Luso's cameo in the PSP re-release of the original Final Fantasy Tactics nearly confirmed that the next entry in the series would resemble its Game Boy Advance sibling more than its PlayStation ancestor. While one of the deepest and most full-featured games on the portable, many regarded Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as an over-simplified - in terms of both depth and difficulty - spin-off of the brooding, complex PlayStation classic. Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift abandons the stat juggling and mature atmosphere of Ramza's tale for the youthful characters and colorful art direction of Marche's journey through Ivalice. Thanks to a terrific translation, high production values, and the elimination of many long-standing logistical frustrations, however, the series' new direction elevates an already-rewarding experience to one of the platform's top third-party titles.
Players take control of the youthful Luso as he builds up a clan in the land of Ivalice. The game system revolves around the local pub where citizens post quests - in the form of "bills" - for Luso's clan to undertake. Completing quests rewards the team with money, loot, and fame which gathers the attention of other potential clan members and more difficult quest offerings. The grand majority of quests come in the form of battles which require the player to protect a computer-controlled player, gather a number of items strewn about the battlefield, or - of course - obliterating the opposing team. The battle system is viewed from an isometric perspective using a variation of the Final Fantasy series' ATB system; essentially, a turn-based engine where a character's individual speed rating determine when and how often they are able to act.
At first glance, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 looks to be a carbon copy of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. By the numbers, however, FFTA2 is the clear winner. This new edition to the series includes new races that were introduced as part of the Final Fantasy XII anthology, bringing the total number of playable races to seven. These seven races make for a total number of 49 standard jobs, plus several unique jobs exclusive to story characters. Fortunately, with 300 available quests, the player is given plenty of opportunities to exercise their full arsenal. The ability list does not feel as robust as it did with prior entries in the series, partially because many abilities are clones of others. By increasing the amount of playable character slots per battle to six, however, it gives the player room to expand their party's scope considerably.
More than just implementing a simple numerical upgrade, the development team at Basiscape seems to have focused their development efforts on removing many of the more tedious gameplay elements that were present in previous games. Characters continue to earn abilities through the equipment of specific items and the acquisition of Ability Points, but this time around, a static value of AP is rewarded upon completion of each quest and distributed to all members of the clan; not just those who participated. Experience points are still exclusive to participants, but with so many jobs and characters available, this streamlines the process considerably. Laws - a frustrating annoyance in the original Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - are still present, but they have been reduced from a battle-ending complication to an optional challenge. Failing to comply with a law removes the ability to revive fallen characters and negates a special privilege chosen at the start of the battle, while following the law through the duration of the battle rewards the player with additional loot at its conclusion. The new (and often strange) assortment of laws encourages the player to use a variety of different jobs, races, and characters, but forgetting to follow a law no longer imposes the strict penalties enforced previously.
The largest changes to the series comes in the form of the Bazaar and Auction systems, both of which are associated with new equipment acquisition. Defeating enemies, stealing from opponents, and completing quests rewards the players with loot, which - in certain combination - can introduce new items to the marketplace. These items can then be purchased with gil. It adds a new level of mystery and luck to a system that used to be entirely reliant on story progression. At the same time, however, when your only hint of a trade's result is its icon and a cryptic classification, the player is often in a situation where they have an abundance of equipment that they cannot use. In particular, the beginning of the game is a huge stretch of time where the majority of the equipment is for jobs and races that are not yet available, whereas the equipment selection for current jobs is reduced to a paltry selection of undesirables. The alternative is to head to the Auction House in which Clan Points - earned by completing quests - can be converted into tokens that are used to bid on big ticket items against other computer-controlled clans. Essentially an exercise in wise spending and pattern recognition, it is a fun option that is available far too rarely to make up for the deficiencies of the love-it-or-hate-it Bazaar system.
The true star of the game is, unexpectedly, the sound. The individual character and ability affects are standard fare that still manages to surprise you on occasion. The soundtrack - once again composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto - is truly stellar, both in terms of overall sound quality and melodic composition. On a console that is notorious for under-engineered sound and music, the soundtrack to FFTA2 blasts through a set of headphones with remarkable clarity and depth. This is fortunate because Sakimoto uses a combination of original melodies and selections from the original FFTA as well as FFXII to implement a fitting, memorable sonic backdrop for this new corner of Ivalice.
The art style in Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is indistinguishable from the Game Boy Advance graphics of yore, until a character casts a spell. Using the 2D and 3D capabilities of the Nintendo DS, a special ability or spell lights up the screen with colorful, smooth effects that better match the level of the PlayStation original. Characters and backdrops remain well-drawn, simple, and colorful, and the battle arena is still a static 2D backdrop instead of the isometric, rotateable 3D world of Final Fantasy Tactics. In all but a few occasions, however, this limitation acts to enforce the light-hearted, upbeat mood of the game. Whereas its predecessor suffered from an identity crisis - trying to simultaneously combine cartoon graphics with simplistic dialogue and depressing characters - this release is very much a joy to play that strives for the invaluable "just one more battle" feel of a well-developed strategy game. And, for the most part, it succeeds.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is, by any definition, a very pleasant surprise for the Nintendo DS. Through effective usage of the second screen and the subtle exploitation of the handheld's graphics and sound capabilities, Square-Enix and Basiscape turned what would have been an easy cash-in to a A-list title; an absolute must-have for fans of the Final Fantasy or Final Fantasy Tactics franchises, and a worthy addition to any strategy collection. A player can explore the storyline for a short-but-fulfilling experience, or they can branch out with enough optional quests to easily break a hundred hours of gameplay. It is, without a doubt, a terrific game to turn on for one battle when there is a break in your day and an admirable new addition to the series, despite its detachment from the PlayStation original. But if Luso's Ivalice proves anything, it is that breaking from what the fans are expecting is a wise decision as long as the result is fun to play. And, in that sense, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is an undisputed success.