Some background: In 1997 I got a Playstation for Christmas. Along with it came Final Fantasy VII, a game I had been excited about for what seemed like a really long time then, but was probably more realistically a few months. It was a good game; I enjoyed it. Not long after playing through Final Fantasy VII I became aware of Squaresoft’s latest entry in the Final Fantasy series: Final Fantasy Tactics.
Being something of a Final Fantasy fanboy at the time (this was back when the series was still the gold standard for console RPGs in North America), I had to have this game. I didn’t know a thing about it, and I had never played a tactical RPG before, but it had Final Fantasy in the title, and it was a game that had just come out for my shiny new Playstation, so I got it.
There are two things to remember when discussing Final Fantasy Tactics. First, it is absurdly easy (there is a wealth of artificial challenges players can impose on themselves to make the game harder), and second, its story is absurdly hard to follow (at least, it was for my tweenage brain back in ’98; this was also largely due to the horrible English translation the game received when it was originally localized). Such a game, that offers little in the way of game play challenges and hand-holding through the narrative, should on the face not be one worth revisiting.
And yet, I’ve completed this game probably five or so times in the sixteen years since it was first published (that’s a lot when you consider that a single playthrough can easily take 60 hours to finish). I can’t get enough of it. When Square Enix re-released the game on the PSP with extra content, animated cut scenes, and an updated translation back in 2007, I didn’t hesitate to buy a copy (and subsequently spent a straight week playing it at work; looking back, that might have been a little irresponsible, except I had literally nothing to do at my job that week). I enjoyed the game so much that as soon as I beat it the first time on PSP, I immediately restarted so I could do a single class challenge (the game’s biggest draw is its highly flexible job system, which allows for tons of permutations on classic Final Fantasy classes; a single class challenge is therefore a playthrough where the player limits themselves to only using a single class for all of their party members).
Of course, I’m not the only crazy person who loves this game so much. In discussions of the Final Fantasy series, this is the only non-numbered entry that frequently gets included and referenced with the same deference as the really famous entries like Final Fantasy VI and VII. It’s an odd phenomenon, because everyone also knows that Final Fantasy Tactics is an unabashed ripoff of an earlier tactical RPG called Tactics Ogre (Squaresoft famously hired the chief developer of Tactics Ogre following that game’s success and put him to work developing FF Tactics), but the derivative nature doesn’t detract from the quality of the product.
Okay, so there’s all the background about this game. Let’s talk about the story (don’t worry; I’ve played it enough to know pretty much all the ins and outs of what’s happening now; also, the PSP translation is absolutely outstanding, which helps leaps and bounds with narrative clarity). The protagonist is Ramza Beoulve, the bastard son of Barbaneth Beoulve. We meet him in the middle of a job that he and his fellow mercenaries have taken to escort the Princess Ovelia Atkascha back home from the monastery where she has been staying. The monastery is attacked and Ovelia kidnapped, with Ramza catching a glimpse of his childhood friend Delita in the chaos. Once everything’s calmed down, Ramza sets off with his companions and Ovelia’s personal bodyguard in pursuit of Delita and the princess.
So here’s where the story gets weird, because we flash back to about a year earlier when Ramza and Delita were still cadets at the military academy in Gallione where Ramza’s elder brothers are respected officials of that region’s Duke. The reason this is weird is that in the original translation this tense shift wasn’t very clear at all, so I was all kinds of confused about Delita kidnapping Ovelia, and then suddenly being in my party with no mention of what I had just seen happen (complicate that further with yet another flashback within this flashback to explain Ramza’s relationships with his elder brothers and his sister; thankfully that one only lasted for a scene and not an extended chunk of play time). It turns out the entire first chapter of the game is just a flashback explaining Ramza and Delita’s relationship (Ramza’s the black sheep of his family because he and his sister have a different mother from their elder brothers, and Delita’s a commoner who was adopted by Barbaneth to be Ramza’s companion after his parents died of plague) and establish character motivations for the remainder of the story (Ramza becomes disillusioned with the power games that the nobility plays at the expense of the peasants, and turns his back on the whole system, while Delita disappears following his sister’s death and looks to get revenge on the nobility by beating them at their own game). There’s little connective tissue between the first chapter and the rest of the game, and this disconnect, combined with the original poor translation, left me really confused about what was happening (I spent a long time hoping that Delita would rejoin my party because I thought he was cooler than Ramza, then when I finished the game and saw what Delita eventually becomes, I despised him, leading me to abuse him as a party member during that first chapter even though the whole point of the sequence was to establish why Delita is sympathetic despite his later decisions).
Anyhow, the story proceeds from that flashback to follow Ramza chasing after Delita and rescuing Ovelia (who naturally gets captured again not long after being rescued). The broad plot deals with the machinations of two rival noble houses who are fighting over control of the two heirs to the throne (Ovelia is one; her baby brother whom we never see is the other). In addition to that plot, there’s also a conspiracy being enacted by the world’s church to try to consolidate power in the hands of the High Confessor (basically the Pope). On top of that is Delita’s personal plan to rise to power which involves mounds and mounds of backstabbing. Oh, and there’s demons trying to kill everyone, because political intrigues aren’t enough.
And all of this is experienced from the viewpoint of Ramza, who’s an outsider to the whole mess and takes forever to figure out who exactly is allied with whom.
Like I said, the story’s a real challenge to follow.