Final Fantasy Tactics is overrated.

I’m not quite done with the game yet, but I am close enough that I’m willing to call it.

A couple of disclaimers that colored my experience with the game, here… First, I am absolutely smack-dab in this game’s target audience. I’m not some guy who bought the game because he liked Final Fantasy VII, nor am I the guy who picks up anything with the Square-Enix logo on it. I love tactical RPGs. I’ve written more words about Fire Emblem than any one man ever should. I put more than a hundred hours into both Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games. I’ve got three more tactical RPGs on the docket after this one. If FFT is aiming for anyone, it’s aiming for me. I love strategy RPGs, I love political fantasy, and I love job systems… How could you go wrong? Frankly, it’s stunning that it took me this long to get to the game.

Secondly, I’ve had people telling me for literally years how great this game is and how none of the sequels measure up. I’ve dropped in on any number of “what is the best Final Fantasy” threads only to have people drop “FFT” like it’s a killing point, and it seems to be more or less universally beloved, while the sequels are more divisive. Given how much I enjoyed the sequels (despite some obvious flaws), I figured this meant I was in for a hell of a time.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I came to the game expecting to be blown away, and I was massively disappointed. Good? Sure. Worth playing? Absolutely. Best FF ever? Clearly better than its sequels? Top ten game ever? No fucking way.

What I think happened here is similar to the original Legend of Zelda, where the original game prominently featured some elements that its progeny, for whatever reason, mostly discarded. The people who were drawn to the original FFT for its ambiguous political plot or extremely flexible job system resented that future games didn’t really follow up on either, and began holding up the original as an example of model game design despite some fairly obvious and fairly severe flaws, in the same way people who think that Zelda should be about unrestricted exploration and punishing combat hold that the original game is the pinnacle of the series. And I understand that sentiment, I really do. But I had more fun with the FFTA games — far more — by any metric you care to use.

When I think of the FFTA games, I think of picking up the game for a few minutes only to play for hours; afternoons or even whole weekends lost to them; experimenting with every class; finding every secret; grinding for the sheer joy of it. When I think of FFT, I think of becoming so beset by frustration or tedium that I frequently had to just set the game aside and play something else for awhile.

Here’s a list of things that I can’t believe actually made it into a retail release of a strategy RPG in this day and age:

  1. Unskippable cutscenes. The localization (in War of the Lions, at least) is superb, but I don’t really need to read it every time I restart a battle.
  2. A complete inability to back out of a battle once it’s been initiated. There’s no retreat option, no forfeit option, no ability to quit back to the menu, no soft reset. I come from a school of strategy-RPG play (no doubt initiated by my upbringing with the Fire Emblem games) where it’s no chore at all to retry a fight over and over until it goes exactly the way I want it to, but FFT offers no means to do this. To restart a fight once it’s been started your only recourse is to quit back to the main PSP menu and reload the game. There are a number of situations in which you haven’t technically lost yet, but you still don’t want to continue (for example, if one of your party members is crystalized), but the game makes you go through the motions of getting a game over before you can try again. This is unspeakably annoying, especially when combined with…
  3. Laughably frequent, and laughably difficult, random encounters. In the FFTA games, random encounters are visible as units running around on the same map as you, and you can avoid them or run from them if you don’t feel like screwing with them. In FFTA, random encounters are truly random, having a chance of occuring whenever you step on a spot on the map that isn’t a town. They’re supposed to have something like a 30% chance of occurring, but in practice it’s more like 80%, so making a journey of any distance usually involves at least three or four fights. If you want to level or build jobs in FFTA there are always a number of quests at your disposal; if you want to level or build jobs in FFT you run circles around the town like it’s 1985 again. The random battles also get progressively more dangerous as the game proceeds and their levels scale to yours, so if you fight too many of them you simultaneously transform the main story into a joke while making the random fights into deadly struggles. But they’re never interesting; it’s always just monsters, who tend to blur together. Unless you’re looking to grind JP fighting random battles is almost never profitable, but you get the impression that the developers wanted it to be 75% of your total playtime. And again, the only way to get out of a random fight if you don’t want to deal with it is to reset the game…
  4. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the game didn’t see fit to send you galivanting across the map at the slightest pretext. Certain towns specialize in certain kinds of equipment, so if you’ve changed classes and need to update your heavy armor or got your weapon rent and need to replace it, it’s back six or seven spaces for you. Away quests require you to send your characters on jobs for weeks at a time, time that can only be passed by wandering the world map and getting into fights. (Oh, and the FFTA games allowed you to finish an away quest at any bar; FFT of course does not do this, forcing you to return to the town you started the quest from.) And one town (which is of course an out-of-the-way backwater which isn’t close to anything) is the hub for the game-spanning sidequest and requires you to return there four or five times throughout Chapters 3 and 4, fighting all the way.
  5. The camera is awful. It’s impossible to keep the action fully on screen at once no matter what angle you set it to. There are a number of maps which are shaped roughly like canyons, with high terrain on either side and a crevasse in the middle; it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on in the crevasse. This appears to have been accounted for not at all.
  6. Those are all just annoyances; the real problem comes back to the battles. For one thing, you can’t take back moves, which is a staple technique in, oh, pretty much every SRPG ever. Usual strategy is to select a likely square, send your character there, and see if they can do anything profitable there. If they can’t, call them back and send them somewhere else. But no, FFT locks you into a space once you’ve moved there, so if you send a character to a space only to find that they have no good actions from that space (legion were the times I accidentally sent a character to a space diagonal of the one I intended thanks to camera issues), you’re fucked. Don’t cry difficulty or strategy here; FE10 lets you call back moves and it’s way harder and more strategic than FFT just the same. It’s just a poor design decision. But okay, you’ve learned that lesson, and can compensate…
  7. If not for the fact that small details can completely derail your strategies. Certain skills are rendered useless by small height differences. Certain skills are useless anyway except in the most favorable cases. Zodiac compatibility can slash your accuracy or damage unexpectedly, enemy characters will be inexplicably immune to certain techniques, the AI blatantly cheats… it just goes on and on. Essentially the game is punishing you for not already knowing it inside and out but resists your efforts to learn it, since so many of these are corner cases that only come up once in a while.
  8. Certain jobs are worthless. Is there any reason to play an Archer? How about a Dragoon? Or, really, anyone besides a special character? Others, like Orator or Mystic, are so situational it’s difficult to envision carrying their skills over more straightforward abilities. In addition, you have to spend time in a lot of these classes because they’re prerequisites for other, better classes. In FFTA if you needed to run a character through a mediocre class real quick in order to open up another class, you equipped them with a 100 AP weapon and sent them on an away mission. In FFT, you’re stuck actually using that useless class until you’ve got enough JP built up that you can leave it behind.
  9. Moreover, certain skills don’t work the way you’d expect them to. Concentrate makes skills guaranteed to hit, except when it doesn’t. You learn a skill called Brawler that lets every class fight as effectively barehanded as a Monk… but it doesn’t actually, because Monks have a high PA that other classes don’t, so sticking it on a mage to let them get in on the action (a la FFV) doesn’t work.
  10. Balance issues… Brave/Faith is borked, as Faith’s a double-edged sword in a number of respects but there’s no drawback at all (except in a few corner cases) to having a high Brave. This makes physical fighters generally better than mages… except for Arithematicians, who snap the game in half, and not even in a fun way. (I had to stop using my Arithematician simply because she was ruining the game for me.) The CPU continues to use beginner classes like Knights and Archers well into the endgame, so the super-flexible class system is put to waste somewhat because not only will the computer not really use it against you, you don’t even really need to use it to beat the computer.

Now, the game has its merits… It’s got a genuinely interesting story backed by a fantastic localization, with multi-dimensional characters and real depth and weight to its world and plot. There’s a ton going on behind the scenes that is only tangentially related to the main plot, and that’s a level of detail you don’t often get in games. It’s too bad it degenerates into magic rocks and sealed demons by the end, but Matsuno’s games usually do, so…

Its class system also seems better than any of its successors. The major problem with the FFTA games is that subdividing the classes by race limits the amount of potential combinations you can try. (This is especially bad in FFTA2, where the classes are ludicrously specialized and a couple of races only have four.) FFT is a lot more open, both in that any unit can spend time in any class and that skills can be learned in any order (although this tends to homogenize your units, as certain skills just aren’t worth getting, so everyone tends to look the same after a while).

The game’s visual design is also excellent, with lots of lovingly detailed sprites and other small elements that really give the game life. One of my favorite scenes in the game is early on, when Wiegraf is putting the screws to his underling in a windmill while a nameless Thief leans against the wall with his arms crossed. You don’t see spritework like this anymore.

(People tell me the soundtrack is an all-time great, but to be honest I’m having trouble clearly recalling a single tune on it, aside from the astoundingly catchy tutorial theme. And I love Sakimoto!)

Really, in the end FFT is a game that I wish would get an honest-to-god remake (as opposed to the straight port + new stuff which is WotL). I can tell that the core of the game is solid gold, but it’s hampered by all this other stuff to the point where I can’t get at it. Strip out the garbage and the tedious bullshit and fix the balance issues, and then we’d really have something to talk about. Until then, I guess I’ve got another game to wonder about when other people start raving. Onto the list with Zelda 1 and Cave Story with you, I guess.


8 Responses to “Final Fantasy Tactics is overrated.”

  1. 1 JDezso December 16, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I agree with pretty much every point. I hated how the story degenerated the way it did. Rhe worst part of this game is that you can only use 5 characters. And when you compare that to Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre, Shining Force – all around the 12 mark – it’s so disarming to do battle with a mere 5. My second major complaint against what is a good game is that there is s massive disbalance throughout the entire game. Some battles are stupidly hard or easy. You acquire characters who are stupidly good compared to those you’ve raised throughout the game. As said in the article, physical fighters butcher magical.

    A good game but anyone who says its the best FF game is on drugs. It’s solid, but has some obvious shortcomings. I did find the first 20 hours extremely fun though. Extremely.

  2. 2 Mogri March 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    2. I don’t know about PSP, but the PSX release had a soft reset (L1+L2+R1+R2+Select+Start).

    3. I think you meant “FFT” where you said “FFTA” the second time.

    6. You can’t take back moves because the game has traps. Granted, this is a poor excuse: there aren’t many traps and the game would be better if it had move takebacks and no traps.

    8. Oracle (Mystic) is one of the best jobs in the game. Are all of the jobs good? No, but none of them is truly bad. Also, you can use propositions to level your characters, just like FFTA.

    9. Monks had a higher attack power than mages in FFV, too.

    And I just noticed this post is dated August… Oh well.

    • 3 bravesword March 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      2. PSP indeed does not.

      3. Yes, you’re correct.

      6. FFTA2 has both traps and take-backable moves, as do many other SRPGs.

      8. Really? Not even Archers? Besides, the point is not that Jobs are awful; it’s just that with many of them there’s no reason to actually use them, and with many others you want either one ability or just enough Job levels to unlock another Job. My feeling is that Jobs should be both usable and fun on their own merits.

      As for Mystics, I never saw it, and god knows I gave them a chance. It seemed to me their greatest advantage was the ability to use Poles. The status effect attacks all had vanishingly low accuracy and never seemed worth it in the first place, and they’re obsoleted by a special character anyway, which was my point.

      9. Maybe, but you could stick Bare-Handed (or whatever that ability was called in FFV) on any class and that class would gain the Monk’s high attack power for the purposes of basic attacks. In that way, you could circumvent the low attack power of a mage, at least in the early game. Not only does this not work in FFT, it’s not even desirable, since mages can usually deal more damage with staves and poles and other MA-based weapons than they possibly could with a weapon. I don’t like it when the game gives you what seems to be a valid strategy then arbitrarily keeps it from working.

      • 4 PapillonReel March 10, 2012 at 10:56 pm

        It’s been a while since I’ve booted up FFT, but I remember the big advantage to Mystics/Oracles being that they can max out their Faith with their own spells. With their Faith as high as it can go, they can reliably cripple groups of enemies with Blind, Silence, Chicken, Don’t Act or Sleep and proceed to sneak up on and beat them to death one-by-one. They’re one of the easier SCCs for that reason alone (and reportedly one of the most fun as well – I know a guy that completed every SCC in the game save for Bard, Dancer and Mime, and Oracle was one of his all-time favourites).

        That said, Beowulf is still much better at getting said spells to land, which I guess is your point re: their obsolescence. The lack of an area of effect on his spells does hold him back a little, however.

  3. 5 Darkholme May 2, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    This game /IS/ in the top 5 games I’ve ever played, though I do agree with you that it has a number of glaring weaknesses that were not corrected in WotL, many of which you have listed here, though there are some others as well.

    Unlike most console games, FFT has a modding community. (, and there are all kinds of finished (and abandoned) mods for the game.

    There are a handful of mods that exist to rebalance the game, and a few that replace the skillsets of Archer and Lancer (which are kindof boring, since they’re each just a single command).

    If you’re looking to get into modding the game, some of the tools can be a pain to find, unless you go on their IRC (linked at the top as mibbit) and ask them, but if you’re looking to play the game with some improvements (or a completely different story, or a different game in the same engine) there are options available to make that happen, and some of them are fantastic.

    FFT Rebirth is pretty good, as is FFT1.3. Both are different approaches at rebalancing the game. If you do run FFT1.3, I highly advise you to also download FFTorgASM and patch your modded FFT with the hack that makes NPC gear scale with whats available in shops instead of by level (1.3 predates this rebalancing patch). FFT1.3 story battles scale with you, and in story battles, that can mean opponents with gear way better than you can buy, if you’re a higher level than the NPCs normally would be at that point in the story.

  4. 6 Dhavaran June 1, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Thank you for this. I really wanted to like it, but alas, it didn’t happen.

  5. 7 B G August 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    I just started playing FFT for the first time on PS1. I know very little about the game, so it might be that my opinion would be different if I had more experience. But, the archer has been a critical unit for me. I’m only in chapter 2 and I doubt the archer will be viable forever. I’ve been using the archer pretty much exclusively to cast the knight’s speed break, power break, and mind break abilities. Being able to do from a range that avoids counter attacks has made using the knights abilities far more effective in battles than a melee unit.

    • 8 Darkholme August 15, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      The Knight’s abilities work quite well on the Archer. being able to break pieces of equipment at range, or Speed Break, or Power Break are all very useful things.

      But Archer is only useful when you give it Battle Skill; by itself it is a terrible unit. Charge is a terrible moveset. The setup you describe is likely the only way I would use an Archer in unmodded FFT.

      That said, I’m still not convinced I would take it over a Calculator, Martial Arts Ninja, or Two-Swords Monk (Especially a Two-Swords Monk Ramza with Basic Skill and Teleport), but it can be quite useful nonetheless.

      I’m not a fan of breaking enemy equipment though (if it’s broken, I can’t steal it) so for me, Battle Skill is much less useful than it would be for someone who isn’t trying to take all of the enemy’s valuables.

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