Top 100 Retro Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics
Playstation One

There is so much good and…not so good…to say about Final Fantasy Tactics. For a long time, I would have argued it was my favorite game of all time. I am not confident how I feel about that now, but no matter what, the game is a classic that changed the direction of my gaming interests in years to come afterward.

First off, before we get going, I need to mention the long form series the Watch Out For Fireballs podcast did about Final Fantasy Tactics. They were doing it while I was doing my replay for this podcast and it was very informative and helpful for me in regards to trying to express my own thoughts about the game. Watch Out For Fireballs is a great podcast you should definitely check out if you have not already.

Final Fantasy Tactics came out in late January 1998. I bought it a few weeks later at a Funcoland in the town my college was in on the way home from campus. That fall, the big topic of conversation on campus in our knit circle of punks, queers, and gamers was definitely Final Fantasy VII. This new game that came out was different enough that it turned some people off, but me and a few other friends decided to get really into it. I bought a guide and began playing the game.

I had to restart my play through a few times. At first, I did not really understand how permadeath worked. I cannot give them a Phoenix Down after the battle? There is not a house in a village to revive them? I lost a lot of good soldiers and really screwed up my game and had to restart a couple times.

I also had too many soldiers…My first few tries at the game, I would endlessly bring in more and more soldiers. I even came out with this chart to level them up, almost like a squad rotation in football, that was quite cumbersome to accomplish much with. Eventually, I restarted, again, and a friend made me a quick guide one day in the student center for how to get started properly.

My first year of college was very hard. I grappled with depression and the usual transitions away from high school friends and towards, hopefully, more adult pursuits. I did very poorly my first semester and tried to rebound in the spring. I did do a little better, but it was still a struggle. I would not truly deal with what a mess I was for a number of years.

Much as Final Fantasy VII had become a safety blanket of sorts for me during the fall, the same could be said about Final Fantasy Tactics in the winter and spring. I would play every night before going to bed and then bring in notes from that days play to share with friends. I also used the Prima guide a lot. I think websites like Gamefaqs existed at this point, but I was still buying guides for big RPGs. I got through the game as the spring went on and completed it right after the semester ended. I loved a lot of the game, hated some aspects, and many of them would resurface, both good and bad, in my most recent replay which we will discuss later.

One of the biggest aspects of Final Fantasy Tactics that I found compelling in that first play through was the plot. Despite the poor translation, it is well thought and very engaging. The plot’s focus on the failures of both the church and state, and all of their corruption, was deeply influential on me as I saw through the banalities of liberal/conservative ideology. Of course, it is a fairly simple narrative at the end of the day, but still made me think a lot about the world around me. I wish more Final Fantasy games, or RPGs in general, looked at the relationship between church and state more often beyond the “yet again you must kill god” trope.

I did a replay of the game during the summer of 1999. This was a real downtime for me. I had been struggling to keep school, work, the demise of a number of personal relationships, and some personal issues together and had finally broken down sometime that spring. I isolated myself from many friends and became fairly nocturnal. The beginning of the school day was often the “end,” so to speak, of my day unless I had to go to work, which added even more hours to how long I had been awake. This was extraordinarily unhealthy, and I would not break out of it until around 2003.

A big part of that summer was replaying Final Fantasy Tactics. I would play overnight for a few hours. I remember this, unfortunately, being a bit of a disorganized play through. Often I was so tired that I would dive into battles without thinking them through. I lost countless hours to lost battles, forgetting to save and then losing a random battle, or just general forgetfulness. I kept up with the game because it was just absolutely that good though and eventually persevered at the end of the summer. I remember a mad dash through the last few battles because I wanted the game done before the semester began, so I could “focus” on school.

For years after that, I thought about the game a lot. I would read webpages about it, devour strategies I found for creating unstoppable, game breaking, characters. The game sat on one of my bookshelves and I stared at it, but never picked it up. I told people it was my favorite game, but it was also not something I would play all the time either. I would finally pick it up again at the beginning of grad school.

I had a rough start to graduate school. It was clear a few weeks in that I was at the wrong school and probably in the wrong program. I would come home from long commutes sad, disgusted, and generally dejected. I liked my day job, despite its low pay, and began to really question the direction of my career. To deal with these frustrations, I began, just as I had at the beginning of my college career, to play through Final Fantasy Tactics. I would play for a bit when I got home from my job, but before I left for grad classes, and actually breezed through most of the game this time. I did the same during that spring, and into the summer, for Final Fantasies I, IV, VII, and IX.

Those replays really helped me get through some difficult times. I had also fallen for someone in my graduate cohort, seriously do not do that, and was really heartbroken as that first year went on. I kept plugging away though and got through all those games again and, eventually, through graduate school.

I love the super intense voice the narrator uses for that commercial. It is not quite the THROUGH A ROOM Castlevania guy though. I love the cover for this game and the full spread ad that was in magazines promoting it. I was deeply drawn to the game because the advertising made very clear that Tactics would be going back to a more medieval setting after the steampunk and cyberpunk, respectively, aesthetics of Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII. I wanted to hold onto the D&D legacy of the series a bit more. One of the biggest turnoffs of newer games in the series for me is their modern settings.

I had actually purchased Final Fantasy Tactics in the PlayStation Store with the $10 credit I got for pre-ordering a PS4. It sat on my PS3 for a few years and I ported it over to my Vita.

I started playing in the morning before work a few days a week. On those days, I did not have class until late in the morning, so I would turn on my Vita and play for a bit before heading to campus. As the semester went on, I got pretty far into the game before getting stuck a few battles before the end. I picked it up again in the fall and finished the game.

The first few chapters of Final Fantasy Tactics are pretty wonderful. There are fantastic battles, a plot which plays out its narrative in an interesting manner. As I said earlier, the discussions of church and state and fairly macro level, but also thoughtful and more detailed in their discussion than the average RPG. During my grad school replay, I thought a lot about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, still fairly fresh in the public’s eye, and the corruption of our federal government, no matter who is in charge, and how that aligned to the game. This is an area where I wish there was a proper sequel to further develop these ideas and perhaps use more modern metaphors to engage with this more medieval world’s evil. I would have loved to see more from Ramza and Alma after their escape at the end of the game. I feel so bad for Alma throughout and would love to see her really be able to shine.

This time around I got into a good routine of going into a battle, saving, another battle, and doing this a bit before each major battle to grind up some levels. More or less, during the first two chapters I had no problems doing this and eagerly looked forward to playing the game each day.

There are some problems I noticed fairly early in the game. The translation is pretty terrible just in general. It is comprehendable, but as an adult playing this game I cringe at some of the most ineffectually translated lines.

At times, this game definitely fails my own personal “fun test” after the second chapter. The battle with Weigraf can be very problematic. The dynamic of the battle means that you need to essentially get lucky to win without losing group members. Weigraf and his demon followers can be very, very, broad attacks that seem wholly unfair unless you have grinded for a significant time or done some kind of game breaking tinkering with characters. This time around, I ended up grinding out a very narrow victory that left me pretty upset instead of feeling good.

It honestly gets worse from there. The next battle is a race to defend a mostly defenseless person. It took me six tries to beat this battle. In four of them, I did not even get a turn before the person I was supposed to save was brutally killed. That makes no sense and wasted my time. I hate games that waste my time.

Only having to kill the main boss in a battle is useful sometimes, but still, the game goes out of its way to frustrate. The absolute worst of this, as always, is the Balk battle near the end, which is one of the hardest battles I have ever encountered in any game. The triple attacks encountered in this battle are brutal and, again, like with Weigraf, a lot of luck is needed to surpass them.

This time around, I ended up casting confuse on the monsters, which resolved many issues I have had in the past. I was able to grind out a victory after getting them to cut each other down.

There are a number of useful features that can greatly help in Final Fantasy Tactics. I find Reflect Mail and the “Equip Armor” feature thwarts a lot of problems with lower level, or not defensively inclined, members of your party getting annihilated in battles, which hurts their ability to level up.

Auto potion also helps a lot, but I found it to be a bit unreliable in this play through. It does not exactly work every time, even if you have plenty of potions, and that can cause a lot of frustration.

The battle before you fight Weigraf rewards you a regular potion, which is such a troll by the game!

By this time, I was using the same party, more or less. Ramza, Agrias, Orlandu, and Alicia were my primaries plus Mustadio as a chemist who can also use guns. I used Mustadio primarily as a healer, who could occasionally step in to add damage, in the same way I discussed my use of Kane in our episode about Final Fantasy IV.

I think the next time I go through this game, I am going to deeply focus on these characters. The job system is remarkable, but I always feel myself overwhelmed by the number of choices I have available to me during the game. I am so glad others have done really cool stuff with it though.

As much as I want a direct sequel to this game, there are so many remarkable turn-based games these days like Radiant Historia, Valkyria Chronicles, Stella Glow and of course the Fire Emblem series that my thirst for that has subsided a bit. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy Tactics has a special place in my heart and always will. I will come back to Ivalice soon.


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