Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (PSP) (Square Enix, 2007)

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

I don't know if I'd call it my absolute favorite game of all time, but, among the games that I personally own, Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) would be at the top of the list of those I would nominate to be inducted into the canon of titles that belong in every gamer's library, in the same sense that every literate person's book library should include a copy of George Orwell's 1984, regardless of whether they ever actually pick up and read it. Square's tactical RPG for the PS1 was universally acclaimed in its own time, and it remains as playable now as it was then. No subsequent release in the genre (or perhaps in any genre) has managed to surpass or even equal its across-the-board excellence in gameplay, story, and sound. It inspired a still-active fan community, which has subjected the game's extensive yet accessible mechanics to a staggering degree of in-depth analysis. And, these days, it can be had fairly cheaply on a variety of platforms, leaving little excuse not to own it. That said, the 2007 enhanced port for the PSP, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, may not be the ideal way to play it.

The War of the Lions is about 90-95 percent a straight port of the PS1 original. It does little to take advantage of the PSP's superior specs, and if there's anything in the game that really dates it, it's the low-res menus, character portraits, and text. Those are the parts that are a bit hard on the eyes now compared to more recent games of otherwise similar design, including Square Enix's 2011 PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. The battle graphics, on the other hand, hold up quite well even against later games done in the same isometric visual style. Although the character sprites are also low-res, I was truly amazed, coming to this game after having just played Tactics Ogre, at how much larger and more animated the sprites are in Final Fantasy Tactics. The polygonal battlefields, although blocky and repetitive, are also notable for being fully 3-D and rotatable, with story battles often opening with dramatic camera pans.

If anything, The War of the Lions seems actually technically inferior to the original PS1 version. This sloppy port is marred by severe input lag when simply scrolling through menus, slowdown any time a character casts a spell or performs a special attack, conspicuous drops in the audio as it pauses every time the game has to load a different clip or track, and a general tinniness to the sound. Most inexplicably, even altogether lost are the cheesy lines that characters would occasionally mutter before they performed their spells or special attacks during battles in the original game ("Heaven's wish to destroy all minds... Holy Explosion!"). These defects collectively make the PSP version, in my opinion, inferior to the original, which can be downloaded via the PSN store for the same price as The War of the Lions and for play on the same PSP and PS Vita platforms (plus PS3 as well).

Still, if you're someone who has already played the original to death, The War of the Lions does offer some fresh incentives to revisit the game. The one attempt to beautify the game comes in the form of a handful of new pre-rendered movie sequences, which utilize cel-shading to achieve a gorgeous hand-drawn look. These new cut scenes, some of which replace scenes formerly handled with the isometric graphics, such as the classic grass whistle moment, are very pretty, although the English voice acting is underwhelming, and, overall, I didn't find that their inclusion enhanced my appreciation of the story or characters in any way. The best and weightiest moments in the story continue to be found in the battles, with the characters at each other's throats.

That brings us to the new English-language translation. The original PS1 translation is among the most notorious in the annals of bad video game translations, so, for players of the English versions, the new translation may actually be the most appealing aspect of the port. Written in roughly the same verbose style as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII (although Alexander O. Smith, the translator for those other games, was not involved this time), the new English script is an improvement overall, although it is not in every respect a trade up. It's nice to have this consistent voice across all these translations, so as to mirror the Japanese scripts all having originally been written by one man, Yasumi Matsuno (although I have no idea whether Matsuno himself wrote in equivalently wordy and arcane Japanese). Thus, "Holy Stone" becomes "Auracite," "Death City" becomes "Necrohol," and, for whatever reason, "mummers" are now apparently a common thread through the English-language Matsuno-verse.

For the most part, the new text is not too overwrought, although it's also never snappy or quotable. Despite the original translation's reputation, it actually was not all bad. The tutorial was gibberish ("This was the darkened items won't appear"), and there was some sloppy work on a lot of the ancillary text in the game, such as the optional errands you could do for extra JP. But the most critical part of the script—the dialogue—was handled with far more care, and if the translation never stood out and impressed, at least it never distracted by drawing attention to itself but rather simply conveyed the story in generally comprehensible English.

My favorite sequence in the entire story, the mid-battle confrontation between the game's two most embittered characters, Argath and Milleuda (formerly Algus and Miluda), was, in my opinion, far stronger and more memorable in the old translation. For comparison, here first is the old text:
Miluda: Who do you think you are!? We're not your animals! We're human, just like you! There's no difference among us other than our families! You ever been hungry? With only soup to eat for months? Why do we have to suffer? Because you nobles deprive us our right to live!

Algus: Human? Hmph, ridiculous! From the minute you were born you had to obey us! From the second you were born you were our animals!!

Miluda: Says who!? That's nonsense! Who decided all this?!

Algus: It's the Will of Heaven!

Miluda: Heaven? God would never say such things! In his eyes, all are equal! He'd never let this happen! Never!

Algus: Animals have no God!!

Miluda: !!!!

And here's the new text:
Milleuda: How can you nobles live as you do and yet hold your heads so high? We are not chattel. We are humans, no less than you! What flaw do you hold there to be in us? That we were born between a different set of walls? Do you know what it means to hunger? To sup for months on naught but broth of bean? Why must we be made to starve that you might grow fat? You call us thieves, but it is you who steal from us the right to live!

Argath: You, no less human than we? Ha! Now there's a beastly thought. You've been less than we from the moment your baseborn father fell upon your mother in whatever gutter saw you sired! You've been chattel since you came into the world drenched in common blood!

Milleuda: By whose decree?! Who decides such foul and absurd things?

Argath: 'Tis heaven's will!

Milleuda: Heaven's will? You would pin your bigotry on the gods? No god would fain forgive such sin, much less embrace it! All men are equal in the eyes of the gods!

Argath: Men, yes. But the gods have no eyes for chattel.

Milleuda: You speak of devils, not gods!

The old translation is certainly not the most polished, while I would have no strong complaint against the new text judged on its own merits. But, in its relative succinctness and directness, the old script possesses an immediacy that I feel lends the dialogue far greater force on both sides. Remember that these characters are exchanging words while engaging in mortal combat with one another. There's also a coarseness to the original translation here, whether it's intentional or not, that I think rings truer in reflecting where these two characters are each coming from, which is kind of the whole point of that chapter in the story. Argath is of a house fallen from nobility, on account of his craven grandfather having disgraced the family name by turning self-serving traitor during wartime. Growing up, both hearing how proud was once his noble house, while experiencing firsthand the classism shown those of his family's now lesser rank, he has developed his own warped notions of what it means to be noble versus common, and how each is to be regarded. Milleuda, meanwhile, fought honorably to defend the crown as a member of a peasant brigade that, at war's end, was turned out by their liege lord without due recompense. With no faith whatsoever left in the nobility, she has chosen to take matters into her own hands, leading a desperate and violent uprising. Each resents the other's very existence, yet the bitter irony is that they are, both of them, the spit-upon meager.

And there are other, similar instances, mostly during story battles, where the old translation sticks out as more direct, more forceful, and more memorable.

You'll also note that, in the new translation, these characters have apparently become polytheistic. War of the Lions translator Tom Slattery has defended this decision, explaining that the original Japanese text leaves no ambiguity—the characters refer to gods, plural. I don't find this altogether satisfactory, but, without doing a lot of research into the original Japanese and what Matsuno really intended, I'll just have to take his word on it. In any case, this change does little to obscure the fact that the game's Church of Glabados is blatantly modeled after the Christian Church, its foundational story of Saint Ajora very specifically mirroring that of Jesus Christ. I'm still shocked that such a major publisher as Square ever signed off on this story. Certainly, Japanese video games had been mining Christianity as mythology for years before Final Fantasy Tactics, but it rarely went deeper than having angelic imagery backed by zero research into the actual tenets of the Western religion. In writing Final Fantasy Tactics, Matsuno had clearly not only researched the gospel narrative but the history of the church as well, including popular criticisms and conspiracy theories. It would be amazing if, one of these days, some interviewer could get him to talk about what he was thinking when he wrote this story, but that probably won't ever happen.

The rest of the story is typical Matsuno, full of intelligent and deliciously ambitious human characters, and mercifully free of the cliches and stunted melodrama that have lately sunk nearly the entire Japanese RPG genre. If anything, I had a harder time wrapping my head around it now than when I first played the game over a decade ago. I don't know if that's because of the new wordier translation or just because, as a younger man then, I didn't pay as much attention and so didn't even notice when I was missing something. But the plot goes so deep with layers upon layers of characters pulling other characters' strings that eventually I was getting headaches trying to keep straight who the real players were, if indeed there even were any and not just a mess of pawns. There are two warring dukes, each backing a different puppet successor to the throne. Behind the dukes, there are yet more scheming and opportunistic lords. Then there's the church, encouraging, if not even instigating, the conflict from behind the scenes, so that, in the ruined aftermath, it can displace the crown and assume power itself. And there's the church's knights, who seem not very strong in the faith at all but rather working toward their own frightening agenda. Add to all that a couple key wildcards and this was and remains one of the densest and most complicated yet thoroughly engrossing tales in any Japanese RPG.

Besides a new translation, the game has also seen the addition of a number of story scenes and battles. Most of them are optional and not, all told, of great consequence, but almost every unique character that joins your party, with the exceptions of the much-hated siblings from Chapter III, gets at least a few extra lines of dialogue now. One of the disappointing things about the original game was how characters such as Agrias and Orlandeau (formerly Orlandu), so seemingly significant when first introduced, would become completely forgotten by the story almost as soon as they joined your party. At last, The War of the Lions partially corrects that with at least a few acknowledgments that these characters are still alive and fighting the good fight late into the story (assuming you haven't let them die or dismissed them). Beowulf and Reis even get probably several times more dialogue in their new scenes than they ever had in the original game.

Speaking of party members, there are two brand new ones. Luso, protagonist of Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the Nintendo DS, is nearly a clone of Ramza in terms of his abilities. Balthier from Final Fantasy XII, meanwhile, is like a much better version of Mustadio and is one of the strongest characters in the game.

There are also two new classes: the dark knight and the onion knight. The requirements for unlocking the dark knight are so demanding, however, that I still didn't have it by the time I had exhausted all the game's non-random content. The onion knight can be unlocked with less effort, but it takes even longer to develop into something viable, and, more importantly, it can't equip any skills, which is the whole fun of the game.

One of the interesting things about Yasumi Matsuno is that, on most of the games he has worked on, he has been credited for both "scenario" (story) and "game design" (gameplay), and most of his games have been lauded on both counts. On Final Fantasy Tactics, however, the design credit went to Hiroyuki Ito, Square's own resident systems guy for its Final Fantasy series—this despite the fact that the game's battle mechanics were largely recycled from Matsuno's own Tactics Ogre. In any case, this was, to me, a true "dream team" of Japanese RPG technicians, and the gameplay still holds up as some of the deepest and most rewarding in the tactical RPG genre.

The battlefields in this game are small compared to the average in the genre, which can make the action feel small. Personally, I find that this just speeds things up, since it minimizes that tiresome opening phase in many other games, where both sides spend the first several turns getting units into position and maybe buffing themselves before they can even attack one another. But the addictive quality of the experience probably owes less to the actual combat than to the possibilities for character setups afforded by Ito's Job system, which encourages players to mix and match learned skills from different classes in order to develop versatile super-characters. You can equip a thief with the archer's accuracy-boosting "Concentration" support ability, for example, to raise the success rate of the thief's "Steal" actions. Or, better yet, equip both "Concentration" and "Steal" on a ninja, which is even faster than a thief, to maximize their success rate. (Well, actually, if you really want to maximize your chances, Balthier's default class is just as fast as a ninja and comes with better versions of the thief's skills—just part of why he's so awesome in this game.) As another example, you can take the dragoon's "Jump" attack, the strength and speed of which is determined by the character's own speed, and equip it on a ninja, which has much higher speed than the rather sluggish dragoon. But, since "Jump" also receives a damage bonus when the character performing it is equipped with a spear, you might want to also outfit that ninja with the dragoon's "Equip Polearms" support ability, which allows non-dragoons to wield spears. (Or, again, you can just have Balthier learn "Jump," since he's already fast and can naturally equip spears.) The flexibility of this system is rivaled only by the other games in the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and the joy of the experience is in devising your own combinations to suit your play style and personality, instead of having to discern, through trial and error, the rigid "correct" strategy through each battle.

On the unfortunate side, not only are the new War of the Lions-exclusive classes fairly impractical, since they take far too long to attain, but even the old classes require more JP to unlock and develop now. Well, to be precise, the North American PS1 release was, in some sense, an "easy type" revision that, among other things, had lowered JP requirements compared to the original Japanese version. The War of the Lions merely restores these requirements to their original settings for all regions. Regardless, I must say, I think the game is less fun as a result. It's still not a terribly difficult game, but I definitely noticed whenever I would go into a story battle lacking an ability that I had formerly relied upon in my playthrough of the PS1 version. In the PSP game, I found myself spending too much time working to learn new skills and not enough time actually enjoying using them.

There are two easily overlooked yet notable improvements to the gameplay. First, the total roster size for the player's party has been increased from 16 to 24, which is exactly enough to accommodate all the characters, both unique and generic, that will offer to join you through the regular course of the story and side quests (i.e. excluding generic characters that you might recruit randomly). In the PS1 game, if you wanted to recruit all the unique characters, you would eventually have to dismiss some of the six generic party members that Ramza begins with. In truth, you don't really need that many generic characters, but I still hated having to dismiss anyone. Now, that's no longer an issue. Alas, there still isn't room enough to have all those characters and still have space to recruit and breed monsters. Darn.

The other significant change for the better is that Meliadoul's "Unyielding Blade" sword skills (formerly "Mighty Sword") have been modified to be more effective. Before, these skills would target an enemy's equipment, destroying it and dealing damage in the process, but if the enemy didn't have that piece of equipment to target (monsters, for example, don't have any equipment at all), the skill wouldn't do anything. Now, these attacks will simply do raw damage when there is no equipment to destroy. This change makes Meliadoul far more useful a character, especially in random battles, where monsters make up the bulk of the enemy force. Alas, against any human foe with the "Safeguard" ability (formerly "Maintenance") to protect against their equipment being broken or stolen, these sword skills remain completely ineffective.

A few changes I really would have liked to have seen that didn't make it in are 1) a "quick save" option to suspend your progress mid-battle, 2) a way to flee or avoid random battles, and 3) an "undo" function, at least for movement if not actions. Seems like these should have been obvious things to implement in this day and age, but instead this conspicuous absence of the little conveniences stick out and mark the game as one of its time.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PSP is not everything it could have been, nor even everything that the original Final Fantasy Tactics was. The technical issues are endlessly irritating, but the new content is appreciated. For anyone casually interested in playing Final Fantasy Tactics for the first time, I would still recommend the PS1 version as the more fun and less frustrating. Even with its extra content, The War of the Lions is only really worth it for hardcore completionists.

There are, of course, yet other options. The War of the Lions has been ported to iOS, and, although I don't have an iPhone or iPad myself, I've heard that that version runs free of the slowdown in the PSP version. It also has noticeably sharper graphics than any previous version of the game. On the other hand, it doesn't include the PSP version's multiplayer modes, which is a shame, since the challenging battles in the co-op mode were the only real post-endgame content Final Fantasy Tactics has ever had, as well as the only way to acquire many of the best items, such as most of the Genji equipment.


Screens of the new content in Final Fantasy Tactics for PSP | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] far more hits via Google’s image search than via plain Google web search. So, while playing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PSP, I made sure to take several screen captures in preparation for an image-heavy blog […]

Kazz said...

I was interested in buying this for Vita, but can I play this game entirely in Japanese? Japanese voice and text is what I mean. See I'm Japanese but I live in USA and own a NA PSN account, but I prefer to play oldschool games like this in original language. I'd love to have a bilingual option in all imported games honestly.

Henry Fung said...

As far as I know, there's no way to change the language of the game. But maybe you can change your Vita's region, create a Japanese PSN account, and buy the Japanese PSN version of the game. I don't personally own a Vita, so I don't know the details, nor even whether the game is available in the Japanese PSN store.

I just backed Yasumi Matsuno’s Unsung Story | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] Matsuno’s writing was what crucially distinguished the great tactical RPGs I’ve played (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together) from the imitations that bore similar design yet proved […]