Final Fantasy Tactics A2: The Grimoire of Exhaustion
by Pitchfork

Oh we are really in the weeds now.

If this or any other overview of the Final Fantasy series were a travel guide to the United States, the VI, VII, and X sections would be the chapters on New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC: the most recommended destinations for a traveler's first (and maybe only) visit. The early games would be the cities of New England and maybe Philadelphia: not the most happening places, but replete with local color and historical charm. The shit-show that was X-2 would probably be Jacksonville, Florida. Tactics Advance might be Rapid City, South Dakota: hardly essential or even worth going out of your way to spend much time in, but too highly-traveled and situated in too interesting a locale to deserve omission.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (2007-2008) would be Dover, Delaware.

A good measuring stick for Tactics A2's legacy (or rather, its lack of one) is only a YouTube search away. Punch "ff8 gfs," "ff12 espers," or "tactics advance totema" into the search field, and you'll get multiple high-quality compilations of each game's over-the-top summon attack animations. But what happens if you search for "tactics a2 scions?" You get grainy smartphone camera footage and some low-quality screen recordings of individual summonings. Nothing comprehensive. It's not like Nintendo DS emulation is new or underdeveloped, nor is a Tactics A2 ROM download hard at all to find. The most plausible explanation as to why Tactics A2's towering dual-screen demon boombangs haven't been properly collected must be fan apathy.

This was my first time playing Tactics A2. Having been burned by Tactics Advance, I gave it a hard pass when it came out. I remember it getting warm reviews from all the usual sources, but those same people had given its vile precursor near-perfect scores a few years earlier. They were not to be trusted. Possibly I'd have given Tactics A2 a chance later on if I got emails from people asking my opinion or recommending it to me like they often did Shadow Hearts, Bravely Default, or Xenogears. But until my tormentor reappeared a few months ago—"are you ready for the Tactics monkey's paw to curl a finger inward?"—nary a word about Tactics A2 had ever shown up in my inbox. Either nobody's played it, or nobody remembers it.

It's probably the latter. And it's not surprising that the memory of Tactics A2 might have become indistinct amid the turbid deluge of Final Fantasy titles following Square's reconfiguration into Square Enix. The 2000s were when new Final Fantasy releases ceased to be events. Between 2004 and 2010 we got Final Fantasy XII, Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Dissidia Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of the Light, and Final Fantasy XIII. And Final Fantasy Tactics A2, of course. And there was also Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls on the Gameboy Advance. And the Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy IV remakes on the Nintendo DS. And the GBA ports of Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI. And the PlayStation Portable ports of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy Tactics. And five Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles games on the Nintendo Wii and/or DS. And Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales. If you had a modded PlayStation 2, you might have picked up Final Fantasy X-2: International+Last Mission and Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System. There might even be a slim chance that you scored a Japanese cellphone to play Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII.

Am I forgetting anything? How many games is that? I don't know. I lost count.

To put this in perspective, let's tick off the Final Fantasy titles SquareSoft put out between 1994 and 2000: Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX, and Final Fantasy Tactics. We'll also count the Japan-only WonderSwan ports releases of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II (which became the basis of Final Fantasy Origins on the PlayStation) because their upgrades alter the experience to a degree which qualifies them as remakes. We won't be counting the PlayStation re-releases of Final Fantasy IV though VI because they're just re-releases. They've got in-game bestiaries and a couple of FMVs tacked on before the title screens and after the endings, sure—but no new bonus dungeons, no new superbosses, no additional jobs in V or espers in VI, nor any other enticements of New Content that became de rigueur when Square Enix reissued its back catalog on the GBA and PSP. We're not counting Chocobo Racing either, because it doesn't have Final Fantasy in the title.

So: five original games, two remakes.

Why did Square start behaving less like a studio and more like a factory? Not to cast aspersions, but I have the feeling that somebody—or perhaps somebodies—inside the company wanted to sell a lot of games and make a lot of money so they could make more games and sell them for even more money. It's called the culture industry for a reason, you know. These people have shareholders to think of.

So, anyway. Final Fantasy Tactics A2.

Though it's tactless of a reviewer to review his own reviews, I must tell you that the old (very old) Final Fantasy XII writeup is one of my least favorites of the batch. It's sloppy and unfocused, and I can only go so far in blaming the source material. Part of the problem was that I was trying to retrospectively examine a game too soon after the fact, and I'd only played it once. Its legacy was still unclear at that point, and my own thoughts on it hadn't enough time to percolate. The other issue was that I didn't play it in its proper context: I'd skipped a couple games. Analyzing XII without visiting Tactics and Tactics Advance beforehand is like, I don't know, reading Ulysses without having read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or writing about the Aeneid without first becoming conversant in the Iliad and Odyssey. Or, uh, reviewing the album American Psycho without ever listening to Danzig-era Misfits. Look, highfalutin literary metaphors and Misfits references are all I've got.

Er, anyway: to have done the XII writeup correctly, I should have played and reviewed Tactics and Tactics Advance beforehand. Final Fantasy XII takes the desert setting, armored Judge motif, and wacky demihuman races of Tactics Advance and mixes them with the mood and signature Yasumi Matsuno themes of Tactics. To this mixture is stirred in the big-budget cinematic bombast of Final Fantasy X and the free-roaming combat of Final Fantasy XI. And Final Fantasy XII and its pedigree are kind of important here because Tactics A2 is a spinoff of XII in addition to being a sequel to Tactics Advance, of which XII was a spinoff.

I just began writing this and I'm already exhausted.

I'm stalling. Fact is, I have no idea what I'm going to say about this game. This is new, and it speaks to the denudation of the old SquareSoft ethos. Yes, absolutely the classic and cardinally numbered Final Fantasy games came about through a studio's desire to capitalize on its most successful property, but there was never a point where Square stopped trying to push the envelope. That was the essence of the franchise from the start: people spent their hard-earned money on Final Fantasy titles because the series upped its game from installment to installment like no other. But here I'm looking through my Tactics A2 screenshots and mulling things over, and I have to concede that this is the first time I'm examining a Final Fantasy game that makes no attempt whatsoever at originality or elan. Mystic Quest was misguided and awful, but at least it was shooting at something. Even Tactics Advance was unique in being the first handheld Final Fantasy game. (Well, provided we're discounting Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden—released in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure and later remade as Sword of Mana—and, yeah, one could make the case that it deserves to stand under the series' umbrella. But I think we can agree that the SaGa games, localized here as the Final Fantasy Legend series, absolutely do not count.) But Tactics A2 is the epitome of formulism—which says a lot about a game representing a series and a genre so reliant on cliches as to have inspired a crowdsourced index of its conventions long before the establishment of TV Tropes.

Hmm. Speaking (parenthetically) of Final Fantasy spinoffs: if you've played Tactics A2, Revenant Wings, War of the Lions, or International Zodiac Job System, you'll have noticed the "Ivalice Alliance" insignia appearing before the title screen overture. It's not the first time Square Enix stamped its games with an ancillary brand: remember "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII?" The Ivalice Alliance was apparently conceived as something along the lines of a comic book imprint—like when Marvel or DC rolls out a line of serials which belong to its proprietary fictional universe (or multiverse), but are set apart by virtue of some distinct common feature. Vertigo is DC Comics, but spookier and more refined. Marvel Ultimates is the Marvel universe renovated for maximum grittiness and decluttered continuity. And the Ivalice Alliance is, well...all of its games take place in Ivalice. Or some version of Ivalice. Trying to get them all straight is pretty much hopeless.

In the short term, the sub-brand was probably intended to serve as a mere promotional instrument. "Remember that rich and distinctive world Yasumi Matsuno built in Final Fantasy Tactics? Here's more of it! (Though please let's not talk about Yasumi Matsuno. He doesn't work here anymore.)" This is pure speculation, but maybe Square Enix hoped that in the long run it might be spun off into its own franchise, like how Seiken Densetsu hopped off Final Fantasy's coattails and became its own thing. In 2008, the company began collaborating with a Swedish studio to make a hack-and-slash action RPG sequel to XII starring Basch. The idea, reportedly, was to cater to American and European gamers' tastes by trusting a Western developer to know what these audiences wanted. The project was shuttered before the game even received a proper title, and that was the end of the Ivalice Alliance. But it was jinxed from the start: after all, the person who came up with the idea was none other than that old Mephistopheles Akitoshi Kawazu (Tactics A2's executive producer, by the way), who gloated over the end of its short lifespan: "life is a toilsome, failing struggle against perplexity, and the order you impose on the world with your feeble symbols will only betray you. All reality is myth and all myth fades into falsehood and oblivion."[citation needed]

At any rate, Tactics A2 was the last Final Fantasy game to be set in Ivalice—unless we count the 2013 mobile game Final Fantasy Tactics S, which never made it out of Japan and got killed off after just one year. I'm not sure that we should. [Postscript: I was just made aware of Crystal Defenders, a 2008 tower defense game jerry-rigged out of Tactics A2 assets and put up for sale on mobile devices and console download services. Clearly Square Enix was rushing to cash in on a fad, and Tactics A2's sprites and unit types were conveniently suited for a Desktop Tower Defense clone. I'm gonna say it doesn't count.]

Right. So. Final Fantasy Tactics A2. That's what we're talking about here.

Oh god. I'm still stalling.

How about this, then. Tactics A2 is a video game. It's a game on the Nintendo DS handheld, whose two screens and touch-stylus functionality offered many unique design opportunities, which most developers didn't bother trying to take advantage of. Having apparently used up all of its format-specific ideas on The World Ends With You and Revenant Wings, Square Enix designed Tactics A2 pretty much as a Game Boy Advance product with a streamlined and decluttered interface, delegating stuff like the turn-order window and equipment menu to the top screen.

That's neat, right? Right??

Did we mention that Tactics A2's English script was authored by Alexander O. Smith, who was previously responsible for translating Final Fantasy XII? Owing to the relative levity of Tactics A2, the English dialogue isn't nearly as stuffy as XII's, and I can't tell you how thankful I am for that. But, for the sake of consistency with the other Ivalice Alliance games, "magic" is once again spelled "magick." We will not be observing that here.

Okay. What about this: on a nuts-and-bolts level, Tactics A2 does make some consequential tweaks to the Final Fantasy Tactics battle mechanics, most notably where magic points are concerned. Units still regain 10 MP per round like they did in Tactics Advance, but now everyone begins battles with an empty magic gauge. This means that, under ordinary circumstances, your Time Mage can't cast Hastega out of the gate, your Assassin can no longer run around killing everyone with Last Breath, and your Black Mage has to choose whether to toss out a Fire spell on his first turn or stall for a round to charge up for Fira or Firaga. This change leaves the dynamic of Tactics A2's battles more or less unaltered, but it does affect the general pace of things. Also, fallen units no longer lie faceplanted in the grass awaiting revivification or evaporation: they simply disappear. When you use Phoenix Down or cast Raise, you select an empty tile, and the unit you wish to bring back pops into existence right there. The drawback to this new convenience is that revivification is only possible in Tactics A2 if your team plays by the rules. But we'll get into that later.

The most important addition to Tactics A2, as far as I'm concerned, is the choice to play on normal or hard mode. Though, really, hard mode is more like "no this isn't my first RPG, thank you very much" mode. Hard mode doesn't make the AI any smarter (it'll still never surprise you) or more ruthless, but it does boost enemy units' damage output and thickens their hides. During the first several hours, when it's your wimpy cadre of Soldiers, Archers, and White Mages against the juiced-up, computer-controlled same, you actually need to strategize and pay attention. But as usual, the difficulty mostly levels out during the midgame, when your team's got more options and tricks in its arsenal than the opposition. Hard mode doesn't go far enough to satisfy the SRPG veteran, but I'll take an artificially inflated challenge over no challenge at all—which was what we got from Tactics Advance.

Anyway, yeah. These sure are things that happen. In Final Fantasy Tactics A2.

Oh, hell. Let's do character profiles now.


Characters

LUSO CLEMENS

An ordinary teenager from ordinary Earth. Chronically tardy. A bit of a wise ass. Stuck with a journaling assignment at the start of summer vacation. Vandalizes the wrong ominous library book and gets pulled into the Jylland region of Ivalice, where he becomes a problem-solver for hire. When the Judge abara-kadabras him out of his school clothes and into his zazzy medieval-fantasy threads, he finds a satchel on his belt containing a book: the titular Grimoire of the Rift. As Luso explores his new environs, meets people, and overcomes challenges, a script narrating his exploits magically appears on its blank pages, and he can't go home until the book is filled. Whichever developer came up with the juxtaposition of the mundane "what I did on my summer vacation" diary and the enchanted "Chronicles of Luso in Ivalice" tome must have thought himself some real clever son of a bitch.

Luso is a case study in an entertainment company responding to feedback. Final Fantasy Tactics' Ramza was a well-liked character in an acclaimed game. When it came time to deliver a follow-up, Square Product Development Division 4 used Ramza as its template for Tactics Advance's protagonist, designing Marche as a Ramza lookalike who similarly makes himself a persona non grata for cleaving to his principles. Marche, however, was not well-received. I can't say whether the "Marche is a villain" conversation was happening on the Japanese message boards, but given that the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Radio Edition audio drama (Japan-only, of course) apparently tweaked his personality and revised the nature of the "fake world" Ivalice to make him come off as less of an asshole, it's probable that folks across the Pacific weren't so fond of the sanctimonious little killjoy themselves. So now we have Luso, created to remind absolutely nobody of Marche. In contrast to Marche's humorless, myopic personality and his rush to get out of Ivalice, the buoyant Luso is more disposed to go with the flow. He intends to return to his home planet whenever the time comes, but until then he's perfectly okay with wandering around Jylland with no particular destination or purpose in mind. A protagonist without a motivation? Interesting choice.

Oh: did we mention that Luso's parents died and he was raised by his aunt because obligatory tragic backstory something something passing mention something?

Oh, shoot. How sloppy of me. But I can't promise I won't do it again.


CID

The leader of Clan Gully. Tough, but fair. Has a sketchy past. Hails from a fabled race of Cyrano de Bergerac lookalikes, but jobs like a bangaa. Keeps getting shot in the face, but is too ornery to die. (The supernatural judicial protection is a factor too, as is his getting a little help from his friends.) Has his act much more together than Tactics Advance's Montblanc, as evidenced by his not asking the asking the teenager he just met to think of a name for the small business which has been his livelihood for the last few years. (You still get to change the clan's name if you want, though you're putting the words in Cid's mouth rather than Luso's. I called my crew "Clan No Fun" because "Clan Anhedonia" seemed a smidge pompous.)

I wonder about Square's Cid praxis. Do the scenario designers and writers look at an early but complete plot outline, run a highlighter pen over characters that meet the typical criteria (middle-aged, male, probably a mentor figure or an engineer, possibly cantankerous and/or eccentric), and then change the winner's name to Cid and emphasize his role in the story during the first round of revisions? Or do they begin sketching a story with an eye for the most convenient place to insert an important middle-aged male character who's a mentor figure or an engineer, and who may have a cantankerous or eccentric personality? What comes first: the story or the Cid?

Here's how I'm guessing it went down in Tactics A2. The writers had to check two boxes: they needed to provide Luso with a Montblanc-type person to find him and introduce him to the clan lifestyle after he plops down into Ivalice. They also needed to have some middle-aged guy named Cid doing something somewhere. And...well, it just writes itself, doesn't it?

At any rate: Cid is the cranky but kind something something who takes a shine to Luso's youthful openheartedness something something pragmatism tinged with a sense of justice something something mentor figure something.

Damn it. Sorry.


ADELLE

A charismatic and catlike sister doin' it for herself. A hustler with expensive tastes. Definitely a punk, and maybe just a little tsundere. Adelle is Tactics A2's female lead: the Rinoa to Luso's Squall, the Dagger to his Zidane, the Yuna to his Tidus. Or not really: unlike her demure and sheltered predecessors, Adelle is an independent, street-smart, omnicompetent operator. That's not to say she doesn't get kidnapped and needs Luso to bail her out, but hey, she's still a JRPG heroine. And after she's rescued, she discovers that she doesn't have to go it alone all her life, awakens to the joys of friendship, accepts that it's okay to make herself vulnerable, and so forth and something something. You know how it goes.

More curious than Adelle's abundance of moxy and competence is her hefty backstory. She's one of the Gifted, a breed of people born with superhuman capabilities. Some are immortal, some are shapeshifters or psychics, some can see into the future, and so on. Adelle's powers aren't very well defined, though she was able to shrug off a plague that wiped out her entire village, and she's basically good at everything. Lezaford tells her "you must embrace your gifts!" and Adelle says "no I don't want to accept my gifts." Then the main villain captures Adelle in order to exploit her special powers. This all sounds like it must be very important to Tactics A2's plot, right? Surprise! It isn't.

For a typical example of how this sort of thing usually goes, let's look at Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII. Rinoa possessed sorceress powers in a story whose antagonist was an evil sorceress who took control of other people with sorceress powers. Not that the whole thing wasn't a clusterfuck, but the pieces fit together. If VIII's plot had been changed at the last minute to strip Rinoa of her sorceress status, most of what happens in the game's third disc would need to be rewritten. If Tactics A2 subtracted the content regarding Adelle's Gifted status, the rest of the plot would remain intact. It's only really relevant insofar as it justifies making the player hoof it through a series of tucked-away optional missions to learn new abilities for Adelle's unique Heritor job. (Odd that Adelle gets an exclusive class, considering that Luso and Cid can only run generic jobs.) She ends up seeming like a would-be protagonist who's been cheated out of the lead role by Luso—much like what happened with Basch and Vaan in XII. I'm half-convinced this is an intentional callback.


HURDY

Moogle. Bard. Enthusiastic. Kind of a sweetie pie. After Clan No Fun Gully helps him out by getting him a new instrument, he joins them in their adventures because he's looking for song material.

Hey, wait. Is that it? Let me look at my screenshots and see if I can...

Nope. That's basically it.

Well, he's the only character who has access to the Bard job, which does the whole MP-free healing/buffing song and dance (as it were). That's a thing. And apparently he worked one of the intracity warp stations as an NPC in Final Fantasy XII.

I think he's wearing a hairpiece.


VAAN

That's right. Vaan. As in the (nominal) protagonist of Final Fantasy XII. In Tactics A2 we see him all grown up (by JRPG standards, so he's probably like twenty) and relishing his dream job as a marauding pirate—just like his old friend Balthier, whose cocky waggishness Vaan has taken to emulating. Though he no longer dresses like a sci-fi fantasy J-pop Aladdin, he's preserved a facsimile of his uncanny-valley hair texture from XII.

I was never happy about Cloud's guest appearance in the original Tactics. It was the first time SquareSoft broke its own rules about return appearances by Final Fantasy characters, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. (Someone is going to want to point out Cecil's cameo appearance in Secret of Evermore. If it's you, go out and stand by your mailbox to await your cookie.) Slipping VII's iconic protagonist into Tactics was a cheap, pandering move that denigrated the character's mystique—but at least it was optional. You could easily play through the game without ever knowing Cloud was in it. Meeting Vaan, on the other hand, is mandatory in Tactics A2. He will join Clan Gully before it's over.

In all fairness, Vaan's intersection with Luso's story doesn't come by way of any interdimensional gateway nonsense, and he does serve a function in the plot. Maybe. Kind of. Something about trying to prevent the murder of some aristocrat whom we hear about a few times but never see onscreen. And then something something and Vaan gets the blame for his death and then something something joins up with Clan Gully for some reason.

Vaan's special job is Sky Pirate, so he presumably has an airship. So then why does Luso have to go to the skyferry terminal and pay 300 bucks whenever he wants to travel between Jylland's east and west halves? Because commercial airshipping was a thing in Final Fantasy XII, and Tactics A2 must insinuate the connection whenever it gets the chance. Yes. Of course. But why does Luso keep having to buy ferry tickets after Vaan becomes a Clan Gully temp? Either Vaan is holding out on Cid—or he doesn't really have an airship. In my Tactics A2 headcanon, Vaan's bravado and snark is all compensatory aggression enacted against the inadequacy he's felt chewing away at him ever since his airship got impounded and he couldn't afford the fee to get it back.


PENELO

And Penelo's here too.

Yep.

(I could have written the same thing about her role in Final Fantasy XII and saved myself ten minutes way back when. Oh well.)

Well: what's up with Penelo these days, you ask? For one thing, she's still hanging around Vaan as his accomplice in the looting and pillaging trade. She behaves as the scolding big-sister better angel of his nature, but if she were any good at it, Vaan probably wouldn't be a career criminal.

Oh, and she's a dancer now.

MOVING ON


AL-CID

The next face in the horrorshow hit parade is Final Fantasy XII's "good" Cid: the nobleman of mystery and Pepé Le Pew caricature from the Rozarrian Empire. He first shows up for a cameo during an otherwise superfluous cutscene because something something.

Er—because he's looking for Vaan. I remember now.

After you finish the game and get your starred save file you can recruit Al-Cid, whose unique default job is Agent. On the one hand: I'm happy that Tactics A2, as opposed to Tactics Advance, has a few screwy character classes. The Agent is a full-spectrum elaboration of the Thief's Steal Heart ability in Tactics: most of Al-Cid's abilities (largely buffs and debuffs) only work on units of the opposite sex. It's a neat idea, but (1) it means that for the most part he can only target vieras, grias, and Adelle (2) the whole thing is so unbelievably skeezy that I can't use Al-Cid without feeling like I should be touching the D-pad with a dental dam rubber-banded around my thumb.

Al-Cid is the only recruitable unit who can't change his job because sometimes we just have to live with the choices we make for ourselves.


MONTBLANC

Now I know what you're thinking. But this isn't Marche's Clan Nutsy friend and mentor from The Neverending Story version of Ivalice seen in Tactics Advance. It's actually his Clan Centurio doppelganger from the Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings version of Ivalice from Final Fantasy XII. Nevertheless, Montblanc is introduced the same way as his other self in Tactics Advance: jumping in to defuse a volatile misunderstanding between our hero and a peeved bangaa. Sort of like how Cloud enters Tactics gibbering about SOLDIER and the Promised Land. Or like how a celebrity with a famous catchphrase makes a surprise appearance as themselves in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Someone on the development team must have envisioned a studio audience cheering and clapping when Montblanc unexpectedly stepped out to deliver a reprise of his show-stopping "don't call bangaas lizards" performance from Tactics Advance. Incidentally, eavesdropping on these Tactics A2 writers' room discussions was what gave Yoshinori Kitase the idea to make this the basis of an entire game and call it Dissidia.[citation needed]

Anyway, Montblanc is a Black Mage—a postgame secret character running one of Tactics A2's base jobs. Maybe the development team had batted around the idea of giving him an exclusive job, but balked when they considered the possibility of online petitions and death threats from outraged fans accusing them of changing their beloved Montblanc into somebody they don't even recognize anymore.


THE JUDGE

Note the grammar of singularity. Supposedly there are more Judges in Jylland, but none of them appear in this game. Maybe it's for the best.

Clan Gully's Judge isn't a member of a corps of royal constabularies responsible for refereeing gang wars and upholding the whims of an emotionally volatile prince. Neither is he a member of House Solidor's retinue of bodyguards and military enforcers. No, this Judge was created by the archmage Lezaford to something something for something because something.

No, wait. The Judge is a man made out of magic, and he protects people who behave lawfully. And of course we mean "lawfully" in the Ivalician sense of the word: "you have permission to lacerate, garrote, or beat to death as many of these people as you want, but under no circumstances may you hurt them with fire."

The Judge is object lesson #2 in responding to player feedback. I can't say I've reviewed the market research, but it's safe to assume Tactics Advance's law system was even more unpopular than its protagonist. Axing it from the sequel was a fraught proposition, however. Perhaps brand identity was a concern: the Judges were the logotypical icons of Tactics Advance and XII, and both games had prominent legalistic-themed mechanics. Could a follow-up to both safely flush some of their most distinguishing gimmicks? Who knows? In any event, Tactics A2's developers were either reluctant to or constrained from removing the Judge-administered law system, so they improved it by minimizing it. There's only ever one law in effect per battle (no more triplicate prohibition shenanigans), it only applies to your team, and now nobody goes to jail, loses their weapon, gets stuck with a fine, or suffers permanent stat decreases for violating it.

If you were paying attention to our impromptu primer on behaviorism from last time, you'll recall BF Skinner's propsition that positive reinforcement is generally more effective than punishment. If you want to discourage some undesirable tendency in a person, you'll have better success in rewarding them for doing something else rather than zapping them for engaging in it. In a nutshell, this is how Tactics A2 reforms the law system. Provided you don't violate the Judge's inane edicts, your team benefits from a special perk you choose at the battle's start: increased stats, higher AP rewards, faster MP regeneration, etc. You unlock new perks by completing clan trial missions, and some are grossly overpowered, but it's a nice gesture after Tactics Advance gave you nothing but Judge Points for Totema summons and Combo abilities (absent in Tactics A2, unsurprisingly) for following the Judges' "recommended" actions.

But I suppose even Skinner, if pressed, would concede that sometimes the carrot must be used in judicious tandem with the stick. When someone violates the law, the fed-up Judge ditches Clan Gully for the remainder of the battle. Not only does your team lose its perk, but gets bitten by that deerfly of Tactics Advance lore about Judges preventing combatants from dying. When the Judge is absent, you're unable to revive fallen units: Phoenix Down and Raise simply stop working. Choosing whether to play along with the Judge's requests is a matter of deciding whether the advantages of shirking his restrictions are worth losing your safety net.


LEZAFORD

Jylland's premier archmage. Surprisingly chill for somebody with unparalleled magical power and knowledge. He created Jylland's Judges for...for some reason. Maybe he created Luso's grimoire, too? He seems to know a lot about it, anyway, for whatever reason. And so Lezaford...um...and then he has a warp crystal in his basement because...er...

I'm so sorry. I just can't remember. I'm on the verge of choosing at random some JRPG I've never played before and burning through it over a weekend to see how much of its story I retain afterward. As a test, you see: either Tactics A2's plot is preternaturally forgettable or I'm going senile.

Seriously. I'm kind of worried about this.


A BUNCH OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T MATTER

 

 

On second thought, no—no it's not my fault that I can't remember any of Tactics A2's plot details without checking screenshots and wiki pages. I think I've found an explanation.

Tactics Advance had an unusually high ratio of sidequests to main plot events for a Final Fantasy game. So did XII, Tactics Advance's main-series spinoff and Square Enix's non-MMO MMORPG. Neither game attached much story content to these outings. You got a description of where you need to go, what you need to fight, and maybe an explanation about why somebody's asking you to fight it/them. When it's over, there's rarely a denouement: you get the MISSION COMPLETE fanfare and then everyone immediately gets on with their lives without ever mentioning it again. The subplots in Tactics Advance involving the ne'er-do-wells of Clan Borzoi and the legend of Gaol hardly register as story content. They're sequential, and they do deliver an iota or two of in-world lore, but the proceedings are so anodyne and so obviously unrelated to Marche's goals that it's difficult to commit much attention to them.

In Tactics A2, if you have Luso personally handle a mission that doesn't involve fighting anybody, you'll see at least one cutscene where he chats with the person he's been dispatched to deliver a parcel to or whatever. (In Tactics Advance, all of this stuff happens off-screen.) Several of these missions have sequels, forming little subplots. And many of the optional combat missions involve recurring characters with non-generic portraits who play out subplots of their own. These have nothing to do with Luso's quest—if we can call it a quest. Luso's in no particular rush to go anywhere or accomplish anything. The main-plot missions involving the Khamja crime syndicate and the ambitious sorceress Illua periodically emerge, conclude, and disappear into the background so Luso can follow Bowen's obsessive pursuit of the monster that killed his wife. Or meddle in the affairs of the Duelhorn gang as it attempts to make inroads in the Jylland underworld. Or help the city of Goug with its public safety problem. Or cross paths with the lovely, universally adored warrior divas of Clan Prima Donna. Or break up a poaching racket operating under the guise of a conservationist collective. Or help Adelle make contact with other members of the Gifted. Or submit himself to the embarrassing (as in, "I hope to god nobody's watching me play this over my shoulder") twelve-act vaudeville show of a clownish newspaper editor.

Most of this is so much JRPG elevator jazz. If someone like Shigesato Itoi were scripting little vignettes about two girls exchanging letters from opposite sides of the country or a potion salesman getting ambushed by thieves in the mountains, he might make it interesting. But obviously nobody in the Tactics A2 writing room was in Itoi's league.

There are a little over 300 missions to take up in Tactics A2. Of these, only twenty are mandatory for finishing the game. The other 280 quests' attendant subplots have very little to do with each other, advance asynchronously, rarely intersect with the main story, and sometimes aren't presented with much less emphasis than the Khamja/Illua material. Consequently, the experience of Tactics A2's story is like viewing a discontinuous sequence of unassociated events. And memory, as you know, is all about association. Tactics A2's plot was inadvertently designed to be forgotten.

I'm tempted to say Tactics A2's story is even worse than Tactics Advance's: at least you could have some fun chats about what a little shit Marche is and the ethical problems of erasing a "false" reality. But there's very little grist for conversation or reminiscence in the impression of an inoffensive blur.


MR. RANDELL

Seems someone at Square Enix feared that in spite of everyone's best efforts to muddle all semblance of continuity between the Ivalice games, some zealous fanboy might still succeed in arranging the series into a coherent unity. To nip this in the bud, Tactics A2 dispatches school librarian Mr. Randell to speak to Luso during the ending sequence.

Hmm. "Randell?" Where have we heard that name before?

Don't strain yourself. He's Mewt from Tactics Advance. Like Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Randell believes Luso's fantastic story about visiting another world because he's been there too. This means that the sedulous fan not only has to make Tactics and XII/Tactics A2 all fit together within the same timeline, but interpolate the events of Tactics Advance into the scheme of things, too. You have fun with that.

I suppose this also means that Tactics A2 must take place something like fifteen years after Tactics Advance. Maybe longer if Mewt took a gap year or two between college and grad school. He still looks like someone who gets picked on by the phys ed instructors in the faculty lounge. Elsewhere in 2018, Ritz is desperately trying to monetize her Twitch channel and Marche is still in the South Pacific doing missionary work with the Church of Latter-Day Saints.


FRIMELDA

Hang on. There was another recruitable character with a unique sprite and portrait, wasn't there?

Frimelda's first appearance is in an optional joke mission: Luso takes a potion to somebody complaining about feeling ill. The client, as it happens, is a zombie, and seems puzzled when the potion injures it instead of curing it (as per the Final Fantasy rules regarding healing items and the undead). Luso kindly informs the zombie that it's dead, and the zombie mumbles something and shuffles off. (This one is easy to remember because it's actually pretty funny.)

This event launches a series of quests delineating a tale of jealousy, betrayal, guilt, zombie powder, and JRPG melodrama. When it's over, the zombie becomes a busty Paladin named Frimelda who joins Clan Gully.

What's so special about that, you say, in a game where freshly-minted Paladins show up on the world map begging to be recruited? WELL, I'M GLAD YOU ASKED. Frimelda comes pre-installed with three mastered Chivalry abilities and the Ninja's Dual Wield. And unlike generic Paladins, Frimelda gets an attack boost if she lets Al-Cid suggestively jerk his pelvis in her direction. That has to count for something, right?


SCIONS

 

The Espers from Final Fantasy XII return as Tactics A2's Totema substitutes: deluxe summon spells that any unit can access by equipping special accessories. In XII, these dark genjuu (demonic or extra-demonic versions of Tactics' Lucavi, Tactics Advance's Totema, and the main series' early endbosses) replaced the usual Ifrit/Shiva/Ramuh/Bamahut pantheon while contributing a fascinating layer of juxtapositional subtext about rebellion to the story. In Tactics A2, they're just...sorta there. If I remember correctly, you only find Zalera during the main quest. All the others require completing battle tournament missions that can only be selected in certain towns during certain months, and must be undertaken in a set order. I smell Executive Producer Akitoshi Kawazu's hand in this.

 

To be honest, I still think these guys are the coolest thing to have come out of Final Fantasy XII. It's a shame that they weren't given anything to do in their final appearance but serve as functional bling for the FAQ-following completionist. (Incidentally, I've been reading Outlaws of the Marsh lately and I have to wonder if its astrological underpinnings in any way inspired the zodiacal motifs in Tactics and XII.)


PLUS-SIZE MONSTERS

 

Not terribly important, but worth mentioning: Tactics A2's XXL enemy units. Considering all the gargantuan Diamond Weapon-sized beasts stomping around the main series, it's a little surprising that none broke into Tactics before its second sequel. Or maybe not: anything occupying more than one map tile will have restricted mobility in a grid-based SRPG. To get around this problem, Tactics A2's 3x3 giants don't move at all. They sit in place and soak up damage while performing hard-hitting attacks with tremendous range and wide areas of effect. As bosses, they're more impressive than the embodied Totema in Tactics Advance, but less striking than Tactics' Lucavi and not as much fun as Tactics Advance's gimmicky Totema. They only come in a few varieties (giant bird, giant plant, giant bug, giant robot, demon wall, abominable hand of doom), so expect to fight a lot of recolors. But the antlion Lord of the Flowsand is probably the game's toughest mandatory fight, so these guys aren't without something to boast about.


EWEN

What's an RPG villain without his or her cadre of stalwart lieutenants? In Tactics, Vormav had Balk, Loffrey, Kletian, and the Zodiac Stone holders. (Yes, yes, I'm still using the janky PSX translation's names. Sorry.) Tactics Advance's Mewt had Babus, Judgemaster Cid, and Llendar. And Tactics A2's primary antagonist Illua has...Ewen. Just Ewen.

Vormav's templar buddies ran an array of special jobs with abilities that let them bust your team's equipment, disable or murder them from a distance, and blast them with the most powerful spells in the game. Mewt's lackey Babus packed special Runeseeker spells, and his doppelganger Llendar's exclusive Biskmatar tricks included Omega (an eeeevil version of Ultima) and vicious physical skills like Heart Render and Ripcircle. In Tactics A2, Ewen is the sole holder of the Nightfall job, which is a Ninja with a slightly modified sprite and an immunity to debuffs. And he knows Dual Wield, too! That's kind of scary, yes?

Ewen first shows up to ambush Cid by the docks on a dark night, benching the old man for a while. So far, so good: the sinister, unseen powers that will become the story's antagonists are making their move. This is dramatic, foreboding stuff, and it's about darn time! When Ewen next appears, he attempts to steal Luso's grimoire, and ups the ante by casting a spell to temporarily banish Clan Gully's Judge. This tells us our archvillains aren't messing around, and they have capabilities beyond those of the rival clans and loser bandits we've faced so far. Ewen retreats, but it's obvious he won't underestimate Luso a second time.

Then Ewen takes point during Clan Gully's first skirmish against Illua. When his HP falls to zero, Ewen doesn't say "damn it! this isn't over!" and warps to safety like you'd expect. He just drops dead. Illua's like "huh; that happened," and then the battle continues as normal.

Yep.

Apparently Ewen also appears in a few optional missions relating to the Khamja syndicate. Emphasis on "optional:" when you visit the pub, you've usually got at least a dozen missions to choose from, so maybe (probably?) you won't do the ones that are prerequisites for getting involved in Khamja's business before you murder him at Illua's feet. In that case, he gets replaced in these optional Khamja episodes by some generic unit or other. An even more generic unit, I mean.

Ewen might be an unremarkable villain, but I can't think of anyone else more deserving of taking home the Montblanc Award: a handsome statuette honoring the biggest chump of a given iteration of Final Fantasy Tactics. You could have just teleported away, bub. EVERYONE ELSE DOES IT.


ILLUA

A high-ranking member of the criminal syndicate Khamja. Real mean. Super tough. Has such a high opinion of herself that she believes she's the protagonist of, well, the world. And why not? She's a total bad-ass sorceress who's got apocalyptic aspirations, a horde of devoted flunkies at her beck and call, a huge sword, and a magic grimoire with the power to open gateways to other worlds—you know, like Luso's grimoire.

Where did Illua's magic tome come from and why does she have it? I dunno; she just does. Why's she so obsessively power-hungry and what's her end goal in absorbing demonic energies from another dimension? I dunno. Who or what is this "Zomala, God of Time" she claims to have made a pact with, and whom the script mentions exactly twice at the very end of the game? I dunno; maybe it has something to do with Time Compression?

Whatever Illua lacks in substance as an antagonist, the pall of menace she casts across the battlefield was missed in Tactics Advance and is certainly welcome here. You'll fight her three times throughout the game, and she's consistently nasty. She begins each engagement by casting a spell that knocks out your Judge. After buffing herself, she'll start spamming an attack with a three-tile effect radius that reduces victims' HP to 25%, softening them up for her goons. Then she'll move in and murk your beleaguered team with savage melee abilities. And remember: without your Judge, your KO'd units stay down. (There's a way to prevent Illua from banishing him, but I'm not sure it's worth the price of having to do a sidequest where you talk to Ezel from Tactics Advance.)

The third and final battle with Illua is a whole lot of fun. Once she's down to about half her HP, she'll cast a new spell called Sheol that targets everyone on the battlefield. All your units get hit with slow and immobilize, while she and her monstrous allies get haste and regen. Unless you've got a few units wearing protective accessories or have a Blue Mage ready to cast Roar, it gets real ugly real fast (especially if your Judge is absent). If Illua's turn comes up when she's down to 20% or less HP, she uses Rebirth, instantly restoring herself to full health. It has no MP cost, so she'll do it as many times as you let her. It's nice to see an RPG villain whose megalomaniacal pretensions are justified.


ENDBOSS SOMETHING SOMETHING NEUKHIA

 

In a startling turn of events, the defeated villain of a JRPG summons an ancient demon through the dimensional gates to destroy the world! WHAT A TWIST!

The Neukhia is a gargantuan wad of eldritch tar that wants to consume reality, or something. Tactics A2's final battle is probably meant to evoke the encounters with the disembodied Totema in Tactics Advance in the sense that you're trying to overcome environmental obstacles instead of just whaling on somebody. It's fun—but hardly the stuff of a satisfying dramatic climax. (Not that Tactics A2 earns one.) Still, like the non-sequitur Necron fight from IX, you have to give Neukhia credit for putting up a pretty decent challenge.

 

Okay. That sure was another round of character profiles. What now?

Guess it's time to talk about the job system. Again. Which means we must first have a conversation about diversity in the workplace. Again.


Races

HUMANS

Still not calling them "humes." I do not apologize.

Humans get two new jobs in Tactics A2: the Samurai Parivir and the Shaman Devout Seer. The latter is noteworthy for being a key component of one of the stupidest combos in all of Final Fantasy: take an Illusionist, install the Seer's High Magic command as his secondary action ability, and top it off with the Ninja's Dual Wield passive ability. The unit uses Magic Frenzy to cast an illusion, hitting all enemies at once. Then he teleports around the battlefield and thwhacks each of them with a physical attack. Twice. All during the same turn. It makes TG Cid from Tactics look like a weenie and is absolutely and unforgivably broken. But if you've sunk the hours into learning Dual Wield (990 AP) and Magic Frenzy (550 AP) in a game where you rarely earn more than 30 AP per battle/mission, and have been strategically timing your level-ups so your unit has both the weapon attack and magic power stats to deal decent damage, and high enough speed to do this more than once every five minutes, go ahead and enjoy it. You've earned it, you freak. (Full disclosure: I totally did it and I hate myself.)


MOOGLES

In Tactics Advance, each race had its own town on the world map, and to the moogles went Baguba Port. In Tactics A2, the moogles' home base is the technologically advanced city of Goug. Hmm: isn't that the name of the place in Tactics where Mustadio hung out and excavated relics from a lost civilization?

So, there you go: Worker 8 was built by moogles. IT'S CANON NOW.

Anyway, the new moogle jobs are the Flintlock and Chocobo Knight, presumably created because players complained it was too easy to work the Gadgeteer/Tinkerer into a useful party member.


BANGAA

Not so new, but definitely improved. With their tweaked stat growth, bangaas now behave like the hard-hitting bruisers they were intended to be in Tactics Advance, and they're much speedier and far less prone to getting lapped by every non-nu mou on the battlefield. The other returning races each get two new jobs, but to make up for getting shafted in their debut, the bangaa get three: the Master Monk ("wah cha!"), the Trickster ("got any threes?"), and the Cannoneer ("says here it destroys everything but the fillings in their teeth...").


NU MOU

The cow or dog or something people have the ignominious distinction of being the only race to lose a job from Tactics Advance: the Morpher. I began to type out a reminder of how the Morpher worked, but let's be honest: neither of us really care. The nu mou compensate for the loss by getting two new jobs: the Scholar and the Arcanist. The Scholar blows up his own allies with elemental magic, and the Arcanist is Tactics A2's repository for those "target level-multiple" blue magic spells that you never use. Between this and the new MP mechanics, the nu mou aren't having a good day.


VIERA

Tactics Advance introduced the viera, but it devolved to Final Fantasy XII to world-build them into something more than "suntanned bunnygirls who get to be Red Mages." Since Tactics A2 is set in the same world, one would expect its vieras would act like the officious, isolationist mystics Vaan and friends met in Eruyt Village. Nope: they seem to be as comfortably integrated into Jylland's population as any of the other demihuman freaks sipping lattes in town and standing in line for the airship ferry. Tactics A2 never gives an explanation for this, but in my headcanon, all the viera Luso meets are the losers and dimwits of the race who were cast out from the secret tree fort.

On paper, the viera aren't as strong as they were in Tactics Advance: both the Summoner and the Assassin get dinged by the new MP mechanics, and changes to the way the game calculates stat growth have curtailed the Assassin's game-breaking speed. In practice, the viera get the new Green Mage and Spellblade jobs, and a Spellblade with the Green Mage's Tranq spell cast on her is practically a win condition in itself.


SEEQ

First introduced in Final Fantasy XII, the seeq are a race of loutish, dimwitted pigmen. You know what nobody who played XII ever said? "Gosh, I wouldn't it have been cool if the seeq had been in Tactics Advance along with the viera and bangaa? I'll bet they would've had the most boss jobs!"

Maybe the Tactics A2 team was annoyed at having a new race foisted on them, since they only gave the seeq four jobs: the Berserker (corpulent White Monk), the Viking (portly Thief/Red Mage), the Ranger (abdominous Chemist), and the Lanista (fatfuck Dark Knight). The good news is that they're all pretty fun. The even better news is that you're never required to accept any seeq into your crew. To the XII and Tactics A2 developers' credit, the games' characterization of the seeq as subhuman deplorables was so effective that I never felt great about using them.


GRIA

The most popular of Tactics Advance's proprietary races were the viera. They must have been: in XII, nu mou only sporadically appear as NPCs, the only important bangaa is a recurring villain, while the viera Fran gets to be a player character. Seems the Tactics A2 team felt obliged to try replicating the bunnygirls' success, so they turned the dial up a notch and cooked up some dragon lolis.

Like the seeq, the all-female gria only get four jobs: the Hunter (Archer, but better), the Raptor (Soldier/Warrior, but better), the Ravager (Fighter, but better), and the Geomancer (Elementalist, but worse). They compensate for their average stat growth by having great ability sets and an innate "ignore height" attribute ('cause they got wings and all).


Job System

There's not much to say about the job system per se: it's virtually identical to Tactics Advance's. Except for the Morpher, all the same jobs return, and they learn (almost) all the same abilities from all the same equipment. Even the sprites are glossed-up recycles. If there's anything about Tactics A2's job system worth peering at, it's the way it's affected by the addition of the loot/bazaar mechanics from XII.

For most of Tactics Advance, the gear up for sale in the shops depended on what point you'd reached in the story. The further along you were in the main plot, the better weapons and armor you could buy. The upshot of this was that your units learned their abilities in a loosely set order. You could sequence break by stealing stuff from enemies and earning mission rewards, but your units tended to grow at a much more gradual rate than in Tactics.

In Tactics A2, shops won't stock new gear until you bring them the materials to make it. Every defeated enemy drops some sort of item, and it's seldom anything that can used in battle: more often you get animal pelts, bottles of sap, chunks of ore, lengths of twine, and so on. This is your loot. You take it to the shop, select the "Bazaar" option, and peruse a list of vaguely defined equipment types ("Greatswords," "Hallowed Arms," "Silver Death," "Grab Bag," etc.) with up to five nodes marked A through E. If you have the requisite loot, the node lights up, and you can rummage through your inventory, selecting loot items until they fit together into a piece of gear. (Props to whomever designed the interface: the somatics of crafting bazaar items are insidiously enjoyable.) Only then will the shops sell you that piece of equipment.

Unless you have a guide handy, you're operating totally in the dark with regard to what equipment you can get and which abilities you can learn. Maybe node C in "Fencing Foils" can teach your Elementalist or Red Mage a new ability. What do you need to light up node C? Who knows! But until you happen upon the requisite loot or complete a mission that rewards you with a new rapier, any job that requires rapiers to grow stalls out.

In theory, like Tactics Advance's law system, this should encourage players to diversify their teams. If learning new skills is what turns the dopamine spigot, you're probably not going to keep running jobs that have no increasing progress gauges. In practice, you will be shaking your DS and demanding what it wants from you. "Who the fuck do I have to go out and kill to get the things to get the thing to let my guy learn the thing? I'll do it if you just tell me." I'll admit that this writeup's completion was delayed for at least a week because I often paused from writing to slog through a few missions, just to see if I happened upon the ingredients for the weapon my Geomancer needed to learn the only ability she hadn't mastered yet. Thirty missions and a few hundred scraps of loot later, the node still hasn't lit up.

It's a clever way to artificially extend play time. A completist who wants to master a job has to run missions to amass the right loot before the AP grinding can even begin. Even someone who's just trying to get from the beginning of the game to the end will be irresistably compelled to diverge from the main path to pursue sidequests and roll the loot dice, because it's the only way to ensure their team's continuous growth. Evil though it may be, it demonstrates a profound understanding of the medium. Like Tactics Advance, Tactics A2's purpose is to keep people coming back and running missions over as long a period as possible, and the loot/bazaar system is a devilishly effective instrument to this end. It's almost as though Square Enix predicted that paid DLC was only a few years away and wanted to get some practice in.

Let's talk jobs. (Perhaps for the last time?!)


BEST JOBS
Sniper, Raptor, Parivir, Master Monk


For once, this is actually a tough call: wherever else Tactics A2 falls short, it's possibly the most balanced of the job-based Final Fantasy outings. Most of Tactics Advance's stinkers have been improved, and many of the high-tier classes have been slightly nerfed. We'll give the Sniper a ribbon because her Doubleshot ability now works the way it's supposed to (and costs 690 less AP to master than Dual Wield), and she gets pretty disgusting when subbing Spellblade. Continuing in reverse alphabetical order: the Raptor inflicts stat debuffs (like the Soldier, the Warrior, and Tactics's Knight) while dealing melee damage, a trick which is both new to the Final Fantasy Tactics series and sickeningly powerful. The Parivir has a tremendous attack stat and hard-hitting elemental slashes that become easy one-hit-kills when paired with the Black Mage's Geomancy passive ability. And the Master Monk—well, the Master Monk beats people to death. And he's really good at it.


WORST JOBS
Flintlock, Chocobo Knight


The Flintlock packs a bazooka, but most of his Ballistics skills have curative and buffing effects. The catch: he can't use any them without first wasting a turn to prime his weapon, so he's the kind of healer who's basically useless in an emergency. As for the Chocobo Knight: it's hard to explain why he's so lousy without getting into a lot of Tactics A2's boring technical details. Imagine catching a Chocobo in Tactics and conscripting it to your party. Now imagine that all of its special abilities need to be learned the same way your human units acquire new skills, and that if it gets KO'd in battle, it's gone for good—you have to go out and find a new chocobo in a random encounter. In a nutshell, that's sort of how the Chocobo Knight's catch-and-ride game works. I'm gonna go ahead and say that the moogles have inherited the bangaas' bottom-of-the-barrel status from Tactics Advance.


COOLEST JOBS
Cannoneer, Scholar, Geomancer


The Cannoneer is what the Flintlock should have been: a cold-blooded kook with a rocket launcher who's looking for something to blow up. The Scholar is like the Illusionist with a nihilistic streak: his target-all elemental kablams don't discriminate between friend and foe, and he actually has an attack spell that only targets units of a given race. ("This job is problematic.") And after Tactics Advance got rid of the Geomancer and replaced it with a pale imitation in the Elementalist, Tactics A2 brings her back—after a fashion. Only four of her abilities care about what kind of tile she's standing on, while the rest are tied to weather conditions and depend the battle's location. She's not as useful as the Elementalist, but again, I always say that screwy jobs are more fun than effective but bland ones.


LAMEST JOBS
Heritor, Agent, Sky Pirate


The Heritor is Adelle's special job, which gets unlocked toward the end of the game. Its skills are diverse and fairly strong, but you have to do a lot of grinding and footwork to get her up to speed. Given the Heritor's middling stat growth and how late she gets started, Adelle might be better off continuing to run a Parivir/Paladin combination (or whatever). The Agent's "sex matters" abilities are a cool idea, but Al-Cid is gross. And the Sky Pirate is, well, Vaan. There you go.


BEST-DRESSED JOBS
People with hats


:D


WORST-DRESSED JOBS
Berserker, Juggler


Though their sprites are benign to the eye, their crimes against fashion and decency become hideously apparent when we look at their concept art. The Berserker looks like a backyard wrestler sponsored by Hot Topic. The once-mirthful Juggler reminds me of John Wayne Gacy. I don't even know how effective a unit the Juggler is in Tactics A2. I can't use him. His portrait scares me too much.


MOST SURPRISINGLY DECENT JOBS
Green Mage, Ranger, Bard, Dancer


The Green Mage owes its existence to Final Fantasy XII and its additional subdivisions of the Final Fantasy spellbook, which Tactics A2 dutifully observes. Green magic consists of non-curative buffs (Protect, Shell, etc.) and non-damaging status ailments (Sleep, Blind, etc). So the Green Mage runs interference, buys time, and uses Tranq to make it so your Fusilier, Elementalist, or Geomancer's status effects almost always stick on their targets. On the more beastly side of things, we have the Ranger. He might be a fat sack of crap, but he can set traps on the battlefield that the AI can easily be goaded into walking over, and he's got a stupid set of abilities that lets him reverse the effect of curative items and murder people with Elixirs. (I like to imagine him talking like the Pig Sheriff from Samurai Jack.) And Hurdy and Penelo as Tactics A2's only Bard and Dancer are, well, surprisingly decent (if a little boring) as support units.


MOST SURPRISINGLY CRUDDY JOBS
White Mage, Thief


In Tactics, the efficacy of white magic was hampered by the fact that a unit's resilience against magic (usually a desirable trait) also dampened the effect of healing spells. In Tactics Advance, the White Mage lost his Holy spell to the Bishop. How can things get worse for the White Mage? Well, in Tactics A2, he loses Protect and Shell to the Green Mage, and his Raise spells stop working if somebody pisses off the Judge. Before he points and laughs at the poor White Mage, let's remind the Thief that he's lost his helmet- and armor-stealing abilities to the Viking. All he can steal now are items, accessories, and loot.

 

something something

Oh god. I'm being told I can't just end it now. This writeup, I mean. There's nothing stopping me from killing myself to get out of it, but I'm not going to die before the next season of The Venture Bros comes out.

There's really just not much going on in this game. True, there wasn't much going on in the original 8-bit Final Fantasy either: but as the progenitor of a multibillion-dollar franchise, it can be fruitfully examined both in the context of the less polished RPGs with which it was contemporaneous (to better appreciate what a sea change it represented, go play the 1987 Famicom/NES port of Ultima III for twenty minutes), as well as in comparison to its own storied genealogy. Tactics A2 is...well, it's just a whole lot more of the same. Its version of the job system and combat essentials are veritably unchanged from Tactics Advance's, and its plot (if you can call it that) is a shotgun blast of tired genre tropes. The only two unusual players in the story are Adelle and Luso: Adelle because she's such a far cry from the submissive, self-sacrificing maiden with an infinite capacity for hurt who almost always appears as the female lead in these games, and Luso because he's a protagonist without a goal, an RPG hero without a quest. Tactics A2 is the story of how he spent his summer vacation dicking around in a video game fantasy world teeming with video game fantasy cliches.

I'm not sure exactly when it was that Western gamers began to murmur about the once-mighty Japanese RPG growing stale, but by 2008 the consensus was definitely trending in that direction. The experience of playing Tactics A2 to the end calls to mind the shared etymology of the words "genre" and "generic." Since I'm at a loss for anything else to say about this game, why don't we think about how and why a genre becomes stagnant? I can't think of anything better to do.

Let's begin with something totally beside the point.

If the matter of whether or not video games are "art" remains controversial, it can only due to a nebulous conception of what the word "art" means. The confusion probably has its origins in the ascendency of the bourgeoisie in Europe, and the commodification of visual art and fetishization of the aesthetic object which occurred in parallel. The upper classes of the nineteenth century situated "fine art" within a strictly delineated set of categories, from which items of practical use-value and working-class enjoyments were excluded. As new media (film and photography, for instance) and the products of popular culture (jazz, advertising images, etc.) entered the public consciousness, the arbiters of high taste pushed back against them. It was a losing position: classifying and ranking postindustrial cultural artifacts by preindustrial standards was a futile practice when, for one thing, the new objects and spectacles were simply more pertinent to everyday life than the old, and when members of the "high-art" avant-garde united with the masses in celebrating them (Fernand Léger lauded Charlie Chaplin, the Italian Futurists glorified mechanical noise, Charles Demuth painted jazz, etc.). Allowances were made, but instead of refining the definition of "art," the gatekeepers simply expanded the range of objects that could be certified as such. Since we're still having the same conversations about video games, fanfiction, mixes, and so on, the issue clearly remains unresolved. Rather than periodically updating our increasingly nebulous criteria for what is and isn't (or can and can't be) art, maybe we should adopt for contemporary purposes the usage of the ancient Greek word which is usually translated into English as "art." To Plato and Aristotle, the word "techné" encompassed everything from making houses to writing poems. I think this makes the most sense: synonymously wedding the word "art" to "design" or "craftsmanship" and then judging the merits of a given object in terms of aptness to its purpose (while also permitting critiques of that purpose). All we're really doing is reframing the debate as a question of ends, but at least we've clarified what we're talking about.

The forms from which "fine art" developed emerged in the service of sacral functions. (Perhaps the persistent assumption of sculpture and oil paintings's lofty stature is a vestige of the crafts' religious provenance.) As such, artistic development was at the mercy of orthodoxy. If you were a painter in ancient Egypt or India, you studied and trained in the techniques a long-standing tradition, and to deviate from them was to fail at your job. The early iterations of the narrative and dramatic arts were similarly rigid. Probably no two versions of an orally transmitted heroic tale or ritualistic reenactment of a divine episode were ever precisely the same, and the myths' overall structure changed over time—but there was no urgency to invent new stories when the extant ones were understood to be necessary and true.

This is just to point out the relative novelty of critical conversations about visual and/or narrative art as being "stagnant." But when cultural artifacts are produced as they are now—perpetually, on an industrial scale, in the crucible of global capitalism's permanent revolution—stagnation is a feature, not a flaw.

To become commoditized, art (visual, narrative, musical, etc.) had to emerge from the vaults of the sacred and become secularized. To become fully secularized, they had to become commodities. It's way beyond the scope of a silly article about a Final Fantasy sequel (and beyond my offhand knowledge, at that) to delineate the history of the process (I might recommend reading Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde); but to skip ahead, once art became a thing that was produced, bought, and privately consumed like any other durable good, unfettered by ecclesiastical strictures or communal rituals, it became susceptible to obsolescence. Perpetual improvements, incessant novelty, and constantly renewed demand keep the cauldron of the marketplace bubbling.

I don't believe any medium can ever exhaust its possibilities. That would imply that there's a finite number of songs that can be composed and recorded, and given enough time, there'd be no more music left to write. Even outmoded media can enjoy a spryness in their old age: poetry and the novel may no longer command the cultural influence they once did, but even in their diminished niches they'll never run out of things to say.

Genre might be a diffent case, though. But before we pick at this possibility we might try to clarify what we mean by "genre."

Glancing at Google's N-grams viewer, one finds the frequency of the word "genre" in English-language print matter increasing more than 500 percent between 1950 and 2000. What a coincidence: that was precisely the same period in which consumer capitalism consolidated its hold over the United States and spread across the world. A group's vernacular reflects is priorities. Just as the languages of certain Arctic-dwelling peoples famously have multiple words for different varieties of snow, the subject of a culture whose central activity is the mass development, distribution, and purchase of an ever-expanding array of new and/or improved goods (including cultural products) will cultivate a specialized vocabulary for navigating the marketplace.

In theory, one might approach the concept of genre with a nominalistic argument. There's no true archetypical horror story, we might suggest; when we say "horror story," we refer to some general characteristics abstracted from a multitude of particular stories which we've arbitrarily lumped together as a class. By this logic, there is no absolute reason why a book like The Shining couldn't be shelved with other novels set in hotels. ("Ho Fi," they'd call it.) The associations we habitually draw between any one particular cultural artifact and any other(s) are based purely upon convention.

But this disregards the historical contingencies reponsible for developing these conventions. Let's take detective fiction as another example. In the mid-nineteenth century, an author named Edgar Allan Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a story about a gentleman polymath named C. Auguste Dupin who helps the Paris police solve a baffling murder. Poe called "Rue Morgue" and his subsequent short stories featuring Dupin "tales of ratiocination." In "Rue Morgue," Dupin namedrops one Eugene Vidocq, a true-life French detective who published his memoirs in 1828. When A Study in Scarlet appeared in 1887, the character Sherlock Holmes namedrops Dupin while his creator Arthur Conan Doyle liberally borrows from the formula Poe devised. The rest is history. Perhaps later writers who penned stories about analytic geniuses sifting through the evidence to discover a crime's perpetrator took their inspiration from the newspapers or barroom conversations with friends in law enforcement, but it's more likely they were inspired by Doyle's work, whether directly or through one of his imitators. Maybe we could posit that a genre solidifies when the mass of its practitioners are more informed by art than life in structuring their compositions.

To conceive of and analyze genre in this way is to apply the methods of cladistic biology to cultural artifacts. Not since the lone hunter-gatherer smeared the likenesses of the animals he knew on the cave walls has the artist worked in a vacuum, isolated from convention: she makes the art she knows, whether she developed her practice under the tutelage of a master (as the Renaissance painter would have) or simply imitates the forms and voices of the art with which she has engaged during her life (as poets and songwriters tend to). The emergence, transformation, dominance, and diminishment of the stratified patterns that constitute a genre follow the vicissitudes of historical process. The subjection of the cultural object to the exigencies of consumer capitalism and the time- and distance-compressing effects of the global market and electronic media have accelerated cultural development like the radioactive fallout which catalyzes pullulating mutations in 1950s B-movies. Any "creator" today can and does draw inspiration for his own work from a dizzyingly eclectic profusion of sources. But stochastic processes tend to exhibit large scale patterns; and so most any musician, no matter how diverse or particular the amalgamation of traditions from which she derives her praxis, can be interpolated into a taxonomical bracket without much difficulty.

But a genre's canalization isn't solely dependent on the activity of artists: the process must be a three-way dialogue. A culture industry functionary chooses which artists to promote and sell based on his or her own perception of an artist's efficacy (informed by the cultural products said functionary has previously consumed) and on the likelihood that it will sell, calculated by what the public has been buying. What the public buys depends on what the culture industry puts out for sale; the things artists make depend on what they've bought as members of the public, and on their perception of what will most likely please the public and/or their interlocutors within the industry. This is an oversimplification, but the point stands that the forms into which art develops are the product of the interactions and feedback between artists, the purveyors of their work, and the public.

To the artist, genre is either a form toward which their works tends (I'm not sure Woody Guthrie was capable of writing a non-folk song), or is consciously pursued as the most suitable vehicle for the ideas and/or feelings they wish to convey (Jordan Peele's horror films come to mind). For the culture-industry capitalists who own the printing presses, studio lots, intellectual property rights, etc., genre can be part of a company brand, an expedient template, a marketing label to affix to new products, and a mold to which they can coax their hires or consignors to conform to. (The old-guard action/arcade game companies like Sega, Namco, Bandai, Capcom, Taito, etc. wouldn't have start putting out their own Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy clones in the late 1980s and early 1990s if they hadn't smelled money.) For the consumer, genre is a handy navigational aid: people know what they like and they like what they know.

Apropos nothing: yes, I know the screenshots here have nothing to do with what we're talking about. But Tactics A2 is a pretty-looking game, is it not? I'm hoping the pictures are helping to keep your attention.

Anyway, none of this answers the question: if a genre can exhaust itself, how might that happen?

Let's toss some ideas at the wall and see if any stick.


IDEA #1: SATURATION & OVEREXPOSURE

The feverish production cycle that accompanies and intensifies a commodity-driven cultural craze exacerbates the inherent tension in the "same thing but different" criteria guiding the industry's investment decisions. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" exploded onto the airwaves in 1991 and became a generational anthem overnight, record labels couldn't sign alt-inflected hard rock bands fast enough. After Harry Potter, film studios scrambled to find the next YA novel series that could be converted into a lucrative multipart movie franchise. You know how it goes.

When the rate of return passes an inflection point (say, when a label put out thirty more grungy hard-rock albums in 1995 than it did in 1994, but still sold roughly the same number of records) the most credible interpretation of the data is that supply has surpassed demand. Does it also indicate that the material has already peaked in terms of quality? Harder to say.

Fighting games make for an instructive case. The genre's height of popularity (let's say it ran between Street Fighter II and Marvel Vs. Capcom) was followed by a decade-long dark age. The market imploded because (1) arcades were dying out in the United States (2) playing the console ports just wasn't the same (3) there were too god damned many Street Fighter II clones and sequels. Capcom released Street Fighter III: New Generation, Street Fighter III: Second Impact, Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter, and Street Fighter EX Plus a all in the same year, along with Vampire Savior and Rival Schools. And beside any of these arcade cabinets might have been The King of Fighters '97, Last Blade, Real Bout Fatal Fury Special, Mortal Kombat 4, or any of the fighters that had come out the year before (Street Fighter Alpha 2, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, King of Fighters '96, etc.). Two years later, only the most devoted connoisseurs were rushing out of the house to go plunk quarters into the long-awaited third version of a third sequel to a game in which two people beat each other up.

Here's the thing, though: that third version of a third sequel (Street Fighter III: Third Strike) was one of the best fighting games of all time. And though 2D fighters diminished in profile for several years, they never really went away. While the genre was out in the wilderness, there were still great games being made. Guilty Gear X. The King of Fighters XI. Melty Blood. The Rumble Fish. We could even include Arcana Heart, provided we wash and sanitize after handling it. Though far fewer people played these games than did Street Fighter II, Samurai Shodown II, and Mortal Kombat II (law of twos, law of threes), they were much beloved in within their dedicated little niches of quarter-circlers. If creators are still doing quality work within an established design space, can we accurately say that the genre has gone stale?

Stagnation must be, to some extent, a matter of public perception. Seldom is a genre declared to be "played out" without having first become a fad. The people who latched onto it because of its novelty, or to follow the crowd, move on; the eccentric loyalists remain. When there aren't enough loyalists left over to subsidize creative efforts or events of the same quality or scale as before, what should we call the result? "Recession" seems more appropriate than "stagnation," (though the two states probably tend to overlap). SNK kept on trucking during the years Capcom put Street Fighter in the freezer, but pretty much all of its fighters used recycled assets.

Despite the modern production values Capcom brought to Street Fighter IV (the game that lead 2D fighters back to the mainstream), it conspicuously concentrated on familiarity. IV wasn't much different at all from II, III, Alpha, or any of the other some-dozen fighters that dispatched ennui-stricken arcade visitors in droves to the Dance Dance Revolution platforms. Maybe people needed a few years to stop being sick of Street Fighter and its ilk in order to get excited about it again. Since the genre was resuscitated, the studios putting out fighters have generally adhered to much more judicious release schedules.

Does any of this apply to Final Fantasy circa 2008? Well, we've already enumerated most of the Final Fantasy games Square Enix put out in that decade, and I think we all remember anticipating XIII as the game we all hoped would be a return to form—meaning, a return to 1997, before Final Fantasy started getting on our nerves and we began skipping new releases.


IDEA #2: STIMULUS & RESPONSE

When the people who'd followed a cultural craze move on, why do they move on? If a cultural artifact (or type of artifact) commands attention and gives pleasure, why should a succession of similar artifacts offering similar stimuli appear to decline in potency?

This is an experimental question. All we can do here is make conjecture.

Maybe the earliest exemplars of a form contain some elusive quality that future iterations fail to reproduce along with the more salient characteristics. This may be what people refer to when they say "the magic has gone out of" some long-running media franchise. (See: Star Wars.)

It could be that the scintillating encounter with the unfamiliar during the act of engaging for the first time with a groundbreaking work (or perhaps any member of a genre which was previously foreign) constitutes the principal reinforcing stimulus (to recur to BF Skinner), and successive works following similar schema increasingly fail to match the stimulation aroused by the original object, whatever their other improvements. The train of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night sequels comes to mind here. Anecdotally speaking, it's not rare for someone to become a fan of a long-running franchise after engaging with an iteration that older fans generally hold in low regard: if one's entry point to Metroidvania was Harmony of Dissonance, he or she will be apt to speak much more kindly of it than someone who picked it up having already played Symphony and Circle of the Moon.

Disappointed expectations may add an averse element to what might have otherwise been a case of mere understimulation. One might purchase a game or view a film from an established franchise, having been lead to anticipate a reprise of an early experience with an early iteration of that franchise (see: Duke Nukem Forever, Final Fantasy XIII, the 2018 Secret of Mana remake, etc.) If the original experience was (or the memory of it is) exceedingly positive, the sense of unfulfillment may be markedly pronounced if the present experience fails to deliver. Subsequently, the individual may become poorly disposed toward similar products in the future. When one enters into an engagement looking for reasons to be disappointed (even subconsciously), one usually doesn't have to search for long.

And we mustn't discount the influence of variables beyond the site of interaction between the individual and the products of a certain artist or genre. Events may alter the individual such that once-effective stimuli no longer exert the same influence over his or her behavior. In other words, the event of a reader losing interest in a long-running YA novel series might have less to do with the books' content than with the reader "growing out of it." Someone who enjoyed comedy films containing crude sexist or homophobic humor twenty years ago may no longer feel comfortable laughing at those movies (or ones like them) today.

Some artists may have the misfortune of losing a large portion of their audience to changes in taste (resulting from some combination of developments in mass culture and from the general repatterning concomitant with entering a new life stage), and then discovering that the younger cohort lacks the frame of reference (read: history of reinforcement) to appreciate their work. Should that artist continue to put out material adhering closely to his or her early efforts, it will likely be panned by both groups: the one that outgrew it and the one that never grew into it. If the artist pesists in this, it is likely that his or her future material will be denigrated as "stagnant," regardless of the creative development it may or may not exhibit.

Does any of this apply to Final Fantasy circa 2008? Definitely. Again, this is all anecdotal, but most of the people I know who played Final Fantasy VIII onwards never stopped comparing new titles to VI or VII (their points of entry), and the recent games somehow always fell short. Most eventually quit following the series. For my part, I bought Tactics Advance because I wanted more of Tactics, and its sharp divergence from Matsuno's grim realpolitik and the fragmented job system made an unpalatable game put an even worse taste in my mouth. Consequently, I skipped out on Tactics A2 a few years later and wasn't that curious about what I might have been missing. And, yeah, Tactics A2 brings the difference between my current age and how old I was when I played Tactics into alarming relief. I'd probably enjoy Tactics A2 a lot more if I was still a fourteen-year-old with a fourteen-year-old's standards, perspective, and assumptions of illimitable time.


IDEA #3: HOTSHOTS & HACKS

Most aesthetic crazes from the last 500 years can be traced to a small number of innovators who conceived or perfected a form. Shortly after they've achieved some degree of success, the imitators arrive, impelled by the exhortations of their muses and/or creditors. This is how "movements" or "scenes" come into being and grow.

What happens if or when the virtuosic progenitors move on to create some other kind of material, hit a rut, or become inactive?

Since I have terrible idiosyncratic musical tastes, the best example I can think of has to do with futurepop: the fusion of industrial and trance that was Kind Of A Thing between the late 1990s and the middle 2000s. The vanguard consisted of acts like Apoptygma Berzerk, Covenant, and VNV Nation, and they were followed by a legion of lesser lights it would be tedious to catalog here. Some were very good, others were mediocre, but none were quite on the same level as the Apop/Covenant/VNV triumvirate.

Then VNV Nation's next several albums were unexciting, formulaic affairs. Covenant and Apoptygma Berzerk's material veered away from electro-industrial dancefloor anthems. None of the acts the big three inspired were capable of maintaining the genre's vigor, and futurepop went stale, gradually disappearing into history with goth clubs. Futurepop's overall legacy, I suppose, is pulling industrial music away from the hard-rock trappings it collected during the 1990s and toward more melodic compositions. And very probably attuned many indie synthpop artists of the early 2000s to harder, more edged textures than were used by Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, et al. (There's no way in hell that Grimes and at least one member of Chvrches never binge-listened to VNV Nation's Empires.)

This scenario's outline should roughly correspond to any number of popular music's other short-lived subcategories. Nu metal, pop punk, pop-screamo, and ska punk all come to mind. I'm certain you can think of a few, too. (And no doubt your examples are more up-to-date than mine.) "Stagnation" is the state at which the moribund scene arrives when the A-list talent departs, and the B- and C-list contributors founder on.

Does any of this apply to Final Fantasy circa 2008? Well: was the series ever quite the same after Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square? Were the Ivalice games ever quite the same without Matsuno? For that matter: now that Square Enix has mostly moved on from megabudget turn-based RPGs, how many other studios are still putting them out? Apart from Fire Emblem, are any widely recognized turn- and grid-based SRPG series still active today? (At this point I really don't know. Feel free to inform me of them.)


IDEA #4: DESIGN SPACE

Our last idea elicits a question: in the case that a genre's prefatory champions are its only exceptional contributors, could it be that the conventions of the form they popularize are too restrictive to satisfy the demands of a marketplace in which perpetual innovation and improvement are a requisite for long-term viability?

Apparently only so many painters can deconstruct so many objects into polygons before everyone starts wondering what the next big thing's going to be. Although cubism's long-term impact was greater than that of any other twentieth-century art movement, the number of high-profile painters who continued to practice it fell off sharply during the 1920s, roughly ten to fifteen years after Picasso and Braque pioneered the style. The period between the end of World War I and the end of World War II produced a lot of artwork that transparently borrowed from cubism, but fewer and fewer and artists were strictly cubist in their praxis. It seems there are instances in which the defining characteristics of a form can only undergo so much refinement before further improvements along the same lines become impracticable. To prevent their work from deriving from itself (which is pretty much what happened with VNV Nation), the individual artist must dispense with those characteristics and defy the genre. Fernand Léger, for instance, developed his cubist style into a sort of trichrome "tubism" before advancing into a distinct aesthetic of mirific metropolitan abstraction.

If a genre's stipulated characteristics are sufficiently broad, the space in which its contributors might work should be illimitable. A speculative novel treating an expedition to Jupiter in realistic detail and a fantastic novel about English-speaking extraterrestrials fighting wars using impossible technology both qualify as science fiction. Resident Evil 4 successfully melded an emphasis on action with the franchise's survival horror formula without becoming something that was no longer survival horror.

A genre that burns out its fuel after only a few years is likely to be a species of sub-genre with very restrictive criteria. Futurepop died after a decade or so, but electronic music generally (and electronic dance music more particularly) continues to thrive and renew itself.

So far, we've occasionally treated "genre" and "franchise" as fungible concepts, when the latter is a subset of the former. A genre is not a franchise, but every long-lasting media property is a genre unto itself, bound by the terms of its self-definition. Its [brand] identity is the source of its value; to preserve its value, it must preserve its identity. It cannot become anything too far removed from what it has already been. This truism continues to beleaguer mainstream superhero comic publishers.

While the individual, unaffiliated artist may be at liberty to follow his or her creative impulse wheresoever it may lead, the corporate professional tasked with developing the new entry into an established franchise has expectations he or she is obliged to meet. A recent Red Letter Media piece on the next Star Wars flick treats this in (depressing) detail: having painted itself into a corner, Star Wars can either keep doing the same shit over and over and over again, or otherwise tell stories that don't rely on any Skywalkers, Solos, Jedis, Sith, lightsabers, TIE fighters, or the rest of its old, worn-out paraphernalia—and thus cease to be Star Wars. For that matter, however irrelevant and burdensome the assortments of condensed Disney movie plots became to Kingdom Hearts as the saga continued and the (cracked-out) lore expanded, the series was stuck with them. To dispense with Mickey Mouse, the Hundred-Acre Wood, and the references to Disneyland rides in order to focus exclusively on the arcane Xenahort/Organization XIII/X-Blade mythos would have been to make something that wasn't Kingdom Hearts anymore. (On the topic of superhero comics: writers like Grant Morrison and Jonathan Hickman have shown an incredible aptitude for rejuvenating worn-out properties without violating those books' fundamental identities, but they are the exception to the rule—and I imagine editors typically don't come to them unless they're desperate to have an entrenched and valuable franchise rescued and see no other alternative.)

Does this apply to Final Fantasy circa 2008? Yep. And much more than our previous three ideas, I'd say.

Old-school JRPGs are very different animals from, say, 3D platformers or 2D fighters. Even if you go into Super Mario Odyssey or Street Fighter V having already played several of earlier games in the same vein, you still need to teach your thumbs to do what must be done and then successfully execute it. The experience of playing them is of a continuous, dynamic activity. Final Fantasy was always about following a rules system and making decisions, and those rules have remained consistent. Mastering any Final Fantasy outing is a matter of figuring out a few tricks, and if you've played more than a couple of games in the series, you're bound to have picked them up already. Haste is the most valuable spell. Curative effects are reversed on the undead. Always steal from bosses when possible. Don't waste time with the debuffs that never work when you need them to. If there's a Limit Break system, abuse the hell out of it. (Hey wait did we mention that Tactics A2 has a Smash Gauge which fills up as oh nevermind Exploit elemental weaknesses. If a boss becomes suspiciously inactive, it's probably a good idea to heal everyone immediately. There's no problem that can't be solved by grinding. Etc., etc. Once you understand the tricks, starting just about any game with Final Fantasy in the title is a matter of acquiring the new rhythm at which to proceed through the old motions.

Given Final Fantasy VIII's atypical mechanics, Square must have had an inkling of this as far back as 1997-8. The fact that it was still a fairly conservative JRPG in spite of its "equip spells" shenanigans suggest that Square was only comfortable with or capable of revising their formula on a surficial level, and its mixed reception suggests even that was more than the fanbase was willing to tolerate. The series' fundamentals were dated, but they were effectively locked in. Even the additional of a spatial dimension to Final Fantasy XII's combat ended up being a superficial change: having Vaan and Ashe follow their "attack monster with swords" programs while Balthier shoots from a distance is virtually the same as mashing the O button in Final Fantasy VII so Cloud and Cid repeatedly pound on a robot while Yuffie throws her shuriken at it from the back row. Square Enix wasn't desperate enough to review and revise the series' blueprints until Final Fantasy XIII, which...well, we've been over that.

If Tactics A2 (the game we're supposed to be talking about) rebuilt the job system from scratch, eschewing all the familiar Final Fantasy classes—or if it abandoned the job system completely—it wouldn't be Final Fantasy Tactics. If it ditched the classic SRPG grid-based map (like NIS did in Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom before reverting to form during the subsequent string of Disgaea sequels) or tried an RTS format on for size (à la Revenant Wings), it wouldn't be Final Fantasy Tactics. These elements were locked in. If there was any internal discussions of changing them, the decision-makers must have found the proposition too risky.

Where Final Fantasy's narrative components are concerned: we needn't list off all the hackneyed conventions of JRPG storytelling to sketch out a typical plot outline. An adventurous, talented young person has a problem dropped into his (or very uncommonly her) lap. He (or she) sets off to solve said problem and travels the world, crossing paths with a group of other talented, adventurous people whose own problems intersect with his (or hers). Together they tug at the string of the original problem and follow it back to the biggest problem, the one that spells doom for the nation, world, space-time continuum, etc. By then our young heroes are the strongest people in the world, so only they can defeat the biggest bigbad. So they do, while affirming the power of love, friendship, optimism, self-determination, etc. The end. No matter who populates the main cast, no matter how you tweak the default medieval fantasy setting, no matter what the midgame plot twist might be, the path virtually always leads from A to Z, with only a few allowable permutations of the letters inbetween. When these games' developers are so chary of going against precedent (even in a franchise whose earliest gimmick was the absence of continuity between episodes), it becomes that much harder to pretend that the story unfolding isn't eminently familiar. (Final Fantasy's reputation for consistently achieving epic heights previously unimaginable in video games eventually became another liability: it was a relatively easy act keep up when the series was young, consoles' lifespans were brief, and each new hardware upgrade expanded the possibilities for drama and spectacle by an order of magnitude. Not so much anymore.)

What if Square did something different? What if a Final Fantasy had only two player characters—say, a pair of siblings—and you began the game controlling both of them? What if the action was confined to a small city and its outskirts, exhaustively explored from top to bottom, as opposed to a jaunt across the globe? What if the endboss wasn't the biggest, baddest, world-consuming demon on the block, but rather somebody like a Delita or Seifer? Well, that wouldn't be very Final Fantasy at all. Or: what if in a Final Fantasy Tactics sequel, the player took on the role of an aged imperial general trying to put down an iniquitous rebellion fomented by fanatical relgious separatists? Not possible: a Tactics hero must be an inexperienced cadet or adventurer; no rebels can be villainous; no powerful nation may be virtuous.

To be clear, these aren't the kinds of stories I would want to tell if I were put in charge of a Final Fantasy game or an entry in any other RPG franchise. The point is that the genre is prevented, by a combination of its entries' elemental structures and agglutinated conventions, from telling any story that differs much from the "ragtag band of young adventurers/rebels travels the world and defeats a power-crazed nihilist and/or his demonic pet/master" scenario we sketched above.

Thinking about Tactics A2 against this background inspired me to reread John Barth's 1967 essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," which is something of a manifesto for postmodern fiction. Barth argues that there's no excuse for print literature, in the age of television, LSD, and Marshall McLuhan, to go about its business like it's still 1900. It's no surprise that the author of "Lost in the Funhouse" (a short story which is as much about writing a short story about being lost in a funhouse as it is about being lost in a funhouse) should champion writers like Borges and Nabokov (citing "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and Pale Fire in particular). Barth held that the best method for preserving fiction's vitality was to open up a new design space in which its own substance could be material for its use. In other words, to go meta—which represents passage of a medium into maturity (or perhaps senescence).

Over the last few years, we've seen game developers taking up the idea. At its shallowest, this trend emerges games whose characters come to realize they're in a video game. (The titles I'm thinking of are fairly recent, and I don't want to spoil them.) At the other end of the spectrum would be something like The Beginner's Guide, which I've seen described as a video game version of Pale Fire, and a Super Mario Maker level devised by a clever player who made an uber-meta level about the existential despair of being Waluigi. More subtle are games like BioShock, which comments on "choice" in games, and on the player's unquestioning willingness to follow the medium's directional emanata; and Portal, whose big twist isn't that GLaDOS is insane or the cake is a lie, but that there's a hell of a lot more going on than its benign "puzzle game" premise initially suggests, and which the player blithely rolls with because puzzle games typically don't have unreliable narrators. Even farther back, the .hack series from the early 2000s ultimately amounted to a heap of wasted potential, but their concept—an RPG about the dangers and intrigues on the servers of a fictional MMORPG—was brilliant.

Square Enix has dabbled in the meta over the last decade or so, though in the most unimaginative and crassest way possible. No, we're not talking about Tactics Advance taking place in a world where Final Fantasy is recognized as a popular video game, but that was pretty bad. I'm talking about what began with Dissidia: Square Enix cranking out Final Fantasy games that are about Final Fantasy. Pictologica Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy Record Keeper. Final Fantasy All the Bravest. World of Final Fantasy. Games with the premise: "you have fond memories of Final Fantasy, so here's a decontextualized mishmash of it for you to play with." The next big release isn't going to be Final Fantasy XVI, but a game about Final Fantasy VII. What can this indicate but depletion?

 

Conclusion!

If there's anything interesting about Tactics A2, it's where it stands at the edge of the Final Fantasy series' reorientation towards its two-pronged strategy of catabolistic sustenance (smartphone ports of old titles, mobile gaming sludge) and neoplastic growth (Final Fantasy XIII). This is when the franchise's stewards were basically out of ideas, but hadn't quite realized it yet—let alone reconciled themselves to and embraced the fact. Incidentally, you can notice kernels of the meta in Tactics A2 if you pay attention. For instance, I'm trying to imagine the writers' room discussing Illua:

"So—our villain. What's her motivation? What's she all about?"

"She wants to get powerful so she's trying to absorb interdimensional magic."

"Okay. Right. What else?"

"Well, it's like—you know how every villain must think they're the hero of the story?"

"Yeah?"

"Well, that."

"Good enough."

And so Illua prattles about being the protagonist of a world-story until the player-controlled Luso arrives to disabuse her of the notion. And Luso himself often seems like an awkwardly-winking surrogate for the player to the extent that he acts more like a person nonchalantly running quests in a video game than someone who's stranded in a parallel universe and might die if a skirmish between his armed gang and a pack of vicious monsters or hardened criminals goes poorly.

"Guess I'm off on a treasure hunt," Luso says after Vaan passes on information about a rare artifact in the Tramdine Fen. "Guess I have to fight them," Luso yawns when encountering yet another band of miscreants. "Guess I'll do another mission before bed," the player says as she glances between the clock and the progress gauges on her party's ability lists.

This hazy self-awareness doesn't insinuate a spark of insight or creative verve on the part of Tactics A2's developers. It tells me they were tired and didn't know what else to do but what had already been done. So they made a JRPG with an aggressively generic JRPG story. So they rehashed Tactics Advance's entire job system. So they made the protagonist a bemused outsider who's basically playing a game. So they stretched to reference Tactics Advance and XII whenever possible to better ground the manifold of floating events which they lacked the time, energy, and/or inspiration to cohere into a unified narrative. So they didn't trouble themselves to think of anything interesting to do with the Nintendo DS's unique capabilities.

If Final Fantasy X-2 marks the moment the series "sold out," Tactics A2 indicates...well, nothing. As in, "we got nothin'." None of the flashy battle effects, pre-rendered environments, dragon lolis, cameo appearances, interface gewgaws, twee world-map fanfare, and manipulative reward-dangling can conceal the exhaustion this game represents.

So as not to end this on such a negative note, let's indulge in some far-fetched theorizing. The differences between Luso and Illua as characters symbolize the conflict between non-interactive media (print, film, etc.) and video games, and the victory of the latter over the former. Illua is obsessed with making the story of her life into something definite: she wants to carve out the saga of her rise to power as a narrative with a fixed structure, with a definite and fitting conclusion: a private conversation between herself an posterity. Luso, on the other hand, prefers open-ended, ludic involvement as he acts within the world and "tells" his own story. She is rigid; he is fluid. She scripts; he interacts. She is linear, he is multidirectional. She is condescending; he is welcoming. Her defeat is the toppling of privately consumed, static media by the new culture of simultaneity, communal engagement, and dynamic participation, and the artifacts it produces.

Huh. That's actually pretty good.

Quick, find me a video games journalism content aggregator. You'll never see Final Fantasy Tactics A2 the same after you read this crazy fan theory. Polly can drop in some sidebar ads and then CHA-CHING. Hooray for culture industry! Hooray!

 

Oof. That's that.

That's it for me until I have to fulfill the terms of some new demonic agreement by locking myself in a basement, playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, and composing seven hundred theses about its shortcomings. Or maybe by, I dunno, writing about process philosophy and Xenogears. We'll see if I'll have better sense than to shake his hand next time.

If you want to tear pieces out of me inthe meantime: I dunno, I still have a blog (now updated sometimes!), I'm on the Twitter (though I rarely tweet) and the Instagram (though I rarely post), and I'll hopefully have another novel out by the end of the year (if you're into that sort of thing).

My thanks go out, as always, to Miss Polly for permitting me to stand in her living room and rave at visitors.

Till next time.





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