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 cliché 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.
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