Review – Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

Review – Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

There used to be feeling among the hardcore Final Fantasy fans that you weren’t truly hardcore unless you had played Final Fantasy Tactics. The main Final Fantasy series was widely available and spin-offs such as Mystic Quest and the SaGa/Legend series were considered watered down. Tactics was just plain hard to get your hands on and so it became a badge of honour to have a copy of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSOne on your shelf, especially in Europe – Final Fantasy Tactics was never released outside of Japan and the US, so ‘mod-chipping’ your PlayStation to play NTSC format and importing the title (or obtaining an illegal copy) were the extreme lengths that European gamers had to go to in order to get their next hardcore Final Fantasy fix. Was it that good? Was it worth breaking the law over? That remains to be seen, but such mystique and power over the fans is potent, so when Square-Enix agreed a licensing deal to bring games back to the Nintendo formats, it would have been an opportunity squandered not to bring Tactics to the party. This was an opportunity they did not miss, releasing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, and now in 2008 its sequel (of sorts), Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift.

But what exactly is Final Fantasy Tactics? Well, in short, it is exactly what it says on the tin – a tactical game set in the Final Fantasy universe – but that doesn’t mean it’s simply a Command & Conquer clone with some swords and sorcery thrown in, nor is it a traditional RPG with a few extra stats (though it’s fair to say that if you’re a fan of strategy or RPG games then you’ll find yourself in familiar territory almost immediately). You begin your adventure in a strange land with a band of misfits, each with varying skills and talents, and you spend your days roaming the world, looking for evil beasties to slay in the name of all that is good – so far, so generic, but in the world of Tactics you don’t stand toe-to-toe with your enemies and attack each other until someone inevitably falls down (Final Fantasy as 17th Century naval warfare analogy, anyone?), there’s a little more to it than that. Combat takes place on an isometric pseudo-3D grid and it doesn’t just come down to who has the biggest sword; formation, positioning, distance, and terrain (among numerous other factors) all play a part in the very detailed combat mechanic

First and foremost, where is this strange land, and how did our hero find himself there? This is where the new incarnations of Final Fantasy Tactics differ from the mainstream series, and while you’ll either love or hate the idea (which often divides gamers on the ‘seriousness’ of the series), it doesn’t have any major impact on how the game actually plays. Since its relaunch on Nintendo formats, Tactics does not see you assuming control of a mean and moody protagonist, as is Final Fantasy tradition, dropping straight into their head during whatever set piece the game begins with and running with it from there. Instead you take the role of a normal boy, here on Earth. In Tactics Advance, a young boy finds a dusty old tome (the Gran Grimoire) in a second hand shop, and upon showing it to his three friends, they find their world shifted and changed around them to resemble a world of their dreams, the world of their favourite series of video games (Final Fantasy, naturally). In Tactics A2, our young hero, Luso, the school troublemaker, is sent to make amends for his bad behaviour by cleaning out the school library while all his classmates are allowed to go and start their summer vacation. Luso stumbles upon the Gran Grimoire in the library, and upon opening it, finds himself transported to the Kingdom of Ivalice, the long-running setting for the Tactics series.

You may think you’ve heard of the Kingdom of Ivalice before, and you’d be right. As well as being the setting for all three Final Fantasy Tactics games, it also became the setting for Final Fantasy XII on the PS2. This may seem a little alien to long-time fans of the Final Fantasy series that are used to everything changing from game to game – the world and the characters – with only a handful of constants filtering through the series (Moogles, Chocobos, and some bloke called Cid). Perhaps this rehashing of worlds is showing a little laziness on the part of Square-Enix, or even more criminally, a faltering imagination, with them revisiting Final Fantasy VII’s world at an alarming frequency with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus, Before Crisis and Crisis Core… so far…) and reusing Ivalice time and again, but that’s just how Tactics works. Criticise Final Fantasy VII all you like for borrowing a second-hand universe, but Tactics A2 is exactly where it’s supposed to be and I personally would have been disappointed if it hadn’t been set in Ivalice.

For starters, Ivalice is a beautiful place. In my opinion, this is the prettiest game for the Nintendo DS. It may not be chock-full of polygons, pushing some kind of extreme frame rate, or even testing the hardware of the system in terms of graphical complexity, but it looks so sublime and so perfect for its setting that every screen could’ve been imprinted directly onto your DS from the inner reaches of Terry Pratchett’s mind. Every location, every map, every insignificant building, it’s all drawn so quaintly and vividly in the richest fantasy tradition that the visuals look like unfolding pictures in some ancient children’s storybook. This was quite obviously Square-Enix’s intention, and while it was in some senses a brave move when we live in a world where 3D acceleration is king, a game this pretty with such superior art direction proves that it’s not how big your graphics hardware is, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Similarly the characters look excellent and bring a smile to my face. They’re big, bold, bright, the very essence of the old Final Fantasy character classes (or ‘jobs’). All the old favourites are here – Fighter, Thief, Archer, White Mage, Black Mage, Dragoon – and they all look exactly as I remember them without ever seeming dated. Added to the old staples are no less than fifty more jobs (making a massive fifty-six in total) and a good ten of those are ones that I’ve never seen in any game, never mind any Final Fantasy title. They all have what looks like quite small ranges of animation to the untrained eye – they walk, swing a weapon, look a bit sad when they’re at critical HP – but the more you play, the more you realise not just how much they do, but how unobtrusive and minimal the little touches are, and how much they help the overall experience. Your characters have various different animations and poses in and out of combat, they jump in different ways depending how high the destination spot is, they wade around in water up to their middle while carrying on fighting and they even jog on the spot during combat at varying frequencies to indicate whether they’re slow, hasted, or operating at normal speed.

Battle animations are equally attractive and well thought out, especially the magic spells and the special skills for each different job type (of which there are hundreds upon hundreds). A particular favourite of mine are the old fashioned elemental magic spells – fire, ice, and lightning. At the start of the game they’re pretty small and feeble, the fire spell looking more like an errant firework than a fireball from the heavens, but as you progress and you (or the enemy) learn upgraded spells, the mayhem becomes more impressive. The first time I saw the Firaga spell I was distracted from the game for a moment as the whole screen shook and fire spewed across the landscape. I wondered where a low-level monster had pulled such a potent spell out from, until they cast it again and I realised how basic a spell it actually was. This attention to detail and effort to make the experience as immersive and impressive as possible is far beyond the call of duty for any title.

The sound is equally well-pitched for a trip into fairytales. The music is generally upbeat and cheery, going hand-in-hand with the bright and bold characters and surroundings. It’s reminiscent of the less dramatic and grim pieces of music from the Lord of the Rings movies, of Hobbits sitting around telling stories and drinking beers half their height, a style that suits meandering around the world very nicely. The battle and incidental music isn’t quite as good; there’s nothing especially wrong with it, but it lacks the sense of urgency and sheer panic that comes with the battle scores in the main FF series. This is probably due to the massive lengths of many of the fights – it would be impractical (bordering on annoying) to have the music galloping along at a hundred miles an hour for a battle that lasts upwards of thirty minutes, but at times I was longing for a bit of Nobuo Uematsu electro-prog-fantasy-metal (I think I may have just invented a new genre) to lift me when my back was to the wall. The effects in the game are great, though, both in and out of battle. They’re easily as good as any I’ve heard on the DS up until now and I particularly love the yelps and cries from the characters and creatures as they act and react on the battlefield. You aren’t just limited to the clang of a sword or the swish of an arrow; there are wolves howling, Chocobos kweh-ing, Moogles kupo-po-po-ing, and countless others.

For those of you who have played any of the previous incarnations of Final Fantasy Tactics, I’ll only say a few words on the gameplay – it wasn’t broken, so they didn’t fix it. Well done. You can skip to the end of the review or go and have a cup of tea or something. For the rest of you, I’ll explain how this slightly unusual beast works, and why it’s a great thing, even though it does take you a few minutes to get into.

In videogame terms, Final Fantasy Tactics’ origins lie firmly in one place – the Ogre series of games (Tactics Ogre, Ogre Battle), from whom Squaresoft poached a good deal of the staff to work on their own equivalent, the original Final Fantasy Tactics. The Ogre games were well received but a little bit of a niche, so while it was in some respects a brave move for Square, marrying what was a great but relatively unknown concept with an incredibly popular series was more likely to succeed than fail. At roughly the same time, Konami developed their own tactical RPG, the spectacular Vandal Hearts, and the stage was set for a direct face-off between two great titles. Unfortunately, and for reasons known only to them, Square didn’t release Tactics in Europe, so we were deprived of what could have been a great rivalry (as well as being deprived of Tactics itself). Other than the games that spawned it (the Ogre series) and the games that rivalled it (Vandal Hearts I and II), there is little in modern gaming terms to compare Tactics with. Incidentally, there is talk of a Vandal Hearts sequel on the Nintendo DS in the near future, which I for one am very excited about!

The origins of the tactical RPG as a genre have much deeper and ancient origins, though, in Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, and chess (yes, chess). In days of yore if you wanted to role play but didn’t fancy getting dressed up as a wizard and receiving abuse from the other kids for acting out a battle in your local park, you played pen and paper games. You’d get your dungeon master’s guide, twelve-sided die, and meet with your friends to battle (dressing up was entirely optional). Characters were given a finite number of character points, which they could distribute among attributes such as strength, agility, magic, and so on, then you used these stats, combined with rolls of the dice and the laws and abilities outlined in the dungeon master’s guide (the bible of D&D) to battle. As well as the attributes and dice roll system being the fundamental basis of any modern RPG’s game engine, spawning hundreds of video games (the most well-known being Diablo and the Baldur’s Gate series), this pen and paper game spawned the tabletop games of Warhammer, which again uses the base principles of stats and rolls of dice to determine attack strength, magic power, etc., but adds the third dimension of having your characters or troops as physical models on the battlefield in front of you. Now distances between characters (who can move a finite distance each turn, depending on their stats), terrain, formation, and many other variables come into play. This is the genesis of the tactical RPG and all these principles apply, but it is far more user friendly – it’s all contained within one little cartridge or disk, the computer does the dice rolls and maths for you, and it’s very pretty to look at. Why chess, you ask? Simply because the tactical RPG operates on a grid.

I’ve rarely seen it executed better than in Grimoire of the Rift. It manages to keep what is essentially a turn-based strategy game (which have a history of being less interesting than curling or modern Formula One) fresh and exciting, without relying on the cheap trick of adding a timer to every other fight to force some tension into the situation. The basic mechanics of combat run as follows. All the characters on the field take turns in an order defined by their speed attribute, they then can move to a different part of the field determined by their job, at which point they can perform an action (attack, use magic or an item etc), then when their turn is over, you select which direction they face. This is very important tactically, as characters are more vulnerable to damage when attacked from the rear, sometimes taking as much as double from behind. You’ll spend a good deal of time positioning your troops in such a way that they’re standing back to back, or in front of a tree or cliff; preventing back attacks becomes as much of an art form as the combat itself and if you’re as good at dishing them out as preventing them, you’ll win fights much faster. Terrain too plays an important part in your tactics; it takes much longer to clamber up a hill than walking along a flat meadow, for example, taking more turns to reach your destination and forcing you to think carefully about your strategy.

Not that fighting is the only thing you’ll be doing in Grimoire of the Rift. Of course, it’s an RPG, so there is plenty of combat, but in order to mix things up, there is a range of quests to embark upon. One minute you might be having a massive battle against hordes of monsters, where the objective is to kill them all, the next you could be searching for a missing item in the grass, escorting a merchant through a pass filled with brigands, defending a position for a set number of turns against beasts that keep respawning, or even just a simple delivery. The point is, the variety is surprising for a game that at first could be mistaken for being one-dimensional. All these kinds of quests, and many more, are obtained in the most traditional RPG fashion – from the local tavern.

Towns serve as your base of operations for two reasons – the aforementioned pubs, where you can purchase the right to a quest, and the shop, where you can purchase equipment and items for your clan. There are two unusual additions to the shop that improve the experience. Firstly there’s a fitting room, which is fairly self-explanatory, but is a nice idea for checking combinations of equipment on different people before you purchase, instead of buying one item at a time and then deciding it doesn’t work. Secondly, and important to the game, is the bazaar, where you can trade in the spoils of war – the loot and the useless items that you collect from defeating enemies – in combinations in order to have it turned into useful equipment that you can then buy from the shop. When I saw the ‘bazaar’ option on the shop menu, my heart sank, as I remembered the awful imbalance in Final Fantasy XII, where the ratio of money (of which there was none) to useless bazaar junk that you collected from enemies (of which there was lots) to trade in for cash (of which you received little to none, and were eternally and pointlessly poor throughout the whole game). Thankfully this is a new bazaar that actually works.

Clan trials are also available from the pub as a sort of quest. In these you perform some kind of task, sometimes timed, or within a certain number of turns, and if you succeed, your clan’s attributes improve, and your clan is also given an official title, such as ‘journeymen’ or ‘machinists’. These titles don’t have much practical impact on the game but greater numbers of more varied races and classes want to join your clan if you have a title. The world map is split into various local areas, which you travel between to visit different towns and complete your quests. Clan auctions eventually become available where you bid against other clans to take control of some of these areas of the map. Once your clan has control of an area, you get benefits from being in those areas, including more potential recruits wanting to join your clan and better items dropped from enemies.

For all the good things Grimoire of the Rift has going for it, there are a few negatives, but these are not so massive as to really detract from the experience. Firstly, the story is pretty weak to say the least. Boy gets pulled into fantasy world, boy tries to get home. It’s one of the oldest RPG clichés in the book and, apart from being thoroughly boring, there’s little to no motivation to progress the main story because Luso, our hero, actually quite prefers being an adventurer in Ivalice than a nobody in the real world. On top of this, the quest structure is so open ended, and as in the masters of the open-ended RPG titles the Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind, Oblivion, and the old champion, Daggerfall) you’ll have far more fun running around doing whatever you like and improving your character for the sake of doing it than advancing the lacklustre and purely incidental main plot.

Secondly, there’s not a whole lot of a tutorial for people who are new to the series or the genre. In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the children had a snowball fight in the real world that served as a practice battle where nobody could die, so there was no pressure. In Grimoire of the Rift, in a nod towards games from the main series (VII’s reactor attack, IX’s theatre ship robbery) you are thrown straight into a fight with very little instruction, to get the adrenaline pumping and the sense of danger high from the off. It’s not the world’s worst fight but it’s sufficiently different to any traditional RPG or real-time strategy that it could throw people off and take them longer to get into what is a great game.

Thirdly, and most criminally, is the appalling stylus interface – but let’s be fair, this isn’t an issue that’s limited to Grimoire of the Rift. However, with all of Square-Enix’s resources and experience, it’s a disappointment that it isn’t better. Just as the Nintendo Wii is basically perfect for one-to-one motion sensitive sports games but nobody has managed to develop a golf game that actually behaves like a real swing, the DS’s stylus should be perfect for strategy games but nobody to date has managed to produce one in which the stylus control is easier and more intuitive than using the d-pad and buttons (which should in theory be more awkward). If you do try and use the stylus with Grimoire of the Rift, you’ll find, as with every other mixed-control DS game, that you’ll need to tap the screen more than once to perform some actions (a kind of ‘once to disable the buttons and activate stylus control, twice to actually play’ affair). This is very inconsistent and you’ll have roasted your front lines with a fireball by tapping once too many times before you pop the stylus back in its holder and concentrate on the d-pad and buttons, which Final Fantasy Tactics was designed for and has always worked brilliantly with.

Despite a couple of minor flaws, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is a wonderful game. Aside from being visually beautiful in a perfect, picture book way, it has one of the smartest combat mechanics around for any RPG, managing to balance the pace of combat with the patient thought of a strategy game effortlessly. With hundreds of quests and dozens of places to visit, it’s far bigger than you’d ever dream when you begin playing. Lengthy, pretty and very, very clever, Grimoire of the Rift is one of the very best titles on the DS, comparing well to the big hitters yet standing apart as quite unique in terms of its genre.