Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (Long title for a game with a long review)

Guest Post

Sitting here in a hair salon just South of Boston, it occurs to me that, up to now, I’ve written about PC games, console games, and game modifications…But have left the subject of portable games woefully underrepresented.In recognition of this fact, I feel that it’s time to break my silence on the subject and bring my – admittedly slight – experience to bear on you: my adoring public.In fact, I’m so committed to the idea, I’m typing this with my thumbs on my recently-purchased LG Voyager phone.

So PSP, DS, GBA, Game Gear, Gameboy…Consider this my penance to the portable gaming world, as anybody who has “typed” anything of significant length with their thumbs can attest.

So, what can be said about the Final Fantasy franchise that hasn’t already been said?Unfortunately (from a writer’s standpoint), not terribly much.It’s become so vast that it spans genres, settings, systems, and now decades as well.Indeed, unlike in the late ‘90s, if someone today tells you that they’ve played a Final Fantasy game, it tells you nothing about them; not their game preferences, or their console of choice, or even the manufacturer thereof.

Alas, it also tells you nothing about the quality of the game they played (Crystal Chronicles and Mystic Quest fans: feel free to correct me on this, but I’ll save you some time right now and tell you “you’re wrong, that game really is terrible – especially by FF standards”).

Yes, dear reader, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s brainchild has spawned its share of flops – though admittedly fewer than, say, the Flicky franchise.Listed among them is Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which introduced the oft-ridiculed “judge system” of combat.

Unfortunately, the derision was quite deserved.A strategy RPG it was, but one with a watered-down plot, and made almost unplayable at points by arbitrary and pointless “laws” (handed down by the judges, of course) that would send your characters to “Jail” for daring to “Fight The Power, Man.”“The Power,” in this case, was a creepy armored guy with a grudge against you, and – apparently – omnipotence.Or maybe he just liked taking advantage of (in every sense of the word) those he held in contempt of court.

Enter Final Fantasy A2: a sequel to a game that the SRPG community could probably have done without. Many Square games for Nintendo have, in the recent past, shown a distressing lack of maturity in plot, gameplay, and mood, all of which their games for Sony systems and earlier Nintendo boxes had in spades (in most cases, anyway).Straight from the opening screen of FFTA2, I got the impression that this was a game that would have a similar issue – the cheery music on the title screen, the stereotypical shounen anime-esque opening (introducing us to a young protagonist who doesn’t pay attention in school, but adjusts to suddenly fighting a giant, yellow chicken with incredible ease), and even the vibrant and happy character portraits, which almost all feature a friendly, smiling visage (another sharp contrast with the original Final Fantasy Tactics, which included mostly sterner, more serious expressions).

The plot, as well, is somewhat watered-down by SquareEnix standards.Oh, yes, it gradually gets more serious as the game progresses, particularly with certain side-quests, but we’re not seeing anything on the level of the war that wracks Ivalice in that original game.Nor, I should mention, are we seeing anything nearing the sort of global crisis that Square introduced to us in Final Fantasy 6.Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad plot, but you shouldn’t go into this game expecting the plot to be what enthralls you.

Fortunately, the gameplay makes great strides towards making up for this.

The Job System has always been an extremely popular component of Final Fantasy games (those that included it, anyway), and it is particularly effective in a strategy RPG as it allows customization of an army (or “clan” in FFTA2) that might otherwise get stale over time – particularly one where most of the characters’ only unique aspects are their names.The job system in FFTA2 is a little watered-down as far as such things go, but by and large it can be rather satisfying to unlock a new jobs or, more importantly, actually access that new class with a character and check out its skills.

As with most other SRPGs, your class determines what equipment you can use, and as with some others, your equipment determines what skills you can use.Since the majority of the differences between classes is the available skillset (the only exceptions being some minor stat changes), getting equipment that has useful or interesting skills is vital to an effective fighting force.Bucking the trend set by most SRPGs of gradually releasing new equipment at stores as the game goes on, FFTA2’s designers decided to create a new method of gaining it that undoubtedly was designed to take advantage of how popular the “crafting” systems prevalent in MMORPGs are these days.

Enter the “Bazaar” system of equipment unlocking, which, although mildly interesting, is most certainly bizarre as much as anything else. Whenever you defeat an enemy, s/he/it drops what’s referred to as “loot.” Similarly, whenever you complete a quest, you are generally awarded with a few pieces (not to mention money). This loot can be anything from a piece of spruce wood to a chunk of precious mythril, but all of it can be of some use in obtaining a new sword, hat, vest, or pendant for your characters.

At any store, you can trade in various combinations of this loot to create…Something. Alas, unless you already have one of the items, you have no idea what it is, beyond the basic type, but effectively managing your limited resources (since time really isn’t one of them in this game) is part of the fun of a strategy game in the first place. Besides, being able to save at any time effectively removes the danger of ending up with something you didn’t really want to spend that wyrm twig on.

After you’ve traded in the requisite loot, the item becomes available in the store for purchase, at which point you can find out what abilities it enables which jobs to use, who can equip it (since the former often doesn’t prevent similar jobs from equipping things that don’t enable them to use whatever skills they unlock), and how many skill points your character needs to get – another benefit of successfully completing quests – before they can master the skill and no longer need the item in question to use it. Unfortunately, the customization curve tops off fairly suddenly as you unlock most of the weapons (armor and items tend only to unlock passive or reaction skills), but it takes long enough to get there that – for most players – the time investment it takes to get there will be enough to see you through to the end. Happily (though on reflection, perhaps unhappily), there’s no penalty for switching jobs beyond no longer progressing in the original one, something you can fix by simply changing back.

Similarly, you can change the secondary skills your characters have available (one active skillset belonging to a job your character isn’t currently following, and one reaction and one passive ability that s/he has mastered or is currently mastering).Since you’re able to make these changes before every battle, on the main map, and even upon deployment after you’ve seen the forces arrayed against you, your characters of various races (since that’s the only limitation on which jobs your characters can eventually hold) can effectively be meta-built into the most effective fighting force for any job. While this is certainly a nice feature when you find yourself unexpectedly going up against, say, ghosts, who can only be truly killed by a skills available to a few jobs, it also makes things a little too easy at times.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the thing that everybody dreaded prior to FFTA2’s release: the return of the Judges. Although they play an important part in the plot of A2, they’ve also been watered down significantly since their previous appearance.While they still lay down laws at the start of a battle, you are also given a choice as to what sort of benefit you wish to receive for following said laws. These range from increasing your characters’ speed, to getting bonus XP after a battle, and while only a few are available at the start, you can unlock additional ones by completing “Clan Trials,” which also affect what quests you can accept. Breaking the law of any given battle essentially gives your judge permission to take a bathroom break.When he does (sometimes it’s pretty much impossible to prevent causing), you lose the benefit you selected at the start of the battle, any character whose HP was reduced to 0 is no longer available for resurrection via spell or phoenix down, and you do not receive a special bonus set of loot and items at the end of the battle. Afterwards, win or lose, your judge comes back and acts like nothing ever happened – perhaps embarrassed that his insistence upon your not doing more than 50 HP of damage at a time caused you to be eaten by a multi-tentacled plant with breath so bad it poisons and knocks you out. Your “KOed” characters, similarly, return at the end of the battle, unharmed and unpenalized for their defeats.

Overall, I would say that Final Fantasy Tactics A2 works excellently as “Johnny’s First Strategy RPG.”It’s forgiving for those who are new to the genre, and might get easily frustrated at having to repeat battles because of an AI-controlled unit wandering into a spike pit.It’s extremely customizable, but doesn’t place many restrictions on how you customize, allowing you to quickly change characters around to fit any situation in which you find yourself.Finally, its cheerful demeanor and not-too-serious plot make it an ideal candidate for younger gamers, who might otherwise be scared off by all of the numbers, options, and the length of most SRPGs.While it certainly isn’t something that veteran SRPGers should be afraid to miss, it’s already provided me with over 100 hours of amusement, and the lack of time constraints does make it easier for completionists (such as myself) to literally finish every quest on the first time around, making it a good one-time play, if nothing else.