Wednesday, July 8, 2009

update and review of final fantasy tactics a2 (ds)

I decided to take a week's break from the blog, partly to catch up on some reading but also to sneak in some freetime over the long July 4th weekend. As is usually the case with these breaks from work/writing, I have a lot to say now and what seems like not enough time or space to say it all.

-for Econ 362 I've outlined some general readings/course notes up through the American Revolution

-I've done some independent theorizing of history (which I will subject you all to)

-finished the book I referenced in a previous post titled Contested Commodities by Margaret J. Radin

-finished Final Fantasy Tactics A2 and started Chrono Trigger (DS)

-did some "odds and ends" reading for my comp

I think I'll begin with my review of Final Fantasy Tactics A2

Review of Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

5 July 2009

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is a strategy role playing game (SRPG) for the Nintendo DS. Like its predecessors (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Gameboy Advance and the original Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation), it is a turn-based SRPG in the tradition of the highly-acclaimed Ogre Battle Series for the Super Nintendo. Indeed, many of the same basic elements from these earlier games are retained in FFTA2, such as positional attack advantages, elemental effects on the battlefield, and of course, job classes as the centerpiece of strategy.

At the same time, FFTA2 does diverge from the earlier games, and ultimately these differences are enough that one can most easily compare it to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (FFTA). For example, much of the battlefield elements of strategy which gave the Ogre Battle and the original Final Fantasy Tactics their depth are “glossed over” in this installment. As a result, FFTA2 is generally quite easy to jump into and doesn’t get very challenging thereafter. However, where the developers may have chosen not to stress these elements of strategy, the game does shine in other (arguably more important) areas, such as depth of customization. Indeed, this is a very significant strength of the game and is the main reason I give it an 8/10.

Given the depth of customization, this game requires you to spend a fair amount of time simply managing your team: navigating through shops and pubs, and utilizing the menus. So, my review is broken up into five parts: graphics, gameplay (battlefield), gameplay (team management), story, replay value.

Graphics: 8/10

I’ve never been a fan of judging a game based on its graphics, unless there is something particularly beautiful or something detracts from the experience of the game. Neither is true in FFTA2, the graphics are on par with your standard color 2D game.

Gameplay (battlefield): 6/10

As I mentioned in the introduction, the tradition which FFTA2 draws from is very deep. Taking Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT) as an example (a game which came out in 1998), the gameplay on the battlefield in that game was very diverse and offered a fair share of challenges. There were traps the player could fall into by stepping on a particular square, the battlefield environments contained many elements of strategy (such as cornering your opponent or using height advantages or having certain squares in which the player was essentially “stuck”, unable to perform any actions). These environmental effects have largely been glossed over in FFTA2: the battlefield itself still holds its fare share of traps at times, but height advantages, for example, are not nearly as emphasized as they could have been. Other aspects of battle including using the environment in creative ways to “trap” your opponent are no longer as important. Another point, which may seem small to some gamers, is the striking lack of realism at times: archers have no problems shooting arrows over large height distances or through characters (contrary to the Ogre Battle games where archery required strategic use of both distance and angle). There are other examples of this flavor of criticism which pervade the game and which may turn off hardcore SRPGers.

In terms of difficulty, this is also another negative point for the game. Most quests are very easy to complete and require (at most) a moderate level of strategic reasoning. Sometimes, in fact, you can blindly enter a battle and have no problems defeating a mark. Not good. Not good at all, especially for a strategy game. I will admit that I only completed 190 of 300 main quests (still a very significant achievement), so I wasn’t able to fully explore the challenges of the game, but I did put in enough gameplay hours to be confident in saying that the game is not very difficult. On the positive side, the AI is an improvement over the first FFTA for the Gameboy Advance.

Another weak “plus” I would give to the battlefield gameplay is the interesting array of monsters and enemies you face. I felt that, although the game was pretty easy (even playing on “Hard” mode), I was constantly facing new enemies and new sets of enemies that did require me at times to think a little bit about the team I was going up against. That was a very refreshing part of the game and definitely something I enjoyed.

The final aspect of gameplay which I will touch upon is the law system. The law system works fine as it is in the game, and adds an extra layer of strategy. For example, you may be required by law not to use fire-based attacks in a battle. If you uphold the law, you gain the benefits of a clan privilege (something like “power up” or “experience up”), whilst if you break it, you lose those benefits and are not allowed to revive KO’d party members. Thus, there is a strong incentive within the game to uphold the law. An additional incentive comes from post-battle character development: upholding the law will also result in being rewarded some materials, items or weapons.

I think the law system is one of the ways in which the game was indeed a challenge, which is not saying much about this aspect. Unfortunately, the implications for breaking the law are not very serious: for one, the items you obtain for upholding the law are not that important. In addition, the in-game penalty was never very severe for me, and while this may have been due to the high level of my character development, I’m not completely convinced. So, even this part of the game, which may be seen as a “positive”, is more like a “weak positive”.

Gameplay (team management): 9.5/10

SRPGs come in a variety of forms. Most, however, will stress some class- or job-based system for customizing your characters and team, and this is a central part of FFTA2 as well. Where FFTA2 sets itself apart from other SRPGs, however, is in the depth of the customization available to the player. There are 56 jobs in total spanning 7 races (types of characters that define the domain of jobs available to them). Each job has a collection of abilities to master that are obtained from the weapon, armor, and accessory the character equips. Characters learn abilities through AP points from completing quests, and you gain new items to learn the abilities from completing quests as well. You can also obtain new items from synthesizing materials (also gained from completing quests) in the Bazaar. So, the more quests you complete the more items you get. The result of all of this is an amazing array of possible teams, varying by race, job, ability setup, and equipment setup. It’s really dazzling the amount of choices available to crafting a team. So, once you do craft that “perfect team”, it is extremely rewarding to go through the quests, testing your team out on the battlefield, and going back to refine it as weaknesses and strengths are exposed. This is definitely the best part about the game.

Completing quests, clan trials, and auctions are the means by which your team grows (quests being the most important). Unfortunately, as I said above the difficulty level is not very high. So, once you do craft that perfect team, you may not be able to push it to its limits (which can be seen as both good and bad). The quests usually involve some underlying story, which in some cases is more interesting than the main story in the game! But, since I’m devoting a section to the story below, I will refrain from commenting on the story at this point.

The clan trials, along with auctions, are two additional ways in which you can develop your team. Both are mildly entertaining at first, but they again suffer the challenge problem. This is especially true for auctions: once you get first in a set of auctions and play through them each one or two times, you get prizes which make subsequent auctions (for which you can receive rare materials, weapons, and armor) very easy. Thus, since getting the items is easy, getting abilities becomes easy, and overall, your team management becomes easier than it has to be.

Overall, team management is central to the game, and it is a part which the developers did very well with. So, I rate it 9.5/10 because of its strong points in depth and length, while a minor weakpoint being the overall weakness of some jobs and lack of challenge.

Story: 7/10

The main story is nothing to be impressed by. A boy gets involved in some adventures in a new world, becomes tangled up in some affair within that world. There are no broad themes of love or politics, but simply a “lesson learned” for the boy type of story. This may come as a big turn-off for SRPG fans because they are used to good stories: FFTA2’s predecessors, more specifically the Ogre Battle series and the original FFT for the Playstation, were excellent in this regard. Unfortunately, FFTA2 just does not deliver in this department.

Why, then, would I still give it a 7? For two reasons: first, the story doesn’t try to be good: it’s not like the writers tried to integrate love, intrigue, politics, etc. and then failed. Arguably, this could have turned out a lot worse. There’s nothing more intolerable for me than a story filled with clichés. Second, I’ll admit that the stories underlying some of the quests were interesting in their own regard. Some of the quests have multiple subsequent quests which build on the original story, and some of these are genuinely interesting: involving a man seeking revenge for the death of his wife, or a clan with some connections to your own which you will end up exploring. This definitely adds “spice” in a much-needed area: with over 300 quests (and only around 25-30 of them making up the main story), things do occasionally get tedious, so a good story to follow every now and then is really helpful.

Replay Value: 9/10

For the above reasons given in the gameplay (management) section, this game has remarkable replay value for an SRPG. While the story may not be entertaining enough to warrant a second run-through, once you beat the game you can still go back and complete quests. So, there’s always that elusive 300-quest mark to hit, and you may want to either refine your team after you beat the game to continue on, or restart the game with a specific team setup in mind. And, as I hinted at above, things may become challenging once you approach 300, so this gives even more of a reason to try things out a second time from scratch, after you’ve tried out the different classes and find a setup that suits you best.

So, in conclusion: you should definitely get this game if you’re interested in SRPGs. While the story and challenge may be subpar relative to the SRPG genre, that is more than made up for by the depth of the customizability and the amount of gameplay time you will experience.

Overall: 8/10

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