‘Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions’

When “Final Fantasy Tactics” was released for the original PlayStation about 10 years ago, it brought to life a subgenre that most American gamers had little knowledge of: the tactical role-playing game. Also called strategy RPGs, tactical RPGs appeal to the thinking gamers rather than the action and thrill-seeking crowd; a basic way to think of it is like a cross between chess and the board game Risk, only with lots of changing variables and customization.

As an example, characters in “Final Fantasy Tactics” have a job class that determines what skills they can learn in five different categories. Characters with enough skill in certain jobs can open up new jobs, and switching between jobs will allow different skills to be learned across a wide range. Apart from their main job, characters can choose skills from any other jobs they’ve had to fill their other four action categories. With over 20 different possible jobs – ranging from the standard Knight or Archer to the more unique Orator or Arithmetician – the possible combinations of skills are staggering for each character, not even taking into account different accessories.

Players can have a large roster of characters to choose from to make specific teams for each battle, develop a small roster that fits a certain playing style, or have a small multi-purpose team that can handle a variety of enemies. However, those who develop only a few characters will have to make sure everyone survives each battle; if a custom character falls in battle and isn’t revived within three turns, that character is permanently removed from the game, losing all the experience and effort that went into developing that character.

The story follows a young apprentice knight, by default named Ramza, during a time of warring factions, aristocratic oppression, peasant uprisings and other conflict reminiscent of middle ages Europe. In similar fashion, the Church holds the power to execute those it names as heretics and claims a large part in the epic political drama of Ivalice that unfolds in the story. For a game not in the “Final Fantasy” main series, “Tactics” has a complex and twisting plot full of dozens of characters, conspiracies, betrayals and ever-shifting allegiances. The localization of the dialog sounds appropriately Elizabethan, and the story stays fairly grounded, without the more fantastic elements of most “Final Fantasy” games.

Special guest appearances of a few characters from other “Final Fantasy” games, now including “Final Fantasy XII”‘s Balthier, are a treat to fans of the series and a way to tie together games in the “Ivalice Alliance” campaign of upcoming “Final Fantasy” titles. Some other changes for the “War of the Lions” release include new events that further illuminate certain story points and cinematic movies that bring key scenes to life, using a cel-shading method that looks like hand-drawn art. New jobs and wireless-multiplayer modes – with both versus and cooperative skirmishes – give even veterans of the original game reasons to play this addictive title again.

Newcomers to the tactical RPGs will find a learning curve steeper than most modern games (the in-game tutorial is an option, but not standard), but hardcore gamers of any generation should appreciate the depth and challenge offered by a game that doesn’t give players any bonuses, combos or advantages that it doesn’t give the enemy. Sure, the graphics are simple sprites and the game moves at an unhurried pace, but for tactical strategy, this newly polished classic can’t be beat.