(For a quick update on recent posts and other blog news, see here.)
Final Fantasy Tactics was first released in 1997 in Japan to great acclaim, and was later released in 1998 in the west to poor localization. I’ve seen some call it the second-worst localization in the series, after the awful PSX localization of FFV. Thankfully, I don’t have to experience it, since the game was tidily re-localized in 2007 with the subtitle “War of the Lions” for the PSP. We’ll be playing the PSP release, even though the game has also been released on iOS and we might have been better off with that, but what the hell, the PSP’s easier to get on the big screen. Once again, as with all the big PSX Final Fantasy games, this is my first experience with the game, but Kyle was familiar with it from when we were younger.
FFT is actually the first official game in the Final Fantasy series to belong to the shared setting of Ivalice, which is also the setting of the later FFT games (…in a manner of speaking), the Crystal Defenders subseries, and most importantly, the FFXII games. By some defintions, Square’s Vagrant Story is the second Ivalice game, but that was more of a word-of-god thing than an official company stance, and isn’t all that well conveyed even in Vagrant Story itself. In any event, nuts to Vagrant Story, we have enough on our Marathon plate as it is, so if it doesn’t have “Final Fantasy” on the plate, it doesn’t automatically get to the table. It’s also worth noting while we’re here that neither the FFT subseries nor the Ivalice games share a continuous story with one another (FFXII and FFXII: Revenant Wings are direct sequels, but that’s the exception, not the rule). This means that we won’t be playing the Ivalice games or the FFT games in chronological order like we did FFIV and the Compilation of FFVII.
By the way, starting with this game, I’m going to be using a new Journal system. In the past, I wrote the Journals after we were done playing the game, but from now on, I’m going to write each part of the Journals after each play session. This means my analysis and theories will be written before we finish playing the game, even if that makes them wrong or incomplete in the long run! I think this will be more in keeping with the spirit of a first-time playthrough.
To keep you informed, I’m also going to indicate when exactly each Journal was written: this first batch was written when we were in the middle of the battle of Balias Swale in Chapter 2. Everything from this starting post up to that battle will have been written after our first play session, and before any further play. Bear that in mind in case I say anything that later sessions will prove wrong! Editor comments (“Ed.”) indicate comments that were added at some later stage, often after uploading.
FFT begins with an introduction by a figure called Arazlam, who describes the War of the Lions to the player as a historical event. He says that in the public eye, the hero of the War of the Lions was a man called Delita Heiral, “a hithertofore unknown young man.” Arazlam disagrees that Delita was the War’s biggest hero, saying that another person should hold the title: a younger son of House Beoulve, though the church of Ivalice has attempted to censor his involvement. The only reason Arazlam thinks differently is because evidence recently arose to the contrary, and the church has been trying just as hard to bury it. The church apparently calls this Beoulve a heretic and disturber of the peace, though Arazlam doesn’t explain why he’s earned those condemnations at this early stage. By the way, you’d better get used to this game throwing names, organizations and concepts at you without giving you the time and context to absorb them, because they are plentiful, interlinked and complicated.
Arazlam then asks the listener for their name and birth date. This a little confusing: the game is acting like you’re a specific person, listening to Arazlam in the future, and is asking for your future-period character’s birthday. But it ends up using this as the forgotten Beoulve son’s birthday! I’m glad Kyle could clarify for that for me, because even though I figured that was the case, it wasn’t exactly natural! We accepted the default name of Ramza and intermixed our two birthdays in a particular way to create Ramza’s. Ramza’s birthday is only used to create his Zodiac sign, which has an influence on behind-the-scenes battle calculations that have nothing to do with the in-game calendar! Kyle told me that anyone attempting to min/max their party would have taken more care with the character creation, but we didn’t really have the time, patience, or in my case, the spoilers to deal with that.
The game opened with the remake’s stylish FMV artstyle, which resembles an illustration made on parchment. In this cinematic, a blond, bearded figure unfolds a map of Ivalice, looking away from the player at all times. I presume this figure to be Arazlam, but the game didn’t really confirm that until we happened to stray into the “Chronicles” menu nearly half an hour later and finally saw Arazlam’s face, which served as decoration for that particular menu. Fuck, game, you were acting like Arazlam’s appearance was a big secret! The intro announces that the game is telling “The Zodiac Brave Story,” and we then cut to the game’s title.
For the record, WotL doesn’t seem to use motion actors for its FMV sequences, so there are no motion actors to credit this time around (or as is often the case for Square Enix, “to refuse to credit”). If I’m mistaken on that point, please leave a comment.
After this, we saw a figure and entourage riding chocobos cross-country. As the figure arrived at their destination and the cutscene ends, we cut to the game’s default isometric style. Kyle tells me that the original game displayed all of what we just saw as an FMV in the form of isometric scripted sequences. I’m impressed, and it’s hard for me to even imagine some of the original sequences!
It seems the rider was heading to a church, and we cut ahead of him to find the Lady Ovelia praying to “the Father,” a god that otherwise goes unidentified – or at least has been at the time I’m writing this. Actually, FFT hasn’t seemed remotely interested in explaining the game’s religious details so far. This is unfortunate, because as you might imagine from Arazlam’s introduction, the church is absolutely relevant to the plot, and by not providing any details about its beliefs, I feel the story is inherently weakened.
Despite being a tactics game with dozens of characters, FFT only has a cast of six voice actors, since they only speak in the game’s FMVs. Strangely, all the men in the voice cast are also credited a second time under the heading “Additional Voices,” but the women aren’t. I suspects that this means the men recorded basic battle grunts for generic male characters, but I wonder why the lady voice actors aren’t double-credited in the same fashion, considering that FFT’s has female battle grunts and you were already double-booking the men! Oh, and I should note that since the game’s FMVs can be quite far apart, I feel like I might as well introduce the voice actors as their characters are introduced, lest I waste my time splitting hairs about who spoke first in some distant cutscene! Lady Ovelia, for starters, will be voiced by Kari Wahlgreen. Hello again, Kari, it’s just been one post since we last saw you in Dirge of Cerberus, but it’s nice to see you again.
A lady knight, Agrias, is serving as Ovelia’s bodyguard, and urges her to stop fucking praying so they can get a move on. Apparently, Ovelia’s escort has arrived and there’s a serious sense of urgency. Even the priest is asking Ovelia to hurry up, and eventually the escort group comes into the church to ask about the hold-up. Agrias complains about this behaviour, identifying the lead of the escort as “Gaffgarion,” but also identifying Ovelia as a princess. Agrias also identifies Gaffgarion’s group as being in the pay of something called the Order of the Northern Sky, though Gaffgarion claims to be independent.
Another voice actor right out the gate: Agrias is Hedy Burress, known for Southland and Boston Common, and moreover for FFX and X-2, where she plays Yuna. Gaffgarion, despite being a relatively important character, is not voiced. It all comes down to who happens to appear in FMV cutscenes and who doesn’t, and War of the Lions doesn’t have very many FMV cutscenes!
Just then, a generic lady knight stumbles in, wounded, saying that the enemy is here, and the priest asks if she means “Duke Goltanna’s men?” Gaffgarian girds up to fight, and he also finally identifies one of his followers as our new buddy and main character, Ramza, who was apparently a knight at some point in the past, though he was now an oathless sellsword.
Ramza is voiced by Phil LaMarr, aka Hermes Conrad from Futurama, among dozens of other familiar roles, including Green Lantern John Stewart in the DCAU, or Hector Con Carne, the evil brain from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and Evil Con Carne. This wasn’t his first trip to Ivalice, as he first voiced a Final Fantasy role in FFXII as Reddas, whoever that is.
The mercenaries and Agrias’ knights march out the door to defend the monastery and the princess, meaning it’s time for our first battle.
Battle 01: Orbonne Monastery
Agrias identifies the attackers as bearing the emblem of the Black Lion, which sure enough means they’re from Duke Goltanna and that this almost certainly means war, somehow. The game hasn’t given a lot of details yet. The tutorial battle then begins without much of a tutorial whatsoever. As it happens, the real tutorial is only accessible in the title menu or the map screen menu. This means that unless you read the tutorial from the main menu, you would have no opportunity to learn about the game until after the second battle, since that’s how long it takes to get you to the map! Thankfully, this first battle is quite easy, but tossing you into the second without a chance to learn the basics might have been asking a bit much! Thankfully, I had Kyle to fill in the blanks!
As it happens, characters in FFT will sometimes have things to say during their first turns (not often, since the devs know that characters might very well die before their first turn, but they do it all the same). Agrias and Gaffgarian have a fight about the moral difference between killing and simply knocking out a foe. FFT actually does makes a mechanical distinction between the two that I’ll explain later, but Agrias and Gaffgarian’s moral arguments have no bearing on those mechanics, so it would be outright misleading to pay attention to them at this point! Oh yeah, this “tutorial”‘s going great.
Kyle was in control here (since we were continuing on directly after Dirge of Cerberus, where I had fought the final boss). While I tried to watch carefully, besides Kyle expressing disappointment that one of the minor NPCs had been renamed from “Radd” to “Ladd,” I didn’t learn a whole lot about FFT from this first battle. As a result, it’s probably for the best if I not talk about combat until my first battle, the game’s second. I asked a lot of questions, and Kyle answered all of them, but he won so fast that I couldn’t remotely keep up. Agrias and Gaffgarion carried most of the fight anyways, and since they were under AI control, you would be hard pressed to screw up since they would probably sweep the board on their own if left to their own devices.
After the battle, however, a scream from inside the monastery! It seems that another man – on closer examination, the man we had followed during the intro FMV! – had snuck in the back and had seized the princess by the hand. When she resisted, he simply punched her in the sternum with a gauntled hand, saying “‘Tis your birth and faith that wrong you, not I.” (I only later learned that this was the new localization for an infamous line from the original: “Don’t blame us. Blame yourself or God.” Amazing.) And from that moment, from that punch and that line, I screwed up my face a little and then began calling this character “Jerkface” for the rest of the playthrough. Ramza and friends are too late to stop Jerkface from making off with the princess on his chocobo, and unfortunately they don’t seem to have any chocobos of their own. But Ramza has caught a look at the man in armour, and remarks: “Delita. He lives? But why does he fight under the banner of Duke Goltanna?” It seems that Jerkface is the supposed future hero of the War of the Lions, Delita Heiral, voiced Robin Atkin Downes, just as I discussed at the very end of the DoC Journal.
By the way: as far as these voice actor bios are concerned, I’m going to be treating the entire Final Fantasy Journal as a body, so once someone gets their bio, I’m not going to repeat it in a later game. Robin Atkin Downes, for example, first appeared in DoC, and that’s where you’ll find his bio (or, if you’d prefer, the KH2 Retrospective, which was his first appearance in that particular franchise).
And hey, guess what? We’ve actually covered every major voiced character in the game, right here in this intro! I know, I know, I said there were six, but as it happens, the remaining two are simply cameos! We’ll get to them when we get to them.
Arazlam then declares that everything we’ve just seen was a flash forward, and that it’s time to flash back. Kyle told to me that he hates the fact that this game opens with a flash-forward, since it introduces you to Delita as a Jerkface well before you’re introduced to Delita as… you know… a person, spoiling what could have been a big twist. Since I’m writing this well after the flash-forward, I find I agreed with Kyle, but you can decide for yourself.
Arazlam jumped us back an unspecified period of time, although the very first thing he says is that “Records of the hero Delita first appear one year before the outbreak of the War of the Lions.” This might make you think we’ve jumped back a year from the intro battle, but that’s not actually the case – indeed, the historical “War of the Lions” doesn’t strictly begin until well after the flash-forward intro battle! Arazlam explains that the game actually begins at the end of the “Fifty Year’s War,” and explains that Ivalice lost that war, leaving many of their knights impoverished and forced to banditry. This began Chapter I: The Meagre.
We were at the Royal Military “Akademy” at Gariland, where the nobility sends its children to learn how to fight and perform battle magic. Oh, pardon me, it’s “magick” in Ivalice. The Akademy is treated like a sort of reserve military unit of the Order of the Northern Sky that was mentioned earlier, so these teens, who are children of the surviving rich, are basically going to be sent out to fight the fallen nobility in their newly impoverished lives as highwaymen and women. That’s how you grow up, kids!
The students of the Akademy are talking among themselves about a bandit group, the Corpse Brigade, and we discover that Ramza and Jerkface are both here and are apparently best friends. After some political chat, a knight comes in and announces that the students are going to march north and – whoops hold on, he’s getting a memo. No, okay forget what he was just saying, the students are now going to the town of Gariland, just outside, to kill some bandits. Or rather, as the knight puts it, “a band of thieves […] flees here to Gariland, seeking refuge.” So let’s murder ’em!
Battle 02: Gariland
This battle, like all battles after the tutorial, begins on the deployment screen. Here, you have to deploy one or more groups from your array of soldiers on an abstract grid with no knowledge of the actual game map. Suffice to say, you feel a lot more comfortable coming into a battle should you lose and be forced to replay it than you do on your first attempt! Ramza is always deployed in story missions, and there’s usually a cap of four other soldiers, depending on the mission. And who are your other soldiers, you might ask? Where other strategy/tactics games of this style, like Fire Emblem or Shining Force, use established characters in your army, FFT is not like that. Instead, FFT starts you off with an army of generic characters, which Kyle and I like to call “generics,” and asks you to use a Job System-inspired setup to train them into specialized warriors of your own creation. This all turns out to be a pretty nice system in my mind, but I started out very, very confused about which characters were “worth” bringing in our group of five and which weren’t, which was overthinking things. To put it quickly: most of your force at the outset are combat-focused Squires, and a small handful are (nominally) magick-focused Chemists, and while there is more a little more to these starting characters than that, there’s no need for a first-time player to worry. Just pick a mix of fighters and would-be casters and go to town!
Once we were deployed, we discovered that the first battle arena is a small part of town with about four buildings. FFT’s arenas are extremely small compared to Fire Emblem or the like. I suspect this was initially a limitation of the PSX, but it’s now a staple of the series. The bandits taunted us and the game explained that our objective was to defeat all enemies, which Kyle assures me is overwhelmingly standard. At this point, the game revealed that we actually had six party members, and not just five: Jerkface was also in the party, and was under AI control. Some best friend, eh? After a lot of bad experiences with AI controlled party members in games like Shining Force 2, I was immediately in a foul mood, and Kyle told me to embrace that darkness, because Jerkface was going to be an EXP stealing jackwad for his entire tenure. At least he can use that EXP to level up on his own, which isn’t always the case with Guests.
It would probably take forever to explain every system in FFT, but I will try to outline the basics. FFT is an isometric tactics game in the mold of Fire Emblem, isometric perspective aside. Unlike most FE-styled games, you don’t have to kill enemies to get experience. Instead, you receive EXP and Job Points (JP) for basically every action you perform in battle, short of walking. (Speaking of walking, the game insists on giving you a tutorial prompt on how to walk that you have to manually clear every single time you walk from here to the end of the game). Enemies gain experience in the same fashion as the player, and you often see them levelling up in the middle of battle even though frankly it adds very little to the proceedings and feels like a remnant of the game’s predecessor series, Ogre Battle (Ed. and/or as a means of discouraging Arithmaticks, something I’ll explain later, but if that was their only aim, they could have done things in a lot of simpler ways!).
You can move either before or after you Act during a turn, but your selection of Actions is initially limited. Every character in the game can Attack, but every other skill has to be earned via job progression and specifically equipped to the character at the cost of some other ability, and that includes item use! Even the ability to re-equip weapons and armour in the middle of combat is a learned and equipped ability, albeit one that many characters start with by default and others can learn at the first possible opportunity, seeing as it’s free, though you’ll probably toss it in favour of other abilities later on.
Actions in the game are either available on their own, like Attack, but Jobs grant you special Active Abilities that usually come in sets. For example, mages get a set of spells, like you’d expect. The active skill for Chemists is “Items” and allows you to use items like you can do by default in every other RPG (I suppose it takes some magickal training to access the party’s little pocket of hammerspace?). As an as an added bonus, Chemists can throw items to friends at a distance, though you have to mind that the item will strike the first character in its path, be that your intended target or even an enemy! Most of the party’s other Squires have the “Fundaments” ability set, which I am shocked to learn is a real word and not simply a truncated version of the word “Fundamentals.” And it’s too bad for the developers that it is a real word, because all they wanted to do was make a truncated version of “Fundamentals.” As it happens, the definition of “Fundaments” is… “the buttocks.” Its secondary definition is “the anus.” No definition means “Fundamentals.” Some early Anus abilities include the Rush command, which causes knockback and a guaranteed hit at the cost of any serious damage.
Ramza starts the game with the Mettle active ability, which is basically a personal ability set nearly unique to him. Since I just said “nearly,” I should reveal that another person who gets it is Jerkface. Since that’s the first impression you get about Mettle, it makes it so Mettle doesn’t feel as unique as I think it’s supposed to feel. Mettle shares most of its abilities with Fundaments.
Funnily enough, all human enemies in the game also belong to the Job system, which leads to the odd situation where these bandits are taunting us about being nobles, but are walking around with the title “Squire,” which is a noble title in English. Suffice to say, the Japanese version doesn’t use the term “Squire,” but “Apprentice Warrior,” instead. The localizers had to do the best they could to get the same idea to fit inside the small text boxes. Honestly, if this game had been released a few years later, “Squires” probably would have been called “Freelancers,” like in later Final Fantasy games. Later in the game, we’ll encounter bandits who are outright “Knights,” which is definitely a noble title, and this one that isn’t a translation error at all! After a while, you really have to stop pretending the Job titles mean what they mean in the real world. In any event, because of the way this game is arranged, “Squire” is something that novice bandit babies can become, but “Thief!” Thief is an advanced class!
On to combat. FFT is one of those tactics games that are incredibly concerned with height and facing. Height is one thing, but as I pointed out to Kyle, this strict adherence to facing implies something unusual about FFT: it tells us that even though we’re sitting here staring at a screen as the characters only move a few steps after maybe five minutes of careful deliberation, in the game world, combats are actually going so incredibly fast that it’s possible to dart past someone and stab them in the back before they’ve so much as turned their head! Many tactics games have the defending party automatically face the first person who attacks them, and only fail to do so if they’re already engaged, which makes a great deal more logical sense. You can probably chalk this up to FFT’s age. Personally, I think strict facing systems like this, where unoccupied defenders don’t turn to face their attackers, only work in truly slow combats… which is another way of saying that I think strict facing systems should be restricted to Front Mission and its giant, creaking mech suits… but I’ve made my peace with it for the time being. FFT also gives characters a height advantage if they’re higher up than their opponent (but not so high that they can’t reach!), which is a lot more logical.
A few more miscellaneous concepts: this game’s characters have incredibly high HP compared to say, Fire Emblem, being more in line with Shining Force in that regard, which I suppose makes sense since Shining Force also feels more like an RPG game turned into a tactics game (what you’d expect a Final Fantasy tactics game to be), than a tactics game that added on RPG elements, like you’d see in Fire Emblem, Fire Emblem being an RPG built on top of Famicom Wars.
Characters in the game have two key stats that are very hard to change: Bravery and Faith. Each makes them better at a specific skillset – combat and magick, respectively – but Faith also makes them weaker to majick in defence, but also easier to heal, similar to the Mana stat in FFLI and II. Kyle initially told me that Bravery did the same for physical combat, with high bravery raising your attack and lowering your defence, but it seems this was mistaken. Low Bravery has only a single, frankly obscure purpose and I feel the designers should have corrected that. Bravery and Faith have a tremendous impact on a character’s capabilities, and one should pay attention to them more than anything else when customizing a character… something we learned the hard way.
Lastly, there’s the issue of knocking out or killing someone. When a character drops to 0 HP, they’re knocked out for three of their would-be turns before they succumb to their wounds and die. At this point, they will either drop a chest containing items; a crystal, which heals anyone who collects it; or another crystal which carries one of that character’s skills for you to absorb into one of your characters like a fucking incubus. The trouble here is that once the killing starts, there often aren’t three turns left in the battle, so you can’t sit around robbing the dead of their stuff and brain cells like you might like. Despite Agrias and Gaffgarian’s discussion in the prologue, deaths seem to have no impact on the outcome of the fight or the plot at-large, save that if Ramza succumbs to his wounds, it’s game over. If you lose any other party member, you might still get a chest or crystal, but you also permanently lose the party member, which will probably convince you to reload your save instead. Luckily (I suppose, depending on their role in the story), Guest party members like Jerkface can’t permanently die, and their loss on the battlefield is basically just a minor setback. Unconscious Guests do block the square that they collapse in though, which could cause a few tactical problems if you’re unlucky!
As for Battle 02 itself, I was in charge and I tried to fight around the channel in the middle of the village, knowing that it would cost me a height advantage to try to fight from the bottom of the map. I needn’t have worried, since height advantage doesn’t count for much at this early stage in the game, and somehow the entire battle ended up a scrum in the channel rather than around it, except for my initial attack on a rooftop at the outset of the battle (pictured).
By the way, I won’t be mentioning any of our generic characters by name or performance until much later in the game. We did a lot of shuffling, and I don’t want to bore you with names that won’t be important later. Plus, they confuse me with their identical Jobs and sprites, so it’ll be easier to tell each generic apart once they do impressive things and we can say, “Oh yeah, Frank, that’s the Monk that won the Battle of Palamecia with Pummel, Revive and a banana cream pie.”
The battle ended with Ramza being a sanctimonious rich boy with no understanding of the root causes of poverty and the fact that he is simply a tool enforcing the hegemony of the rich over the poor. Okay, okay, that’s maybe a little highfaluting, but for a moment, I actually had some hopes that the game might legitimately be that insightful. At times it approaches that level, but from a point of hindsight, let’s just say that… looking back on it at the time of writing (between Session 1 and 2), I think my actual analysis of the plot would be to say… uh…… how to put this……… long story short, and all that……… “no.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.