Cons: Cutscenes can be really slow, especially between chapters
Soon after the Fifty Year War with one of it's neighbors, the Kingdom of Ivalice is thrust into another war after the death of it's king. This new war, the Lion War, is a civil war that revolves around who should be the heir to the kingdom. The king had two children, Princess Ovelia and an infant son named Prince Orinas -- and since the prince was but an infant, whoever was appointed his guardian would rule in his stead. The ambitions and manipulations of the Queen's brother Prince Larg the White Lion, and the King's cousin Prince Goltana the Black Lion lead to what is later termed The Lion War.
The story is pretty deep and complicated, but that's the overriding plot arc. House Beoulve has pretty high standing in the realm due to their contributions in the Fifty Year War, and you take on the roll of the youngest brother Ramza Beoulve for the game. Not only does he have to deal with the two lions throwing the world into chaos with yet another war, but the Glabados Church with its secret agenda as well to complicate things. The story is wonderful and well fleshed out -- it contains many twists and turns, intrigue and betrayal, but there's so much to it that at times it gets a little hard to follow.
The main world is a flat map with locations that work similar to the world map in Super Mario Bros 3, but you start out with only a couple of these locations visible with a line connecting them. Moving onto the next open location usually starts a battle (or occasionally a cut scene) and when you finish that battle it unlocks an additional location or series of locations to advance the story. After the initial battle the dots representing the different locations change colors so that you know you're finished with that area, a blue dot for a town/castle and a green dot for a field location.
You can't actually enter any of the locations except during battles, but when you're at a town or castle you can bring up a menu to interact with various things inside. Buying or selling equipment, hiring random soldiers, visiting the pub to listen to rumors or take on jobs, etc. Taking on jobs is a nice way to get backup characters some experience as you'll have to play without whatever characters you send for the number of days that the job lasts. In Final Fantasy Tactics one day is goes by for every dot you move on the world map.
Green dots are just extra stops after you complete the initial battle, but they do have a chance to spawn a random battle at that location. Unlike story battles in which you fight the same group of enemies at the same level with the same equipment every time, random battles scale to your level and have a random assortment of enemies in them. So if you decide to level up a bit to make a certain story battle easier, you still may find yourself having a tough time with some of the random battles just because the enemies may be much closer to your own level and have more abilities to use.
During battles the game switches to a 3D-looking view where the map is made up of isometric, diamond-shaped blocks. The maps are relatively small, and you get to take a party of (usually) five characters into battle against the enemies. Sometimes you'll have "Guest" characters in your party, who are characters tagging along for a portion of the story line. They are completely controlled by artificial intelligence, but often lower the number of characters you're allowed to bring into battle so that you're sitting at five total. The enemies may number anywhere from two or three up to over a dozen. Characters and enemies both move around the blocks based on their move and jump stats, with the move referring to how many blocks you can move in any direction and jump referring to how many blocks you can climb vertically.
Some maps are pretty flat and jump is useless, but other maps are really vertical, to the point of obstructing the view of the camera and being annoying. Thankfully you can rotate the camera to four fixed positions, one at each point of the diamond-shaped blocks, but sometimes you just can't see very well. R1 and L1 rotate the camera around, R2 slightly changes the camera angle (up and down to two preset heights), and L2 zooms in and out of the map a little bit.
There are probably 20 different enemy types ranging from different classes of humans, to Chocobos, skeletons and dragons. Most of the monster type enemies have different versions as well, who have increased power and a different name but look exactly the same except for a color palette swap. There are also a number of boss encounters during the story battles, and these can range in difficulty greatly. If you've leveled up a bit and are just there to win the battle as soon as possible they are mostly easy enough. On the other hand, if you're not too leveled up and you wish to steal something in particular from a boss you may find yourself frustrated beyond belief. (The battle with Marquis Elmdor comes to mind here, where he has a full set of unique Genji Gear to steal.)
Final Fantasy Tactics is a turn-based tactical RPG, and battles use a system based on Charge Time (CT). Characters fill up a CT bar at a rate equal to that character's speed, and when it reaches 100 that character gets it's Active Turn (AT). Speed will vary depending on the character's current class/job and what equipment he has on, so you may have one character that gets a couple of turns before another character gets one. Charge time can be viewed easily because it fills up a third bar directly under the character's health and mana bars.
A character's spells and abilities have their own seperate speeds as well, so if you're casting a higher level spell like Cure 4, Meteor or many of the summoning spells it will likely take multiple turns before it gets executed. You have to be careful casting spells that hit an area on the ground, because if it has a long CT the enemy you cast it on may have moved out of the way before it ever gets cast. In some cases where you have a specific enemy targeted so he can't escape, he may walk over and stand beside you so that you get hit with your own spell when it hits him -- making CT management really important.
You gain experience and job points when you perform actions in battle. At the end of each battle you get some money, and usually some random bonus items as well. These bonus items can range from a small amount of money, to potions or elixirs or even pieces of equipment. Also, when any character or enemy dies they get a timer that counts down as their normal turn would have passed. It starts at 3 and when turn 0 passes, that character's body disappears forever (and can no longer be revived, so you can permanently lose characters). When it disappears it leaves behind either a crystal or a treasure chest. If you step on the crystal you can restore your health and mana, or sometimes gain some abilities that the dead character had (if it was a human). The treasure chest will usually give you a piece of equipment that the dead character had equipped, or else an item like a potion or a phoenix down.
Aside from Ramza, there are a number of other named characters you can recruit throughout the game. Cid makes an appearance like he does in just about every Final Fantasy title, but in Final Fantasy Tactics he's known as T.G. Cid or "Thunder God" Cid and is of the class Holy Swordsman. The name is fitting, because when you get him during the storyline he can almost single-handedly win battles for you for a while.
Ramza, Cid, a Chocobo, and 5 more special named characters make up your main cast. To further that total there are 5 hidden characters in the game, including a well-loved hero from a previous Final Fantasy installment. In addition, you can hire random characters in most towns if you need to fill your ranks until you receive all of the named characters throughout the story, or to train especially for specific roles you may need filled.
You can even recruit monsters into your ranks, and those monsters will lay eggs to give you even more monsters. Sometimes it gets excessive and you have start dismissing monsters as they start multiplying like rabbits. Sometimes enemies will lay eggs of a different tier monster as well (the one that looks the same but with a color swap), like a Behemoth laying a Behemoth King egg or a Chocobo laying a Red Chocobo egg for example.
Any of the human characters can switch between a number of different classes, or jobs as they're called here. The total list of jobs includes Squire, Chemist, Knight, Archer, White Mage, Black Mage, Monk, Thief, Oracle, Time Mage, Geomancer, Dragoon, Mediator, Summoner, Samurai, Ninja, Calculator, Dancer, Bard and Mime. It's a pretty extensive list, but you unlock them over the course of the game by leveling up earlier jobs.
For example, when you level up the Squire job class to level 2 you unlock the Archer and Knight jobs. Leveling Archer to 2 gets you a thief, and Knight to 2 gets you a Monk. A level 3 Monk gets you a Geomancer, and then the fun starts. If you take the Geomancer to level 2, the Archer to level 3 and the Thief to level 4 (yes, three separate jobs that each have prerequisites) then you finally unlock the Ninja job. If that sounds like a lot of leveling to unlock, just wait until you want to try out the Calculator or the Mime!
The special named characters that join your party each have an additional job that takes the place of Squire in their list of jobs. These jobs have different abilities, some of which are so good that the character is irreplaceable (like T.G. Cid), some situationally useful against certain enemy types (like Meliadoul), and some downright useless to the point of making you never want to use that character (Malak). These special jobs make using random characters pointless once you have 5 named characters.
As you accumulate job points you can learn different abilities specific to whatever job the character is at the time. A chemist for example can spend 30 job points to learn how to use potions. 90 job points can teach them to use a phoenix down, and a whopping 900 job points to learn to use elixirs. When you spend the points to learn a new spell or ability they are gone, and you must accumulate more to learn more abilities. Once you've learned every ability for a job, that job becomes mastered and has a star by the name in the job selection screen so that you know there's nothing else to learn there.
Different jobs also have innate abilities that are always active as long as the character is doing that job. A chemist for example can always throw items like potions or ethers a certain number of squares to hit an ally who's not standing near them, but if you want to do that with another class you must spend 350 job points to learn the "Throw Items" support ability. A ninja can inherently equip a weapon in each hand, a white mage can always use white magic, etc.
Each character has two stats called Brave and Faith that effect different abilities in different ways. High faith improves the damage that character does with magical attacks, but it also increases the amount of damage they receive from magical attacks. You would think that characters you use as front-line melee fighters would be best kept at a low faith level, but since low faith also makes cure spells heal for smaller amounts, that might not always be the case if you heal with spells instead of items very often.
Brave affects things such as a Monk's attack power, your counter-attack rate if you have "Counter" learned and equipped, etc. One of my favorite abilities is "Blade Grasp", which gives you an evasion rate that's dependant on your Brave level. If you've got 95 brave, then you'll evade 95% of melee attacks used against you. Talk about powerful! Conversely, really low brave helps you discover rare items if you're using the Chemist's "Move Find Item" ability so it's nice to keep one character with low brave (with 70 brave you would have a 70% chance to find the rare item and a 30% chance to find the common item on a block that has a hidden item when you step on it). That's the only time I'm aware of that low brave is more useful than high brave.
You can raise and lower brave and faith during battle with certain abilities, and for every 5 points the stat goes up during a battle it goes up 1 point permanently. Use caution however, because if a character's permanent brave level drops to 5 he will leave your party forever because he's a coward, and if the permanent faith gets up to 95 they will leave forever to pursue a life devoted to religion.
For even more complexity each character also has a Zodiac sign, and different Zodiac signs have different compatibility with other signs. If your sign and the sign of your enemy are compatible you will have a higher chance to hit them, charm them, steal from them, etc. If the enemy is of the opposite sex it increases the chances even more. If the signs are incompatible, the sex is the same and the enemy is using a good shield you may find yourself with a ridiculously low chance to do much to them. In that case you're usually better off to walk away and move another character over to deal with that enemy.
There are a decent number of items available in the game as well, including a number of different consumables to cure various status ailments and a wide variety of weapons and armor. Not only that, but there are different types of equipment for the different classes. Most jobs have their own specific types of weapons; ninja swords, katanas, knight swords, harps, daggers, bows, maces, etc. There are more than a dozen different swords, along with another handful of knight swords, a dozen shields, etc. There are also a couple of different types of armor and helmets, like light armor, heavy armor and robes for different classes to equip.
There are many accessories too, like feather boots to cast float on your character permenantly or an angel ring so the character has permenant reraise. Cloaks to raise your evasion rate or bracelets to protect against various status ailments. In addition, there are a few items such as the ribbon and some perfumes that can only be equipped by female characters
While the graphics aren't anything spectacular, they are really detailed. The random generic soldiers all look similar, females with one sprite and males with another, but they have a different sprite for each of the different jobs that they can become which means a lot of variety anyway. On top of that, each of the special named characters looks unique and nothing like anyone else, but the downside to this is that they don't change their appearance when they change jobs. I think the characters look much, much better and are far more detailed than the characters in the other PlayStation era Final Fantasy games.
The world map looks nice, but there's really nothing to it because it's just a flat plane with dots and lines on it. The battles look really good though, with nice textures on every block. Different height elevations gradually climb with angles and inclines, so it's not like a world made entirely of Legos or anything. The settings and locations really look nice, and there's a good variety to them. One level you may be on a wavy desert with cliffs and cacti, and the next you may be near a giant waterfall with rocky cliff faces and a wooden bridge, and then the next you may be in a town with multiple buildings and roads where you must fight your way across the roof tops to defeat your enemy.
The sound effects are pretty standard but they work well, but the music is really outstanding. We get a nice mixture of dark and brooding tones to make boss fights seem more harrowing, slower melodic music to enhance particularly emotional cut scenes and faster enthusiastic pieces during random battles on the map. The music really adds to the atmosphere and does nothing but enhance the game. The only piece that I really got tired of was the piece that plays at the start of every battle while you choose which characters to fight with. After about the hundredth time you listen to that same piece at the start of every single battle you really start wishing there were 2 or 3 different tunes that it cycled between for some variety.
The cutscenes are the one bit of negative. They look real nice and are rendered using the game engine, but they go really slowly. Even worse are the screens of text between chapters that tell more of the story... these scenes go r... e... a... l... l... y... slow! To top it all off, they can't even be skipped which is a huge bummer. After playing through the game a couple of times, I really don't need to be forced to sit through one screen for 5 minutes as it slowly displays four lines of text. I usually end up taking the time during those scenes to take a break and use the bathroom, grab a drink, etc. Aside from those minor negatives however, the presentation of the game is exceptional.
Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite PlayStation era games, and probably my favorite tactical RPG of all time. It's one of the first games I ever bought for the PlayStation, and I've actually picked up 3 different copies over the years as the first ones got scratched up or lost by my younger brothers.
There are a whole lot of positives: a good number of enemies, a good amount of different equipment and tons of customizability on how you want to play. There is a wide cast of unique characters with their own reasons for fighting and their own unique skills that they bring to bear. The grand storyline is deep and involved, and the style of the game really brings it all together into an epic saga that shouldn't be missed.
If you can't pick up the PlayStation version of the game, you can still grab Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) or the iPad/iPhone. Supposedly it's really similar, but with additional jobs, items, characters and cutscenes (now with voiceovers). In one form or another, this is one game that should appeal to a large variety of people and everyone should at least look into.
There's so much more I could say about this game, but you really have to play it to truly appreciate it.