When I got a PSP a couple of months ago, one of the first titles I picked up was Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. It’s a remake of the original Final Fantasy Tactics game for the Playstation, except with some rather pleasant motion graphics thrown in. I have really nice memories of playing that original game. At least I think I do. I seem to look back on everything I experienced in high school with an undue fondness, which is most likely a result of having since been crushed by the realities of adulthood. Considering my biggest concern back then was being able to touch boobs, it’s probably quite understandable.
Let me make this clear: Final Fantasy Tactics is not a game. It’s a couple of characters, some dialog, and a million goddamn nested menus. After replaying it for the first time in over ten years, I’ve realized that any notion of a ‘game’ is so deeply buried that it can’t possibly be enjoyable. I have no idea why I remember this as a good game. Maybe I was really into menus when I was a teenager. I did wait tables throughout high school.
If you’re not familiar with tactical role playing games, allow me to break them down a bit. The player controls an army of individual characters, each with their own abilities and statistics. Battles take place on a grid, where you maneuver a couple of your characters against some other characters/monsters/undying gods. Each character gets it’s own individual turn where it can move, attack, or use really helpful support abilities such as decreasing the charisma statistic of any applicable sub genus of a certain creature type by 0.012%. So you take turns, going back and forth for hours, until the victory conditions are met. And there are a lot of contextual menus.
If that doesn’t sound like much fun, perhaps I’m not explaining it right. Okay: maybe it’s more like a gridded board-game, such as checkers. Imagine a game of checkers. Got it? Good. Now imagine a game of checkers in which you can jump and claim an opposing piece only after situating all your pieces next to it for several hours. And there are a hundred different numbers associated with each checker piece that don’t really mean anything, and once you’re finally in a position to claim a piece you have to confirm what you want to do a dozen times, and then when you try to claim it someone comes in and punches you in the neck, upending the checker board and making you start the entire match over again. That’s a tactical role playing game.
So, yeah, I have some issues with the core elements that make up the genre. But I was trying to re-familiarize myself with it using a ten year old game. Things have advanced so much in the past ten years! Ten years ago we were rocking out to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” watching VHS copies of Patch Adams and thinking that punch card voting would be the way of the future. Surely tactical RPGs have advanced in the same way, right? I threw out my copy of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and tried Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. At least ridiculous naming schemes have seen some major breakthroughs in the past decade.
FFTA2:GOTR (or ‘Goater,’ as it shall be known) started out by having me just move dudes around a grid and kill some monsters. That’s promising! And, even though it took several dozen nested menu commands to kill a cockatrice with 50 hit points, the level up screen after the battle reminded me why I want to like these games so badly. It’s just like the terrible Japanese RPGs I loved as a kid, except focused on teams instead of individuals. I can beef up a group of black mages and have them all tag teaming some monster who’s weak against ice while having a couple archers taking care of any melee opponents. That’s a wonderful prospect that is, unfortunately, buried under the tedium of dated game mechanics.
Although Final Fantasy Tactics A2 starts off strong, it falls into the same trappings. Laws, auction houses, territory control, looting, privileges, a bazaar… what the fuck? Advance Wars never made me put up with this shit to get to the fun stuff. These new elements don’t provide depth, they’re just more layers that the player has to wade through in order to get to the ultimate goal of killing stuff and leveling up. And, really, when your title spends twenty minutes explaining a gambling mini-game that barely relates to the core gameplay but yet neglects to tell the player how to restore magic points, you probably have some fundamental design issues.
An Aside: seriously, how do I restore MP in this game? My characters don’t seem to recover it after battle like HP, and the only item I have with such a function is Ether (which I can’t seem to buy in shops). Is there some sort of super secret code I have to input in order to unlock a series of menus that may, at some point, allow the possibility of unlocking more menus that will let me restore some frickin’ magic points?
If you can’t tell, I’m a bit angry about this whole thing. Partially because I really want to like these games and because the core idea is interesting to me… and partially because Square-Enix is, once again, profiting off of my misery. If you weren’t aware, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (as well as most games published by Square-Enix) costs five dollars more than the average DS title. Why? I have no idea. Because nostalgic losers will pay it, I guess.