A Tactically Disappointing Fantasy
I’ve mentioned before that Final Fantasy Tactics occupies a unique place in my backlog. I only owned the original PlayStation for a few months before moving on to the PlayStation 2, so I missed out on most of that system’s catalog. I’m not sure why Tactics slipped past me on the PSP, but it has always been a game that I intended to get back to considering my love of strategy RPGs and Matsuno’s other big work, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. I have attempted to play FFT numerous times, never making it more than an hour or so into a playthrough before forgetting about it and moving on to another experience. I always assumed that this was a result of not giving the game enough attention; playing it portably while the TV was on in the background or travelling in a car. So, at the start of this year to begin my PSP Backlog Quest, after years of hearing people sing the praises of FFT, I wanted to give this seminal game the attention it deserves. Honestly, I expected to love it just as much as Tactics Ogre. Unfortunately, after spending a month trying to love Final Fantasy Tactics, I finally realized that it just didn’t love me back.
I will start by saying that the characters and story in FFT clicked with me on this playthrough in a way that they haven’t before. I’m usually a sucker for plots that use history as a basis. I studied the history and culture of the Balkans in college, so it’s no surprise that Tactics Ogre interests me. For whatever reason, FFT’s story just hadn’t jumped off the screen to me till this attempt, when Ramza and Delita became interesting characters. I got hooked just enough to want to see where the story was going.
Unfortunately, the interesting story doesn’t balance out everything I found frustrating about the experience of playing FFT. Let’s get the graphics out of the way. I usually don’t care about graphics that much, certainly not in strategy RPGs, but the graphics outside cutscenes are aggressively ugly. The PS1 era in general has not aged gracefully, but the maps in this game are often single, solid colors. I was on a forest map where everything was green, and I accidentally stumbled into a… creek? Swamp? Who knows, I couldn’t tell from the art, the water was green like the rest of the map, but it did mean that I was at too low of an elevation to attack the enemy I was aiming at. Granted, the game does give an elevation meter, but I’ve been spoiled by modern games that usually make it clear through the map design whether the character is too high or low to attack an enemy and, even if that isn’t clear, modern strategy RPGs — including the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre — allow players to cancel movement if a square turns out to not be the best location to attack from. I’m obviously too spoiled by this modern convenience to train myself to pay attention to the elevation meter.
Also, on a forest map, the designers placed four trees on the map, to give it that forest feel I suppose. Unfortunately, the trees were placed in the same part of each corner, so no matter the direction that the camera was pointed, the same tiles in the center of the map would be blocked from view. The game accounted for this by allowing the camera to be tilted as well, so the player could see the blocked squares over the trees, but this resulted in every turn requiring camera manipulation and with the lag that the PSP version introduced, all these slow movements add up.
How have I gotten this far without talking about how arcane the systems are? I know gamers lament the pedantic handholding that so many modern games engage in, treating players as if they are children that have never played a game before. With FFT though, I would have killed for something like Navi screaming “hey, listen!” with some actual direction for how to play. For example, I kept buying Phoenix Downs and I couldn’t understand why the characters were unable use them. I failed to find anyplace where I could equip individual items. After much frustration and poking around, I finally discovered that the player has to spend job points on something as small and mundane as using individual items. It’s not even a requirement to spend job points to use items in general, but for the use of each unique item one by one. This was just too much to take.
Even after spending ten hours with the game, I’m still not sure of the optimal way of dealing with class changes. Maybe I’ve played Fire Emblem too much and thus I’ve fallen into the habit of sticking with the default class because that generally maximizes the growth potential of the character. In FFT, while I was fighting enemies that were the same level as my party, those enemies would have twice the hit points of my characters. After a couple of brutal random battles, I finally discovered that equipment would greatly increases hit points, but this equipment is locked out for the base classes.
Alright, so I just need to change classes. Since I was doing this anyway, I went ahead and changed the Chemist I had been using as a healer to a White Mage; thinking that now I could heal using items and magic. It didn’t occur to me that changing classes would change the default abilities — in this case, using items. During the next battle, Ramza, the only other character I had who could use Phoenix Down, was KOed, and when I went to revive him with the White Mage, I was horrified to discover that he could no longer use Phoenix Down. I was met with yet another frustrating game over.
On the subject of frustration, the one thing that annoys me the most is the AI. AI characters are annoying at the best of times, but the ones in FFT inspired console-chucking levels of frustration. In chapter one, a number of the story missions limit the player party to six characters, and often two of these characters will be AI-controlled. On one map, my player-controlled party was facing seven or eight enemies to the front, but both AI characters ran off to another part of the map to attack a single, solitary archer, leaving the rest of my outnumbered forces to their fate. I eventually got past that mission through grinding, but it left me wondering who on earth thought this was good game design? In what universe does a player want one third of their party taken from their control and left to the whims of a dodgy AI? How is this not just a recipe for frustration?
I should mention that some of these arcane systems are explained in tutorials. Of course, this can’t be a modern game where important tutorials are doled out across the first few missions. Instead, FFT shunts these off to the side, and they come with their own set of annoyances. First, the player has to figure out what section has the information needed. Once that is done, the game forces the player to read the entire tutorial, even if the information needed was right at the beginning. You heard that right, there are optional tutorials that are unskippable. I grew up playing PC games that had massive instruction manuals or optional strategy guides that were, in reality, required reading. I guess I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m not willing to put in that sort of effort — reading all the tutorials and guides — before playing a game.
It’s not as if I’m unwilling to do any work to play a game. After putting down FFT in frustration, I moved on to Sakura Taisen, a Japanese-only release that is requiring me to juggle the PSP with the English translation of the game on a tablet. Despite being very different games, Sakura Taisen puts into perspective what frustrates me about FFT and especially its PSP port, War of the Lions. These games are of similar vintage, but there are big differences in how the ports were handled. Sakura Taisen, originally released on the Saturn, has plenty of outdated, arcane elements; in the original release you couldn’t cancel a move after it was completed and character movement on the map was incredibly slow, but Sega took the later ports as an opportunity to fix these problems. Sega also upgraded the art substantially for widescreen, and for the areas that weren’t touched, such as battle maps, Sega left the content in the original aspect ratio rather than being stretched across the screen like in War of the Lions. Playing these games back-to-back, I can’t help but feel that Sega put more effort in while Square Enix, outside the significant upgrades to the localization, didn’t improve the game and actually made it worse with slowdown that exacerbates all the other problems I have with Final Fantasy Tactics.
I didn’t set out to criticize a game about which I’ve always heard universal praise. As I said at the beginning, I expected and wanted to love Final Fantasy Tactics, and if it is one of your favorites, I don’t intend to demean your love and enjoyment of it. I certainly caught glimpses of an interesting story and character dynamics when I wasn’t being frustrated by the gameplay. If this were just an original PlayStation game, a fairly early experiment in the genre, I’d be much more willing to forgive the annoyances and pitfalls that it has to offer. But Square Enix had an opportunity to polish this rough gem into an amazing experience — like it did with Tactics Ogre — and instead it cranked out a port that in many respects is inferior to the original. The Final Fantasy name on the box is covering up for what is otherwise below-average gameplay. Despite Final Fantasy Tactics‘ important place in gaming history as one of the first strategy RPGs released in the west, its core mechanics are unfriendly and outdated. Unlike the Super Nintendo era Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, FFT does not hold up well in comparison to its modern brethren. War of the Lions has become the most disappointing and frustrating gaming experience I’ve had in years. If Square Enix ever gets around to doing a modern remake of this title, I’d be on board, but until then, Final Fantasy Tactics is dead to me.