“The following is a contributor post by The Iron Mage.”
Few video game series, to me, have effectively transcended their native genres, journeying outside of their elemental roots into new territories. I say this because, to make an unwashed generalization, most of the games I’ve played operate strongest in the genres they were born in. And appropriately so, as that is where they were initially designed and that gameplay is what their creators had intended for that fictional universe.
So, when I delve into any of the Final Fantasy Tactics games, I’m, at the outset, astonished by how naturally they work as tactical RPGs, instead of as the traditional JRPG fare that Final Fantasy entries usually call home. And, in comparison to how clunkily the Final Fantasy games operate as action-RPGs (in my unclean opinion, of course), it easily shows that Square-Enix did something right here. But what exactly makes the Final Fantasy universe work so well in a tactical setting?
In a way, one could see any of the classic turn-based Final Fantasy titles (or any JRPGs) as really being tactical RPGs incognito, just executed in a very primitive and simplistic manner. Rather than putting the player in real-time control during overworld segments as they traverse and explore the world like in most JRPGs, Tactics compresses these actions entirely into menus and interfaces. Your character is still traversing the world, but you don’t actually see it – the game, through the magic of text, tells you that they did, instead of showing you. This conversion from JRPG to tactical RPG incorporates a sly tradeoff: exploration is simplified, while the battle system is deepened. In regards to the rest of the gameplay, such as how dialogue and story are played out, it operates in much the same way in both genres. The similarity between the turn-based JRPG and the turn-based tactical RPG, then, makes any of the early Final Fantasy games ripe for a genre-switch.
The stories in the two handheld Final Fantasy Tactics titles are connected literally and thematically. Even Final Fantasy XII is considered among the same fictional canon, but the handheld games share the plot element of the fantastical world of Ivalice being a land that the characters are unwillingly transported to (and is implied as being merely the product of the characters’ imaginations), rather than being native characters to that land. It is a popular trope in a lot of literature—Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, among a plethora of others—and it is one that I am particularly fond of, for reasons I will outline below.
Reading these sorts of stories, the sudden shift from a mundane present-day existence to a magical world alienates us from our own norms, and helps us to reveal and to question our own ways of life. From these stories, we get to see the variety of reactions characters might have when they are forced to adapt to living within an entirely new culture. Will they adapt smoothly or even fondly, or will this strange culture be dissonant against their personality?
Something that strikes me within the Tactics Advance titles is that, while the characters are new to Ivalice, they are not seen as outsiders by the country’s native inhabitants. Humans, known as “Humes” in the new world, are a common “race” there, and so those who become unwitting immigrants would, theoretically, fit right in. It is only the internal psychology of the characters that might lead them to feeling alienated from this new society, despite there being many other natives of the same “race” living among them. And, maybe, we experience the same thing in our own worlds.
I played the two Tactics Advance games as a child, and I found myself able to connect with many of their themes and characters, and perhaps in some small way, shaped the way I handled my experiences with the world. In the first fame, one character is bullied for her natural hair colour, and she therefore feels the need to constantly dye her hair to gain acceptance. Another character’s father is a pushover, and feels embarrassed to be seen around him. Yet another character feels confined from the rest of society due to a physical disability. However, once transported to Ivalice, it seems as if all of their acceptance issues have vanished, and thus desire to stay there indefinitely. Without a doubt, many players of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and A2 connected with these characters, and helped them find their sympathizers with their own unique social plights.
A sort of metanarrative is at play: while the game’s fictional characters are lost in a world very different to the one they’re used to, so too is the player. Escapism becomes a major theme, with many characters choosing to forget about their “past lives” and choosing to look nowhere but forward, while some characters are curious as to how they were transported there in the first place and seek to return home. In the case of the first Tactics Advance game, the hero’s quest revolves around his finding a way back home. However, he finds many characters who become happier in the new world of Ivalice, as they feel more socially accepted, and leads us to wonder if it is morally right for the hero to forcefully eject others back to their previous life. Final Fantasy Tactics A2’s hero differs slightly, as he is himself faced with doubts with regard to returning home, as he is empowered by the quests and abilities given to him.
I make reference to the first Advance game moreso than the second because its thematic resonance is so much more emotionally potent there. The facet of the world of Ivalice being a largely affected by our dreams plays very well with fantasy (as isn’t fantasy simply a projection of our dreams?). Disappointingly, the oneiric element is almost nonexistent in A2, in place of the titular Grimoire of the Rift being an object that can simply teleport its wielders to distant lands.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, A2 is improves over its predecessor, incorporating the same isometric turn-based strategic fare but with tighter gameplay, more diverse options, and nearly equally exciting distractions and diversions aside from the central battle system that the player can embark upon. For me, one of the most enjoyable things about these games is the sheer variety of choice in regard to the many jobs available, equippable gear, abilities, etc. Here, the “role-playing” aspect of the genre shines bright for me—I’ve started many a clan themed around a specific job, or race, or whatever. It’s a great opportunity for those who desire a sort of playground from their experience, just as many players deliberately limit their playstyle to challenge themselves.
Only some other very minor complaints for A2 bubble to the surface. Some objectives given to complete a quest can be rather ambiguous or downright obscure. One quest asks the player to find an “ingredient” based on a nonspecific riddle. Well, it turns out that the player is required to defeat two of a specific type of enemy – if any more or any else, the player fails. There are times like the previously mentioned one in which the game might back you into a corner during a quest, leaving you no choice but to fail that particular mission and to return to it at a later date. Another quest is needlessly frustrating, as it demands that the player complete it without missing an attack, which is a mechanic heavily dependent on randomness. These complaints barely mar my overall enjoyment of the game, but they are worth mentioning as their existence keeps Final Fantasy Tactics A2 just shy of perfection.
Without a doubt, Tactics A2 is a masterful expression of a series reaching beyond its element and succeeding. That, in itself, is worthy of admiration – and, aside from how well it performs its genre acrobatics, it is a downright captivating experience from front to back.
The Iron Mage, in his natural habitat, is commonly found wielding his weapon of choice: his 8-string guitar. A musical fanatic who is also fascinated with studying the arts through a critical lense, his YouTube channel showcases his dedication to writing challenging progressive rock and metal music, as well as rearrangements of video game music.
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