European Wii U owners got quite a nice little surprise for the Nintendo Wii U eShop the other day. A few days ago, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance landed on the Wii U eShop, and we North American players are hugely jealous. For me, that game was a staple in my early adolescence. When it came out in 2003, it was off the heels of Final Fantasy Tactics on the Playstation, re-named to Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions on the Playstation Portable. Tactics Advance was significant because Square brought it to a Nintendo console, specifically the Gameboy Advance, in 2003.

Quite honestly, this title beats even Final Fantasy IV from my lists of favorite Final Fantasy titles. The gameplay was hugely addicting, and the story line was actually compelling enough to continue playing day after day, until I reached that inevitable finish of 300 main quest completions and the ending of the “Cleanup Time” side quest chain with Judgemaster Cid. Isometric turn-based strategy was never really new, but Tactics Advance made it into something special. Granted, it’s no Steamworld Heist, but Heist is much more recent. With excessive customization options, and different twists to each battle in the form of laws and anti-laws, lots of battles never felt the same, despite bringing in the same squad to thrash the opposition.

ffta-dreaming-storyWhat made Tactics Advance reach out to me, though, was its story line. While it was not as dark as Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, it was still a great tale because it had many different stories coming together under one major and recurring theme. Taking place in the snowy town of St. Ivalice, and primarily in the fantasy world of Ivalice, the tale follows Marche Radiuju, a pupil from St. Ivalice attending the local school with his friends, Mewt Randell, a shy young child who has withdrawn into himself after the death of his mother, Remedi; Ritz Malheur, a young girl who has issues with her own confidence and self-esteem; and little brother Doned, a wheelchair-bound boy. After the opening of a book entitled the Gran Grimoire, the game begins and the four are transported into Ivalice. Throughout the course of their travels, each person learns much about themselves and upon returning to the real world, puts those learnings to use.

A lot of people give Tactics Advance some serious flak for its “childish and corny” story line, but if that fact is put aside, the game is actually quite deep. Doned, and especially Mewt and Cid Randell, have painfully dark stories. Doned is, as mentioned earlier, a wheelchair-bound boy in St. Ivalice; in comparison, his Ivalice counterpart is able to walk and explore freely. Mewt Randell lost his mother at an early age, and his father becomes a depressed drunk, a complete loser with a good heart in the real world as a result; in Ivalice, Mewt is the crown prince of Ivalice who has a mother again, and his father is re-imagined into the stern Judgemaster, who upholds the laws of the land and oversees all of the other Judges. This puts you, as Marche, in an incredibly ugly position as the ruiner of lives, essentially. Being the one who has to go and tell people that they need to go back to their less-than-fortunate realities is bound to make you an enemy. Other supporting characters, such as Ezel Berbier and Babus Swain, add both comic relief and stoic authority to the tale, respectively. A highlight is when Judgemaster Cid sees a vision of the real world, and how starkly his life is contrasted; as a result, he resigns from the palace, his own family, to right the wrong that Ivalice is, knowing that the man he sought to be never would have wanted this. The characters were all relatable, though, and that’s what made the story that much more engaging; by comparison, its Nintendo DS sequel Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: Grimoire of the Rift was hardly engaging in the story line department. Lives were on the line in those missions taking place in the lawless Jagds, where the Judges can’t even reach. When Marche goes around and slaughters the Totema, the guardian entities of the world that Mewt has created, it opens up that serious question and makes Marche genuinely doubt for a while, about whether this was the right thing to do. With his own selflessness comes a rather selfish desire to take away the world that seems that much better in comparison, and as such he brings his friends and family to face their challenges head on. All of this coming from the introverted student, with whom nobody knew anything about. He can potentially be described as the title’s villain, whose actions are being put forward in a more heroic light. In the end, despite his formal wish never being spoken, it’s highly alluded to that all he wanted was to belong.

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Final Fantasy Tactics Advance comes very close in my books as a perfect game. Game play in the field of character customization and strategic elements made the title increasingly more complex. Laws added an air of strategy that went away from merely bashing enemies with the same few units. I recall with some irritation at those matches where the law forbid the usage of swords or magic, and then how I basically just broke them anyway at a hefty price of a 9-battle prison sentence for my best units. When I played this for real, I remember spending hours and hours fighting those wandering clans, and building some truly powerful units (mostly in the Assassin and Ninja class, but I digress). A minor complaint about the title could be in its balance of classes. With units able to dual-spec into two different classes, classes like Paladin were straight up broken and completely overpowered. Being able to cast Ultima from long range with pinpoint accuracy was always a point of insanity, as well. With five different races (Humes, Bangaa, Nu Mou, Viera, and Moogles), there are tons of pros and cons for each but based on the number of potential combinations, some classes were left more in the dust than others. Characters, overall, actually did have growth and after a certain point, that growth becomes exponential instead of incremental. Growth was measured by equipping weapons and by mastering the usage by keeping that weapon equipped and earning BP from each mission. It’s a wild idea, but it’s also a world brought about by the desires of children, where the laws can be changed on the whim of a boy who never had any ruling power in reality. The game play was never truly punishing, either; while it starts with a difficult curve because you have nothing, by the end it becomes a lot easier as your characters have developed. It was just right. It does remind you, though, with the prison system, that actions do indeed have consequences. It’s a nice message to drive home to a rebellious child, as well.

And the quests! There are over 300 of them, with many of them being optional. Some of them are the standard battle, while others could be done as “dispatch” missions, where a unit is sent out for either a set number of battles or for a certain number of days. Each quest though is wildly varied in its dialogue, with some being exceptionally fun. Back in the day of the good old link cable, players could band together and trade units and battle against each other, for humor. I used to always hate how my brother would take the kill that I wanted by pushing me off of a cliff. But aside from that, with 24 main story missions, and approximately 280 optional side missions, there’s a ton of content for this game to play with, and for a small handheld title, it’s enormous.

The music is also one of the strong points to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Finding a copy of this game’s soundtrack all those years ago was like finding a needle in a haystack. With the birth of YouTube, however, while it’s gotten easier, it’s not the same as owning the actual hard copy of it. The tracks cover all ranges of the emotional spectrum: from the hopeful, the optimistic, the comedic, the charming, to the opposite end; there’s the brooding, the dark, and the forceful. The tracks are all so varied and play at the right scenarios, making this one of the easily memorable Final Fantasy-related soundtracks to date. Above is a compilation of a remastered edition of the soundtrack, from YouTuber user Roiyaru Kitsune.

Now, this is what a mobile game needs to be. For what it was worth, the game size was tiny at only a few megabytes, but still had oodles of fun to last for hundreds of hours. Is this admittedly showing a little bit of my own personal biases? It probably is, but quite frankly, the sheer addiction factor and the complex game play, combined with the ability to essentially build my own world and team mates alongside an amazing soundtrack made this a title to own and play. Even in 2016, this could easily go down as one of the best handheld RPGs to date. It spawned its own group of titles under the banner of the Ivalice Alliance. It just shows that Square Enix needs to go back to its roots, and re-evaluate its current plans on what it wants to do. With gamers getting hopeful with the soon to be released Final Fantasy XV, hopefully the team goes back to form and creates long and lasting adventures. That, and please hurry up and make a true sequel for The World Ends With You.