While some games don't withstand the test of time, others, like the commonly praised Final Fantasy Tactics, exist in a state of pristine stasis: never changing, yet standing proud at the head of the class, and rarely bested by legions of pretenders to the throne. In other words, you won't need the rose-hued goggles of nostalgia to appreciate Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, since it's a great game even by modern standards. If you're new to Tactics, you'll find a strategy role-playing game with plenty of deep gameplay and one of the finest stories in a Final Fantasy game to date. If you've already experienced the 1998 PlayStation original, you'll enjoy some nifty additions in this enhanced port, including terrific cutscenes, new character classes, and new playable characters. There are some noticeable issues in the presentation, and some lurking frustrations in the gameplay remain. In the context of such satisfying gameplay, though, the annoyances are easy to forgive--especially considering you can squeeze 60 or 70 hours of quality entertainment out of it.
One of the original's many strengths was its complex, moving story. Almost 10 years later, Tactics expresses more excitement and romance in a single moment than many modern games can manage in their entirety. It helps tremendously that the awkward localization of the original has been replaced with realistic dialogue devoid of grammatical errors (well, except for a few famous ones). There's also another major storytelling enhancement: beautiful, fully acted cutscenes that provide an even greater sense of atmosphere. Calling these scenes cel-shaded wouldn't do them justice, though, since they have a grainy texture to them that resemble a painting more than a cartoon. Suffice it to say, it won't take you long to get caught up in the internal struggles of Ivalice's House of Beoulve, the binding ties of friendship, and the social stigmas of the lower classes.
But if the story ropes you in, it will be the gameplay that keeps you coming back for more. A word of warning to new players, however: War of the Lions throws you into the fire, expecting you to figure out the convoluted class and character systems on your own. As a result, you may find yourself getting your butt handed to you until you get used to the mechanics. Once you do, however, you'll find an engaging character development scheme that will keep you constantly reevaluating the makeup of your adventuring party. Every party member begins as either a squire or a chemist, but can ultimately evolve into a monk, mage, assassin, oracle, and more. But you also have a secondary job slot to equip, as well as other ability slots that can be lifted from other classes.
As you gain experience in battle, not only do your characters level up, but so do your job classes. In turn, you are then able to purchase new abilities within those classes. It's a terrific system, for while it gives you the freedom to customize characters in endless ways, your party members still retain the core strengths that lend them to certain roles. There are two new classes to play around with, too: Onion Knight and Dark Knight. Experienced players will probably get more use from the Onion Knight than new players will, since its jack-of-all-trades nature requires some patience. Dark Knights, on the other hand, are deadly from the start, though you have to master multiple classes before you gain access to this profession.
Battles are generally intense, though the downside of the class system's flexibility is that the level of difficulty can vary wildly, depending on how you set up your parties. You may find some early battles almost impossible to get through without a bit of grinding first, while you will absolutely breeze through others. Still, most battles are quite challenging, requiring you to closely examine each move before committing to it. It's perfectly plausible (and if you aren't careful, downright common) to waste a spell because you don't have enough mana, or damage party members in addition to enemies. In light of this, it's too bad you can't take back your move orders once committed, as you can't always tell if a square will put your enemy in attack range until you occupy it.
The Final Fantasy I & II Anniversary Editions released earlier this year featured more striking visual upgrades than does War of the Lions. Yet the graphics hold up remarkably well, using familiar (and charmingly noseless) 2D sprites on 3D maps. The presentation has been enhanced to take advantage of the PSP's widescreen resolution, yet there are some awkward moments during scenes in the game engine where the map is cut off to the right or left, since it wasn't created to fill the wider screen. Some spells and attacks have new effects to go along with them, though the slowdown that accompanied some attacks in the original is still present in War of the Lions--as is the lack of synchronization of certain sounds that accompany them. The soundtrack is slightly enhanced, yet even without the tweaking, it remains one of the finest Final Fantasy scores to date, featuring tracks by both Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata.
War of the Lions adds both cooperative and competitive ad-hoc multiplayer options, accessible from taverns within the game. One-on-one matches are fine provided you have a buddy with characters of approximately the same level, though we don't recommend exploring the inherent frustration of imbalanced battles between a weak party and a strong one. Co-op play fares better, but even then, a player with a less experienced party may not enjoy the relatively strong monsters that spawn in, thanks to the other player's higher level. Two players on equal footing, however, should have a blast, especially because there is new equipment up for grabs.
There are other small annoyances that the new version retains, such as its camera, which can be rotated and tilted, but may not always give you the most helpful view. But by and large, Final Fantasy Tactics remains a great game even by modern standards, thanks to its finely tuned character development system and challenging battles that will have you using every trick in your arsenal. Whether you are a newcomer to Final Fantasy Tactics or an experienced fan, you will lose countless hours falling to War of the Lions' insistence that you take just...one...more...turn.