On Gameplay: the battle system, the law system, and quests
Before you pick up a copy of Tactics A2, there’s a simple question you need to ask yourself. “Do I love SRPG battles?” It’s really quite simple because this game is basically a lot of tactics battles. For the most part, random encounters have been eliminated and are instead replaced with 300 quests for you to complete.
Augmenting pixilated slaughter, there are run and fetch quests, and a few “dispatch the right person” quests, where the fun lies in trying to figure out what the proper class/race is. For example, an intuitive one asks for a sexy barmaid – so of course you send a viera. But others are slightly more obscure and can be irritating (and therefore FAQ-worthy).
The law system, as I already ranted about, is really a detriment to gameplay. Over the long haul, the number of retarded instances of the law system decreases, or you care less about the loss of a few loot items (largely overrated after the first five hours) and bonus AP points. But I very nearly stopped playing over a few bugged and/or sadistic applications of the law system, and that’s a big no-no in my book, and every time the screen yells “VIOLATION” I repress a Tourette’s outburst of obscenities at the smug game.
In terms of battles, there are a few items of concern (at least on normal difficulty – Horatio played on Hard and can confirm or deny these things being part of the native AI). The AI does not seem to acknowledge when your units are immune to particular status affects or even types of damage – often attacking even when there is a 0% chance of something being successful.
The dispatch system can be a little weird; it seems that the computer uses it’s own stupid AI in determining who wins if you dispatch, which is similar to watching two fat kids beat each other with nerf weapons, then giving up to go eat cake. The game is only challenging when you’re pitted against insanely powerful foes, which, at least on normal, is not often enough.
And perhaps the biggest letdown is that the game suffers from the same problem as the original FF Tactics, which is a symptom of the fun grind-fest the game sets up: Because you spend so much time on optional quests, by the time you do the plot quests (plot quests are only 20 out of the 300 game quests), you’re so insanely over-leveled that the plot fights are walks in the park. Because so much of the game involves optional quests, by mid-late game you’re blowing through quests left and right from being over-leveled.
I wanted a dynamic difficulty scaling system in the original FF Tactics, and I still want it, because it would increase the game’s challenge and make plot battles more climactic than rote.
Uh yeah, the AI is still dumb in hard mode, but it often comes as more of a relief that the enemy has wasted a turn in which they could have easily killed you. For those who haven’t started this game yet, if you’ve played a tactical RPG before I’d definitely recommend playing in hard mode. As with seemingly every RPG I play, it’ll end up making the first few hours hard (I’ve read accounts of people who got killed 2 or 3 times in the introductory fight) but after that it settles in as just a nice challenge.
As for laws, my biggest disappointment was that there weren’t more battles that required you to uphold the law or automatically fail. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that there are a 1,000 instances where you get punished for breaking the law that are ridiculous (confused party members, knocking back an opponent counts as having targeted a ranged opponent, etc.) but the system makes battles a lot more interesting. Especially if you’ve been doing the sidequests and are already overleveled, a few good laws were used to force you to adopt a new strategy.
The quest system takes away from the flow of the game. You have to visit the bar to check for quests; none spring up ‘naturally’ or in other places (with one or two exceptions that I don’t even think get counted in the quest log). Further, while the calendar system is cute there should have been a better interface to see what quests are available when.
I’m actually happy they got rid of random encounters – battles take so long you want to bash your head in so they might as well make all of them quest related. I just wish they had picked some more interesting plot points or separate plot lines to explore with these quests.
On Gameplay: The Class System and the Bazaar System
For those who are unfamiliar with the Tactics series, unlike a traditional RPG, in which the main characters typically have set classes, each party member in tactics can be assigned a variety of jobs with the only real limiting factor being their race (Bangaa, the angry lizardmen, for example, are the only race that can become white monks). Jobs range from the basic ones you associate with RPGs, like black mages and fighters, to the more exotic, like flintlocks, moogles, and tricksters, who throw playing cards and whisper mean things in people’s ears to cause status effects like slow or poison.
Each job has an impressive array of abilities; each of these abilities must be learned from a weapon for that class. For example, a thief might learn Steal level 1 loot from the knife “Kard,”; as long as he has the Kard equipped he can use this skill, but not until he’s gained the requisite amount of ability points (won after every battle) will he be able to keep this skill after switching to another weapon.
Abilities fall under four categories, active (spells, attacks, etc.), passive (status boosts), reactive (think counterattacks), and every character automatically gets access to the set of active abilities for their job (black magic for a black mage, discipline for a white monk) as well as one additional active, passive, and reactive ability. This creates a nice amount of strategy in balancing which two active abilities to give a character.
I found these jobs to be too repetitive and most of the more exotic classes aren’t particularly useful; certainly nothing rivals the awesome ‘calculator’ job from the original Tactics that allowed you to target any enemy on the board based on their level, HP, or height.
While it’s cool that different species have different jobs, many are near clones of existing jobs in other species. Finally, like in every other Tactics, a few special characters get unique jobs but several of them show up so late that if you’ve been dutifully fulfilling every quest these characters are so underleveled as to be useless.
Then there’s the bazaar system. Similar to the one in FFXII, you can’t simply buy weapons. Instead, enemies drop loot (which is ranked based on rarity) that you then sell to the bazaar. If you sell the right loot, new weapons and items become available. Unlike FFXII, the system is a little bit better in that you don’t just blindly sell loot hoping a weapon shows up. Instead, items are split into categories, like “arms of the firelord” or “swords of pure pwnage,” and when you have the right loot to purchase one of these weapons that category will open up for trade.
Things that still suck about the system are: there’s no good way for keeping track of what monsters tend to spawn where or drop what loot unless you have a lot of paper and a pen (I find this particularly annoying because FFXII: Revenant Wings had at least a rudimentary system for tracking loot) and, quite often, once you buy a weapon from a shop you have to trade in loot for it again. Squeenix gets points for making it a bit harder to hunt for weapons, and the surprise involved is nice, but since the entire game is a grindfest I’d at least expect them to make data collection easy.
Horatio captures the bazaar system pretty nicely. As mentioned, you master skills from weapons. Not only does this allow you to gain more skills, but in order to unlock the more advanced classes, you need to discover weaponry capable of teaching you skills for that class. Because there are so many loot types and complex monster treasure tables (each monster has 4 possible levels of loot, with multiple options for what drops from each level), it can often be difficult to get the right combinations for certain items needed to unlock certain classes, based on that cruel bitch Lady Luck. It took me substantial time to get enough items for my thieves in order to unlock ninjas, whereas Horatio was able to get this class quickly.
If you’re into grinding, you’ll love the class options. There are just so, so many. Unfortunately the majority of classes are worthless, and a select few are quite strong. I have reasonable expectations of balance in a game like this, but at times during playing through, I got the distinct vibe that the developers either made a conscious decision to have useless classes, or didn’t play their own game enough. Despite all of this, any OCD gamer will take perverse glee mastering skills, at least for the first hundred hours of gameplay or so.
On the Plot
FFA2 is surprisingly good at story telling – but unfortunately, the bulk of it comes through side quest plotlines. With 300 quests in the game, a paltry 20 are the main plot. It’s not that the plot is bad, it’s just very short. Fortunately, the side quests can be quite involved, and many times overlap with the main plot itself. There are tales of betrayal, discovery of secret shrines, and aspiring chocobo farmers to help. And best of all, the only stupid plotline is the premise of how the game begins.
Golden Jew is right that the plot is good if too sparse, but the extended sidestories are quite compelling. One sidequest in particular puts a really nice perspective twist on the boy-who-gets-lost-and-is-just-trying-to-get-home theme of the game. I think this is maybe more unsatisfying because the original Final Fantasy Tactics had an incredibly elaborate, dark, mature plot.
One of the things the game does do well is tie the original Tactics Advance, FFXII, and FFXII: Revenant Wings together. There are a lot of cute cameos and crossovers as well as some general explanation of how the different parts of Ivalice are related, like why judges keep popping up everywhere.
Ultimately, Tactics Advance 2 is a solid sequel to a great spinoff of the Final Fantasy series. The gameplay and presentation are both solid, and in particular the customization possibilities offered by the different jobs are impressive. Still, the lack of a more in-depth main story as well as the fact the game is too wrapped up in presenting every scene in either a bar or the battleground keep this game from recreating the atmosphere and feeling that made the original FF Tactics a masterpiece.
For all of its flaws, FFTA2 ate up a huge amount of my time, and I enjoyed it. The loot system and class system kept me engrossed, and the plot and the side quests weren’t too shabby either. Hidden dungeons, classes, and characters rounded out the mix, and I only occasionally had to cheat with a FAQ. If you like tactical RPGs and have a bad case of gamer’s OCD, you’ll want this game.