Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, one of the most highly anticipated games for the Game Boy Advance, is already available in Japan. The spiritual successor to Square's classic 1997 strategic role-playing game, and the company's first game for the GBA, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance features colorful graphics, memorable character designs, an involving story line, and a deep, strategic combat system. The game bears more than a passing resemblance to its PlayStation predecessor, but it also offers a number of new twists that set it apart from other strategy RPGs. Though Final Fantasy Tactics Advance still has no official US release date, read on to get some of the gritty details on what you can expect to see when this unique game finally reaches the States.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance begins when a young boy named Marche and his friends open a magical tome, transforming their mundane world into one of swords and sorcery--and strict law. Marche finds himself alone in the strange land of Ivalice, but with sword in hand, and it isn't long before he gets into trouble by bumping into a lizardlike fellow called a banga. The banga accosts Marche, but a small piglike creature named Monteblanc--Final Fantasy fans may recognize him as a moogle--comes to Marche's rescue, helping him out in the tussle. Marche then learns that Ivalice is governed by strange, armored judges who referee fights as though they were soccer matches. These judges change the rules at whim, so when the banga uses a healing potion, the judge calls a penalty on him and whisks him off to prison. Marche is surprised by all this, and he accepts Monteblanc's offer to join his clan. Marche seems to realize he'll need all the help he can get, and at this stage, the game opens up, allowing you to take on quests, gain experience, find better gear, and unravel the story.
Combat between teams of opponents is the focus of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and it takes place on isometric battlefields with varying terrain. Characters move in order of their initiative, and they can use close-range weapons, long-range weapons, special abilities, items, and magic to harm their enemies and assist their comrades. Win conditions vary from battle to battle, sometimes requiring you to defeat all enemies or at other times just the enemy leader, though other conditions exist as well. The complex battle system is made easier to handle by means of a clean, streamlined interface, and the game gives you a lot of feedback as you conduct battle, such as telling you the percentage chance that your next attack is going to hit.
As in the original Final Fantasy Tactics, a big part of the appeal of the combat in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance comes from building up a customized, well-balanced team of troops. There are five different character races and a dozen different base character classes, or jobs--though in fact there more than 30 different jobs in total, including numerous high-level jobs that aren't immediately available. Read on to find out more about some of these.
Marche is surprised to find that Ivalice is populated by much more than just humans. Besides moogles like Monteblanc and the lizardlike banga, there are the feline viera and the donkeylike n'mou. Humans like Marche are well rounded, and they're able to fight effectively or use magic. Moogles are magical creatures that are rather quick, but they're not necessarily the best choice for head-on battles. The banga are big and tough, and they make great warriors. The viera are very agile, so they make excellent archers and fencers. And the n'mou make the best magic users. Not only are all these races distinctly different, but they also change in appearance depending on their jobs.
Final Fantasy Tactics fans will recognize almost all the core jobs in the GBA game, which include the solider, the thief, the white mage, the black mage, the archer, and the monk. Many of the advanced classes in the game are also from Final Fantasy Tactics, such as the summoner, the time mage, the ninja, and the bishop. However, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance also features a number of new jobs, such as the shaman, the sniper, and the hunter. Additionally, some of the other "new" jobs are actually throwbacks to earlier Final Fantasy games, such as the paladin, the red mage, and the mechanic. Between the variety of different races and the immense variety of different jobs, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance clearly offers a great deal of variety when it comes to developing your custom war party. As in other strategy RPGs, you'll likely find yourself gravitating toward particular job types due to their relative effectiveness, though you'll want to unlock all the different possibilities in order to keep your options open. Unlocking the advanced jobs involves gaining experience in more basic jobs, so the game's variety of different jobs gradually opens up like a technology tree in a strategy game.
What about the law system, and Ivalice's mysterious judges? This is definitely one of the stranger aspects of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, as seeing your characters rack up penalties and get tossed in jail for breaking the rules of a battle is quite odd. Characters who break the rules are given yellow cards for minor penalties and red cards for major penalties. A yellow card slaps your character with some sort of penalty, such as a 10 percent decrease in his or her hit points. A red card is similar, only your character gets thrown in jail to boot. You can bail your comrades out for a considerable sum of money, or even have them work off their penalty cards--either way, these characters will be unavailable to help you in your quest until you get them out. Ivalice doesn't take kindly to lawless types, apparently, and bailing your friends out of prison can get really expensive, so you'll quickly learn to heed the judges and dread getting carded. Fortunately for you, your opponents will sometimes goof up and get carded themselves.
One look at the colorful screenshots and you'll see that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance has a lot of charm. But the game's depth and size mean it takes a while to explore. There's a lot of story and Japanese dialogue, so it's little wonder that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is tied up in the localization process for the moment. Nevertheless, judging from what we've seen and played of the Japanese version so far, the game looks like it'll be well worth the wait. Stay tuned for more details on the inevitable domestic release of this unusual game.