Let's do some time travel. I'm going to take you back ten years to 1997 when, in Japan, two games were released by Square on an underdog system called the PS1. These titles, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics have since become critically regarded as two of the best games on Sony's fledgling console. And while Final Fantasy VII has enjoyed the sort of commercial success normally attributed to rockstars, sadly Tactics was hideously overshadowed by its prettier brother and so this gem was never received by the consumers as it should've done. Shame on you Americans! (Though because of this, Europeans never even saw the game released on our shelves.) Fast forward to 2007 and, almost by means of apology, Square Enix has allowed Europe access to the PSP version of this game, and a full week before the US at that! That'll teach you.
While it's easy to view Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions as a mere re-release, the game has retained most of the same gameplay elements as its PS1 counterpart, as well as added a completely new translation, gorgeously animated cutscenes, extra classes, characters and even a multiplayer feature. But even with all that, the game is still a 10 year old tactical RPG. Does it still stand up as a great title a decade on?
The first thing you notice when you load up the UMD (so long as you aren't one of those weird intro-skippers) is the beautiful introduction sequence. This sets the tone for the game and, while the style is different from the in-game cutscenes, is still an impressive piece of animation. It also includes some lines of story which, while slightly pretentious in that "should-be-read-by-a-man-with-a-deep-voice movie trailer" sort of way, does give an indication of the sort of writing the new translation entails.
Which brings me to my first major point about the game: the new script is, in short, wonderfully written. While the PS1 version was bland and suffered from bouts of Engrish every so often, the PSP version's story is written in very flowery Shakespearian English. This style fits perfectly with the story which, barring the monsters and magic stones, does have the feel of the Bard's tales to it. Dukes, Kings, betrayal, deceit and classism abound. Not only this, but the cutscenes are all fully voiced in English - surprisingly well, in fact. They truly are a pleasure to watch and you don't have to brave the weather to view them by visiting the Globe. Unless you fancy taking your PSP down there for that truly authentic feel.
All pretentiousness aside, however, there's a still a game amongst all of this story. Final Fantasy Tactics is, if you couldn't tell from the name, a tactical RPG. That means the gameplay consists solely of strategic conflict on a grid based battlefield. If you're not battling then you'll be micro-managing. That's a warning. If you like your games as menu-less as possible, then this game is not for you. Every single member of your party requires attention when it comes to changing jobs, abilities and equipment.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, this game is very in depth and unforgiving. This is clear from the outset as the main menu contains only three options: New Game, Continue and Tutorial. The tutorial can seem intimidating at first, but will guide you through the basics of the game via simple text to read or take-you-by-the-hand walkthroughs of various functions of the game. The only problem with these is that you cannot skip them if you realise you already know it. Other than that, these serve as a great gateway into the game as well as the entire Strategy RPG genre.
Once you start the game you'll be greeted with the first of those gorgeous cutscenes. The animation and art style are really excellent and, as mentioned before, the voice acting certainly isn't the worst I've ever heard. Soon after this you'll be plunged into a battle. Get used to it, because this makes up the majority of the game. For those not familiar with SRPGs, I'll explain. Combat takes place on a chess board of sorts and each character takes their turn to move up to their allocated number of spaces at which point they can perform an action, be it a spell an attack or some other skill. These also have various reaches - which is where the strategy comes in. Battlefields also have different terrain types, elevations and hazards.
The class system is one of the gems of the game, allowing your characters to perform different skills and, by leveling their classes up, progressing to become more and more powerful. Characters can have the skills of two different jobs, but in order to learn new skills they must spend time in combat as the class whose skill they wish to learn. This introduces more strategy to the game - and more micromanagement. Personally, I love a bit of micromanagement as long as I feel that I am in control. Final Fantasy Tactics allows me that pleasure and switching jobs, learning new abilities and changing equipment is deceptively simple.
When not in battle you will find yourself on the map screen, which consists of an ever-growing network of roads connected by destinations. These destinations are either combat fields or settlements. At the latter you can improve your team by buying equipment or hiring new party members. As the game is rich in story, you will also find that every new destination you stop off at will begin a continuation of the plot, whether it be real-time graphics or a cutscene.
Which brings me onto one of the game's tragic missteps. The graphics haven't been updated since the PS1 version, other than the entire game being set to a 16:9 ratio for the PSP's screen. This is a huge shame considering the great work that was put into the updated sprites for Final Fantasy I and II. Having said this, however, the sprites do still look good and even have some convincing animations full of character. The spell effects in battle haven't been updated either and, even worse than that, the frame rate drops that plagued the game a decade ago are back in this version. While these don't ruin the game, they do get incredibly jarring, especially when the accompanying sound effect is playing at full speed. These bouts of slow-down only occur when performing attacks or spells in battle. Everything else in the game runs nice and smooth.
New additions to the PSP version include a couple of new classes (Onion Knight and Dark Knight), new characters (Balthier from Final Fantasy XII and Luso from Final Fantasy Tactics A2). There are also a couple of new multiplayer features which can be found in the Tavern menu. Unfortunately, these are only available in Ad-Hoc mode and there is no online infrastructure mode available. Still, they're certainly better than nothing. In Melee mode you and a friend can battle each other to see who has the strongest party and, in Rendezvous mode, two players can team up to complete special missions. These are great pieces of extra content for once you've completed the game or if you're just bored with story mode. A true online mode would have made them even better, however.
Final Fantasy Tactics is certainly a long game with a lot of replay value. The sheer number of jobs, abilities and sidequests will have you playing for hours and hours. This is aided, in part, by the game's level of challenge which, if you don't stay on top of your character development, can range from difficult to "whoops, I really need to level up". Even with the disappointing slowdown, this game is a must-buy. Especially if you missed it a decade ago. Even if you didn't, with all the new content that has been packed in, including the completely redone script, this may be the best time to revisit Ramza and his friends. Let's not forget the game is portable, too!
PSP Fanboy Score: 8.5
Second Opinion: Nick
I'd say Jem is rather spot on with his analysis of the game, but since Europe didn't get to tinker with the original quite as much, I'm going to throw in my two cents for those who've played the original version to death -- that includes those jerks who make Calculators with Bard skills, or Dragoons that Summon. Jem already talked about the gameplay, story, additions, and all that, so I've really nothing to add in those categories. The new script is incredibly welcome, removing strange lines like "I won't kill my older brother, Dycedarg, unless it's Dycedarg's older brother" and replacing them with whimsical lines that demand as much attention to interpret, but in a good way.
Where I diverge from Jem's opinion is the graphics -- yes, there is some strange slowdown on most spells and even some shifted sound effects from the original, but graphically, I think this version is superior to the original. This may be in part to it getting scaled onto a smaller screen, or the fact the PSP screen is excellent, but there's far less jaggy than I recall when booting up the original for comparing. The slowdown is, admittedly, much worse than the original.
I didn't get a chance to get too far into the game, since Europe got it a week early, but I can already tell the differences make the game worth owning and playing all over again, even if to re-learn all the spell and ability names.