Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite games of all time. It captured my attention when I was, I think, in the seventh grade, a time when my little mind was fertile, and I possessed abundant free time coupled with the unique self-loathing and loneliness of a pre-teen. The world of the Final Fantasy Tactics was a harsh one; lore heavy, governed by laws, and systematic in a way that the other games in its family never quite were. There was a tapestry there, well constructed. It was not surprising to me when I learned, only recently, that the primary creative force behind Final Fantasy Tactics, Yasumi Matsuno, was an admirer of the work of George R.R. Martin; there’s a shared sensibility, and common thread of highly consistent, and unflinchingly cruel reality, stirred into the whimsical fantasy world. Final Fantasy Tactics is the kind of game I go back and beat once a year, always leaving with that vague sense of sadness, triumph, loss. It’s also one of the only games I would really say I’m good at, in a technical sense. For some reason, the strategic reasoning of the game clicks with me (and also, I’m aware that most of the game is not particularly difficult). I actually understand the mathematical minutia taking place on the back-end of the game; I know the location and drop rate of rare items, where/when the good monsters spawn, and other wholly nerdy things like that. Final Fantasy Tactics is, for me, a game I well and truly love, and it’s influenced my thinking profoundly.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that I was spellbound by Tactics Ogre for almost the entirety of my play-through. Even after beating it, I felt a strong urge to dive in once again with the New Game +. Certainly, this is a game that is not without its flaws, but something about the whole package, the presentation, plot, the size and scope of the engagements, all of it a special kind of alchemy that was exactly what I was hoping for.
I played through the game surprised that little sprites could still inspire so much emotion and investment from me. I assume, maybe, that my imagination has dulled over time, that my teenage existence, ever ready to escape into the fantasy world inside my own mind, had faded away with age and “seriousness”. But Tactics Ogre rekindled it, a little bit, or perhaps just reminded me that the depths and layers can still be there. The effect of playing Tactics Ogre is almost like going to the theater, and watching a tiny play that signals to the more grand battle taking place in the mind of the player. I like that it doesn’t really try to imitate a movie to tell its story, but yet does integrate some of its own cinematic techniques. For the most part, the audience watches the game in the game world, and the presentation of this remains almost entirely consistent, never tearing us away. There’s also the overwhelming sense that the game actually has stakes; that failure really results in death, not just in the gameplay but in the narrative. Some of these characters will die, will wind up broken people, will be lost to the world, regardless of their goodness or the moral clarity of their mission. I may be overstating the maturity of the narrative a bit, it never does quite reach those heights, and only thinly veils the standard issue JRPG tropes, but something about the presentation made me feel like all of those claims are true. There was a tugging, a longing that infuses the aesthetic of the game, a sense of loss that the characters feel and we experience with them. These feelings are only heightened by the vaguely post-apocalyptic gesturing of the setting; the collapsing ruins, hints of an ancient war and a far-gone civilization, and the kingdom in disarray. All artistic flourishes that would be refined to something near perfection for Final Fantasy Tactics, but employed here with remarkable effectiveness.
It becomes easy to get pulled in, to get sucked into the micromanagement. I sunk in countless hours, leveling up soldiers or exploring bonus dungeons. I still haven’t completely cleared the game, and I suspect that I never will. There is an incredible range and depth of content here. The grind, the promise of maxing out stats and creating a perfect army is alluring, especially when the moral force of your mission becomes increasingly compelling late in the game. The variety and complexity of the skills available, some completely game-breaking, truly sweeten the pot. But most of all I just really liked playing. I cherished the feeling of getting stronger, of going from incredible weak, disadvantaged, to overcoming, triumphant, with a stronger grasp of strategy and an arsenal of skills and abilities. The addition of the Game Plus mode, and one so robust, elevates the quality substantially, and it’s something that I would pay to see implemented into Final Fantasy Tactics in some way.
Tactics Ogre is an excellent game, complex and rich with content. It is manifestly less refined than Final Fantasy Tactics, though in its way it could be the better game. It dug a hole in my psyche and really has yet to vacate. A love-letter to the fans, a niche’s niche, obscure, practically buried, but a gem.