Get a crash course in turn-based strategy courtesy of Square-Enix.
As a successor to the Square-Enix series of tactical RPGs, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift once again incorporates extensive character-building and customisation elements into a turn-based strategy game. The result is a delightfully presented experience full of content that offers an open, less hard-edged take on the strategy genre, accommodating new players without relinquishing its depth entirely.
It should be noted as a necessary preface to this review that this writer has no prior experience with tactical RPGs or the Final Fantasy franchise itself. Thus, the perspective contained herein is one largely unfamiliar with the heritage and conventions that come with the title.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 opens with a young schoolboy named Luso being magically transported away from our world into Ivalice, the setting for a number of recent Final Fantasy games including Final Fantasy XII. The relatively straightforward story sets Luso on a path back to his homeland, as he joins a clan of adventurers questing for loot and status across the fantastical landscape. This quest provides a satisfactory backdrop to the growth and development of Luso and his companions throughout the course of the game.
While not technically groundbreaking, the two-dimensional graphics employed to bring Ivalice to life are detailed and beautiful, while special effects during battles add some dazzling moments to the proceedings. Luso and the other characters are represented with portraits during dialogue scenes, and appear as quite basic sprites with limited animation during battle, but these portrayals are never less than appropriately functional. The soundtrack also exudes the same sense of polish that has become expected of Square-Enix's output on DS, providing suitably grandiose-sounding instrumentation for the epic fantasy setting.
Ivalice cannot be openly explored as in a typical RPG, but is instead split up into a number of locations that are selected from a world map as Luso's clan takes on various quests. These quests include such tasks as defeating all foes, holding a particular location, or protecting a non-player character, but almost exclusively consist of participating in a turn-based battle, so the variety to be found is very definitely constrained. Main quests advance the story with some reasonably effective text dialogue scenes playing out before and afterwards, while numerous side quests can be selected in order to simply accumulate experience, items, money, and more.
With turn-based strategy at its heart, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 has much more in common with Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre than its Final Fantasy stablemates. Battles are fought on isometric maps between your clan and various adversaries drawn from the Final Fantasy mythos. All actions are performed by selecting from menus and then specifying areas on the grid, which can be executed with the stylus as well as with buttons. The dual screen display proves more useful than touch screen functionality for improving ease of use, as it makes it possible to readily view information without repeatedly switching between numerous menu screens.
Much of the strategic potential contained within the game's battles depends on the layout of the environments themselves; the terrain affects the ability of your characters to move around the grid, while elevation can sometimes protect against attacks coming from below. The orientation of your warriors is also a consideration, as attacks to the rear can deal considerably more damage than those to the front or sides, encouraging players to use the perimeter of the battlefield to their advantage, and to position characters back-to-back for mutual protection.
Attacks vary by range, area of effect, and elemental category. In tandem with the importance of the environments, these attack types open up an array of strategic possibilities. For example, tight formations protect your clan from close-up physical attacks, but can be swiftly decimated by a long-range magical attack that affects multiple grid spaces, so paying attention to what your opponents are capable of is highly advisable. However, the intuitive tradeoffs in the game's design, such as that between attack range and attack power, are oftentimes insufficiently pronounced to make their strategic exploitation integral to victory. Quite blunt exercise of your characters' abilities is frequently adequate to progress through the game, and this can prove somewhat unsatisfying.
The abilities of your clan members are determined by a number of factors, and this is where Final Fantasy Tactics' RPG elements can be found. Firstly, characters accumulate experience points from participating in battles, raising their statistical attributes as they ascend in level. However, this is only a very basic part of how your clan members develop throughout the course of the game. Each character has a job that comes with specific abilities, such as healing spells for a White Mage. These abilities become "mastered" over time such that a character can then be assigned a different job with new abilities to use, but retain abilities from their previous occupation. Furthermore, equipping clan members with rare armaments (procured by trading specific combinations of items at the Bazaar) can bestow further abilities upon them, eventually opening up new job types for selection by that character.
The net result is enormous scope to customise your characters along branching paths of jobs and abilities, injecting something of a personal touch into the development of a clan and its subsequent use on the battlefield. However, this great breadth of opportunity to character-build works to remove some of the hard edge from the strategy component of Final Fantasy Tactics A2. With a wealth of optional quests to exploit for experience points and items, those finding themselves frustrated with the latest quest in the storyline can take the time to build up their clan such that it can overwhelm its foes rather than being forced to carefully out-manoeuvre them.
The ease with which one can substitute strategy with brute force is magnified by the aforementioned weakness of the tradeoffs between attack types, and as such many of the battle scenarios do not feel meticulously crafted to create tactical problems in the same way as those found in out-and-out strategy games. The Law system, which places restrictions on what actions can be performed in battle in exchange for certain clan privileges, sometimes inserts an interesting tactical wrinkle into a battle scenario, but its effects far more frequently seem arbitrary or entirely trivial. Nevertheless, the game design does reward care and attention to detail, and those that have little desire to play through side quests can fall back on their cunning to circumvent grinding to some extent.
Overall, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is a quite uncommon (if not flawless) coupling of remarkable depth with relative accessibility, although it will not take players by the hand through all of its intricacies. The open-ended structure and accommodating difficulty curve encourage experimentation, and give players ample opportunity to approach the game in their own way with regards to strategy and party management. A keen interest in custom character-building may well be required to get the most from the game, as this element provides the greatest depth for players to explore. However, as a gracefully presented package that includes a lengthy main quest and numerous hours of supplementary content, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is a very worthy purchase for an audience much wider than only genre and/or franchise devotees.