My Favorite Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

Possibly my favorite video game of all time, and one that’s apparently impossible to recreate

I think I’d already declared Final Fantasy Tactics my favorite game of all time before I’d even finished my first play-through. I’d never played anything like it; it was my first exposure to tactical strategy games, story-driven strategy games, Final Fantasy as a years-long franchise that existed separate from blockbuster hit Final Fantasy 7, the job system, and even the super-deformed character style.

That’s probably why no attempt to recreate it has gotten it just right: so much of it depended on novelty. I get the impression that very little in the game is completely new, since it existed in Ogre Battle or Final Fantasy IV or any of dozens of Japanese games that I’d never heard of. But it was all new to me. So it defined not only how that type of game should work, but also how many details and interacting systems a single game can, and maybe even should, contain.

After all, this is a game where the damage an attack can do will be based on attack power (of course), defense (sure), level (naturally), resistances (standard RPG stuff), which direction the characters are facing (interesting), differences in elevation (very interesting), faith and bravery scores of the characters (okay I guess), gender (now hang on a second), and zodiac signs (what?). On top of that, there are all these interesting ways to manipulate the time and turn order of a battle. Then there’s an entire job class called Calculator whose abilities take effect based on esoteric arithmetic properties: every character whose level is a prime number, for instance.

There’ve been two sequels for the GameBoy Advance that added some interesting aspects to the game’s setting of Ivalice, but they feel like shallower imitations instead of full games in their own right. And there’s been something of a remake in the form of the War of the Lions version, which brought new cut-scenes and a new translation clearly intended to bring the English-language versions of the game the depth and gravitas the story clearly delivered.

Which I don’t like at all. And it annoys me that War of the Lions has become the only version of the game that’s still playable without digging out my old CD and my original PlayStation. I miss the awkward translation of the original. A few memorable lines from the original were kept for the new translation, but it seems like the vast majority of the dialogue in the game was carefully edited to remove any poor translations and instead have the stately, flowery English that was no doubt intended by the original writers.

I used to think I was being condescending when I preferred the awkward original, in a sense saying tee hee look at the funny Engrish. But now I don’t think it’s actually that, so much as missing the earnest charm that comes from these cute characters waving their tiny hands in the air and shouting nonsense before they incinerate each other or stab each other to death. The original seemed happy to be bizarre to American audiences, while the remaster feels as if it’s desperate to be taken seriously.

Which is a problem when the story is so humorless and overwrought and frankly, such a mess. It’s about factions and houses in decades-long wars conducting impossibly convoluted schemes to form alliances and undermine the power of the church to ultimately summon demons who will take over the planet. Or something like that. I’ve played through the game four times now, and I obviously couldn’t figure out what it was all about through any of it. I’m not even that embarrassed, since characters are named like Zalbag and Dycedarg and you’re just expected to be able to keep up.

I’ve spent the 20+ years since I first played Final Fantasy Tactics looking for a tactical strategy game that I enjoyed as much. Advance Wars is pretty great, although nowhere near as deep. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is probably the closest I’ve found to capturing that feeling of figuring out how a bunch of interconnected systems work with each other. But the holy grail of a true successor remains elusive: something with just the right combination of complexity, expansiveness, depth, and charm.