One part strategy, four parts role-playing
A few months ago, if you'd asked me what I thought of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I would have ragged on the game. Actually, I already have: my previous review of this title was none too flattering. But after coming to grips with some of the game's functions and realizing exactly how this overwhelming SRPG works, I'm willing to give it a second chance.
Admittedly, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is better than I first gave it credit for, but that doesn't take care of one of the game's most significant issues: the learning curve is ridiculously steep. The game's core mechanic is quite an inventive one, but the game just never really lets on. Its kiddy art style and pathetically shallow story belie a serious lack of guidance in Tactics Advance. You'd expect some hand-holding through the game's sometimes-unnecessarily complex mechanic, but Tactics Advance has nothing to offer in that department.
Frankly, Tactics Advance is one of those games where you may need to crack open the instruction booklet (unfortunately for me, I bought it sans box and booklet). But fortunately, when you do figure it out, Tactics Advance becomes one of the most deep, satisfying, and addictive SRPGs out there. It employs a creative gameplay mechanic and there's tons of room for party customization.
When you think about it, weapons, armor, and accessories don't play a huge role in many traditional RPGs. Sure, you're always on the lookout for them, but you'll always just use the best equipment that you have at any given time (some games even have a handy "Optimize" button and do all the work for you). Not so in Tactics Advance: in this game, everything revolves around the stuff that you have equipped on your characters. While standard attacks are just fine and dandy, there are also a ton of skills which make battling a deeper and oftentimes easier experience.
Most of the weapons and many of the other pieces of equipment (armor, shields, headwear) have a particular skill associated with them. If you equip the weapon on your character and fight enough battles, you'll learn that skill permanently, and you can move on, equipping a new weapon and learning more skills. Each skill takes a certain amount of Action Points to memorize, ranging from a mere 100 to a nearly-unattainable 999. Each battle awards you with AP, so the more battles you fight, the more skills you'll learn.
There's more to the system, however, with the addition of races and classes. There are five different races in the game and each have a variety of classes available to them. Skills are all class-specific, and only a class or three can learn any given skill. It's a very complex system and it does have some drawbacks, but at the same time it's really addictive and really satisfying.
The biggest issue here lies with the AP system. Battles are typically 6-on-6 affairs, and only characters that participate in battle earn AP. While you probably won't want to use every class in the game, you're allowed around 30 characters in your party at a time and you'll likely train a dozen or so characters. So, you're left constantly cycling characters for each battle, trying to make sure that they're all learning skills. It's quite tedious and you'll often find yourself fighting random battles just to earn some of your characters additional AP.
Despite minor drawbacks, though, the skill system is one of the most enjoyable features in any SRPG that I've played. You'll be able to upgrade classes by mastering a particular set of skills, and even better is the fact that you can mix and match skills across a race. For example, you can take your moogle and master all the gunner skills, then change your class to Mog Knight. All of a sudden you've got a powerful front-line fighter with equally potent long-range skills. The possibilities are endless and creating your favorite characters is a truly addictive experience.
One aspect of Tactics Advance that many people (myself included) will need to come to grips with is that in many ways the "Tactics" part of this title is not present. I was expecting an experience more along the lines of Fire Emblem, with a relatively even mix of role-playing and strategy. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, however, is at a far end of the spectrum, and it's very much a RPG with a slightly different set-up. The fact that there are only 12 units on the field at a time really limits the tactical possibilities, and a bit of level-grinding goes a lot further than developing a clever strategy. As a result Tactics Advance is a pretty easy game; a couple random battles of grinding can get you out of just about any sticky situation. Still, it's an enjoyable title if you're not hell-bent on finding a strategy component in the title.
To add to the problem, you've got something called "laws" -- most battles you fight are governed by a judge who enforces a set of laws -- at least one forbidden and one recommended action. If you perform an action that's forbidden, your character will often lose equipment or you'll be fined a hefty amount of gil. The laws suck even more strategy out of this title, because you can't be consistent in party strategy when the laws are randomly changing and preventing you from performing certain actions.
The game's battles play out on isometric battlefields; the graphics aren't particularly impressive, but that's not why I bring them up. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an example of a game with an art style that can get in the way of the gameplay. The terrain varies in height and when you couple that with the isometric view, you're left sometimes being unable to see certain squares on the grid. If an enemy happens to be sitting there, you're in trouble. It's not a huge issue and it rears its head only occasionally, but it was certainly an oversight. Having an optional top-down view or a mini-map would definitely have been helpful.
While it's got some thing going for it, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance certainly isn't for everybody. If you're not willing to work through the complex skill system and class tree, you're not going to enjoy it. Likewise, if you want a more strategy-oriented SRPG, Tactics Advance is not for you. But if you can come to appreciate the brand of addiction that Tactics Advance has to offer, you're going to be happy with this game.
At the same time, though, this is a title that treads a fine line between addictive and just plain repetitive. Learning skills, upping your classes, and crossing skills across classes to create powerful characters is a lot of fun. But to do that, you're going to have to fight a lot of battles. The missions themselves are generally pretty fun because there's a sense of purpose, but you'll also find yourself engaging in lots of random, unimportant and plot-less fights. Battles are very slow-paced, and simple 6-on-6 affairs can easily take half an hour, oftentimes more.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an acquired taste. It's not for everybody, and it really is a love-it-or-hate-it game. It has too many drawbacks to be considered a truly great game, but as the SRPG market expands with a plethora of Fire Emblem clones, it's nice to find something this refreshingly new. It's worth battling up the steep learning curve and once things get rolling, it's a fun game. But you'll waste ten hours getting your party optimized before the fun really starts. If you've got that kind of patience, by all means buy this game. But if you're looking for instant SRPG gratification in Tactics Advance, you're going to have to look elsewhere.