a review of Final Fantasy Tactics A2
a videogame developed by square-enix
and published by square-enix
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
In all the official writings, the title of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 is written as Final Fantasy Tactics A2. Anyone who’s played the previous game in this now-two-game “series” knows that the “A” stands for “Advance”, because the first game was called Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. That game was produced by videogame legend Yasumi Matsuno. It was also for Gameboy Advance. The sequel is neither produced by Yasumi Matsuno, nor is it for Gameboy Advance. Though games are generally better on the Nintendo DS than they were on the Gameboy Advance, and generally worse when they’re not produced by Yasumi Matsuno, weirdly, neither of these things make the game in question exponentially better or worse.
The most interesting thing about this game, if you’re forced to talk about it, is probably its branding. Square-Enix’s business model has come to feel more like a big tobacco company than a videogame developer, these days. In 2007, the mega-publisher is releasing a staggering fourteen Final Fantasy products, all of them belonging to the “Final Fantasy 20th Anniversary” brand, some of them belonging to the “Final Fantasy VII 10th Anniversary” brand, and some of them belonging to the somewhat conceptually hilarious “Final Fantasy XI 5th Anniversary” brand. The Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series, in which three titles were announced this year, oddly doesn’t get its own brand. You’d think that, by now, they’d be slightly ashamed of the fact that almost every game they release has a title that begins with the same two words. Why not call them Crystal Chronicles: Final Fantasy? “Crystal Chronicles” is a pleasant, striking combination of words. I guess someone in the company isn’t willing to let anyone mention taking a risk until he finishes having his new mansion built. Or maybe not: the Wii-exclusive download-only Crystal Chronicles game’s title is going to begin with seven whole words preceding the words “Final Fantasy” — The Little King and the Promised Country: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, is what they’re calling it. I guess someone was able to slap together a pitch-perfect PowerPoint presentation detailing that it’s okay to bury the keywords in the middle of the title so long as that title includes two colons. You know, there used to be a time this company was proud of their own name, where customers were trusted enough to buy the games because of the maker’s logo on the box. I wonder what happened.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 belongs to the “Ivalice Alliance” brand, in which three other titles were also released this year: Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War, a remake of the original Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, a pleasant-enough, stupidly simple strategy game for the Nintendo DS, and Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System, which might be the worst subtitle they’ve ever put on a game. I mean, seriously, they’re mentioning one of the most absolutely technical aspects of the game, right there in the title. Final Fantasy Tactics A2 also belongs, of course, to the “Final Fantasy Tactics” brand, which I suppose is a sub-brand of the “Ivalice Alliance” brand, unless they decide some day to make a Tactics game with Crystal Chronicles characters in it. That would be amazing. That would be hilarious. Either way, I wouldn’t put it past them. At any rate, slap a “Final Fantasy 20th Anniversary” sticker on the box, and here you have it: a triple-branded game, by Square-Enix, which is kind of like a fourth brand, kind of like a pseudo-brand. How can it not sell at least a quarter million copies?
As what it is — branded, polished, focus-tested — it’s pretty much a perfect little package. The graphics are almost overwhelmingly pleasant, with rich colors and delicious little animations. The music, by Kenji Ito (probably the best (capitalized) Game Music Composer in the world right now), is fascinating: he took Hitoshi Sakimoto’s iconic Final Fantasy Tactics jams and somehow mated them with Italian 1950s pre-proto-pop, little dinging bells and all. The arrangements are literally miraculous. And then there are the sound effects — I swear to god, I’d thought for the longest time that Square’s menu cursor sound effect was perfect, and that they’d be fools to mess with it. Well, FFTA2 messes with it, and the results are gaspingly gorgeous. If you’re anything like me, you will find yourself — figuratively — filled, many times during each battle, with the strong desire to rip the earbuds out of your ears and lick them, expecting honey to be dripping out.
You have a tremendous 56 job classes to choose from this time, some of them total conceptual cop-outs (like “Animal User”, who can use a “Sheep” spell to protect himself with “Wool”, which guards against cold), and others are pretty simply awesome (Fencer, who specializes in thrusting sword attacks that push enemies back). At the end of the day, though, you might wonder why there are three elementary classes (Fencer, Soldier, Warrior) for sword techniques, though hey, they all have different techniques, and it’s pretty cool to learn new techniques.
The back of the box describes this game as “A pick-up-and-play simulation RPG for all players!” Maybe they should have said “A pick-up-and-play simulation RPG for all players who know what ‘RPG’ stands for”. Maybe that would have taken up too much precious real estate on the back of the box, though hey, maybe they could have spared it: the back of the box is mostly text, anyway, with only one actual screenshot of the game at play. The other two (tiny) screenshots show a dialogue in one of the many towns’ many bars and the hecking map screen. Yeah, good work, there.
This weird shame is confusing, because A2 is a much better game, as far as games go, than its predecessor. This is funny, because the first one was, you know, actually directed by an actual genius. Geniuses make weird decisions sometimes, I guess: the first game ditched the brilliant (and now simulation-RPG standard) “Active Time” turn-based battle system in favor of a “player side attacks, enemy side attacks” style. This type of battle system, as present in Matsuno’s Tactics Ogre, wasn’t so bad because it gave us a peculiar sensation: go to the bathroom (or cook an omelette) while the enemy side is attacking, and then come back into the living room, where the game screen has changed, either drastically or subtly. Sit down, pick up the controller, and feel something like a forensics expert as you plan your strategy. This didn’t work so well when the game console is something you carry around in your hands. The reinstatement of the AT system, now without a name — now just something that is — works wonders for FFTA2. Each battle is a polished, cute little challenge. The battlefields sometimes feel a little bit flat, which is a real shame: at last, the ability to push an opponent back one square is a lot more executable, and there just aren’t enough heights to knock the enemies down from. I suppose the flat battlefields are on account of the game’s not being presented in actual, rotatable 3D. Why isn’t it in 3D, though? The Dragon Quest IV remake for DS, from what I could tell at Tokyo Game Show, handles 3D exceptionally well, if in a “Porno for Pixelantes” kind of way.
Moreover, why doesn’t this game support touch screen controls at all? It seems like an amazing omission to me. I suppose to controller-only inputs are clean and simple enough — press the L and R buttons during battle to zip between enemy targets when targeting spells, or press them while in free-targeting mode to peruse each troop on the battlefield, in the order that they’re going to attack. Though really, some people like the pointing and clicking. It’s really weird — the window size and fonts seem optimized for touching with a stylus. Though maybe they cut out stylus controls because that way you wouldn’t be able to hear that delicious cursor sound so much. The game includes an option to set the “main screen” as the top or the bottom, though, and I guess couldn’t do that with touch-screen controls.
The most glaring omission in this game — and it glares pretty ferociously — is the multiplayer. The back of the box says that players can “Enjoy wireless play with a friend!” It also says that the friend needs a copy of the game — this must mean . . . yes, that there are multiplayer battles! In a Final Fantasy Tactics game! On the DS, a system my friends actually own and play! I figured that multiplayer battles were a shoe-in, seeing as the battle system has been reverted to the glory of the original FFT‘s AT. I mean, no one would want to play a two-player competitive battle if it was the old “one side attacks, other side attacks” system, yeah? And this is the Nintendo DS, the home of the eight-million-selling Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. And the, uhh, half-million selling Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Square-Enix knows that players love to play together. They’ve already got the most intensive co-op RPG-esque experience on the system; why not go for the monopoly on awesome versus strategy, as well?
Well, a quick tear through the instruction manual will leave you cursing like a sailor: it’s hecking Item Trading. No versus mode for you — you’ll have to buy the PSP Final Fantasy Tactics remake, and then convince your friends to all buy PSPs, jackass. Man, what a rip-off. I guess, ultimately, Square-Enix didn’t want to cannibalize their own sales. Which makes about as much sense as, well, it doesn’t. This is where the in-branding becomes interesting again: “Traditional” FFT and FFT “Advance” are two different sub-sub-brands within one sub-brand (FFT) of another sub-brand (“Ivalice Alliance”) within the “Final Fantasy” brand. If they share too many features — despite the fact that they’re on different consoles — then the publisher will be philosophically defeated. And we wouldn’t want that — otherwise we’d never get that remake of Final Fantasy VII!
Speaking of remakes of Final Fantasy VII: the same in-breeding apparent in every other recent Square-Enix release is oozing out of the corners of Final Fantasy Tactics A2. It should be a given at this point, I guess: remember Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Gameboy Advance, in which Sora, the hero of Kingdom Hearts, a PlayStation 2 game about Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters meeting and having long philosophical discussions and legally constricted brawls with blunt objects, forgets the events of the previous canonical game, and must relive them in portable game form by using an artifact called the “Chain of Memories”. Flash forward to Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix for PlayStation 2, which includes the entirety of Chain of Memories, now upgraded to look and play like the PlayStation 2 that originally inspired it. Copies of copies of copies of copies — that’s what suffices for blockbuster material these days. Well, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is pretty much just a cover band of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance — it’s so busy trying to be the exact same game that it ends up completely missing the point.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a gentle, slow-moving little game, and as such, it was enjoyable. The tutorial, which should be more famous than it is, involved characters having a snowball fight. When these real-world characters got transported into the Final Fantasy universe, things got more mortal, though the sense of innocence never quite lifted. It added up to a quirky kind of pleasant aura. In the Final Fantasy world, our young hero joins a “clan” of warriors, takes “missions”, and fights “battles” in order to raise his reputation. The game plays out in episodes. Take a mission, fight the battle, save the game, get off the train, et cetera. A story (and one with a weirdly powerful moral message), however, comes creeping slowly in, and that story unfolds as we take more missions, fight more battles, and get off more trains.
FFT-A2 is essentially the same game, without the creeping story. A young boy, while serving detention in the library on the eve of his school summer vacation, is sucked into an old book. Now he joins a clan led by a man named Cid (absolute earliest-ever appearance of Cid in a Final Fantasy game: check), and goes off on an adventure! By “adventure” I mean he takes on missions at identical pubs in identical cities all around the world. He revels boyishly in the logistics of combat. “Wow! Earning new job-specific abilities and then equipping them while in another job class is fun!” There’s a weird kind of Pokemon-esque sheen covering the whole thing, and it might even be more disturbing — though only because it’s a bit harder to place — than the plucky main character in Advance Wars, grinning and saying “Cool! Tanks are super-strong against infantry!” after witnessing a battalion of cartoon tanks wiping out a hundred men on foot. At times, as you start and finish your fiftieth or hundredth battle and still no story pokes its head out of the ground, as the main character continues to expresses profound interest in the book-keeping elements of raising an army, it starts to feel like maybe this isn’t an RPG after all. Maybe it’s a middle-school pre-primer for one of those business-manners-training games that are flooding the market these days, with some critical thinking exercises (strategic battles) thrown in for good measure.
This microthin story facade doesn’t change the fact that the game sparkles when it comes down to dudes fighting dudes. With 56 job classes (for God’s sake!) and a total of twenty-four soldiers in your reserve army, it’s very flexible and very open to experimentation. Taken one mission at a time, played like a board game, it’s a heck of a polished package — and some of the battles are pretty tough. That there’s no versus mode, however, is a crippling flaw that cannot be ignored. You’d think that, you know, when the game is so light on story and loose with regards to structure, that a versus mode would just be a given. Oh well. I will continue to raise my job levels in horrible solitude, with nothing human to fling my made men against. There certainly exist many worse things to do on the train.