It’s a shame that modern SRPGs fail to capture a great epic story like the ones in years past. Back in the day we had stuff like Tactics Ogre, now we have ones that are comedic with very little substance, like Disgaea. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great games, but it always feels like they are missing something. I think I was spoiled, because my first SRPG was Final Fantasy Tactics. A lot of people really love this game, and I can honestly say I’m among that group. However, a lot of people hate the game, but I can see why. But I’ll address that later, for now, it’s time to review Final Fantasy Tactics. As always, there are unmarked spoilers. You’ve been warned.
When I first played Final Fantasy Tactics, my cousin brought it over one day and showed me the “new” Final Fantasy game he had gotten. Only problem was, the game wasn’t new, BJ’s was selling the game for $15 for a Greatest Hits copy. So it wasn’t exactly new. But we popped it in, and I remember the first battle and remember being very intrigued by the battle system. Eventually we progressed, and got to (what we thought was) a pretty impossible battle. When he had left, and I got my own copy, I learned everything I did wrong and rectified it. Final Fantasy III and V had the job system, but it was the first time I had ever encountered it. Once I unlocked the new jobs, I began to make my way through the game. And I began to see how great the story was, and how all the Final Fantasy games I had played before it paled in comparison.
I’m not lying when I say that I can discuss the story for hours and hours upon end. It’s complex, and makes you think often. In it’s purest form, it’s a story about stopping corruption. I could go into a finer detail of every plot twist, every time there was a religious reference, etc etc. The game play is typical of your SRPG. Move along squares, use an action, rinse, repeat. But it’s just a classic tale, one you’d imagine reading in a book dedicated to King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Yet you never hear the story of the game brought up when it comes to the “best ever”. Well, for one, the game moves very slow. Battles are somewhat slow. The story takes a while to reach the rising action. It’s not as satisfying as a Final Fantasy VII, or sidebustingly funny like Disgaea. All you see are these characters, running around and talking about the mistreated common folk. I take back what I said about it being in a book about chivalry. With the way it starts, you’d think it belongs in the Communist Manifesto.
This game paved the way for a two hero story which predates both Breath of Fire IV and Final Fantasy VIII. Ramza is who you play as. Along the way, he goes from being a noble, to a mercenary, to finally, being branded as a heretic by the church. In the end, Ramza loses everything for two reasons: He refuses to watch injustice happen, and later, all he wants to do is save his sister from the corrupt church. Well, what about the other hero? Delita is one of Square’s most interesting characters. He, at times, plays the villain. It is arguable that he is the villain of the story. He double crosses people constantly, he uses them for his own gain, he feigns love to a member of royalty, all so he can unite the land of Ivalice under his rule, where there is no class warfare. He does this as a result of never wanting to be used, after seeing the death of his sister Teta before his very eyes. His adoption of Machiavellian tactics allows him to view his actions as heroic, whereas to the player, it just seems sadistic. In the end, Delita succeeded and became the king who unified Ivalice, and under his watch, the history that was recorded struck Ramza completely from it. But save for a few battles where he is a guest character (characters controlled by the AI), Delita is not playable in any sense (He is in War of the Lions, the remake on the PSP, for two battles). Through the actions of you, the player, you end up enlightening the person in possession of the Durai Papers (it is implied that as you play, it is as if Alzalam, the person who helps you set up a new game is reading them), which are the only recorded piece of history that exposes the truth about Delita and Ramza.
Delita isn’t the only character who adopts these tactics. Plenty of people throughout the story willingly throw away their souls in a bid for “change”. Ramza’s eldest brother killed their own father and had them one step away from ruling Ivalice themselves. The church is corrupt from head to toe, knowing the truth behind their hokey religion and forcing the public to believe in them (a plot device later reused in Final Fantasy X). Nearly the entire time these “ends justify the means” tactics are employed, the characters using them claim it’s for the good of the people. In some instances, they are correct. But being as how what they are doing is morally wrong, it would be insane for them to be considered heroes. When put together the way that it was, the story, and the character interactions in particular shine bright. In dare I say, perhaps the greatest game story ever told. The game makes you feel what Ramza is feeling, it makes you feel the pain his brother Dycedarg feels as his brothers turn against him. In one powerful quote, you can see that despite the heinous crimes he committed, all he wanted to do was protect his family. It makes you feel the same sort of notion with Delita, who despite being very charismatic and smart, was a broken man after the death of his sister. You can feel the pain of Princess Ovelia as her world crumbles around her after she is told she isn’t even the real princess. Time after time in this game do the plot turns keep coming, none of them half-assed. There are very few faults with the story, characterization/character development and overall pacing, it’s just an amazing piece of work and definitely in Square’s top three of all time.
So why, given the way this story is nearly universally praised, have creators of SRPGs taken the “safe” route? Yes, Fire Emblem has a great story. But it’s the exception, not the rule. I think the modern gamer doesn’t have the attention span to follow a more deep story. We live in an instant gratification society. We don’t cook, we microwave. We don’t do dishes by hand, we use the dishwasher. People don’t want to play a 40 hour game and be done with it. They want to spend 2 hours a night over a year’s time, playing first person shooters or MOBAs or MMORPGs. So in order to disguise the play time of a RPG, developers often use comedy to give the illusion that the game is shorter. There’s not a lot to remember, so even if there is grinding, you can continue the story without worrying about forgetting what just happened. Another factor is that RPGs have become strictly formula. There hasn’t been too much we haven’t seen. You put out a game like FFT today, and people would go “Oh, another 40 hour epic set in the Renaissance”. The good news is, that most games are timeless. While it’s true many of the PlayStation and N64 games of the era didn’t age well, considering the SRPG genre as a whole didn’t rely on graphics, it doesn’t look much different from your Disgaeas or Fire Emblems or other games in the same vein. If you haven’t played this game and I haven’t convinced you by now, then maybe it’s just not the game for you. But on the other hand, if I have, then all I can tell you is to stick with it. The first two chapters are difficult and the plot starts slow, but it really picks up fast after that. It will be one of the most rewarding games you’ll ever play. Period. And if you really love the game as much as I do, I hope you’ll look into FFT v1.3, which is a patch that fixes the most common exploits players have used to beat the vanilla game and raises the difficulty substantially.
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