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What Makes Final Fantasy Tactics So Special?

Celebrating Final Fantasy Tactics.

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Final Fantasy Tactics ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE

The classic tactics RPG turns 25 today!

If someone references a game-changing RPG released by Square in 1997, it is usually safe to assume that they are talking about the beloved Final Fantasy 7. While FF7 is obviously an amazing game and deserves the praise it gets, it often overshadows an equally groundbreaking and beloved RPG released the same year: Final Fantasy Tactics. Celebrating its 25th anniversary today, Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the strongest entries in Square Enix’s catalogue and one of the most important games in Final Fantasy history.

Fans of Final Fantasy Tactics are fierce and loyal, and the intense dedication that people have to the game is impressive, even for a Final Fantasy game. Despite lacking the sales and widespread fanbase that the main-series Final Fantasy games have, the game makes up for it by being exceptionally meaningful to many who have played it. Perhaps in part because of its cult status and more niche following, the game has carved out an incredibly special place in the hearts of many.

From gameplay to story, here are three of the biggest reasons why Final Fantasy Tactics fans love it so much.

Balancing Customization and Identity

Image: Square Enix

Final Fantasy games have an interesting history with character customization. In some games – such as Final Fantasy IV or VI – every character has a distinct, set job with clearly different abilities. In others – such as Final Fantasy III or V – any character can be completely customized and played almost any way, with the only real differences being aesthetics and limit breaks. Both of these approaches come with risks: the former can feel too limiting, but the latter can make characters feel like clones and rob them of a sense of distinct gameplay or personality.

Enter Final Fantasy Tactics, one of the first games to really revolutionized Final Fantasy’s job system. Like Final Fantasy III or V, any character can learn abilities from any job. However, most major characters also have access to one specialized job that nobody else does. While anyone can be a monk or a geomancer, only Agrias can be a Holy Knight and only Meliadoul can be a Divine Knight.

This system allows for extremely in-depth amounts of customization: everyone can choose 3 different passive abilities and 2 sets of active abilities, each of which can come from a completely different job. Because there are 18 jobs that are available to everyone (and two gender-specific jobs), the freedom of “anyone can be anything” from Final Fantasy III or V is still present. However, because certain characters also have access to their one unique special job, they still maintain a distinctive playstyle that is undeniably unique to them, even as you can customize them with abilities from the larger pool of general jobs. The distinctiveness of Final Fantasy VI and the flexibility of Final Fantasy V are both present, allowing for a “best of both worlds” system that even newer Final Fantasy games still struggle to reproduce.

The Personal is Political

Ramza and Delita in a church in Final Fantasy Tactics. Caption: Delita saying "Meaning I would not think twice of killing you, Ramza, should teh hour come.
Image: Square Enix

The story of Final Fantasy Tactics centers on two childhood best friends, Ramza and Delita. Ramza is a nobleman and Delita is a commoner, but they became close friends after Delita’s parents passed away and he was taken in by Ramza’s family. They eventually become separated from each other, and each follows a different path as they strive to find a sense of peace, justice, and meaning in a country torn apart by war and corruption.

The game has a strong class consciousness and is acutely aware of how structural discrimination and privilege can cause friction in personal relationships. Delita and Ramza’s friendship is constantly confronted when the classism of the outside world leaks into their relationship. It is impossible to understand interpersonal relationships in the story without understanding how these relationships are structured and influenced by larger social structures.

The game undertakes an immense world-building project on the scale of Game of Thrones, constructing a huge story about war, poverty, politics and religious corruption. However, unlike something like Game of Thrones’ huge ensemble cast, this story grounds all of these political and religious complexities through the story of two friends and how they drift apart. While there is a huge cast of wonderful characters, Ramza’s friendship with Delita provides the narrative through-line, showing how the entire history of a huge and complex world can be told through the story of two people and their relationship with each other.

Challenge vs. Cheese

Another major issue that RPGs often face is the question of challenge. Because RPGs are so often focused on narratives, it is important to keep them accessible to people who primarily want to see the story; however, many people also play them for the gameplay and can become quickly disinterested if the gameplay is not engaging or challenging. While many games opt to take the easy way out and simply add difficulty levels or let players grind experience points until they are overpowered, Final Fantasy Tactics takes a particularly unique way out.

Final Fantasy Tactics is challenging in a way that a lot of JRPGs at the time were not. Some battles can seem downright impossible, and the game was a huge challenge for people not used to its level of difficulty. Unlike other RPGs, enemies in random encounters scale with the player’s level, so simple grinding is also out of the question.

However, there are some very specific mechanics in Final Fantasy Tactics that can be exploited to make it laughably easy. If their speed stat is high enough, characters can get multiple turns in a row, so aggressively spamming speed buffs while running away from danger until you’re fast enough to get multiple turns in a row can make the hardest battles a breeze. The calculator class can also be easily manipulated to be overpowered, and an entire character is designed to almost break the game.

What makes this approach more compelling than simply grinding or turning down the difficulty level is that players still have to figure out how to exploit mechanics before they can start to move through the game more easily. Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that rewards people for paying attention, and players who notice these exploits (or who consult walkthroughs) are rewarded with the option of an easier playthrough on a tactical level: as long as you’re willing to do the work to learn how the game works, you can get through it regardless of actual skill.

Final Fantasy Tactics neither punishes players for struggling on the level or skill nor makes it simple for anyone to wander through the game on an easy mode. Rather, the game rewards players for taking the time to learn and understand how its mechanics work; once you’ve done your research, you can cheese your way through the rest with a calculator despite never developing the skills to make strong tactical choices. And for those who want a serious challenge, they don’t have to select some sort of “hard mode” but can simply choose to avoid these techniques.

Choosing mechanics that are easy to exploit, but require work to learn how to exploit, is something that Square would explore again with Final Fantasy VIII’s junction system (another game that punishes you for grinding by scaling enemy levels). It is interesting to see how Final Fantasy Tactics found a unique response to the RPG difficulty question by forcing players to interact with the gameplay in some depth, even if the purpose of this interaction is to make the game easier.

There are so many reasons why fans love Final Fantasy Tactics that it’s hard to sum up in one article. The game has one of the most nuanced and complex plots and worldbuilding in gaming history, and the intricacies of its religious and political dynamics give George R.R. Martin a run for his money. The gameplay is also compelling, enjoyable, and fun. This article lists only three of the many, many reasons why, even at 25 years old, the game remains a masterpiece.

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.

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