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Rob Zacny

Episode 282: Surrender or Die in Obscurity

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Baby, why don't we go down to Chocobo

 

At long last, console games are coming to Three Moves Ahead. Michael Hermes and Jenn Cutter join Troy "Zodiac" Goodfellow to talk about Square's 1997 Playstation game Final Fantasy Tactics. Listen in and learn about chocobos, time mages, and questionable translations. 

 

I put this into Google Translate, converted to Japanese, and then back to English. That was going to be the show description but I didn't want people to think I was having a stroke. Also, Troy's audio gets a little wonky at the end. Enjoy!

 

Final Fantasy Tactics at Watch out for Fireballs.

 


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cddb   

Weirdly enough, I've been playing this game every day throughout this whole month (and its literally the first time I've touched it since '98 or whenever it initially came out). How exciting it was for me to refresh my podcast feeds and discover your new episode all about FF tactics. The universe is clearly sentient and has intentionally chosen to reach out to me via your podcast!!! That is the ONLY possible explanation!

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You mentioned that XCOM touches the same parts of your souls as FFT. I'd like everyone who wants Strategy RPGs similar to FFT on their PC to check out King's Bounty (specifically Crossworlds cause you get to play as Audrey Tautou. Also it's refined and balanced). This game is actually Heroes of Might and Magic with an RPG instead of strategic level.

 

It has several progression systems like many SRPGs do: you have your main character/general parameters and skills, you have summonable creature progression, you have companion with special inventory and abilities, some of your gear can level-up or react to your actions (e.g. an item may give good bonuses but stops doing it if he doesn't like your army composition or something like that). Your troops themselves are not individuals but every type of troops has different traits, active abilities, synergies with items and other units.

 

The game might be slightly tedious (especially on lower difficulties), but it has this army/gear composition preparation for tough battles. It has a feeling of solving a tactical puzzle even though most of the enemy armies are randomized as well as troops available to player. Also the story is boring and there's, ahem, humour. Still very good games even if the publisher milks those games endlessly.

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hexgrid   

There is (arguably) strategy in traditional JRPGs, but it's mostly in the level above individual combat.  The strategy in JRPGs is in what you bring to the battlefield.  Equipment, "jobs", training, spells, buffs, usable items, and so forth.  Some JRPGs have battles with solid strategic components (see the Grandia series for an excellent example, or Ubisoft's Child of Light if you want to see a half-assed copy that misses several important parts...), but in many JRPGs you've already made almost all of your interesting decisions before the battles begin.

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hexgrid   

The Nippon Ichi tactics RPGs are a mixed bag, but the original Disgaia is really good (significantly better than FFTactics, IMO...), and is a fractal rabbit hole.  There are lots and lots of tactics RPGs out there if you know where to look on console:

 

- the Shining Force series

- many Nippon Ichi games

- the Arc the Lad games

- the Vandal Hearts series

- the Tactics Ogre series

- arguably Valkyria Chronicles

- many of Koei's older strategy games (Genghis Khan, Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms...)

- Brigandine

- Dark Wizard

- the Front Mission series

- the Sakura Taisen series

- Vanguard Bandits

- the Nectaris series

 

And that's just off the top of my head; there are tons more, and lots of stuff on PC as well; Odium/Gorky13, for example, and obviously all the XCom games, the Jagged Alliance and Battle Isle series, the MAX series...

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Arathain   

I haven't played the original FFT, but I did play FFT Advance, the Gameboy Advance sequel. I wanted to like it more than I did, because it so many neat ideas, but the interface made it too much of a chore. Not the battle interface, which was fine, but the menus for buying and equipping items. Job skills came from items, and if you earned enough JP with an item equipped you would learn that skill for good, so you spent a lot collecting dozens of items and swapping them out constantly.

 

Ideally, then, you'd want an interface that clearly showed what skills your items were granting you, as well as stat bonus comparisons, so you could easily tell what you'd get out of an item, and thus if you should purchase or equip it. Instead, you had to switch between two or three different screens in these huge, difficult to sort item lists. Keeping track of all that stuff became a chore I ceased to enjoy. As an example, if I wanted to equip a specific character the item list would be my entire inventory, mostly consisting of items that character was unable to equip.

 

I picked up Disgea also, since that has a DS version. I bounced off that one two, because it is, as described by hexgrid, a fractal rabbit hole. Good description. Interlocking systems piled on interlocking systems. When I came to understand that every single one of my items contained its own multi-layer dungeon my mind broke a little. It'd be a good desert island game. 

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Amazing show! FFT is among my favorite game (in fact I love tatical jrpgs), so many memories hearing you guys talking about it. I think is acessible game, just might require of a bit of  will and lots of time.

 

Just to add a few more jrpg tatical game titles to Hexgrid list:

 - Langrisser/Warsong

 - Suikoden

 - Last Remnant

 - Battle Moon Wars (not a official, game, but a doujin made by fans using the universe of the anime/game series of Fate Stay Night).

 

Its curious to see how tatical rpg which almost died in the west (for very uknown reasons), until xcom enemy unknown, somehow survived and flourish in Japan, where they take quite unique ways - one of which was the combination of tatical rpg with visual novel narrative.

 

About FFT history (maybe some other games too), there is a very interessing link, I might be wrong, but FFT and other game share a lot of elements with three classic epics: the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) - which tell the history of the rise and fall of the Taira clan and its conflict with the Minamoto during the Gempei Wars. The main theme of the tale  are the impermanence (in case the Taira believed their power was eternal), fatalism (its very tragic tale, almost everybody dies, even the heroic Yoshitsune, dies by order of his own brother, even if the Minamoto clan win, they didn´t last in power) and karma. It was written in a period which Japan faced endless conflicts (and people did quite believe the world was coming to an end) after enjoyed during the Heian period a long peace also a moment where power shifted from the burocracy and aristocracy to warriors..  by the way the book is amazing, a bit slow to start but a must read.

 

The two other ones a chinese epics, which I haven´t chance to read, it would be The Romance of the Three Kingoms, which too also had very tragic themes and ending - again many heroes, even Liu Bei (the ideal ruler) dies, in the end the kingdom of Wei "wins" and they where somewhat the "villians", there is another epic the Margin Water (aka Suikoden) which is about a group of 108 outlaws (linked to the 108 star of destiny, a taoist concept) that fight against the corruption of the goverment and later against enemies of the emperor.

 

Lots of movies, animes, games, novels, television dramas drawn from this books and other ones too. They where often generational tales (with lots of characters) with tragic elements.

 

Troy commented on the character design - there is a lot of emphasis in this games on making the character very distinctive and unique (something I really like in this games), often in other game they might have unique voices and even larger sprites akin to Visual Novels, not forgetting backstory and gameplay elements. This is huge difference from some western games which often you can´t tell one character from another. To be fair, I confess that while playing Shining Force II I didn´t need to bat a an eye to find each of my party members, but while playing XCOM (the first game) I once in while, after I got the last armor, it start getting confusing how was how and I even start to care slight less if someone died (while I would replay a battle if someone died in Shining Force II even if it was easy to ressurect someone).
 

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ts curious to see how tatical rpg which almost died in the west (for very uknown reasons), until xcom enemy unknown, somehow survived and flourish in Japan, where they take quite unique ways - one of which was the combination of tatical rpg with visual novel narrative.

 

They became more, ahem, obscure. But there are enough of them and they're good. There's Western fear of turn-based games so you have many real-time tactical RPGs like Dragon Age. There's King's Bounty series I've mentioned earlier and also small indie games like Avernum, Geneforge, Knights of Chalice. Just recently we've had XCOM, Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, Expeditions Conquistador, Wasteland 2. All of those games are at least decent but don't get popularity of Japanese tactical RPGs for some reason.

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talon   

The plot of Final Fantasy Tactics is actually lighter than its creator's previous game Tactics Ogre (also remade on the PSP).  There, you had to decide if you are going to participate in a false flag genocide operation at the end of the first chapter.  

 

But, Final Fantasy Tactics' plot does deserve a better description.  

 

The framing device for the game is a historical revisionist account of the War of the Lions by a decedent of Cid's adopted son, Orlan Durai.  Orlan was tried and executed for heresy by the church sometimes after the ending of the game because of his accounts of the war.  The documents was supposedly destroyed by the church, but later rediscovered by Orlan's decedent.

 

The plot takes place from the aftermath of the Fifty Year's War and the entirety of The War of the Lions.  The podcast mentioned Holy Roman Empire's Thirty Year's War as a real life inspiration for the story.  However, due to the question of succession being the central political narrative of the game, I think the real life inspirations are The Hundred Year's War and the War of Roses.  In that soup of real medieval politics, Square Enix adds a very cynical? expy of the Catholic Church, hoping to gain influence by mediating peace between the warring houses.  The sour cream garnish on top is the Demon worshiping fraction within the church seeking to revive their leader a supposed messianic figure obscured by time and legends.  If this did not come out at roughly the same time as A Game of Thrones (Tactics came out a year later, I am not sure when A Game of Thrones was translated to Japanese), you can probably deride it as a copy cat.

 

Amid all of the above is a personal story between two childhood friends (Ramza & Delita) dealing with their difference in class, success in life, love and family.  The family part of the story is often little discussed.  Delita's start of darkness is the death of his sister, who was sacrificed for military political expediency.   He ends up putting Ramza in the same situation at the end of the game.  We, as player, was never asked to make the decision, it was assumed that we would risk it all without question to keep a deathbed promise to our father.

 

If you ever finish the game and like the pre-rendered cinematic, you might want to read Possessions: A Romance  by A. S. Byatt,  the end of both employs the exact same trope.

 

A quirky strategy/rpg game series not mentioned above is 7: The Calvary of Molmoth and its sequel, Venus and Brave.  It is very similar to XCOM, yet so different and tons more sex, in fact you get to decide. 

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sclpls   

I've definitely enjoyed FFT on the iPad, but I do wish they could have simplified the interface for it. There's an awful lot of tapping involved for fairly simple procedures. In a post XCOM world it feels very clunky (although to be fair that's true for a lot of older tactical games too, including the original X-COM).

 

Still, phenomenal game with an incredible amount of variety.

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sclpls   

On the topic of what is the appeal or draw to the game, it just occurred to me that this game sucks people in the same way a good Lords Management game does. The game is initially a bit inscrutable, with a ton of different systems to learn and get the hang of. Every hero/job is like a new way to play the game, and the combination of these heroes (both typically around 5) makes each battle constantly feel new and interesting. That feeling that you are constantly learning new things keeps the game endlessly interesting.

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creaker   

- the Arc the Lad games

Only the first one, though. The rest of them are more or less just plain RPGs which arent very good at all. The second in particular is just awful, mechanics wise.

 

There's an awful lot of tapping involved for fairly simple procedures. In a post XCOM world it feels very clunky

FFT is a fairly progressive game, interface-wise. Many of Japanese long-running franchises just pretty-it-up from one installment to the next, leaving the interface from the NES era. For example, Super Robot Taisen, where you could plan your move for a unit, discover that your chance-to-hit on a particular enemy is almost 0%, and to cancel your move altogether you have to press the cancel button about ten times. That is per unit, and possibly per unit per enemy. Only in the recent couple of years they relented and made it much more palatable, though still not ideal.

 

Anyways, someone on the podcast said they arent the only strategy-themed podcast anymore. What are the others ? I dont know any. In fact, i dont know any good gaming podcasts, except TMA. Most of the others i've encountered are the kind of crap like Bombcast or Idle Thumbs, in the vein of "oh look, we're all friends here and we're always drunk, so we're going to laugh and talk about our personal lives you cant relate to for several hours !", which is fine in principle, but would it kill you to throw me some information about the friggin games on a friggin "gaming" podcast ?

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Also about appeal I believe some of this kind of game strenght is the characters, again they put a huge effort on make the unique (sometimes given them high quality art and voice work) and much of the narrative might be about the player and its force becoming friends/family (which cames from visual novels and other kinds of animes/games).

 

They became more, ahem, obscure. But there are enough of them and they're good. There's Western fear of turn-based games so you have many real-time tactical RPGs like Dragon Age. There's King's Bounty series I've mentioned earlier and also small indie games like Avernum, Geneforge, Knights of Chalice. Just recently we've had XCOM, Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, Expeditions Conquistador, Wasteland 2. All of those games are at least decent but don't get popularity of Japanese tactical RPGs for some reason.

 

You are right, I was thinking about it what happened maybe is that several developers either closed (such Sir Tech) others made desparated tries at FPS genre, from Bureau, to even some late XCOM titles and Front Mission. But things are changing now. King´s Bounty is a fun game, I played lot of the original one and the late titles. About how they didn´t get so popular, I don´t know fore sure, again might be because some lack of characters appeal, as Troy said, we are used to tatical games with character begin all equal and having at best a skeleton of personality.

 

The plot of Final Fantasy Tactics is actually lighter than its creator's previous game Tactics Ogre (also remade on the PSP).  There, you had to decide if you are going to participate in a false flag genocide operation at the end of the first chapter.  

 

But, Final Fantasy Tactics' plot does deserve a better description.  

 

The framing device for the game is a historical revisionist account of the War of the Lions by a decedent of Cid's adopted son, Orlan Durai.  Orlan was tried and executed for heresy by the church sometimes after the ending of the game because of his accounts of the war.  The documents was supposedly destroyed by the church, but later rediscovered by Orlan's decedent.

 

The plot takes place from the aftermath of the Fifty Year's War and the entirety of The War of the Lions.  The podcast mentioned Holy Roman Empire's Thirty Year's War as a real life inspiration for the story.  However, due to the question of succession being the central political narrative of the game, I think the real life inspirations are The Hundred Year's War and the War of Roses.  In that soup of real medieval politics, Square Enix adds a very cynical? expy of the Catholic Church, hoping to gain influence by mediating peace between the warring houses.  The sour cream garnish on top is the Demon worshiping fraction within the church seeking to revive their leader a supposed messianic figure obscured by time and legends.  If this did not come out at roughly the same time as A Game of Thrones (Tactics came out a year later, I am not sure when A Game of Thrones was translated to Japanese), you can probably deride it as a copy cat.

 

Amid all of the above is a personal story between two childhood friends (Ramza & Delita) dealing with their difference in class, success in life, love and family.  The family part of the story is often little discussed.  Delita's start of darkness is the death of his sister, who was sacrificed for military political expediency.   He ends up putting Ramza in the same situation at the end of the game.  We, as player, was never asked to make the decision, it was assumed that we would risk it all without question to keep a deathbed promise to our father.

 

If you ever finish the game and like the pre-rendered cinematic, you might want to read Possessions: A Romance  by A. S. Byatt,  the end of both employs the exact same trope.

 

A quirky strategy/rpg game series not mentioned above is 7: The Calvary of Molmoth and its sequel, Venus and Brave.  It is very similar to XCOM, yet so different and tons more sex, in fact you get to decide. 

 

Good recap of the history!

I don´t think is a copycat, because to be fair, Game of Throne drawn a lot from the War of the Roses too. Corrupt Church are a classic japanese rpg troope from the 90. Vandal Hearts II also had a very complex plot too, and coming to think the famous medieval dark fantasy anime/manga Berserk might be around this period.

 

Something I forgot to mention above; the original Vandal Hearts (PS1) is actually quite good.

 

Yeah, Vandal Hearts II is good too, but god, how that "dual turn system" drive me crazy.

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hexgrid   

Yeah, Vandal Hearts II is good too, but god, how that "dual turn system" drive me crazy.

 

I'm of the opinion that systems like that never work if you're playing an AI.  Every few years someone reinvents the idea out of the blue and thinks it's clever, and it always sucks.  It's the strategy game equivalent of "but... what if the detective has a split personality and the other personality is the murderer!".  Everyone who thinks of it thinks it's an original idea with tons of promise.

 

Instead what you get is invariably "reverse-engineer the AI".  You wind up having to figure out exactly what the AI will do each turn so you can move your guy from "in the line of fire" to "at the ideal backstab location".  It's rote, mechanical, and awful.  When you get it right, there's no joy in beating the clockwork general.  When you get it wrong, it's annoying and often fatal.

 

Between that and the game looking like Oliver Twist vs. the NKVD, I kind of checked out.

 

I grabbed Vandal Hearts 3 on PS3, and it's not bad; the tactical battles are back to classical style. Somehow it didn't hold my attention like the original did, though.  I'm not sure I really got past the prologue; I mostly remember fighting wolves in a forest.

 

The funny thing is, though, if you want a really *good* tactical RPG, get one of the Grandia series.  On the surface they look like traditional menu-based JRPG battles, but:

  • there's a battlefield where position matters
  • many spells are area effect, only a few hit the whole battlefield, while some are linear, fans or circular areas
  • character movement speed is important; you can waste a character's turn trying to get across the battlefield to attack something far away -- this is why "warp shoes" are rare and insanely powerful
  • movement control is implicit, not explicit; if you tell a character to attack something, they run towards it; if you tell them to run away, they try to go somewhere empty, but there's no "go there"
  • some spells and powers can be used to push friends or enemies around the field, group or disperse them
  • time and initiative play into it; more agile characters act more often, faster characters move further
  • most big powers have a warmup time, and there are special "cancel" attacks which will stop big moves if you can land the cancel during the warmup

The result of this is that you build up a lot of skill with the combat system.  It's one of those games where once you've played for a while you can shepherd a relatively weak party much further into the game than an unskilled player.  The button-mash approach works, but someone who understands the combat system can go way further with less.  The boss fights in particular are glorious ballets; trying to cancel the boss's attacks before they can land while also trying to keep everyone standing and keep raining damage down. It's the sort of game where usually if you get killed, you know exactly what you did wrong...

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cerb3ro   

OH man, I`ve only just started to play FFT (kinda like 2nd life to my psp) and this podcast was just for me. Funny you mention grinding. Check this strategy for stupid grinding.

 

I got fed up with not having items at the beginning of the game, so I changed all my characters to chemists and went to the first battles (those lame goblins) and I would just surround a goblin with all my characters and throw potions at all my characters while the lame goblin is going crazy with tornado punches lol. I got that job to max in like 2 hours, from there it`s a walk in the park. I cant imagine how weird that fight must have looked like to the goblin though...

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paradi6m   

Anybody who's played FFT to death (like I have) should check out Tactics 1.3.  Its a difficulty mod for the game (you have to use an emulated version) that tries to stay true to the original's feel.  It doesn't add a whole bunch of new jobs or anything, but uses the base game's mechanics to make it much more challenging.  WARNING: It's really damn hard, but if you've played enough tactics to know how the zodiac system works, then you can probably handle it.

Also I never found the plot to be that hard to follow, but I was young enough when I played it not to have any preconcieved notions about the odd translations so that may have had something to do with it.

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Rudel   

Ok I had to register for this one. Just discovered your website..

 

i have some additions to the podcast:

 

1. The Onion Knight excels in stat growth. If you grind him to max level, he will be the powerhouse of your team

2. There is an ability for Ramza that gives you speed. This nearly breaks the game and is much better for JP farming than running around the map. Just use it until you get 20+ turns in a row.

 

Furthermore, I do not really get the issues with the complexity of the game. I think it's one of the great assets of the game to be complex and not brainwashed casual like so many other ones. Sure, without the internet with a half-baked translation, this game is incredible difficult. But since the PSP version there should not be any issues and I can advice everyone to play this great game.

 

it has it's flaws, though. Mainly because it is getting way too easy at the end and lacks a proper endgame. That's why I like Disgaea and Tactics Ogre better. They offer so many ways to min max your party after the story ends, that is something FFT is not that good in. 

 

Anyway, I really liked the podcast. :)

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I just remembered a little strategy I used, it show a bit how amazing (and what you could do with) the job system was:

 

I changed my character job first to Monk (which have skills in unarmed attacks) and later to Samurai (which have special skills using their sword which unleash a powerful attack but often break the sword) - that combination allowed by to use Samurai special skills on bosses or dangerous enemies and even if I lost my sword I still could use my martial skills to finish the battle.

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Berzee   

Like Arathain, I've only tried FFT Advance and not the original. I didn't remember playing very far in FFT:A beyond the initial snowball fight tutorial and introduction. After listening to this podcast I decided to dig up my old GBA and give it another shot -- only to discover that I had a savegame with 13 hours logged! So apparently at some point in the far distant past I put a fair bit of time into this (not long for this type of game though, I know). A strange experience...

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