WARNING: Final Fantasy Tactics spoilers inside!
We need to start this editorial with a disclaimer to say that we’re not too ungrateful. Square Enix’s gracious offering of the Final Fantasy series across both the Xbox One and, more importantly, the Nintendo Switch is a welcome gesture for Final Fantasy fans and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on a portable console will finally make its deep dungeons and monster hunting quests accessible to those who can’t dedicate that much time in front of a television set, and the rest of the classic games from its most successful era being available for younger gamers helps ensure that the brand never disappears.
That being said, we still missed out on the absolute ideal Final Fantasy game for a portable console. No, we’re not joining the chorus demanding answers for Final Fantasy VIII’s (admittedly hilarious) exclusion. We’re not talking about Final Fantasy XIV Online, which I think would struggle on the Switch and definitely couldn’t be played everywhere, as would be Nintendo’s wishes. We’re not even talking about the classic Super Nintendo trilogy, no matter how much the threat of those awful remakes looms over our heads.
Nope, today, we’re going to try to make a case for Square’s masterpiece, the undeniable classic and the ultimate portable Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy Tactics. Even in an age where Fire Emblem has roared back from the grave and dominates the trends and standards for the strategy RPG genre, the original Final Fantasy Tactics still holds every imaginable edge over its modern-day counterparts and could teach the world a thing or two about depth, customization, storytelling, art direction, music, difficulty curves, multiplayer, secrets, and most of all, the secret formula for infinite replay value.
Twenty years later, this is still one of the most captivating video games ever made and would feel like a revolution even in today’s modern market place.
First, we’ll come out in support of a retooling of the PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. Both the classic 1997 PlayStation version and its 2007 port have their supporters, and both offer plenty of nostalgic value. Some fans still prefer the original translation, and while I was in this group for many years, recent playthroughs of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions have warmed my old soul up to the re-translation.
It takes a little getting used to, more so the names of abilities than character names, but in the end, War of the Lion’s translation captures the entirety of the story and does a superior job of using the power of language to promote the game’s themes and styles.
The PSP version also has a better balance between job classes, and climbing that ladder to those more powerful ones is rightfully more challenging. If you want to spam Ninjas and Lancers at Fort Zeakden, then you’ll have to grind it out and earn them!
War of the Lions features more slots for characters, more job classes, more secret character cameos (Balthier from Final Fantasy XII and Luso from Final Fantasy Tactics A2), more secret quests, those beautiful cutscenes that keep the original concept art entirely intact, and multiplayer options, essential for helping games keep their shelf life.
Well, lesser games, anyway. Final Fantasy Tactics needs no help retaining its infinite replayability, but multiplayer certainly doesn’t harm it either.
In fact, the only downside of War of the Lions has been proven to be correctable. The PSP version’s infamously poor programming creates slowdown and staggers with many, if not all, of the game’s vital battle animations, slowing the pace to maddening levels at times. It takes a lot of stomach to get through some of the more complicated summon spells later in the game, especially after twenty years of seeing them run perfectly on inferior hardware.
Fans have long since patched this slowdown out of the game, but this requires a modified PSP to run and naturally can’t be enjoyed on a PS Vita. Following this discovery, Square Enix also re-optimized the game for a release on iOS in 2011 and Android in 2013, and neither version displays this dreadful slowdown in any capacity. Of course, this comes at the sacrifice of traditional analog buttons, so pick your poison.
The Switch is the only console in history that can cover all of these areas so that no sacrifice needs to be made. If you want touch controls, they’re certainly possible, as are traditional button controls if you prefer them. The Switch has clearly established itself as a powerful enough console to run a twenty-year-old, pixelated game without slowdown, and using the programming optimization found in the iOS and Android versions, Nintendo’s console could easily display the game as was intended.
And most importantly, the Switch is portable, meaning your team can go anywhere you want with you. But why would you want to play this old timer’s favorite over what the modern day market offers?
Well, sit back and pull up a chair, kid. I’m about to school you a little bit.
Final Fantasy Tactics is a video game that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and many of these levels depend entirely on the player’s imagination.
Of course, as with all RPGs, the game features a story mode, and this is where most people play and enjoy the game. Final Fantasy Tactics’ story, written by mastermind Yasumi Matsuno, doesn’t pull inspiration from earlier video games or lift trends from the latest anime that the kids watch. Matsuno’s games always turn to a far superior place to pull inspiration from: history. Whether its the Balkan Wars for Tactics Ogre or, in Final Fantasy Tactics’ case, War of the Roses, Matsuno’s games capture humanity during some of its darkest times and show that heroes exist behind the scenes of conflict, often times never remembered for their deeds.
In Final Fantasy Tactics’ world, the people remember a high king by the name of Delita Hyral, a true folk hero come to life. Born as a commoner and a stable boy of a noble family, he rose through the ranks of the military, abandoned the soldier’s life to become a high ranking member of the church, pushed his way into politics and royalty, and then smote them all down by appealing to the masses, promising to end the corruption that tore Ivalice apart, and securing his power as the sole ruler throughout the land.
At least, that’s how history remembers him. In truth, Delita was a shadowy figure and political gambler, no hero by any means and certainly no better than the people he replaced.
Final Fantasy Tactics’ meta-story takes place in a banned history book that recounts the true story of Delita’s rise to power and recalls how a long-forgotten noble house produced a true hero by the name of Ramza Beoulve, a young man who stood up for justice and the mandate of his family’s knightly name. Branded as a heretic, cast from nobility, shunned by his family, Ramza endured the greatest suffering of all by challenging the powers that be, not because he sought glory, not because he wanted power, but because it was the right thing to do.
And history has no record of his selfless acts.
The game raises the question of whether Ramza’s path to fighting corruption is the proper way to bring it to an end, where the means are justified, or Delita’s path of using corruption against itself, where the ends are justified, is the right way to go. Delita’s path succeeds in the game, but does humanity as a whole get anywhere or learn anything from this chapter of its history?
Of course, Final Fantasy Tactics goes a little off-rails from this brilliant setup by introducing holy monsters and inciting a vengeful saint returning as an all-powerful messiah looking to wreak havoc on the corrupted world, but Matsuno had to tell his tale within the context of Final Fantasy. To those means, these typical Final Fantasy tropes tie into the politics and heroism of the core tale.
Playing through this story over and over is enough reason for Final Fantasy Tactics to remain a viable game on the modern market. I can’t count how many times I’ve played through it and how many new elements I discover each time. Matsuno’s story is as addictive as its gameplay, and while thematically weaker than its counterpart Tactics Ogre, which doesn’t resort to dark lords or monsters, controlling Ramza and watching him tear through the history books delivers a thrill that destroys every other plot in the Final Fantasy universe.
Final Fantasy Tactics tells a tale about the forgotten heroes of history, and it is here that we find the core of Final Fantasy Tactics’ second level of enjoyment, its characters. No, not Ramza or Delita or even the Thunder God Orlandeau, but the nameless, customizable rank-and-file soldiers that make up the ranks of Ramza’s travel-mates.
Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that excels on every level in character customization, creating stone-hardened warriors or mastermind mages out of cadets. In the game’s opening chapter, players are granted six fellow warriors to battle alongside Ramza, grow alongside him in ability, and help carry the burden of his deeds from battle to battle. Monks with the power to crush through stone with their fists, Summoners to call spirits from an ancient age to aid them in battle, Knights to soak up damage and break enemy equipment, Thieves to lift valuable items from enemy pockets, Mediators to recruit rival soldiers and even monsters into Ramza’s ranks.
You have to understand that while this customization is commonplace in video games nowadays, in 1997, it was brand new to North American gamers. We missed out on Dragon Quest III, Final Fantasy III, and Final Fantasy V, the JRPGs that are credited with cementing character customization as a permanent fixture of the JRPG genre. Unless you gamed on hardcore PC RPGs or played Dungeons & Dragons, this depth was a whole new world to explore for many gamers of that age.
Any good strategy game creates a sense of companionship between the players and their units. Some use cute personalities like the recent Fire Emblem games, but the best of the best let the players decide who their characters are. In playing Final Fantasy Tactics over the years, I’ve created countless heroes of history, imagined their motivations, their relationships with others in the group, their origins, their strengths and faults.
This is why, even with powerful characters like Agrias or Meliadoul as an alternative, I bring my original fighting squad with me into the final battle every time. How could I not? I’ve sunk hours of effort into carving my own characters out of nothing, building them up from their rookie status, seeing them take hits and suffer alongside Ramza. Having someone else step into their shoes to close out the personal stories I’ve made for them seems wrong.
Customization is the core of video gaming nowadays, and you can hurl a rock into a pile of games that give you the tools to create your own experience. I doubt this trend would have taken off so effectively or when it did without the success Final Fantasy Tactics and its blank slate characters in the late 90s. Modern day gamers, even with the countless other options available, would benefit to know where this movement in gaming came from.
And yes, being able to freely play on the Nintendo Switch, taking your squad of characters everywhere with you, would be the best way to establish that ever-important connection between a player and his troops.
And then there is the third level in which Final Fantasy Tactics can be enjoyed, the post-game. No, Square Enix has never once established an official “New Game+” for Final Fantasy Tactics, but that hasn’t stopped the fanbase from creating their own.
Final Fantasy Tactics leaves the fate of Ramza open to players’ imaginations, and only recently did the game’s producers state that he survives his ordeal, traveling to other kingdoms after being abandoned by his own. To this day, two decades after the game originally came out, pockets of fans still carry on the adventures of Ramza and his followers. The game makes for a perfect backdrop for customizable RPGs, with dungeon masters using its map to create quests and its perfect battle system never faltering in providing challenges for even the most attuned teams and players.
You can imagine the excitement of these fans when War of the Lions introduced multiplayer into the fray, allowing for a more direct way for players to interact with one another within the system of their meta-game.
Fans have created a wealth of original tales, and digging through them is almost as fun as playing Matsuno’s own story. Go digging and find a few of them!
And naturally, players need to be in the same room when they are running campaigns with Final Fantasy Tactics as an engine. Enter the Switch, with its portable screen and easy controls. Need I say more?
Whatever your reasoning or however you want to play it, there simply is no Final Fantasy game more suited for a release on the modern portable market than Final Fantasy Tactics. Sure, you can go be an emo with Squall for old time’s sake or Blitz around with Sabin in Kefka’s Tower, but no Final Fantasy game comes close to providing the replayability, customization, and depth of this masterpiece.
And the Switch is the best place to do it. Hopefully, if this first wave of Final Fantasy games on the console is a hit and Square Enix decides to dedicate more resources into porting the other games, we will see it within the ranks of the series’ other greats.
Probably not. We’ll likely just have to suffer through three more games of Lightning again.