At long last, our group playthrough of Final Fantasy Tactics reaches its conclusion (whether that's the ending or just the point at which we decided "OK, enough's enough"). Weigh in with your final thought here! How far did you make it? What would you have changed about the game?
And of course now that we're done, we have our next USgamer Club project in the works for next week. Read on!
Tearful confession time. I didn't even come close to finishing Tactics. We should have made this USgamer Club session a few months long, I think. I didn't even recruit Meliadoul….
I caught up to chapter 3! I took Wiegraf out back and taught him the truth of the world. Even after the death of his sister, he did not know how cold and harsh this world could be. Even after Belias reached into his soul to destroy his humanity, he could not fathom the righteous beating Ramza handed down from on high, like the fist of an angry god. If there were heroes and villains that day, an innocent bystander could be forgiven for thinking we were the villains, such was the vicious manhandling we gave.
Ramza stuck with my Monk/Squire combo for the battle, back by a Geomancer/Monk, a Ninja/Chemist, a White Mage/Time Mage, and a Summoner/White Mage. I'm not saying it was a cakewalk, but we were quite overleveled.
Of course, Chapter 4 is the big one, with more story level than any other chapter by far. It's something of a story sprint to the end, with all of the Lucavi piling on in an effort to defeat Ramza and revive their master. Delita and the political machinations are almost an afterthought and it's all Final Fantasy-esque "save the world from vaguely Abrahamic villains." I do feel something was lost there that wasn't in Tactics Ogre.
I can't remember the last time I've had such an emotional experience with a game. There have been more than a few times when I've used each and every one of my very best swearwords in all manner of paint-blistering combinations and had to gently put down my Vita and go upstairs lest I hurl it across the room, or smash it with my favorite fireman's axe (yes, I actually have one, and it's awesome).
However, over the weeks I've come to really love the game. Yes, it does have an absolutely vertical learning curve that makes Game of Thrones' Wall look like a picket fence, and yes, its tutorial will help you understand how the Japanese must have felt when they intercepted World War II Navajo-coded messages. But once you hack your way through the mangrove swamp of the game's early levels, and perhaps read a guide or two — and indeed ask the fabulously helpful USgamer staff and community lots of questions — eventually the thick clouds of mustard gas open up, and you can see daylight.
The way I'm talking about the game sounds like I hated it, and if truth be told, it drove me completely nuts the first week. But after three weeks of playing on and off in two-hour sessions while watching World Cup matches, I began to get the swing of it, and learn the game's many subtleties. What's clear - and something pretty much everyone reading this already knows - is that Final Fantasy Tactics is a brilliant game. It hides itself behind an impenetrable front end, but once you're through it, you can appreciate its incredible depth, and its true genius.
What's been cool about this experience is that I'd never have played this game ever. No way. It's something that has never appealed to me; this type of game, or the way it looks. But since we were doing this club and I was supplying the token n00b perspective, I persevered. I almost gave up a number of times, but I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about. How this dumb-looking game with silly cute characters and dialog that seemed meaningless was so beloved by so many. I can see it now. Very clearly.
Well, that just warms my heart to hear. The funny thing is, I'm a little less keen on Final Fantasy Tactics after this playthrough. I love the game, don't get me wrong, but these days I have a compulsive urge to approach games with a critical eye for design, and Tactics falls short in several areas.
I do appreciate just how free-form the game becomes in Chapter Four, though. It kind of has an Elder Scrolls appeal to it — by which I simply mean there are so many things to see and do outside of the little row of red dots that represent the path through the main plot that you can fart around for dozens of hours without advancing the story. Even though FF Tactics doesn't play like a traditional Final Fantasy, it definitely feels like a game designed around the same time as FFVI and VII in the way the run up to the finale gives up all pretense of urgency and guidance in favor of letting you play around with all the gear and skills you've acquired.
I also think those rare random encounters with all-Monk or all-Chocobo teams at or above your party's level count as an Ultima Weapon great bonus superboss, but that's just me.
Did anyone tackle the Deep Dungeon? Sorry, "Midlight's Deep"? (I think that might be my least favorite name change in the remake — Deep Dungeon was a historical reference to a series of RPGs Square published on the Famicom, kind of like the Tower of Druaga section in Tales of Destiny. Remember your roots, yo.)
I admit that revisiting Tactics this time has cast a sharper light on where the game stumbles. As I said in previous USgamer Club conversations, switching in new team members is painfully difficult and if the game were being remade, that's the first thing I would fix. If you want to get a new story character or addition up to speed, the grind feels about as long as it took to get your primary team in place. That kind of gets in the way of the real meat of the game, which is playing around with different combinations of jobs and abilities.
I feel like it's easy to look back in hindsight and criticize the clunky interface, grind heavy mechanics, slow pace, and lack of a tutorial; but really, Final Fantasy Tactics is a product of an era when a lot of strategy games were like this. I'm not giving it a free pass or anything, but it's definitely an old-school strategy game in that regard. It still shines where it counts though. When this game gets its hooks in you, it really gets its hooks in you.
As for me, I'm still stuck midway through Chapter 4. Ramza is a Level 51 Squire/Monk now (I prefer the Squire's speed and access to heavy armor to the Monk's raw power), and I've long since replaced my Gunner/Knight and my dead White Mage with Balthier and Reis. I wouldn't say that I'm having trouble with the battles, but I really wanted to build up some of Reis' healing abilities before continuing onward. There was also the little matter of my Dragoon mysteriously disappearing in much the same manner as my White Mage. I briefly attempted to carry on with Cid Orlandeau; but ultimately, I decided to suck it up and load a five-hour old save. I'm glad I did too, as it proved to be a reset switch in more ways than one. I not only got my Dragoon back; I got to rethink my builds for Reis and my Black Mage and take a slightly smarter approach to them. I'm now much happier with my party.
At the moment, I'm in the middle of yet another multi-part dungeon, with Ramza having apparently been banished to the Phantom Zone. I have absolutely no idea how long it'll be until I finish Chapter 4, but it can't be long now. Eventually there won't be any Ivalice leaders left to turn into monsters.
I think it's easier for me to see past its rough edges, because my initial experience was that the whole thing was nothing but jagged, sharp, nasty rough edges. But in a way, it's like peeling layers off some kind of horrible, spiky fruit. Once you get past its exterior, there's something inside that's really quite remarkable. The visual presentation is not particularly appealing, and ultimately representative of the action as opposed to depicting actual fighting, but what's underneath its looks is a deep and complex game that gives the player exceptional latitude to play around with. Sometimes too much latitude, as it was for me in the early periods where I simply couldn't quite figure out what to do because I had too much choice.
I've said this before, but I'd love to see a new front end, an intuitive tutorial, and perhaps some visceral realtime graphics layered over these mechanics and the game re-released. Perhaps with some finer tuning on the grinding aspect too. That's the only thing I didn't like. Maybe that side of the game is a product of its time, but I'd definitely like to see a more structured path that helps you feel more like you're achieving goals - perhaps minor side missions to win helpful minor items or unlock more characters - instead of the games flat-out grind that you often have to do. That would help build up your characters in a way that felt natural, rather than sometimes arbitrary. But hey. It's an old game, and that's what it was like back then. Which is all the more reason why we need a "now" version.
Like the rest of you, I also didn't finish Final Fantasy Tactics -- I'm still on Chapter 3. To be fair, though, most of my free time last week was dedicated to writing about pinball, which is not a problem for the average player. Still, there's a ton of game here, and I usually find myself more motivated to pick up JP through random battles, rather than hitting those red notes on the map that unravel more of the story. And while I haven't made a lot of progress in terms of the main "campaign," I think that I've been a much savvier player this time around, which makes sense, since I've had almost 20 years to come to terms with the demands of strategy RPGs. Even though my team is overpowered, I've completely avoided using devastating area-of-effect spells and abilities, which helped me cruise through the latter half of my first FFT playthrough. This time around, I have to be a lot more clever than spamming Flare or Bahumut, and because of that, I've had to take advantage of classes I've never used before -- like the Oracle. I'm even training a few members of my party for the Bard and Dancer classes, which is something I definitely didn't do back in 1998.
It's been years since I last picked up a Final Fantasy Tactics game, and I'll admit that I felt some trepidation at the thought of spending 40 or 50 hours with the grind, the slow pace, and the somewhat unintuitive UI. I ended up spending a lot of time quizzing the community on good builds just because I couldn't really remember what was good and what was bad. But once I really got going, I found myself remembered, "Oh yeah, Final Fantasy Tactics is a really damn good game."
It's funny because in some ways the real game doesn't get started until Chapter 4. As Jeremy mentioned, that's when things open up considerably and certain sidequests become available; but I would also argue that Chapter 4 is the point where your party truly comes together. With the large number of new characters to recruit, it's tough to stick entirely with generics; and as the challenges change, it's natural to want to retool your original builds. Pretty much all of my characters, including Ramza, have undergone multiple iterations at this point. But that's also the beauty of Final Fantasy Tactics. It's big; it not very structure, and its confusing, but the possibilities are immense. It's no wonder that people are still playing after all these years; constantly tinkering with new builds and pushing the mechanics to the limits.
Over the years, I've seen a lot of attempts to rein in some of that craziness and make Final Fantasy Tactics a little easier to grapple with; but in the process, they've usually lost some fundamental part of what made the game so good to begin with. I'm actually really eager to revisit Tactics Ogre now, because I had long been of the opinion that it was automatically superior to the messier, less-organized Final Fantasy Tactics. Now I'm not so sure.
With that said, you really have to be in the right mindset to pick up Final Fantasy Tactics again. Its very much a product of its era, content to muddle along at a meandering pace and leave most of its nuances up to the player to discover. If not for this Game Club, I'm not sure that I would have ever picked it up again. In that regard, a faster-paced remake with a smarter UI would definitely be welcome. But of course, I'm basically wishing on a monkey's paw, as such a remake would undoubtedly be dumbed down in some way.
I suppose I'm happy to embrace Final Fantasy Tactics for what it is: big, opaque, wild with possibilities, and utterly brilliant. What a great game.
I'm the one who kicked all this off and despite my problems with leveling up new characters, Final Fantasy Tactics remains one of my favorite games of all time. The Job System is nearly perfect, with enough jobs and abilities to be deep without becoming too complex (hello, Tactics Ogre), the plot gives something for everyone, and the story of Ramza is still one of my favorites. There's just something amazing at being the unsung hero when it's all said and done.
I think the best part of doing the USgamer Club with Final Fantasy Tactics is seeing people get into the games or taking their run-through seriously for the first time. Poor Jaz had to step up and dig deep to find the patience within, because Tactics doesn't teach you very much. Jaz was the stranger in a strange land, but I'm glad the community stepped up to help him through the game.
Even more amazing was how much I learned about Tactics that I didn't know. There's whole other levels of complexity that I knew about vaguely, but never really dived into. Really getting into the game's systems in messing with CT, Brave, Faith, Leveling Up and Down, or Zen Rain's insane run with only two characters. There's just so much to Final Fantasy Tactics that even I didn't know about. I'm glad I had the chance to revisit it without a community, instead of just playing it alone for the 50th time.
Angry. Frustrated. Surprised. Shocked. Delighted. Happy. Intrigued. Emotionally connected. If you'd told me that I'd be experiencing all that when I was about three hours into the game, I wouldn't have believed you. But a month later, there it is.
Playing Final Fantasy Tactics reminds me of one of those very occasional life experiences where you have ups and downs, moments of triumph and moments where you wonder what the hell you're doing. But then you get to the end of it, and you can look back on a strange and wonderful journey that you mightn't ever want to do again, but you're really glad you did it.
That might sound a little over-the-top, but in gaming terms, FFT was just that. It presented me with one of the most challenging personal gaming pain barriers ever, and I managed to plow through it and keep going. The reward for that is a gaming experience that I'll remember for a long, long time: I tested my patience to the limit, but I finally saw the light in a game - and indeed type of game - that has been nothing but a mystery to me, and I'm very much the richer for it.
It's more than a little unfair, but after playing the phenomenal PSP remake of Tactics Ogre, playing Final Fantasy Tactics is a bit… rough. Each game tries to do different things, of course, but certain refinements added to Tactics Ogre definitely could be integrated into Final Fantasy Tactics, like how you level up classes as a whole instead of on a per-character basis. That could have saved me so much time, especially since I had to park so many characters in classes I didn't find useful (like Thief and Knight) just to reach the next tier of Jobs. Tactics Ogre is a much speedier game as well; I know the PSP port doesn't do the Final Fantasy Tactics many favors, but at times it feels as if the game is taking place underwater.
That said, even if parts of it feel antiquated, Final Fantasy Tactics offers an amount of open-endedness atypical for console games at the time, and especially today. Even though its world is limited to nodes on a 2D map, FFT almost feels like a sandbox game. From the outset, I don't believe you're gated in any way in terms of what you can and can't do with your characters. Final Fantasy Tactics isn't shy about laying out all of its tools in front of you at once, and while it can definitely be intimidating, this approach makes replays so much smoother. The game places all of its trust in you after the first prologue battle, so there's no need to wait until Final Fantasy Tactics thinks you're "ready" for certain concepts -- and if you're not, they're sure to be buried in the Tutorial menu!
So yeah, another Final Fantasy Tactics remake could be amazing -- especially if it was more than just a clumsy port -- but it's possible that I might have played enough FFT for an entire lifetime. But that's fine! Yasumi Matsuno is still making games, and most of them are pretty good.
As for myself, I still love this game for all the reasons we've outlined over the past month, even if I do wish Square Enix had given its remake the same royal treatment as Tactics Ogre's. There are so many little things that could be smoothed over a bit to make it just a little friendlier, a little more approachable.
Most disappointing of all, I think, is that there's still never been a proper follow-up to this game. None of the sequel have managed to capture the same tone as Tactics, but far more egregious than that is the way the follow-ups have essentially broken the mechanics. Tactics Advance introduced Judges and Laws, which placed artificial constraints on combat that really detracted from the free-form anything-goes feel of the original Tactics. And Tactics A2 was indescribably worse — even as the game eschewed Laws and made them an optional condition, it added all these arbitrary rules about races and Jobs and skills and equipment. Ugh.
I would kill for a game that builds on and improves on Final Fantasy Tactics. There are so many great elements at play here bogged down a bit by a dated interface that just can't handle the complexity the developers aspired to. I know it could be done right. But until that day, I suppose XCOM will have to do — a spiritual successor in a sense, despite belonging to another franchise. I can think of worse things to settle for!
EPILOGUE: What's next!?
After spending a month grinding our way through Final Fantasy Tactics, we could use something light, twitchy, and current. That's why next week's USgamer Club will focus on the very, very different Shovel Knight. Grab it on a variety of systems and play through it with us! It's the best game so far this summer, and we're going to stomp those evil knights into a mudhole… together.
See you next Tuesday!
Images taken from Talking Time.