V writ large in the PSX era! Only you also get many NPC characters with unique and interesting skill sets! I chose not to use any of them (except Agrias. I don’t hate myself) in this particular play through, but FFT certainly facilitates any style of play that you like.
The standout mechanic, of course, which you won’t find elsewhere – even in other incarnations of Final Fantasy’s own job system – is the Calculator or Master Calculator job. This job is very straightforward – it uses the battlefield metrics such as elevation, remaining wait time to act, and individual character level, and then devastates targets with magic. The Calculator need not spend MP to do his work, nor is he subject to the questionable charge times that render powerful spells like Holy of limited utility. Instead, the Calculator picks a metric to hit, then which multiple (3, 4, or 5) he wants to lash out at, and then gleefully rains fire down upon eligible targets… friend and foe alike. Because the Calculator class has abysmal stats and is unbelievably, unfathomably slow, I didn’t find it worth the time to train one of my party members in the skills this time around. But veteran players all know that the deployment of a Calculator’s skillset (preferably equipped on a better job: try Black Mage!) on the battlefield can easily win this war almost single-handedly.
Even using weak classes and abilities, and without the timely intervention of Count Orlandeau or the mighty Calculator, it’s perfectly possible to complete Final Fantasy Tactics. Once you have mastered the mechanics of the game and know what truly poses a danger to your group, I like to think the obstacles of this game are fairly easy to navigate. A standout, fairly brutal exception to this is a battle roughly halfway through the game at Riovanes Castle. You should save your game in a different slot before attempting it. In fact, keeping two different saves is always a good idea in this game, to avoid a possible soft lock of your file, where you’re locked into a battle that is too difficult for you to defeat, without the means to leave and level up or acquire better equipment.
There are a couple other possible exceptions, which revolve around a mechanic that simply doesn’t work as well as the designers probably intended. I consider it one of FFT’s flaws that several story battles involve “guest” characters. Early on, this takes the form of Delita and Algus, your supposed friends, who are there to make sure you can’t take a full party of 5 on a mission until the start of Chapter 2. They’re not always helpful, but they also can’t die, so they’re no liability either. Later, however, most such missions involve saving other “guest” characters from getting their dumb asses killed. Unfortunately, since guests are always under the control of the AI… this isn’t always possible. There is one battle (Castle Riovanes Roof. You know what I’m talking about) where the guest character routinely gets killed in the first round of action. Or any any subsequent round. In one shot. By some brazenly unfair enemy characters. This battle can be one of the most frustrating ones in the game because you have very little ability to impact its outcome. Either your “guest” behaves rationally and avoids the deadly enemy assassins… or she doesn’t… and it’s game over. Bummer.
One thing I want to mention in this space, before I get too far afield, is the translation. The original translation for FFT is in the same vein as the Ted Woolsey translations of earlier games. You still get the gist of it, but a lot of it is nonsense. It’s much worse than the original translations for Final Fantasy VII and VIII in this regard. Lots of stuff, even seemingly obvious stuff, is mistranslated, to the detriment of the story. PSP’s War of the Lions is heralded as a vast improvement, and in some ways that’s true. However, having now played both versions, I have to say, there’s a lot to dislike about the War of the Lions translation as well. It may simply be the original material to blame, which is fine, but this translation is insanely talky at times. We might as well be reading the original Shakespeare in some of the cutscenes. Melodrama and unnecessary wordiness abound, and the ultimate effect is a little bit off-putting to a modern player. Don’t misunderstand – by no means did I hate the War of the Lions treatment of the script. I just am not sure that it deserves the near-universal praise that it has received amongst gamers and critics alike. It’s talky. Often unnecessarily so.
By its nature, a game that you can play through with only Ramza and a party of generic characters (in fact, you can dismiss any of the story characters after they’ve formally joined) has to be light on character development. Characters like Agrias, who are central to the plot up until they join, disappear immediately upon doing so. As a result, the only meaty characterization is ultimately of the Beoulve family… Ramza, his sister Alma, and his two other brothers Zalbaag and Dycedarg. They are at the center of the conflict ripping Ivalice apart in any case, and they’re also the characters (along with Ramza’s best friend, Delita) who get the most screen time. Delita receives some additional attention in the War of the Lions, to where you could consider him one of the game’s better-explored characters. Still, you’ll actually find a lot of the most intriguing characterization actually belongs to the game’s various (and, boy, there are a lot of them) antagonists. This is definitely an intriguing reverse from the “norm”, but it works well here.
Ultimately, this is probably one that we can all still agree on. FFT kicks ass. It combines excellent and deep tactical gameplay with an intriguing story that might be a little less clear with the new translation… but certainly isn’t any worse. It might be one of the more cohesive FF plots around. It’s also got at least one more song I’ll share.
Join me next time, as I return to Final Fantasy’s roots, with Final Fantasy IX!