Square Enix is celebrating Final Fantasy's 20th anniversary in a big way this year, and a revival of the sleeper hit Final Fantasy Tactics series is a significant part of that celebration. The role-playing magnate recently released an excellent PSP port of the original PlayStation game complete with new content and wireless multiplayer, and now there's a new Final Fantasy Tactics on the Nintendo DS, too. Well, at least in Japan. The awkwardly titled Final Fantasy Tactics A2: The Sealed Grimoire is in stores across the pond, and we've been hammering on its dense strategy-RPG mechanics to find out what's new this time around.
Tactics A2 is basically a quasi-sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the Game Boy Advance. That explains the A2, in case you were wondering. Similar to the GBA game, A2 presents a much more lighthearted take on the franchise than the original, plot-heavy PlayStation game. Much like in Tactics Advance, A2 casts you in the role of a schoolboy named Russo (or Luso--take your pick) who is sucked into a magical book at the beginning of the game and deposited in the mystical land of Ivalice (seen in Final Fantasy XII and a number of other games). You'll quickly join forces with this game's version of the perennial Cid character--who in this case has a disturbingly pointy nose, but seems adept at combat--and a host of Ivalice's other indigenous races, like the bunny-eared viera and the lizardlike bangaa, to throw down in the turn-based, grid-oriented combat that should be quite familiar to series veterans.
The overworld itself is quite simple, from what we've seen so far. It's essentially a group of locations represented by dots, all connected by pathways. You can move your character to a location or the nearby town by simply clicking on it, though you'll have to visit the town to actually enable the combat missions at each location. Once you're in the town's pub, you can do things like read the daily newspaper or talk to the bartender to pick up the missions that are currently available. From what we could tell, the level of each mission is indicated by a ranking number, and once we'd completed enough of the missions in the starting area, we were able to exit the relatively small initial area and access a new town and a bunch more missions.
Even if you have little to no skill with the Japanese language, you'll be able to draw upon previous strategy RPG experience to muddle your way through the combat in Tactics A2, since the fundamentals are unchanged. At the beginning of a mission, you'll be able to place Russo and his current allies--each of whom specialize in offensive magic, healing, ranged attacking, heavy melee combat, and so on--in their starting positions and tell them which way to face. Then it's a matter of moving your characters one turn at a time while your enemies do the same, issuing attack and magic commands per the standards of this genre. The battlefield is situated on the bottom screen--though, strangely, there's no touch-screen control whatsoever that we've found so far--and as you'd imagine, the top screen is used to show character stats, turn order, and other relevant information.
Of course, there are a handful of combat mechanics--some new, some old--that identify this as a tactics game. The judge law system is back, whereby one of Ivalice's enigmatic combat judges will mediate your battle and award you a bonus at the end if you don't violate the rule he's laid down at the beginning of the match. As far as we can tell, these rules typically restrict you from using particular abilities and such. There's also a new "clan ability" system, which we're honestly still trying to figure out. You can select from a number of buffs at the beginning of a battle--including increases in power, speed, and luck--but how these relate to the clan you're a member of, we haven't determined yet. There's a lot of Japanese text in here.
The visual presentation in Tactics A2 is of the same whimsical, cartoonlike style used in Tactics Advance, and we've generally been quite pleased by the lush color palette of the game's entirely 2D graphics. Our only complaint so far is that with no ability to reorient the battlefield, the characters tend to stack up on top of one another in close quarters, and it can be hard to see exactly who is standing where. But you can cycle through characters pretty easily to plan out your attacks and position your magic spells, so the fixed perspective isn't a huge problem.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is looking like a solid, lighthearted follow-up to the previous Game Boy Advance game. Newcomers to the series who recently cut their teeth on The War of the Lions shouldn't look for the same dramatic gravitas here, but the gameplay looks like it will satisfy those armchair fantasy strategists among you. We'd recommend waiting for a domestic release unless you're highly proficient in Japanese, though sadly, we don't know yet when that's going to happen.