Review by DDJ
"You can't judge a Grimoire by its cover"
Review in Brief
Pros: Extremely flexible job and clan system, greatly improved clan equipment system, a huge amount of new content types including new mission types, new jobs and races, a big step forward for the series, well-divided gameplay between different tasks.
Cons: Plot ends far too soon and far too quickly, graphic choices are a bit outdated and stay 2D, some moderately confusing interaction methods.
Recommendation: An excellent turn-based strategy game for fans of the series, and lots of optional content for those that are motivated enough to complete it; however, the plot is far too short and disappointing. Overall, play it if you enjoy the engine, and try to forget that there's a plot.
The Final Fantasy Tactics concept, now in its fourth installment in the franchise and inspiring numerous spin-offs under other names, has become a very common framework for games. Numerous other game franchises have sprung up and capitalized on the popularity of turn-based strategy-style games, while the Tactics franchise itself has gained enough popularity for its own unique framework to already feel very familiar.
With that in mind, it's tempting to approach Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift as simply another game in this familiar series. It's the fourth release in the series, and at first glance, it certainly doesn't feel like anything new. The fundamental building blocks of the game are still present: the original five races are here, the job tree and many familiar jobs are included, and the fundamental quest-based play progression continues. Even graphically, the game does not improve far from the first Tactics Advance.
But don't be fooled by the surface appearance: this is a whole new Tactics. It and its predecessors are part of the same series the way the most recent Final Fantasy games share a franchise with the first game on the NES. The basic building blocks are still here, and described at the most fundamental level the games will sound remarkably similar. But look further and you'll find that Grimoire of the Rift has taken the Tactics formula to a new tier of implementation.
Grimoire of the Rift sets up a surprisingly vibrant, thorough world with a system that is so expansive and flexible that it begins to revival the Pokemon series for customizability. Gone are the days when simply mastering as many skills as possible was as best as one's clan could be; in Tactics A2, players can begin to think of job combinations and how different skills complement one another. There are new systems for learning skills and obtaining new weapons, as well as a complicated, thorough quest hierarchy. Individual quests have become far more varied, and the enemy's artificial intelligence is notably improved.
And unfortunately, it is exactly because these parts of the game are done so incredibly well that other parts feel like they fall so short. Grimoire of the Rift sets up such a thorough and flexible framework that it would be possible to progress complete hundreds of quests and still find one's team in development; but yet, the game's required plotline is so short that it feels that you have to actively choose to play longer to explore more of the possibilities rather than them following naturally from the game's background.
This is the dichotomy that presents itself in Final Fantasy Tactics A2. The framework is as complete, complex and customizable as those seen in even more popular partially-strategy-oriented games like Pokemon, World of Warcraft and the rest of the Final Fantasy series. But unlike these games, Grimoire of the Rift fails to provide a reason to actually take advantage of its excellent systems and structures. It gives a framework wherein one can create incredibly innovative and unique teams, but little or no venue to actually utilize them. It's the video game equivalent of a Corvette on an island with only dirt roads: lots of power, lots of flexibility, and nothing to do with them.
But for those who are intrinsically motivated enough to push forward with creating such a team anyway, who derive enjoyment from knowing the true power of their team yet never having it tested, and who take pleasure in completing the same quests multiple times just for the sake of playing them, Final Fantasy Tactics A2's incredible framework for weapon forging, job development and skill mastery will be their own reward. For those that typically only play so far as the plot demands, however, Grimoire of the Rift will present an unfortunately hollow gaming experience.
This review will be broken into five sections. The first and last are the Introduction (which you just finished reading) and the Conclusion, while the three middle sections will analyze the "Game Model" (what the game itself is modelling), "Media" (the visual and sensory aspects of the game), and "Interaction" (how the user manipulates and interacts with the game). Kudos to anyone who catches the MVC architecture layout in this review.
As always, the most notable part of the game is, well, the game. While the designers make later choices on the game's visual display and the methods of interaction, the game model is at the heart of the game experience.
What this encompasses is essentially everything that one would describe as an aspect of the game itself, not some detail of how the game appears or how you interact with certain screens. The Game Model is the game if it were never intended to be played by a person, like a book.
In Final Fantasy Tactics A2, the Game Model consists of many more parts than other games typically require. It has its battle system, its job system, the quest system, its map, its plot and its overall tone. It's difficult to choose where to start, so let's start with the quest system and work from there.
The backbone of Grimoire of the Rift's gameplay lies in the Quest system. The Quest system is a method for progressing through the game without ever taking direct control of a main character; unlike in other RPGs where 'Up' moves a character up and your press certain buttons to talk to different individuals, the Tactics system has always been much more structured. There is little free-roam capability, but rather the game relies on a system for unlocking and accepting Quests.
Quests are accepted at one of several central locations around the game world, and once a Quest is accepted you are able to go to a certain world location to complete it, typically by fighting and winning a battle. Once completed, you receive rewards and experience for your battle.
The Quest system exists in various forms in other games, but what has always been fairly unique about the Tactics framework is that the entire game is driven by these Quests. In Final Fantasy XII, for example, one can accept Quests to kill certain monsters, but the core of the plot was advanced in other means. In Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Quests are all there is.
This is not a criticism, although the more structured Quest necessities do make certain plot points feel a bit contrived -- after all, whose arch-nemesis summons them for a battle by sending a note to the local pub? On the whole, however, the Quest-based framework serves its purpose well, and is particularly well-suited to a turn-based strategy-style game where battles are typically very discrete, and much more drawn out than random encounters in typical RPGs.
The Quest system provides another benefit that many other games miss out on: it effectively divides up gameplay into very discrete segments. A common problem with some games is that the player feels they are doing a particular action for an extended period of time with no real end in sight: the entire game blurs together and it becomes difficult to remember specific events or locations. With the Quest system, there is a very clear line between when one is fighting and when one is not; random encounters do not pop up to interfere with map navigation, and the end of any battle is a notable event.
The effect of this well-divided gameplay is that time passes very quickly while playing Grimoire of the Rift. The reason for this is that one never finds oneself doing the same activity for a terribly extended time. In a typical RPG, one might spend three hours working through a single dungeon, fighting random encounters and generally not substantially varying their gameplay; but in Tactics A2, there is a very clear divide at the end of every half-hour battle, mentally book-ending and dividing the gameplay into more discrete, manageable portions. If what I'm saying is a bit confusing, consider the last time you tried to read a 2000-character board post with no line breaks; the lack of internal structure is what makes such a post seem so much longer and less manageable, whereas the same post with paragraph breaks would become notably simpler. This same concept applies to video games.
The Quest system also lends itself to another interesting feature that has been present in past Tactics games, but deserves noting again: the notion of Dispatch. In Grimoire of the Rift, there are 300 different quests, almost all of which are actually optional. Completing them all would take a ridiculous amount of time if the on-average 30-minute battle had to be completed for each and every quest. Dispatch allows you to take members of your clan and send them out to complete a mission in your absence; rather than fighting the actual battle, the game examines the strengths and skills of those you send and determines a result. If your Dispatched team wins, you receive the same rewards as if you'd fought the battle yourself. While the inclination is to think of this as a shortcut to completing the missions, it actually is itself a rather strategic process, considering the efforts that must be put into sending out multiple dispatch teams and planning the members for each.
The Quest system is not a new idea that Final Fantasy Tactics A2 created, and it is not something that the game makes any major modifications to compared to the franchise's previous iterations. The only key modification is that the game clarifies and standardizes Quest hierarchies (where completing one Quest leads to another) in the form of a Quest Report accessed from the menu screens. If you've played the series before, you know exactly what to expect here; but if you're new, you'll find that the system grants a rather unique gaming experience, and you'll also discover as many others have that time can fly by while playing Grimoire of the Rift (or any Tactics game) even faster than other games.
What Tactics A2 has added, though, is a great variety of Quest types. Those will be discussed below.
Once a Quest has been accepted and the user arrives at location, the Battle Engine typically begins. Overall the battle system remains mostly similar to past Tactics games: the battle field is composed of terrain of different elevations, the enemy characters and one's own. Based on their own speed, characters take turns moving and performing moves. In the end, one side wins. Fairly standard.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 does, however, greatly expand on the types of missions that can exist within this framework. Without changing the basic structure or requiring the player to learn a whole new system, Grimoire of the Rift varies substantially the types of missions that can be completed.
The basic battle missions remain present, and indeed about half the missions completed in the game come down to the default 'Defeat all foes!' objective. The slight variation on this is that several battles also serve essentially as headhunts, where the player needs only defeat one of several enemies. Additionally, there are similar battles that require you to defend a particular Guest party member in the meantime.
Beyond these fundamental two, however, are several more. Item scavenging missions have been added, where rather than needing to defeat monsters, the player needs only to survive to navigate around different spots on the map. The twist on this scheme is that often times the item one is searching for is actually randomly placed among a dozen possible locations, so depending on one's luck the mission can be extremely short or very long.
Speed battles are another innovative new battle type. In these battles, the objective is to defeat one or several enemies, but the twist is that you are fighting alongside another clan. It isn't teamwork exactly, though, as to succeed in the mission, your own clan must be the one to land the killing blow.
The section above mentioned Dispatch battles, but another new type of battle in Tactics A2 is the required dispatch. In these, you are actually required to dispatch a single clan member to perform a certain task, varying from waitressing to mace cleaning to actual fighting. These required dispatch Quests are unique in that typically only a particular job class can complete them effectively, preventing you from Dispatching an unnecessary or weak member.
These are only some of the several new types of Quests that are present in Tactics A2; others include Quests that require you to visit several places in a short amount of time, deliver items from one place to another, or perform rather bizarre activities for a deranged newspaper editor. This variety alone provides an interesting and engaging twist to the classic Quest formula and keeps it engaging where it risks becoming monotonous.
Within the battle itself, various aspects come in to play. Some, like balance, will be discussed under the Clan System and Job System headings in this review. However, one that must be analyzed is the artificial intelligence of the game. In past Tactics games (as well as other strategy franchises), the artificial intelligence tended to be a bit on the weak side: the challenge in battle came not from an enemy's strategy, but from their sheer power. Grimoire of the Rift, however, changes that.
The artificial intelligence in Grimoire of the Rift is surprisingly strong. There are definitely some specific patterns that emerge after only a short amount of game play that reflect a bit of deeper reasoning among the enemy than performing a pre-set list of commands or just firing the most powerful thing is it capable of at a given time. One pattern that emerges very early in the game is that enemies will, when possible, all target the weakest unit at first to try and eliminate that unit, rather than simply attacking the nearest foe. Characters with debuffs (the Tactics term for detrimental status effects, like Disable and Slow) will often react different based on the fact that they have a debuff.
The depth of the artificial intelligence becomes more apparent when examining some of the more unique mission types outlined above. For example, on missions where you are required to defend a certain character, the enemies will actively target that character when possible in lieu of attacking your own clan. They won't be stupid and only attack that enemy, ignoring your clan -- but when possible, they will focus on the character that needs to be defended.
Any fan of the Tactics series is also familiar with the law system. Essentially, in every battle, there is a set of laws that restrict what you are permitted to do. These laws are wildly varied: they range from preventing certain races or classes from doing anything to preventing certain elements or statuses to restricting your characters' range of motion.
In the past, the law system tended to be a bit overbearing: the penalties for breaking the law were extremely dire, really forcing you to obey the law. Grimoire of the Rift opts for a more positive-reinforcement/removal-punishment system; you are not nearly as obligated to obey the laws, but there are benefits for doing so. You choose from several clan abilities that augment your clan for that particular battle, but if you break the law your ability is removed. Reviving characters can only be done if you have preserved the law, and if you preserve the law for the entire battle, you receive extra items at the end. Overall, the law system now perfectly walks the line between suitably encouraging obedience to the law while not completely necessitating it.
Overall, the varied types of battles, the more advanced AI and the improved law system are three of Final Fantasy Tactics A2's greatest strengths, and easily one of the greatest improvements over the previous iterations of the franchise. They alone make Grimoire of the Rift a substantial step forward for the series, rather than just another set of content in the same game engine.
Clan and Job System
Strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics A2 allow for some unique customization that is not seen in many other game genres. Whereas most games, especially RPGs, necessitate a certain set of characters for you to work with, Grimoire of the Rift is extremely flexible with it. You can have as many as 24 members of your group (though no more than 6 can participate in a particular battle), and the identities of those members are completely up to you.
The fundamental of the customizability of your team (called your Clan) lies in the heavy customizability of the individual members. There are now seven races in the game (up from five in previous games), and you have the option to choose (with a little effort) the race of each member of your clan. You can distribute them evenly, or you can focus primarily on one or two. The choice is yours.
Within each member, there are also a substantial number of job classes that determine the types of skills each character can perform, and a complex job hierarchy: in order to learn the skills of stronger and more advanced classes, each clan member must first learn the skills of lower-level jobs.
The skill mastering system now mirrors that of Final Fantasy 9. When an item is equipped on a character, it sometimes carries a skill with it. That character can use that skill as long as the item is equipped. Each time the clan wins a battle, the character also gains points towards "Mastering" that skill. Once the skill is mastered, it can be used even after the item is unequipped. These skills are also what determine what jobs are accessible: to join a new job class, a character must master a certain number of skills from a prerequisite class.
The ability to choose jobs alone leads to substantial customizability: after all, there are 52 different classes over the seven races, most of them exclusive to one particular race. But the real heart of the customizability lies in the ability to combine jobs: any character can utilize abilities for the job class they currently are in, as well as any Mastered skills from one single other class. If you consider every character to have two true 'jobs', there are over 500 combinations -- and odds are, most of your characters will have three or more jobs they dabble in.
The jobs themselves do suffer from a bit of a framework problem, where several jobs behave basically the same (or, worse, are unarguably worse than a comparably advanced job), but overall most of the jobs play a role and are useful in many situations, and there is no way to truly master all the jobs in one play-through.
Augmenting all this are several one-time only plot-specific characters that hold their own unique jobs, adding an interesting and unpredictable angle to the system with jobs that cannot be reproduced. Overall, the Clan and Job Systems are so expansive that you can go in any one of hundreds of directions with your clan design, and no two clans will ever be identical. You'll have the ability to create the most advanced and awesome clan you can think of -- now the question is, will you need it?
Plot & Characters
So we have a great Quest system, an awesome battle system, a flexible and expansive job system, and the ability to create truly fantastic groups capable of handling any challenge. Now all we need is something to do with them. There are two main ways to accomplish that: either let people play against each other, so the level of competition keeps getting raised on its own, or you provide a long, twisting plot that makes use of the player's team. Grimoire of the Rift does neither.
The lack of multiplayer is a bit surprising considering the DS's Wi-Fi capabilities and how well the game's framework would fit in with a multiplayer game, but cannot truly be held against Tactics A2 -- it would've been a great feature and would've cemented Grimoire of the Rift's position as a substantial step ahead, but its absence isn't truly a problem.
The absence of a plot, however, is. Don't get me (or every other review ever) wrong, there is a plot. 25 of the game's missions are plot missions, and once you complete those 25 missions, the game is over. You can still go back and complete the 275 optional missions, but the truly directed and driven portion of the game is extremely short.
Perhaps the most aggravating part of the plot's shallowness, however, is not simply that it is short, but that it had such great potential that went completely unexplored. There are the building blocks for several great subplots, and there is the foundation for a story that would rival even the most impressive Final Fantasy games. We have a child mysteriously transported to a foreign world; a man with a mysterious past with a shady organization that keeps cropping up; and a young girl with bizarre power who doesn't seem to know what she herself is capable of. There's political intrigue, numerous factions, intriguing fantasy elements, and several characters that just keep cropping up -- including an extended cameo from the stars of Final Fantasy XII. Up through the first 24 missions, in fact, the plot is downright engrossing.
The problem is that those first 24 missions would cover approximately a fifth of the plotline if it were fully fleshed-out; but instead, the plot ends abruptly one mission later. It leaves a definite feeling of unfulfillment that should be expected by anyone that played the original Tactics Advance.
The plot is intriguing, engrossing, and flat-out too short. It's not that a long plot is packed into too little space; it's that a long plot got inexplicably run over by a semi about a fifth of the way in, and the ending is then just tacked on. It's entirely possible that another 80 plot missions could be added without even changing the final mission; the potential is there, it just needed to be explored.
That's the odd issue with Grimoire of the Rift's plot content. There are 300 missions, which is more than enough to express the story for which the foundation was laid. However, instead of taking 100 of those missions and telling the story that was begging to be told, only 25 are dedicated to plot while 275 are kept optional.
Perhaps even more aggravating than this from a "coulda-shoulda" perspective is that with such a standardized structure for missions, it would've been entirely possible to fill in almost unlimited custom-generated missions, allowing more time to focus on the plot without losing content or the open-endedness that the number of optional missions provide.
Overall, the plot fails in the worst possible way; it baits you, it draws you in, and then it just... stops. It doesn't even fizzle, it just ends. It's so sudden that it's possible to accidentally beat the game if you aren't paying attention to the Quest Report that makes it obvious that the game is about to be over. The worst part about this is that you might find yourself in the middle of constructing an awesome clan when you beat it -- you had great plans in mind for the role each person will serve, but suddenly it's just no longer necessary.
If you're the type of player that does enjoy games that don't have a whole lot of innate direction to them, this absence of plot won't be a major issue to you. If you need some motivation to keep playing and like to approach games as a story, though, this is a pretty big issue.
These sections above, verily most verbose, truly only touch on some of the new and innovative aspects of the game. Other things that I didn't even get a chance to talk about (lest this review end up being 20 pages) are new features like Auctions, which allow you to "control" certain areas and win rare items with a fun and interesting minigame, and Clan Trials, which give you new clan abilities to use in battle so long as you uphold the law. The new features, the thorough system, the flexibility and the customization possible all set up a truly fantastic framework for devising and developing your clan.
The only problem is that there's not a terrible amount of reason to develop a truly great group. The plot is short, while most of the game missions are optional. What plot is there is interesting, but just simply cuts off way too soon.
The absence of a resolved plot is a huge count against the game; but unless you're the type of player that only enjoys games with engrossing plots, there is still plenty in Grimoire of the Rift that makes it a worthwhile play.
An interesting element of game design that is often unappreciated is that the graphical depiction of the Game Model is completely and totally separately-developed from the game's Media. Without touching anything that was mentioned above, Tactics A2 could be converted to a strictly 2D SNES-caliber game, or to a gorgeous, 3D Wii game with custom camera angles and highly detailed character models.
From a Media angle, there are two topics for analysis: the decisions that the developers made, and how well those decisions were implemented. The first is considered (by me, at least) to be the game's Design, while the latter the Implementation.
Oddly enough, despite the DS's superior graphic capabilities, the designers chose not to truly make any real graphical alterations to the original Final Fantasy Tactics Advance graphics engine. The graphics remain almost entirely 2D, though several battle animations are rendered in gorgeous 3D.
Battle screens are rendered in the traditional Tactics layout, with a stationary camera angle examining the field from a diagonal perspective. One impact of this stationary camera angle is that it actually limits what can be done within the battle field: higher elevations must be at the rear of the field so that all field squares can actually be seen. There is no field in the game where a high-elevation area is surrounded on three sides by lower-areas, missing the ability for a fairly unique field. The camera could also be argued to limit the total battle area, though that may also be a Game Model decision.
Individual characters, monsters and other active items are rendered as traditional 2D sprites. Rather than the more modern method of having character models that are manipulated while held consistent, the sprites are the old-fashioned frame-based style. The result is a retro-looking appearance that fits in stylistically with the more classic Tactics games, though misses out on some of the potential that could've been realized with a more modern graphical approach.
Augmenting and enhancing the plot elements of the game is the presence of character images, providing a blown-up look at some characters' faces. These exist for several even subtly unique characters in the game, as well as for every job. However, the major drawback with these pictures is that only one exists for every character, including the main group. There are no facial expressions to reflect what is being said, which leads to some awkward-feeling moments as the main character smiles charmingly while screaming at a traitor or challenging an enemy.
Modern 3D graphics are used rather liberally to augment the 2D base layer, however. Nearly every action, element and status effect has a 3D animation that goes along with it, including several that dominate the screen during the action display. These are, of themselves, rather brilliant looking, but the contrast between the 2D sprites and background and the 3D attack animations is a little too strong.
Overall, the design choice to go with the classic 2D sprites and background was a strange choice by the designers, and the game's entertainment and playability would likely have been substantially augmented by choosing a more advanced graphical engine. Another undernoted effect of the graphical style is that the game loses an element of seriousness that would have been present with a more proportional graphic style; it errs on the cartoon-y style, though several other design decisions elsewhere in the game suggest this may have been intentional. It could be argued that the choice was made to draw a clearer connection with the rest of the series and keep a bit of consistency and tradition, but considering the number of other elements that were changed in Tactics A2, the more modern graphics likely would've still been a better choice.
Although the choice to go with a primarily 2D approach was strange, the implementation is good; Grimoire of the Rift is by far the best-looking primarily-2D game I've played -- although considering the hardware, that should probably be expected. Though 2D, the individual sprites are rendered in very high resolution and appear completely smoothly in the main battle display, as do all battle screen items.
The backgrounds are not as brilliant as some settings in other comparable games have been, and have a tendency to -- pardon the pun -- fade into the background. That's not a major criticism, as the purpose of backgrounds is to facilitate the actions in the foreground, but there is definitely some room for improvement and enhancement in the background realm.
The greatest graphical travesty comes in the informational screen display during battles. Battle sprites are blown up to show turn order, but the resolution is not enhanced at all, resulting in a horrendously pixelated view. The result is that this informational screen looks very primitive alongside the high-res other screens.
As stated above, while the core of the game's graphics are implemented in 2D, 3D is used rather liberally to enhance the experience, mostly with battle displays and other fluid animations. These, while drawing too strong a contrast with the 2D base layer, are rendered spectacularly for their own part. All animations are fluid and vibrant and truly command the screen when they appear. And while the 3D graphics don't exactly fit with the 2D ones behind them, they are used frequently enough that the player quickly grows used to them.
Overall, the visuals, while possibly not the most ideal that could've been executed, do an adequate job of expressing the game model. It is unfortunate that the design decisions made may have interfered with the types of battle scenes that could be done, but overall they remain adequate for their purposes.
The audio in the game is executed flawlessly, though not spectacularly or particularly memorably. A major problem with audio in many games is that it actually gets in the way of the gameplay, becoming too repetitive or annoying, but Grimoire of the Rift fortunately misses that common pitfall.
The game's music track supports the on-screen events rather suitably without being overly distracting. Battle music for standard battles is effectively up-beat and dramatic without being overdone, while the world map music and soundtrack at other locales does a decent job in augmenting the setting.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the soundtrack is in the way it matches the graphical tone of the game. As mentioned under Visual Design, the game has a tendency, due to its visual design and a bit due to its rather simplistic plot, to feel a bit immature and cartoon-y -- an odd feeling considering the complexity of the systems involved. The music, however, does manage to match this lighter tone, and considering the tone was presumably already set by the graphic nature, matching should be the objective of the soundtrack. Toward this end, the music suitably fits in with the visual style and tone, adding a bit of a light-hearted and comic background to a game that strangely aims for these objectives anyway.
While the music does a suitable job in lying low in the background through most of the game, it alters to a lighter, more prominent sound at certain key plot elements. These songs join the ranks of other Final Fantasy masterpieces as actually memorable, though likely limited by their relative infrequent appearances in the game itself. Still, the poignant alteration in the musical tone effectively highlights what few significant plot points the game has.
The sound effects in the game do a suitable job, though are not particularly notable. And considering how long this review has gotten already, I won't go into detail except to say that they weren't incredible, but they weren't annoying either. They fit in with the attack animations, and I'll leave it at that.
Overall, I personally disagree with the graphical decisions made by the game's designers, but their implementation of the decisions that they made was performed flawlessly. The overall graphical style errs on the decidedly light-hearted and cartoon-like style, whereas the plot certainly lends itself to a more mature display.
The audio does a suitable job of backing up and matching the visual choices made, however, and surfaces at appropriate moments to add some poignancy to an otherwise gently emotionless game. In summary, while I don't particularly like some of the decisions that were made, the decisions themselves were carried out and implemented rather perfectly.
Strategy games like Tactics require a definitively different type of interaction design than others. On the one hand, nearly nothing happens in real-time -- the player is given plenty of time to make their decisions, analyze possibilities, etc. Toward that end, it's not quite as necessary to have controls that are absolutely intuitive, as there are no split-second reflex decisions.
On the other hand, however, Tactics A2 is a wildly complicated game from the perspective of set-up. The game possesses hundreds of weapons, accessories and equipment that can be utilized by different characters, as well as over 50 jobs, each with specific sets of equipment that can be utilized and skills that can be learned. The sheer amount of information that must be accessed is staggering.
Interaction design was one of the major pitfalls of past Tactics games, as poor implementations of it essentially forced players to plan out their game on a sheet of paper separate from actually playing. Grimoire of the Rift improves on this notably, though still leaves substantial room for further improvement.
On a general level, the Tactics A2 interaction style is rather predictably menu-driven. With only small and minor exceptions, every action you'll perform the entire game is selected from a menu of some sort. These menus are as one would expect -- choose an action with A, then proceed to another menu. Some game menus scroll a bit oddly, but beyond that there is no learning curve to this aspect unless you've been living in a cave for a hundred years.
One oddity about Final Fantasy Tactics A2, though, is its use of the touchscreen. It does support it, though you'll never in a million years use it. Menu options are unsuitably unbounded, making touch-based menu selection difficult, and no game prompts even lead you to realize touch interaction is supported. This would not appear to be as major an issue as I'm making it, but it does have an impact: the main game screen is implemented on the lower screen to allow this touch interaction, but the nature of the game and human posture suggests that it is better to have the primary screen (the one the player spends the most time looking at) as the top screen. The game would've been better suited to displaying the main content on the top screen while keeping the in-battle informational screens (the second screen's only real content) on the bottom.
Another oddity of menu interaction in the game is the very unintuitive name of some menus. Save and Load are accessed through a System menu that would appear to be more geared towards game options (which are, in fact, nested underneath the System menu). The biggest offender within this realm, however, is in the battle screens; these will be spoken of more later, but several real battle options -- like Flee and Quick-Save -- are oddly nested in an in-battle Config menu that can only be accessed after exiting from the main battle menus and entering a rather ambiguous field scrolling setting. It's difficult to describe, but more importantly it's extremely unintuitive.
Overall, the general interaction style makes some mistakes, but is otherwise rather predictable. The game's interaction evaluation is saved, however, by the next aspect.
One of the biggest problems with past Tactics games is that it can be very difficult to keep track of the jobs and equipment for a dozen or more different characters simultaneously. It can be very cognitively distracting needing to remember which characters will serve what final purpose when they are in the process of rising to them, as well as keeping track of what equipment one has and needs, who can hold what equipment, who is best suited to playing what role -- in short, there is a lot to think about, and past Tactics games haven't supported the player very well in this regard.
Grimoire of the Rift takes a notable step forward in this regard, mostly through its inclusion of something labeled a Fitting Room. The Fitting Room allows the player to view equipment that different clan members can equip alongside the clan members themselves, so that it can be easy to identify what equipment is usable, what isn't, what items have new abilities that can be learned, and whether the user already has one of these items. Overall, this makes the equipment process orders of magnitude easier.
The system is not quite perfect, however. One major option that was left out is the ability to change clan members jobs while they are in this "fitting room". When utilizing it, the player is able to use the room to see if any new abilities are available for a member; but if there aren't, the player has to exit all the way out of the shop view, enter the clan view, change the member's job, then re-enter the shop view. This is especially unintuitive and unnecessarily complicated considering the Fitting Room view looks identical to the clan set-up view, with the only exception being that the Fitting Room equipment screen draws from the shop listing; other than that, the only difference is the inability to change jobs.
Beyond this, there are certainly some other notable issues with the interaction style. Several seemingly easy tasks are surprisingly complicated, like viewing descriptions of the skills that a character does not currently have equipped, and viewing the information for a weapon that was just obtained but cannot currently be equipped on any clan member.
To alleviate some of the complexity that comes with the sheer number of available items, the game includes an option to allow you to only view items in the clan setup or Fitting Room views that the character at hand can actually equip. While this helps, it forces the player to miss out on some valuable information, like items that the member can equip but that are currently held by another clan member, or items that the member could equip if another item was removed. These items, rather than being grayed out as "equippable with an exception" simply do not appear at all. The better option here would have been to not display items that the member could not equip based on their current job class, instead of all items that can't currently be equipped for any reason.
My criticism above may be a bit unfair, as Tactics A2 is overall more interaction-friendly than past games, and most of the time the player interacts with no difficulty. The problems, however, are notable, but they do not really take away from the overall game experience.
Probably as important as pre-battle set-up is in-battle interaction, and fortunately, aside from the one major issue mentioned under General Interaction regarding the Flee and Quick-Save options, here the interaction is fairly flawless. While it can be difficult to predict certain aspects of battle, like how turn order will be affected by certain actions, most tasks are very easy to predict.
The turn-based nature of the battle screen is rather immediately intuitive, and within each character's turn, the interaction is relatively straightforward. A menu is presented initially that shows the possible options, such as Attack, Move and Actions, and from there the player chooses what to do. Most moves can be "previewed" to see their impact before the final action is chosen, which removes any of the hazard of other aspects of the screen being a bit confusing.
The battle screen could use a couple improvements, like drawing a stronger connection between certain status effects and their effect on the player -- for example, the Blind status effect reduces accuracy, but there is no way to tell what aspect of accuracy comes from the blindness and what aspect is inherent to the member, the target and the action. Some status effects could also be made more apparent, such as Slow, Haste and Stop, none of which are obvious at a glance.
Certain actions are implemented a bit oddly visually, leading the player to miss out on the potential impact of them. Several attacks, especially ranged attacks, fail to scroll to view the target, preventing the player from seeing the impact of the action. There are also several places where certain actions have unpredictable effectiveness for no obvious reason -- for example, in my own final battle, my White Mage could not cast Esuna effectively on a Sleeping party member, but the game gave no indication why that was.
Overall, however, the in-battle interaction stays out of the way and allows the player to focus on their strategic plans and the overall battle scene. Certain actions are still confusing, and it can be very difficult to predict where a character can move or what enemies will be affected by an action without first previewing the action, but the very existence of a preview function makes most of these problems irrelevant.
On the whole, the interaction style, while still very confusing in places, is much improved over more recent iterations of the Tactics series. The inclusion of the Fitting Room in the Shop view makes that aspect of the game substantially more manageable, and the need for a separate tracking of one's clan has been all but eliminated.
Again, my notes above largely dwell on problems that, while significant, do not truly threaten the enjoyability or playability of the game as a whole. They are aspects that will likely have you asking "wtf?" at certain points, but they will not make you want to put the game down altogether.
Overall, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is a really fantastic world and system that a rather average, if not mediocre, game happens to take place in. The clan system, the job system, the battle system, the skill system, the law system, the Quest system and the world map are all implemented nearly flawlessly, and create a believable and vibrant world that one can experience while building a superb clan within a flexible and complex system of skills, jobs and clan members.
The unfortunately part of the game is that while it presents an incredible framework, the actual content of the game is rather lacking. Sure, there are 300 Quests that you can complete, but the only innate motivation is to complete 25 of them; the rest are optional (though some will certainly be needed to be able to beat the 25, which ascend in difficulty rather quickly). The plot that ties the 25 "main" missions together starts off strong, involves interesting and complicated characters, and really feels like it's going somewhere... until it just stops. You never scratch the surface of what you feel like the game is capable of presenting.
Visually, the game is appealing, if a bit outdated. The graphic style chosen matches the older games, but largely fails to take advantage of the DS's superior hardware. The decisions made are implemented rather flawlessly, though, and while the plot, graphics and characters all leave a bit to be desired, they at least form a cohesively light-hearted game -- light-hearted just wasn't what the plot felt like it would be, and the various systems in play were definitely thorough enough to fit with a more complicated plot.
Fortunately, Grimoire of the Rift has taken substantial steps forward in improving the overall interaction style from previous games. There is still a lot to be desired, but the overhead involved in equipping and managing a clan and pursuing different quests has at least dissipated substantially to allow the player to focus more on the game's content than the distracting ways of manipulating it.
On the whole, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift implements a few things incredibly well, almost everything at least adequately, and one thing downright terribly. It seems harsh to take off so much credit from the game for basically getting all but one thing at least partially right, but when that one thing is the motivation to play the game in the first place, it's difficult to overlook it.
Walking away from Grimoire of the Rift leaves you wanting more, but not in the good way. While at the time you, the development of a clan and the acceptance of optional missions is enjoyable, it's the absence of a true plot arch that is the most memorable aspect of the game.
If you're a fan of turn-based strategy games, if you have no trouble finding the inner motivation to complete hours of optional tasks, and if you garner an internal sense of accomplishment from having an excellent setup even if it's never tested, Tactics A2 is a perfect game for you. Regardless, Grimoire of the Rift will likely be enjoyable, but if plot is a crucial element for you, the game will surely leave you, sadly, wanting more.
But the number one take away from this review should not be the game's lack of plot; it should be how the game improved upon past Tactics games, especially Tactics Advance. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance lacked a plot for the most part as well, but that is the only aspect that Tactics A2 does not improve upon at all (and even that's unfair, as the plot in Tactics A2 is still better than Tactics Advance's). If you come into Grimoire of the Rift expecting new content in the same old engine, you will be extremely surprised by how the engine itself has changed. If you enjoyed Tactics Advance in the least bit, or even came close, then you will surely enjoy Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. It's not what you'd expect, but you can't judge a grimoire by its cover.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 06/24/09
Game Release: Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (US, 06/24/08)
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