Version tested: DS
The seminal 1998 strategy RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics, begins as all the very best war fairytales do, with a sad princess. She's kneeling on the stone slab floor of an ancient chapel pleading with God for deliverance from her enemies, who advance even as she whispers her grim supplications. The ensuing battle between her bodyguards and the would-be kidnappers is an orthodox but distinguished representation of the genre's chess-like mechanics. Sure, some of the characters are riding overgrown chickens but nonetheless it's an arresting, solemn set-up for a fantasy game whose mechanical complexities match the machinations of its rich and intricate plot.
By contrast, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the Game Boy Advance sequel to the first game, starts with a snowball fight between school children dressed in woolly hats and mittens. While it found its fans, it lacked the drive and purpose of the first game. Its battles were fought and won without much narrative consequence, its complexity pared down in a reduction of the original's grandeur that mirrored the mythology's move from console to handheld. Final Fantasy Tactics A2, as the name suggests, is every bit a continuation of the Game Boy game's way of doing things: fans hoping for a return to the gravity and punch of the original game will be disappointed, even if this sequel is, in many ways, an accomplished one.
We begin once again in a modern school, a world away from the series' mythical land of Ivalice and minutes before the bell rings out to signal the start of the summer holidays. As your character, Luso Clemens, packs his satchel and moves to leave, his teacher orders him to the library for one final chore. It's here Luso catches sight of a dusty tome and, inexplicably, moves to write his name within its pages. As the ink dries the protagonist is whisked off in a time whorl and deposited in the belly of an otherworldly lush evergreen forest. Realising he's not in Kansas any more, Luso's job is to find a way home in the latest telling of a tale as old as time itself.
Despite the worn premise, after the first few cut-scenes, during which Luso is picked up by a passing clan of warriors and initiated into their ranks, the clich eases off by virtue of the fact there's very little story thereafter. Rather than getting on with the work of finding a way home, Luso seems content to dick about in Ivalice, taking on ad hoc quests and working with his clan to raise their fame and fortune in doing so.
FFTA2, even more than its immediate forebear, is a game in which the traditional split between story quest and side-quest has been reversed. Of the game's 400 missions, only a handful drive the main story along. By contrast, the majority of the game is spent carrying out errands: fetching ingredients, delivering packages and scaring off neighbourhood monsters in the role of a freelancer. Of the ten to fifteen side-quests available in Ivalice's various pubs at any one time, only one advances the story, the rest being mini-missions with no consequence beyond levelling up your characters, opening up new items, job classes and stretching the game's play arc out. This is not to say the side-missions aren't enjoyable, it's just that they are never important and that, right here, is what holds the game back from matching the excellence of the PlayStation original.
None of Nippon Ichi's wild innovations to the SRPG formula are to be found in FFTA2's mechanics. This is a straightforward interpretation of the genre when it comes to the battlefield. You control a team of five or six fighters who face up against an enemy squadron of a similar size and take turns against the AI to move units around the field. Each unit can carry out one move and one action (attacks, spell casting, administration of items etc) per turn and the last team standing wins the fight.
Battles lack urgency without the narrative drive and purpose, a problem exacerbated by a super-gentle difficulty curve. Every mission on offer to your clan is given a difficulty rating and, providing you stick to battles around your current level, you'll rarely even need to heal characters mid-fight. It was a good fifteen hours before we called upon our white mage, so even newcomers will have a grasp on the game's rules and boundaries before anything requiring much strategy comes up.
In battles, FFTA's contentious 'Judge system' makes a return. At the start of every fight an impartial judge character arrives on the scene and specifies a particular move or attack that is banned. Break this law and you lose the ability to revive defeated characters as well as any clan benefit you had equipped. The system makes sense on paper but many of the laws place restrictions on actions and reactions outside of your direct control (e.g. 'do not miss an attack' or 'do not counter'). Removing certain tools in a player's arsenal might be a way to heighten difficulty and introduce a (rigged) sense of strategy, but it doesn't make for a satisfying play mechanic, even if the consequences for going against the restriction are mild. If you successfully win a fight within the game's restraints you win extra items, the lifeblood of the game's off-battle system.
FFTA2 is a game built from resources. Items found on the battlefield must be traded in at the shop to create new weapons and armour (the only way to increase the available inventory). These weapons and armour, if used enough, bestow new abilities on the user and so the spoils of war have a direct influence on your team's offensive and defensive future capabilities. Overlaid on this system is the ability to assign team members different job classes from Warrior, to Mage to Ninja to Thief and so on. New job classes are discovered through completing missions not by pursuing development trees. It's a novel idea that adds weight to the side-quest system but the type of players who enjoy the order and mathematics of SRPGs will likely be put off by the randomness of the structure. Learning abilities and mastering jobs is painfully protracted, the journey to mastering a single job class sitting at around 20 hours. Bearing in mind you'll probably want to master a few, giving your characters a good and varied tool kit of abilities, the time investment the game requires before payoff is soon clear.
There are also some novel ideas included, such as the option to compete against other clans for ownership of map territory via auctions. Areas of the map come up for auction during specific time periods and the clan that wins the bidding becomes the area champ, a distinction that grants various benefits. Bids are made in real time using a set number of tokens representing between one and five coins with bonus awards are given for specific placings during set points in the auction (e.g. for being second in the bidding war at the midway point). This mini-game idea is exciting and well-executed but as the auction week only comes around once every 250-odd game days, it's a rare enjoyment rather than a routine one.
Despite the negatives FFTA2 is compelling. The side-quests, while mundane, are enjoyable and Square-Enix's usual, fine presentation and solid script work smoothes off the rough edges of the experience. This is, as with most SRPGs, a game for players who love to crunch the numbers, micromanaging team abilities and maximising profits. Approached with this mindset the hours will fly past thanks to the gripping if, in a post-Disgaea world, overly-simplistic battles. With a convincing story and some innovation in the fight system FFTA2 could have been so much more, but it still stands as the best example of the genre currently available for the handheld.
7 / 10