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Company, Advance Back!
By: Andrew Long
Perhaps Square Enix was just sticking to form when its poster child Product Development Division 4 developed Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to be as different as possible from its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics. Perhaps a badly-translated, story-driven game with engrossing gameplay should be followed up with a well-translated, gameplay-driven game with a less than engrossing plot. More likely, however, is the possibility that Square Enix has bungled the basic mechanics that made FFT so much fun to play and has replaced them with something different, something that feels vaguely poisonous when played in stints longer than an hour or so. It has replaced political intrigue and religious interference with the smarmy politics of a sixth grade playground, and while this is probably something Nintendo doesn't feel too badly about, it sure doesn't do much for the overall assessment of a sequel to a game that has already suffered from credibility issues among T-RPG elitists.
FFTA begins in the conveniently named St. Ivalice, a snowy town with the blockiest cars north of the Mississippi and a population saddled with a whole whack of personality issues. Gamers get to follow the story of Marche, Ritz and Mewt. Marche is the new kid, Ritz has a horrifying secret, and Mewt has an inferiority complex the size of Canada. As added bonus, Marche's little brother is confined to a wheelchair, Mewt's mother is dead, and his father, Cid, is a vagrant. A tutorial snowball fight later, it's hardly surprising that the only way to avoid turning this into Dawson's Creek for eight-year-olds is to whisk the lot of them off to the magical land of Ivalice through the powers of an equally magical book that just happens to bear the same title as this crazy video game all the cool kids are drooling over, Final Fantasy. As the score tips in the favour of shameless self-promotion, the kids are separated and Marche wakes up in a town square surrounded by some strange creatures and a friendly moogle.
For some reason, the denizens of this strange new world don't take kindly to strangers winking into existence in the middle of town, and so a real battle breaks out in short order. FFTA is a tactical RPG, and so naturally, the whole thing is based around fighting. Players can deploy up to six characters in each battle, ranging among five to ten character classes per race, of which there are five - human, moogles, bangaa, nu muu, and viera. Ivalice has gone androgynous since Ramza was around, and so gender has no bearing on anything. Noses, meanwhile, are still out of fashion among the human contingent. Class abilities often overlap, and some classes are exclusive to race but it doesn't really matter, since it's possible to beat the game using only the basic classes.
Characters conduct their squabbles on tile-based boards of varying size. Usually, battles are pretty fluid, since computer AI is basically programmed to crush, kill and destroy. Most of the maps are very simplistic, so range and obstructions do not pose much trouble. As for the actual battles, the one thing that distinguishes this game from every other TRPG in existence is the Judge Point system. Ivalice is governed by a royally appointed cabal of judges, whose responsibility it is to ensure that battles are conducted in a lawful fashion. In order to do this, up to three laws are selected at random from a pool of prohibitions that serve to restrict certain actions, and if these actions occur during the course of a fight, the judge hands out either a yellow card or a red card. Yellow cards carry some sort of penalty such as a status reduction or gil fine, while red cards result in immediate eviction from play. If players manage to play within the bounds of these rules, however, Judges dole out JP (Judgement Points) which enable players to execute combo attacks or summon spells.
To make things interesting, players can also collect Law Cards, which make it possible to either eliminate existing laws or add new ones. A limited number of cards can be held, however, and as there is only one place to trade for better cards, trades often require giving up good cards, since there's not much space to hang onto those which are lousier. Additionally, the Law System is virtually irrelevant as far as the computer is concerned; opposing characters can accrue yellow cards easily enough, but since they are never given red cards, the whole system is pretty much a one-sided deal. Granted, it makes it necessary to have a number of different character classes available at the same time, but since there are seldom enough laws to make a match inconvenient for a player, it is only an effective tool insofar as enemy characters are less likely to commit a forbidden action.
On the upside, it is very easy to tinker with characters, since the interface is both well-designed and intuitive. Information is compactly displayed, and the limited screen size is never an issue. Regrettably, however, the game utilizes the Item System from Final Fantasy IX, which means that players must equip an item for a certain amount of time before learning abilities. This not only means that players will be forced to use inferior equipment for much longer than would normally be the case, but it also takes away from some of the mystery of unlocking new job classes, since the available abilities are listed as soon as an item is purchased. Since about 90% of the game's equipment is available by the halfway mark, this makes the latter portions of FFTA plod considerably. A number of the best abilities also require completing a number of tedious missions in order to acquire the requisite items, so the execution of what is already a questionable battle system is nothing to write home about, ultimately.
As always, Square Enix has spared no expense on the production values for FFTA. The game's music, while nothing outstanding, is catchy and well-sampled. The sound effects are about on par with most GBA titles, and the only real quibble is that the game lacks an overall distinctive sound, since it was produced by a handful of musicians rather than a single composer (Nobuo Uematsu shows up for no apparent reason with the title theme, for instance). Visually, the game shines, both on the GBA and on the GB Player. There are three different graphics modes offered, each designed to be optimal for either TV or GBA viewing. Character design is similar to FFT, and the artwork is visually appealing and colorful.
It's a good thing that FFTA can lure with its well-packaged exterior, however, because if gameplay is your selling point, then you're best served looking elsewhere. FFTA is ridiculously, almost painfully easy, and losing a battle is only possible when one sets out to do so. Exacerbating this rampant ease is a sort of McDonald's mentality that casts a pall over the gameplay, making sittings of longer than an hour or so deeply objectionable for some reason. There is no particular feature or nuance that makes the game feel this way; it just loses its appeal after an hour or so, making it very difficult to even consider playing through in a single sitting. In one sense, this is good, given the game's portable nature, but on an extended roadtrip, gamers are best served by bringing along an extra game for when it grows boring.
Still, there are an awful lot of character classes, and with a customizable map, over 300 missions, and a wide array of items, there is good reason to play through FFTA again. It's not that there aren't more deserving TRPGs out there, but FFTA is fun for a little while, if only that, and remains so even after playing through the game.
It is also spotlessly translated, which represents a 180 degree shift from its predecessor. Gone are the charming but extraneous warcries ("Life is short.. Bury!") and in their place are Hironobu Sakaguchi Lessons for Life that bookend each fight. Granted, these don't really qualify as a plot or even as justification for fighting in most cases, but at least they are intelligible. The game's dialogue is also easy to follow, and there were no apparent spelling errors.
Lamentably, though, for each good point FFTA manages to score, it has a negative element to balance it out. Simply put, there is no reason to care about any of the characters in FFTA, nor is there any incentive to find out what happens next in their journey. Their situation is contrived, their problems typical and inane, and their struggles not particularly interesting. Marche is a dull, stereotypical stalwart, Mewt is whiny and annoying, and Ritz and Doned pointless. All other characters in the game make decisions for nonsensical reasons, and the plot can be summed up in a sentence. Moreover, missions are purely extraneous to anything, and serve only as mountainous filler for an ice-thin story. Basically, this is the sort of progression made famous by bad television drama, and it sure doesn't belong in a game.
The game is also clichéd in every imaginable sense of the word, from the characters to the story to the abilities. Everything in FFTA is borrowed from somewhere else, and most of those games did what FFTA tries to do more successfully. Perhaps it is too much to expect much effort put into GBA titles, but if they're only going to be lighter versions of real games, then why bother making them? It is all too easy to be harsh on most GBA titles because companies do not seem to take them seriously, and in this case this trend holds true in almost every aspect of the title.
Cynicism aside, FFTA is not a complete waste of money. It is a diversion, and possesses mechanics strong enough to propel the gameplay for most of its fifteen hours or so. It is easy to run longer than that, but players looking to go the economical route shouldn't have too much trouble with a quick playthrough. Of course, since it is difficult to stomach Final Fantasy Tactics Advance without carving it into chunks, it may well end up being a long fifteen hours, but it's not all bad. In the end, FFTA serves as a good entry point into the field of TRPGs, a springboard for newcomers to the genre which will allow them to quickly vault their way to bigger and better things.
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