Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Essentials #40: Final Fantasy Tactics


If you were to ask me what my favorite Final Fantasy was, my answer would not be any of the numbered installments, but rather Square's strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. Released for the Sony PlayStation in North America in 1998, Final Fantasy Tactics was written, designed, and directed by Yasumi Matsuno, creator of the Ogre Battle series. The idea was to adapt some of the gameplay and aesthetic elements of Final Fantasy to the tactical combat and mature storytelling of Matsuno's acclaimed Tactics Ogre. The result was certainly the best strategy RPG I ever played.

For its combat, which comprised about 90 percent of the experience, Final Fantasy Tactics married the turn-based gameplay and tiled battlefield of Tactics Ogre, itself modeled closely after Nintendo's Fire Emblem, with co-designer Hiroyuki Ito's Active Time Battle and job systems of the Final Fantasy series. There was no real-time clock, but neither did the game proceed in alternating rounds Fire Emblem-style between the player and the enemy. Instead, similar to the ATB system, turns were allotted based on a character's individual initiative, with faster units, regardless of their side, acting earlier and more frequently. In some ways, this might have reduced the strategic component; it was harder to coordinate multiple units, as the player's options were limited to the actions available to the immediate character. Instead, it asked that the player be always mindful of the turn order in a game where battles flowed more organically. Perhaps it was not so minutely calculated a chess match as Fire Emblem, but, like the Final Fantasy titles of the time, it was a more active take on its genre, and it tested a player's mettle by forcing them to exert their command of the field while adapting to emergent situations.

For Final Fantasy Tactics, Ito also expanded upon his job system from Final Fantasy V. In the most recognizably Final Fantasy element, Tactics included most of the traditional FF character classes, including the black mage, white mage, thief, monk, and dragoon/lancer, along with their trademark abilities, which carried over with impressively little compromise. Considerably more robust than the classes of most other tactical RPGs, these came with long lists of unique skills to be learned, and, as in FFV, characters could change jobs and mix and match to create devastating combinations. More advanced classes could be accessed once characters fulfilled the prerequisites in preceding classes. Thus, unlike many strategy RPGs, where units either have fixed skill sets, or transition in strictly linear fashion to the latest and most powerful classes available, Final Fantasy Tactics encouraged players to experiment with a variety of classes in order to build custom characters to suit their styles. If the initiative-based turn order seemed to limit one's options, the depth of the class system more than made up for it.

Rather than just having units take turns whacking one another according to the standard tactical RPG rock-paper-scissors formula of looping hierarchical effectiveness, character classes were extremely diverse and distinct, affording players a high degree of flexibility in how they approached each battle. Players could take advantage of the monk's counterattacking, the knight's ability to destroy a foe's equipment, and the full assortment of classic Final Fantasy spells, including summons. Admittedly, not every Final Fantasy technique translated perfectly. The classic "jump" attack, for example, was far less useful in a game where targets constantly moved in and out of range.

There were also special classes unique to the story characters who would join the party, and these arguably more powerful units could gradually take over the game as they became more numerous. This was most certainly the case with the holy swordsman Cidolfas Orlandu, who was so dominating that he could win most of the remaining story battles by himself.

But even "Thunder God" Cid's power would be eclipsed once the player managed to teach the calculator class's "Math Skill" to a learned mage. This skill set took the numbers that lay behind every RPG and placed them at the player's disposal. One could whip up formulas that could potentially target every unit on the field with one spell to slay, heal, or even resurrect everyone in a single stroke. No, it was not balanced, but, in my experience with fighting games, it is never the most balanced games that are the most rewarding. Some characters and moves must stand out in order for the player to appreciate "power" according to the game's mechanics. When design becomes too polished and all are rendered equal, identity is lost. As Algus would say, "It's about time you learned about 'difference'!"

It was no Grand Theft Auto, but the story was a minor controversy back in the day among JRPG-playing Catholics. Christianity is not commonly practiced in Japan, and, in fact, it was even formally persecuted into the 19th century. But there are few places that can entirely escape exposure to the world's most widespread religion, and, perhaps owing to this particular distance from the primary text, Japanese video game plots have liberally mined it as mythology not far removed from the Greek or Norse myths. I'm not sure what it is in that understanding that so frequently leads to JRPGs casting the church as manipulatively evil, but, sufficed to say, this was not entirely new territory in Final Fantasy Tactics. Tactics just pushed it further than ever before, barely disguising the Roman Catholic Church as the "Church of Glabados," the corrupt devil-worshipping house disseminating a sham faith.

Before the narrative ventured too deeply into any of that, however, the game's first chapter, "The Meager," told a gripping tale of class warfare between the haves and have-nots. More closely resembling Matsuno's previous works than any Final Fantasy, it was a far cry from the melodrama and metaphysics of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase. This was some true medievalism. These were humans and not monsters, and they were unrelentingly so. The conflict pitted, not only irreconcilable circumstances in opposition, but egos that could never coexist. The answer could never be as tidy as exterminating all enemies, and in the absence of swift resolutions, messy matters compounded with regrettable consequences. Unfortunate situations were met with increasingly desperate acts as that first chapter boiled inevitably to a literally explosive climax.

Jumping ahead years after, the next two chapters would not be quite as harrowing, but the story remained one of the most intensely sober in the realm of Japanese RPGs. Unfortunately, the narrative really lost its way in the fourth and final chapter, where the human villains were replaced by conspiring demons, which the party would almost indifferently eradicate one after another. Moreover, in Final Fantasy Tactics, characters could die permanently in battle or be discharged from the party. In order to accommodate these possibilities, initially significant cast members would withdraw completely from story relevance the moment they joined the party.

Joining Matsuno on the Final Fantasy Tactics team were his Ogre series compatriots, character designer Akihiko Yoshida, art director Hiroshi Minagawa, and composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. Monster and character class designs aside, the game was aesthetically far more evocative of previous Ogre games than of Final Fantasy.

The martial soundtrack was probably my favorite PS1 game score. Sakimoto would become one of the stars of the Japanese video game music scene, even becoming the first composer to succeed Nobuo Uematsu as primary composer of the Final Fantasy mother ship. In my opinion, however, he was at his best when working alongside Iwata on the earlier Matsuno titles. Interestingly, Sakimoto and Iwata did not really collaborate on specific tracks, but compared to the wild inconsistency of Final Fantasy X, Tactics possessed a far more unified sound, as its two composers managed to maintain a consistent theme and mood. Playing the game, it was hard to tell which tracks were composed by Sakimoto, and which by Iwata.

Final Fantasy Tactics was notorious for its translation, which gets my vote as the worst Japanese-to-English video game localization of all time, surpassing Zero Wing or any of that classic SNK-grish. Whereas Zero Wing was a fairly forgotten shoot 'em up that only much later gained notoriety when the Internet rediscovered the poorly translated intro included only in the European release of the Sega Master System version, Final Fantasy Tactics was actually a major title from arguably the biggest Japanese third-party of the time, with a dense story conveyed primarily through text. Yet, at its worst, the Final Fantasy Tactics translation was just as blatantly awful as Zero Wing's.

In actuality, it was obvious that there were different people responsible for translating different parts of Final Fantasy Tactics. The cut scene dialogue was generally clear and concise. Meanwhile, the B-team had evidently been assigned to translating menus, item descriptions, and other peripheral text. One key story battle opened by naming the win condition as "Defeat Dycedarg's elder brother!" when, in fact, Dycedarg was himself the eldest Beoulve brother, as well as the target. Errors cropped up frequently in descriptions for the "proposition" side quests. These were optional assignments that would be posted at town pubs. They were not playable, but you could send out units to earn experience and items on their own. The lengthy postings were prone to sloppy errors, including inconsistent gender and number (an "it" becoming a "them"), as well as erratic renderings of proper nouns ("Wojiris" and "Warjilis") within a single screen of text.

Worst of all, however, was the in-game tutorial by Professor Daravon. This was hands-down the most absurd tutorial mode ever included in a video game. Nothing this guy said even remotely made sense. It's quite possible that the translators for this mode had never themselves played this or any other game. It's also very likely that they had only a limited grasp of English. Not only would Daravon use completely different terminology than what was actually in the game, but at times he seemed to be using a different form of English altogether, hence the following pointers:
  • "Move is your moving ability. You can move on a panel, the face value of the Move."
  • "Bigger attacking power means bigger damage you can give."
  • "'Learn' learns Ability."
  • "This was the darkened Items won't appear."
Consequently, Daravon's lessons made for a mode that existed seemingly entirely just to dispense zany video game quotes.

For that first chapter, Final Fantasy Tactics was nearly a perfect game, excelling in both script and mechanics. If the narrative faltered near the end, the gameplay remained the strongest of any title bearing the Final Fantasy name. The Tactics Ogre-inspired grid-based combat brought the same engaging chess-like quality as the best strategy RPGs, but the Final Fantasy elements--the deep character classes and diverse skill sets--were no less integral to the game's success. More emergent and less cutthroat than, say, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, thanks to its high level of customization, remained an incomparably addicting experience long after Matsuno's story ran out of steam.

Additional Information

Following Final Fantasy Tactics, Matsuno also set his other Square-Enix projects--Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Final Fantasy XII--in his world of Ivalice, although he drew no overt connections across stories. That task would fall to those who took over after his split from Square-Enix. Among other titles, the resulting "Ivalice Alliance" campaign included a 2007 port of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PlayStation Portable.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions was an enhanced port that added in several cel-shaded cinematic sequences, a few guest characters from other Ivalice titles, and side missions that actually gave some new purpose to old party members. On the downside, the port suffered from audio and performance issues, which was puzzling, given that the PSP's built-in emulator was already quite capable of running the PS1 version of the game.

Although not handled by Alexander O. Smith, The War of the Lions featured a brand new translation that imitated the heavy-handed, pseudo-Elizabethan style of Smith's work on Vagrant Story and FFXII.

I'm rather of two minds about that. I had played through Vagrant Story hoping for something as good as Tactics, but, while I could appreciate things about it on a technical level, I personally never found the game nor its localization as charming as some fans had. By contrast, the hilariously bad text of the original Final Fantasy Tactics had, over time, become all charm. I feel it's something that must be preserved in all its badness. And, again, the original translation was actually fine where it most counted. When it was lucid, it was even quite potent. By comparison, the needless verbosity of the new translation often strips dialogue of power and clarity.

I suppose, however, if you're going to change anything, you had better have the conviction to go all the way. In that light, The War of the Lions could be taken as offering a fresh experience, rather than just attempting to play to veterans' nostalgia.


Czardoz said...

The story behind the story is how long it took for the "green label" Greatest Hits edition of Tactics to come out (yes, we call it "Tactics"). And how for years, larcenous shysters tried to extort sums of up to $200 for used copies of the original "black label" game. The release of the Greatest Hits at a price point of $19.99 was one of the greatest moments in the consumer history of gaming.

Compared to Final Fantasy VI, with which it shared the "story gets flushed" problem partway through the narrative, the sudden cessation of character development in Tactics was more disappointing. FFVI at least provided moments for each of the characters. Each of the journeys to retrieve one of the characters in the World of Ruin was essentially that character's final contribution to the story, and a nice way to turn the spotlight on each of them. You were collecting characters up until the final dungeon, so there was always something new, in terms of character development. Tactics front-loaded all the characters' events, so that you were left using a team of god-like non-entities for a lengthy final stretch of the game.

What disappointed me just as much was that what character development existed wasn't always satisfying. Agrias and Mustadio were fleshed-out characters, but later additions like Meliadoul, Reis, and Beowulf seemed to get short-changed. All had something like a side story, but it never felt complete to me. And what of Rafa and Malak? Why were they even there?

And did you know that Mustadio's last name was Bunansa?

Henry said...

"And what of Rafa and Malak? Why were they even there?"

Neither should've been here! Should've been fl-- Oh wait, I already posted that screenshot.