No strings attached
Available on: Nintendo DS
The original Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a bit of a UFO in the Final Fantasy series. Yes, it was similar to Final Fantasy Tactics in terms of gameplay, yes, it featured moogles, chocobos and a Cid, but that was where the similarities stopped. The game was set in a modern-day world, for a start, and I don’t know if it was just me, but I was thoroughly weirded out at seeing that kind of setting in an FF game. Then, there were the storyline and characters: the latter were mostly uninteresting schoolchildren in silly outfits, and the former broke some kind of fourth wall, as it was trying to prove that retreating to a fantasy world in order to escape your problems was not a solution. Not exactly the best way to sell a fantasy game, as I’m sure you’ll concur. Basically, the one real perk was its combat system.
For some reason, Square Enix has since decided to make a sequel to this game, a puzzling decision if there ever was one, as it wasn’t exactly the biggest of hits. Yet, here we are, and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (sure is a mouthful) is a true successor to its ancestor, as it keeps the exact same formula that ensured its ‘success’. The characters are just as unlikable as before (*slaps Adelle a couple of times*) and just as ridiculously dressed. The cast also includes a plethora of cameos from FFXII: Vaan and Penelo (*groan*), Montblanc and his brother Hurdy, and Al-Cid, the only mildly entertaining one. The storyline is, once again, pretty much nonexistent: a boy is grounded at school for being late and sent to tidy up the library. There he finds an old book, and for lack of anything better to do, decides to write his name in it (thus idiotically designating himself for subsequent punishment for defacing school property). This has the effect of whisking him off to another world, where he joins a clan (basically a group of adventurers), and all he has to do to go back home is…explore and have fun. Yep, that’s it. There are tangential storylines interspersed with this morass, but they are largely independent from each other and from the greater scheme of things. So once again, that just leaves the combat system to save the day.
Luckily, that is what the game does best. For those who are familiar with FFTA, you’ll feel right at home. The characters are still supremely customisable: each can take on a variety of jobs, which are still determined by her/his race, but there are now more jobs for each race, and two more races: Seeq, the aesthetically challenged pig-people from FFXII, and Gria, a dragon-like, seemingly exclusively female race previously not featured in any Ivalice game. The characters can still summon super-strong creatures after performing a certain amount of successful actions in battle, but instead of having only five, you now get the whole set of thirteen from FFXII, probably in a bid to make them more familiar–and thus, more likeable–to the player base, with variable success. Thus, Ultima (damages all enemies and fully heals all allies) and Shemhazai (guaranteed 999 damage to one enemy, if used by a character who has been dealing a lot of damage throughout the game) are now officially awesome, while Zodiark is for the gambling, suicidal type (50% chance of dealing 999 damage to enemies and allies).
Combat is still regulated by laws: special rules determined at the beginning of the skirmish, which no participant (enemy or ally) is technically allowed to break and which are enforced by judges. However, the former are more lenient than in FFTA, and there is a lower penalty for breaking them: no one goes to jail, the fallen combatants are simply not allowed to be revived for the duration of that battle. Luso’s clan also has its own beneficial laws it can use, which it can unlock by performing Clan Trials of variable difficulty. These Trials also grant the clan titles. The higher tier titles lower the prices of items, but also make new recruits want to join. The Bazaar system, which allows Luso to sell loot to have shopkeepers create new equipment, also makes a comeback from FFXII and works quite well. The territorial system has been improved, as you no longer have to build the world map from scratch and hope that you’ll get some good treasures out of it (a truly TERRIBLE idea from the first FFTA); the map is now predetermined and subdivided into regions around the main towns. The clan also no longer needs to constantly defend its turf from the attacks of other clans. Instead, control of a region is auctioned off at a certain time each year. If the clan gains control of one whole region, it keeps that status permanently, which means that, not only can the territory never be taken away, but also that the auction for that region will now allow the clan to acquire rare items.
In short, it’s all good fun…until you get bogged down by the sheer number of missions. Just like in the original FFTA, they number 300 all told, both mandatory and optional. Fortunately, you can now keep track of with a grid, something you couldn’t do in FFTA. On top of that, you have some random encounters (monsters or disgruntled clans who are pissed off at Luso for winning an auction), as well as an optional dungeon called Brightmoon Tor, which, in the purest tradition of optional dungeons, is a tower composed of some 40 floors filled with very nasty enemies, but also some nifty treasure to make it worth your while. My point, though, is that this abundance of material is an artificial way to lengthen gameplay. Sure, it’s fun for the first 10-20 hours or so, but when you realise just how many more missions you have to go through after you reach the 50 hour mark, a distinct feeling of discouragement sets in. I’m currently finishing up Brightmoon Tor and the last ‘secret’ mission of the game (it’s not counted on your mission roster, so technically, it means that there are 301 missions total), and my timer has gleefully skipped over the 160 hour mark. And I really wish I were kidding. Don’t be surprised if, after a while, you find yourself wondering “wait…so where was the storyline going already?” Or maybe you won’t. Because, in the wonderful words of l33t-speak: lolstoryline.
So it all boils down to this: if you want a game with no strings attached (no caring about characters or what happens next), something you can pick up whenever you want a bit of fun tactical fighting, FFTA2 is pretty much perfect and will last you a VERY long time. If, however, you like to have some storyline meat on the bones of your gameplay and don’t fancy getting lost in oodles of mindless missions…you might want to reconsider. Scratch that: get another game, full stop.