Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is noteworthy for several reasons: It's a much-desired follow-up to Square's popular 1997 strategy role-playing game for the PlayStation, and it's also the first Final Fantasy game to appear on a Nintendo console in many years. Tactics Advance is also a great game in its own right, and it's well-suited to the portable Game Boy Advance. Those who fondly remember the original Final Fantasy Tactics won't find a story that's as engrossing or as complex here, but this is still a deep and involving RPG that offers dozens of hours' worth of entertaining tactical battles.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is neither a sequel nor a remake of the 1997 PlayStation classic, though it is similar.
The title "Final Fantasy Tactics Advance" is somewhat misleading, because, while the game is certainly reminiscent of the PlayStation original, it's completely different in terms of storyline and certain key gameplay elements. So this is neither a sequel nor a remake, but, instead, it's another strategy RPG in the same vein as Atlus' excellent Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis or the recent Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.
The story of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was apparently inspired by the famous novel The Neverending Story--or maybe even more so by the 1984 movie of the same name--since this story seems skewed for younger audiences but is suitable for all ages. The main character is Marche, a young boy who is friends with a couple of other down-on-their-luck kids. Collectively, they aren't having a great time in their formative years--they've got problems at home and at school. One day, though, they discover a magical book that literally transforms their harsh and mundane world into one of swords and sorcery. This is a place where they can be heroes. Marche, nevertheless, believes that this new world is not his rightful place, and so he begins his long quest to find a way home.
The story has a few ironic twists, but, generally, it is neither as epic nor as prevalent as stories tend to be in other Final Fantasy games. That means you'll be spending much, much more time battling it out with bad guys than watching the story unravel. Unfortunately, occasional story sequences, such as the game's lengthy intro, cannot be skipped. This can lead to some frustrating situations, like when you're defeated by a long-winded boss of some sort and need to listen to his or her spiel once more before you can give the battle another shot. Fans of RPGs are probably used to this particular brand of punishment, though.
The actual gameplay of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance resembles that of other strategy RPGs, though, as you'd expect, it has a few twists of its own. Battles play out from an isometric perspective, and you take turns--with the computer-controlled opponents on the map--moving your characters, attacking, and/or performing other actions (like casting spells or using items or special moves). You generally try to do whatever it takes to win. The pacing is good, but, in time, you'll probably wish you could move things along a little faster. The enemy AI is pretty good, too. A typical battle is a six-on-six affair, and characters get to move in order of whoever has the highest initiative, so don't expect to be able to move all your characters one after another. Initiative-based turns add to the strategic appeal, though, unlike in the original Final Fantasy Tactics, all actions are executed instantly here. This makes magic-using characters quite powerful in the late game, since each turn they're able to cast devastating area-effect spells.
Marche and his moogle friend Montblanc will face many trials and tribulations trying to help Marche find his way back home.
Characters needn't specialize, however. Over the course of the game, you'll gain access to a wide variety of different character classes (which you can switch between as frequently as you like), a wide variety of weapons and armor, and a wide variety of special abilities. You can also choose a secondary profession for any character. For example, your paladin can also have the time mage's spells on the ready. Gradually forming a well-balanced, powerful squad of melee fighters, ranged units, spellcasters, and support units is a time-consuming process, but it's an addictive one. As with any good RPG, it's one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game.
That doesn't mean the process can't get tedious. It certainly can, and often does. That's largely due to the game's unusual, and somewhat flawed, "ability points" (or AP) system. Basically, the way your characters gain new abilities is by equipping and using certain items that have those inherent abilities for a period of time. For example, a dragoon armed with a javelin gains the classic Final Fantasy "jump" ability--this lets the dragoon fly off the screen and land on top of an enemy, spear-first. Equipping the javelin immediately grants the jump ability. However, only after gaining 100AP (and you tend to get either 40 or 50 at the end of each battle) can you master the ability. This means you no longer need to equip yourself with the javelin to use it. You can now equip yourself with some other weapon to gain its ability, and so on.
Most abilities require 200AP, and sometimes 300AP, to master, so the process of learning new abilities is quite slow. Actually buying or finding equipment with good abilities attached is no trivial matter, either. Some helmets and armor pieces contain abilities, allowing characters to acquire several different powers at once, though most abilities lie with the weapons--so in most cases, characters will be learning one ability at a time. New character classes become unlocked only as you master a given number of abilities for existing character classes, so you'll likely find yourself obsessing over this aspect of the game.