Rated E for Epic
Fifty-seven hours and nine minutes. Let me repeat that. Fifty-seven hours and nine minutes. That's how long it took me to beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but by no means am I even close to being done. Having cleared 180 of the 300 missions and 20 of the 30 areas, I expect at least another 50 hours of gameplay before everything is complete. (Never mind actually leveling my guys up to 99.)
Hands down, this is the longest I've ever played a game. It's also the most dedication I've ever put into a title. Frankly, I'll play a game for a few hours, set it down, play another, come back to the first, set it down again, try my hand at a third, go back to the second, and then maybe go back to the first to finish it off. But with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance that all changed. This is the only game I've played since late January.
I know me. I know if I put it down -- even for a short while -- I wouldn't have come back to it for a long, long time (if at all), and chances are all the hours spent moving the avatars around the battlefield would have been wasted. Frankly, I had to beat (note that I didn't say "finish") this game. Not necessarily so I could provide all of you with a complete review, but because I'm trying to get into the Final Fantasy series.
As a gamer -- and editor of this section -- I felt like a phony having never played a single Final Fantasy title. So, just a few days after Christmas, I collected all of my various gift cards and used them to purchase Final Fantasy X, X-2, and Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. (Despite my Final Fantasy virginity, I will admit that I already owned VII, VIII, and IX. This is because I was told I was supposed to like them -- that they were games I needed to play -- so though I never had the intention of actually, you know, playing them, I dropped the cash for the epics.)
Now, being the type of guy I am -- obsessive -- I decided I would play the games in order, starting with Dawn of Souls. This, I felt, would immerse me completely and linearly into the world of Final Fantasy. Instead of starting with VII -- as many people had -- working my up to X-2 and then starting over with Dawn of Souls, I wanted to start where the series did so I could experience everything hardcore gamers have been clamoring about for decades. And that's exactly what I did.
However, it wasn't long before I grew tired and confused by the first chapter of Dawn of Souls. So I set it aside. Despite this setback in my quest to enjoy the Final Fantasy series, I didn't give up. But it did raise a tough question: If Dawn of Souls is boring me, how am I to continue this little experiment of mine? The answer, of course, came in the form of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Having played (and loved) Advance Wars, I was already familiar with turn-based strategy gaming. So I thought maybe Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (which, at the time, I erroneously believed to be a port of the old PlayStation title) would serve as a better primer into the Fantasy series than, say, an update of the very first game.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
While Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is very much an epic, the story is, shall I say, lacking. Basically, four children and one adult are the only ones who seem to realize that they're sleepy little burg has been transformed into something from another world. And only one of them -- your avatar -- realizes that they've been transported into a world straight out of the Final Fantasy games. In this, the game breaks down the fourth wall. This alone saps some of the suspense from it all, because if this is simply a game -- or at least a game world -- where's the danger? It serves to remind us -- the players -- that we can reset it at anytime -- usually after losing a decisive battle -- and all will be right again.
But never mind that. What matters here, story-wise, is how slowly it all progresses. You will fight dozens of battles (even repeating some) and face the same clans over and over and over again before being treated to another cutscene. And while I begrudge the game for this, I do understand the slow pace. Imagine heading into the final battle after only 20 hours of gameplay. Your little squad wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell.
The problem with this -- and this is why I "begrudge the game" -- is that the cutscenes are too spread apart. While gameplay is fun and somewhat addicting, you come to realize just how repetitive it all is. By placing cutscenes closer together (or adding more), gamers will happily plod along from one battle to the next -- so long as we feel like we're advancing the story. Sadly, it becomes painfully evident that we are not, but instead that we're pawns trapped in this game world -- much like the five fated characters -- simply going through the motions until the game feels we're leveled-up enough to face the next big challenge. There were many times I felt like throwing the Nintendo DS through the bedroom window. Not because I wasted my money, but because the fun was gone and I became frustrated with the monotony of it all.
While many gamers -- especially those accustomed with other RPGs and, more specifically, the Final Fantasy titles -- might find it exciting to level-up all 24 members of your clan (making sure everyone can dutifully perform every job), I found that all one needed to do was make sure six characters were properly armed and leveled. More specifically, battles can easily be won with nothing more than a few swordsmen (soldiers, fighters, ninjas) for close-quarters combat, a black mage (maybe an illusionist too), and an archer. That's it. And, truth be told, the archer is somewhat limited in the amount of damage he can inflict, so adding another tough black mage into the mix isn't a bad idea.
As you progress throughout the game (and your clan and wallet expands) you find that certain races and classes -- especially white mages -- just aren't worth the trouble. So one by one, you turn them away as they ask for membership into your exclusive club. Rarely did I find myself admitting new members, if only because I knew I wasn't going to swap them into the tight little group I was using so frequently to easily win battles. Frankly, why add a white mage (who more often than not can be knocked out with one well-aimed shot, often before his turn) to heal the other members when I have over one million gil (RE: money) and can purchases countless elixirs and potions?
Another thing to note is that the characters are self-regenerating. Unlike my experiences with Dawn of Souls (and maybe this changes in later Fantasy titles), each character regained their full health (HP) and magical powers (MP) between battles without depleting my cache of the previously mentioned potions and elixirs. And while this is very convenient (especially for newer players, such as myself), it often made the game too easy. Not only could I send the same six guys into battle every time, but I was secure in knowing that they would be at full strength and health when the time came to fight again. Thanks to strikes that could deliver defeat with one hit, rarely did I find my characters in need of extra health. So, really, a bottomless pile of potions proves just as useless as white mages.
Speaking of the characters (and this ties back into the story), they are the most unintentionally shallow and unlikable bunch I have ever seen assembled. One is a crybaby and is responsible for the mess everyone is in; another doesn't want to go back to the real world because there she has white hair (here it's permanently red) and is sick of dying it every morning (of course they give such motivation to a girl); another turns on his brother (you) because he feels his sibling has everything; and your avatar is as indecisive as the Batman villain Two-Face. This alone nearly halted my gameplay. Frankly, if I find that I can't connect to a character (especially the main character), I'll put the game down. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was different only because I'm on a quest to play through the entire series, and so I needed to finish this thing off.
If there's one thing I knew about the Fantasy games before I ever purchased or dared to play them, it's that they are timesucks to the Nth degree. So, really, the mammoth amount of time I dedicated to the game wasn't such a big surprise. It simply served to reinforce what I already knew, and, in an odd way, whetted my appetite for my inevitable return to Dawn of Souls. (I must admit that there's something oddly fulfilling about wasting that much time with a game; it somehow makes you feel like you've accomplished something, even in a game that forces you to go "through the motions.")
So thanks to a forcibly drawn-out story that involved displaced (and unlikable) earthlings and little understanding of exactly why I should bother leveling-up certain characters/classes, I came to realize that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance wasn't the best primer into the Final Fantasy world. (Especially if you're accustomed to instant/run-and-gun action.) But, as shaky as the introduction was, it set me on my own epic quest to understand this gaming beast known as Final Fantasy.
2 March 2005