Final Fantasy Tactics Advance review
SRPGs are nothing new to the GBA. If anything they are almost as common as the standard RPG genre. It seems the minds behind the Final Fantasy series saw some potential in this genre though as they come in with their own attempt at it. Bear in mind that this is not your normal FF game as you read on.
The story focuses on a band of kids in the wintery setting of Ivalice, all of whom are dissatisified with their lives in some way. Mewt is the eternal bully victim, Ritz is the insecure girl, Donad is stuck in a wheelchair due to his disability and the main protagonist Marche is the 'new kid' who is basically an outsider. One day Mewt finds an old book, which does nothing at first but then sucks the four kids into a new world of fantasy overnight.
This new world provides the ideal escape for the children, as the problems of reality vanish and they are free to live out their dreams. That is, escape Marche is the only one to realise that the new world is not the real one and he wishes to return to his old life, but to do that he must get the others to join him. So yes, the game revolves around smashing the dreams of the protagonist's friends, which is a somewhat appealing aspect by itself.
Much of the gameplay consists of battles against enemy clans or monsters. The player can put forward up to six clan members to participate in the battle, and the same holds true for the enemy. You can reposition them slightly as well, although this is usually only in a small block of tiles. Strange considering how spread out the enemy units can start and so a bit limiting.
Play then assumes a turn based fashion, where characters take it in turns to make an action depending on their speed. Naturally the fast characters go early while the slow tankers must wait a while. Not taking an action may seem pointless but is also lessens the wait to take the next turn. Since the speed stat determines the order of turns then this means there is no different phases for the different alliances. Characters simply act when their speed stat dictates regardless of whose side they fight for.
All characters can move in addition to acting. Their available movement is determined by their chosen job class and can also be affected by the terrain. A jump stat also affects this. A character with a jump stat of 2 cannot scale a ledge that is 3 tiles high. Highlighted squares pop up when a unit is selected to help determine where they can go too.
Scoring hits or defeating enemies earns EXP points, and gaining 100 will level up that unit, which enhances their stats based on the job class they are currently in.
The available actions for any character depends on the job classes they have gone through, and this is the key element to the game's battles - character development.
There are 5 races in the game, consisting of human, moogle, nu mou, viera and bangaa. Each race has a set number of starting jobs, with more jobs unlocking as you learn abilities from the existing jobs. The likes of blue mage, sage and assassin will be locked until you've gained the abilities from other classes.
Learning abilities is done via equipment. In a strange twist, different weapons and armour bestow abilities to certain job types when they are equipped. Initially the unit will only possess that ability for as long as they have the relevant item equipped. Completing battles earns AP (Ability Points) that go towards mastering these abilities. Different abilities require different amounts of AP, but once mastered an ability remains in that job's moveset even when the item is removed.
In a sense though, this tends to encourage mindless earlygame grinding just to equip your army with a range of useful skills, as when characters first start they tend to only have 1 or 2 skills available to them, and only when they have certain items equipped. It makes for a slower than normal start to the game.
One great aspect about this system is how skills are not locked to the job. You have various ability slots like two action ability slots, one reaction, one support and one combo. The first action slot is always taken up by the current job's ability set, but the second one can be assigned any job's ability set that the unit has learned abilities in. The other ability slots are not locked to sets and so the player can assign skills from any job they have learned those skills from. It's this option to customize your units that helps to build up the strategy. Do you want to compliment a sage's offence with healing magic? The option is there if you're ready to put in the time to learn the skills.
Reaction and support skills are automatic abilities. Reaction respond to triggers; mainly an enemy's attack. These can range from launching counter-attacks to transforming physical damage into loss of magic points. Support skills boost the effectiveness of units, like reducing magic costs or preventing status effects. The final slot is for combo skills, which allows units to strike a single target with a strong attack at the cost of JP (Judge Points). If other units will combo skills are nearby then they will participate in the attack (hence the name) for extra damage.
Action skills can also be grouped under two headings: physical and magical. Physical skills tend to target single targets for large damage and can be both short and long ranged, although there are a few limited effect skills here like first aid, which offers low HP restoration and status curing on the user. Magic skills consume MP relative to the power of the spell (which regenerates at a low rate through the battle) but these tend to be a lot more varied. Some attack spells will affect an area rather than a single individual, or others may also inflict a status ailment on the target. There are spells that can heal, spells that enhance characters and spells that strike the whole field. It's also worth noting that some creatures are impervious to physical strikes or magic assaults, making it necessary to maintain balance of the two in the clan.
It's also possible to use normal attacks as well, although this seems pretty pointless once you have a few offence skills under you. Why bother with a standard attack when you can hit them with stuff like air rend or rush for no cost? Magic users lack physical skills but their standard attacks tend to be rather weak, which is equally as pointless.
Attacking an enemy with a normal attack or special skill has a hit chance based on the opponent's orientation to you. Enemies with their backs to you are easier to hit than those facing you. The opposite also holds true. Each clan member has the choice of changing the direction they are facing when their turn ends, helping to set up some good defensive plays.
Items exist in the game, although the usable ones tend to not extend past the basic healing items that restore HP or status. However, the game forces a decision on the player, as each clan member's ability to use items is determined by their second action ability slot. By default this slot is set to 'item', so by changing it to an ability set from another job class you lose the option of using items for that person. Hoever, I found the consumable item system rather pointless past the early stages of the game, simply because you could gain more than enough skills to cover everything items would do, but better.
In an attempt to stand out from the crowd is the laws system. In any battle there are laws that govern what can and can't be done. Do something that the law currently encourages and you gain 1 JP for combos and special attacks. Doing something against the law carries harsh penalties though, as you can be stripped of items or even sent to prison. Later in the game special cards become available that allow you to add or remove laws, providing you have the relevant cards.
Unfortunately, the whole system is very flawed. While the laws start off good, the game increases the number of laws as you play. In addition some of the laws can totally screw with the battle plan. Facing an enemy weak only to magic? Bad luck for you if your spellcaster's magic is disallowed. When you're facing three laws a battle later on it can be all too easy to lose most or all of your offence options. The active laws change as you move around the world map and the law cards can help, but we really shouldn't have to try and work around the system with such methods.
Even worse is how the enemy is affected. Normal enemies are as constrained as you are, but special characters are immune to the consequences of breaking laws. It's a very cheap tactic to use, and reduces the effectiveness of the laws even further.
Recruiting characters is easy... well, probably because it's practically automatic. You get given new clan members after completing some missions, and their level and abilities is determined by the overall strength of your clan. You can choose to accept or reject them as you wish. Aside from a few special recruitments most clan members are generic. They have random names and generic appearances, so there's no real feeling of attachment to them.
The world map is interesting in that none of the locations have preset locations. Instead the player gets to sit places down on any available slot and build Ivalice as they want to. As the player progresses through the game more places get added, which can be sat down where the player chooses. Moving around is as simple as clicking on a destination. Shortly into the game rival clans will appear on the map, who will engage you in battle if you cross paths.
Villages offer a variety of aspects when visited. Three common features of different towns are the item shop, prison and the inn. The shop is naturally where you'll buy your goods in exchange for gil (the currency of the game). Different shops carry different items. The prison is where clan members are sent to if they break too many laws in battles. Paying a fee is needed to release them.
The inn is an important area to visit. It is here that you can pick up information, but more importantly it is where you can find and take on missions.
The game boasts 300 missions. Technically that's true, but the way the game does it is practically bordering on outright false advertising. Many of the ingame missions are not the battle-type of missions you might be expecting. Instead these others are called dispatch missions, where you assign a clan member to complete it for you and then must get a certain amount of time to pass or fight a certain number of battles for him or her to return. You have no direct influence over the success of these missions aside from choosing who goes, which is quite lame. The game has a fairly decent lifespan, but not even close to being as long as the makers would have you believe.
The difficulty is a bit disappointing as well. The earlygame can be quite challenging, due in part to the lack of skills your clan members have at that time. Later on though your team will end up so overpowered that only some of the boss battles will actually pose a real threat, so tactics tends to get thrown out the window in favour of simply spamming a few powerful techniques against almost everything.
FFTA is a beautiful game to look at. The character sprites have been crafted with such care that they display a range of emotions and animated actions. The character art used for talking scenes and the status screens also looks great. However, there's no diversity in it. All the regular characters that join clans or form the random clans that wander around all have the exact same look based on their current job (so all hunters look the same etc). There's a colour palette swap to differentiate between allies and enemies but that's it. The main characters do have individual sprites but there aren't too many of them.
The battlefield you fight on are also well designed, with some cool looking features like rocks or streams. Occasionally a feature may obstruct the view a little, like a tree hiding a unit, but this is pretty rare. The game is also quite bright and colourful.
Unfortunately the music that hums along in the background isn't quite so impressive. The tunes seem rather dull and ill-suited to enhancing fights to the death, and they also tend to lack variation in the style. Sound effects are notably better in matching up to the onscreen actions.
FFTA is a good SRPG but it has its problems that prevent it from taking the step to becoming amazing. The law system tends to interfere more than it helps and the game isn't that challenging past the earlygame. However, there are a lot of combat options and it can be quite fun to set up united assaults against the enemy. A worthy title to consider for the SRPG fan.
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