Square’s first Nintendo game in years is a solid strategy game, especially for beginners.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance draws immediate comparisons to two games. It is preceded by the original Final Fantasy Tactics on PlayStation and by Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for GBA. Despite a few unique features, FF Tactics Advance does not stand up to these other games. However, it is still a very good turn-based strategy game and is especially tailored for players unfamiliar with the genre.
Don’t let the name fool you: this game is not an RPG and has little to do with the core Final Fantasy series. It is actually the sequel to an offshoot of Quest’s Tactics Ogre series, which is a side-story to the Ogre Battle series. You could probably argue that FF Tactics Advance is more related to Ogre Battle than to Final Fantasy, but since both series are now controlled by the same company (Square-Enix), it doesn’t really matter.
The main thing you should know is that this is a turn-based strategy game that mostly sticks to the traditions of that genre. The game is composed entirely of battles and party management, with story sequences played out at predetermined points, usually before certain battles. The battles tend to be quite long, anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or more each. Characters on each side take their turns in an order determined by the Agility statistic. You tell each of your characters where to move, what action to perform, and which way to face until the next turn. Because placement and facing of characters must be factored in, these battles are much more complex (and interesting) than the kind of combat you’d find in an RPG. Typically, players must take into account such conditions as elevation, weather, and terrain. Ranged attacks also tend to do less damage than comparable direct attacks.
Where FF Tactics Advance falls short is its discarding of many of these factors. The only terrain you have to worry about is water, as standing in it will prevent you from taking an action that turn. Elevation seems to have no bearing at all, except that you can’t attack above or below a certain height difference. In other strategy games, including the original Final Fantasy Tactics, holding the high ground can be a crucial advantage. There are no variable weather conditions. Many abilities provide a ranged attack that does just as much damage as the character’s Fight command. These may seem like minor details, and they are, but they are very important as factors in determining what you can and cannot do within your strategy. By throwing out or de-emphasizing such factors, this game opens up combat so much that you can win without much thinking at all. Obviously, such a result is exactly the opposite of what a strategy game needs.
The law system is an attempt to close up the holes and put more constraints on the gameplay. In theory, it’s a perfect way to do it. In practice, it only works occasionally. That’s because at least half of the laws aren’t going to be applicable to your main party, and the ones that do have the potential to screw things up can usually be nullified with “anti-law” cards. Laws do get nastier late in the game, but by then your characters will be so diverse that they can fight around practically any restriction.
That diversity is both the blessing and curse of the famous job system inherited from the original Final Fantasy Tactics (as well as a couple of traditional FF games). The newest incarnation features more jobs than ever, spread out over the five races of characters in the game. Each job differs in stat growth, available equipment, and most importantly, learned abilities. Abilities are stored within various swords and armor, so to learn something as elementary as the Cure spell, a character must be in a job that can learn White Magic, have something equipped that teaches Cure for that job, and go through several missions to earn the required ability points. The system and interface are more complicated than ever before, and unfortunately, the jobs themselves are not as interesting or useful as in past games. There are way too many jobs that overlap with each other, while others seem unique but are actually the same as another job for a different race. In trying to provide never-before-seen jobs, the developers have really started to scrape the bottom of the bucket. I really love the job system and the customization it brings to a game, but in order for it to work, the jobs have to be well balanced and unique.
Strategy games are well known for their confusing storylines. FF Tactics Advance instead employs a simple tale that attempts to keep events grounded with relevance to the core set of characters. Unfortunately, those main characters are so meagerly established in the prologue that it’s hard to develop much feeling for them later in the game, as they may only make an appearance every ten or fifteen battles. The premise is a decent one, and it does at least stray from the norm and manage to remain completely understandable. It’s just not executed well enough to maintain any level of interest. At least in the Tactics Ogre games, you can keep yourself busy trying to figure out what the hell’s going on amidst the numerous plot twists and subplots.
Yes, I’m beating pretty harshly on the faults of FF Tactics Advance. It’s a game with both pedigree and competition, and it doesn’t live up to either. It is, however, a generally solid game with tons and tons of missions to complete. The game’s core is not significantly different from other turn-based strategy games, so the gameplay is still quite satisfying and party management is as involved as ever. The problems lie in the details, and in such a complex game, details count…a lot. Hardcore strategy gamers should look at Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for a deeper and more advanced handheld experience. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, due to its simpler game design and overall lack of difficulty, is more appropriate for players who are looking to get into the strategy genre without such a harsh learning curve.