There is no other video game I’ve gone back to more in my twenty years of playing them than Final Fantasy Tactics. When I heard that USgamer had chosen it for their first virtual video game club meeting, I took it as an excuse to dive back into the world of Ivalice myself.
In an era of Xbox Gold give-aways, Steam sales, and big console and handheld releases almost weekly (at least up until recently) I thought something in me would be more resistant to toiling over my PSP and investing untold hours into a 32-bit epic whose every minor detail I could probably recite from memory. But returning to Ivalice is like re-living a dream, something only half remembered that feels so real and natural in the moment.
And there have been a lot of those moments, both in the past and now more recently. The first fight is a tutorial stage that’s fail-proof, but the musical scoring still sends chills down my back: bombastic horns overlaid with menacing drum beats before rival knights throw down on the steps outside of an austere monastery. By the second fight it’s time to get down to business, picking and choosing among your party of random generic cadets according to their starting stats. Tactics is about min-maxing, both thematically, with characters vying for power, and mechanically, with a job system that lets players mix and match an array of different abilities, equipment, and classes to create an unstoppable five-person army.
With that in mind I usually dismiss half my squad or more after the first battle, selling off their equipment and using the sum total of my war chest to purchase new recruits with higher Brave and Faith values. As tedious as cycling through random cadets at the recruiters office can be, something in this mundane Darwinism encapsulates the essential contradiction within Tactics, a game about breaking free from the strictures of class and religion where the only way to do so is to be stronger than those who would keep you in shackles and leave them inertly crystallized on the battlefield.
Then, as Mike Williams noted, the first thing to do is train everyone up so that they all have the Squire class’s “Accumulate” and “JP Boost” skills, which together make grinding a breeze. This means telling Delita at the plains that killing the Death Corps is priority number one (since doing otherwise will make keeping Algus alive a win condition, and my lord that AI…), and then killing both of the AI controlled guests before they can kill the last enemy and end the battle. The remaining time is filled with self-inflicted sword wounds and potions a plenty until each character has their 550 JP.
From here on out, the sky’s the limit. Monks are offensively brutal but easily killed, while Knights are tanky but extremely boring to use. I’ve decided to start my primary attacker as an Archer this time, something I’ve never done before because of how tragically underpowered the class is, which is surprising considering how well balanced it is in the game’s spiritual predecessor, Tactics Ogre. Since most battles start with Ramza & Co. trying to take the high ground, bows are nearly useless. In addition, arrows do exceptionally little damage despite their high miss rate on anyone with a shield or mantel. But even if the “Charge” ability is something of a joke (so little extra damage for such a long cast time), the Archer’s role as a stepping stone to classes like Lancer and Ninja make it a worthwhile investment.
As for the story missions of Chapter 1, they pass by breezily enough, though with one notable exception. The Dorter Slums encounter is a good indication of what’s to come in terms of Tactic’s cruel difficulty spikes. On this playthrough I died a number of times, over eager as I was to simply get beyond it without first paying my respects. Like most games in the genre, Tactics look to punish anyone who pushes their troops into combat too quickly. Shift Ramza a few spaces too close to the knight across from him and a combination of arrows and fire spells will find him dead before his next turn. Assuming a minimal amount of grinding up to this point, the key is to have Ramza & Co. spam “Accumulate” to boost their attack while using potions to recover any hit points lost in the initial onslaught. Once the enemy has moved into position, a swift counter attack around turn 20 will make short work of them.
One of the beauties of Tactics is that this kind of cynical strategizing plays directly into the game’s larger narrative arc. Ramza is learning to become a high born knight worthy of his father’s namesake, which in the beginning means the calculated slaughter of impoverished, low-born war veterans. Later Ramza is confronted by Miluda and her brother, Wiegraf. Noble idealists and dangerous radicals both, the duo offers an interesting point of comparison for both Ramza and Alma, as well as Delita and Teta. It’s cutting but subtle commentary on class privilege that, of the three, only Ramza’s sister survives. Tactics has no lack of sympathy for the morally righteous, but it cuts them down all the same, again and again.
Turn-based, tactical RPGs aren’t always the most accessible, and, especially for someone new to the genre, or even just new to Final Fantasy Tactics, the managerial responsibilities and space for strategic maneuvering can be overwhelming in the beginning. But as the prologue to a game which visits so many different people and places, and spans so many battles, betrayals, and political conspiracies, Chapter 1 (titled “The Meager”) forms a tight, self-contained introduction that successfully integrates gameplay and narrative in a way that few other games at the time did (and I would argue, still don’t). The story doesn’t just bookend the battles, or yield a superficial premise under which to otherwise enjoy leveling up characters and creating an elite squad of exotic fighters, it lives and breathes in the very moments when sprites are exchanging blows, chanting incantations, and speaking their operatic lines in-between swigs of potions and swirls of phoenix downs.