Over the past month or so I've found myself getting back into something I had pretty much dismissed a year ago: JRPGs. Excited by all of the news regarding Persona 4: Golden, and having spent hours reading through various fantasy structures on TVtropes, I felt a need for a long, epic journey. My answer was Final Fantasy Tactics.
For a little bit of history, I first bought Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP about four years ago. I got a few levels in before decided it was not my thing. In the beginning of the game, the combat is very limited--characters can do little but use potions and normal attacks--and trying to get a correct camera angle through the 3d environments can be kind of infuriating, especially on the PSP. Flash forward to last year, when FFT was put on the App store. I bought it, tried playing again, and got the same result.
However, last month, in my gaming drought, I found myself able to push through the game's slow beginning and complex systems. What I found was a game that, while not entirely my strategical cup of tea, managed to keep me entertained for a good 40 hours or so.
By my "strategical cup of tea" I'm referring to Fire Emblem. I adore that series, and believe it to be the absolute pinnacle of turn based strategy. It seems that turn based strategy RPG fans actually split between FFT and FE, and for good reason: pretty much every possible design decision made is different. Tactics uses much smaller maps, and each battle has about a third of the characters in a FE chapter. Tactics uses an open world, whereas the vast majority of Fire Emblem games are completely linear. Turns in Tactics are based on character speed and a CT gauge; Fire Emblem just has player and enemy go turn by turn. Characters in Fire Emblem have very well-defined roles, while any non-monster character in Tactics can change their job at any time outside of combat. Characters in Fire Emblem can do little but use the weapons they have on their person, while Tactics characters have a wide variety of usable skills and spells. Fire Emblem is in 2d, while Tactics is in 3d (kind of). I think you get the picture.
As a result of these differences, Fire Emblem plays a lot like a game of chess, while Tactics plays more like a traditional Final Fantasy game, just with a little more emphasis on movement. The increased difficulty and punishing death in Fire Emblem actually reminds me of Super Meat Boy--both are games that are seemingly very simple, yet very punishing while still remaining fair (except Fog of War, enemy critical hits, and when reinforcements come at the start of an enemy's turn. Ugh). In both series, you know every tool you have, and all of your obstacles--the difficulty comes from finesse, either mental or physical.
Tactics, on the other hand--while still difficult--gets its difficulty from asking the player to grind. Perhaps the added complication in turn order and movement stopped me from really thinking about what I was doing in each turn and how the enemy would react, but I can't think of any neat strategic maneuver I pulled while playing Tactics, aside from a few XP and boss exploits. The game's endgame was also completely ruined by the completely overpowered Arithmetician job, which basically allows you to use the most powerful spells in the game on all enemies (regardless of range), without casting time or mana use. Another problem I had was just how faceless most of the characters were. Even story characters had little personality or story relevance after their recruitment, aside from Ramza. They're very different series, and while I don't think either is better than the other, I personally prefer Fire Emblem.
One thing I really did enjoy in Tactics was the setting. Although the story was at times a bit too convoluted, the dark world of Ivalice is perhaps one of the best Square has created. From the Shakespearean language to characters with a practical sense of style to the world's constant throat-cutting and treachery, I really enjoyed my time in Ivalice. It was this realization, as well as Balthier's rather awesome cameo character that made me give Final Fantasy XII another try. I had played maybe an hour of it a few years ago before deciding against the combat's simplicity and actually selling the game. I bought it again, and, after playing the game for another hour, I can say that was a huge mistake.
My problem wasn't the combat this time, which hadn't come close to opening up enough for me to judge it. My problems this time were pretty much everything else; the graphics, the camera...and Vaan. While technically a very good looking game, FFXII lies in that weird JRPG voice-acting funk so popular nowadays. I'm actually fine when Persona 3 or 4 don't have any voice acting because I'm given a big icon of a character to look at--its supposed to emulate manga and anime. However, when given more realistic models and film-like camera angles, it's pretty ridiculous when a game doesn't have full voice acting. When I see a character moving its mouth, and words only come out part of the time, it's just distracting. FFXII also nestles itself firmly into the uncanny valley, which, yet again, I just can't stand.
Also, the camera is inverted and you can't change it. While it's an issue I'm sure we're past now, it doesn't make it any less inexcusable.
Oh, and, after the small intro mission, you are put into an incredibly boring situation without any present threat. Your first quest is killing rats, then you do a fetch quest, then you go out into a different area to hunt a mob. While I'm fine with mmo-esque combat, (conceptually, FFXII's combat isn't far off from KotOR or Dragon Age) single player design should not have MMO-quests.
And Vaan is perhaps the worst protagonist I've ever seen. He's whiny, awfully designed (put on a shirt you anorexic rat-face), and pretty much follows every single possible awful anime cliche ever (has platonic friend that is a girl who wears ridiculously skimpy clothing, opposes authority, hotheaded, stubborn, too young to be saving the world, has no parents). The thought of putting up with him for another 50 hours is just unbearable.
All of this is pretty unfortunate, too. From what I've heard, characters like Basch, Balthier, and Ashe are actually some of the series' best. Originally, FFXII was meant to be centered entirely on Basch, but, in fear of twelve year olds not liking a protagonist over 18 that wasn't androgynous, Square threw in Vaan.
After watching some of the Persona 4 anime (which is actually pretty well done), I felt a strong desire to go back into that series. But I didn't want to play through Persona 4 again, because then I'd just miss all the Golden content I keep hearing about. And I didn't want to play through P3 because then I'd just want all the P3P content (like direct party control), and I didn't want to buy P3P because then I'd have to play it on my PSP, and I don't like touching that thing.
So, I decided to try out some of the FES part of Persona 3: FES, which pretty much strips away everything that makes Persona stand out (social links, time management, choosing dialogue options). It's what I expected, but the AI controlled party members can be very stupid at times (Metis straight-up refuses to use wind spells on the boss that is weak to it, instead opting to attack its neutral minions). Like FFXII, I doubt I'll play more.
Although my faith in JRPGs was somewhat revitalized by FFT, FFXII took that faith and strangled it. Still, I find myself needing to defeat some big, ancient evil while leveling up characters and occasionally fighting goofy sub-bosses, so I'm going to keep looking for a good JRPG. I think I'll try to beat Dragon Quest VIII, or maybe play some more Xenogears...