In case you missed it, we decided to enjoy a post-E3 palate-cleanser in the form of Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics. After reading Mike Williams' impassioned retrospective a couple of weeks ago, how could we not revisit the game?
Instead of just sneaking in a few minutes here and there, though, we decided to turn it into a group project for the entire staff to discuss — and we'd love for you to play along and share your own thoughts and experiences as well! Just try and keep spoilers for future chapters to a minimum. Any version of Tactics is fine. Jump in and share your thoughts. Today, we put the game's first chapter under the microscope. Veteran tacticians and combat noobs alike join the scrum....
You know, this game goes a lot faster than I remember. I took the time to grind up enough experience that I was able to clear out the final battles of the chapter — roughly level 7, I guess? — without breaking too much of a sweat. And I still managed to cruise through this on a single Vita battery charge. Either I worked with ruthless efficiency, or else PSP games are very gentle on the Vita's battery life.
Whatever the case, I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to build my team and its protagonist, Lightning Beoulve. (My four-year-old nephew renamed Ramza for me; he doesn't know a thing about Final Fantasy XIII, but he loves Pixar's Cars.) I always feel like I should take Lightn—err, Ramza down a magic-based path. See, one unique feature of Final Fantasy Tactics is that the higher a character's Faith, the more effectively they can use magic; the downside is that a high Faith rating makes a character equally susceptible to magic. On the up side of things, that makes them much better at receiving healing spells and buffs, too.
Ramza has one of the highest natural Faith ratings in the game… but it's so darned satisfying to lay waste to everything in sight with raw physical power that I end up turning him into a Monk. That little rat Argath (formerly known as Algus) went down like a chump to a concentrated Aurablast. It felt pretty good.
What about you folks? Any particular stratagems strike your fancy this time through the game?
I was extremely trepidatious going into this game, simply because I never play stuff like this. And without any kind of experience, I'm immediately running into issues. After some stilted introductory dialog, I find myself outside a building looking at a cute party of people who I don't know, one of whom is apparently me. My gang is facing an enemy group, and they're all walking on the spot. Combat is confusing, and I have absolutely no idea about the benefits of the different maneuvers on offer. Fortunately, there seems to be a button that makes the game play itself, and as I finish up writing this paragraph, I'm delighted to see I've won, and the dude that is me has leveled up.
But now someone's been taken away on a giant chicken and I'm watching text pop up slowly, one word at a time - no matter how many buttons I mash. I have no idea where I am or what's going on other than from only the most cursory perspective. But what I do know is combat seems to take ages, and now I'm dead. That was the second fight against some “tortured thieves." I'm doing something wrong, but I have no idea what.
So I've just looked at the tutorial, and now I just want to give up. Holy crap is this game complicated. I can't believe how much stuff there is to learn, and even after reading/watching the tutorial twice, I still can't quite tie everything together. Jobs. Stats. Monsters. How the hell do you get your head around all this stuff? It's crazy. Were earlier games of this ilk simpler, and if you grew up playing them, it was easy to transition from one to another as they became more complicated? Jumping straight into this one feels so overwhelming.
On the positive side, though, it's nice to be experiencing an area of gaming that is completely unknown to me. Even if it feels like it's impenetrable territory.
Jaz, my heart goes out to you. I know exactly how you feel — I remember the first time I played FFT. All I could think was, “What in god's name have I gotten myself into?" But I soldiered on and figured out it. Then I got to the Dorter Slums (roughly the fifth battle) and realized I had done it all horribly wrong and needed to start over. After that sorrowful reboot, though, it was pretty smooth sailing.
So, don't panic! I know you love chess, and I assume that in all your years covering gaming in the UK you must have played something by Julian Gollop, yeah? X-Com or Laser Squad or whatever? Because FFT is very similar to those games, focusing on character placement and coordination, but with a slightly different sort of abstraction. Rather than taking turns one side at a time, the turn-based mechanics in FFT revolve around the speed rating of individual units. Once you figure that out, and get a feel for watching turn order, it all makes sense. And the palette of character roles (Jobs) and skills available to you slowly unfold based on your progression.
A handy tip — while random encounters (green map dots) level up with Ramza, the story battles feature enemies with fixed stats. Worst case scenario, you can grind Job points and experience levels until you're able to crush all who stand before you.
I have, as is common when I play Final Fantasy Tactics, gone completely off the rails. I have yet to even enter the Cellar of the Sand Mouse in Zeklaus Desert because I am grinding. The denizens of Mandalia Plain and I are Street Pass buddies and see each other all the time. Essentially, if you learn the Squire abilities of Focus and JP Boost, everything else is gravy. Focus lets you take an action, which nets you XP and JP for the turn, while JP Boost increases the JP you get for such actions. You'll need at least one strong unit to protect those that are grinding, preferably a Monk, but this is my current game loop.
I'm unsure if I have enough patience this early on to grind my way to Geomancer, which is one of my early game go-to job classes alongside the almighty Monk. I probably do. Here I sit with my Vita in hand and the Final Fantasy Tactics job chart (War of the Lions version) sitting on my screen. Where do I got from here? Monk is the vanguard and the building block, but do I go Samurai or Knight for my second heavy unit? Do I stick with the versatile Archer/Ninja, or switch in Mustadio the second I get him? And where is the team's resident magic user going? Questions, questions.
And Jaz, I feel for you. It's a long road to get to where we are now.
Believe it or not, I was with Jaz for a bit there. It's been years since I last picked up Final Fantasy Tactics, and jumping back in after a prolonged absence isn't quite like getting back on a bike (or a Chocobo, I guess). When I went to pick my first Jobs and Abilities, I found myself staring blankly at the menu, overwhelmed by the choices. All I could think was, “Geez, where do I even start?" I can see how a new player can feel like they're drowning. But like Mike and Jeremy said, you've just got to stick with it, because it can be a bit of a slow burn.
It's a mantra that I've been chanting to myself in the midst of wiping several times against random mobs on the road back from Arizona. My main flaw is that I'm impatient as hell, so I have a tendency to rush in and get my characters surrounded by mistake. On my first few runs to Mandalia Plain, I started to feel like Tank as my party members died one by one in the Matrix (‘90s reference for a ‘90s game, natch). It can be frustrating to have to restart again and again while trying to grind, since it makes the early levels in particular feel pretty trying. It's rare that I really get going until the mid-game in strategy RPGs like these.
Thankfully, things are starting to click. After grinding a bit,, I've managed to get the all important JP Boost and Move +1 on to the majority of my party members, and I'm starting to pile up helpful skills like Adrenaline Rush. I was shocked by how quickly I blew through Dorter Slums with my crew. But I guess it helps when the CPU Black Mage accidentally nukes two of his allies with a Thunder spell in the process of trying to take out a solitary Knight. I've yet to decide what to do with Ramza long term; but since he's a Knight already, I feel like Monk is a natural for now. I would love to hear some suggestions from the gallery.
I think the main thing to keep in mind about Final Fantasy Tactics, Jaz, is how enjoyable it can be once you really get into it. It's taken a few battles, but I can definitely feel it getting its hooks in me again. I've gotta say, it feels pretty good.
You won't find me choosing anything but Monk for Ramza. I may have another job to augment Monk, like Ninja or Geomancer, but the class is a one-man army early on in the game and a powerful ally later on. If you want to keep him as a Knight or Samurai, hitting up Ninja is recommended to pick up Dual Wield. Or you can try Ninja with the Monk's Brawler ability, focusing on the Physical Attack stat. This is why I love Tactics, so many options and choices for your squad.
Now you're making me feel like I should have gone with my instincts and made Ramza a mage. Maybe I will, and turn the lady archer I was going to train up as a ninja into a monk instead. There's something kind of great about using a female monk, anyway. It's like, “Check it, video games industry. I made my own empowered woman, because you won't make the effort!"
That's one of the great things about this game. Even after sinking six or seven hours into the story, I can still respec my hero and not feel like I'm running behind. And it's possible to get so attached to generics from the early game that you never want to use the story characters you recruit. Except Mustadio, of course.
Mustadio forever. I also get a bit of mileage out of Rapha and Marach (Rafa and Malak for you pre-War of the Lions folks), who aren't the most reliable characters, but add a bit of randomness to any battle they participate in. And Agrias gets dragged everywhere I go because I simply love the idea of the character; when I was younger, I had Samus reveal-levels of excitement when I found out Agrias was a woman. She remains one of my favorite Final Fantasy characters to this day, sort of a proto-Brienne of Tarth. Which is odd, because after a certain point, Agrias doesn't factor much into the main story and the character type isn't all that novel when contrasted with the rest of Final Fantasy's stable.
Speaking of characters, Argath is a tool. I know that you're not supposed to like him, as he's a representative of the strong lure of nobility, but man I just want him dead from the moment he steps onscreen.
Argath makes for a pretty good classist jerk early on, and a backstabber besides. He would fit right in at King's Landing. I'm feeling better about my decision to go with my initial two Monks plus a Black Mage and a Cleric strategy. Of course, as I write that, I'm knee deep in a bloodbath at Sand Rat's Sietch because I accidentally let my Black Mage get up front. Oh, and there's a sniper shooting Ramza from behind. The humanity! I'm going to have to start this mission again. Where's Cidolfus when you need him?
I downloaded the game to PS3, but now I'm switching it up and putting it on Vita. It seems to be a more appropriate game for that system, because I can use it whenever I have an odd moment and invest the time in it that I need to. If I stick to a big screen, I'll just never be able to get going. So I'm going to have it on my desk next to me and see how I can do.
I read up on it last night, and it's clear this is a really deep game in terms of the options and choices. What does worry me is that it seems to be really unforgiving. Make the wrong choice early, and it seems you can put yourself at a disadvantage. At least it seems that way. Players also talk a lot about resetting the game if you do things wrong. That's also a worry, but I guess it's part of the learning curve.
Oh wow. The game just finished downloading on Vita and it looks sooo much better than it does on PS3. It looks like a completely different game. The dark colors are richer, the lighter tones are vibrant and more saturated, the shading is pin sharp and the characters look far more appealing. I'm not sure whether the PS3 is adding extra pixels or what, but the game looks fuzzy and, frankly, pretty horrible on a big screen. But it looks great on Vita's OLED! What a surprise. And I actually won the first battle without someone in my team getting nailed. Things are looking up!
I'm playing the War of the Lions remake, which looks better in some ways than the original and worse in others — it's stretched and a bit fuzzy in places. That distortion doesn't change the fact that this game still looks great. Mainly, I love the sprites. Not the walking-in-place-during battle sprites, but the insanely detailed little animations you see in cutscenes. Those tiny little people are so expressive, so lively! They demonstrate emotion, clutch at one another's clothes, die agonizingly, limp away in pain. I doubt we'll ever see such elaborate spriting in a game like this again; it's so much cheaper to use polygons, or to skip showing actions altogether and tell the story with static character portraits that slide in and out, a favorite of JRPGs whose after-hours beer budget is bigger than their production budget.
Seriously, I could watch the in-game cut scenes over and over. I wish they hadn't replaced so many of them with CG cutscenes for War of the Lions — the explosion that caps Chapter One is, to me, a lot more powerful and convincing with tiny sprites.
I feel like we've barely covered the first chapter of the game. No one talked about that bastard Wiegraf (though I suppose that'll come later, at the end of Chapter Three — word of advice, Jaz, always alternate save files so you don't get stuck in an impossible situation). And what about Milleuda? I always thought it was a shame that not only did such an important character in the early going never make it into the party, she didn't even get a fancy sprite all her own… just a generic female knight with a custom portrait.
Anyway, I'm ready to start working on Chapter Two now. AKA, the long middle section. I won't be truly happy until Chapter Four, when I can beat up the zombie version of… whoops, spoilers!
Those are our thoughts. How's your experience been, USgamer community? Love it? Hate it? Already mastered the Onion Knight class? Discuss your Tactics experience in the comments (and we'll be joining in!).
Come back next Tuesday to discuss the game through the end of Chapter Two!
Images courtesy of Talking Time.