Final Fantasy Tactics: But I Sure Do Miss the Nineties (Part Two)
by Pitchfork


In the West, the strategy games canon is composed mostly of PC titles such as Populous, Command & Conquer, and Starcraft, which have come to be defined by the "real time" element they all share. Stuff is always happening on the playing field, and the player must try and manage it as best he can by erecting structures, introducing new units, and macromanaging their actions while splitting his attention between handling what is happening right then and concocting a long-term battle plan. Across the Pacific, the Japanese take on the strategy genre developed as console "simulation RPGs" like Fire Emblem, Crystal Warriors, Shining Force, and Langrisser. As you might expect from a culture that values orderliness and deliberation, these SPRGs are turn-based, micromanagable, and a lot less hectic than an RTS. Commonly, there will be a dozen units marching in place on a battlefield, each waiting patiently for his turn while all his friends and foes waddle one by one about the grid and whack each other with swords. It's not terribly realistic, but there was once a time when realism in video games was not necessarily considered a design objective.[/harumph]

My introduction to SRPGs occurred around 1992, when I became the owner of a shiny new Sega Genesis console. (It should be emphasized that there was no Internet in 1991 and I hardly ever bought gaming magazines or watched GamePro TV on Saturday mornings. My choosing to upgrade to Sega's console was a choice informed as much by the testimonials of my Genesis-owning friends as my ignorance of a Final Fantasy sequel on the Super Nintendo.) Sonic the Hedgehog, Quackshot, and Streets of Rage made compelling arguments for why I should switch to Sega, but what really sealed the deal for me was Shining Force. Seeing it for the first time, I was astounded. Fights in Final Fantasy are set up sort of like a Civil War battle: both sides stand practically face to face, blasting and jabbing at each other until one side drops or retreats. The only important dimension in Final Fantasy is time. But Shining Force was an RPG in which space was a factor to consider, and it blew my mind. (It really didn't take much back then.)

I was hooked. I must have played through Shining Force and its sequel at least three or four times each. By then I became aware of a "third" Final Fantasy installment, and eventually unplugged the Genesis and hooked up a Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy was reinstated as my after-school preoccupation of choice, though I still thought fondly of Shining Force and cursed my not being able to afford a Sega CD with which to play Shining Force CD. (As it turned out, I wasn't missing much.)

Fast forward three years: after a month or two basking in the Final Fantasy VII afterglow, an acute case of post-RPG dysthymia set in. Where does it go from here? I asked myself. Can it ever get better than this? Then I happened to glance at a friend's copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which featured a preview of a new SquareSoft game that played by Shining Force's rules but had Final Fantasy's classes, summons, and superb visuals, and knew the answer was HELL YES IT GETS BETTER. (It is very hard not to feel nostalgic about the Silver Age of SquareSoft. Even then it was hard not to recognize just how good we had it.)

Final Fantasy Tactics was the second Final Fantasy spin-off title after the condescending international affront that was 1992's Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Like Mystic Quest, which was really a SaGa game masquerading and marketed as a Final Fantasy title, Final Fantasy Tactics is actually a bastard sequel to Quest Corporation's Tactics Ogre.

The Ogre series never took off in the West like it did in Japan, so a quick explanation might be in order. Japanese game developer Quest started out very much like SquareSoft in that it stayed afloat by publishing games that not many people noticed or particularly cared about and that often ripped off successful titles. (Conquest of the Crystal Palace on the NES might be the only early Quest title that made a blip in the American market, and you've probably never heard of it.) Their fortunes began to turn around in 1992 with the SNES release of Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, a strategy RPG created by a developer named Yasumi Matsuno. Its 1995 sequel, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together put Quest on the map (at least in Japan, anyway) and was well-liked enough to get ported from the Super Famicom to the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and the Nintendo Virtual Console, and recently remade for the PSP.

Let Us Cling Together was the last game Matsuno designed with Quest. After its release, he broke ranks and defected to SquareSoft, who quickly put him to work on an SRPG gaiden to their flagship franchise. Final Fantasy Tactics is less a Final Fantasy spin-off than a spiritual successor to Tactics Ogre. You might call it the Perfect Dark to the Ogre franchise's GoldenEye 007.

Matsuno could easily be accused of crass opportunism for jumping ship when he did, but given the circumstances, it's hard to blame him. SquareSoft was quickly becoming one of the biggest Japanese gaming software designers, and the only JRPG outfit with more than a small cult following overseas. A job with Square offered Matsuno the chance to make games with bigger budgets and a wider audience, while sticking with Quest would have meant working on nothing but Tactics Ogre sequels for the rest of his life. How could he say no?

For a while, it went great. Final Fantasy Tactics became an international hit and remains one of one of Square's most applauded and fondly-remembered games. After Tactics, Matsuno got to design Vagrant Story, a high-budget pet project that would have been impossible under a small studio like Quest. When Square gobbled up Quest in 2002 and put its old employees to work on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Matsuno (who had spent the last couple years working on Square's PlayOnline service) was appointed as the game's producer in what must have been one of the most awkward and passive-aggressive development cycles in either company's history. And then he was elected to direct the development of Final Fantasy XII, and...well, we all know how that went. In an ironic turn worthy of Dante, fifteen years after Matsuno's ambition drove him to leave Quest and design games beyond Ogre, virtually the only work he can get lately is on a PSP remake of Let Us Cling Together.

Anyway, let's get on with the show. You know the drill by now.


The Characters!

Bloody hell. Final Fantasy Tactics has almost sixty names in the Brave Story index, and that's not even counting the Lucavi bosses. Let's keep this limited to the more important characters, and only the ones who appear on the battlefield. Also, we will be using the names and terms from the PlayStation version. I trust there are no objections.


Special Ability: Guts

The youngest son of the Hokuten general Balbanes, Ramza was born into noble Beoulve clan and raised to follow in his family's tradition of distinguished military service. Runtish and sheltered, Ramza is widely perceived as the black sheep of the family -- a fact of which he is painfully aware.

While attending the Gariland military academy, Ramza gets tangled up in the civil unrest fomented by a movement of anti-bourgeois anarchists, impoverished thieves, and disenfranchised Fifty Years' War veterans. Witnessing the desperation and conviction of the downtrodden and the calloused deceit of the powermongering nobles, Ramza abjures his family ties and hits the road. He makes a living as a mercenary under Gafgarion for about a year, until his latest job drags him back into the power games and bloody plots of Ivalician politics. His stalwart integrity and selflessness soon makes him an enemy of both factions in the Lion War, gets him branded as a heretic by the Church, and puts him on the shit list of a secret demon cabal, but Ramza keeps on truckin' till the very end.

Ramza's status as one of the most interesting (and best) protagonists to grace a Final Fantasy game can be attributed to two conjoined aspects of his character. The first is his virtue: Ramza is an uncorruptible warrior who not only puts his life on the line, but sacrifices his name, reputation, and fortune for the sake of people who are less likely to thank him than spit at him as an anarchist and heretic (a common trait of Matsuno's heroes). The second and more unusual quality is his featherweight status. Compared to other Final Fantasy heroes and the other characters in his own game, Ramza is a bit of a wimp. While his brothers, friends, and allies are all shooting lightning and splitting the earth with dazzling special moves like Holy Explosion, Hellcry Punch, and Galaxy Stop, Ramza's own aresenal includes such impressive-sounding techniques as Wish, Yell, and Cheer Up. His real power springs from the compassion and sense of justice that allow him to make and keep such powerful allies as Agrias, Olan, and Orlandu.

Also reflective of Ramza's physical deficiency is his default job. Virtually every other special character has the "Squire" slot on the Jobs wheel replaced with their own special class, but Ramza remains a Squire from the beginning of Tactics to the end. This is a little deceptive, as Ramza is by no means a lousy character. Unlike most Squires, he can equip heavy weapons and armor, and gets some killer skills through his Guts ability. A unit that can instantly increase his own attack power, speed, Brave, and Faith at no cost whatsoever is a unit to be taken seriously.


Job: Squire/Holy Knight
Special Ability: Guts/Holy Sword

Ramza's childhood friend, rival, and character foil. A commoner in the service of the Beoulve family, Delita was raised alongside Ramza in Balbanes's household after his parents died of the plague. Despite his association with the Beoulve clout, Delita frequently feels conscious of his low social standing and the limitations it imposes upon him. Like Ramza, he is profoundly affected by seeing the nobles' oppression and manipulation of the "commoners," but the last straw comes after the anti-bourgeois Death Corps take his sister Teta hostage during a standoff against the Hokuten. Delita watches as Ramza's brother Zalbag sacrifices Teta in order to secure the upper hand, then disappears in the ensuing chaos.

One year later, he resurfaces with a mission. Having witnessed how the nobility uses people to gain and keep their power, Delita embarks on a personal quest to lie, cheat, manipulate, and murder his way to the top of the pecking order and tear down the old rulers of Ivalice. While Ramza sacrifices everything for the good of others, Delita acts with the singleminded aim of amassing power and influence. At various times, he is seen in the employ of the Hokuten, Nanten, and Shrine Knights, playing as a double agent and triple agent for whichever side best suits his purpose at that time. He is eventually put in charge of the Nanten Knights, marries Princess Ovelia after the deaths of Larg and Goltana, and ascends to the throne as king, going down through history as the young hero who singlehandedly united Ivalice and pulled it from the brink of self-destruction. Ramza, meanwhile, is allowed to go off and get himself killed in order to prevent the templars' plot from throwing a monkey wrench into his designs, and to ensure that no old friends with big mouths pose any threat to his reign down the road.

Despite Ramza's unambiguous presentation as "the good guy," Delita's status as a hero or villain is totally up in the air. Arguments can be made for either side. He is a liar, a traitor, and a murderer, but he also manages to overthrow the corrupt old order and unify the long-warring factions of Ivalice beneath him, something of which a person with Ramza's tender sensibilities would have been incapable. Even though he betrays just about everyone he ever works with, he does spare Olan and Balmafuma when it would have been in his better interest to silence them. And without his interference, Ovelia almost certainly would have been killed. (Regarding Ovelia: did Delita actually love her, or was he only enticed by the power and possibility she represented? For once, I don't believe I'm overthinking this.)

During his stint in your party as an AI-controlled guest, Delita's default class is Squire, and he has the Guts ability instead of the standard Basic Skill. When he resurfaces in Act Two, he's become a Holy Knight, blasting enemies with Stasis Sword and Crush Punch while Ramza's still wowing the crowd with Cheer Up and Throw Stone. It's a little hard for the player not to feel like a chump by extension, but Ramza gets one over Delita later on. By the time Delita participates in one more battle during Act Four, he's still only using Stasis Sword and Crush Punch, while Ramza's likely to be a teleporting, dual-wielding, blade grasping, screaming slaughterer of armies and demons. (Remember BioShock: when everything adds up, you actually become more powerful by saving the little sisters.)


Here are the real stars of Final Fantasy Tactics: the loyal, unassuming mercenaries fighting on Ramza's side for no rewards other than the clothes on their backs. Towering pillars of selflessness and heroism, they happily obey every command they are given, no matter how risky or downright suicidal, and with absolutely no consideration for their own safety. They are always eager to follow Ramza into any ambushes, deserts, dungeons, and nether dimensions he happens to stumble into, and perfectly willing to wear whatever silly hats or get any ridiculous haircut their assigned job might require. The only time they ever complain is when they're asked to leave. Bless their doomed little hearts.


Job: Holy Knight
Special Ability: Holy Sword

A knight in Church's service and Princess Ovelia's personal bodyguard. When Delita kidnaps Ovelia, Agrias takes off in pursuit, followed by Gafgarion and Ramza. She takes Ovelia back without a fight from Delita, but loses her again through the treachery of the Church. From then on, Ovelia is out of Agrias's reach, and the paladin joins Ramza's quest against the corruption in Ivalice as a permanent and powerful ally.

Paladins in Final Fantasy never had much else going for them than swords and low-level white magic, so the Holy Sword skill was created to give it more of an identity. As a Holy Knight, Agrias gets long-range, instantaneous physical attacks that sometimes inflict status ailments and are usually holy-elemental. In the first battle, the contrast between the AI-controlled Agrias's Stasis Sword and the player-controlled Ramza's Wish ability immediately and clearly establishes the story's protagonist as a physically unremarkable underdog.


Job: Engineer
Special Ability: Snipe

A young machinist from Goug who runs afoul of the Church and its hired goons after he and his father's discover the Taurus Zodiac Stone. In rescuing Mustadio, Ramza earns himself not only a powerful ally, but his ticket to most of Tactics' optional quests. Personally, I tend to feel some dread towards Mustadio's first appearance in Act Two because it is when Tactics's cool political thriller plot begins getting replaced by the "find the magic stones and stop the resurrection of the sleeping demon!" hash.

Mustadio's special job class only has three skills under the Snipe command, but they are so consistently useful as to be a little unfair. Arm Aim and Leg Aim equate to instantaneous, high-accurracy, long distance, MP-free Don't Move and Don't Act status effects, and Seal Evil takes out undead units more efficiently than a Final Fantasy I White Mage packing HRM4. (Oh, the memories.)


Job: Heaven Knight
Special Ability: Truth

When the ambitious and unscrupulous Duke Barinten of Riovanes stumbled upon an obscure tribe with unique hereditary magical powers, he tried to draft its members into his personal army. The tribe refused, so Barinten had their village to the ground and murdered the entire population. The only two escapees were a pair of young siblings, who wandered the mountains in destitution until Barinten himself took them in. Acting as their benefactor and foster father, the duke raised Rafa and Malak, molding them into his trained and loyal assassins. It seems to have been working just fine until Bariten raped Rafa, compelling her to defect to Ramza's crew at her first opportunity.

In Final Fantasy Tactics: The Story, Rafa is the more discerning and perceptive of the Galthana siblings. In Final Fantasy Tactics: The Game, Rafa is a suicidal moron, as anyone who's spent two hours stuck at the Riovanes Rooftop battle will attest. "PROTECT RAFA FROM ELMDOR AND HIS ASSASSINS," says the battle prompt. Four times out of five, the AI-controlled Rafa will begin the fight by strolling right up to Elmdor and his one-hit kill hussies, whack at them with her crappy little stick, and get slashed to pieces in retaliation for an instant Game Over. Schade!

Each of Rafa's Truth skills is an elemental spell that costs no MP, but pays for this advantage with an element of randomness. Instead of hitting every square of the five-tile effect range all at once, the spell fires one to six random one-tile blasts into the five-tile effect area. Sometimes it misses completely. Sometimes it will cripple that big monster with five consecutive bolts. It's a gamble, but it makes Rafa one of the most fun (though least effective) of Tactics' special units.


Job: Hell Knight
Special Ability: Un-Truth

Rafa's older brother is completely and unquestionably loyal to Duke Barinten, going so far as to attack his sister when she tries to convince him of their foster father's diabolical intentions. Barinten wants both the Zodiac Stones and leverage against the Shrine Knights, so he has Malak intercept Izlude as he flees from Orbonne with the kidnapped Alma in tow. Malak delivers a message to Ramza: come to Riovanes with Rafa, the Germonik Scriptures, and Zodiac Stones, or Alma dies.

Malak continues to harrass Ramza for a while, but finally comes to his senses when he overhears the Duke taunting Rafa about what he did to her. When the horror at Riovanes finally subsides, a pentinent Malak joins Ramza as a permanent ally.

Malak's Un-Truth abilities are practically identical to Rafa's Truth skills, except that their damage is calculated in the reverse. Every other kind of offensive magic in Tactics becomes stronger when both the caster and target have higher Faith stats, but Malak's Un-Truth damage increases when he and his target have lower Faith scores.


Holy Swordsman
Special Ability: All Swordskill

Nicknamed "Thunder God Cid" for his legendary battle prowess, Orlandu commands the Nanten knights under Prince Goltana. As the Lion War drags on, Goltana becomes increasingly annoyed at Orlandu's objections to the prolonged conflict. The Church provides him an excuse to get rid of Orlandu by framing him for an assassination plot. Goltana promptly strips Orlandu of his command, replaces him with Delita, and throws him in jail. During the Hokuten siege of Bethla Garrison, Ramza springs the old hero from prison and recruits him to his cause.

"T.G. Cid" is simultaneously the strongest character in Tactics and the worst thing about the game. His stats are incredible, he comes equipped with the second-strongest sword in the game, and his All Swordskill ability allows him to use all of Agrias's, Gafgarion's, and Meliadoul's special attacks. "Tactics" don't even figure into the game once you start putting Orlandu on your team. Battles become "have Orlandu take point, let everyone else mop up after him, collect winnings." It's anyone's guess as to why Matsuno and the other developers were okay with this.


Divine Knight
Special Ability: Mighty Sword

A young woman in the service of the templars, following her father Vormav. It's likely that Meliadoul worked to further the Church's goal of turning public sentiment against the warring nobles and advancing its own political influence, but she clearly had no knowledge of the Lucavi plot. When Hashmalum kills her brother Izlude and the heretic Ramza takes the blame, Meliadoul swears to avenge her brother. After attempting to take out Ramza, Meliadoul defects to his crew when she realizes her father and his inner circle have been dealing with demons.

Poor Meliadoul. As a Divine Knight, she uses long-distance sword skills to blow up enemies' equipment. This is certainly useful -- but Orlandu can do it too, and he joins the team before Meliadoul. By the time she finally does switch to your side, there's already somebody who can do her job better. (In her defense, she's a bit of a cutie and looks a lot better than Orlandu in a hood, but neither counts for much in Tactics.)


Temple Knight
Special Ability: Magic Sword

A former soldier of the theocratic province of Lionel. When he ran afoul of a corrupt Church official, Beowulf was stripped of his rank, branded as a heretic, and forced into exile. These days, he travels throughout Ivalice as a wandering monster hunter searching after the Holy Dragon. His name compounds more mythologies than I am comfortable with.

Beowulf comes close to being borked as Orlandu. His Magic Sword allows him to cast instantaneous, long-range status-effect spells with a higher success rate than an Oracle of the same level. The Final Fantasy Tactics development team evidently had a grudge against magic-users; status effects were just about the only thing a mage could do that a special class couldn't do better.


Holy Dragon/Dragoner
Special Ability: Breath/Dragon

Beowulf's fiancee Reis was cursed by a jealous Church official and turned into a dragon. Having lost all memory of her former self, Reis meanders across Ivalice, tracked by Beowulf She eventually turns up at the bottom of a haunted coal mine, and regains her human body and memories through the power of the Cancer Zodiac Stone.

As a battle unit, Reis comes in two flavors: Holy Dragon and Dragoner. She starts off as a more or less basic monster unit with a range of elemental breath attacks. After the completion of a sidequest, Reis's default job changes into the ultra-powerful Dragoner. In her human form, she keeps all of her Holy Dragon attacks, learns some obscene buff skills, has innate Monster Skill and Two Swords, and grows her HP and magic attack stats at the highest rate of any character in the game. Yeah, like Ramza's team needed another damn scrub.


Steel Giant
Special Ability: Work

Mustadio's father discovers this ancient robot in a Goug excavation site. It reactivates after exposure to the Aquarius stone, and acknowledges Ramza as its new master.

Worker 8 is one of the cooler monster units. Its "Work" skills consist of tremendous physical attacks that drain its health with every use. Since it is inorganic and mindless, Worker 8 has no conception of the divine and therefore has its Faith stat permanently set at zero. This makes it completely immune to all kinds of magic, but also raises a few questions about the other critters in Tactics. If magic requires belief in a higher power to have an effect on its target, how the heck are malboros and and chocobos affected by Fire and Cure? How can a panther have a higher Faith stat than a human? Sometimes I forget that you're not supposed to ask these kind of questions about Final Fantasy.


Special Ability: Limit

God dammit. They really shouldn't have let this one happen.

After a completing a few optional quests, you can return to Goug, where Mustadio's tinkering father has dug up some sort of dimensional portal machine. Activating it sucks Cloud himself into Ivalice, whereupon he immediately starts yammering about Sephiroth, SOLDIER, and I DON'T KNOW WHO I AM before running off. He joins Ramza's gang after a kerfuffle over an Aeris lookalike, but starts out at Level 1 and can't use any of his Limit attacks without his Materia Blade, which you have to acquire using Move-Find Item on a certain map. Final Fantasy Tactics marks the first appearance of Gloom Cloud. He's not the same character from Final Fantasy VII, though he is the same character seen in Advent Children and Kingdom Hearts. Gloom Cloud is Cloud without any of the snark, poise, and charm that make him more than just a confused sad sap with a big sword, and he's pretty much the only version of the character that appears outside of the original Final Fantasy VII. But I digress.

Cloud's Limit ability does...well, it surely does something. To tell the truth, I've never used it. My team is always full by the time Cloud appears, and Alicia and Lavian are more pleasant to look at than him. As soon as he offers to join up, he gets his mopey level-one ass turned away.


Special Ability: Holy Magic

I take back what I said about Schala in the Chrono Trigger piece. Between her and Ovelia, Tactics' princess definitely gets the rawer deal. Ovelia is the much younger half-sibling of King Ondoria, who adopted her as his daughter after the second consecutive loss of an infant son. When the aling king dies, Ovelia and the infant prince Orinas (Ondoria's one-year-old third son) are in line for the throne. Prince Larg insists that his nephew Orinas is the legitimate heir, while Prince Goltana pushes for Ovelia's coronation. Since neither Ornias nor Ovelia is old enough to rule, either Larg or Goltana would have to "temporarily" rule Ivalice as their candidate's guardian and regent.

This reduces Ovelia to little more than a political pawn in the eyes of Ivalice's big players. To Larg, she is a liability. To Goltana, she is an ace in the hole. To the templars, she is a bargaining chip. When Ovelia sighs about all the people dying because of her, one gets the impression that she is rather missing the point.

Ovelia appears in only one battle as an AI-controlled guest and casts Mbarrier, the mother of all buffing spells -- but usually only on herself. Thanks for nothing, princess.


Special Ability: Holy Magic

Matsuno has a penchant for the Protective Sister character archetype, which appears in Final Fantasy Tactics as Ramza's younger sibling Alma. Born of a different mother than Zalbag and Dycedarg, Alma and Ramza are much closer to each other than with their older half-brothers. Alma constantly worries about Ramza and wants to help him out however she can, even when the rest of the world wants him thrown in prison or executed as a blasphemer and traitor. Naturally, she gets kidnapped by the templars, prompting Ramza to spend half the game trying to rescue her.

Like Ovelia, the AI-controlled Alma's sole function is to run around and cast Mbarrier, though she is much less stingy with it than the princess. I would suggest that a final boss fight sorta loses its fangs when you have a computer-controlled ally always casting Reraise on your team leader, but what the hell do I know about game design?


Special Ability: Starry Heaven

An officer and information-gatherer of the Nanten knights, and the stepson of Orlandu. When Ramza rescues him from a pack of cutthroats, Olan recognizes the young Beoulve's integrity and becomes his loyal, though often distant ally. After Ramza pays the ultimate price for daring to do the right thing, Olan takes it upon himself to clear his friend's name and let people know the truth of what actually happened. For this, the Church has him burned at the stake. Gotta give Matsuno credit for his grip on medieval Western culture.

An AI-controlled Olan only fights as a guest in a single battle, and his unbelievably powerful Galaxy Stop spell turns it into the easiest fight in the whole game. A good astronomer ain't nothing to fuck with. (The PSP retranslation calls him an Astrologer. I call this bullshit.)

(1:57:20 AM) Spyda K: So...FFT is being told by Olan's descendent, Alazlam Durai, who found Olan's hidden papers documenting the true events of the Lion War.
(1:58:22 AM) Spyda K: Boy, isn't it funny that when Alazlam talks about how Ramza first met his ancestor, Olan just kinda overpowers all the bad guys and is the coolest person on the battlefield?
(1:58:34 AM) Pitchyfork: HAH!
(1:58:37 AM) Pitchyfork: stealing that.


Dark Knight
Special Ability: Dark Sword

The mercenary Gafgarion is introduced as the exiled Ramza's comrade, confidant, and mentor. After chasing after Delita and Ovelia for a few days, Gafgarion receives a change of orders: murder Ovelia instead of rescuing her. Ramza refuses to comply and rushes to the princess's defense, and Gafgarion becomes his primary antagonist for the rest of Act Two. Given Ramza's idealism and Gafgarion's hard cynicism, it's a wonder it took them that long to go at each other's throats. Gafgarion adheres to a consequentialist "ends justify the means" philosophy and will do just about anything, provided it's in his contract and the pay is good enough. He recognizes the corruption in Ivalice and expresses revulsion toward it, but accepts it as an ugly fact of life and plays along, offering his sword to whichever faction cuts him a check.

Gafgarion fights on your side as an AI-controlled guest for a few battles. His brutal Night Sword attack (instantaneous, 100% accuracy, long distance damage that simultaneously restores its user's HP) makes him an exceptionally powerful ally, so it's all the more frightening when you unexpectedly find yourself forced to fight against him.


Special Ability: Basic Skill

A miltary cadet in Maquis Elmdor's service who powerfully desires to make a name for himself as a knight. When Elmdor is abducted by a Death Corps faction on his way to Igros, Algus escapes and gets rescued by Ramza. His characterization is handled beautifully -- at first he seems like a polite suppliant who is only eager to help out, but by and by his true nature reveals itself. Algus is obsessed with rank and status. He admires and defers to Ramza only because of his high birth, and despises Delita and the destitute Death Corps members as human vermin. What you may not have caught was his defection from Goltana (he worked for Elmdor, remember?) to the Hokuten under the older Beoulve brothers. Algus doesn't care who he works for, so long as his rise through the ranks is guaranteed. More than anyone else, it is Algus who inspires Delita to embark upon his treacherous path to power and adopt the same brutal methods as the nobles he despises.

Algus was designed to be hated, and makes a suitably loathsome opponent as the boss of Act One. He packs a crossbow (at a point before melee weapons start getting significantly stronger than long-range ones) and uses Auto Potion to keep his health up while his knights and wizard chip away at your divided team.


Lune Knight
Special Ability: Sword Skill

Ramza's eldest brother lead the Hokuten as a renowned knight until stepping down to assume the role of diplomat and strategist at his father's behest. Now removed from the stress and noise of the battlefiled, Dycedarg has more time to dedicate to his pet projects: scheming and powermongering. He ultimately believes that the Beoulve family shoud be running the show instead of capitulating to the royalty, and is willing to wait as long as it takes until the opportunity to seize power presents itself.

Dycedarg fights as a Lune Knight, which is obviously an inspired mistranslation of Rune Knight. On that note, a few words about Tactics' English translation: it's not very good. Though it's not on quite the same level as, say, Breath of Fire II, you have to wonder if the Anglos in the localization credits were locked out of the office by their Japanese counterparts. And Before somebody asks, I have an almost equally low opinion of the War of the Lions revamp. The translators take enough stylistic liberties so as to render it about as inaccurate as the shoddy literal translation of the PSX version. I might be mistaken about this -- and do correct me if I am -- but there is no way the Japanese version has any lines that could be reasonably translated as...

What troubled sleep have you known, to speak of my dreams? No matter how sweet, a dream left unrealized must fade into day. Only with power can dreams be made real! I see the truth of it now. What good, dreams, without that power? You think me a thrall? So be it! Your envenomed words succor me, for when at last you yield - as you must - their poison will consume you!

...without adding a whole lot of extra stuff that wasn't there to begin with. And unless you know what you're doing (and these people clearly do not), inflating prose with a phony Elizabethan flourish makes it sound much more doltish than dramatic.


As a Lune Knight, Dycedarg is basically a Holy/Divine Knight with Black Magic as his secondary action ability. This means that even if you can save yourself from Stasis Sword and Shellbust Stab by breaking his weapon, he can still fall back on high-level elemental spells.


Arc Knight
Special Ability: Destroy Sword

Ramza's dutiful brother and the second-oldest of the four Beoulves. An active participant on the battlefield during the Lion War, Zalbag directs the Hokuten under Larg and Dycedarg as a matter of civic responsibility. Despite his reputation for gallantry, it is Zalbag who gives Algus the order to put a crossbow bolt through Delita's sister to get a clear shot at the Death Corps commander Golagros. Blithely unaware of Dycedarg's machinations throughout the Lion War, Zalbag refuses to listen to Ramza's accusations of treachery until it's too late.

Zalbag's Arc Knight job should theoretically have a Samurai skillset like Elmdor, but instead he equips knight swords and uses a set of stat-reducing "ruin" skills. Relatively unimpressive, but at least he fights on your side -- until he gets turned into a zombified bloodsucker and comes at you with a crew of Ultima Demons, that is.


White Knight
Special Ability: Holy Sword

In the economic depression following the Fifty Years' War, poverty ran rampant among the lower social classes. Many veterans found themselves without food, money, or jobs. The idealistic soldier Wiegraf founded the Death Corps, a group of anti-aristocrats (ie: communists) and anarchists staging terroristic attacks against the nobility. Wiegraf is Ramza's main foe throughout the first chapter, but vanishes after the battle at Fort Zeakden. When he resurfaces in Act Three, the Death Corps have been wiped out and Wiegraf has aligned with the Church in its plot to dismantle the nobility and instate itself as the supreme power in Ivalice.

Wiegraf is the #1 reason why players give up on Final Fantasy Tactics. The second of the three battles at Riovanes Castle starts with a one-on-one duel between Ramza and Wiegraf. Unless you either know what's coming in advance or have a particularly powerful Ramza (with some very specific equipment), Wiegraf will wipe the floor with you over and over again. To make matters worse, once you finish the first battle at Riovanes, you can't leave until all three are finished. If you can't beat Wiegraf and neglected to save to another file before entering Riovanes, you're stuck. During my first time playing Tactics I developed Ramza as a Black Mage/Time Mage, having no idea something like this would ever happen. Each try went something like:

[Long, unskippable cutscene]
- Turn #1: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.
- Turn #2: Ramza begins casting Ice2.
- Turn #3: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.

[Long, unskippable cutscene]
- Turn #1: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.
- Turn #2: Ramza begins casting Stop.
- Turn #2: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.

[Long, unskippable cutscene]
- Turn #1: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.
- Turn #2: Ramza begins casting Haste.
- Turn #3: Wiegraf uses Lightning Stab.

There's nothing quite like sinking fifteen to twenty hours into a video game and then having to start over from scratch. I think at this point I threw Tactics aside and replayed Shining Force II with my thumb in my mouth.

Aside from being unfair and difficult, the duel between Ramza and Wiegraf serves an important purpose in the plot and Ramza's development as a character. This is his final rite of passage toward becoming a hero. Throughout the whole game, the player is made to feel a bit of an inferiority complex toward stronger characters like Agrias and (Holy Knight) Delita. By demonstrating his capability of beating such a powerful foe on his own, Ramza proves he's not the weakling his brothers and enemies thought.


Arc Knight
Special Ability: Sword Spirit

A high-ranking noble, military officer, and Sepphy impersonator within the Nanten. His first appearance occurs in in Act One, when he gets kidnapped by the Death Corps on a visit to Igros before the outbreak of the Lion War. Months later, Elmdor perishes in a clash between the Hokuten and Nanten -- a development you might overlook if you're not stopping at bars and keeping track of the rumors list. Hopefully you've been paying attention, so you'll understand Ramza's alarm at Elmdor's sudden postmortem appearance on the Riovanes Castle rooftop.

As an Arc Knight, Elmdor is really only a beefed-up Samurai, which is scary enough in itself. But what's really terrifiying is how he always appears flanked by Celia and Lede, his personal assassins. These two mean business: their Shadow Stitch skill is a long-distance, instantaneous Stop spell with 100% accuracy, while Stop Bracelet instantly kills one character and never misses. If Celia and Lede both manage to land more than one attack against your team, you've practically already lost.


Special Ability: Snipe

Whenever I start complaining about Final Fantasy Tactics's challenge peaking at Act Three, Balk always appears to shut me up. He's not terribly important to the story -- just another proletarian activist/machinist aligned with the templars -- but dealing with him in battle is a pain in the ass. He's fast. He has innate support abilities that make it so your attacks never seem to do as much damage as they should. He always comes packing some horrible magic-shooting gun, and has Mustadio's instant high-accuracy Don't Move/Don't Act attacks to boot. And he always makes sure you're coming into the fight at a disadvantage. The first time you meet him, he poisons everyone on your team before the battle even starts, then snipes at you from behind a wall of knights and archers. When he challenges you to a rematch later on, he blasts at you from an advantageous position, sics some of the most powerful monsters in the game on you (those fucking hydras), and keeps a Chemist around to help shoot at you and toss recovery/resurrection items at the dragons. If you want a warrior's job done right, it sometimes takes a scientist.


Divine Knight
Special Ability: Mighty Sword

The political clout of the Glabados Church has declined over the years, and its higher-ups intend to get it back. High Priest Funeral enacts a scheme to drive Larg and Goltana to war against each other over and plunge Ivalice into chaos and misery. As the war continues and public resentment toward the nobles boils over, the Church's Shrine Knights will come riding in to stop the conflict and save the day. Instrumental to this plan are the Zodiac Stones, twelve (actually thirteen) ancient relics said to have been in the possession of twelve legendary warriors who saved Ivalice from a previous crisis. Arming templars with Zodiac Stones and proclaiming them the new Zodiac Braves, Funeral intends to play on the people's discontent and superstition to compel them to abandon the nobles and restore their faith in the Church.

A middle-aged templar named Vormav was given the Leo stone and appointed to lead the Church's new Zodiac Braves. What Funeral didn't know was that the stones were tied to dark powers that could possess their owners. Vormav ostensibly works for Funeral and the Church, but his true purpose is to gather the Zodiac stones, invite his demonic buddies into Ivalice, and resurrect Altima, the Bloody Angel.

You only fight Vormav once in one of those "bring one of three exceptionally powerful enemies below 20% before they wipe out your team" battles, during which he acts exactly like his daughter Meliadoul. His Lucavi alter-ego is just as anticlimactic.


Tainted King
Zodiac Sign:

The first representative Ramza meets of the Lucavi, a demonic zodiac manipulating political events in order to resurrect their lost leader and bring chaos unto Ivalice. Gosh, what a relief -- for a minute there I though Square was actually going to give us a new kind of story about medieval realpolitik instead of falling back on the old "hero must stop villain from resurrecting ancient demon" plot we've already seen six hundred thousand times.

At any rate, the Queklain is the first real boss in Final Fantasy Tactics, and will probably cause first time players to piss their drawers if they're not expecting him. (Should I have said "spoiler alert?") He looks like Oogie Boogie's hellish older brother and blasts your team with poison, death sentence, sleep, and other nasty status effects, but has more bark than bite.

Fun fact: his name comes from a figure in Irish folklore. As with virtually every other mythological appellation throughout Final Fantasy, Tactics' "Impure King" has very, very little in common with his ancient namesake.


Zodiac Sign:

Reason #2 why people give up playing Final Fantasy Tactics. So you've finally managed to luck out and beat Wiegraf, even though it took twenty minutes of running back and forth while pecking away at his health? Don't pat yourself on the back just yet. As soon as Wiegraf collapses, Velius drops in. Don't expect a fight as easy as Queklain. Velius is fast. He's got more HP than anything you've fought so far. He packs one of the strongest spells in the game and has an ability that cuts its charge time in half. He comes backed by three Archaic Demons who are capable of picking your team off at wide distances with Dark Holy and Gigaflare, and have too much HP to take out in just one or two turns. And if you happen to lose the battle (likely), you get to reboot and fight Wiegraf all over again. Jeez. I don't think Tactics ever gets harder than this.


Angel of Death
Zodiac Sign:

Challenging Ramza in a subterranean vault at Limberry Castle, Zalera fights a bit like Queklain, only he is much more mobile and comes backed by a crew of skeletons and zombied meat shields. While his undead buddies peck away at your HP and keep you from getting within fighting distance, Zalera likes to sits back and peg your team with Nightmare, Bio 3, Spell, and Flare 2. Meliadoul rushes in to help out, but since neither Zalera nor his goons have any equipment to explode, there's not a lot she can do.

Like most of the other Lucavi, Zalera appears as an Esper in Final Fantasy XII, though he is the only one who gets a total visual overhaul. Perhaps it was because his appearance has absolutely nothing to do with the imagery of his Zodiac symbol? (You could say the same about Queklain, which is probably why they gave the fat sack of scum a scorpion tail in XII.)


Ghost of Fury
Zodiac Sign:

If Zalera acts like a souped-up Queklain, Adramelk is similar to Velius in that his M.O. is hurling powerful magic like Holy, Flare, Odin, and Bahamut at you with the aid of Short Charge. Unfortunately for him, your team has access to better equipment and more tricks than it did when fighting Velius, and Adramelk makes the silly mistake of not calling for backup. The only way this fight gets tricky is if the AI-controlled guest takes out Adramelk's host before your team can reach him during the fight's first round. Because of how the battlefield is set up, Adramelk can often start hurling magic at you unchallenged during the time it takes your units to get within attacking range.


Zodiac Sign:

Finally. Hashmalum is Altima's second in command, the acting leader of the Lucavi, and the one who's been making Ramza's life consistently difficult since the beginning of Act Two. If you're hoping for a climactic showdown here, you're out of luck. Hashmalum looks like a cross between Bert Lahr and J. Edgar Hoover, fights by himself, and doesn't have any significant field advantage. He does, however, have the spells used by Chaos from the first Final Fantasy at his disposal and a really neat animation where he commits hari kiri by thrusting his hand through his own chest -- but that's about it.


Zodiac Sign:

The secret, estranged member of Lucavi respresents the "missing" Zodiac constellation Serpentarius (better known as Ophiuchus, which has been getting quite a bit of attention as of late). Elidibs lurks at the bottom of the Deep Dungeon, and would rather hang out in pitch darkness with a fraternity of panda demons than spread chaos and destruction with the rest of his devilish brethern. He is stronger than every other Lucavi demon but Altima, and the only unit in the game capable of casting the ultra-powerful Zodiac summon spell. As far as endgame super-bosses in Final Fantasy go, he's a bit of a pushover (though I say this as somebody who spammed Lich and Life Drain against him). Fun fact: Elidibs is the only Lucavi who doesn't reappear in Final Fantasy XII as an Esper. Instead, the Serpentarius slot is given to Zodiac, the serpentine monster who appears in Elidibs's special summon spell.


Holy Angel
Zodiac Sign:

A Japanese RPG casting a fictional fascimile of the Christian Church as a corrupt institution preaching a false religion is nothing new, but Tactics might be one of the first to go a step forward and place the church's exalted martyr/savior Christ-figure as the game's archdemon endboss. The divnity of Saint Ajora, the founder and central diety of the Glabados Church, is first blemished when the lost Germonik Scriptures (the Tactics analogue to a Gospel of Judas) reveal him to have been not only a normal human being, but a politically-motivated spy. It laters turns out that the story has even more to it: Ajora was also possessed by Altima, the leader and most powerful member of the Lucavi. In a bizarre parody of the Christian Resurrection, the Lucavi must bring Ajora back to life before they can release Altima from his human body.

The lovely Altima possesses the outward demeanour of an angelic maiden (who dresses like a ninja stripper), but beneath this festers the cruelty and dark power of a demogorgon. (It is worth remembering that Lucifer himself was considered the fairest of the angels.) As per the JRPG endboss guidelines, Altima ditches the glamor and morphs into a gigantic floating corpse/robot/pope during round two, which is also when she busts out Grand Cross, the old staple of the Final Fantasy archfoe. Curing somebody of five different status ailments sure ain't as easy in Tactics as it is elsewhere.


The Game!

So: Tactics Ogre takes and fleshes out the SRPG fundamentals as established in Fire Emblem, while Final Fantasy builds on the JRPG template drafted by Dragon Quest. Essentially, Final Fantasy Tactics is Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together stirred together with Final Fantasy V. The resulting concoction retains the most enjoyable flavors of its constituent parts while boasting is own distinct and delectable taste.

It would be tedious to list every single change made to the Tactics Ogre rules, but the general theme is that they get tweaked along the same lines as the PSX entries of SquareSoft's pre-existing franchises. Through the late 1990s, Square bent its strategy toward developing games that would appeal equally to the legions of pasty-faced, numbers-obsessed (S)RPG fanatics and the hordes of dopey, spectacle-seeking PlayStation-owning casual gamers (especially overseas). How well did this work? According to VGCharz, Let Us Cling Together has sold about 960,000 units on the Super Famicom and PSP since 1995, though this total excludes sales of the versions released on Sega Saturn, Wii Virtual Console, and PlayStation, the latter of which got a North American localization. Meanwhile, between the original PlayStation version and the PSP re-release, Final Fantasy Tactics has moved around 3,170,000 units worldwide since 1997. (Even if the PSX and Saturn sales were added to Tactics Ogre's total, it probably still wouldn't be enough to close the two million-unit gap.) On the other hand, participants of a 2006 poll conducted by Famitsu magazine (a publication whose editors and readers could be considered JRPG votaries in the same sense that FOX News might be said to slant a bit to the right) voted Let Us Cling Together as the seventh-greatest video game of all time, while Final Fantasy Tactics came in eighty-fourth. Make of this what you will, but the roundabout point is that Final Fantasy Tactics functions like an easier, more forgiving version of Let Us Cling Together that sports an extremely extensive character customization system to entice veteran players.

If you remember Final Fantasy V's job system (and I know you do), you'll recall how each party member was assigned a job, which came with its own action ability, equipment restrictions, and innate attributes. Additionally, you could tack on an action or innate ability from another job, thereby combining attributes across the game's twenty-one character classes. Final Fantasy Tactics takes this fun concept and turns it into pure gamer dopamine. Instead of only assigning party members a single ability or attribute from another job, Tactics allows each unit to be assigned a secondary action ability, a reaction ability, a support ability, and a movement ability. No matter which of the game's twenty jobs a unit might be assigned, he has the freedom to borrow abilities from up to four other jobs at once. Kid, meet candy store.

As we've always done when taking a look at Final Fantasy games using a form of the job system, let's take a gander at some of Tactics' more noteworthy character classes...

BEST (basic) JOBS:
Calculator, Monk, Ninja, Samurai

In alphabetical order: the Calculator's Math Skill is so powerful as to be the mage's equivalent to Orlandu's All Swordskill. The Monk, considered apart from any job/ability combinations, probably has the most solid skillset of any job. As usual. the Ninja's tremendous speed stat and ever-useful Two Swords skill make him a top-tier entry in yet another job-based Final Fantasy. Finally, the Samurai's Draw Out skill gives him instant, multi-hitting magic attacks, HP recovery, and buffing abilites, and his stupid Blade Grasp counter comes very close to granting him total immunity against physical attacks.


Archers can be dangerous in the hands of the AI (early on, anyway), since they usually begin the battle with a high-ground advantage and take their turns before your non-Ninja units. Your own archers, conversely, will spend several turns scrambling to get into position before they can act effectively, and there's not much they can do that a gun-equipped Chemist or Mediator can't. Their Charge skill suffers from Cyan syndrome and becomes a waste of JP and time beyond Charge +2. The Squire, on the other hand, is just the "root" class for physical jobs. Once he learns Move+1 and Gained JP Up, there is no reason not to change him to something better.

Calculator, Dancer, Oracle

The Calculator's Math Skill devestatingly powerful and just plain fun, besides. Dancers are a blast: get her started, stick her in a corner, boost her brave and speed, and watch the opposing forces squirm. And Oracles? Oracles are great. They're the rare mage class that can do physical damage with melee attacks, and their often-overlooked Yin-Yang Magic can bring the enemy team to a dead halt if used judiciously. (It is, of course, always more effective to simply kill your opponents instead of ensaring them, but where's the sport in that?)

Special Units

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns hires Major League players to replace the members of the power plant's softball team so he can win a bet? Same scenario. For its first two chapters, Tactics has you crafting a cohesive fighting force from scratch, guiding every step of their journey from lowly level one hirees to blood-spattered, battle-hardened god murderers. Halfway through the game, these people start showing up and putting them out of work. It's still possible to train Beowulf and Orlandu as other jobs than Temple Knight and Holy Swordsman, but why bother? In order to win Final Fantasy Tactics with ease, all you need to do is assemble a team consisting of Ramza, Orlandu, Beowulf, Reis, and Mustadio/Meliadoul (depending on the battle) and have everyone spend just enough time as a Chemist to learn Auto Potion and Phoenix Down. From then on, you're golden. Anyone who dares oppose your five-man army will get shredded up like dandelions picking a fight with a weed whacker. So much for tactics.

The Ladies

Seriously, find me a single Final Fantasy Tactics class whose male version looks better than his female counterpart.

Geomancer (male)

Oh, gross.

Chemist, Geomancer

After the Chemist's low-tier status in Final Fantasy V, you might think to expect very little from his reincarnation in Tactics. But despite his low stats, the Chemist donsn't make half-bad team members. He gets instantaneous long-distance healing, status-neutralizing, and resurrection skills, has an amazing reaction ability in Auto Potion, and is one of the two basic jobs that can equip guns. And the Geomancer, after being iffy in Final Fantasy III and almost useless in V, finally comes into her element (no pun intended) in a game like Tactics. Her Elemental attack means long distance, height-ignoring chip damage with the occasional status ailment attached. Water Ball, Carve Model, and Hell Ivy can be tide-turners, and they're all tied to some of the most common terrain tiles.

The Mages

Magic-using units are not popular in Final Fantasy Tactics. Not only do they suffer from the usual problems of having low health, lousy physical stats, weak armor, and limited MP, but Tactics additionally saddles them with charge times for their spells. There's not much point making your Black Mage spend six turns as a sitting duck in order to cast Bolt3 when Orlandu can do pretty much the same thing instantly with Lightning Stab. Still, mages aren't totally useless, and they're not even as bad as people make them out to be (protip: by pressing right on the D-pad while selecting spells, you can see where the spell would appear on the AT list and plan around it), but you are definitely making life harder for yourself by stacking your party with magic-users instead of meatheads.

Let's move along. You see this?


This the the Formation menu, which might be better than sex (depending on the kind of sex you're accustomed to having). This is where the magic happens. This is where the crack hits the brain. The Formation menu serves as the refinery through which unskilled Squires and Chemists are processed into a ruthless heretical death squad. All of the monkeying around with your team's equipment, jobs, and abilities occurs here.

In Final Fantasy V, winning battles earned you ability points. Getting enough ability points leveled that job up, unlocking a new attribute or ability that could be transferred to other jobs. In Tactics, job points act as a currency which you spend on unlocking new skills. There is no set order in which units learn new tricks; as long as they have enough JP to afford a skill, it's theirs. Final Fantasy Tactics allows you to choose precisely how your team grows. Tweaking your team in Tactics is an experience that combines the best things about Zen gardening, masturbation, and television-induced photosynthesis, and fuses them into a psychic ambrosia that intoxicates gaming-playing folk like the white man's fire water cut through the Indians.

Even the best and most beloved Final Fantasy games are beset with some significant design issues, and Tactics is no exception. Some of of the more common player complaints are about the size of the playing field, the relatively low team size, and the disbalance of the job system. Not that these aren't legitmate, but they've been covered sufficiently elsewhere, and they don't touch the main issue.

I'm not sure whether to call it a problem of overdesign or underdesign, but it haunts almost every Final Fantasy game since V. I think VIII presents the best example of it. The game gives the player a rocket launcher in the form of the Junction System, but then takes him to a skeet shoot. Mastering the Junction system and using it to its full potential in a game built like Final Fantasy VIII is overkill when 90% of the game can be won simply by spamming GF summons and Limit Breaks.

Final Fantasy Tactics places the most customizable and abusable version of the Job system in players' hands. Unlike Final Fantasy III and V, most enemies in Tactics appear as hostile human units built with the same system. That's great! That's cool! After all, finding ways to handle a group of similar opponents using similar resources requires tactical thinking, does it not? Thing is, while you and your team are busy exploiting the job system, the AI keeps settling for Knights and Archers well into Chapter Four, even though the last ten battles have demonstrated that your squad of Ninjas, magic swordsmen, and wizard mathematicians can mow them down with ease. It's like the developers somehow didn't anticipate players taking advantage of the job system, which seems absurd. Though Tactics' final stretch still has its share of tricky fights, games like this really shouldn't peak in challenge prior to the end.

Fortunately for all the advanced players and and SRPG buffs who may have felt blue-balled by Tactics, today we have Version 1.3, an mod designed to rebalance the jobs and bolster the difficulty level while keeping everything else (the story, the graphics, and the script) intact. It's worth taking a look, but definitely not for beginners. And it's by no means the only Final Fantasy Tactics mod out there, either. If the size and dedication of a game's modding community is suggestive of its enduring success (see: Half-Life, Doom, Super Mario Bros., etc.), Final Fantasy Tactics has Tactics Ogre soundly thumped in that regard.


The Story!

How often have you heard stuff like this? "You've got to play Xenosaga. The gameplay is sort of generic, but the story is unbelievable." Or: "you've got to play Grandia. The story is predictable as all hell, but the gameplay is genius." You've got to admit that once the Japanese RPG moved past the catridge console period, its designers have had a hard time getting the story/game moons to align properly. We can probably guess at a few reasons for this (the conservatism of mainstream Japanese studios, the pandering to an otaku fanbase, the Hollywood theory that the titles with the most mass appeal will be the ones that challenge their audience as little as possible, the fact that gamers despise changes to their most beloved franchises as much as they hate stagnation, et cetera), but let's stay on topic and just say that Final Fantasy Tactics tells a story that's on par with the game to which it is glued.

The first-time player will quickly perceive that Final Fantasy Tactics does not have what they have come to recognize as a Final Fantasy plot. Generally, the story in a Final Fantasy game kicks off one of two ways:

ONE: A group of adventurers in a vaguely medieval fantasy setting are chosen by magical talking crystals and tasked with saving the world from an evil wizard or demon or something.

TWO: A crew of neurotic teens and/or twentysomethings in an anachronistic setting band together under frantic circumstances and go on the run from some tremendous military power. As they work through all of their personal issues, they find themselves ever more deeply embroiled in a conflict whose stakes continually escalate until they become the only people standing between the world and annihilation.

Both approaches usually involve disorienting and dazzling the player with the exoticism of the setting. Final Fantasy IV kicks off with wizards, a fleet of military airships, and flying monsters. In Final Fantasy V's first few minutes, we are introduced to a dragon, an old man who travelled through space on a meteor, goblins, and a gang of pirates. Final Fantasy VII thrusts the player into a high-tech dystopia full of giant scorpion robots, men with guns for hands, and spellcasting cyberpunk swordsmen. A major part of these games' appeal is how they submerge the player in wildly impossible settings and unbelievable situations.

Final Fantasy Tactics begins with a glimpse of the series' first richly-detailed medieval setting accompanied by an exposition that reads much more like an excerpt from a medieval history text than the prologue to a fantasy tale. We see nothing about any magical crystals, no instances of impossible technology, no paranormal physics, not a single propeller-borne galleon flying through the sky. Instead, we read about the civil unrest and economic malaise following a long and fruitless war, the reign of an ailing, ineffective king, and an impending succession crisis. While there are certainly some fantastic elements seen at the beginning of Tactics, their presence is much more understated than usual. Gafgarion and Agrias's sword-flung energy blasts are simply routine techniques practiced by exceptionally trained soldiers. Spellcasters are treated as just another type of military unit, like infantrymen, archers, or cavalrymen. Chocobos are simply alternate-reality horses. Aside from stuff like this, Final Fantasy Tactics starts off with a starkly mundane scenario in an immediately recognizable setting.

This goes against the JRPG norm, but is par for the course with Matsuno. Whereas most of the other people making their livings devising video game plots have the sensibilities of science fiction, fantasy, anime, and comic book writers/consumers, Matsuno has the mind of a historical fiction author. He works at his best and most enthusiastic when writing for games depicting wars between great nations, political subterfuge, assastination schemes, and the difficult ethics of war and power. He's also got a penchant for outcast heroes (Ramza Beoulve, Ashley Riot, Captain Basch fon Ronsenberg of Dalmasca) and peculiarly principled villains (Delita Hyral, Sydney Losstarot, Vayne Solidor). Like any good history student, Matsuno has a clear opinion of what is just and unjust, but knows that periods of war and tumult are never as cut and dry as most video games (or most books, movies, and TV shows, for that matter) make them out to be. From a detached, nationality-neutral perspective, war is rarely strictly a matter of "goodguys vs. badguys" or even "rapacious imperialist fascists vs. altruistic freedom fighters." (This would be good a time as any to recommend History of the Peloponnesian War for further reading.) Matsuno also understands that power politics is a game that demands its players bloody their hands in order to get anything accomplished. Affecting a serious, lasting change in the world from the top down -- even a change for the better -- requires systematically eliminating, buying off, or screwing over anyone who doesn't see it your way. That's just how it works.

Matsuno also recognizes that acting righeously -- especially during heavily politicized periods of change and upheaval -- often requires swimming against the riptides of the mob. This (or something like it) could be said to be the overarching message of Ramza's story arc, and is crucial in making Tactics' protagonist one of video games' most captivating heroes.

For comparison's sake, consider Final Fantasy IV's hero. Cecil follows his conscience, does the right thing at just about every step, and ends up sitting on the throne during the Happily Ever After epilogue. The cast of Final Fantasy VI fights the power, does nothing wrong to anyone who doesn't deserve it, and comes out almost totally unscathed. The same could be said for nearly every other scrappy game of heroes in nearly every other role-playing game pitting a cadre of misfits against the entire world. They make it seem so easy. In reality, refusing to compromise your principles usually ensures you a difficult road and an ignominious end, especially when everyone you're dealing with treats scruples as a hindrance.

Ramza consistently acts justly and pays the price for it. By refusing to act against his conscience, Ramza loses his fortune, his ties to the nobility, his shot at knighthood, becomes universally vilified as an anarchistic blasphemer, gets blown up with his only living family member and all his allies in a purgatorial borderworld, and goes totally forgotten by history despite having saved Ivalice from disaster. This might be tremendously nihilistic and depressing were it not for the presence of Delita, Ramza's machiavellian foil.

Tactics Ogre is often lauded by fans for its branching paths. At certain points in Let Us Cling Together, the game presents the player with a tough decision, and what he chooses has a significant impact on how the story proceeds and what battles are fought. The game has three distinct paths corresponding to three grades on the ethical spectrum: "lawful," "neutral," and "chaotic."

Details on Final Fantasy Tactics' development are hard to come by (especially when you're a monolingual English-speaker living on the USA's east coast), but I recall reading that Square pressed Matsuno to keep the plot of his first Final Fantasy game closed -- that is, to nix the branching paths. Having this restriction imposed upon him is very likely what inspired the Ramza/Delita dichotomy.

Now I'm not a mind reader, but it seems to me that when Matsuno first began plotting out a story for Tactics, he intended Ramza and Delita to be a single character. After all, at the beginning of the game they're nearly identical in terms of their upbringing and personalities. Both are the same age, were raised in the same household, and got sent to the same military academy. They start out as the same character class, and use the same "Guts" variation of the Squire's Basic Skill. Also, each grew up close to a saccharine younger sister: Ramza has Alma and Delita has Teta.

Going along with this hypothetical hunch, it follows that if Ramza and Delita were once the same character, the ur-Alma/Teta underwent a similar mitosis. It can also be presumed that in the earliest sketches of Tactics' scenario, Alma/Teta lived or died as the antecedent or result of the hero's choice at the moral crossroads.

After checking up on Matsuno's progress, his new SquareSoft bosses asked him to nix the alternate story routes. And so, the hero and his little sister became a pair of heroes and their little sisters. As the story begins, Ramza and Delita are practically the same person, with only one crucial trait setting them apart: their pedigree. Ramza was born into the nobility, while Delita comes from a familiy of serf farmers on the Beoulve estate. This class distinction also provides the reason for why Alma lives and Teta dies. As a commoner, Teta's life simply isn't worth as much as Alma's would have been in the same situation. Ramza and Delita's paths first diverge not because of their choices, but as a matter of imitigable circumstance.

And so, instead of allowing the player to select which road the hero takes a'la Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics chooses for him. After the climax of Act One, the player follows Ramza down the "lawful" route, while the doppelganger Delita chooses "chaotic." You might say this spares the player some time at the expense of freedom: while most games with a pivotal yes/no dilemma require at least two playthroughs to explore the alternate plots, Tactics presents both at the same time by periodically tracking Delita's parallel trajectory.

And so we spend the rest of the game watching Ramza act according to the dictates of his conscience while Delita works to improve the world by putting himself in charge of it. The irony is that the highborn Ramza should live up to his noble heritage by forsaking it, becoming a despised outcast for the sake of the greater good, while the lowborn Delita lives up to Algus's expectations of him by acting like an unscrupled rogue through his rise to power. In the end, it's Delita who gets the Cecil ending, acceding to the throne as a renowned hero and marrying the princess. Ramza, meanwhile, gets blown up.

(Ramza's fate is up for debate, but I'm in the "Olan was seeing things" camp. How did Ramza survive the explosion? How was he not hideously disfigured? How did he escape from Murond if Rofel destroyed the only way out? "By using the Zodiac Stones, of course!" you say. Whose will could have activated them if everyone at the Airship Graveyard got blown to smithereens? And if Ramza was really there, why couldn't he stop for just two seconds to say "hi, we're hauling ass to California and starting a new life, don't worry about us, peace" to one of his most trusted allies?)

What makes this all work is the final epilogue, seen after the credits finish rolling. Delita's last moments onscreen are like the Noseless Cartoon Character Theater interpretation of that scene in Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles staggers out into the hall after the room-trashing sequence. (Hey, have you every watched Citizen Kane? You probably should; it's practically the Citizen Kane of film.) "Ramza...what did you get?" is Charles Foster Hyral's "rosebud." He's a man who got everything he wanted, but didn't understand the price until it was too late. Final Fantasy Tactics closes with King Delita grimly acknowledging that between him and Ramza -- who sacrificed everything but his integrity and faced death with a clean conscience -- Ramza may have come out the winner.

So Tactics' story might be one of the best in the Final Fantasy series, but it's also one of the most disappointing. Like more JRPGs than I can list, Tactics' plot gets off to a strong start, but takes a strange detour halfway through and ends up where the buses don't run. The problem can be summed up in two words: Zodiac Stones.

After constructing a thoroughly detailed and practically airtight plot about realpolitik, war, and ethics, Matsuno loses his nerve and throws magical gems and demons into the mix. By and by, the story devolves from something unusual and refreshing into the STOP THE EVIL MAN FROM AWAKENING THE EVIL DEMON spectacle that was already worn out as a hooker on New Year's morning by 1997. As the story becomes more dominated by the Zodiac Stone/Lucavi busness, it grows coextensively less interesting.

The first two chapters of Tactics are so exciting for two reasons:

1.) A three-dimensional problem. The majority of Tactics' antagonists are not cackling, mustache-twirling men in black robes, but sane human beings trying to achieve rational goals for reasons we can appreciate. Watching a reasonable character attempting to screw everyone over often has a heavier impact than watching a cartoon villain do the same thing, especially when you can understand his motivation for doing so. You know why Final Fantasy V's Exdeath never wins any "best villains" contests? Because he has absolutely no reason to do anything he does. He's a douchebag acting like a douchebag for the sake of being a douchebag. Tactics' human villains might be tremendous jerks, but it's understood that they have rational and defensible reasons for acting as they do.

2.) Ramza & Foes. Early on, Ramza's battlefield rivals are not only human, but are linked to him in some way. Watching a protagonist face off against an antagonist with whom he has some connection or history heightens the drama surrounding the event. Algus and Gafgarion are former comrades. The confrontations with Miluda and Wiegraf in Act One have a palpable anxiety about them as Ramza and Delita's conviction begins to falter. The unctuous Izlude is a throwback to Ramza as a military cadet ("surrender or die in obscurity!"), before his crisis and exile. Et cetera, et cetera. These battles are more intense becase there's more going on in the player's mind than "clean up map, move on to next battle."

(Pertinent aside: one of my favorite parts about Tactics are the battlefield debates between Ramza and his rivals. They remind me of Gundam Wing at its campiest and most ridiculous. How likely is it really that the leaders of two armed gangs trying to kill each other would call a twenty-second time out in order to yell at each other ethics? Silly as it is -- though not nearly as silly as Gundam Wing -- it underscores the allegorical underpinings of the conflict in Tactics. Ramza represents unyielding idealism, while his various opponents stand for cynicism, compromised principles, misguided righteousness, sanctimonious hypocricy, and so on.)

But this changes as the Zodiac Stones and Lucavi demons steal more and more of the spotlight. The last few battles in the game -- which should be the most climactic and exciting -- are so freaking boring. Ramza and friends face off against a line of demon-worshipping templars with no real personalities, histories, or motivations beyond being evil demon-worshippers being evil because what demon worshippers are supposed to be is evil. Who gives a crap? At this point, you probably are going into each battle thinking "clean up, move on." It's even hard to get riled up by the race to save Alma before Altima's resurrection, since you've probably already seen this scenario if you've played more than two other JRPGs before. (Shining Force II's endgame is exactly the same.)

This wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't so distant from where the story began. Tactics kicks off as a medieval political drama and turns into a Saturday morning cartoon. Not that there's anything wrong with Saturday morning cartoons, but this issue here is consistency.

What strikes me as especially strange is the stark contrast between the painstaking attention given to the plot's political details and the sketchiness of the Lucavi scenario. The background story material regarding the Fifty Years' War and the Atkascha lineage is a little disjointed (especially in the English version) and can be confusing, but as far as I can tell, it all adds up. I find no plot holes, outstanding questions, or inconsistencies. But then, ten to twenty hours later, the magic gemstones and demons roll through, and everything stops making sense. So why must Saint Ajora be resurrected in order to bring back Altima? Why was it never necessary to Velius and Zalera's original hosts back to life first? Why does it have to be through Alma's body? Why can it only be done in Murond? Wouldn't it make more sense to resurrect Ajora at Golgorand, where he died? If Ajora was possessed by the most powerful of the Lucavi demons, how did he ever get executed to begin with? Was Saint Ajora actually a woman? If so, wouldn't that have been mentioned in the Germonik Scriptures? If Ramza read the scriptures, wouldn't he have noticed a suspicious THIS IS HOW YOU OPEN THE DARK GATE incantation? How were Vormav and Draclau first possessed if one apparently needs to be in a near-death state to attact the demons' attention? Why wasn't this necessary with Alma? Given Vormav's secrecy (remember, not even his adult son and daughter were aware of his possession), was Delita actually aware of the Lucavi plot, or did he only believe he was allowing Ramza to go off and foil the High Priest's political plot for him? For that matter, how could Olan have known about it if we never see Ramza mentioning it to him? And Ramza is Germonik's descendent?! What?

At first I suspected (and hoped) that the Zodiac Stones got wedged into the story halfway through development when the SquareSoft brass checked up on the game's progress and deemed it too dissimilar to what people had come to expect from the Final Fantasy brand. But then there's Let Us Cling Together -- an earlier Matsuno game that starts off rooted in medieval politics and transforms into a story about a group of warriors preventing a a demon invasion. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that the Zodiac Stones were Matsuno's call. Nuts. The JRPG writers of the world would really benefit from a video game industry reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins.

So Final Fantasy Tactics' story is far from flawless, and the last 1/3 would be unsalvagable without the epilogue. (You could also say the same about BioShock, a game widely reputed to have raised the the bar for video games as storytellers.) But rejuvenating your appreciation for Matsuno's work here is only as easy as choosing and playing another JRPG or SRPG at random -- especially it happens to be Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. (Before anyone asks, I have no plans nor desire to cover Tactics Advance. You'd have to pay me before I did that to myself again.)



And here we are at the end, and once again I'm not sure if anything remains to be added -- except that Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto's score is absolutely flawless and not a single moment of the game is not enhanced by it. (My personal favorite tune is "Requiem," which plays during the sunrise over Riovanes at the conclusion of Act Three.)

I wish I had more to close with, but we've covered just about everything. One interesting note is that Matsuno apparently once referred to Final Fantasy Tactics as the first episode of the Zodiac Brave Story. It's a shame we got the "Ivalice Alliance" instead. You don't need me to tell you that none of the "Ivalice" games developed after Final Fantasy Tactics successfully recapture the essence of the original, and it ain't hard to deduce why. Matsuno had a relatively "hands-off" producer role in the development of Tactics Advance, resigned from Square Enix during the development of Final Fantasy XII, and had nothing to do with Revanant Wings or Tactics A2. Despite what the studios would like you to believe, the strength of a work depends on its creator(s), not its title or brand name. When Matsuno left, he took his Ivalice with him. What we're left with is Square Enix's Ivalice (maybe it would be better to say Kawazu's Ivalice?), which isn't nearly as interesting or enjoyable a place to spend thirty to forty hours.

Of all the Final Fantasy games we've looked at, Tactics is easily one of the best-written (though certainly not the best-translated), best looking, best sounding, most fun, and most eminently replayable. As a whole, it isn't perfect -- and it must be reemphasized that none of these games are -- but Final Fantasy Tactics is quite possibly the finest title the franchise has ever produced.

Well, that should be that. Over the next few months I'll be working on and off at polishing the earlier pieces (fixing typos, making them more readable, adding more images, expanding them in places, etc.), so check back every now and then if you're interested in that sort of thing. As always, you can best keep track of what I've been up to through my blog.

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