Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
System: GBA :: Rating: Everyone :: Players: 1-2
Genre: RPG :: Released: 08 September 2003
By Michael David Sims
07 February 2005 — Fifty-seven hours and nine minutes. Let me repeat that. Fifty-seven hours and nine minutes. That's how long it took me to beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but by no means am I even close to being done. Having cleared 180 of the 300 missions and 20 of the 30 areas, I expect at least another 50 hours of gameplay before everything is complete. (Never mind actually leveling my guys up to 99.)
Hands down, this is the longest I've ever played a game. It's also the most dedication I've ever put into a title. Frankly, I'll play a game for a few hours, set it down, play another, come back to the first, set it down again, try my hand at a third, go back to the second and then maybe go back to the first to finish it off. But with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance that all changed. This is the only game I've played since late January.
I know me. I know if I put it down — even for a short while — I wouldn't have come back to it for a long, long time (if at all), and chances are all my hours spent moving the avatars around the battlefield would have been wasted. Frankly, I had to beat (note that I didn't say "finish") this game. Not necessarily so I could provide all of you with a complete review, but because I'm trying to get into the Final Fantasy series.
As a gamer — as the publisher of a site such as this and as the Multimedia Editor of PopMatters.com — I felt like a phony having never played a single Final Fantasy title. So some months back — right around the end of December would be my guess — I took the gift cards given to me for Christmas and used them to purchase Final Fantasy X, X-2 and Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. (Despite having never played a Final Fantasy title before now, I already owned VII, VIII and IX. Most likely this is because I was told I was supposed to like them — that they were games I needed to play — so though I never had the intention of actually, you know, playing them, I dropped the cash for the epics.)
Now, being the type of guy I am — obsessive — I decided I would play the games in order, starting with Dawn of Souls. This, I felt, would immerse me completely and linearly into the world of Final Fantasy. Instead of starting with VII — as many people did — working my up to X-2 and then starting over with Dawn of Souls, I wanted to start where the series did so I could experience everything hardcore gamers have been clamoring about for decades. And that's exactly what I did.
However, it wasn't long before I grew tired of and found myself confused by the first chapter of Dawn of Souls, and set it aside. Despite this setback in my quest to enjoy the Final Fantasy series, I didn't give up. But it did raise a tough question: If Dawn of Souls is boring me, how am I to continue this little experiment of mine? The answer, of course, came in the form of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Having played (and loved) Advance Wars, I was already familiar with turn-based strategy gaming. So I thought maybe Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (which, at the time, I thought was a port of the old PlayStation title) would serve as a better primer into the Fantasy series than, say, an update of the very first game.
As it turns out, I was both right and wrong.
How I Was Wrong: While the game is very much an epic, the story is, shall I say, lacking. Basically, four children and one adult are the only ones who seem to realize that they're sleepy little burg has been transformed into something from another world. And only one of them — your avatar — realizes that they've been transported into a world straight out of the Final Fantasy games. In this, the game breaks down the fourth wall. This alone saps some of the suspense from it all, because if this is simply a game — or at least a game world — where's the danger? It serves to remind us — the players — that we can reset it at anytime — usually after losing a decisive battle or being sent to jail — and all will be right again.
But never mind that. What matters here, story-wise, is how slowly it all progresses. You will fight dozens of battles (even repeating some) and face the same clans over and over and over again before being treated to another cutscene. And while I begrudge the game for this, I do understand the slow pace. Imagine heading into the final battle after only 20 hours of gameplay. Your little squad wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell.
The problem with this — and this is why I "begrudge the game" — is that the cutscenes are too spread apart. While gameplay is fun and somewhat addicting, you come to realize just how repetitive it all is. By placing cutscenes closer together (or adding more), gamers will happily plod along from one battle to the next — so long as we feel like we're advancing the story. Sadly, it becomes painfully evident that we are not, but instead that we're pawns trapped in this game world — much like the five fated characters — simply going through the motions until the game feels we're leveled-up enough to face the next big challenge. There were many times I felt like throwing the Nintendo DS through the bedroom window. Not because I wasted my money, but because the fun was gone and I became frustrated with the monotony of it all.
While many gamers — especially those accustomed with other RPGs and, more specifically, the Final Fantasy titles — might find it exciting to level-up all 24 members of your clan (making sure everyone can dutifully perform every job), I found that all one needed to do was make sure six characters were properly armed and leveled. More specifically, battles can easily be won with nothing more than a few swordsmen (soldiers, fighters, ninjas) for close-quarters combat, and a black mage (maybe an illusionist too) and an archer to strike from a distance. That's it. And, frankly, the archer is somewhat limited in the amount of damage he can inflict, so adding another tough black mage into the mix isn't a bad idea.
As you progress throughout the game (and your clan and wallet expands) you find that certain races and classes — especially white mages — just aren't worth the trouble. So one by one, you turn them away as they ask for membership into your exclusive club. Rarely did I find myself admitting new members, if only because I knew I wasn't going to swap them into the tight little group I was using so frequently to easily win battles. Frankly, why add a white mage (who more often than not can be knocked out with one well-aimed shot, often before his turn) when I have over one million gil (RE: money) and can purchases countless elixirs and potions?
Another thing to note is that the characters are self-regenerating. Unlike my experiences with Dawn of Souls (and maybe this changes in later Fantasy titles), each character regained their full health (HP) and magical powers (MP) between battles without depleting my cache of the previously mentioned potions and elixirs. And while this is very convenient (especially for newer players, such as myself), it often made the game too easy. Not only could I send the same six guys into battle every time, but I was secure in knowing that they would be at full strength and health when the time came to fight again. So, really, I found that my bottomless pile of potions was pretty useless. Thanks to strikes that could deliver defeat with one hit, rarely did I find my characters in need of extra health.
Speaking of the characters (and this ties back into the story), they are the most unintentionally shallow and unlikable bunch I have ever seen assembled. One is a crybaby and is responsible for the mess everyone is in; another doesn't want to go back to the real world because (there) she has white hair (here it's permanently red) and is sick of dying it every morning (of course they give such motivation to a girl); another turns on his brother (you) because he feels his sibling has everything; and your avatar is as indecisive as Two-Face. This alone nearly halted my gameplay. Frankly, if I find that I can't connect to a character (especially the main character), I'll put the game down. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was different only because I'm on a quest to play through the entire series, and so I needed to finish this thing off.
Lastly (and then I'll move onto the good aspects of the game, I swear), is the music. From my understanding, the Final Fantasy games (especially the newer titles) are beautifully scored. In fact, the music is so renowned, a concert featuring it was recently held in Rosemont, Illinois. If this is the case, why did Tactics Advance have but a handful of songs? (Don't blame the hardware; the GameBoy Advance is a powerful machine that's more than capable of allowing a broader selection of music.) That's not to say the music was grating or in any way, shape or form not beautifully fitting to the game; it's simply that it became just as repetitive as the game itself.
How I Was Right: If there's one thing I knew about the Fantasy games before I ever purchased or dared to play them, it's that they are timesucks to the Nth degree. So my 50+ hours of gameplay wasn't a big surprise. It simply served to reinforce what I already knew, and, in an odd way, whetted my appetite for my inevitable return to Dawn of Souls. (There's something oddly fulfilling about wasting that much time with a game; it somehow makes you feel like you've accomplished something, even in a game that forces you to go "through the motions.")
More than that, however, I have a better understanding of the turn-based battle system the Final Fantasy titles employ. Not that there's much to it, but it taught me how to protect my black mages who, while physically weak, are valuable assets when it comes to winning battles. In addition to all that, I finally see the need to keep your characters well-armed. Many times I found that equipping a new sword — even one that was only stronger by one or two points — is what turned the tide of battle in my favor.
In the End: So thanks to a forcibly drawn-out story that involved displaced (and unlikable) earthlings and little understanding of exactly why I should bother leveling-up certain characters/classes, I came to realize that, while Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was worth the money, it wasn't the best primer into the Final Fantasy world. That's not to say it's a poor game — I did just say it's "worth the money" — it's just that it won't be for everyone, especially those who are accustomed to instant/run-and-gun action.
Score: 7 of 10