Time Sinks – Final Fantasy Tactics
My Time Sink is a little different than my coworkers’. I’m kicking it off with a story that illustrates how it became an obsession of mine, and why I fought so vehemently to give it a prominent spot on Game Informer’s Top 200 Games of All Time list (it landed at #45). After my lengthy stroll down memory lane, I’m detailing why you should revisit this game.
My Road to Obsession
When Final Fantasy Tactics arrived in Game Informer’s office, the entire editorial team gathered in our “demo area,” which was a just a couch, an ungodly heavy 36-inch television, and a wall covered in Zelda and Sonic posters, to wage war in the kingdom of Ivalice together. At the time, our team consisted of just six writers – all huge Final Fantasy fans.
Having just finished testing four pages of codes for Game Informers’ hint and password section, Secret Access, my cohorts recognized my hard work by letting me be the first person in the office to play Final Fantasy Tactics. I hadn’t played too many tactical turn-based strategy games at the time, but I also didn’t think I would have any problems figuring out the gameplay flow.
The reason I remember this day so clearly is because it ended horribly. I wouldn’t go as far to call it a traumatic day in my life, but it was one of the few days where my gaming skills came under fire and were mocked. I still reflect on this session from time-to-time, especially when a group of editors gathers in our conference room to check out a hot new game.
I won’t pull any punches on the events that transpired that day. My first few hours with Final Fantasy Tactics were brutal – embarrassing even. I led most of my troops to horrible deaths, and lacked the chops to truly stand a chance on the battlefield. I always felt like I was backed into a corner, clinging loosely to the same strategies to attain victory. The agony of defeat was made worse by my coworkers, who started the day as mild-mannered gamers and ended it like agitated NFL coaches. They barked out strategies, questioned my gaming skills, held their heads in shame, and ultimately benched me so someone else could be a more productive general. I made it through a few battles, but the frustration that came after a loss got to us all – especially for the intense fights that lasted a good thirty to forty minutes each. My coworkers didn’t fare much better. We loved the game, but none of us expected it to be this challenging. Every little move mattered, and we even concocted multiple strategies based on potential enemy moves. Most of us stuck around late into the night to press on. Our progress picked up a little, but variations in enemy formations demanded different tactics and thinking.
After that night, I told myself I would master Final Fantasy Tactics. I played it more than any other game in 1998, devoting a good portion of my spring and summer to log over 300 hours into the game. According to How Long to Beat, an amazing website that averages the hours people put into games, Final Fantasy Tactics' critical path playthrough is 38 hours, and a completionist run clocks in at 83 and a half hours. I played through the game three to four times – once just to finish it, another time to unlock all of the secrets (which I’ll detail in a bit), and the other times to try out different strategies. I didn’t feel like I was rehashing the same content; I always got something different out of the combat.
What is It?
At the time, Final Fantasy’s combat system was easy to define: Hero characters stand on one side of the screen volleying attacks at enemies standing on the other side. Tactics retains most of the series’ combat characteristics, but instead explores how these attacks and summons unfold on a three-dimensional, isometric battlefield.
The number of units under your control varies from battle to battle, delivering a wealth of planning even before a sword can be raised toward the opposition. The characters you are enlisting fall into 20 different classes (Squire, Chemist, Knight, Archer, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage, Time Mage, Summoner, Thief, Orator, Mystic, Geomancer, Dragoon, Ninja, Samurai, Arithmetician, Bard, Dancer, and Mime). Just to give you an idea of the depth each class brings, the Ninja can dual wield, turn invisible when attacked, increase evasion rate, and walk on the surface of the water. The Chemist can change equipment mid-battle, throw items to other units, automatically use a potion when injured, and locate hidden items and traps on the terrain.
The verticality and makeup of the land affect each class and play a large role in dictating the flow of battle. The player also has to keep an eye on the Charge Time gauge for each unit. Attack order is determined by the order in which units’ CT gauges reach 100. If a unit moves and attacks, the CT drops to 0. If a unit moves, but doesn’t act, the CT drops to 20. If the unit only waits, the CT is lowered to 40.
At the end of a unit’s turn, the player must determine what direction they will face for the forthcoming enemy assault. If they are facing the direction from which an attack is fired, they gain the chance to evade. In battles going down to the wire, I can’t tell you how many times I flipped a unit’s direction before ending a turn. Choosing correctly can make or break a battle.
Reaping the rewards of battle can be a risky endeavor as well. Fallen foes drop treasures and crystals, which you need to pick up. Chocobo mounts, zodiac signs, equipment, and a variety of additional elements all play a role in each battle. Hours upon hours of experimentation are required to truly grasp this game’s incredibly deep combat systems.
Just moving across the map to a town can be stressful. Green spots that must be crossed sometimes result in battle. On my first playthrough, I cringed whenever I would activate a story mission. The foes encountered often warranted the concern prior to battle.
The story details the aftermath of Ivalice’s Fifty Year War. Following the death of a king, a prince – just two years of age – takes the throne. Until he’s old enough to govern the land on his own, he’s appointed a regent: the king’s cousin, Duke Goltanna. This drew the ire of the queen’s brother, Duke Larg, who many thought would be regent. This rift created a new conflict for Ivalice: The War of the Lions. The players in this drama…well…I don’t remember much about them other than I had troubles pronouncing their names. Dearest Ramza Beoulve and Princess Ovelia Atkascha, all apologies, my younger self called you “Ram” and “Olive.”
The star of this game is the combat and what happens on the battlefield. Yes, the tale is worth following, but the narrative didn’t grab my attention nearly as much as the other Final Fantasy titles of the time.
The Big Secret
Final Fantasy Tactics holds one of my favorite secrets in a video game. Toward the end of Chapter 4, players can unlock Cloud as a playable character. An additional secret unlocks his Materia Blade and his ability to perform Limit Breaks. Unlocking Cloud is a major pain in the ass, but is well worth the time and effort.