I finally got back into playing Tactics on the bus after giving up on the Cloud quest chain. It turns out I was only about 10 story battles from the end of the game when I diverted myself to work on Cloud which I'm pretty sure was a big mistake. The 15ish levels I gained from random encounters coupled with getting all of the math skills pretty much trivialized the end of the game. Frequently I would win a fight before the enemy even got a turn. The final boss had a couple of different stages and his final super-powerful stage didn't even get to resolve an action. Ramza got 3 actions each of which was to attack with dual-wielded Ragnarok+Excalibur for about 800 damage per round. Add in a couple mathed up holys and it was all over rather quickly.
The combat in Final Fantasy Tactics was awesome. The combat in Final Fantasy Mathed Holy was really boring. Part of the strategic interplay in the early fights was working around the different attack ranges of people and trying not to get engaged on first. With the math skill you can kill anyone from across the map in one fast action. And by fast I mean no cast delay, not in terms of time spent in the fight. It took a non-trivial amount of time to pick the right math skill (I'd one shot my own guys if I chose anything that targeted any ally) and the holy spell animation wasn't exactly fast even with the PSP hack I was running. Often random encounters near the end of a Final Fantasy game get trivial but then you just hold down the attack button and win. Here it still took time and thinking but with no real rewarding payoff.
I love job systems, and this one is definitely better than FFV or FFIII. Character power levels kept fluctuating up and down as I'd switch to new jobs and get worse immediately but with the promise of getting better in the future. You learn new jobs not at predetermined plot points but as you level up other jobs which meant different characters would be in different spots on the power curve which was nice. It also meant you couldn't just switch everyone to a single job that trivialized a fight without putting in an awful lot of job point farming.
The plot was certainly different from a core Final Fantasy game, but was still interesting. There ended up being an ultimate evil dude trying to rise to power but it was buried beneath layer after layer of political subterfuge. We're talking fake princesses, patricide, manipulated wars, and backstab after backstab. For the most part you only get to find stuff out when the main character finds out, and he's a bit of a wandering doofus so he's pretty in the dark for most of the game. I guess Delita ends up actually being the remembered hero but for good chunks of the game he seemed to be either dead or evil. (And in a scene after the credits he's actually victim of a murder-suicide by his wife, the queen!)
The ending was nice and vague like all the PlayStation era games. The ending implies that Ramza and Alma survived the final battle where the gates of hell exploded around them, in an area with no escape. But other than one brief glimpse by Orran they're never seen by anyone ever again? And the rest of my party, which featured a lot of important people, also never turned up? I feel like they're probably all dead and Orran was hallucinating when he saw them wander by. And then when Orran tries to tell the truth and gets burned at the stake by the church because it might paint them in a bad light? So good. The game had a very anti-nobility/anti-church/anti-power theme running through it and it was nice to see it pay off in the end with even more murder for the sake of power.
Side quests were a big let down. Going on the Cloud quest and doing some of the errands made me frustrated with the game. The game seemed to time out pretty well in terms of hitting peak power right at the end of the plot assuming you didn't try to power up at any point along the way. But doing the side quests meant extra powering up which skewed the difficulty of the story missions, didn't actually accomplish anything of use, and weren't challenging in any way. I actually feel like the game would have been better without the errands in the taverns. Alternatively, remove random encounters from the world map entirely. You still want a place to go to level up for people who need it, so leave a couple spaces off in the wilderness to grind random dudes, but making me fight stupid fights over and over just because I want to go from Goug to Gariland was a really bad idea.
The music was pretty good, but unspectacular relative to the core games. Nobuo Uematsu wasn't involved, which may have something to do with it. Or everything to do with it. The music did feel like it fit the mood of a lot of the game, it's just missing that extra something to push it over the top.
The played time on my saved game was over 33 hours which is the most of any game thus far in the marathon. And that number is really deflated considering just how many times I died and had to reload on some of the earlier fights. And for the most part I was having a lot of fun while playing. Especially while dying! I think intentionally keeping my level down at the start was a good idea. I lost track of that plan in the middle when I started going crazy with shouting myself which eventually lead to being too powerful when I did those extra random encounters. I think the game makes a great puzzle game where you need to figure out how to possibly beat some of the fights. Like the fight very early on where black mages first show up! Or male thieves! I want to play again with a more strict rule set in terms of what I can do to make it really hard. I read one thing about beating the game at level 1, where pretty much you have to use a secondary character to spill off monk JP to your main party and then they run the counter strike ability to kill everything without gaining experience for it!
Now the big question... Where should it fall in my ranking? This is a tough one, and one I wasn't expecting to find tough at all. It's a spin off game, how can it compete? Well, it turns out I really, really like tactical combat. The level system and combat in this game were the best of any played thus far by a mile. Sure, powering up made it too easy but that's true of all the other games too. Maybe not FFVII because it actually had stupidly challenging side bosses to kill, but the main storyline of FFVII gets really trivial if you power up at all. So while this is a strike fresh in my mind for FFT it's not one that's actually any different from other games. The character development and epic plot are weak points, though. As is the fact I had to hack my PSP to play the game without massive amounts of graphical lag. So while FFT wins in some categories that feel like they should be the important ones I think the overall picture drags it down enough to keep it below the major contenders thus far. I think it beats the last game with a job system, and therefore slots in at #4 thus far.
Next up, whatever Ehrgeiz is. I need to go out after work to the vintage video game store and see about buying a copy of it.