Final Fantasy Tactics is an odd duck. It was dropped face-first onto Planet Earth in mid-1997, only six months after Final Fantasy VII arrived, and it represented Squaresoft’s first and only (at least for a while) foray into the tactical/strategic genre. It came fully loaded with most of the stock late-90’s-Squaresoft features, including but not limited to: phenomenal production values; a horrifically botched attempt at Japanese-to-English translation; and a brain-melting, incomprehensible story, no doubt further muddied up by that brutal translation job. Somehow, though, despite the extremity of those peaks and valleys, whichever Squaresoft warlock stirred all that disparate garbage into his cauldron was left with one heady brew, and Tactics remains a game that holds up remarkably well in this post-sprite era.
I recently wrote a post called Sometimes, the Last Boss Wins, wherein I described my frustrating experience with Final Fantasy X: in short, I plodded through the game and its neverending wolf parade of random encounters, grimaced through Tidus’s high-pitched bitching, dodged a few lightning bolts, sang along to the Ronso song at the top of my lungs with my hands folded in prayer, and finally arrived at the last boss only to completely lose interest in all of it and walk away forever. I don’t do that a lot, but Final Fantasy X can go bury itself in a deep hole of garbage as far as I’m concerned. Imagine my giggly, child-like delight, then, when I moved on to Tactics and found myself totally into it. It’s rarer and rarer these days that I come across a game that compels me to not only play it, but to take my time with it, to not worry about barreling through in the interest of moving on to something else, and Tactics pushed that button for me. My backlog is, well, pretty big (I don’t like to brag, but facts are facts), and sometimes that stack of games looming in the corner can feel like a squawky albatross draped around my shoulders and digging its beak into my back. Not so with Tactics. I’ll try and articulate why, but whether I’m successful remains to be seen - like I said, Tactics is an odd duck.
Let’s start with the bad. I’ll tear Tactics down before I build it back up in hopes of ending this thing on a positive note. After all, my point here is that the game is a triumph in spite of some pretty outrageous flaws. The first of those flaws is the most obvious, in that it permeates the whole game: the story. What in the holy fuck is going on in this story? It’s the sort of thing that I imagined would be a deal-breaker for me - I love to assault unsuspecting eardrums about how important a game’s story is to its success, how a game without a good story is just Minesweeper (although, now that I think about it, who placed all those mines? Hmm...) - but in the case of Tactics, the story is so convoluted that it eventually becomes both unintentionally hilarious and completely ignorable.
It starts out simply enough: you’re Ramza Beoulve, you’re part of some royal-ish family of knights, you have a couple of brothers with incredible names (ZALBAG and DYCEDARG), due to your rigid moral compass, you’re getting drawn into a slow-burning rebellion against a monarchy that’s oppressing the proletariat, and the church is acting suspicious as hell. Pretty soon, though, things take a sharp turn for the complicated. Turns out the church is up to no good, there are ten million different characters, every single one of them has at least three secret motivations, no one is speaking English that makes any kind of sense, there are twelve Zodiac stones that do nothing but transform villains into easily-vanquishable demons but that everyone seems to want anyway, and - wait, none of the characters have noses? Must be a lot of mouth-breathers in Ivalice.
Due to the dense and near-impenetrable nature of its story and lore, Tactics is almost like a Hideo Kojima joint before such a thing existed. Squeenix re-released Tactics in 2007 on the PSP with the subtitle “The War of the Lions” and apparently rejiggered the translation, but I haven’t played that version because I’m not a sucker and did not - and will not - buy any of Sony’s neglected handheld devices. It’s possible that the PSP version cleared up some of the stank, but I have my doubts. And even if it did, I’m not sure I’d want to lose the unintentional comedy of, for instance, one character’s solemn, dead serious use of “rascal” as if he’s invoking some forbidden insult only to be spoken in the most dire of circumstances to the most evil of enemies.
Other than the story and translation, there’s not a lot about Tactics that’s outright “bad.” There are a few debatable game design elements, but they’re not necessarily things that needed altering or that are really even negatives, depending on who you ask. Here’s one such element: as you play through the game and unlock different cities and locations, the world map becomes somewhat massive, and every time you pass back through a previously unlocked non-city location, there’s a fifty percent chance of a random encounter. If you have some reason to cross the whole map, even if only to spur along a side quest story or snag a fly feathered hat you saw at a store earlier but couldn’t afford at the time, you’ll pass through easily ten to fifteen potential fight-spots. With random encounters taking no less than ten minutes - and often exceeding half an hour in the early going - that’s a Metric Buttload of time spent battling randomly, enough that motivation to make non-crucial map-crossings is necessarily squished. Gathering up the secret characters, however, requires frequent visits and revisits to locations that always seem to be about as far away from you as the map allows. And since some of those secret characters are pretty tempting - the inimitable Cloud Strife even turns up, improbably birthed from some kind of cyborg space egg and severely groggy and underleveled - the odds of getting drawn into excessive non-story fighting are high.
But here’s an easy segue to the good stuff: the battles are fun. Squaresoft dreamed up a killer battle system that is equal parts approachable and deceptively complex. Initially, you’re saddled with a co-ed army of lowly squires capable of only the most rudimentary actions - throwing rocks from a distance and running away are their calling card - but as they level up, other jobs classes are unlocked, running the gamut from fireball-flinging wizards to dual-katana-wielding, shruiken-launching ninjas (a personal favorite, probably due to their general sneakiness and penchant for straight-up assassinating bad guys in one turn). The progression from weakling to destructive force of nature is immensely satisfying, and the customization options for your army are virtually endless - there’s no reason why you can’t go into battle with four spoony bards and a summoner and come out victorious if you’re smart and well prepared.
And preparation, while we’re on the subject, is key. Without the right equipment, without the right slew of abilities, without a dedicated healer who is capable of staying alive for more than one turn, obliteration is a foregone conclusion. Tactics is hard, and the enemies scale with you, so there’s no grinding your way to an easy victory. Trust me, I tried that. To me, though, that’s part of Tactics’ appeal - sure, it’s tough, but it’s also fair. I lost battles on a regular basis - frustrating when they can eat up such a significant chunk of time - but almost always because of some boneheaded error I’d made, whether it was showing up to a knight fight with a bunch of archers (don’t do that) or forgetting that my stock of precious, precious potions was depleted.
In fact, one of Tactics’ major delights is the cycle of getting stomped, assessing what went wrong, making the right tweaks, and then raining pain (mostly on the plains) during a second (or third, or fourth) attempt. Pulling off a close win when all seems lost is a heart-pounding, thoroughly relieving experience, just as losing after an epic struggle inspires that comfortable“I’m going to send this goddamned controller sailing out the window” feeling. In your heart of hearts, though, buried somewhere deep inside where the light doesn’t go, you know it’s your fault. And that’s huge. With the exception of a few battles here and there, the game tends to get easier (or at least less overtly punishing) as you progress through it, at least in part due to your forced acquisition of non-generic story characters, some of whom are very nearly capable of winning fights singlehandedly. I’m thinking in particular of T.G. Cid - the T.G. stands for THUNDERGOD, as in “Oh fuck, here comes THUNDERGOD Cid” - who made me feel like I was cheating for using him half the time. Even so, if you treat them as a reward for making it through the first half or so of the game intact, T.G Cid and company are a welcome exhale after all the preceding tension.
The art direction, animation, and sprite work are also killing it, even given Ivalice’s widespread and truly concerning epidemic of noselessness. Character portraits are beautifully drawn, and the individual job classes for each gender and the story characters all have their own unique, usually-appealing look (the female Wizard looks like a cross between a Raggedy Ann doll and a scarecrow, but that’s a rare misfire). The story is mostly told through non-battle cutscenes, during which participating characters animate in new ways as needed - there aren’t a lot of noticeably reused assets, adding to the top-tier, triple-A sense that real care was taken in putting the game together. Locations, whether nature-based or indoors, are stunning examples of how far PS1-era 3D environments could be taken with the right direction: a forested glen blanketed with sheets of rain and lit up by bolts of lightning while thunder rumbles overhead is every bit as impressive and atmospheric as a church interior lined with stained-glass windows and shot through with dusty sunbeams that streak across wooden pews and plush carpets. Tactics is good-lookin’.
So now I’m back where I started. Final Fantasy Tactics assuredly has some weird quirks, but it’s a hell of a game in spite of them, and maybe even because of them in some ways (I have no doubt that someone out there has spent enough time with the in-game encyclopedia to fully understand the kingdom’s history and the characters’ endless domino chain of betrayals, and I’m sure that person will tell me I’m crazy for not appreciating the story’s complexities). What’s important and telling to me is that I was able to sit down and take my time with the game without any shred of completion-anxiety or gloomy thoughts of my backlog. I was able to fully immerse myself in menus and sub-menus and sub-sub-menus of equipment and abilities and tweak and modify and change everything to my little heart’s content. And it felt great.
But here’s the embarrassing part: even with those joyous, exuberant feelings flooding my bloodstream, I didn’t finish Tactics. Black Friday rolled around, I bought a Playstation 4 and a couple of prestige, 100-plus-hour games, and I got distracted. I have every intention of returning to Tactics to finish the job, but you know what they say about the best of intentions: they pave the road to hell/Tidus. So that sucks. I hope I don’t end up in hell, but I might deserve it for abandoning a game that I was enjoying that much. Still, even if I don’t make it back to Ivalice to level up poor, weak Cloud, even if I don’t investigate every corner of that multistory, completely dark bonus dungeon, even if I never visit the Airship Graveyard (littered with so many dead...airships), it’s comforting to know there’s a game written onto my PS3’s hard drive that I can play with complete and unqualified enjoyment if the pressures of gaming in 2015 ever become too much to bear.