Final Fantasy Tactics Advance: Into the Void
by Pitchfork


Well. Where did we leave off?

The last time we confabulated about Final Fantasy, President Barack Obama was still in his first term of office. Louis C.K. was America's vulnerable comic sweetheart. Facebook was well-liked by people under thirty-five. Nothing was the Dark Souls of anything. Metroid was The Baby. "Gamergater" was a non-word that had no significance to anybody. BioShock Infinite was coming and could surely do no wrong. Kingdom Hearts III, though purely theoretical, promised resolution and clarity instead of dissonance and disappointment.

First question: why am I back to write about Final Fantasy after all this time?

Answer: I lost a bet. No fooling.

Second question: why am I making fun of Kingdom Hearts III? I've never played it. I never will. Full disclosure: the only games I've spent much time with since running through MOTHER 3 four years ago(?!) have been Pinball Arcade, Super Hydorah, Maldita Castilla EX, Thimbleweed Park, Lumo, and Polly&John's Her Lullaby and Afterward. Am I forgetting anything? I may have gotten drunk and tried out Cuphead at a friend's place. Oh, and I played Riven: The Sequel to MYST when I was living on a tropical island and deeply depressed, but that's—that's how much has happened since I last contemplated Final Fantasy. This feels like a regression. Like rummaging through some trunk in my mother's attic, exhuming an old Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and some black pants covered in pointless zippers, and going back to goth night at QXT's to sway to Covenant and Funker Vogt in the gloom like it's 2003.

Point is, I'm completely out of the loop where video games are concerned. I haven't owned an up-to-date console since 2010. I don't even have a fucking smartphone. I'm desynchronized. If we're digging up and examining an old cultural artifact (and by dint of socio-technological time compression, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is old indeed) to discern its significance to the present, I am probably unfit for the task. How can I talk about video games in 2019 when I don't know where or what video games are in 2019? Are we still worried that the kids are playing too much Minecraft or are we wringing our hands about Fortnite now? Have we forgiven Valve for mothballing Half-Life II: Episode 3? Are tower defense games still a thing? What of World of Warcraft? Did Angry Birds ever go away? Is anyone still having the "are video games art?" conversation? Have we arrived at a definition of "art" that satisfies everyone yet?

Maybe my self-imposed exile gives me the ever-valuable outsider's perspective—a precious thing, to be sure, when you're honor-bound to play and write a novella about a sixteen year-old video game for babies that came out on a three generations-ago Nintendo handheld. A handheld! People used to carry Game Boys in their bookbags! Do they still do that? Or not so much now that everyone's walking around with a miniature computer in their pocket that doesn't need any cartridges or discs to play hundreds of games? Well—everyone but me, since I'm apparently committed to living in a personal bubble-world where the 1990s never ended.

I am a fossil explicating a relic. Very dignified. This will surely make for indispensable reading.

I hope you're happy about this. You know who you are.


In February 2003, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was released in Japan under the SquareSoft label. It was the second-to-last game the studio published before it was dissolved two months later in its merger with Enix. The last game, fittingly, was Final Fantasy X-2. When Tactics Advance and X-2 arrived in North America in September and November of the same year, they were the second and third games the anglophone scene saw stamped with the new Square Enix logo.

At the time, some Square fans in North America were apprehensive that the merger would change things for the worse. The stateside debut of the Square Enix brand on the box of the roundly lambasted Unlimited SaGa didn't augur well, but we had ample cause to hope it wasn't a sign of things to come. Unlimited SaGa, after all, was...well, it was SaGa. The only gamers in North America with high expectations were either people who'd never played SaGa Frontier but blindly trusted the Square brand, or aberrant mutants. But Tactics Advance was different. It was a Final Fantasy game. More than that: it was the sequel to the series' masterful SRPG spinoff. Five years after Final Fantasy Tactics' release, the true faithful of the western hemisphere revered it almost as highly as Final Fantasy VII. However erroneously, many of us looked to Tactics Advance as an indicator of how much of our beloved SquareSoft remained intact after its transformation into Square Enix.

To expectant Square superfans in the late summer of 2003, Tactics Advance could either come as a fear-assuaging relief or a confirmation of our misgivings. For a lot of us, I think, it ended up being a bit of both. It's a competently designed game, and it got great reviews. It's also missing something. I remember playing it to excess, just like everyone else, but thinking about the original Tactics for any length of time jaundiced my enjoyment. Tactics Advance was the biggest disappointment I couldn't put down. I never finished it, though: Marche got red carded delivering the killing blow to the final boss, and that was Game Over and fuck this. The next time I played it after that was, uh, a month ago. Fifteen years later.

As usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1997-8, Final Fantasy Tactics opens with a historiographical monologue, a glimpse of the exiled princeling Ramza Belouve hiding incognito among a band of mercenaries, and a churchyard melee between Princess Ovelia's retinue and a gang of kidnappers attempting an opening bid for the impending civil war. "Kill them all!" the mercenary leader Gafgarion orders his crew. "Don't leave any survivors!"

In 2003, Final Fantasy Tactics begins with a "team activity" on a school playground in the little suburban town of St. Ivalice. "Let's get this snowball fight started!" says teacher Mr. Leslaie to the assembled children. "Ready?"

In a way, this opening anticipates Final Fantasy X-2. Watching the CGI music video for "Real Emotion" (no Polly, its world has still not surrounded me) was fairly likely to prompt a longtime fan of the series to gape at the screen and ask "this is Final Fantasy now?" That was my experience, anyway. And I doubt I was the only person bent over and squinting at the slow-time snowball fight unfolding on his unbacklit vanilla Game Boy Advance and asking himself: "this is Final Fantasy Tactics now?"

The fact that it's the pretext for a battle tutorial adds insult to inanity. Yes, sure, guiding kids around the playground and making them toss snowballs at each other for 1 HP of damage is a clever way to introduce players to the game's fundamentals. But remember Tactics' first practice fight: even if it was impossible to lose, it still impressed the dramatic exigency of the event upon the player. Tactics Advance's overture, on the other hand, doesn't even pretend anything's at stake.

None of this is to say that a sequel should be chained by its every limb to its predecessor. But for Tactics Advance to begin by completely displacing itself from the defining attitude of Tactics was a bold choice, to put it tactfully. (Cue Polly pun: "tacticfully?") I've seen seen it suggested that this was a necessary consequence of scaling down a console game for a handheld, but I'm not so sure. The designers of Metroid II: Return of Samus and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon evidently weren't, either.

Before the snowball fight ends, the Final Fantasy Tactics veteran playing Tactics Advance for the first time in 2003 may have reflected ruefully on the Square Enix logo he noticed on the title screen. Again: it wouldn't have been entirely fair of him, since Tactics Advance predated the merger. He might also have noticed the credit appearing on the demo sequence preceding the title screen: "Square Product Development Division 4 presents." This is new. Would it be likely to inspire confidence in someone worrying about top-down corporate changes to his favorite video game studio? Probably not.

Like the Square Enix logo, this too might be misleading. Square Product Development Division 4 wasn't a team of company nobodies and neophytes, but a mixture of Square veterans and ex-staffers from Quest Corporation, which SquareSoft gobbled up in 2002. You may recall that Quest developed the Super Famicom games Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, the second of which was practically a Final Fantasy Tactics prototype. Tactics Advance's scenario writer (Kyoko Kitahara), director (Yuichi Murasawa), lead programmer (Shinichi Fujisawa), and visual effects creator (Taiji Tsuchiya) all worked on Tactics Ogre during their time at Quest.

Recall also that both Ogre games were masterminded by one Yasumi Matsuno, who in 1995 defected from Quest to SquareSoft to write and direct Final Fantasy Tactics. Here he joins SPDD4 in the capacity of producer. How an auteur like Matsuno must have felt about delegating and consulting rather than dictating is open to surmise, as is the awkwardness of the reunion between him and his jilted Quest colleagues. One might also wonder what the "producer" title actually meant so far as the depth of his involvement in the project. Work on Final Fantasy XII was underway in 2002, and for all we know, Matsuno was already hiding in the bathroom between meetings, chewing up mouthfuls of aspirin and antacids, eager to tell SPDD4 "yes, fine, snowballs, wonderful, have it ready by Thursday" and get back to agonizing over the company brass' edict instating Vaan as XII's protagonist rather than Basch.

Maybe not. Possibly the situation began fraying after the merger. Who can say but Matsuno himself?

In any case, in consideration of Tactics Advance's pedigree, the game sometimes feels like the runt offspring of Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, born with the recessive genes of each. At other times, it feels like something entirely different.

Once again, I fear we're outpacing ourselves. Let's return to the beginning.

During the snowball fight, we're introduced to three of Tactics Advance's main characters, who form a loose friendship and get together after school. One of them arrives with a very old book he just bought (are we supposed to ask how a tween was able to persuade a bookshop owner to part with a one-of-a-kind codex that looks like it belongs in a museum?) filled with indecipherable text and mystical-looking runes. They flip through it and get to talking about how much they like video games and wouldn't it be neat if life were more like a video game? Especially Final Fantasy. What a great video game! (Yes, really. That's not a joke. For the conversation to have been a little less embarrassing and much more convincing, a fiery argument should have immediately broken out when Marche asks "which Final Fantasy?" and Ritz answers "VIII.")

Late that night, the magic book grants the kids' wish. The wintery town of St. Ivalice becomes the desert nation of Ivalice. All the people of planet Earth blink out of existence, replaced by (or transformed into?) Ivalice's heterogenous denizens. The children who read the book separately awaken to their new lives in the new world, and soon realize they're the only ones who have any recollection or knowledge of the "other" world.

As it turns out, life in Ivalice is a lot like a video game. Despite their tender ages (let's say they're probably thirteen years old), the kids become adventuring soldiers of fortune, slaying monsters, crossing swords with brigands, and going on silly fetch quests for fun and profit. Even though everyone's constantly getting stabbed, mauled, set on fire, shot, poisoned, and suffering every other imaginable form of violence, the magical powers governing Ivalice prevent anyone from ever getting killed or seriously injured. There are rewards for victory, but no real consequences for defeat.

Fun and games. Like Pleasure Island meets Lord of the Flies. Ivalice is the dark id of the anomic middle-school student substantiated as topography and culture: a land of refereed tribal warfare, sexy bunny girls, and knife-throwing teddy bears, where the taverns don't card kids and retailers happily offer discounts to gang leaders.

At this point, I'm not even pining for Tactics anymore. I'd gladly settle for the rationality and realism of Mystic Quest.


The Characters

As we've usually done, let's move on from the preamble and examine Tactics Advance's cast. I am not looking forward to this. You will shortly understand why.


The new kid at school. Mild-mannered. Funny last name. Recently moved to St. Ivalice; still getting used to the snow. When he finds himself in Ivalice, he resolves straightaway to figure out how to get back home, and is pretty much the only person who wants to bring the "real" world back.

Marche looks a lot like Ramza from Tactics, and like his predecessor, he sticks to his guns and ends up a hunted outcast for it. The similarities end here. Marche himself ends here too, for the most part. Ramza is straightforward in his own way, but he's a veritable study in incorruptible honor and self-sacrfice. Marche is just kind of an asshole.

Any examination of Marche entails holding a lens to Tactics Advance's version of Ivalice, which quickly devolves into a logical positivist thought exercise. If the "fake" world completely replaced the "real" world as far as anyone can tell, can we still call it "fake?" Why should the "real" world have precedence over the "fake" one, especially when only four people in the "fake" world have any memory of it, and all but one prefer the "fake?" If the "real" world was made to have never existed (Ivalice seems to have its own history), is there any kind of ethical imperative to restore it on behalf of the people who disappeared with it, since they never existed? Or did they disappear? The animation during the transformation sequence implies that the people from St. Ivalice were transformed into the denizens of Ivalice and memory-wiped; but the ending and postgame imply that Ivalice and its people go on existing independently of St. Ivalice after Marche and friends return to the "real" world. Which is it: separate dream world or transfigured Earth? Assuming the latter: if someone in Ivalice dies in a Jadg, does their St. Ivalice counterpart (if that's how it works) die in "real" life? Do they not return to the "real" world after it's restored? Ad nauseam.

Tactics Advance never bothers itself with examining any of this. Nor does it provide Marche with any discernable motivation for wanting to go back to middle school and resume learning about gerunds. He'll occasionally toss off a few words about how a part of him wishes to stay, but on the subject of leaving he can only moralize about the hazards of escapism. Coming from a thirteen-year-old boy who's had several months to adjust to life in the "fake" world, and who's thriving in his new environs as he never did back home, Marche's "running away from reality" refrain isn't all that convincing. If the people transported to Ivalice with him are reluctant to go back to their former lives as cripples, bullied misfits, and depressed alcoholics, our hero should have a more persuasive answer to their objections than "tough titties."

"I miss my mother and it makes me sad that she doesn't exist anymore. I'd really like for her to exist again." Or maybe: "I'm tired of all this fighting. I want to go home." That's all Tactics Advance really had to do: include a few lines somewhere about why Marche is so determined to unmake Ivalice and bring back the version of the world where nobody notices him and he can't go on adventures with a moogle wizard every day. Marche's obstinance is a MacGuffin: if he didn't want to go back home, there'd be no conflict. And without conflict, Tactics Advance would have no plot, and all we'd have left is a pointless, interminable mission-based grind.

...oh, wait.


A moogle who takes the bewildered Marche under his wing (metaphorically, I mean) and acculturates him to the ways of Ivalice by inducting him into his clan: a common Ivalician social formation that's equal parts temp agency, mercenary squad, and street gang. At the beginning of Tactics Advance, Montblanc's clan still hasn't made much of a name for itself. For that matter, it hasn't even decided what to call itself. Montblanc asks Marche to do the honor of christening their little group, and if you go by the default, he picks "Clan Nutsy." I wanted to name my gang "Clan Toxic Masculinity," but space restrictions forced me to settle for "Clan Toxic Mas."

Here's the thing about Montblanc: he's the only clan member other than Marche that you can't kick out. If you stop using him, he'll just hang out in the pub and remain at level 5 or so for the whole game. When you bump into a rival clan on the world map, its members' levels are determined by the average level of your whole gang; a benchwarming Montblanc can bring that average way down. Tactics Advance is already a pitifully easy game, and Clan Nutsy's rivals can do without the additional neutering. Since Montblanc can't be fired from the clan he's ostensibly leading, the only way to get rid of him is to kill him off. Which I did—took him to a clan fight in one of the Jagds and had Marche literally stab him in the back. In my headcanon, Montblanc was starting to have misgivings about the direction Marche was leading the clan vis-à-vis his "let's destroy the crystals and erase the world" initiative. Realizing he wasn't getting back home unless he removed Montblanc as a threat to his agenda and assumed absolute control of Clan Toxic Mas[culinity], Marche assassinated his benefactor under the concealing fog of battle. Montblanc never knew what hit him; Marche cried crocodile tears afterward to maintain appearances and deflect suspicion.

Curiously, Montblanc is the only special unit who can be killed in a Jagd. All of the postgame uniques just teleport away and (temporarily) leave the clan if they get KO'd. Montblanc is kind of a chump.


We might as well do these guys next. Depending on how often you bench Marche during non-story battles, the Judges may well get more screentime in Tactics Advance than its main character.

Despite their titles, Ivalice's Judges don't deal in jurisprudence. In one respect, they're like a royal police force, investigating threats to the ruling family. In another, they're regulators overseeing the turf war and monster hunting sectors of the Ivalician economy. Whenever someone draws a weapon, a Judge appears out of the ether and blows a whistle. His role here, apparently, is to ensure that Ivalice's daily gang rumbles don't get out of hand. Midway through the game, this function of the Judges is laid out in definite terms: as long as one presides over a fight, none of its participants can die, no matter how many times they're run through with a spear, struck by lightning, or have their necks broken by an assassin.

There are two practical upshots to this. There's no longer a three-turn countdown to cast Life on someone before they're erased from the clan roster. Downed units don't disappear from the battlefield, either. The efficiency-minded Judges will sometimes use a turn to teleport unconscious gangbangers around the field to free up tiles and prevent their inert carcasses from hindering the bloody fun.

The only places outside the Judges' bailiwick are the Jagds: abandoned cities where they do not (or cannot) go. (The reason for this is never explained; Tactics Advance doesn't go into much detail about anything that happens in Tactics Advance.) When a battle in a Jagd ends, anyone who's on the ground with 0 HP is done for—as poor Montblanc found out.

The Judges loom large in Tactics Advance's box art, and probably dominate most players' memories of the experience. They are the in-game avatars of Tactics Advance's ill-advised law system, which undoubtedly came from good intentions, but competes with Final Fantasy II's stat-building mechanics for the distinction of the series' most misguided innovation. A "law" is essentially a restriction on an in-battle action: during a given fight, participants on both sides might be forbidden from using items, attacking with a certain type of weapon, using abilities that target multiple units, etc. The laws change with each in-game day, and progress through a cycle determined by the point you're at in the story. As Marche stirs up the pot, an increasingly petulant Mewt freaks out and issues new edicts, mandating two and then three laws in effect every day.

In short: every time your clan gears up to fight, you have to work around the restrictions on what they're allowed to do. If someone breaks a law, the Judge blows his whistle, rushes over to the offender, and serves them a yellow card. At the end of the battle, units with yellow cards are penalized: sometimes they get permanent(!) stat decreases or have a piece of equipment confiscated forever. Other times the entire team pays by losing money, forfeiting its cash reward, or being denied AP (ability points) for completing the battle. Yellow cards don't go away at the end of a fight, and a unit with more on their record is slapped with a heavier penalty for their next violation. Expunging their record requires you to drop them off at the prison in Sprohm, fight a few battles without them, and then trudge back to Sprohm to pick them up. A unit who earns too many yellow cards in a single engagement or KO's someone with a proscribed attack gets served a red card and goes directly to jail. To get them back you have to trek to Sprohm, visit the prison, and pay to bail them out. (Don't forget to re-equip them!)

If Marche gets red carded, it's Game Over. Obviously.

In theory, restrictions on what a player can do in battle add an extra layer of challenge and fun to the game. It prevents you from getting too cozy with your team formation, encouraging you to develop more than six units and train your team in multiple jobs so you'll have options to fall back on if your usual tactics run afoul of the loi du jour. In practice, building Marche up as a Paladin/Blue Mage and entering a story battle to discover he can't do anything without getting penalized and risking a Game Over is as obnoxious as it sounds. As a stage hazard, the law system falls flat: not only is disappointing to have your units forbidden from using the abilities you've grinded for hours to acquire, it's just as much of a downer when the opposition is too hobbled by red tape to put up much of a fight. In light of Tactics Advance's absent challenge factor, the law system and Judge's whistle mostly serve as an in-game rumble strip: something to jar you back to attention when you're dozing off at the controls.


Miss Perfect on the surface. Serious, smart, and assertive. Prefers video games to books. Wants to stay in Ivalice and keep hanging out with her viera pals because it's more fun than snowball fights and middle school—and because she doesn't have to dye her hair anymore. Yes, that's the big reveal about Ritz: her hair is naturally white, and in Ivalice it magically stays strawberry-colored. Ritz has no qualms about keeping planet Earth blinked out of reality if it means no longer having to fuss with cosmetics and keeping the jerks from school who call her "whitey-locks" good and erased.* She's willing to fight Marche to preserve the new status quo, and makes the same mistake that Vormav (Folmarv, whatever) made in dealing with Ramza in Tactics: giving the runt and his entourage all the time they need to grow into battle-optimized demigods instead of squashing them while they're still getting their act together.

Ritz can be recruited into the clan during the postgame, but she's really nothing but a viera Fencer with no special perks other than a unique sprite and a few ready-to-use Lunge Tech skills. In principle, it makes sense that SPDD4 would nerf special units after Cid, Mustadio, and Beowulf's game-busting performance in Tactics. But making Ritz (and the other special postgame recruits) so unremarkable as to be useless was an overcorrective.

*Maybe they're not erased. The bullies who harass Mewt and call Ritz names are Lyle, Colin, and Guinness. In an early mission, Marche visits Lutia Pass and fights the animated corpses of three travelers who froze to death—and their names are Lyle, Colin, and Guinness. In the postgame mission where Ritz joins the clan, she and Marche visit Lucia Pass again and fight three vampires—named Lyle, Colin, and Guinness. The mission description makes it clear that it's the same zombies, returned and somehow evolved.

Is this a covert plot point? The fact that Ritz jokingly calls the second encounter a snowball fight and makes mention of the jerks from school (drawing our attention to the parallel) suggests it might be the latter. What does this mean? Did Mewt punish his tormentors by dragging them into his new reality, letting them die from exposure in the mountains, and reanimating them as undead monsters? But: Ritz casually dismisses the idea that the vampires they just fought were "Lyle's bunch," and that's the end of it. Is she correct? Is she in denial? Is it dramatic irony?

More likely it's an easter egg. I don't think SPDD4 thought any of this through, and the plot is so scant that something intended as a little joke for attentive players comes off as subtle worldbuilding. Everything interesting about Tactics Advance's story is probably accidental.


Marche's younger brother. Suffers from an unspecified chronic illness and is confined to a wheelchair. Unbeknownst to Marche, Doned is also transported to Ivalice, where he's able to walk, run, make friends, and become a gang boss like a normal boy. Doned leads the Doned Faction from afar, since he's still too young to do any fighting himself—which does prompt a few questions. How young is too young in Ivalice? Marche is, what, thirteen, and can comfortably strut around wearing a suit of armor and carry a sword and shield, and clearly has no trouble subduing adults on the battlefield. Wait: is everyone else in Ivalice an adult? There doesn't seem to be any shortage of child-size weapons and armor, and Marche's broadsword and iron mail can be passed to and wielded by his lizardman teammate. The battle-hardened warriors of rival clans are never seen towering over our tween outlanders. Is Ivalice a land of children and short people?

Who cares. I know. But a good tip for drafting a fantasy scenario is to avoid raising questions you don't care to answer.

...Anyway. When Marche's actions earn him a reputation across Ivalice, Doned learns about his brother's intentions and tries to stop him through deception and sabotage. Eventually Marche confronts Doned, and the exchange provides the "Marche is a jerk/villain" camp with some of its strongest evidence. Their conversation, paraphrased:

"Marche, I can walk in this world. I'm not sick here. You have no idea what you're going to be taking away from me if you return things to the way they were before."

"Why are you complaining? Mom always paid more attention to you because you're chronically ill and can't walk. I wish Mom had paid more attention to me. You don't know how good you have it [you wheelchair-bound child who's in the hospital all the time]. You've always been so needy and selfish, Doned."

The scene ends with Doned crying and apologizing. There's a word for this, and it's "gaslighting." Real heroic, Marche. (Notice: during the epilogue, Doned's character portrait no longer shows him smiling.)

Not that you asked, but you know what I think would have made for a better story? Installing the boy who can't walk as the protagonist of Tactics Advance's scenario. He arrives in Ivalice and finds he can go on adventures, lead a clan, and become a hero. But the more he learns about Ivalice, the more misgivings he has about its existence. (Maybe he discovers the kids on Mewt's enemy list have been killed and/or turned into monsters?) His sense of right and wrong ultimately drives him to restore the real world, sacrificing his health and mobility for the greater good. The message board debates might have been less interesting, sure, but the game would have been much improved by a protagonist with something at stake and a clearer motivation than "because I want to."


The class misfit and frequent bullying victim. Gets singled out for abuse during the afterschool snowball fight and takes a rock to the forehead. Mewt's home life isn't much better: his mom is dead and his father's a wreck. He's the one who brings the magic tome to Marche's house and speaks the incantation; it's his wish that transforms St. Ivalice into Ivalice, where he lives as a sequestered prince whose every whim is obeyed. His desire sustains Ivalice's eclipse over the "real" world. When he discovers that Marche is trying to break the spell and restore things to the way they were before, Mewt is not a happy camper.

For most of Tactics Advance, Mewt is the antagonist of the story by dint of his standing at cross-purposes with Marche, who's still our protagonist even if he's an asshole. The fact that Mewt isn't much of a villain doesn't make Marche look any better by comparison. We're made to understand Mewt's reasons for not wanting to return his miserable middle-school life much more than Marche's desire to go back to a world where he's not much happier.

But then again: are the ghouls who share their names with Mewt's bullies an easter egg or secret plot point? Though it's pointless to keep carping on it, the possibility that Mewt drew kids he didn't like into an alternate world where he contrived their icy deaths and nightmarish resurrections is too important to exclude from the arithmetic of his character. Did he or didn't he? If not, then the typical sympathetic assessment of Mewt as a wounded, misguided child who never meant anyone harm still holds. If he did indirectly murder Lyle, Colin, and Guinness, then yeah, Marche is completely justified in dismantling Mewt's sick little playhouse reality. But since Tactics Advance persists in pretending not to notice its own story, let's just forget about it.


Mewt's father. Another Cid. In the English version (subject to the caprices of Nintendo of America's content guidelines), he fell apart after his wife's death, lost his job, and wallows in self-pity. In the Japanese version, he descends into alcoholism. Either way, Mewt is ashamed of him. When given the chance to remake the world, he gives Cid a memory wipe and a confidence boost, and installs his old man as Ivalice's Judgemaster and Queen Remedi's consort. Upon inspection, this doesn't seem like an unselfish act of love on Mewt's part. Halfway through the game, Cid remembers who he is "really" is and disentangles himself and the Judges from royal affairs to let the conflict between Marche and Mewt play out on its own. (Just as likely he's seriously rattled about living in a castle with a magical copy of his dead wife, but not a word is spoken on the subject.) Mewt's response to Cid's announcement and assurances of his love is "fine, leave, I don't need you, Mom will make me a new superpowered bloodhound who won't balk at my orders!" Mewt didn't care if Cid was happy; he just wanted the pleasure of knowing other people saw somebody respectable when they looked at his father. Everybody in Tactics Advance is an asshole.

At the end of the English version, a former employee of Cid's offers him a job. In the Japanese version, he already has a new job, and is last seen entering a bar and telling a friend that his son won't care if his old man has just one drink to unwind after work, so just lay off man. Everybody in Tactics Advance is an asshole.

Like Ritz, Cid can be recruited into the clan during the postgame as a unique Judgemaster unit. His Advanced Law ability lets him do stuff like clear yellow cards from your units' records and distract the presiding Judge to allow law violations (so the FAQs say), but you can't recruit him before completing 300 missions. By then it's rather beside the point, and I've got to believe I have better things to do.


Ritz's too-cool-for-school clanmate and bestie. Chill. Savvy. Fearless (mostly). She listens patiently while Ritz grieves about the horrible embarrassment of having white hair, and instead of pointing to her own head and saying "really, Ritz?" Shara waits until their last moment together to inform her that the viera believe white hair represents the blessing of their goddess. Ritz realizes she's never had any reason to be ashamed and doesn't need to be afraid of going back home. Had Shara mentioned this like ten months earlier, Ritz probably wouldn't have held her grudge against Marche, and they could have been friends and allies during their time in Ivalice. Everybody in Tactics Advance is an asshole.

Shara is recruitable during the postgame, and like Ritz, she's just a viera with a special sprite. Hmm. Speaking of the postgame: it's established that when you load your saved game after beating the final boss, Remedi is no longer in charge of Ivalice and Mewt is gone—but Marche, Ritz, Doned, and Cid are still in Ivalice. If you complete all 300 regular missions and the special "corrupt Judges" quests, you get a special second ending where Cid offers to make Marche the new Judgemaster when he grows up. The "other" world is never mentioned. So...what's happening here? Are Marche, Ritz, Doned, and Cid somehow able to cross the dimensional barrier at will now? When Ivalice maintained its independent existence after Remedi's defeat, did their Ivalician identities fission off from their real-world selves? If so, why isn't there an Ivalician version of Mewt? If not, and if Marche is just slipping back into Ivalice after school or whatever, what happened to all his sermonizing about running away from reality?

What? I'm not supposed to ask? Okay then.


An eccentric and egotistical nu mou alchemist (definitely an asshole) who devises an illicit countermeasure against the Judge's law magic: antilaw cards.

Yes, cards. It's 2003. Of course there are cards.

After Ezel's episode in Tactics Advance's story, the black market for antilaw cards opens up, and you start earning them for winning battles and completing missions. These can be used during engagements to implement new laws (for example, defanging enemy archers by forbidding missiles) or altogether nullifying existing ones. You can also visit Ezel's secret shop in Cadoan to trade him the cards you've got for the cards you want. This is all excruciatingly boring to write about, FYI.

Ezel can be recruited during the postgame. He uses the unique Hermetic job, whose Hermetics ability only has two skills. He can't change his job and can only use Items as his second action ability. God, who cares.


Mewt's court mage and adoring servant. Was maybe a stuffed animal back in St. Ivalice. Babus intensely admires Mewt and is absolutely dedicated to doing well by him, so he despises Marche from the get-go. For a few minutes, Tactics Advance halfheartedly tries to build him up as a nemesis: a zealous agent of the crown with special powers and a personal grudge against the protagonist. When Marche squares off mano-a-mono against Babus in the sanctum of the Totema Exodus, the developers may have intended for us to recall the nail-biting dual between Ramza and Wiegraf in Tactics. Before you have a post-traumatic flashback and drop the Game Boy, you'll probably notice (1) unlike Ramza, Marche doesn't need to be taught how to feed himself X-potions (2) Babus's signature attacks all consume MP. The pugnacious little snot quickly runs out of steam and can afterwards be trashed without much fuss. The fact that I'm disappointed about beating Babus without first seeing the Game Over screen thirty times might be a sign of Stockholm Syndrome. Or it could be an indication that Tactics Advance is so devoid of anything resembling a challenge that a miserable, demoralizing repeat of Tactics' most frustrating battle would actually be a welcome change of pace.

Babus is recruitable as the unique (and underwhelming) Runeseeker job during the postgame. By that point, your team is already so powerful and the postgame missions are so bland and repetitive that it's hard to muster much excitement.


After Cid hits the road, Remedi creates Llendar to replace him as Mewt's personal guardian. Llendar is the distilled embodiment of Mewt's dark side—the part of him that may or may not have compelled him to strand Lyle, Colin, and Guinness in the wilderness and drop a blizzard on them in retaliation for pelting him with snowballs. (Sorry; I know I said I'd let it go.) Llendar is awfully strong, and he's got some kind of special juju that renders him impervious to harm. After Babus peters out and stops harassing Marche, Llendar supplants him as Marche's bete noire, and is surely meant to be very evil and impressive. But it takes more than a couple unwinnable dummy fights and some lines from Marche about how scary he is to build Llendar into a figure that's worth fearing, caring about, or remembering. I'm really eager to be done with these character profiles.



The primal deities of Ivalice and guardians of the magic crystals that sustain its existence. There are five of them, each representing one of Ivalice's indigenous sentient races. Think of them as Tactics Advance's bosses. Two of them—Adrammelech and Ultima—are carryovers from Tactics. Exodus is from Final Fantasy V. Famfrit and Mateus are new (despite the retcon regarding the name of Final Fantasy II's Emperor). All of them reappear in Final Fantasy XII. Famfrit, Adrammelech, and Mateus are represented by plus-sized sprites in battle, and were undoubtedly intended to evoke the Lucavi fights from Tactics—but they're really not very interesting or challenging. (To be fair, the Lucavi got pretty easy after Zalera.) Ultima and Exodus don't appear in physical form, and are encountered as obstacle courses. Ultima's crystal is defended by eight smaller crystals that float in place and charm your units into fighting each other. The Exodus encounter has Marche running around and trying to smash enchanted fruits (?) while Babus chases him. These fights are interesting, and Tactics Advance would have benefitted greatly from having more than two like them. Oh well.


After a Totema is defeated, your units of the race it represents are able to summon it to hammer every enemy on the battlefield. Summoning a Totema requires ten JP (judge points), which are earned by KO'ing people or using one of "recommended actions" which accompany the actions forbidden by the laws of the day. You won't be able to use Totema attacks very often, but Tactics Advance is such an easy game that you'll never have to. Not unless you've somehow committed a grave error and need bailing out (unlikely), or if you're just bored and want to get a fight over with (very likely).


The image of Mewt's dead mother. Doting, wish-granting portable womb. Brunette in the portrait, blonde in the field. Remedi's entire reason for existence is to satisfy Mewt's desires, even when those desires conflict with his sense of reason. She's the embodiment of the grimoire's magic and something like the prime Totema. Even after Marche destroys all the crystals, Ivalice isn't going anywhere until Remedi is dealt with.

Remedi serves as Tactics Advance's endboss. After she performs the obligatory transformation into her final form, the crystalline and vaguely fishy Li-Grim, the game's difficulty level spikes from 1 to 9.5. The two battles prior to the showdown with the Li-Grim are relatively tough in the sense that a few units are liable to get KO'd if you're not paying attention. Then you come to Remedi version 2.0, who'll just summon a random Totema and kill everyone on her first turn. By this point you've gotten so accustomed to effortlessly steamrolling through battles that it's a little frightening and difficult to wrap your head around the prospect of having to actually go into a fight with a plan.

Remedi's most insidious trick, however, is randomly changing which three laws are in effect. I believe I mentioned getting red carded and losing the game during my first playthrough when Marche violated one of the newly instated laws by delivering the final blow against the Li-Grim. Guess what? It happened again this time around. Remedi imposed a law forbidding units from repeating the most recently performed action. My Assassin hit Remedi with a melee attack, bring her down to <100 HP. Anxious to kill her off before she took her next turn and probably nuked my remaining units, I carelessly commanded Marche to put an arrow in her head instead of using Sonic Boom or Sidewinder. Remedi goes down. The Judge blows his whistle, runs up to Marche, and sends him to jail. Game Over. The most insulting part about this: the judge presiding over the final battle is Cid himself. You know what? I'm glad he stays a drunk.


Well. Now that we've peeled back the skin of this thing, we can begin our inspection of the meat. Like Final Fantasy V and Tactics before it, Tactics Advance's selling point is its smorgasbord of character classes and opportunities for skill-swapping shenanigans. The next thing to look at, then, should be...

The Job System

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold your horses. Before we go any farther, we must broach the uncomfortable topic of...


Tactics Advance wasn't the first Final Fantasy game where each unit had a "race" attribute in addition to a job or class; that distinction goes to Final Fantasy XI. But to my estimation, Tactics Advance does represent the final stage of the franchise's purgation of Western folkloric influences in terms of the not-quite-human peoples populating its worlds. You'll remember that in the series' early days (and, well, Final Fantasy IX), our various heroes were often chatting it up with elves, dwarves, gnomes, fairies, lycans, etc. No surprise here: early JRPGs frequently borrowed elements from early WRPGs like the Ultima series, which were all based on Dungeons and Dragons. Elves and dwarves might not have been so original, but there's something to be said for brand recognizability. When you meet an elf in a fantasy game, there's not much need for exposition: you already have some idea of what they're about. From Final Fantasy III onward, as the franchise constructed and crystallized its identity (as it were), proprietary Square demihumans began creeping in. Moogles. Moombas. The Shumi. The Ronso. The hideous step-dancing rat-people of Cleyra. And so on.

In Final Fantasy XI, players could only choose from two Tolkienian races out of the five available character templates: humans and elves. (Or "humes" and "elvaan," but come the fuck on.) The rest were made-up Final Fantasy bear-/cat-/chipmunk-people. One year later, Tactics Advance does away with the elves, too. To paraphrase Gothmog: "the Age of Dwarves and Elves is over. The Age of Bullshit Artificial Floppy-Eared Animal People has begun."


Call them "humes" if you want to sound like a nitwit. Humans have the most jobs available to them and, at least in theory, are the baseline race whose average stat growth precludes glaring weaknesses and special advantages alike. In practice, a human unit can be made to hit as hard as a bangaa, keep up with a viera, and take hits like a moogle, and their exclusive access to Blue Magic prevents them from being ruled out as spellcasters. Humans say "dahh" when they die.


Tactics Advance's only returning demihuman race. Now they have bunny ears and plus-size pompoms, and are missing their signature red clown noses (but only in their character portraits). On paper, Moogles are fairly agile, have access to a broad range of jobs, and are the only race that can equip guns. In practice, moogles only truly excel at inflicting status ailments and tanking like brick shithouses. Moogles whimper when they die.


Floppy-eared lizard people. Curiously, Marche doesn't adduce moogles or chocobos in concluding that he's been spirited to a world based on Final Fantasy. Instead he points to the bangaa, who never appeared in the series prior to Tactics Advance. Maybe the story occurs a few years after 2003, and the Final Fantasy game Marche and his friends talk about playing is XII? All this speculation is pointless, I know. I can't help myself.

Anyway: on paper, the bangaa's specialization in physical jobs makes them Tactics Advance's strongest fighters. In practice, they're not good for much. Bangaa gurgle when they die.


Floppy-eared cow people. Better at thinking than fighting, the nu mou ("new moo") specialize in magic-using jobs, and their Magic Attack and MP growth is consistently superior to the other races'. On paper, a nu mou's paltry HP, Speed, and Weapon Defense stats are worth considering when choosing to make one your team's White Mage, Black Mage, or Time Mage instead of a member of a different race. In practice, there is no reason to have any other race maining a magic-using class that a nu mou has access to. Nu mou moo (mou?) when they die.


Bunny-eared girl people. I guess they come from a treehouse city in the woods, or something. Tactics Advance tells us as much about the viera's way of life as it does about the other races', which is next to nothing. On paper, the viera's generally high Speed growth comes at the expense of having relatively average or below-average stats elsewhere. On paper, every race's congenital advantages and disadvantages balance out, and no one species is objectively superior to any other. In practice, the viera have exclusive access to Tactics Advance's most broken physical class and are the only race able to learn Doublecast and use Summon Magic. You work the abacus. Viera nyaan when they die.

If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed the phrase "exclusive access." In Tactics Advance, a unit's race determines everything it's able to do. This is a sharp turn from Final Fantasy XI, where your character's race amounts to an array of stat modifiers. Tarutaru have high MP, INT, and AGI but low HP, MND, and STR. The elvaan have high HP, MND, and STR, but low MP, INT, and AGI. A tarutaru makes a better Black Mage or a Thief than a Warrior or a White Mage, but there's nothing stopping you from making your chipmunk-person avatar wear whatever hat he or she wants. An elvaan's stats are better optimized for being an effective Warrior or White Mage than a Black Mage or Thief, but again, the choice is totally yours. (Should I be speaking in the past tense? Are there any official Final Fantasy XI servers still running? Nevermind. I don't want to know.)

In Tactics Advance, a nou mou isn't given the opportunity to be a lackluster Warrior or Paladin. For that matter, the race with the affinity for magic isn't allowed to be Summoners or Red Mages. The nou mou have eight jobs they can take on, and Warrior, Paladin, Summoner, and Red Mage aren't on the list. It's kind of hellacious, really. Substitute "nou mou" with an ethnicity of your choice and any of the aforementioned character classes with twenty-first-century careers and see how it sounds. Not pretty, is it? Tactics Advance perpetuates a regressive essentialist narrative and Square Enix should be ashamed of itself. Its fans deserve better, and a much overdue apology would be a good start toward making amends for espousing a perfidious ethos of racial discrimination through an innocuous Game Boy game.

Yes. Fine. I'm overreacting. But after playing through Tactics Advance, I'd be really happy if Square Enix apologized for something.

TLDNR: Everybody in Tactics Advance is an asshole and Ivalice is a cesspool of racial injustice.

Now we can talk about...

The Job System

Tactics Advance has forty-two jobs compared to Tactics' twenty. On paper, it's pretty impressive. In practice, a player's options are far more limited than before. We can pare the job count down to thirty-four by not counting the jobs optioned to more than one race; they only differ in terms of level-up stat increases. The fragmentation of the job tree into race-specific branches reduces a unit's mixing/matching options to the size of their branch. A human unit has ten other jobs from which to choose a secondary action ability. A moogle, nu mou, or viera unit has seven other jobs to pick from. A bangaa has only six. Rather than adding an extra dimension to the proceedings, Tactics Advance's race system effectively hollows out the job system by imposing arbitrary restrictions on what a unit is allowed to do. It does to the character-building part of the game what the law system does to combat.

SPDD4 made the peculiar choice of scrapping Tactics' "ability shop" in favor of adopting a mechanic from Final Fantasy IX: learning skills through equipment. The details are simple, if tedious to outline: some weapons and pieces of armor allow a unit to use a certain skill. If the unit accumulates enough AP while the skill-granting paraphernalia is equipped, that skill is mastered and the unit permanently retains it. This re-linearizing of the skill acquisition process has the side effect of obscuring from first-time player (provided he's not consulting a FAQ) the full range of what a given job is capable of doing, and prevents the Tactics veteran from immediately noticing how much smaller the jobs' repertoires have become.

For a typical case we can look at the difference between Tactics' Geomancer job and its simplified Tactics Advance analog, the Elementalist. (Terrain attributes are one of several ancillary mechanics from Tactics that don't return.) The Geomancer could learn a total of sixteen abilities: twelve different Elemental attacks, one reaction ability, one support ability, and two movement abilities. The Elementalist only acquires ten: eight Elemental Magic skills, one reaction ability, and no movement abilities, because nobody in Tactics Advance has them. Instead every job has its own Combo ability, which you're just as well off never using. It would be irresponsible to insinuate that SPDD4 implemented the Combo mechanic at the very last minute after seeing previews for Disgaea and getting upset that they didn't think of it first, but...well, there it is.

We can spare Tactics Advance a few words of praise for its reworking of jobs like the Dragoon, Archer, Ninja, and Chemist. In Tactics, the Dragoon (or Lancer, whatever) and Archer's entire action ability skillsets consisted of "Level Jump 2, Level Jump 3, Level Jump 4..." and "Charge +1, Charge +2, Charge +3..." The Ninja can only learn how to throw different sharp things at enemies, and the Chemist can only learn how to throw different potions at allies. Tactics Advance lets its Archer charge shots and inflict status ailments; its Dragoon can jump and deal elemental damage and hate on dragons; its Ninja can throw whatever it wants as soon as it acquires the Ninja Tech ability "Throw" and inflict long-range elemental magic stings with added status effects. The Chemist, meanwhile, is eliminated altogether. Every job in Tactics Advance can install the Items command and has the whole apothecary at their disposal from the onset.

Unfortunately, this contributes to an overarching problem with Tactics Advance: an erosion of distinction between jobs. The Ninja and the Elementalist both use long-range elemental magic attacks with added status effects. The Ninja throws stocked weapons; the Juggler throws stocked weapons. The Archer inflicts status ailments with long-range attacks; so do the Sniper, the Hunter, the Juggler, and the Mog Gunner. The Gladiator uses elementally-charged weapon attacks. So does the Mog Gunner. So does the Fighter. The Time Mage casts Haste; the Templar casts Haste. The Fighter learns Air Render and Far Fist. The White Monk learns Air Render and Far Fist. The Animist learns Chocobo Rush, which does virtually the same thing as Far Fist. The Fencer learns Nighthawk, which does the same thing as Air Render. The Mog Knight learns Mog Lance, which does the same thing as Air Render and Nighthawk. The Mog Knight also learns Mog Rush, which does the same thing as the Fighter's Beat Down skill (which the Gladiator learns too) and Mog Guard, which does the same thing as the Alchemist's Astra skill (which the Templar also learns). The Alchemist and Sage skillsets are largely made up of Black Mage and Time Mage spells that neither unit can use this time around because there'd otherwise be no reason to have Sages and Alchemists. The White Mage doesn't learn Holy; the Bishop does because it needs at least one unique spells among its borrowed arsenal of White Mage, Red Mage, and Sage tricks (numbering eight spells in total). It's as though SPDD4 drafted maybe fifteen fully-formed jobs, broke them up, and constructed forty half-complete jobs by gluing together the fragments.

Well. As long as we're here, let's have another fashion parade showcasing the game's standout jobs:

Assassin, Blue Mage, Juggler

The undisputed queen of the hill this time around is the Assassin, whose "eight ways to instantly cripple and/or kill you" Corner skillset is no less impressive than her obscene stat growth. Joining her is the Blue Mage, coming to Tactics Advance in rare form and packing what's probably the game's best auxiliary A-ability—though fleshing out his versatile skillset is as much of a pain in the ass as ever, and usually requires a Beastmaster's assistance. The Juggler boasts surprisingly respectable physical stats and Speed, and wins the Mustadio Award for only ever doing three things (Dagger, Ring Toss, Smile) and still being more useful than most of your other units.


The short version: putting aside the mostly-useless starting physical classes (Archer, Soldier, Warrior, etc.) the Bishop is the most mediocre of the "expert" jobs. The Bangaa are Final Fantasy Tactics Advance's resident meatheads, specializing entirely in physical jobs—with the exception of the Bishop. His magic stats pale in comparison to the other races' spellcasting jobs, and he's likely to lag even farther behind if you assign him other jobs to expand his options for secondary and support abilities. He's just not very good at what he does, and might have been included to bolster Tactics Advance's implicit case for a race-based caste system.

The long version: the worst job is any physical class assigned to a unit that joined the clan as a magic user, and any magic user that joined the clan as a physical class. Because their starting stats will be skewed either towards physical or magic power, they're always going to lag behind in jobs requiring the other to be effective.

Did we mention that you can't recruit new blank-slate units at soldier offices like you could in Tactics? Well, you can't. Instead you have to wait for a new unit to randomly come knocking at your door after you complete a mission or win a clan battle. If you're hoping to replace Montblanc with a moogle who's better suited for a physical job, all you can do is go about your business and hope the random number generator gives you one. You might draw a human instead! Or you might get another moogle Black Mage who won't be much good as a fighter! Or it might give you nobody! What fun!

I'm taking another look at Tactics Advance's credits. I swear to god one of these names is an Akitoshi Kawazu pseudonym.

Gadgeteer, Animist, Assassin

On paper, the eccentric Gadgeteer seems ridiculous. His Pandora skill targets either your whole team or all your enemies with healing spells, status buffs, and status ailments, depending on the outcome of a coin toss. In other strategy games, this would be unacceptably risky. But in Tactics Advance, where the opposition is usually about as threatening as a bag of grapefruit, it introduces a welcome element of uncertainty and excitement in an otherwise anodyne proceeding. The Animist is a neat throwback to Final Fantasy V's Hunter and VI's Mog, using its Call ability to summon forest critters to render assistance and run interference. As for the Assassin: anyone who played Tactics and remembers cowering from Celia and Lede can appreciate why the job's availability in Tactics Advance (armed with the dreaded Stop Bracelet and Shadow Stitch in addition to six new skills) aroused such excitement back in the day.

Assassin, Illusionist

Perhaps you're wondering why the Assassin has been singled out for both praise and criticism. In the Assassin's case, you get exactly what you wanted—Tactics' sexiest enemy-exclusive job—and it's way too much of a good thing. Pardon the Trumpism, but when you have a party member whose MO is mincing up to people and either murdering them outright or putting a death sentence on them before they get a chance to do anything, you start to get tired of winning. And then we have the Illusionist, who's sort of a cross between the evergreen Summoner class and Tactics' Dancer. His Phantasm Tech ability casts damaging elemental magic that targets all enemy units, regardless of where they are on the field. It costs a lot of MP, frequently misses, and doesn't do a whole lot of damage, and the Illusionist's abysmal Speed growth means he won't be taking many turns. I suppose you could take six Human units, level them up as Ninjas to boost their Speed, give them all the White Mage's Turbo MP support ability to boost their damage output, and have all six fire off their target-all spells at the start of the battle to decimate the enemy—but this game is already boring enough.

The Ladies (again)

Not that the other races were sartorially snubbed here, but being Tactics Advance' nearest elfin analog after Final Fantasy's divorce from Tolkienian demihumans, the viera automatically look better than everyone else without really trying.

Fighter, Alchemist

Yes, yes, the Fighter is strong as hell and makes a fine addition to any team, but I just can't bring myself to use him. He looks like a literal dickhead. And the Alchemist's hat makes him look like an asshole. Now we just need a job that reminds us of a perineum and we'll have the complete set. Maybe there's one in Final Fantasy Tactics A2.

Hunter, Sniper, Thief

Tactics' Archer was pathetic. Tactics Advance's Archer is crummy at best, but its "expert" versions, the Hunter and the Sniper, put in work by causing splash damage, inflicting debuffs, breaking equipment, and boosting allies, and have excellent Weapon Attack growth. With his improved success rate at snatching equipment, the Thief is indispensable if you want your guys to master their jobs without having to grind and grind and grind away at missions to get them the gear they need.

White Monk, Ninja

The Monk was a remarkably solid class in Tactics because of its varied skillset: they can brawl up close and strike from a distance, heal themselves and other units, and counterattack with some of the game's best reaction abilities. Tactics Advance's White Monk can do most of these things, but not that well. Plus, now that most other physical jobs have similar combinations of MP-free offensive and recovery abilities, the White Monk is redundant in addition to lackluster. The Ninja is here simply on the basis of his unprecedented exclusion from the S-tier. He's a good fighter, he can inflict status ailments with ninpo witchery, and he's got the best speed growth of any human unit, so he's hardly a slouch. But having to wait until a rare weapon becomes available to start dual-wielding and needing to amass 999 AP (which should take about twenty battles and/or dispatch missions) before he can transfer Double Sword to another job is a tremendous downgrade. Note: only humans can become Ninjas (I suspect discriminatory union practices), so now only humans units can dual-wield. Your Gladiator and Mog Knight are plumb out of luck.


Well. What now?

Having written approximately six hundred thousand longform articles about Final Fantasy over the years, I've found that one can often better understand any game in the series by placing it beside other Square titles released around the same time (comparing Parasite Eve to Final Fantasy VII is like interviewing a fraternal twin about their sibling's habits), and by situating it within the franchise's timeline. While it's obvious to look at Final Fantasy V as an outgrowth of IV and a precursor to VI, I don't think I've seen anyone consider Tactics Advance with regard to the two Final Fantasy games to hit the market directly before and after its release.

Tactics Advance came out in 2003. Final Fantasy XI, a toxic cesspool of an MMORPG, was released in 2002. Later in 2003 followed Final Fantasy X-2, the first game that made me embarrassed to call myself a Final Fantasy fan. Clearly Tactics Advance was part of a bad crop. Since all three games were developed in-house by the same studio, some degree of cross-pollination was inevitable. Let's examine this.


The central Reuleaux triangle in the XI/X-2/Tactics Advance Venn diagram. All three games adhere to a mission-based structure, though the form obviously differs with the format. Accepting quests and running off to dangerous places to obtain loot and EXP is de riguer for MMORPGS; Final Fantasy XI is typical in this regard and needs no elaboration. Final Fantasy X-2 is different: a locationless home base, instant transportation to every area from the beginning, and sets of quests that can be done in any sequence (or not at all) are unusual features in an otherwise typical JRPG. Though 2003's average game-reviewing dullard sang praises to its "refreshing non-linearity," X-2 is not nonlinear. Once you get around to doing the mandatory quests, all the plot beats still occur in the same order. The difference between a game like Final Fantasy X and X-2 is that in the mission-based outing, the developers saved a lot of time by not having to worry about how to situate a given incident into the game's overall arc. They could simply draft out the important events of the story and pad the gaps with inessential self-contained episodes that the axial Vegnagun/Shuyin narrative was free to ignore. As a way to expedite a game from the drawing board to the loading dock, this is kind of brilliant.

Working on Tactics Advance more or less concurrently with the X-2 development team, SPDD4 was likely under pressure to get the game out the door as quickly as possible (the $94 million of red ink that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within left on the budget sheet wasn't going to blacken itself, after all) and recognized a good idea when they saw one.

Think back to the intricate (if convoluted) plot of Tactics. Ramza goes places and fights battles, and the narrative supplies reasons for why Ramza goes where he goes and fights who he fights. SPDD4 apparently found the prospect of assembling a cogent, continuous narrative too daunting or too time-intensive, and chose to follow X-2's example in thrifty plotting. In Tactics Advance, Marche visits the pub in any of Ivalice's cities and looks through the job postings. He accepts a job, goes somewhere, and fights somebody—for some reason. Most of the time it's not very important or interesting.

Here's an example. Marche looks at a job posting.

"There's a bomb infestation near the town of Cadoan! Please help us drive them back before Cadoan burns to the ground!" -Cadoan Town Watch

Marche goes to Cadoan. A battle starts.

[Marche:] Where did all these bombs come from?

Marche and friends defeat all the bombs.

[Marche:] Glad we managed to deal with them before they got to Cadoan.

And it's never spoken of again. There you have it: that's basically every non-essential Tactics Advance battle mission. Afterwards you collect your winnings and go back to the pub to take on another mission.

"Please find my pet. His name is 'meow' because he goes 'meow meow.' He likes rabbit tails. Thank you!" -Amelie, Owner of Meow

"We need someone to offer holy water at the shrine on the old Gulug Volcano. The female ghost is up to her old tricks again." -Oktoma, Townsperson

"We learned a summoning spell at school, but when I tried it at home, I couldn't get the monster to leave! Help me!" -Orvis, Mage School Junior

Besides these, there are twenty-four mandatory, sequential missions that move along the "Marche wants to go home" arc. Since the mission format provides the pretense for Marche to go wherever he goes before he accidentally bumps into an important person or conveniently steps through a dimensional rift and finds a Totema, SPDD4 could dispense with the inconvenient task of writing a story. It was enough to outline the plot, script a couple of straightforward cutscenes for each of about thirty bullet points on the whiteboard, break for lunch, and then reconvene to churn out pat little blurbs for the other 285 missions.

Good thing the game's story was never the point.

Job System (cont.)

Final Fantasy XI, X-2, and Tactics Advance overlap here, too. Once again we're only concerned with X-2 and Tactics Advance. As we've seen, X-2 didn't slouch on its version of the job system. Changing jobs during battle was a wonderful innovation, and adopting Tactics' "ability shop" mechanic just made sense. But the whole thing was ultimately a joke: what's the point of giving players a cornucopia of battle abilities and possible strategies in a game where most of YRP's missions have them doing busywork and getting into serial fights with hapless goons? When the game actually makes you fight, and forces you to fight well, it's great fun. It just doesn't happen nearly enough. (But we've already been over this.)

Tactics Advance is even worse on this head. Even if its version of the job system were brilliant (and it isn't) there's not much point in committing the time to build up and optimize your team when the opposition is barely trying. Even if you're not strategically combining abilities and timing level ups to optimize units' stat increases, you still shouldn't expect to have much trouble on the battlefield. Your crew not only tends to have higher levels and better skills than its foes, but will frequently outnumber them. Your crew can use Combo abilities, summon Totema, and switch their jobs prior to an engagement to circumvent restrictive laws; your enemies can't. The AI isn't particularly bright, either.

Not that Tactics' difficulty didn't plateau halfway along the way, but Tactics Advance's never actually increases. The Remedi fight is an exception, of course, but the last battle is really the only time the game takes the bumpers off the gutters. Unless you really don't know what you're doing or go out of your way to handicap yourself, you can win most battles without really having to pay attention, much less employ a strategy. For most of the time you're playing Tactics Advance you're fighting battles, and the battles soon become repetitive and narcotically dull

Good thing the game's battles were never the point, either.


SMPS oldhead Rhete played Final Fantasy XI for much longer than I did; I can only imagine the terror and anguish he suffered for it. When he spilled his guts about the experience some years back, he insisted that most people fundamentally misunderstand XI. "Contrary to popular belief, FFXI is not a game," he wrote. "Final Fantasy XI is a job. Don't ever call it a game." He wasn't wrong.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (much like Animal Crossing) is a game about getting a job. Marche wakes up in Ivalice, alone and lost. His benefactor Montblanc offers "The pay's good," the moogle tells him, adding that his clan takes on all kinds of gigs in all kinds of places, so Marche's best bet for finding clues about his predicament is signing up to slog through the deserts and mountains to wrestle with vicious animals and hunt down criminals on commission. Marche, like the expropriated tenant farmer of 18th-century England, cannot realistically spurn Montblanc's proposition. When you turn on the PlayStation and load your save file in Final Fantasy Tactics, you're opening to the next chapter in the secret history of the War of the Lions. When you click on the Game Boy Advance and load your Final Fantasy Tactics Advance file, you're putting on your overalls and boots and clocking in with Marche.

Actually, it's rather more like sitting down at your desk and checking your email at nine in the morning.

"A goblin stole my favorite monster guide and buried it under a rock! I'll give you a copy if you get mine back for me!" -Ian, Inquisitive Youth

"I found a creepy road in the Orphanwood with faceless dolls all lined up. I can't bring myself to walk past—are they safe?" -Edist, Tailor

"I saw a bad wizard doing something up in the snow mountains. He's up to no good, I know it! He was making all this ice!" -Laudy, Shopkeeper's Son

"Someone stole my latest scoop article, and I'll bet it was those guys at the Sprohm News. Get them before they reach Sprohm!" -Eraile, Daily Baguba

"There's been an outbreak of flan near our logging site! They'll eat all the trees, and we'll be out of a job! Help!" -Dals, Lumberjack

"A thief has been coming in the night and stealing our chickens! Please, catch him for us!" -Kariena, Little Girl

"We suspect a clan is smuggling rare monsters in boxes, but we can't move until we have proof! Can you look into it?" -Dellar, Palace Guard

"Help! Professor Auggie has gone missing during his investigation of the cave at Tubola! He was last seen near a statue." -Quin, Search Party Member


I need a minute. I don't want to think about Final Fantasy Tactics Advance right now. Why don't we talk about something more interesting? Like, I don't know, Skinnerian behaviorism?

I think it's interesting.

B.F. Skinner is frequently maligned for his purported treatment of the human being as a kind of simple mechanism, which simply isn't true. Radical behaviorism and its offshoots do, however, take the nonexistence of free will as an axiom, regarding the individual person as an animal organism whose entire repertoire of actions are responses to stimuli. Behavior that has been positively reinforced on previous occasions is likely to recur during similar occasions in the future. (We can often use "reward" as a vernacular synonym for positive reinforcement, but the terms are not fungible.) Actions preceding a painful or otherwise adverse stimulus are less likely be repeated at the prompting of an analogous event. Homo sapiens is a complex animal; even if the basic principles behaviorism employs to describe and account for the locus of its activity are simple to express, a thorough analysis defies summary. Internal stimuli (mental activity, for instance) must be accounted for as best as possible. Internal states must be considered as probability modifiers; an individual in the throes of emotion (anger, for instance) or in a state of deprivation (hunger, perhaps) is likely to behave in different ways and be reinforced by different responses than he would at his "baseline" state (if such a status can be said to exist). Stimuli themselves are not discrete entities; an event's controlling properties (for example, the color and shape of a traffic signal) must be understood in terms of the individual's history before functional relations between stimuli and responses can be established. Any analysis must involve language, especially as it enters into the individual's interactions with other people and the covert stimulations of mental activity. Far from deprecating the human being, behaviorism fully appreciates the organism's complexities and vagaries, and constructs a framework for a scientific treatment of what it does and how it is made to do what it does.

Another common misconception is the layman's equating negative reinforcement with punishment. Negative reinforcement is not necessarily punishment, though punishment commonly involves negative reinforcement. When an adverse stimulus is negated by taking a certain action (such seeking an awning to stand under during a rainstorm), that behavior is more likely to be repeated if the adverse stimulus reoccurs. Punishment is the disruption of behavior by the presentation of an adverse stimulus. It not only brings about a temporary cessation of that behavior, but tends to reduce the probability of its reoccurrence. Additionally, the actions taken in response to the punishing stimulus tend to acquire reinforcing properties, and a history of punishment produces adverse internal stimulation (anxiety) when stimuli related to a prior occasion of punishment arise. Skinner deemed punishment ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst, and advised that positive reinforcement strategies be used in parenting, education, and criminal reform.

This is much more interesting than Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Don't you agree?

One might ask why we do things we feel we'd rather not be doing if there's no immediate reward for doing them. Going to work, for instance: on the face of it, there's nothing reinforcing about dragging oneself out of bed, getting dressed, and leaving the house at sunrise to sit in traffic or shove through the subway. If anything, these are aversive experiences. How do we account for the daily recurrence of the actions which subject the individual to them?

Behaviorism answers with the concepts of the conditioned reinforcer and the functional chain. A response may be reinforced; but the response does not occur in isolation. The behavior of drinking water when thirsty is reinforcing, but preliminary behavior must occur before a person can raise a glass to his lips. These preliminary actions acquire reinforcing properties themselves by their causal proximity to a primary reinforcer. A functional chain describes a series of responses wherein each action alters the strength of subsequent conditioned reinforcers, and is thereby reinforced itself. Getting up from the couch when you're thirsty strengthens the behavior of going to the kitchen. Going to the kitchen when you're thirsty strengthens the behavior of taking a glass out of the cupboard. Taking a glass out of the cupboard when you're thirsty strengthens the behavior of taking that glass to the sink and turning on the tap. Taking a glass to the sink and turning on the tap when you're thirsty strengthens the behavior of filling the glass, drinking, and receiving reinforcement by allaying a state of deprivation (thirst).

Stimuli such as water, food, and sex are identified as primary reinforcers: though behaviorism disdains explanations of "instincts" as circular arguments, for purposes of comprehension we might say that eating, drinking, and copulating are instinctual, and their reinforcing properties don't need to be acquired. To some extent, human contact may also be a primary reinforcer (for human beings). Other reinforcers are acquired through conditioning. Money is an example not only of a conditioned reinforcer, but also of a generalized reinforcer. There are few situations in which receiving money is not reinforcing; an engorged individual may not accept more food, but he'll probably take as many $100 bills as you care to give him.

Being paid is a positive reinforcer. Getting up and going to work on weekday mornings is essentially a long functional chain strengthened by the positive reinforcement of earing a paycheck and the adverse stimulation of not receiving one when one would ordinarily expect to. ("Expectation" is a concept that needs a paragraph or two of qualification to adhere to the behavioristic framework, but we'll let it go for now.) A profusion of other variables enter into the model. Mental and linguistic behavior allow one to experience the negative consequences of losing one's job even if one has never experienced being fired, presenting a negative stimulus which going to work eases. Conditioned social reinforcers compel one to please one's supervisors and fear their disdain. Meeting and interacting with coworkers whose company one enjoys can be positively reinforcing. But it's largely the positive reinforcement of payday and its contingency on arriving to work on time that accounts for why we go through the motions in the morning when we'd probably prefer not to. The fact that you'd stop showing up if you stopped getting paid is evidence enough.

A worker on an hourly wage who gets paid every other Friday is reinforced on a fixed-interval schedule. The temporal gap between the behavior and reinforcement is supplemented with conditioned reinforcers of a social or verbal character (calendars, punch cards, prodding by one's coworkers or supervisors, etc.) in order to maintain the behavior in the absence of an immediate reward. On the other hand, somebody like a car salesman on commission or an Uber driver is reinforced on a ratio schedule: if he sells a car or gives a ride, he receives the reinforcement of pay. A paid blogger responsible for churning out three posts a week may be reinforced on a 3-1 ratio: if he only submits one or two posts, he won't get paid until he turns over a third.

In Science and Human Behavior, Skinner writes:

A fixed-ratio schedule may, in fact, be too effective. It leads not only to high levels of activity, but to long working hours, both of which may be harmful....Another objection to the use of the schedule in industry is that the increased return to the worker which follows conversion to such a schedule often seems to justify increasing the ratio. Let us suppose that an employee producing a hundred items per week is paid fifty dollars on a weekly basis and that the management offers to pay this instead on a piecework basis of one dollar per every two items. The effect on the employee is a rapid increase in production. Let us suppose he is able to increase his weekly wage to a hundred dollars. In terms of current rates of pay this may appear to justify increasing the number of items required per dollar to, say, three. As the piecework schedule remains in force, production may continue to rise. In the long run a very much higher rate of work might be generated by only a slight increase in weekly pay. This is precisely the way in which in the laboratory a high rate of responding is generated under a fixed-ratio schedule.

The ratio and the magnitude of the reinforcement show a subtle relation. Is a reinforcement of ten dollars per thousand items as effective as one dollar per hundred, or one cent per item? If a man places a fixed economic value upon his labor, there should be no difference, but that is not the case. One can advance to a high ratio only after a long history of reinforcement at lower ratios...[A] contractor who employed peasant labor to move earth with wheelbarrows found it most effective to pay a small amount each time a full wheelbarrow was delivered to the proper point. The use of piecework pay in industry or elsewhere presupposes a considerable history of economic control.

Hmm. On second thought: all of a sudden I feel like talking about Final Fantasy again.

It's common knowledge that video games are essentially reward-delivery mechanisms. Final Fantasy XI is an exemplary if wrenching case of rewarding players on a ratio schedule. The game's most compelling reinforcer is the Level Up. When you gain levels, you can use better equipment, acquire new skills, perform better in combat, and (eventually) go out and look at other places in Vana'diel without getting murdered by wandering monsters.

In theory, the experience of playing Final Fantasy XI must be reinforcing in and of itself. (Again, we may err in using the present tense.) Skinner suggests that manipulating one's environment is a primary reinforcer; a two-year-old child needs no coaxing to engage himself with building blocks or an iPad. Tapping a key to move the image of a person across a backlit monitor and wiggling a mouse to rotate the scene might be inherently engrossing for the same reason.

Exploring Vana'diel is, as XI's title screen waiver says, a thrilling experience. But before long you discover that you're unable to go any farther in your exploration. When you try, you get sliced to ribbons. The game withholds from the player the positive reinforcement of advancing in the game world (states of deprivation can be conditioned too; the economy depends on it, actually), and the player starts joining spawn-camping EXP parties to mitigate this condition. When he gains a level, he receives positive reinforcement. The negative reinforcer is subsequently reapplied after the player equips his new gear, goes to a new place, takes on a new mission, and is summarily killed, sending him back to an EXP party. One would think that fighting monsters with people in a game world would be pleasure enough—but were that the case, nobody would caps-lock lose their shit after dying and levelling down.

I wonder how a more accomplished (read: legitimate) behaviorist would account for the sunken time fallacy, which has surely factored into thousands of players' stormy relationships with Final Fantasy XI. Maybe there's some kind of perverse feedback loop where the conditioned state of deprivation actually increases as the player's EXP total increases, further strengthening the behavior that has, in the past, been reinforced by the LEVEL UP jingle or by opening up a new part of the game.

The behaviorist would observe that a game like Final Fantasy XI uses a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule with a high (and regularly increasing) ratio of behavior to reinforcement. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, on the other hand, is comparable to Skinner's contractor of peasant labor, constantly issuing little rewards to maintain the strength of the player's engagement.

Completing a battle mission in Tactics Advance earns you several prizes. Aside from the experience points your individual units gain from doing anything other than idly wandering the battlefield, and the JP they collect from KO'ing enemies, all participants earn a set amount of AP when the fight ends. Afterwards, you'll be checking the Party screen to see how closer your units are to mastering the abilities they're working towards. Their progress is spelled out numerically and represented graphically as a bar gauge. Skinner: "Progress toward the completion of a given number of responses also has the effect of a conditioned reinforcer. The schedule is more effective if this progress is emphasized—for example, by a visible counter."

You'll also receive money, equipment, law cards, and mission items, some of which are prerequisites for sending your clan members on dispatch missions (more on those in a moment). You might also increase your clan's proficiency in one or more of eight attributes. (I don't pretend to know what any of the cabbalistics represent; it's truly not important.) When these stats reach certain levels, you receive some sort of item as a reward. At higher levels, the rewards are increasingly rare pieces of equipment, which will either confer some commensurately rare ability or high stat boosts, which are most helpful in succeeding at the more exacting dispatch missions. Sometimes a mission involves "freeing" an area on the map, bringing it under Clan Nutsy's dominion. The more turf you control, the better items you can buy in the shops; the better items everyone has, the higher their numbers get; the higher their numbers, the more likely they are to complete dispatch missions; the more dispatch missions you finish, the more of the 300 drab, grey question marks on the Report tab in the Clan menu are replaced by bright, life-affirming (reinforcing) completion icons.

Dispatch missions entail sending off one of your clanspeople for a set amount of time, reckoned either in terms of in-game days, battles fought, or enemies defeated. Once the requirement is satisfied, your party member returns. Success is determined by their job, stats, and a random number generator. If they fail, you can give it another go. If they succeed, you get AP, items, and clan stat increases, and another mocking eyesore of a question mark is banished to oblivion, improving the universe forever.

The original Tactics had dispatch missions, but if the typical player is anything like me, not many people bothered with them. The game did too good a job in immersing me in its world. "We don't have time to wait a week for Alicia and Lavian to come back from a job! There's a fucking war going on and it's July already!" To this end, Tactics Advance kindly replaces Tactics' Gregorian dates with an ersatz Ivalician calendar, so the more sensitive (or obsessive-compulsive) player won't think anything of commanding Marche to stroll halfway across Ivalice in order to kill time while his valued team member is off on a twenty-day assignment to harvest barnacles from a sleeping dragon's balls or whatever.

Occasionally when you're traipsing around and picking fights with wandering clans to expedite your dispatched unit's return, some of your turf will come under assault and need to be "rescued" within a certain number of in-game days if you want to keep your item-shop perks. This serves to present a conditioned state of adversity, offering an opportunity to receive positive reinforcement by negating it. Pretty much everything you do in Tactics Advance earns you a reward.

Tactics Advance fascinates me. I don't mean the game per se: the combat is insipid and insultingly easy, the mechanics are shallow, and the story is pablum. But I couldn't—can't—stop playing. That's what's so interesting. A day after I beat Remedi, happily believing I'd bid the game farewell, I found myself opening the save file and sniffing out the postgame character recruitment quests. Earlier tonight, when it occurred to me I didn't have a screenshot of the jobs graphic, I opened it up again. After I got what I needed I sent a bunch of units on dispatch quests and ran around picking clan fights. It was dull as dishwater, and yet I kept at it for a whole ninety minutes. What the hell?

Deliberately or not, SPDD4 achieved a stroke of dark genius. In designing Tactics Advance, they contravened almost every trend that had emerged in JRPGs since the mid-90s. There's no intricate, epic storyline with philosophical undertones, and only a bare, obligatory minimum of interpersonal drama between characters. There's no sprawling fantasy world to explore. They didn't contrive an original or esoteric battle system. Dramatic battles against oversized bosses with multiple forms and various gimmicks are present only to the extent that nobody can complain of their complete absence. The only current SPDD4 didn't push back against was, not coincidentally, the steady lowering of the average JRPG's difficulty level after the peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

So: Tactics Advance is too simple to ever frustrate players. The perfunctory story resolves itself speedily and without demanding much attention, and most of the game's content exists independently of it anyway. There isn't much of an in-game world to speak of; as in the original Tactics, you can't actually guide Marche through the cities and fields to immerse yourself in Ivalice, but now the long cutscenes, Brave Story texts, and most of the mid-battle dialogue which served the same purpose are gone. The battles are literally child's play, and with the exceptions of the Totema, Llendar, and Remedi fights, they're all the same: no gimmicks, no snags, no perplexities, and usually settled within ten minutes. You can load your save file, accept a battle mission, clear the field, claim your prizes, and switch off the Game Boy Advance in as much time as it takes to ride the J Train from the Bowery to Brooklyn.

This is what I meant before when I said Tactics Advance sometimes feels like something entirely different from a Tactics sequel. To my mind, it's less an SRPG than a stealth prototype of Farmville, or some other game like it. Play consists of trading time at repetitive tasks for conditioned dopamine squeezes, without extraneous impediments like a story, exploration, puzzles, or difficulty delaying the fix. True, there's a world of difference between link cables and internet connectivity, and DLC and pay-for-points schemes were still a decade off in 2003, but Tactics Advance is still basically a pre-smartphone mobile game. It brazenly sloughs off what we once would have called "substance," leaving only a threadbare manifold of brain-tickling reward mechanisms that continuously reinforce the performance of button-pressing busywork to jingly music and warm color splashes.

Skimming old message boards for Tactics Advance posts, you'll see long threads where people solicit advice about the best jobs and ability combinations, debate the most effective methods of maximizing stats through strategic levelling and recruitment, and show off their crops (er, clans): listing their max-level team rosters, equipment, skills, stats, and all. Curious that such effort and care would be committed to a game necessitating none of it. In an outing like Disgaea, you're sinking hours and hours into building up your crew, but (probably) as a means to an end. You can't beat the toughest postgame superbosses unless your units are dealing hundreds of thousands of damage per attack, and getting them there requires considerable grinding and a practical knowledge of the game's wonkiest mechanics. If you were posting your team of level-9000 units on the Disgaea GameFAQs board in 2004, it was likely to say "and this is how I beat Prinny Baal." In Tactics Advance, there are no superbosses. (The corrupted judge fights unlocked by completing 300 missions are, by all accounts, easier than Remedi.) No new worlds to access. No mountains to climb. The experiences of grinding, making the numbers bigger, and admiring your characters dressed in their high-end virtual swag are their own reward. Tactics Advance insinuates the same nihilistic truths that Flappy Bird would howl to the world a decade later. All pretenses of artistry may be foregone. What's important is the design, and the design is that of a machine with an exact purpose: to indefinitely prolong user engagement.

Ironic: through the late 1990s and early 2000s, SquareSoft strove to elevate the console RPG into an interactive-cinematic artform that could break through the confines of the format and carry the medium to a new stage of its life cycle. But it was Square Product Development Division 4 and its bland, unassuming little portable SRPG that augured the future of video games.



TLDNR: Everybody in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an asshole, Ivalice is a fucked up place, SPDD4's laziness is almost as astonishing as its cunning, and the game messes with your brain like a sociopathic (but boring) boy/girlfriend. It might not be as mortifyingly lurid in its awfulness as Final Fantasy X-2, but it's equally offensive in its own way. 2003 was the year Final Fantasy began to irretrievably lose its mojo, and Tactics Advance was a first symptom.

Well! There you have it. My obligation is settled.

Thanks as always to Miss Polly for giving a home to my longform gibberish. The next time a terrible decision made out of avarice blows up in my face, you'll read about it here!


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