Final Fantasy VII is one of my favorite games of all time. I could write a long article about why and how, but suffice it to say, after I’d played it, I could not have been more eager for Final Fantasy VIII. Imagine my surprise when that wasn’t the next game in the Final Fantasy series.
I suppose it was, technically. But the next Final Fantasy that came out on the PlayStation in the US, in the beginning of 1998, wasn’t Final Fantasy VIII. It was a game called Final Fantasy Tactics.
I had never played a tactical role-playing game before, just your standard menu-based JRPGs. I didn’t play chess, or any game that I would really call a strategy game. Needless to say, I was dubious. But hadn’t Final Fantasies VI and VII been fantastic, at least in my opinion? Wasn’t this worth a try, even though it wasn’t going to be the Final Fantasy experience I’d grown accustomed to?
In short, yes. Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite games ever. Yes, it wasn’t perfect; its gameplay wasn’t always well balanced, it had crazy difficulty spikes, its level design was at times truly terrible, and the job-leveling system was very exploitable, allowing the player to achieve god-like power to make the game trivially easy (a divisive issue certainly, I loved this, some people hated it).
It also had an incredibly detailed world with fascinating lore, memorable heroes and surprisingly well-developed villains, a deep and complex plot, amazingly customizable units and thoughtful, fast-paced battles that make the game’s replay value astronomically high, and a rich, expertly crafted musical score that brought the darkest, most serious Final Fantasy to date to life with stunning care and respect to the tone of the story.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to 1998.
SquareSoft had never made a tactical RPG before. But they’d recently acquired a powerhouse to tackle the job: Yasumi Matsuno, who had designed/directed Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre for Quest, celebrated titles in the genre.
Before that Matsuno was a planner for Conquest of the Crystal Palace, another beloved game from my childhood. He’d go on to develop the world of Ivalice— the fantasy world that began in Final Fantasy Tactics– in future games: Vagrant Story (though he later admitted the Ivalice references in this game were more like fan service), Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Final Fantasy XII. Though he moved on to other projects and companies afterward, Matsuno worked on Final Fantasy XIV’s series of Ivalice raids, and I assure you they were jam-packed with fantastic, wonderful nostalgia.
So what is Ivalice, exactly? It depends on which one of those titles you play, because it’s never a place you recognize from the previous game based in the world. I got a little lost going down the rabbit hole of research, learning about the versions of Ivalice after Final Fantasy Tactics. While it’s always a fascinating place, the original Ivalice of FFT is the one that holds a special place in my heart.
By the way, while going down the research rabbit hole, I learned that the official timeline in the Final Fantasy XII Ultimania Omega– and no, I had no idea these sorts of companion books existed– says that Final Fantasy XII comes before Final Fantasy Tactics. In my opinion, the fact that Square Enix tried to cobble together some kind of timeline for the Ivalice games feels like the Hyrule Historia to me: an attempt to placate fans who insist there must be some kind of chronology even though the games were originally just intended to be re-imaginings of characters, themes, and settings. There’s a Perfect Works or Ultimania companion book for just about every Square Enix game ever made, come to find out, focused on artwork, developer interviews, and background information on the fictional worlds and characters in the games.
But back to Ivalice, the world created by Yasumi Matsuno that began in Final Fantasy Tactics. Normally, characters are the first thing that grab my attention and admiration in a well-told story, not setting. I tend to consider the world a character has adventures in to be mostly a backdrop for the protagonists; basically, the characters of the story shape the world, not the other way around.
The kingdom of Ivalice in Final Fantasy Tactics is different. It is so well-developed in its politics, factions, lore, and history that the characters seem to struggle against the world they live in much more than they had in any RPG I had previously played. The powers that be in the kingdom of Ivalice are oppressive, malevolent, ruthless, and inescapable in a way that no prior Final Fantasy game had managed.
For example, Shinra, the antagonistic corporation that the heroes of Avalanche fight against in Final Fantasy VII, is certainly a force to be reckoned with, especially in the beginning of the game, which takes place exclusively in its place of power, the city of Midgar. I always felt that Midgar was particularly evocative; walking through the squalor of the slums and listening to the soundtrack, the distress and poverty of its citizens– and how tough you had to be to make it there– was vividly and blatantly obvious. The mood was masterfully established.
And yet, to me, “Shinra” was just a name for the evil team. The leaders of Shinra were selfish, greedy, and corrupt, and their filth filtered down to taint the city they ruled. The antagonists that sat around the table at the board meeting were the threat, not the soulless corporation.
Also, the mood of Final Fantasy VII shifts drastically once you set foot outside of Midgar. It literally sits as a dark, dirty spot on a bright landscape. The nearby village of Kalm looks like any other village in a fantasy game, surprisingly untouched by the pollution of Shinra despite the grumbling of its people about Shinra’s evils. The Shinra Corporation has a presence everywhere, and you do spend the game fighting it, but once you leave Midgar, the villains in Shinra all pursue their own agendas, only loosely allied. You can find many allies and havens in the world beyond. After Midgar, FF VII feels like any other fantasy game, albeit an excellent one. The bad guys are out there, sure, but I never felt a pressing sense of anxiety or concern about it, and I don’t feel like FF VII enforced the need for me to feel that way.
Playing Final Fantasy Tactics, however, it felt much more like the whole world was out to get me, like Ivalice itself was waiting to gobble me up. Because let’s get one thing straight here. FFT is a dark game. Allies betray you, enemies join you. Villains devour each other while the supposedly devout and benevolent either stand aside or encourage it. Everyone is waiting for their shot; there are a ton of factions and none of them have any qualms whatsoever about taking advantage of you or anything else. It’s a dog-eat-dog brawl for the throne and the power behind it.
There are very few people you can trust, and you and your chosen few spend the majority of the game swimming against the current. Because you don’t play as a champion beloved and supported by the kingdom here. Oh, no. The bad guys turn the people of Ivalice against you pretty quick. The fate of the world is at stake, all the powers in it are actively opposing and hunting you, and the pressure is palpable. You’re on your own.
The setting of Ivalice and its copious intrigue is fantastic, but the characters and plot are also quite compelling. I’m not going to spoil any plot for you, but I will say the struggles of the hero and the anti-hero, childhood friends, driven apart by what YouTuber Resonant Arc calls in his fantastic Final Fantasy retrospective review “incompatible ideologies,” are nuanced and extremely compelling. In this same review Resonant Arc points out that some people say the heroes in this game don’t have enough development, especially compared to the villains. While he discusses this point eloquently (and I encourage you to head to YouTube to watch him do it), I will add two things:
One, the motivations of the hero and anti-hero are always crystal clear and powerful, even if sometimes they don’t try to accomplish their goals the way you expect. The interplay between these brothers-not-brothers, two men that truly care about each other but cannot co-exist, is both heart-breaking and awe-inspiring. Never have I seen protagonists in a video game pursue their wildly different interests so doggedly, while their personal connection makes their every possible interaction so significant, emotional, and thought-provoking.
Two, if only more games (and stories) lavished so much care on developing their antagonists! True, the supporting cast of heroes doesn’t get a lot of characterization, especially the “secret” ones. There are so many antagonists, and they all have their own goals. Many of them are actually quite sympathetic, especially in the first half of the game, making every death cry of a defeated unit meaningful and potentially sparking a sense of regret.
The nefarious plots of the villains of different factions weave and tangle, but it never feels like they’re all two steps ahead of you all the time, which quickly gets tedious. Sometimes they even make mistakes, or get betrayed before you deal with them yourself, which is occasionally shocking and provides both an authenticity and a seriousness to the plot that is sobering. Anything could happen, and the hero himself doesn’t even always get to find out why things have happened or what’s going on; sometimes you see things as the player that Ramza never finds out, or finds out too late.
I will straight up tell you that the very last cutscene of the game still gives me the shivers. It’s truly shocking, perplexing, and not in that “there-needed-to-be-a-twist-I-guess-but-that-felt-ham-handed-and-unsatisfying” kind of way. It makes you think. The vast majority of the plot makes you think, honestly, you’ll probably be scratching your head about some things long after the final cutscene is over.
I don’t normally delve too much into gameplay in these articles, but I’ll tell you that I loved how broken Final Fantasy Tactics was. You never needed to play the game the same way twice. Do you like self-imposed restrictions? No magic, only magic, only certain characters/classes, low-level runs, etc? There’s plenty of opportunity to do any of that. Do you like to grind out god-like units to crush your opponents into pulp? There are lots of satisfying ways to do that, and the game lets you, which I like. It’s not required to win, but if you want to level up a character in all the magic classes and make them a Calculator to rain practically unlimited carnage on your enemies (and maybe your allies, depending on the math), go for it, the game won’t punish or restrict you.
You get to play this game the way you like, in short. Just don’t forget about the occasionally tragic level design and random difficulty spikes I mentioned earlier! If you’re new to this game, do yourself a favor: have backup saves!
Also, I loved the job system. In 1998, Final Fantasies III and V, the games that featured the system, had not made their way stateside yet. I’d played the original Final Fantasy in the late 1980s, so I had some idea what the basic jobs were (Fighter, White Mage, Black Mage, etc), but other than that I’d only played Final Fantasy VI at the time. While characters and mechanics in that game had recognizable traits from the job system (Locke was a Thief, Sabin was a Monk, Strago was a Blue Mage, using Magicite to call Espers was the trait of a Summoner, etc), not having played III and V, I didn’t know that. Final Fantasy Tactics was my first experience with the Final Fantasy job system.
I was like a kid in a candy store. So many options! It was so satisfying to discover new jobs as you achieved certain levels in other jobs, and so amazing to try them out and find all the most fun combinations and strategies. A Knight with two swords, courtesy of the Ninja class. An Archer with Ignore Height, courtesy of the Lancer class, to easily get the high ground and improve their range. The Geomancer’s Elemental skill, which not only does damage but inflicts a status effect on the enemy based on what terrain the Geomancer is standing on, is a great way to disable an enemy so your tricked out Thief can steal all their awesome stuff. The possibilities are endless.
There are some great leveling combos too. Equip your units with the Squire’s Accumulate skill, which raises attack power, to gain Job Points without hurting your foes. Place a Monk in the middle of your squad, using their Chakra ability to restore all surrounding allies’ HP and MP. Now have all your units stay healthy and practice whatever skills they wish (like Accumulate) to gain Job Points while the enemy wanders around, unable to kill anyone, and your early game leveling formula is complete.
In 2007, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions was released for the PSP. I’ve never played it, but I can report it has some beautifully animated cel-shaded cutscenes, done with respect to the original art style, voice acting for those cutscenes, a magnificent re-translation (the original game’s dialogue is clunky Engrish in comparison), and a few extra goodies, including new episodes, cutscenes, battles, characters, and classes. The downsides are that the game apparently has reduced sound quality and some gameplay lag.
While I haven’t played War of the Lions, I have played a great fan-made mod for Final Fantasy Tactics called LFT, done by modders Laggy, metroid composite, and Tonfa. It’s based on the original PlayStation version of the game. It re-balances the classes and uses the War of the Lions dialogue translation. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a veteran of Final Fantasy Tactics that wants to try a little something different.
I sincerely hope that someday we actually get a real sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics. On Twitter, Yasumi Matsuno confirmed that after the events of the story Ramza went on to another land and started another adventure. I played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance many years ago and grew disgusted with it quickly, as it is in no way an actual sequel to FFT.
I will admit I did not give FFT Advance a fair try. I did not get at all what I was expecting in terms of story or gameplay, and reading about the plot years later, it seems genuinely interesting. I might have liked it if I wasn’t hoping for the continuing adventures of Ramza and/or his crew in the Ivalice I had grown to know and love. FFT is over twenty years old at this point, and to my knowledge there are no plans to come back to the original story. But hey, if The Legend of Zelda, Link’s Awakening can get a complete 3D “re-imagining” on the Switch later this year after over twenty-five years, anything is possible, right?
Final Fantasy Tactics, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics Realm: Online, v5.0 | The Zodiac Brave Story, FFT Realm, http://www.fftrealm.com/content/zodiac.shtml
Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy Wiki, https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Final_Fantasy_Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War Story, Squarehaven, http://squarehaven.com/games/PS-Portable/Final-Fantasy-Tactics-War-of-the-Lions/guide/story/prologue.php
Characters of Final Fantasy Tactics, Codex Gamicus, https://gamicus.gamepedia.com/Characters_of_Final_Fantasy_Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics – Game Script, GameFAQs, Tsogtsaihan Baatar, https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/ps/197339-final-fantasy-tactics/faqs/14169
Yasumi Matsuno, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasumi_Matsuno
Ivalice, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivalice#Ivalice_Alliance
List of Square Enix companion books, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Square_Enix_companion_books
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_Tactics_Advance
Vagrant Story, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagrant_Story
Final Fantasy XII, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_XII
Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_Tactics:_The_War_of_the_Lions
Why Everybody Loves Final Fantasy Tactics, Kotaku, Kirk Hamilton, https://kotaku.com/why-everybody-loves-final-fantasy-tactics-5973196
Final Fantasy Tactics: 15 Things You Never Knew, ScreenRant, Scott Baird, https://screenrant.com/final-fantasy-tactics-trivia-facts-secrets/
Headscratchers / Final Fantasy Tactics, TVTropes, https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Headscratchers/FinalFantasyTactics
Final Fantasy Tactics – Games You Must Play, YouTube, Gaming Historian, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRY3kisd4bg
Final Fantasy Tactics Retrospective Review, YouTube, Resonant Arc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvAClEfqK54
Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX) Playlist, YouTube, Basileous Productions, https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgU0IdjAiGw59l30F15l75ZrVoKfUloDX
LFT, a fan-made modification of Final Fantasy Tactics, Laggy, metroid composite, and Tonfa, http://www.rpgdl.com/lft
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake coming to Nintendo Switch, Polygon, Michael McWhertor, https://www.polygon.com/2019/2/13/18224033/legend-of-zelda-links-awakening-nintendo-switch-release-date-trailer-video-watch