Who hasn't wanted to visit their favorite fantasy world from a book or video game? Marche Radiuju has dreamed of a life away from the town of St. Ivalice, where he lives with his handicapped sibling. I mean, sure, he has good times with his friends, and their snowball fights even resemble the battles from that 1998 classic, Final Fantasy Tactics, but it's not quite the same. But one day, Marche's wish seems to be granted when he wakes up in the Kingdom of Ivalice, where he is accosted by strange creatures, including one he recognizes as a Moogle. The Moogle asks Marche to join his mercenary Clan, and in return, he'll help the boy find his way home. Marche agrees (hey, if Mog told you to do something, you know you would), and soon finds himself leading the gang throughout the eagerly-anticipated adventure known as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Although much has been made about the significance of Square's return to Nintendo via FFTA, that has no effect on the gameplay. Nor does the jump from the Playstation to the Game Boy Advance, for that matter. Of course, the graphics have had to be downgraded to a point - the battle polygons of the first game have been necessarily replaced with sprites - but the developers have covered this transition with quality artwork. Some of the designs could actually be called wacky. The visuals seem to possess brightness and vibrancy that the original FFT lacked, although there are many GBA games that trump them in detail. Still, enough thought has gone into the graphics as to include three different viewing modes, depending on what system is running the game, whether it's the traditional GBA, the GBA SP, or the Game Boy Player. The ears should be just as happy as the eyes, since Hitoshi Sakimoto returns to contribute another classical score, this time in tune to FFTA's easygoing nature.
There is a lot of gameplay stuffed into this little cart, and while the battles are standard TRPG fare, the whole set up is rather unique in the sub-genre. RPGamers move Marche and company to different points on the world map, as before, but the method to their movement comes from the quests they take on. The entire game is built around completing these quests, not all of which are necessary or relevant to the story. They are undertaken at the local pub for a fee, but completion of the quest is good for a profit in cash and items, as well as possibly unlocking new quests. Story quests in particular also yield special icons that can be placed anywhere on the world map to create a new area. However, it is just the placement, and not the nature, of the new area that is under the player's control.
Quests often entail more than just battles. For example, the Propositions of FFT return. The player can temporarily dismiss a Clan member to send him or her off to complete a task. After a couple of days (FFTA also employs a calendar system) the member will return to the pub with a report on their success. They will have a higher likelihood of success if they have high stats in the area that the job requires. Then there are the harder types of battles against rival Clans. These groups roam the world map just like the player does, and encountering them creates a choice: pay up or put 'em up. Sometimes quests require the Clan to be at a certain level. The Clan gains levels in different respects upon completing quests, but these levels are unrelated to the individual character levels.
Of course, in addition to taking on quests, the player can listen to gossip and buy equipment while in town. It is with the latter that one of the complaints about the game comes in; namely the confusing interface. Buying stuff for the party is still a pain.
Nonetheless, all that is merely a preparation for the battles. As previously mentioned, these remain effectively unchanged from FFT: they take place on a tile grid that has width as well as height (no rotating the battlefield anymore, but there isn't really a need to), and they are turn-based. There is only one quirk thrown in to spruce up the battles.
It is the Judgement System. In all the battlefields of Ivalice, there is a judge that presides over the combat to enforce a given set of rules. There are many different rules, but most of them have to do with banning the use of certain weapons or elements. Some of them are more complicated, such as the requirement to keep the damage done to the enemy in a given range. Happily, for rules like those, the hit chance/damage estimation window returns from FFT.
Failure to obey the rules results in soccer-inspired penalties. A first offence hits the unit with a yellow card. With a yellow card comes a handicap of some description, but it is really just a warning card. The second offence results in a red card. If Marche gets crimson-carded, it's game over, but if an expendable character gets it, it's time to do the jailhouse rock. Prisons can be found in every major town, and securing a release for a character requires a hefty fine. Players can also send their units to do a voluntary jail sentence to rid them of their yellow cards. The positive side to all this is, unlike in real life, law-abiding citizens get rewards for good behavior. They come in the form of Judge Points, and they can be used to acquire summons. Of course, the CPU units are held accountable for their law breaking as well.
The player has some control over the laws, and this also takes the form of cards. Each battlefield has three slots for law cards. After a certain point in the game, the player has the chance to look at these cards, and if they like, swap them with some of their own. Choosing the right cards can be a major strategic consideration - a party of mages wouldn't perform well if there is a magic ban of some sort. Law cards can be acquired by completing quests, just like any other item, but they can also be traded through the GBA link cable.
Speaking of Systems, FFT's much loved Job System returns, but not without changes. The most significant of these changes is the addition of races. They are:
- Humans: Perennial jacks-of-all-trades;
- Bangas: Tough lizardmen;
- N'Mou: Ever heard of magic-specialized donkeys? Well, now you have;
- Viera: Agile cat-people;
- Moogles: Second in both agility and magic.
So, how does this relate to the Job system? Most of the 34 jobs are confined to only one race, and a smaller amount are available to no more than three. Some of the jobs are essentially the equivalent of another race's job, but the advantages of a diversified party are nonetheless clear. The races also make themselves distinct by having a unique creature to summon, apart from the Summoner spells.
In the original FFT, new jobs were acquired through experience, and new abilities were learned from Job Points. Both processes change for FFTA, and they are now connected. As in FFIX, abilities come with equipment (remember, equipment is class-specific) and after a certain amount of time, the units master the abilities permanently. It is by mastering these abilities that new jobs can be unlocked. Lamely, once a character changes to a new job, there is no way to automatically re-equip them; the "Optimum" option is gone. Still, fans won't mind too much as long as they're changing to jobs both classic and new: Sniper, Red Mage, and Hunter among others.
For some, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance sounds more like Final Fantasy Tactics Junior. It's true that the game seems to be geared towards a younger crowd, but this doesn't seem to affect the depth of the gameplay. GBA owners are likely going to be very happy campers when this game finally comes out.