In which we give up. Cause "sometimes you eat the bear..."and sometimes the Netherworld comes calling.

Adventures in Ivalice

Where to begin is one thing, that's a pretty tough blank page staring at you but where to begin is another deal entirely. I sat looking at a computer monitor reading an FAQ on stealing in Final Fantasy Tactics, with another screen looking at a walkthrough an another FAQ on what items appeared in shops. I needed to cross reference just whether it was worth it to steal an item in a fight or just skip it.

So I decided to stop moving along with the story at the start of Tactics second chapter and get in some battles, grind up a bit of JP, and see where I was headed. I think the idea of playing Tactics was getting to be more interesting than actually playing the game. All the menus, all the skills and jobs.

I was trying to run around with a black mage, white mage, monk, archer, and thief/archer. I thought I was doing pretty good, but I was getting bored.

When I went to my local used game store I found another game that looked like Tactics a bit, only more bizarre. Disgaea 3. It said on the back of the box you could get your characters to do a billion damage and that the story was really funny.

I had no idea what I was in for.

The thing is, the bit I had learned from Tactics still worked in Disgaea. You still moved units a certain way, chose skills a certain way, grew characters a certain way. But Disgaea had all these advantages.

First unlike FFT you could pull any character you wanted out on a specific map at any time, or put characters away. Second, and most important of all, Disgaea let you throw characters. One of the hardships dealing with the early game of Tactics is nobody can move that far. There's this whole map but you aren't going to use it. You might have a white mage that you can't let move too deep into the action due to low HP, and so you can't let anyone else get that far from them, because the white mage is the only one that knows the raise spell. If someone lays on the field dead for too long it's over, the characters gone.

Disgaea didn't even have that problem. You would constantly get characters wiped. In fact you got rewards from the nurse as you revived more KO'd units.

And Disgaea had these great job classes. And Prinnies, dood. Who doesn't like exploding penguin's that are actually souls working off sins in the afterlife? Disgaea also has a great translation as well. A lot has changed in the way Japanese developers and publishers look at the international market since Tactics release and the sheer wealth of well translated text in Disgaea makes Tactics look downright sub-lingual.

As I played through the game I just fell in love with the way the game worked and all these shortcuts to creating good characters. Going back to Tactics I found myself constantly going through the motions to throw characters across the map only to realize "no, this game doesn't do that."

But Disgaea had it's downsides. Really advancing your characters was like a part time job-you did it but you weren't willing to invest yourself in it. Yes you might raise a character up to be quite powerful, but the process had left the character alien. Who was this Red Skull I saw in front of me?

Though the next tactical game I would get into had no problem with getting attached to characters. Fire Emblem will drive you nuts. You want a tough tactical game the early part of a FE game will give you what you want. A wrong move can be devastating. Over time your characters begin to get ridiculously useful skills and while the numbers might not be monumental you definitely feel like you have raised this unit, this character, to be an awesome part of your team.

While you could finish a stage quite as quickly as Disgaea might let you, you know throwing an all, why would you want to? What's there to grind for? While the story might not have had as many laughs as Disgaea gave(or attempted to give as some might say) there was a sense of humor in FE, but there was also a sense of gravity-something Disgaea doesn't attempt.

With this new found sense of place and proportion I went back to Tactics, a second playthrough would be a chance for not just a fresh start but a chance to notice all the little things I figured I'd missed in the story.

That you can easily miss what's going on in Tactics is an understatement. Often events early on seem like the game is just letting you know what's happening in other parts of the world while in reality once you have a clue what's going on there's actually significant gravity in many of these scenes.

But I wasn't going to go back to the game with my failed ideas of what a balanced team was. Oh no. I was going to go in there knowing full well the lessons of Disgaea. The chocobos would burn.

My first goal was to use classes I had shied away from my first playthough. Lancers, with their powerful jumps, Mediators, with their under-rated talking skills, Orators with their under-rated status ailments. Why use a monk offensively? Their skill set looked designed for doing lots of damage but with my new eyes I saw they were a powerful field-medic and a great sub-class. Summoners also seemed like an offensive class but they actually had the ability to heal a good amount of HP with very quick casting summons.

Archers. Well, archers are lame, I thought they were a useful ranged class originally but aside from a few passive skills they weren't necessary. That was another big change, I did't think of jobs any more as these straightforward characters but a collection skills that often didn't fit together that well. However, with a little bit of mixing and matching you could get surprisingly useful results. While it would take forever to get items that give re-raise automatically, and casting the spell would be a slow process needing many characters to be close together, using a Lancer reaction ability could get the same result. Now every time characters got hit they immediately had re-raise status(meaning if they died they came right back to life).

Or the Ninja reaction ability Sunken State-supposedly useful to make sure ninjas don't get hit more than once, but when put on a bard who is just going to sit where he is and keep playing a song that raises everyone's speed or attack or whatever, it created a character that now couldn't be targeted by the enemy. Everyone's stats would just keep raising as long as I wanted.

And I made sure to train up some Calculators. Usually you cast a spell and it's going to take a cast time, and drain your HP, and possibly not work. Calculators bypass all that. I'm talking everyone you hit turns into a frog if possible, everyone goes to sleep if possible, and if a spell misses someone you likely got 2 other hits off of it so it's not a waste like magic normally is.

And there's more, like reaction abilities that raise your magic attack or speed. if you just have everyone keep hitting that person their stats just go up and up. The game will be close to the end before you'll get some gear that will be close to matching what you can do on your own with a little foresight. This was when the game really opened up to me.

I didn't need to look at some FAQ for stealing stuff, I knew that most stuff wasn't worth the effort. However I had over-leveled and my random encounters were now high-level. The good thing about that? I could steal gear in random encounters that would generally demolish anything the main campaign would try to get me interested in. I'm talking Thief Hats in chapter 2.

As I currently am working my way through the 4th chapter, towards all the special characters, I feel I only now understand how the game is meant to be played. It's got a great story you can't fully appreciate in one playthrough, it's got great character customization you can't fully appreciate in one playthrough. It's a game about creativity. About challenges. It's a game where you try new things every playthrough because there's always something new to experience. I currently have 2 ideas for new playthroughs because I look back at my characters and see all these interesting possibilities I missed out on.

It's not that the game didn't let me try, it's that it left me something new to explore. That's where Final Fantasy Tactics hits it's strongest notes: the game isn't afraid to leave you wanting another playthrough. It gives you the pieces to the puzzle and let's you figure them out and that's very alien in the modern game world.