Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
Beautiful, man.

In the year of 1997, video game company Square released Final Fantasy VII for Sony’s PlayStation, which revolutionized the Japanese role-playing genre as a whole. Its monumental popularity overshadowed the release of several other games that year, including designer Matsuno Yasumi’s critically acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics. Nearly ten years later, the game was re-released in 2007 as Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for Sony’s PSP.

When players start the game, they engage in a snowball fight they are greeted by Arazlam, a modern-day scholar. After asking your name (as RPGs do) and birthday, he tells you of the conflict for the throne dubbed by historians as “The War of the Lions” which occurred over 400 years ago. Set in the Kingdom of Ivalice (yes, that’s the same Ivalice as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII) following its defeat in the Fifty Years’ War, the hostility between Duke Larg of the Northern Sky and Duke Goltanna of the Southern Sky escalated to massive amounts of bloodshed after the King’s untimely death. Arazlam tells the player that the climax of the political struggle saw the rise of a young man named Delita Heiral, who went down in history as the hero of the Lion War.

However, he has reason to believe that another, named Ramza Beoulve, who was condemned as a traitor and heretic, may have been more involved in the outcome than initially reported. He then invites you to join him as he attempts to unravel the truth of what really happened behind the scenes of The War of the Lions. Word to the wise: if you are not a fan of intricate and convoluted storylines in video games, avoid this one. To quote my friend Dave [little Dave -ed.], it is similar to opening to a random page in a history book and reading. This game doesn’t hold your hand or explain every little thing to you. However, if you are feeling confused, the game does provide a chronicle detailing all the game’s characters and past events for further information.

In Final Fantasy Tactics, you play as Ramza, the other fella from the introduction. Born a noble of House Beoulve, Ramza enrolled at a prestigious military academy at the age of 17 with his childhood friend, Delita. The game’s storyline is split into four separate acts, resembling a play, with its first act detailing their time spent at the school. This prequel of sorts serves as a means of outlining the game’s major characters, as well as their ambitions and attitudes, before the life-changing event that occurs when the act ends. Ramza’s character sees minimal development throughout the game. Even so, this is not necessarily a bad thing. He is selfless and idealistic, yet never strays into holier-than-thou territory. His allegiances may change, yet still he continues to honor his father’s dying words. He goes through more crap in mere years than some characters do in a lifetime, yet he never utters a word of complaint. In other words, Ramza is a great protagonist and proof that nice guys finish last.

Despite his relatable moments, noble deeds, and levelheadedness, all which make him a strong protagonist, Ramza plays second fiddle to Delita, who steals the show. Born to poor farmers on Beoulve land, Delita and his younger sister Tietra were accepted into House Beoulve by Ramza’s father after their parents fell to the Black Death, the game’s rendition of the Bubonic plague. We see a troubled and cynical Delita in the game’s first act; most people can sympathize with the mistreatment he and his sister receive due to low birth. But, after suffering a needless tragedy at the hands of the nobility at the end of the first act, Delita disappears for a full year, believed to be dead. When he returns, his motives and allegiance are unclear, and they remain so for most of the game. However, he is clearly pulling some strings. I will say this now: Delita is the most interesting character in any video game ever. Both anti-hero and anti-villain; he is a total morally grey character. If anything, studying Machiavelli in Political Theory this year has made me appreciate him even more.

Now, you’re probably thinking I’m reviewing a book or something, given that all I’ve talked about so far is its compelling narrative. But, as it turns out, there is actual gameplay involved which aids in making it, you know, a video game. As you’ve probably figured out by now from its title, Final Fantasy Tactics is indeed a tactical RPG. The gameplay is standard fare for a game of its type; you build an army, deploy units on an isometric grid in battle, and implement turn-based battle strategies to defeat your enemies. It’s kind of like chess on crack. What sets Final Fantasy Tactics apart from most other games of its kind is its expanded use of the Job System.

What is that, you ask? Well, in a nutshell, each human unit of your army requires a specialty, or job, in battles. Everyone starts as either a Squire (combat-oriented) or Chemist (magic-oriented) and, through level progression, can advance to better jobs. For example, a Squire may be promoted to a Knight, and later a Monk, having met the prerequisites. Also, units may retain skills or abilities they’ve learned from previous jobs–part of what makes the game so much fun. The better your jobs, and the more diverse your army, the stronger you will be. As a result, the game’s first act or so is noticeably more difficult than the latter few. There is a steep learning curve here. Even so, the Job System is so flexible and nonlinear that it works brilliantly.

Additions to this remake of the game include stylized cinematics for important events that take full advantage of Yoshida Akihiko’s unique art style in his character designs, as well as a rewritten Shakespearean-like script, that better reflects the story’s mood and setting. Two additional jobs are included–though, one is next to impossible to unlock. Recruitable characters from other Final Fantasy games, such as Balthier from Final Fantasy XII, receive cameos. Oh, and multiplayer too, though I’ve yet to test that out with Dave as I always forget to bring my PSP. Complaints? The remake suffers from a strange case of frame rate slowdown that occurs in the midst of spells, summons, or sword techs. This wasn’t present in the original version, and is likely the result of the effects being read off the UMD. A simple data install likely could have remedied this, but is not offered. Not game-breaking, just show-stopping.

I thought it was going to be impossible to review this unbelievable game in a mere 1000 words, and really, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes it so great. If you own a PSP, buy a copy off Amazon or eBay now–or simply wait until its inevitable release on PlayStation Network. The truth is, this is the best game ever made, a game about friendship, loyalty, morality, greed, power, corruption, manipulation, and if you disagree, you’re stupid and wrong. FOUR STARS

ed.: I kinda really pushed Chad to finish in a thousand words. I’ll say right now, I’ve had days upon days of listening to him play this game. And apparently, it’s some kind of awesome. -JC