Summary: good gameplay and game mechanics, sometimes-annoying interface, silly plot.

I played and loved Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation.  So much so, in fact, that FFTA was the main reason I went out and got a Game Boy Advance.  (And that ownership of a GBA and FFTA is what has kept me from reading anything, which is why the site hasn’t been updated as much.)  So it is that I kept comparing FFTA to FFT.  And while FFTA is a good game, there were things I liked better about FFT.  But I’ll get to those.

So, gameplay/game mechanics.  As with FFT, most of your time in the game is spent doing battles on isometric grids.  Most aspects of the game revolve around these battles in one way or another.  The overall mechanics of the battles are pretty much the same as in FFT, though it seems that many of the calculations are much simpler in FFTA.  For example, the success rate of most things (physical attacks, ranged attacks, spells, etc.) seems solely dependent on the target’s evade score and which way they’re facing relative to the attacker.  (Yep, even spells are more likely to hit if the target can’t see you.)  No additional considerations of zodiac/sex compatibility, Brave or Faith, mitigating abilities, relative differences in speed, or different calculations for different sorts of attacks.  All abilities that reduce the effectiveness of attacks (such as Reflex, which is pretty much the equivalent of Blade Grasp) simply reduce the chance of the attack hitting to zero (compare to Blade Grasp, which reduced it to a small percentage based on your Brave).  This leads to silly things like enemies walking up and hitting you, even knowing that they’ll miss.

The changes to the job system are interesting.  There are again job classes, but there are also five races.  Different races have different available jobs, with only a few jobs being available to multiple races.  Different races also have different strengths, so, for example, a Nu Mou mage will generally be better at it than a Moogle mage.  Job abilities are also learned a little differently.  In a manner similar to Final Fantasy 9, pieces of equipment provide the user with abilities for his or her class.  Each ability has an Ability Point cost; once the user has earned that many AP toward the ability, he or she has mastered it and will always have it available to be equipped.  This means that it’s much more advantageous, especially early in the game, to have your characters rotating through their various classes, so they can continue learning things.

Many familiar classes have returned, including White, Black, Blue, Red, and Time Mages, Summoner, Archer, Thief, and Ninja.  Some new ones have been added, such as Hunter (cross an Archer with a Mediator), Sniper (an advanced Archer with a little Ninja in them), Assassin (just fun), Illusionist (spells that target every enemy on the map; fun, but not as much so as FFT’s Calculator), Gadgeteer (abilities that randomly hit all allies or all enemies), and others.  (What, you thought I’d list them all?)

FFTA takes a slightly different approach to specialist classes than did FFT.  In FFT, there were characters that had their own, unique, classes in place of the normal base class, Squire.  (And Ramza got extra abilities as a Squire that no one else got.)  These characters were often useful for their special abilities, but they could otherwise progress normally through the job hierarchy (sometimes with amusing results, like the dancing Agrias).  In FFTA, there are no player-controlled characters with special abilities during the normal course of the game.  Marche and Montblanc are the only special character, in that they don’t change their appearance depending on their job class, but they each have exactly the same classes available to any other member of their respective races.  After you beat the game other special characters can join your clan.  At least one (only one so far for me) is a special class, but he comes with all of his abilities mastered, he cannot learn new abilities (there aren’t any items that can provide them), and he cannot change jobs.  All of which combine to make him pretty useless, especially since his unique abilities aren’t special enough to warrant putting him in a battle where I could use someone more flexible.

Experience gained works pretty much the same as FFT.  AP (the FFTA equivalent of Job Points) are earned only at the end of a battle, and everyone involved in the battle gains the same, fixed amount.  You can also do things in battle that earn Judge Points (thanks, Square, for changing the meaning of “JP”), which are used for combos (someone uses the Combo command to initiate a combo on an enemy, everyone else with a combo range that includes that enemy joins in, and the resulting damage is much more than the sum of their regular attacks) and totema (race-specific summons that hit the entire battlefield; the only requirements for a totema are that you’ve unlocked it and have 10 JP).

Sorry.  I’ll try to cut back on the parenthetical comments.

I mentioned Judge Points, which, by their name, imply the existence of judges.  A big departure from FFT is the addition of laws.  In any battle, there is a set of laws governing the engagement and a judge to enforce them.  Each law has two parts; something that’s forbidden and something that’s recommended.  There’s tremendous variety in each: weapon types, abilities for a particular job, abilities from several different jobs, specific colored magic, any colored magic, any non-colored magic (e.g. time magic), anything that targets the whole battlefield, anything that targets an area, damage to a particular race, damage to animals, specific status ailments, any status ailments, specific elements, specific status enhancements, doing the same thing as the last unit that took a turn, and so on.  If you do something that’s recommended, you get one judge point.  Killing someone also gains a JP, though each character can gain a maximum of one JP per turn.  If you do something that’s forbidden, the judge gives you a card.  It’s usually a yellow card, which is a warning, but if you’ve already gotten a yellow card or if it’s a high-ranked law, you get a red card and the offending character is immediately removed from battle and sent to jail.  In addition, breaking a law subjects the violator to a fine after the battle.  Depending on the severity of the law, the fine could be anything from forgoing the monetary reward for that battle to a permanent reduction in one of the character’s stats.  At the beginning of the game, there’s only one law per battle.  As things progress, that number increases to three, which gets very annoying.

The gameplay is less linear than FFT’s.  You can go to a pub in any town and get a list of missions available.  Some are dispatch missions, which work like the missions in FFT (except that character levels and abilities actually have bearing on their success this time around), while others are battle missions; you accept the mission, travel to the appropriate place, and fight whoever’s there.  Some of the missions advance the plot when completed; you do eventually get to the end of the game.

Which brings me to the plot.  Anyone expecting a plot as intricate as FFT’s will be disappointed.  The basic premise is that kids from the modern world are suddenly transported into a magical world that appears to be based on a computer game some of them have played, named “Final Fantasy”.  The characterization isn’t too bad, but some of the characters (most notably, the main character) are annoying.  The main character, Marche, ends up bent on destroying the magical world so he can go home.  Upon being confronted with arguments like, “I like it here, and if you destroy this world all of these people who are here will die,” his response is, “This is all wrong and I want to go home.” Fortunately, you’ll spend much more time in battles than in worrying about the plot.

While the plot was my main complaint about the game, I have a number of issues with the game’s interface.  Many things have been carried over from FFT, and I felt that, by and large, the designers did a good job of compensating for the fact that the GBA has fewer controls than a Playstation controller.  I did still occasionally miss the ability to rotate and tilt the map, but the designers did a good designing the maps so they didn’t need to be moved around to see almost everything.

FFT also used the cells on the map grid to more effect than FFTA does.  During many commands, FFT colored the squares under characters to indicate whether they were friend or foe.  In FFTA, ally and enemy classes are colored slightly differently (so a friendly assassin looks a little different than an enemy one), but it’s a subtle difference and take more time to learn.  FFT also showed the area of effect of abilities.  You’d pick an ability, it would show you the range of that ability, you picked a square as the target, it showed you the area that the ability would affect.  In FFTA, you see the range, but when you pick a target it only shows you what units will be hit by the ability; you don’t get to see the ability’s full range.  This is somewhat simplified by the fact that all area-effect abilities are a simple plus sign around the target square, but you still have to know the the ability is an area-effect one, which (as far as I could tell) cannot be learned except by trial and error.  There were a couple of “Target Area Forbidden” laws I violated because I didn’t actually realize that it was an area-targeting ability.

In general, the descriptions on a lot of abilities were lacking.  In FFT, you could see the range, area, height tolerance, and elemental attributes of any ability (assuming they applied).  FFTA shows almost none of those.  Ranged weapons indicate their range, but spells and abilities don’t.  Nothing mentions area or height tolerance, and elements are only mentioned haphazardly.  On at least one occasion, I violated a law forbidding a particular element because I didn’t realize the ability had that element (the Illusionist ability Star Cross is Holy elemental; based on that, I suspect that Stardust is Dark elemental).

Both FFT and FFTA have the property that obstacles (buildings, trees, other people, etc.) can block missile weapons.  (And arrows can be arced over some obstacles, but bullets cannot.)  If something blocks the path in FFT, the game shows the success percentage as 0%.  FFTA has no such luxury; the shot will still be blocked, but you can’t tell that it will be.

Because of the nature of learning abilities and the fact that all action abilities are learned from weapons, I ended up with a lot of weapons.  It took a significant amount of time to scroll through the entire list and finding particular weapons was somewhat daunting.  (Though not too hard, really, thanks to automatic sorting of the list.)  This is really a minor complaint, since there’s really no way to avoid it and the interface does a good job of compensating.

Final stats.  At the time I beat the game:

  • I’d spent just over 71 hours of gametime
  • There were 12 people in my clan (of which there were about 8 I used regularly)
  • Marche was the highest-level character, at level 34
  • I had roughly 1.4 million gil
  • One character had mastered a class (Black Mage)
  • I had completed 243 missions

Note that the game continues after you beat it.  You can save game clear data to your save game and things continue after that.  I’m still working on this part, but there seems to be a little more plot and there are actually other characters that have joined my clan.

Overall, I’m very happy with the game.  It works very well on a GBA and has provided me with many hours of gaming fun.  I wish the plot had been better, if not as good as FFT, but it’s a good game despite that.

Postscript: There’s lots more that I’d like to mention, like the ability to change equipment, abilities, and jobs while placing people onto the battlefield; the fact that you can see the battlefield before placing people; the obtaining and placing of lands that works so much like Legend of Mana; and a bunch of other things that I wanted to put in, but this will do for now.