Despite being very well-received critically upon its release, nowadays there is a vocal contingent that views Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as an absolute disaster. Their complaints primarily come down to how the game differs from the original Final Fantasy Tactics in its mechanics and narrative -- though of course the biggest criticism is the presence of the gameís Judges.
Anyone who is at all familiar with FFTA has heard of the Judges: large, armored humanoids riding Chocobos and administering penalties to those who break the arbitrarily chosen laws of a particular battle. Essentially referees for skirmishes between clans, the Judges are hated by many because they prevent the player from using all the tools at his disposal. Considering that there were about six billion different ways to break combat wide open in the original FFT, the restraint the Judges demand was seen by some as much too limiting. In practice, though, the Judges actually have very little effect on the flow of battle. The laws the Judges enforce are all on a cyclical, visible schedule, so players can easily time their fights to coincide with laws that donít affect them or even significantly impede their enemies. Not only that, but players also acquire plenty of law cards they can use to negate any unexpectedly obnoxious laws they should encounter. With just a tiny bit more planning, itís just as easy to crack the combat system and create all kinds of super-powered Łber-teams in Tactics Advance as it is in the original Tactics. Anyone who claims the battles in Tactics Advance are just pale imitations of those found in Yasumi Matsunoís PlayStation opus just hasnít given the game enough time.
Really, the biggest problem with the Judges is that theyíre kind of pointless once players understand how they work. If one wants to see how the system could have been even more obnoxious one need only look to FFTAís sequel, Grimoire of the Rift, where the laws are tied to specific battles, not visible ahead of time, unchangeable, and generally chosen specifically to screw the player. Now that was something worth complaining about.
Even Squareís designers realized how annoyed some players would be with the Judges, as they included a massive postgame story arc in which players were tasked with defeating a group of corrupt Judges, and therefore were finally able to pound on the folks who had been disrupting their strategies for the entire game. Of course, if Square knew how irritating some people would find the Judges, it begs the question: why include them at all?
The other major point of conection with FFTA is its story. While the original Final Fantasy Tactics was a deadly serious tale of political backstabbing, religious zealotry, and war, FFTA takes a substantially more lighthearted approach. Four children, each outsiders at their school, discover a magical book which transports them and their entire town to a fantasy land where all their dreams are fulfilled. Marche and Ritz become respected leaders of powerful clans. Marcheís brother, Doned, is no longer sickly and wheelchair-bound. Perhaps most impressive of all, the wishy-washy Mewt becomes a prince, his dead mother returns to life as Queen, and his pathetic, drunken doormat of a father becomes the proud and powerful leader of the Judges. Critics therefore tend to paint FFTAís story as sanitized, kid-friendly pap designed to tap straight into every video-game-playing kidís desire to, himself, be drawn into a fantasy world where he gets to be the hero.
What these critics are missing, though, is that the game is in fact a total subversion of that trope. Rather than being a tale of escapist fantasy, the theme of FFTA is actually about learning to accept reality and make the most of oneís life regardless of hardship. Not long into the gameís story, Marche learns that the entire world of Ivalice is a fabrication, merely a projection of the world Mewt wants. From that point on he makes it his mission to return himself and his friends to the real world. Unfortunately, this quickly leads him into conflict with his friends, who are more than happy to blissfully remain in their fantasy. Marche soon becomes an outlaw, with Mewt and the Queen bringing the full force of Ivaliceís military to bear against one who they feel is trying to destroy the world.
This has actually led some critics to view Marche as the real villain of the story, as they claim he places his own desire to return to the real world above the happiness of his friends. Admittedly, itís pretty difficult to watch the scene where Doned furiously accuses his brother of trying to once again confine him to a wheelchair, and itís hard to fault Mewt for wanting to stay in a place where his mother isnít dead and his father isnít a loser. But the problem is none of it is real. Marche doesnít want to return to the real world because he likes it better. Quite the contrary; in Ivalice, heís a great warrior with lots of good friends, not a shy loner who gets picked on for being too quiet. But he understands that in order to do what is best for everyone he needs to give that up.
Granted, the game never gives the kids an ultimatum if they donít go back. They arenít having their life force drained by monsters. They donít need to go back in order to save someone else. In fact, the implication is that they could have all lived quite happily in the world of Ivalice. As Marche realizes, though, that wouldnít really be living. None of the kids have solved their problems in Ivalice, simply had them removed. Marche is still a shy loner, but now he has a bubbly, outgoing friend to help him. Mewt is still wishy-washy, but now heís in a position of authority, so people are forced to listen to him. Doned didnít learn to cope with his long-term illness, he simply became healthy. And Ritzís problem... is pretty stupid.
The force that brought the children to Ivalice and keeps them there isnít something benevolent that wants to help them fix their lives. It is a dark force of denial, frustration, and anger, which quickly lashes out at those who try to confront its lies. Marcheís cause is immediately validated when, instead of trying to talk it over with him, his friends attack him for his attempts to restore them all to reality. They would all willingly harm, or perhaps even kill, someone they once cared about rather than have their fantasies disrupted. To stay in Ivalice would be to live in a world without real challenges and thus without the potential for personal development. They would exist forever as children playing a game, never growing into mature, well-adjusted adults. Appropriately, it is only when the gameís characters reject comfortable fantasy for harsh but genuine reality that the player sees them start to develop the strength to face their problem. Folks tend to forget that Matsuno, director of Vagrant Story and the subversive Ogre Battle, was still involved in the creation of this game. The game may make some concessions to appeal to younger players, but its story nonetheless bears more than a hint of Matsunoís trademark complexity and moral ambiguity. All in all, itís pretty ingenious to have a videogame explain the importance of not perpetually escaping into fantasy.
Admittedly, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance has other problems, too. Its Job System is much less involved than that of its predecessor. The Judges wind up being kind of pointless. You can accidently discard important quest items. Ritzís story arc is pretty stupid. Nevertheless, it manages to transcend these flaws by providing players with hours of the same enjoyable light tactical combat one expects from the series and a story which may not be quite as grim as the one found in the original Tactics but which is still complex and engaging. It may not feature an evil church, class-consciousness, and a seventy-year-old man who can essentially beat the game by himself, but Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is still a great game and one of the best strategy RPGs in portable format.
Final Fantasy Tactics Adventure
Developer: Square Enix
Based on: Smooshing a brilliant classic into a soft, chewable form suitable for young palates.