The town of St. Ivalice is about as normal as any other town. In it you’ll find normal peace loving people, and during the opening sequence we’re brought to its rather big elementary school. It’s winter, and just recently a boy named Marche moved into town. During a snowball fight Marche and a girl named Ritz defend the easily picked on boy names Mewt, and as a result they become friends. They’re all fans of mysticism, monsters, role-playing games and such, so when Mewt says he’s going to buy a strange mystical book, they decide to meet at Marche’s home, so Marche’s brother could have a look at it.
They start checking it out, but the letters are in some strange language. However when they stumble across some letters they can understand, they read them out loud. It sure sounds good, and they wish what they actually have would be a magic book. Mewt wonders – “what if the world in this book was the real world?” Ritz isn’t as interested, because she’s more into games. Ritz would rather have the world in a game turn into reality, and Mewt says his favorite game is Final Fantasy – surprisingly. They decide it’s getting late, and that they should continue the chat the next day. That night something unexpected happened in the town of St. Ivalice; because when Marche and the rest of his gang woke up, they found themselves in a weird desert land, far from each other.
In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance you take the primary role of Marche, who first needs to figure out where he is, what’s going on, and most importantly – figure out how the heck he’s going to get back home. Throughout his journey he meets a host of strange animal-like characters – some friendlier than others. Marche quickly realizes that he’s actually IN the game Final Fantasy, and it seems as if he’ll need to destroy four crystals in order to “turn off” the game world. To make this happen he’ll need to form the strongest clan in the country of Ivalice, because you can bet the crystals will be guarded well.
To make things worse, the country of Ivalice is ruled by some questionable people who have started enforcing some strange rules. Any fighting that takes place will have a referee watching it over, who at the start of the match sets rules about what’s allowed, and what’s not. For instance, using fire magic may be illegal in one match, while thunder magic is encouraged. Breaking a rule may give you a yellow or a red card, depending on the severity of the crime. If you’re unfortunate enough to get a red card then you’ll be sent to jail, where you’ll normally need to be bailed out. On the other hand, using what’s been encouraged will give you a judge point, one of which you can also get if you defeat a player of the opposing clan. These judge points are nice, because if you collect them you can spend them on some extremely powerful combos.
Strategy, or tactics is the one big deal in this fairly unconventional Final Fantasy title. You’ll find yourself in a huge number of fights, which tend to be reasonably fun in themselves. The combat area is seen in an isometric view, and at the start of a match you position a number of members of your clan on the battlefield, which is split into a large number of boxed fields. Characters move up and down, right or left on these boxed fields, much like in other turn-based strategy games. A character can do two things in his or her turn; moving around, and using an action (attacking, using a health potion, etc). There are five races and over thirty professions, like your typical paladin, warrior, white mage, black mage, thief, etc. High-level characters can also unlock new professions. In combat, the key is to have a balanced team of characters that support each other, so it’s typical to have a few warrior type guys, an archer, and maybe a couple of mages for protection and attacks against enemies that resist melee attacks.
Navigating throughout the land of Ivalice is done in a fairly original way. You have a map that at the beginning is quite limited, but instead of discovering towns and such, you get to place them yourself on the map. Remember, this is a magical world, so pretty much anything goes. How useful this feature is can be debated, but I guess it’s nice to see an original map implementation.
Your journey takes you through forests, deserts, towns, mountains, and much more. You’ll fight during the day and during the night, in search of special flowers, to rescue important people, or in an attempt to merely progress the story. The battle interface is quite simple and easy to learn, but it lacks complexity, much like the rest of the game’s interfaces. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll probably manage your clan just fine, but if you’ve played a few role-playing games there’ll be some features you REALLY would’ve liked to see. The first thing that comes to mind is the buy / sell interface, where you can’t see what characters can use a certain item, and whether their stats increase or decrease by equipping it. Purchasing items is a pretty tedious process, because after buying a couple of items you normally need to check if anyone can actually use it, whether it’s any better, and how many other characters you can buy the item(s) for. Golden Sun 2 streamlined this extremely well, so it’s a shame Square Enix didn’t do anything similar. The party and clan interface could also have been improved, so you could focus more on battling rather than spending unnecessary time on the interface.
Even though the battle sequences are nicely done and allow for some fairly fun and interesting fights, my biggest gripe with the gameplay is the lack of variety. You’ll find yourself spending the vast majority of the time going to the pub for missions, heading to forests or whatever to do insignificant missions, and repeat the procedure until your level high enough to go on, or your bank account is big enough to get you some new items. Throughout the test period I really hoped the game would introduce some more traditional RPG mechanics, like running around, chatting with people in bars or wherever, instead of just doing more and more battles. I’m sure the game gets quite nice when you’ve accumulated a huge stash of items and get to fight some really nasty monsters in some really meaningful missions, but the game has a total of 300 missions, so you could be playing this game for a long long time to actually get to that point. To me the combat seemed too easy, and mana plays a very small role. Unless someone pulls a mana drain spell on you, the black/white mages can do just about anything they need, but as a result many of the spells don’t do as much damage as melee fighters’ attacks.
Even though the gameplay leaves some to be wanted, the graphics do come on strong. Square Enix did an excellent job drawing interesting characters, varied battlefields, big monsters that are just begging to be pummeled, and spell effects that aren’t too far behind Golden Sun 2. Surprisingly, during combat you can actually identify what weapon the characters are using, so there’s a big difference between a red Blood Sword, and a blue Laglace Sword, a feature I’ve wanted to see for a long time in role-playing games on the GBA. Unfortunately you won’t get any text based info on the various weapons, which is too bad when you’ve spent a load of money on what seems like a unique and spectacular weapon.
Tactics Advance's audio isn’t too bad either, but a few of the background tunes tend to be repeated a whole lot, so it’d be wise not to pay it any notice or else it’ll probably annoy you in the end. The sound effects are okay too, but there’s no good voice-over imitation, like you’d find in other major RPGs, although it’s not really a big deal in this particular game.
This is a game a lot of people have been waiting for. It’s difficult to say how much I recommend it, because it depends a lot on how much you like the whole tactical combat aspect of the game. In my opinion the gameplay gets very repetitive, while the story tends to progress too slowly, and some of the interfaces leave much to be wanted. But by all means, this isn’t a bad game, even if I honestly don’t think it’s all that fun compared to other major RPGs.