It seems almost expected that gamers around the world would, at the very least, consider a Final Fantasy title as their favorite or most-cherished game of all time. And, in truth, it feels almost cliche to choose one of the many titles from it's storied history as a series. That said, I feel that it is because of how very different Final Fantasy Tactics is from its predecessors and descendents that make it such a special game to me.
Before it was ultimately released in 1998, I had followed the development process of Tactics with a passing curiosity. It seemed like a silly side venture that Square was undertaking, trying to gain a foothold in the strategy game market. But, it was Final Fantasy, and I couldn't keep myself from reading previews and early reviews, many of which were heaping praise on a title which I felt was just a distraction from making the next "real" title in the series. Spurred on by the glowing reviews, I picked a copy up from the local rental store. The rest, as they say, is history.
The history in question, however, is not mine. This history is that of the long-lost continent of Ivalice, a land embroiled in a war of succession. Two great kingdoms, fighting to fill a void caused by the death of the king, strive to place a regent on the throne. It is a tale of bloodshed, betrayal, and lost faith. This is the backdrop for a new player to rise to join the game and change the history of Ivalice forever.
So, like, whoa. That doesn't sound exactly like any of the Final Fantasy games I ever played. It is precisely that pseudo-historical and disturbingly realistic setting that captured my attention from the opening cinematic to the grim finale. The narrative backdrop is such a departure from any other RPG I had played at the time. It never felt like a cliche, where spiky-haired youths topple the ambitions of a madman. This is a much more adult-themed title, where political intrigue and murder were the norm. As much as I'd love to share more about what makes the story so great, I can't! Any more detail and I'd give away all the twists and turns that make this story one of my all time favorites. I was so engrossed in this medieval tale that I got involved with the GameFAQS message board community to discuss some of the (intentionally) convoluted plot points and unexplained mysteries of Ivalice.
The strong central narrative supported what, in my mind, is one of the finest crafted tactical RPG experiences of all time. Tactics is the synthesis of years of spectacular strategy RPG design, created by a team whose credits included both the Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre series. With such an outstanding pedigree, it's no surprise that Tactics excelled on the battlefield.
The gameplay, for me, was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Choosing individual units and formations, dealing with height and depth on the battlefield, not to mention individual weapon, armor, and accessory set-ups for each unit was almost overwhelming at first. But like any game that has a tough, complex exterior, there is a gooey, rewarding center inside for those who care to understand its nuances. The center, in this case, is defined by the Job System.
Those gamers familiar with Final Fantasy V will be no stranger to the Job System and its intricacies. Being that it was my first experience with being able to choose classes for my characters, I was blown away by the sheer amount of choice that becomes available to you as the game progresses. With 28 total classes and a staggering amount of Reaction, Support, and Movement abilites, the combinations and permutations of characters is nearly limitless. Having so much freedom to really tailor my party to my preferences and to the challenges of the game is such an important part of what makes the game so magical to me.
And boy, were there challenges! Tactics remains one of the first RPGs that I ever played that actually caused me to think about the battle before it actually happened and take into account all of the units on the field and their abilities. Trying to mindless "Attack" your way through the game will get you crushed, as will neglecting to embrace the Job system to its fullest. In fact, one of the early battles in the game, Dorter Trade City, sticks out in my mind as one of the harshest examples of teaching gamers to learn the system by completely devastating new players who refuse to attempt to play the game on its terms. It has been, and will continue to be, one of "those fights" that spawn countless message board posts and send many unexpecting gamers scurrying away in fright. But, with perserverance and thought, one can begin to unlock one of the richest caches of strategy gaming to date.
Indeed, Tactics remains a title that I continue to play annually. Although the main story and its trappings are no longer as shocking and paradigm-shifting as they once were, the gameplay and historical atmosphere keep me coming back time after time. Tactics is still one of only a handful of titles that I feel continues to get better with each playthrough, as the sheer variety of classes and skills is almost impossible to take in and digest the first or even second time through. It is precisely this kind of depth that I find makes for some of the greatest gaming experiences that money can buy.
Final Fantasy Tactics is the kind of title that I feel overexceeds its monetary value. Almost everyone that I have ever recommended it to has come back to me with the same sense of excitement and surprise that I felt when I played through it for the first time. Square took a calculated risk by taking its beloved franchise and placing it in a very different time, with a very different playstyle, while still marketing it to the same core audience that had fallen in love with the previous titles. As with all risks, the chance to fail is high, but so is the chance to succeed in ways never imagined. Tactics not only succeeds as a fantastic title that stands out amongst a crowded field of incredible games, but has endeared itself to me in a way few games can. Small wonder, then, that its my favorite game of all time!