A worthy divergence to the Final Fantasy name.
Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance (Henceforth referred to as FFT) is a great game, you should know that up front. The disjointed worlds created by Square Enix might not necessarily translate so easily to a handheld device, but the tactics formula is a good one, mirroring things like Disgaea, and Fire Emblem, helping to create a wildly different, yet wholly satisfying style in which to experience the Final Fantasy brand.
The game focuses around 2 main characters, namely Marche and Mewt, as the two friends at school discover a book called "Final Fantasy", a non too subtle nod to the popular branching franchise this game was spawned from. The two boys, along with their friend Ritz and Marches brother, Doned read the book together, and talk about how much they love the idea of a fantasy world, where sword and sorcery is commonplace. The next day, Marche, the protagonist awakes in the land of Ivalice, and after meeting clan boss Montblanc, comes to the conclusion that he has somehow been transported into his favourite game series, Final Fantasy. However, this doesn't appear to be happening in an ironic or self aware frame of things, the game "Final Fantasy", at least in this games history, is a singular thing, and this doesn't seem to add much besides a backdrop and excuse to have the real world children in a fantasy world.
In this is the crux, and almost downfall of the game.
I said almost.
People coming to FFT for a story, while not being dissapointed, may come away from the experience feeling somewhat cheated. While the story in the game is compelling in its own right, the large majority of the game focuses directly on the gameplay, which is in a combat scenario. While this is not a bad thing in its own right (The combat is excellent), people coming to this game expecting a grand, sweeping epic, about the destruction of worlds to an ancient evil, or a sacred princess to save may leave dismayed. This is little more than the story of a boy, who wants to find his way home.
The look and feel of the game are suitably appropriate for the GBA. Each individual sprite is vividly detailed for such a small model, and there's a specific joy in picking and choosing who you want, despite the fact that there is no individuality in specific characters. All ninjas look the same, such as all hunters/gunners and many other classes all share the same tailor, despite the fact that your knight might be wearing "Maximillian: The God killing armor of many dragons blood", and your enemy is wearing "Steel Armor".
Digressions aside, the combat mechanic the game so heavily focuses on is so tight and refined, that all issues pertaining to the narrative quality seem almost inconsequential. The game takes place on a grid based field, meaning that the location, direction that you face your characters, and other people in the way can greatly affect the outcome of a fight. Not got your gunner on the high ground? Expect to shoot the wall. Not got your healer within range of anyone? Expect to move close, then be able to heal the spots around him. Not got enough speed on your Mog Knight? Expect a ninja to get 3 turns to his 1. Tactics, as is in the game name play a pivotal role. There are over 30 job types in the game, spread over 5 classes, namely the Humans, Viera, Bangaa, Moogles and the Nu Mou, each race sporting specific and unique character types. After each mission, there is a chance for any combination of the two approach you, seeking membership in the clan. While the game only allows you a maximum of 6 characters on a combat field at one point, it encourages you to recruit above your initial 6 characters, namely for the purpose of "Dispatch Missions". Within the many sidequests in this game (300 in change), feature the "Dispatch Mission", in which you send off a member of your clan, and trust them to do a good job in your stead. After a set number of days, enemies destroyed, or battles fought, the character will come back, which, if completed right, reaps bountiful AP, Gil, and special items not found anywhere else.
However, it is within this that one of the larger problems in the game lies. Because you have to dispatch a character, having no direct control over it, merely hoping it can accomplish its task successfully, there is almost no chance of being able to assist. And this IS a BIG problem. Certain sidequests feature in the game once, and once only. Have a quest where you need to use Remds Cup, and the dispatched unit fails? Well, you're out of luck friend, there is no other Cup in the game.
"If you do lose one of these items, you just have to restart the game, or have a friend mercifully give you theirs" is the description I have seen online regarding this situation.
Which is a shame, really. For a game so close to perfection, so eager to please, with its satisfying mechanics, endearing characters individual to one person, and exceptional aesthetics, it falls ever so short in certain points. There are specific points in the game in which the player is expected to fight in the "Jagd". This zone is a lawless zone, meaning there are no judges to enforce laws on the player, as is the norm for the vast majority of the gameplay experience. But with no judge, means nobody to protect your clan from death. In a normal, judged fight, the power of the law means that nobody ever "Dies" when they fall in combat, they merely...are beaten. In the Jagd, anyone down at the end of a fight is dead. Just straight up dead. I personally recall a time in which the last enemy sacrificed himself to kill one of my characters (Rest in Peace, Baldwin...) and as that closed the fight, Baldwin was gone. Forever. All the time I spent levelling up his White Magic, his Sage Magic, Gladiator skills were gone in an instant. In that regard, the game does a phenomenal job in endearing a player towards his clan. But, that isn't necessarily a good thing. Should the player really have to fear so much for the permanent death of a character? This isn't Fire Emblem, ya know...
Aside from that, the rest of the game is mainly solid. The game does commit the absolute sin of RPG games however, in which "If your protagonist isn't around, everyone else is a blithering idiot, so I guess it's game over), and for that reason, amongst the other few niggles, I can't in good consciousness award the game the highest mark possible. But underneath these issues lie an incredibly well thought out videogame. Fans of tactical grid based combat, the Final Fantasy world, or even people who love to spend hours upon hours micromanaging several characters equipment so they get just the right growth will find something about this game to love. In terms of RPG's for the GBA, you'd be pressed to find better.