The evolution of the game design in the Final Fantasy series has always been a long and progressive one. The initial system of jobs for your characters to play has been present from the very first game and continued to evolve in every subsequent title. There were a few dead ends, such as the materia system rendering characters devoid of personality within combat, but overall their game design has always found refreshing shifts while maintaining an epic linear plot. The latest installment in a spin-off series, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift, breaks from this tradition by making only a few minor tweaks to the game design. Instead, it has attempted to create an entirely new way to experience the story in a Final Fantasy game. The results are mixed.
Overall, the basic structure of recruiting multiple races with unique job classes for each species is still present. You collect items, use them in combat, and eventually master the abilities attached to those items. In a new twist, many items can only be purchased after collecting a certain number of ingredients that are won in quests. You do quests to get access to the goods that open up the gear you need. This extends into opening up new job classes and recruiting characters along with whatever the game decides to use as a reward for finishing a mission. The Judge system still exists, but only as an extra challenge that will give you unique weapons and items. Breaking the rules no longer punishes you beyond making resurrection techniques unworkable. It’s a very good game design that has been refined to the point of flawless. You will literally find yourself playing for hours, looking up at the clock, and then playing one more mission just to get that extra bit of gear.
The problem is that the game often leaves you feeling like you’ve wasted your time after these sessions. The new tweaks induce such massive amounts of grinding that the game feels more like work than the epic battles of previous games. It’s a similar problem that the classic game Wing Commander: Privateer suffered. In that game, you didn’t stand a chance on the actual “story mode” until you’d spent hours building the ultimate space ship. Both games featured very clever and addictive game design, but with Final Fantasy Tactics A2 there isn’t really a point at which you can stop grinding and say, “I’m ready to hear the plot now”. It may be a personal qualm of this reviewer, but there comes a point where I’m ready to hear some story instead of doing more grinding. Yet the plot isn’t inhibited from starting because your characters need to be super-strong as in Privateer. Instead, the problem is that the plot missions are completely jumbled with the grinding ones, so that the two actions become confused.
It’s a bit tricky to explain what the game tries to do without launching into what it should’ve done, but it’s best to start with the way quests are presented. You click on a board and a long list of missions are listed. More missions are available as your clan’s stats for negotiation, teamwork, etc. are increased. Some of these missions are nonsensical, some of them are linked together in a coherent story, and some relate to the over-arching major story of your characters. In other words, they broke the plot up into tiny chunks. The problem comes from the fact that, beyond the over-arching story, none of this stuff is labeled clearly. After finishing one of the major missions you’ll go back to the Pub, be presented with a list of twenty new missions, and have no idea which ones are what. Is that the next quest involving the sentient zombie who’s looking for her ex-partner? Is this the one about the Nu Mou Lords? Nope, just some crap about collecting ice cream for someone’s kid. Creating a series of miniature campaigns is a great and interesting way for a game to tell a story. It’s just that you have to hear 8 or 9 different stories at once, and none of them really gel because of this. Since the plot is what drives a Final Fantasy game, this in turn means the brilliant game design starts to feel like a blatant time killer.
The problem is further compounded by the Dispatch system. This game design was originally a solution for players who liked maintaining vast armies. You can dispatch your spare units on a quest while you’re busy training new recruits, allowing a player to feel like they’re maximizing grind time. As in the original FFTA, the problem is when your team comes back and they’ve failed the mission. The game rarely offers any explanation of why they failed beyond the rare recommendation to use a certain type of unit. To ameliorate the issue, FFTA2 now allows you to go on almost all of the dispatch missions yourself. Unfortunately, doing the job yourself has two benefits. You make sure you’ll win and individual monsters drop the goods you need to get items. Dispatching a team means you won’t get the items those monsters drop and thus you lose out on potential equipment options. So it is always strategically better for you to do the job yourself.
The game thus has two conflicting rewards present: saving time and getting the most crap. That may seem nonsensical, but part of what makes the Tactics series fun is that the battles are complex, time consuming, and involve a lot of actual planning. You need items, so you need to do all these quests, and each of those quests takes ten or fifteen minutes. What typically keeps this from becoming obnoxious in a JRPG is that all that work keeps the plot moving and keeps the player entertained. Here, with so many quests ending with a few items and an anecdotal comment, it breaks that formula and becomes merely work.
Unfortunately, this jumble has led a lot of game critiques to denounce the plot as juvenile or stupid. Although nothing here compares to the original FFT‘s dark story of class warfare and political intrigue, a lot of the small campaigns have really compelling stories. Guilds overcoming personal tragedy to save the day, a zombie who cannot forget being alive, and the racial tensions between the various species are all explored. The overarching story itself is somewhat by-the-numbers but still maintains Square Enix’s clever writing. The main character is a troubled youth that has a lot of problems with authority figures. After writing his name in a mystical book, he is drawn into another world. To escape he must fill the book with deeds and events. It’s a slightly off-putting premise but it establishes the theme of going and playing lots of miniature campaigns. As Luso encounters adults with flawed pasts and treacherous goals for him, he learns to appreciate the ones who look out for his safety. In a world where supernatural Judges have made warfare “safe” and the main villain seeks to overthrow their magic, Luso’s ultimate experience is that the protection of adults is not something to throw away lightly. As Cid dryly explains when asked why he gave up working with bandits to live under the rule of a Judge, “It isn’t a very natural lifestyle. But I’m more free this way than under anyone else’s rules.”
The idea of a Final Fantasy game consisting of numerous sub-stories is a very appealing one. It could pave the way for new kinds of episodic game play and more player-influenced plots than the ones typically seen in these games. Where this game falters is in the execution of that idea. A little better organization, a little less emphasis on having as many quests as possible, and a clearer explanation to the player about what’s going on would’ve gone a long way. The game design is as sharp as ever and you’ll probably catch yourself playing for hours despite all these complaints. But when twenty hours goes by and the player still has no real indication of what the story is even about, something is rotten in the state of Ivalice.