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Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions review

Final Fantasy Tactics: Delita and Ramza wallpaper
(Original image source: Final Fantasy Wiki.)

From the Durai Papers:

“I know not what brings men joy. Of what drives them to great deeds, of what legacies they hope to leave, I know less yet. But I do know this: The true hero of this tale was the man forgotten.”

Final Fantasy Tactics: the War of the Lions is the 2007 Playstation Portable remake of an acclaimed Playstation title that was first released in 1997. This new version has some multimedia enhancements but for the most part it looks and sounds like a 10-year-old game. I do not know whether that will drive away the average PSP gamer but I do know this: once played, the game will never be forgotten.

A brave story
Final Fantasy Tactics: dialogue
(Image source: Square Haven.)

The main storyline takes four chapters to tell a complex tale. It begins with the troubles in the aftermath of one war and sees the beginning of another. Friendships will fail, allegiances will change and families will be destroyed. The commoner will rise to power and the powerful will fall. There are betrayals and twists a-plenty.

The storyline is at its best when it considers the manipulation, exploitation and oppression of the masses by the power-hungry through class or religion. There are provocative lines to savour and digest, and the new translation adds both class and style.

Disappointingly, the story reverts to standard CRPG tropes in the second chapter and climaxes with a stereotypical rescue of a stereotypical damsel in distress from villains so stereotypical that characterisation and motivations aren’t necessary because they are inherently evil.

That said, there are many notable moments in the story and there are characters who will linger on in the memory long after the game has been put away.

The game has a huge cast and keeping track of and distinguishing between Ondoria, Ovelia, Orinus, Orran and Orlandeau can be difficult. Fortunately, there is an in-game Personae list which is updated as the story progresses. It’s one of the many smart touches in the game.

Of mimes and math
Final Fantasy Tactics: Jobs
(Image source: SCEA.)

FFT’s Job system, one of the game’s many highlights, allows for tremendous flexibility in character customisation as players are free to choose abilities from different Jobs to suit needs and play style. Pre-battle unit customisation can be just as important as tactics on the battlefield as an upcoming battle may call for a spellcasting knight capable of incinerating a distant foe or a caster in heavy armour to withstand melee attacks.

There are altogether 22 Jobs available for player to sample. There are not only CRPG standards like knights, mages and archers but also exotic Jobs like Mimes and Arithmeticians. Units begin either as Squires or Chemists and may change jobs as they gain Job Points either through actions on the battlefield or being sent on quests.

On the downside, the high-level Jobs have obscure prerequisites and some Jobs don’t have utility that commensurates with the effort needed to unlock them.

Overall, the game does seem to favour melee classes over casters. Considering the uncertainty over spell efficacy and the casting delay, it’s difficult to justify selecting a caster over the alternatives. It will not take long before players realise the potion-chucking Chemist makes a more reliable healer than a White Mage.

In battle
Final Fantasy Tactics: Battle
(Image source: Square Haven.)

Battles take place on relatively compact isometric battlefields. Engagements are small and for most of the game, players will be limited to commanding five units. This unit limitation may seem restrictive compared to most turn-based strategy games but it’s for the best as battles in FFT are complex affairs. The 51-page manual helps a little and the in-game tutorials help a lot but it will still take new players a while to come to grips with game’s take on turn-based combat.

Turn order in FFT isn’t simply a matter of moving all your units before the enemy make their moves. It depends not only a unit’s speed attribute but also the last action taken. An inactive unit will get its next turn faster than a unit with the same speed rating that has moved and acted. The Turn List, which summarises unit turn order, is a welcome touch but there are further complications.

Aside from standard factors like weather, terrain, elevation, line of sight, facing and equipment, attributes like Bravery and Faith and even the astrological signs of the attacker and target affect damage inflicted and incurred. The game does simplify matters for the player by providing a prediction for the probability of success and the amount of damage inflicted for an attack but all these extraneous factors seem to be complexity for complexity’s sake.

The seed of victory
Final Fantasy Tactics: Battle
(Image source: SCE.)

The game remains challenging even after the steep learning curve has been overcome because the AI is excellent. Enemies retreat when badly hurt, self-heal whenever possible and support each other well. There are battles that are obviously stacked in the AI’s favour with high terrain convenient for enemy archers and barriers that shield enemy casters but the AI abides by the same rules as the player. There are several difficult setpieces in the game but with canny unit management and thoughtful tactics, even the toughest of battles is winnable.

However, the game balance is thrown out of whack in the second half of the game when some powerful characters join your party. These ready-made powerhouses are capable of quickly cutting down even bosses with minimum effort. Custom-created characters are made redundant and tactics in battles right up to the end of the game become no more complicated than selecting a foe and using Divine Ruination or Crush Armor. Their inclusion is a strange piece of decision-making in an otherwise well-crafted game and it’s disappointing the designers didn’t choose to fix this balance issue for the 2007 update.

Look and feel
Final Fantasy Tactics: Cutscene
(Image source: SCEA.)

Presentation-wise, the game is a mixed bag.

Square Enix has added some gorgeous cel-shaded cutscenes with professional voice acting for the PSP remake but players will mainly be looking at 10-year-old graphics. The game doesn’t suffer too badly for it as the centimetre-tall super deformed sprites in the game are surprisingly capable of dramatic expression.

The main flaw is the spell animations which lag noticeably. It’s mostly tolerable but at its worst, as when an Arithmetician triggers a spell that affects every unit on the battlefield, you can put down the PSP, perform some minor calisthenics and return to find it’s still not over.

Aurally, the music is very good with some stirring pieces but the sound effects are just awful. A chilling scene loses all its atmosphere when players hear what sounds like a group of Smurfs blowing their noses instead of the bloodcurdling screams intended.

Long tale
Final Fantasy Tactics: Cutscene
(Image source: SCE.)

The main storyline should take most gamers at least 40 hours to complete. There’s a lot of optional content that will double if not treble game time.

Unlocking that optional content is not intuitive and most gamers will need to refer to guides to access the high-level job classes, gain secret characters and special quests. Be aware that once the main storyline is over, there is no allowance for players to replay with existing characters. Save often.

There is also the Ad-Hoc mode multiplayer component with incentives for players to try both competitive and cooperative play but I’ve not been able to test either out.

Bottom line

Final Fantasy Tactics: the War of the Lions is a very good game and there are moments when it seems a great game. It is not the masterpiece it is often made out to be but the fact that the gameplay proves outstanding 10 years after it was first released is reason enough for plaudits. If you’re yearning for a complex and engrossing strategy gaming experience and you own a PSP, you need to have this game.

Posted in Final Fantasy Tactics, Games, PSP, Reviews.