The true best Final Fantasy, the one that most people overlook, doesn’t even have a number. Made during Square’s creative renaissance in the late 90s, Final Fantasy Tactics for the PlayStation marks the highest point of the series as well as Square’s apex in general.
Strategy RPGs are typically better than regular JRPGs. They have more complex and interesting combat, offer higher levels of control over the development of your characters, and often a greater degree of non-linearity and choices that have actual impact. And if you want to argue over the difference between strategy and tactics games, please take it to the comments section and let me rant for now.
If I had to pick a game from the main series that Tactics is most similar to, it would be Final Fantasy V. Both games give the player a grand variety of options in their selections for character skills and progression. You have piles of classes to choose from, and they’re all useful (yes, even Oracles). Equipment and skill selection can change your game plan significantly and your choices during preparation for battle are as important as the fight itself. But unlike V, Final Fantasy Tactics has combat that takes place on a three-dimensional grid, doesn’t require lots of grinding, and has a good plot.
I admit it, when I first played the game in 1998, I didn’t know that you could put more than one character on the field on the first non-tutorial battle, and it took me a couple of embarrassing failures to realize I could press left and right on the select screen. But after that, I was entranced by the great big world of options I had, right from the get-go. I knew immediately that I was going to love this one.
The game is linear, to be sure, but the ways you can build your team vary beyond comprehension. Each of the classes or jobs has its own ups and downs, but every one of them can find a spot on your roster. Want a group of beefy melee fighters to tank hits and hack through enemies with raw force? You can do that, and it will be ideal in some situations, but enemy wizards and archers in some battles might kill you first. Depending on the map, you might want to prepare by adding a long-range unit of your own, not to mention healers. A single-minded team is usually a dead team. But what if you don’t want to “waste” a spot on a puny White Mage or Chemist? You can give a healing ability as a secondary skill to one of your other units; the Chemist’s Item command isn’t even reliant on the user’s or receiver’s MA or Faith. But Item loses its potency after X-potions stop being so useful around Chapter 3; what other options do you have? Lots of them, it turns out. You can find new opportunities at every step of the game, which is a sign of loving craftsmanship.
Final Fantasy Tactics has tremendous replay value, more than anything I’ve seen outside of Roguelikes. With Straight Character Class challenges alone I’ve probably beaten this game a dozen times (Monks are the most fun, by the way; I could probably do another article just on my experiences in this self-imposed challenge). But even if you don’t enjoy testing yourself beyond reasonable expectations like some of us fanatical nerds, the game still has quite a lot to offer. You’ll probably never know about Calculators, Dancers, Bards, or Mimes on your first playthrough unless you’re reading a FAQ. You might never find the optional Deep Dungeon set of levels, nor any of the hidden characters. Granted, you can steamroll all opponents with Orlandu (who deals gargantuan damage—unblockable, at a good range, with no MP or charge time required, and often adds status effects on top of it, not to mention his life draining ability) but you still have more to explore than you would first think. This game is huge and every bit of it deserves your attention.
Almost every battle in Final Fantasy Tactics has a real significance to the story, every fight means something. There isn’t just a big bad evil guy and minions that you’re trying to thwart; there’s a war going on with good and evil men on both sides (as is the case with all real wars), and your character (a selfless nobleman who abandons all positions of power to become a mercenary) wants to stop the conflicts in the most sensible and humane fashion he can. The fights against Gafgarion, Wiegraf, and Balk in particular struck me as memorable encounters. You have to fight each of those guys at least twice, but their appearances always made sense, their personalities always shone through, and I never got tired of the challenge. The Riovanes Rooftop battle with its randomly-determined escort character is a bit absurd, though.
Final Fantasy Tactics has a far better storyline than most entries in the Final Fantasy series with their teenage whining and anime gibberish. This story is about a historian who through a lifetime of research has determined that the approved heroes of the long-past “War of the Lions” are frauds, and a maligned footnote of a figure from history is the real hero, and he and wants to tell this man’s story regardless of what happens to him for speaking the truth. Final Fantasy Tactics does suffer a bit from the “lol we’re using Judeo-Christian symbols out of context” fad that appeared in the wake of 1995’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, but it at least handles them surprisingly well (as did Square’s own Xenogears) as another flavor of the “alternate, forbidden look at established history” theme that the game already explores. It’s pretty rad.
Despite my praise, Final Fantasy Tactics is not perfect. You don’t need to delve deep to get game-breakingly overpowered characters because in Chapter 4 they straight up give you Orlandu, who can easily solo the entire game (if you have a GameShark, try it out—it’s hilarious), not to mention the ludicrousness of Calculators. The music is kind of repetitive. The PlayStation original had a bafflingly bad translation (just mention Professor Daravon to anyone who has played the boring-but-essential tutorial). Much of its plot and mechanics (and staff members) were copied shamelessly from Tactics Ogre. It has a male character in it named Marge Funeral.
OK, one question to this game’s fans: Why do you all hate Algus so much? He’s no more bigoted towards the lower classes than any of the other prickish noblemen in the game, and most people tolerate similar behavior from real-life aristocrats. Maybe it’s because you saved his life and he fought alongside you before you found out what a bastard he was, but Dycedarg, Goltana, and Vormav are the real monsters in the game. Maybe it’s he has the appearance of a lifelong friend but ends up betraying Ramza for childish reasons, and the aforementioned trio are never presented as anything but the corrupt noblemen they are. Algus is just a petty thug with slightly better breeding than the rabble he sneers at. He’s like the bad guy in a kids’ sports movie.
Final Fantasy Tactics got two sequels: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the DS. Both are ok games in their own right but decidedly inferior to the first due in no small part to their unnecessary Law systems that cripple the player in obnoxious fashions and penalize them for trying to break free and experiment. I’ve never gotten more than a couple hours into either of them due to this restriction.
Final Fantasy Tactics is Squeenix’s finest creation. And with its pedigree of powerful yet diverse build options, immense depths of replayability, and actual good video game writing, it is a strong candidate for greatest game ever made. Even the PSP remake is excellent. Even those who sneer at the Final Fantasy franchise for its moronic J-pop pandering and idiotic mechanics should take note. This is the best Final Fantasy and the best strategy RPG there is.