This isn’t an easy game, especially on your first playthrough, when you don’t know what to expect in storyline battles. A bad combination of jobs can easily turn the tide against you, and there will be situations where the RNG will simply decide to screw you over, whether it be trying to revive a dead character on time, landing an ability or getting a rare piece of equipment smashed. I can only advise you to save whenever possible – you can do this on the world map or between consecutive storyline battles –, and if something goes very wrong, just reload. In fact, some of the storyline battles will probably prove more challenging than Altima/Ultima (the final boss) whom I honestly don’t recall having much trouble with.
The other problem with Altima/Ultima is the same as with, say, Zemus or Dark Cloud/Cloud of Darkness: appearing way too late in the story to have much of an impact. Especially since Final Fantasy Tactics holds the dubious distinction of being the single most villain-populated game in the series. I mean, just about everyone has nefarious intentions. On the one hand, you have the entire political system of Ivalice. On the other hand, you have occult beings called the Lucavi, who basically represent signs of the Zodiac. So a last-minute villain is that much more likely to get lost in the crowd. Heck, ask anybody who’s played the game, and they probably won’t name Altima/Ultima as the main villain. The person they are likely to name, however, is a very good example of ambiguous characterisation, so props to the writers for creating him that way.
The two main groups of villains create another problem: there are two major storyline strands in the game, each dealing more or less with one of the groups, and while they are ultimately related, the overall impression at the end is that they coexist separately. To the extent that, while Ramza & co. may successfully deal with one part of the problem, they can’t do much about the other part, which lends a very ambivalent atmosphere to the ending. Like you’ve won, but not really. Then again, considering what you know – or actually don’t – about Ramza at the very beginning of the game, this isn’t really surprising. It is, however, both frustrating and refreshing at the same time: it’s not often that a game will choose to deal with a hero whose deeds go largely unnoticed, despite being genuinely heroic.
As far as optional superbosses are concerned, you have Elidib(u)s, who resides at the bottom of the Deep Dungeon/Midlight’s Deep, a ten-level chasm which becomes accessible towards the end of the storyline. He’s appropriately challenging, but then so is the entire damn dungeon. Each level is named in association with Apocalypse Now, for some reason. Possibly because Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness, and the Deep Dungeon/Midlight’s Deep primary characteristic is…darkness. When you initially enter a map, you won’t be able to see your surroundings. Just your characters and the enemies on a pitch black screen. The only way to get a feel for the topography at first is to move your cursor around the tiles. To get some light, you need to kill an enemy and wait for them to turn to crystal. Each additional crystal will then light up the area some more. But defeating the enemies isn’t enough: you also need to find the exit to the next floor, which is randomly located at several possible spots. This should be your priority once you’ve thinned the enemy ranks, because if you kill everything before locating the exit, you’ll have to redo the map in question. Additionally, each map holds several hidden treasures, including some of the best equipment in the game, which is why a party member with low Brave(ry) and Move-Find Item/Treasure Hunter is essential at that point.
The game has a semi-linear structure. It’s divided into several chapters, with some time gaps occurring in between, indicated by Ramza’s outfit changes, but you have some latitude within the chapters themselves as to when and what you can do. Time passes as you travel (one day between each location), as indicated by the in-game calendar at the top of the screen. This is reflected in the characters’ ages, which you can check up on under the Brave Story/Chronicle heading in the main menu. It also includes a story summary, historical and biographical info, all of which gradually changes to reflect storyline events and can help to keep track of what’s going on.
There is no set time for completing the storyline, so you can do whatever you like in between storyline battles. In Chapter 1, it’s limited to learning job abilities with random encounters. Chapter 2 brings in bar propositions/errands for your generic units, Chapter 3 unlocks poaching and Chapter 4 allows you to go on a long sidequest arc which will net you Beowulf, Reis, Worker 8/Construct 8 and Cloud, provided you still have Mustadio in your party at that point.
Your main means of…well, getting anything done is the World Map. Locations are designated by three types of dots: red, green and blue. Red dots signal storyline progression, usually with an obligatory battle. Green dots signal outdoor areas, and there is a 50% chance of a random encounter when your party moves over them. The enemy lineup will vary, as will your party’s positioning, depending on which direction they enter the area from, as already mentioned. Blue dots represent cities or castles and they usually don’t feature battles (with some exceptions). Outside of cutscenes, you can’t actually roam the streets, but you do have access to a number of services via the menu: a Shop/Outfitter, a Soldier Office, a Bar/Tavern and a Fur Shop/Poacher’s Den (in trading cities only).
The Shop/Outfitter sells equipment and items. In castles, they sell heavy armour and weapons, while in cities, it’s mage gear. Also, their stocks will be renewed in each chapter. One word of advice: beware the Best Fit option in the shop menu, because the game has its own ideas on what the best gear is: e.g. giving helmets which increase HP, but decrease MP to mages. You can also safely ignore axes, handbags and flails: their attack power may be good, but their damage output is randomised. And handbags are usually stupidly expensive. Also note that armour and helmets don’t actually affect a character’s defence, only their HP/MP, and shields only affect evasion.
The Soldier Office allows you to recruit generic units and change their names if you so desire, as well as the names of any monsters in the party. Obviously, recruitment costs money, and, due to their equipment, male units cost 100g more than female ones. Which is ironic, considering all the female-exclusive swag you can pick up, which arguably makes female units a better choice.
The Fur Shop/Poacher’s Den is where the party sends its poached monster pelts to be made into items, but you can only enter them if you have Secret Hunt/Poach equipped on one of your characters.
The Bar/Tavern can be visited in Chapter 1 to hear in-game rumours. However, starting from Chapter 2, you’ll have access to propositions/errands that you can send your characters on. Only generic characters are eligible (this includes Rad/Ladd, Alicia and Lavian), and you can send up to three of them for the number of days of your choice within the bracket indicated on the proposition/errand description. They will temporarily leave the party and become unavailable for combat. You can check on their status at any time in the menu. When they return (you have to come pick them up in the city where you started the proposition/errand from) and if they are successful, they’ll have earned EXP, JP in their currently equipped job, some money, or, sometimes, a Treasure/Artifact or an Unexplored Land/Wonder (usually throwbacks to previous FF games). You’ll get more money the more characters you send and the longer you send them off for. A handful of propositions/errands are only available on certain months, but you can always complete them when that month rolls back around, if you miss them.
Success on a proposition/errand depends on a certain number of factors. Alas, none of them are made explicit in the game. First of all, your characters’ jobs. The bar owner/tavernmaster may give you a hint while giving you a proposition/errand description. If you don’t get it, you could always cancel the proposition/errand in question and keep selecting it until the hint does occur. Keep in mind, however, that this hint is only one possible job that’s good for the proposition/errand. Each proposition/errand also has a ‘joker’ job of sorts, which automatically raises the chances of success. Some propositions/errands are also based on Brave/Bravery and Faith. Any character that fits these criteria will receive more JP, and the more characters fit the bill, the more money you’ll receive overall as a reward.
Propositions/errands are the best way of learning abilities from jobs you wouldn’t normally touch with a given (generic) character. Like mage jobs on male units or Calculator/Arithmetician (unfortunately, this won’t work for Reis, since she’s a unique character). Of course, this may conflict with the best requirements for a given proposition/errand, but it’s not a big deal. Sure, you may get a lesser bonus for sending the jobs you need rather than the optimal ones, but the difference isn’t drastic. Worst case scenario: you fail the proposition/errand. You’ll still receive some money and some EXP and JP, and you’ll be able to retry it later, at your leisure. So really, it’s a no-lose situation.