A deep story, rewarding turn-based action and gorgeous cel-shading sequences make Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions a remarkable port which proves that its basic gameplay has definitely stood the test of time.
How do you remake one of the greatest games of all time? How do you keep the interest of old fans at the same time you make the game accessible enough to newcomers? The answers to these questions are not simple, but Square Enix was able to create a port that retains the basic qualities of the original Final Fantasy Tactics and combine those with some technical enhancements, making The War of the Lions one of the best tactical role-playing games ever created and also one of the best titles to ever grace the PlayStation Portable.
The game is set in the fictional kingdom of Ivalice during the War of the Lions, a conflict that occurred right after the Ivalician King Ondoria died. The plot focuses on Ramza, a soldier who has recently enrolled in the Order of the Northern Sky’s Akademy with his best friend Delita. The Order is under the command of Ramza’s brothers and when Delita’s sister, Tietra, is sacrificed to put an end to a peasant rebellion, both Ramza and Delita leave the Order and swear revenge. Delita, a commoner, promises retaliation against all the nobles of Ivalice, including Ramza.
As you may have guessed from this explanation, the main plot is overly convoluted and keeping up with everything that happens is extremely difficult as the story tends to be impenetrable at times. Fortunately though, the game includes a log with details of every single character the player encounters and every event that occurs, making the plot a little bit easier to understand. At the same time, it’s surprising that the story is able to convey feelings of love, loss, revenge, betrayal, war and friendship. Not because the gameplay is bad, but because most of the story takes place in grid-based environments and the noseless, featureless characters don’t seem appropriate to tell such a complex tale. Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the truth as these characters, though they may seem lacking in characteristics, are surprisingly suitable for such a poignant story. In addition, some key moments of the plot are told though some well-crafted cinematics that imitate moving paintings, providing a refreshingly unique graphical style.
In the battlefields, you control a group of characters and on each turn, an action can be chosen: you may move, attack, defend, cast a spell, use a special ability and so on. At first moving through these environments is extremely intimidating as even a slight mistake usually has direct repercussions on the course of the battles and also because the game keeps introducing basic rules long past the first hours. Basically, and as in most other RPGs, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions has some deep character progression elements as every time a character completes an action successfully, they receive both experience and Job Points. The former are useful to level up, an action which increases the character’s basic statistics (attack, defense, magick points and hit points,) but the latter require further explanation.
Final Fantasy Tactics was one of the first games to have ever introduced the Job System, a class-based system which determines the actions a character is able to use. Nevertheless, these points need to be spent on those abilities before a character may use them, so if you want to be able to cast a specific spell, that spell needs to be unlocked first. As you earn JP, the specific class of the character keeps leveling up and getting new abilities, which need to be bought by spending the aforementioned job points. Additionally, characters inherit certain abilities from some of the jobs that had already been mastered, but the limited number of slots adds more strategy and complexity to character customization. This means that for example, a knight can use the abilities of a white mage given that those had already been learned. Most of the classes featured in the game were taken from previous Final Fantasy titles and some of them include Squires, Chemists, Thieves, Priests, Summoners, and White Mages, among many others.
Battles are also complex and some of them can be overly long too, so even though it’s great to play the game on the go, certain battles may take an hour or so to complete. It’s worth pointing out that there are different kinds of battles and while most of them require you to defeat all enemies, sometimes the game changes the rules, encouraging the player to defend a certain character or defeat a particular enemy and thankfully, this provides the game with a nice change of pace. But apart from engaging in battles the game has a huge world map with cities in it and most of these have taverns (where important rumors can be heard,) merchants (from whom you may buy new equipment,) and the Warrior’s Guild (where you can recruit new soldiers.)
Death is another important element of the game. If one of the characters dies in battle and you fail to revive him in three turns that character is lost forever. Although this concept may seem excessively punishing, it makes the player feel more attached to his team and it encourages you to maintain two (or more) active saves at all times to avoid further frustrations. All this complexity has its advantages as the overwhelmingly daunting gameplay eventually becomes extremely addictive. The elaborate job system may seem unfairly complex at first, but it makes battles very rewarding. Furthermore, the hundreds of different options to customize each of your characters make your team quite unique and distinctive and you’ll definitely feel disappointed when one of your characters perishes in battle.
The War of the Lions port has multiple new features like new cel-shading cutcenes, improved graphics, a new 16:9 widescreen presentation which looks superb on the PlayStation Portable screen, new jobs, cameo characters and missions, voice acting and a better translation which uses some discontinued English words and expressions that accentuate the game’s medieval feel.
Nevertheless, the game isn’t without its flaws. The tutorial leaves lots of questions unanswered as if the game expects you to understand certain things on your own, as a consequence, mastering the basic mechanics takes a lot of time. Given the complexity of the battles, it’s more probable that players rely on a walkthrough (something that may be quite difficult considering that this is a portable game) than on trial-and-error. Although most of the battlefields look amazing and the game lets you alternate the position of the camera, The War of the Lions desperately needs a better view of the action and a view from the top would have simplified things. Another minor complaint with the game is its woefully uneven pace as the first hours of the game are brutally difficult and the last battle is extremely easy. Thankfully for those players who want a challenge, the game does offer some enthralling sidequests to unlock secret characters and to obtain legendary weapons and equipment. Moreover, no online multiplayer options of any kind were included and even though this may not be the best way to play against others (considering the long nature of the battles,) it would have been great to at least have the choice to do so. Still, the game offers ad-hoc functionality and those who have friends with a PSP and a copy of the game may unlock some unique items that can only be found on the multiplayer portion of the title. Finally, the game suffers from some minor slowdowns and framedrops whenever a flashy spell is used, but fortunately this technical glitch doesn’t put a barrier on your enjoyment.
In the end, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is a remarkable port. It has a deep story, magnificent soundtrack, endearing protagonists, rewarding turn-based action, delightful aesthetics and gorgeous cel-shading sequences that add cinematic resonance. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t explain some basic mechanics, the battles may be excessively complex to the uninitiated and a cumbersome use of camera doesn’t always provide the best look of the action. Nevertheless, if you are willing to give this game a chance, you’ll find that this is simply one of the best tactical RPG experiences ever created and one that is definitely worth playing.
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