I am apparently doing my expansive Final Fantasy series replay in an order that only relies on current availability or convenience for me and not any kind of rational order. So following up the original Final Fantasy, I beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Outside of anything about how it plays, FFTA is an interesting game from a historical perspective. Not only did it mark Squaresoft’s return to Nintendo platforms after a nearly 8 year long absence, it was also one of the final games released before Squaresoft became SquareEnix. There is a lot there, and the above is all I am going to write about it.
FFTA was kind of positioned to fail. It was the follow up to a beloved and for many players unique game; but nearly everything about FFTA seems designed to disappoint people who wanted more FFT. For starters, it was a follow up on a significantly weaker system; so despite being a follow up it was always destined to look and sound like something of a downgrade. That is not the only thing seemingly designed to disappoint. Final Fantasy Tactics was loved for its intricate, labyrinthine plot and its deep, highly customizable job system. The first was thrown out entirely for the follow up, and the other was modified just enough to make it somewhat unsatisfying. Using the original as the standard, there are measurable ways that FFTA does not measure up. But who is to say that the choices made by FFT are superior to FFTA. FFTA is a different game, made for a different platform and with different goals.
The story of FFTA is a frequent source of complaint. People either hate how ‘dumbed down’ it is, or trot out the tired take that protagonist Marche is actually the villain. The first one is a fair complaint, even if I presented it in a skewed way. FFT’s plot was complex and labyrinthine, with dozens of characters whose stories proceeded often with little connection to Ramza’s. FFTA’s plot, on the other hand, appears to be about as simple as possible, at least on first glance. There are only a handful of named characters, with seemingly simple motivations. A group of children are sucked into a storybook world that seemingly grants all of their wishes. The game has much more depth than immediately apparent. It is about how having all your wishes immediately granted can be infantilizing. There might be some lessons to be learned in the fantasy world of Ivalice, but at some point the characters have to go home and face their problems. That is where the second complaint comes in. Upon finding himself in the fantasy land of Ivalice, Marche sets out figuring out exactly how he got there. Then, he starts trying to find his way back, which involves destroying the fantasy world. This eventually puts him into conflict with the other characters trapped in the world with him, primarily his friends Ritz and Mewt. All of them have been given what they want being transferred to this world. New kid Marche gets quickly adopted into a clan and quickly becomes popular. Ritz, embarrassed by her ‘odd’ white hair, has her hair color changed in the new world. Mewt gets the most, his dead mother is not only alive, but queen, and his drunken father is now the most respected judge in the land. Unlike Marche, the others do not want to go back to the real world, happy to stay in Ivalice. Marche working to take things away from them has given rise to the facile reading of the game that Marche is actually the villain, destroying the other’s lives. This ignores several things to make any kind of sense. It requires a rejection of the very idea of personal growth. In Ivalice the characters are simply given the answers to their problems, at no point do they have to learn or change. It proves infantilizing, especially in the case of Mewt. Marche is freed from his familial responsibilities and has all the friends he wants, but he realizes he needs to go home and deal with his problems. Mewt pulls closer and closer to his fake mother, his every wish granted and no troubles facing him. The other thing that must be ignored is more subtle and only really shows up near the end of the game, and that is the fact that this fantasy world is draining the life out of people it has sucked in, feeding off them. A lot of that was apparently lost in the translation, but hints of it show up near the end. So not only is the world a stultifying fiction, it is also deadly. But somehow Marche forcing everyone to reject the fantasy and embrace reality is the villain.
As far as the gameplay goes, there are bigger reasons to be annoyed at the changes. While FFTA uses the job system, the way it is implemented is very different from FFT. Gone is the free form experimentation, with every job and ability there if only you have the job points to unlock it. FFTA gates things behind equipment, with some abilities not available until late in the game because the weapon that unlocks them is not available. It makes it easier for the developers to control the difficulty curve, but it also severely limits players’ freedom. I think the FFT system is better, but the FFTA one works just fine. It also adds something that would become a staple of Ivalice games: different races. This feels a little like bringing everything closer to Dungeons and Dragons. The designs for the different races are good, though it can be annoying trying to figure out class requirements for five different class sets.
The most controversial, and ultimately least consequential, addition to the game is the law system. Each battle sets up a few ‘laws’ that forbid a certain kind of action. It can be frustrating if you get a particularly onerous law early on, but the game quickly gives the player the ability to negate laws and with even the smallest effort to work with the system the laws become an afterthought for the last three quarters of the game. The laws are an interesting idea, forcing the player to be flexible in developing strategies, but the combination of frustration and being inconsequential make it a not particularly well integrated change.
All these changes serve to make FFTA feel much smaller than the original FFT, but they also serve its handheld nature well. They largely work together to make a game feel natural to pick up for one or two battles, face a few new challenges and then put it down. While I played this game a lot back in the day, this play through is the first time I’ve beaten it. It largely holds up. The only problem that stands out when examining the game strictly on its own merits is that it can be kind of slow. There is simply a lot of waiting during battles, as enemies can take a long time to make their move and little you can do while waiting. A small concern in an otherwise excellent game.