Nearly 20 years ago Squaresoft released the actual perfect videogame in Final Fantasy Tactics. At the time it was overshadowed by the release of Final Fantasy VII, which was not only an excellent game in its own right but also a landmark in video game history. While it may still be in the shadow of its more conventional cousin, Final Fantasy Tactics was an amazing game and remains my pick as the absolute best game in the tactical #RPG genre. There have been a lot of similar games, including its predecessor Tactics Ogre, but none of them live up the absolute perfection of Final Fantasy Tactics and I’d like to take a look at what this game did that other games have failed to do. I’m not going to talk about the plot elements of the game very much, as wonderful as they are, because excellent writing and character development isn’t entirely uncommon. I want to talk about areas that are uniquely a part of Final Fantasy Tactics. Things like…
1. A Perfect Job System
Let’s start here. The Final Fantasy franchise has made use of its iconic jobs in several games, starting with the very first entry where the player built their party of four at the beginning and being further developed in Final Fantasy III where characters were given the ability to change jobs throughout the game. The system was perfected, though, in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Your characters changed jobs throughout the game much like in Final Fantasy III and the classes level up independent from one another and also independently from the character’s overall level. There’s a lot of room to build every character on your team to exact specifications whether you want the coolness of blasting an enemy with Fire 4 or the outright cheesiness of a monk who can punch twice because of his “two swords” ability. Character advancement is very straightforward and intuitive, but it can also go really deep if you want it to.
Most other tactical RPGs just don’t do this. Sure, a lot of them will let you recruit team members with different abilities, either through a fixed job system like Phantom Brave or through wholly unique character like in Sakura Wars. The problem with these is that they either heavily limit your options, or force you to abandon characters when you want to change your play style rather than training a favorite character in a new class and I usually end up just sticking to my loved and, more importantly, leveled regulars.
2. The Generic Units
Yes, the generic units. The squires that you can recruit that have absolutely no serious bearing on the story whatsoever. And yes, I know that some other games have generic units, but they are usually either functionally worthless compared to the storyline characters, as in Operation Darkness, or they’re tied to a specific class, as in Soul Nomad. In Final Fantasy Tactics your generic units have infinite potential. Yes, there are a healthy number of unique characters that can fill out your entire team in the end game, but if you want to keep using your highly trained black mage instead of Agrias you won’t lose very much by doing so.
This has several benefits to the game. For one, it lets the story-focused player build their team to a mechanical preference without worrying about what the character is supposed to do. It also means that the game can limit the number of protagonist characters that it is trying to develop. Yes, Final Fantasy Tactics has loads and loads of characters, but the only one that has to be in every scene is the hero and the immediately relevant villain. This means that even as complex as the story is, the player can process it easily enough because the only real arc that they have to follow is Ramza’s and everything else is optional. Sure there are some interludes that develop other characters, like Delita and the Princess, but they’re pretty small because those characters aren't part of your party for most of the game. Heck, even the other story characters don’t become party members until much later, after their major plot points have been resolved. This means that the player won’t feel obligated to put them into their party unless they want to use their unique abilities.
3. The Brave Story, Or, Optional Complexity
This is a hard one to explain, but I’ll try. Final Fantasy Tactics has an extremely complex storyline. You can beat the entire game and only scratch the barest surface of what’s going on. Without spoiling too much, there are basically two major stories happening during the game: the War of the Lions, which is a civil war where two dukes are vying for control over the kingdom, and the Brave Story, which deals with the machinations of otherworldly beings. The hero, Ramza, deals primarily with the latter. However, there’s an entire novel’s worth of accessible backstory available to the player in the form of the “Brave Story” option on the menu, which lets the player delve into each character’s backstory, their relationships, and what’s happening in the places that you’re not. There are also side quests that dive further into the history of the world and missions that you can send spare soldiers on to gain even more information about the world.
The thing is, so much of this is completely optional. It’s there, it’s fascinating, and it’s very easily accessible, but if you choose to ignore it then your experience with the main game will be entirely unaffected minus maybe the benefit of a little extra context. It’s like Game of Thrones (in fact, this game derived many of its plot elements from the historical War of the Roses, which was also the inspiration for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels) in that you can honestly delve as far into the history of the world as you like, or you can choose to only focus on what’s happening in the main storyline and neither decision penalizes you.
Most games have extra content, but there are very few that come to my mind that go so far beyond the main storyline and many of them don’t really feel optional from a story perspective even if you don’t have to do them to finish the game. Final Fantasy Tactics is the only game I can think of that really lets you decide exactly how deep you want to go into the world while also making all of that information available in the game proper.
4. Fast Actions
I think that this one gets overlooked by everyone, from the players to other game developers, but it's big. An attack animation in Final Fantasy Tactics takes maybe one second, and that is beautiful. Even the summons, which are traditionally the abilities with the longest animations in these games took ten seconds or so. Why is that a big deal? Well, typically these games show full animations whenever you attack which last anywhere from five seconds (As in Operation Darkness for the PS3 and Xbox 360) to upwards of 10 (As in Der Langrisser for the SNES). In a genre with battles that already last a long time, waiting for the camera to change for attacks can be frustrating.
Now, I also know that some people prefer a more elaborate attack animations, but for me the quicker an action is resolved the better. Sure, I love the bigger animations the first time I see them, and it’s a great thing to put on the trailer, but I really get fed up when I have to wait five seconds every time to find out if I hit or miss and how much damage I do.
Also, and this is only tangentially related, Final Fantasy Tactics had a really rewarding high pitched sound effect for when you landed a critical hit. It didn’t really matter how much actual damage the attack did, that shrill clashing sound followed by your opponent flying back a square made it feel like you had just shaken the pillars of the Earth with your strike. God that’s a good feeling.
Now, I know that the game’s predecessor, Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, pioneered all of these mechanics but they weren’t perfected until FFT came along, which is why the remake of Tactics Ogre upgraded itself to be more like its successor. Since then, some games have adapted some of these elements but no game has combined them quite like FFT and I really think they are the key ingredients to a perfect tactical RPG.