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Final Fantasy Tactics Advance


Following the end of a six-year feud between Nintendo and Square Enix, both sides have finally decided to bury the hatchet, to the joy of Game Boy Advance owners everywhere. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, developed by Square Enix and distributed by Nintendo, is the first product in what will hopefully be many more to come to our favorite portable.

The story centers on Marche, the new kid in school. Having befriended fellow outcasts Mewt and Ritz, they all one day go back to his house to read a new book that Mewt has acquired, full of fantastic creatures and an indecipherable language. As you might expect, there's more than meets the eye to the book, and the next day Marche awakens to find himself not in the city of St. Ivalice, but the magical country of Ivalice. As the story progresses you quickly discover that you are living in Mewt's fantasy world, along with your friends. But whereas you want to leave, they do not...

Gameplay:
If you have ever played the original game on the PlayStation or any of the Shining Force or Tactics Ogre games, you have a good idea what Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is all about. The story is advanced through a series of 300 (yes, 300) missions, and you spend the majority of your time on the battle field, directing your soldiers and mages in turn-based combat with some goal in mind (usually "kill anything that moves"). Of the 300, there are also "dispatch" missions, in which you send a character off to complete quests on their own. After emerging victorious from these battles, the characters involved gain experience, unique items, and, most importantly, ability points.

Ability points work a bit differently from the job points of the original. Whereas in Final Fantasy Tactics you would earn job points for every in-battle action you took and could then buy abilities within a class (eventually buying all of them to master that class), in Tactics Advance the skills are innately bonded to the weapons, armor, and accessories. After a certain amount of ability points are awarded to a character with those items equipped (generally between 100-300, although major skills cost a whopping 999), the character masters that skill and can then use that ability without the item equipped. Since it's impossible to get your hands on certain equipment until later in the game, you'll find yourself acquiring better skills gradually over the entire course of the game, rather than mostly towards the beginning, if you're like me and like to level your characters up early on.

Of course, what skills one can use are determined by what class and race the character happens to be. There are five races that occupy the world of Ivalice: Human, Viera, Moogle, Bangaa, and Nu Mou. Races have different innate qualities and some unique classes; the lizard-like Bangaa are almost entirely physical fighters, while the Nu Mou are primarily mages. Although you still have primary and secondary skills, no longer will you be able to have, say, double-handed ninja monks from the first game -- only a Bangaa can become a monk, and only a human can become a ninja. To make up for this, there are some great new classes. The Viera can become assassins, for example, a class which can deliver deathblow techniques like Last Breath and Nightmare -- one is an instant kill, the other casts both Sleep and Doom, causing the target to die in his sleep. Also making their debut in the Tactics series are the Red Mage and the awesome Blue Mage from Final Fantasy V, who can learn attacks that monsters use on him. There are plenty of nice surprises for both veteran and new players in this respect.

Portability was also obviously a key element in the design of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. As you might expect, you can save anytime on the map screen, but you can also quick-save a game while in battle, which is erased when you return to it. This is stored on the cartridge itself, allowing you to turn the system off without worrying about wasted effort. It's a nice touch.

There are some additions that aren't quite as welcome, however. The first is the much-touted laws system. For every battle there are laws that determine gameplay, enforced by omnipresent judges. They may be as simple as prohibiting the use of magic or swords, or as complex as not performing the same move as the previous character. A minor infraction nets you a soccer-style yellow card, while a major one gets you a red card and sent to prison. Incidentally, judges also award judge points, which can be used to perform unblockable combos in battle. I suppose the system was implemented to keep players on their toes, and to be fair, Square Enix does manage to naturally integrate this concept into the storyline, but it's really more of a hassle than anything. Even the in-game characters express annoyance with it. To counter this, anti-law cards are introduced. At any point in a battle, you can use a particular card to add a new law or undo existing laws. Is an enemy a little too fond of Charm? Use a card forbidding that ability to make laws work for you. This is the positive aspect of the law system, but you'll still find yourself dancing around the map until you get a set of laws you can live with for a particular battle.

Also, in a bizarre change, players can now custom-design their own maps, as in Legend of Mana. After each mission you receive a new location, which you can plunk down on the map wherever you please. Doing so in certain patterns unlocks various rare items, but there's really no way to predict how to do so "correctly," so you'll probably find yourself floating over to GameFAQs in order to get anything other than worthless items.

Graphics:
The graphics are, in my opinion, some of the best on the Game Boy Advance. While it doesn't have three-dimensional battlefields like the original, even on the Game Boy Player it looks very nice. With that in mind, Square Enix also added some very welcome color options -- two brightly-colored schemes for the Game Boy Advance and one TV scheme that tones it down a bit.

The menus are a bit tight sometimes, though. While I understand real estate is expensive on the tiny Game Boy Advance screen, buying and equipping items is sort of a hassle, with screens covering menus. Never one to read the instruction manual, it took me awhile to determine that you can hit Start to view particular equipment changes (color coded to show positive or negative). I don't believe this vitally-important function is actually documented anywhere in the game itself.

Audio:
There are only a handful of songs for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I really like the main theme and the end theme, but most of the battle themes are entirely forgettable. Mayhaps they were designed that way, seeing as how you will be spending dozens and dozens of hours in that screen. At any rate, a decent effort. The sound effects are great, though. I laugh every time the cackling Grim Reaper floats away with another helpless victim (although I suppose that could be attributed to my own sadistic nature).

Conclusion:
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an excellent game, and easily one of the best for the Game Boy Advance. With seemingly endless gameplay and much more depth than its predecessor, this is one you'll be playing for a long time to come. Highly recommended.