Import review: Comprising a Tactics game on PSP, the excellent Revenant Wings on DS and now this top-notch reworking of what, we suspect, was intended to be a GBA game, the Ivalice Alliance trilogy has proved to be a tremendously impressive departure from the main Final Fantasy titles.
The Sealed Grimoire is another tactical RPG with more than a little Ogre Battle about it, but it stands on its own by virtue of its genuinely high-quality execution. Polished almost to perfection, it's hard to see how the Tactics series can make any significant improvement on this, at least from a pure gameplay perspective.
When the game begins, you're warped into a strange world where a gang of men are contemplating the best way to attack a huge mutant budgie. You quickly sort them out with a battle strategy and the budgie is felled, with the aid of a mysterious stranger who insists on fighting independently of the team.
The story isn't going to win any prizes, particularly if you can't read Japanese and, like us, have to make up your own. But in Final Fantasy Tactics, actions speak louder than words.
The future's all mapped out
It's all about fighting on a grid-based 3D map. Unseen stats determine the order in which units can attack, and each turn consists of a movement phase, an action phase and a defensive reorientation in preparation for enemy retaliation.
Before the battle begins, you select a clan from among the various individuals you've managed to recruit. You'll have to take the terrain into account, as well as the strength of the opposition - for example, an area with high ground lends itself to units with long range weapons, such as bows or magic attacks. Keeping the enemy pressed into a central kill zone, then peppering them from the edges of the map is the definition of cheap satisfaction.
However, it's rarely so easy. Each fight comes with a pre-defined Law attached, which can often hamper your natural fighting style. If you favour the long-range approach, you'll be ruined if the Law happens to forbid long-range weapons. On a more subtle level, there are rarer Laws that prevent you attacking opponents with a lower level than yours, Laws against hurting particular character classes, and many, many more.
Meet your "in" laws
There's no way you'll prosper in these sorts of battles unless you know the Law, so having an online English FAQ to hand is absolutely essential. Certain Laws can be obscure, to say the least, and the penalty for not following them is a very low score at the end of the round, which makes life more difficult as the game goes on.
As a sort of counter-balance to the punitive Law system, you can select a positive benefit that applies to the entire clan. To make the battle a little easier, you can go for effects such as increased range, increased speed or extra damage. If you're more confident in your abilities, you can opt to defer the freebie until the end of the fight, when you'll receive it in the form of a hefty EXP boost.
On top of all that, there's a job system that will affect the specialist skill set available to your clan members, and a rock-paper-scissors arrangement of super-effective attacks and immunities. Beneath what seems like a fairly simple battle RPG, there's a huge amount of unseen data.
The amazing look of the game makes it something worth persevering with, even in Japanese. The diorama-style levels are just gorgeous pieces of art, and they make perfect sense, from a tactical point of view, as battle locations. If you've played a previous Tactics or Ogre Battle then you shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out what's going on.
The control scheme is the one thing we weren't so happy with. The game can't have been shifted from GBA to DS that late in its development cycle, so there's no reason why it couldn't have had a stylus control system of some sort. As it is, we were left prodding at the screen to no avail - you have to use the D-pad for absolutely everything, from menu selections to movement. Even if stylus control might have led to the odd error with the pseudo-3D viewpoint, it wouldn't have mattered as there's an undo function for taking back misplaced moves. It's a bit lazy, and we hope they upgrade it for the UK release, whenever that may be.
In all, it's top stuff for Tactics fans who don't mind the odd (thousand) Japanese menus - a long-lasting, extremely challenging adventure that's as deep as you could wish for without being unduly inaccessible.
If you're prepared for a steeper than normal learning curve, it's a good bet for experienced import fans. High quality throughout, this is a classy battle RPG.