If we were to compile a list of the greatest gaming injustices ever brought upon European gamers, many of the most heinous offences would date from the PSone's golden era of RPGs - a golden era which we only saw tantalising glimmers of in Europe, being denied almost all of the key releases of the genre. Admittedly, Sony, Namco, Bandai et al are seemingly conspiring to make sure that the PS2 repeats this PAL-shunning feat, but current crimes aside, it's hard not to be bitter about the small-minded foolishness that denied European gamers the likes of Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Wild Arms 2 and Parasite Eve... And, of course, Final Fantasy Tactics, Square's fascinating turn-based strategy RPG which is still rated as one of the best games of all time by its many devotees.
There's no doubt that Final Fantasy Tactics was a very special game indeed, combining as it did the epic storytelling and beautifully formed world of a Final Fantasy title with complex, challenging gameplay that achieved a near-perfect balance between having immense depth and being simple and enjoyable to play, thanks to a well conceived interface and intuitive controls. It was a game that was simultaneously unforgiving - dead characters stayed dead, and despite the huge party you could accumulate in the game, losing a character you had spent hours building up and playing with often prompted wailing, gnashing of teeth and a return to a previous savegame - and hugely rewarding, with the defeat of a tricky encounter through an effective strategy in FFT being one of the finest gaming experiences this medium has ever had to offer.
Of course, if you were a European gamer with only a PAL machine, you never got a chance to try this out for yourself - so for many players, probably the majority, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is going to be their first encounter with the FFT phenomenon. This is no simple port of the original game to the GBA, either - in fact, FFTA completely overhauls every element of the game, and only the basic formula of turn-based tactics remains intact from the original title. Set in an entirely different universe, with a different gameplay system and different characters, this is barely even a spiritual sequel to the PSone title, and you certainly won't be at a disadvantage if you never played the first game. What does remain intact, however, is the sheer polish and addictive game system of FFT - now distilled down into handheld form.
The basic idea behind FFTA is simple. You control a squad of characters (called a Clan in game parlance) who engage in a range of encounters with groups of enemies. Battles take place on isometric maps made up of squares, and during the battle each of your character gets to move in turn - much like a battle in a turn-based RPG. During his turn, a character can do two things - move around the map, and perform an action such as fighting, casting magic, using items or performing a special move. Take into account the fact that each map has unique terrain - including hills, cliffs, walls, rivers, lava flows and all manner of bushes, trees and houses - which affects the ability of characters to perform certain actions or move in certain ways, and there you have the gameplay of FFT in a nutshell.
Of course, it's more complex than that. Each of your characters hails from one of five different races (including Humans, Moogles, and the lizard-like Bangaa), each of which has a different range of character classes open to it. As your characters evolve (they receive experience points from successful actions in battle), they'll gradually gain the ability to specialise in certain areas - so for an example an accomplished Thief character can become a Ninja, which enables a range of new equipment to be used and new special abilities to be learned. You can customise your characters further by teaching them new abilities; these come attached to equipment (either won through battles or purchased in the shops found in all towns) and can be learned permanently by a character by keeping an item equipped through a number of battles. This means that you end up with quite a diverse party of characters, ranging from strong physical fighters to powerful magicians and a whole host of other possibilities besides.
The Dark Judges
This diversity of characters is a key element of the game - FFTA rewards those who keep their options open in combat, and anyone who tries to stick to a core party of strong physical attack characters or black magic users will find themselves scuppered by one of the game's more unusual mechanics, namely the Laws. Each battle you engage in is adjudicated by a Judge, an intimidating looking chap in a suit of armour who rides around on a Chocobo (only in Final Fantasy can a tough guy in a position of authority get away with riding a chicken). The Judge performs a number of roles, the main one being the enforcing of the Laws, which change from battle to battle and disallow certain actions while encouraging others. As an example, you may be forbidden from using Stop magic in a battle, but encouraged to use Silence; or to take a rather more limiting example, you may be banned from using bladed weapons entirely and rewarded for using arrows.
Bans on combat options are enforced using a system of red and yellow cards handed out by the Judge, while following the encouragements of the Laws earns you Judge Points, which are also handed out each time you KO an enemy character. A yellow card generally gets your team or your character punished for the infraction in some minor way, while a red card is more serious - it gets your character's sorry behind thrown in jail, and the player then has to trek over to the prison and bail the character out... Assuming they're worth it! On the flipside, Judge Points are handy things indeed, initially allowing some characters to execute special combo attacks on enemies, but later in the game coming into their own as they allow characters to use powerful summon magic (and not just summoner-class characters, either - although to say much more would spoil what little plot there is in the game).
At first the laws can feel very restrictive, but like many things in FFTA, the reason for them - and the cleverness of the game designer who came up with them - becomes clear after several hours of play, just as they start to become quite restrictive. Laws force you to develop your party down a number of different branches, so that in any given battle you can deploy characters who'll be able to bypass or take advantage of the laws. A selection of magical, physical and special ability characters are required to play FFTA, and no one character can be relied upon above all others, since you may well find yourself in a battle where your prized warrior is suddenly worse than useless and can only run around handing out healing items. Thankfully, FFTA has more than enough interesting diversity in its character development and battle system to maintain a system like this, and as your characters evolve, the range of options open to you at any given time, and tactical solutions to any given situation, expands greatly - thus maintaining interest in the game for a very long time. The game even allows you to manipulate laws yourself later on, using special Law cards that which allow you to set new laws for the battle, or nullify existing ones - adding a new layer of tactical cunningness to the proceedings.
War in the Pocket
There's no question that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a superb game in its own right, but comparisons with the original Final Fantasy Tactics show up a number of factors which may well disappoint fans of the PSone game, or people expecting a Final Fantasy type experience. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the plot here is wafer thin - a stark contrast to the epic events of FFT. In simple terms (because, well, there aren't any others), a group of children - the wimpy but likeable Marche, the incredibly wimpy Mewt and the not wimpy at all Ritz - find a magical old book which seemingly transports them to the fantasy world of Ivalice. In something of a self-referential vanity, Ivalice is actually a world from Final Fantasy, which is the kids' favourite videogame. Marche, the central character, joins up with a Clan and rapidly turns out to be a dab hand at hitting things very hard with a sword, and thus your adventure - and Marche's quest to find his way back home - begins.
There's some additional complexity on the way (not least the fact that unlike the plainly insane Marche, both Ritz and Mewt are rather chuffed with being in a world where they get to hit people very hard with swords rather than going to school and be picked on by snowball-throwing bullies, and have no desire to find a way home), but that's pretty much it - and this already gossamer-thin plot is spread out over a vast amount of tactical gameplay, with one chunk of plot every ten to fifteen encounters at most.
This might be a bit of a culture shock for those used to Square's exposition heavy, dialogue laden epics, but like many of the changes to FFTA, it's obviously been done with one simple objective in mind - turning a heavyweight home console game into a pick up and play game on the Game Boy Advance. As such, we'd class FFTA's lightweight approach to plot and dialogue as different from FFT, but we couldn't call it better or worse - it allows the game to drop you into action instantly from the moment you turn it on, and gives you great freedom in terms of how you play (there isn't even a fixed world map - you build your own as you go along by dropping place symbols onto an empty grid). It also focuses FFTA entirely on the gameplay elements - this isn't really a game you'll play for the plot, it's a game you'll play because the battle system is hugely enjoyable, which is a lot more than can be said for the majority of RPG type titles.
Fans of the original FFT may also find the new interface, which has been overhauled to fit with the GBA screen and controller, quite daunting at first - not in battle, which is controlled through a laudably simple interface, but in the equipment, ability and shopping screens of the game. With over 20 party members to buy equipment for later in the game, each with unique abilities and requirements, shopping can become a confusing business - and although a bit of trial and error button pressing in different equipment screens did reveal some useful information, we often found ourselves just buying lots of items that looked good and hoping they'd turn out to be better than what we already had equipped. The lack of a system to try on items before you buy them is a major oversight here, although certainly not a crippling one.
Storm in a Teacup
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a remarkably non-linear game, and while there is a plot running in the background, it's told entirely in the form of in-game missions. The basic game mechanic is simple - you go to the Bar in any town to pick up rumours and purchase information on missions, and then walk around your DIY world map carrying out the missions you've been given. Some missions require you to dispatch a member of your party for a certain number of days (a day being the length of time it takes to move one square on the world map), others require you to go to a location and engage in a battle. You can take missions in a fairly random order, although some missions unlock a new world location and some unlock a variety of new missions, while others advance the plot for you.
Many missions, however, have nothing to do with the plot, and simply give you extra cash or unique items, or allow you to claim a certain location on the world map for your clan. Claiming locations increases the size of your "turf", and hence your clan's reputation, and also makes the price for items and information decrease, since this is your home ground after all. However, you need to defend your turf from other clans, who also appear on the world map and wander around - meet a rival clan on a location square, and you engage in battle with them directly. This is basically FFTA's equivalent of random battles, and these skirmishes can be among the most interesting in the game since you're up against clans whose members have similar skills to your own.
That's effectively the whole game, then; you walk around the map, complete missions, fight rival clans, and move the plot forward inch by inch if you so desire. It's very free-form, and perfect for picking up and playing on a train journey without having to worry too much about where you left off in the plot or sitting through pages of dialogue. In effect, Square has streamlined the entire FFT experience and distilled it down to its essence - a well-designed, enjoyable battle system which certainly lacks some of the depth of FFT, but fits better as a handheld game that FFT itself could ever have hoped to. The game also boasts a link mode which enables you to fight skirmishes against a friend's characters, swap items and even trade characters between parties, which is a nice addition.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance isn't quite the game we expected it to be, and we fully expect that many fans of the original game won't like it simply because it doesn't reproduce FFT faithfully, and drops many elements of the game in favour of a more simplified experience that's more suited to a handheld console. We're not convinced, however, that these changes are for the worse - they make FFTA into a different game, certainly, but an outstanding game nonetheless. This is a title which will make a welcome addition to any GBA software library (and it looks stunning through the Game Boy Player as well, for all you Cube fans out there) - it shows up everything that's good about Nintendo's handheld, in terms of pure playability, slick design, surprising depth and absolutely addictive gameplay. If a dictionary definition of "just-another-go" gameplay is ever to be written, this game will have to be featured as an example; and if a list of the best handheld games ever made is written, we'd expect to see this very near the top.