Final Fantasy is filled with dozens of beloved titles, many of which remain some of the best RPGs ever made. However, there’s one Final Fantasy spinoff that simply doesn’t get the due it deserves, especially in how it revolutionized tactical RPGs. Final Fantasy Tactics was first released on PlayStation in 1997 and at the time it was something wildly different for the franchise, a tough tactical RPG that tells an intensely thematic story dealing with classism, religious dogma, and political conspiracy. 25 years later, it still holds up as an all-timer.
While Final Fantasy Tactics didn’t reinvent the wheel, it refined the genre to a dazzling sheen that manages serious depth while still being accessible to even newcomers — despite some serious challenges. Tactics comes from the mind of Yasumi Matsuno, who’d go on to direct more critically-acclaimed titles like Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII.
Matsuno has a very distinct directorial style, as his games consistently have political themes on top of deep and customizable gameplay systems. In Final Fantasy Tactics, players take on the role of Ramza Beoulve, a member of a respected royal house. The game chronicles Ramza’s role in The Lion’s War, a massive conflict that decides the very fate of a Medieval, magical land called Ivalice.
The story is where Final Fantasy Tactics absolutely shines, and its tale is riveting from start to finish. The overarching theme of the game is classism, how the poor suffer and struggle at the whims of the wealthy aristocracy. The land of Ivalice is wracked by sociopolitical problems. Towns transfor over time into slums as the people turn to banditry, left with no other option to survive.
One of the more interesting facets of the story is how Ramza has to confront his own privilege and realize the role he himself plays in an unjust system that oppresses people. Final Fantasy Tactics’ story was relevant in 1997, but amazingly, the themes feel more relevant than ever 25 years later. It’s not a feel-good tale by any means, but it’s easily the most ambitious storytelling the Final Fantasy series has ever seen, a narrative that manages to feel wholly realistic even while the world is filled with magic and monsters.
While the narrative is where Final Fantasy Tactics excels, it's all backed up by an exceptional combat system. The game uses Final Fantasy’s trademark job system but translates all that into a tactical setting. Each job has a host of abilities and special moves to learn, on top of being able to use particular weapons and armor.
The brilliance of the system comes in how you can combine different jobs, making hybrid characters that can devastate enemies. For example, you might want to make an archer that can use black magic for even more ranged options, or a ninja that can use time magic to buff your team quickly.
It’s an incredibly deep system that gives players a ton of freedom in how they build their teams, and if that wasn’t enough there’s a host of unique characters that join along the way. Final Fantasy Tactics also sports some fantastic map design that consistently throws unique challenges your way. Anyone that’s played the game will remember the infamous “Merchant City of Dorter” map early on, forcing you to face off against a team of archers that has a huge high ground advantage.
Final Fantasy Tactics’ combat encourages experimentation, and while the game may initially feel overwhelming, part of what’s so enjoyable is how much you can break it. There’s more than one way to make your team overwhelmingly powerful, letting you sweep through battles with ease. There’s simply so much choice that you could play through Final Fantasy Tactics multiple times using completely different job combinations.
Even all these years later, Final Fantasy Tactics remains one of the most unique games in the franchise, with a story that feels incredibly nuanced even by today’s standards. It’s the perfect combination of the light-heartedness of Final Fantasy, along with the darker storytelling the series can do. Final Fantasy Tactics deserves just as much praise as the mainline games, and with Square Enix now making games like Triangle Strategy, hopefully, its return isn’t too far off.