Boy, do people love Final Fantasy Tactics. They love it so much they'd marry it, if human-video-game marriage were legal. It's a desert-island game for approximately 70 per cent of the video gaming population; it's been replayed more often than The White Album.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've begun playing the 1998 strategy role-playing game for the first time. With tips from our resident FFT expert Jason Schreier, I finally (finally!) managed to survive the Dorter Slums. I'm already liking the game, but the near-universal adoration it enjoys is so intense and dogmatic that I wanted to explore it further before I played too much more myself. So, I asked a few people who make games why they love Final Fantasy Tactics.
"Saying Final Fantasy Tactics is your favourite Final Fantasy game is like saying Jed Bartlet is your favourite US president," said Darius Kazemi, game designer at Bocoup, in an email. "It is at once obviously correct, and obviously cheating."
In particular, Kazemi loves how Tactics is so unbalanced. "The thing I like best about FFT is how it's not afraid to let the player power up and essentially break everything," he said. "While it's important to have a balanced combat system in a multiplayer game, it's not nearly as important in a singleplayer game. FFT says "to hell with balance!" and gives you a set of fascinating systems that you can bend to your will.
He continued by detailing an exploit likely well-known to most hardcore Tactics players: "My fondest memory was building the ultimate Calculator (the coolest mage class ever), who would cast Holy on every character standing at an elevation that is also a prime number. This would often one-hit kill every single enemy and ally on the map, including the Calculator himself, the only survivor being the one party equipped with an item that absorbed Holy damage."
Trent Polack, senior game designer at LightBox Interactive, is also a fan of the Calculator, also known as the Arithmetician: "Final Fantasy Tactics is the greatest SRPG that will ever exist for one reason: The arithmetician.
"Look at this shit." Polack said. "'These calculating strategists employ the principles of arithmetic law to pinpoint targets for their attacks'. That is the actual description of a class in a video game. You choose an attribute and a numerical base and everyone on the board (friend or foe) is affected by whatever spell you use in conjunction."
Polack said that about sums it up for him. "I don't really have a better reason than that; I feel like that class just encompasses everything that is amazing about Final Fantasy Tactics."
Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin agrees, telling me in an email, "It's a game whose flaws I think contribute to its unique personality. Vital aspects of the experience, charming, idiosyncratic quirks give the game a distinct personal feel." Like Kazemi, Kasavin has a favourite anecdote: "There's one particularly notorious battle about two-thirds of the way through the game where you can become impossibly stuck if you've been using the same save slot the entire time and saving when the game suggests you should. In principle, that's not good design. The first time I played the game, I had to start over after 20 hours or more. But in the end, I really love that battle — it's an outstanding moment in the story, and suitably challenging given who you're up against."
Polack elaborated on the game's strange imbalances: "There are horrible strategies that make the game very difficult. There are degenerate strategies that make the game incredibly easy. And then there's the game that most people play: a strategy game that provides an obscene amount of meaningful character customisation and a mix of determinism/randomness to make it deep enough for people (like myself) to play the game from start to finish upwards of 10 times over the course of fourteen-fifteen years."
That deep level of customisation seems like a key part of why people still play Tactics fifteen years after it came out. Kasavin says he recently replayed the game over the holidays, using his Vita to emulate the PlayStation version. (For my part, I'm playing the PSP port, which I gather has some slowdown issues but is also a superior translation. We'll see.) "The job system is so open-ended that each time I play through, my path is different," Kasavin said. "I discover some other cool and effective combination of abilities for my team of characters. It's one of those games where your long-term planning can really pay off, and each battle pushes you a little closer to some exciting late-game outcome."
Everyone I talked to agreed that the story is another high point. I have to say, six hours in, I already see what they're talking about. It's a remarkably grounded, nuanced tale. "The best part is that the game has aged well," Polack said, "and the story — while very male-oriented — is actually about politics and war and country and treason and not how stupidly big someone's chainsaw is."
"The story has all the weight and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy," Kasavin said, "and I love that such an ambitious and genuinely epic story is delivered using these doll-like characters that look like they could have come from a children's game."
Matthew Burns, founder of Shadegrown Games, went into greater detail. "It strikes a perfect balance between the traditional whimsy of the Final Fantasy series with a more serious, and ultimately rather dark, story. Framed from the perspective of a historian look back on events in the murky past, the game's presentation of its world is relatively reserved: it presents the player with a sweeping look at people, politics, and events without itself getting too caught up in any of its own characters' emotions and causes."
Burns sent me a lengthy email in which he went into detail about his love of Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata's soundtrack, which he says is arguably the best Final Fantasy soundtrack of all time. "[The score] captures the ornate, fantasy-baroque visual style of the game's setting, Ivalice," he wrote, "but it doesn't lose itself in the details as so many orchestral soundtracks tend to do. It's exciting without being bombastic, melodic without the overuse of leitmotifs, memorable without being catchy."
Burns pointed out three tracks in particular: The familiar-sounding "P.R. Movie", which plays around with Uematsu's famous Final Fantasy harp arpeggios to hint that this game will be darker and more complicated than past games, as well as "Tutorial," which to his ear is peppy and exciting, but "without being a goofy, too-perky anime song that a more typical JRPG might've had in its place."
I'll copy in his entire analysis of his third pick, because it's good stuff:
The first main battle theme from the game, "Trisection," exhibits all of the balance I mentioned earlier. It's serious but not self-regardingly so. It's big and orchestral but not shrill and over-dramatic. It doesn't rely on a theme that might as well be in a pop song, but it's still very driven by melody and harmony.
The way the theme from the first few bars repeats four times over - first singular, then harmonized, then repeated again in the background, fugue-style, then harmonized again with the horn - suggests the bourgeoning conflict that's soon to envelop the continent, without being overly portentous or mock-sad. You can tell shit's getting started, but it's not telling you *how* you're supposed to feel about that - not just yet.
People love Final Fantasy Tactics for all sorts of reasons, from the story, to the music, to the wonderfully weird way it's designed. They love what it does right, and they love what it gets wrong. I'm looking forward to digging in deeper; you'll be hearing about the game more this month at Kotaku. I'll hopefully come back to these folks and a few more to talk about the game once I've played more.
For now, I'm curious to hear from you. With no big story spoilers, if you can help it: Why do you love (or hate) Final Fantasy Tactics?