In the year of our Lord 1997, tactical RPGs reached a level of quality that is unmatched to this day, and the same could be said for RPGs in general, thanks to a certain Final Fantasy game released that year. While the tactical RPG genre was not new to the PlayStation, with games such as Ogre Battle (Super Famicom) and Shining Force (Sega Genesis) already in existence, the PlayStation produced arguably the greatest tactical RPG of them all, and some other excellent TRPGs as well. I have narrowed the list down to just three, all released in 1997 in the United States, and while there can certainly be debate as to the inclusion of the titles chosen second and third in this brief editorial, there should be no question about the first.
I make no apologies about my selection for the greatest tactical RPG, and not limited to the year 1997 or the PlayStation – though it meets these requirements: it is, of course, Final Fantasy Tactics. This brilliant game combines deep, addictive combat with an equally deep story, beautiful sprite-based graphics, and a tremendous soundtrack (from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata). It is as perfect a game as I have ever played, and rivals Final Fantasy VII as my pick for the greatest game ever made. I will note that Final Fantasy VII, while the crowning achievement of the PlayStation era (and the JRPG genre overall), lacks the cohesion of FF Tactics, which is an incredibly polished title. While FF VII showcased Squaresoft’s new cinematic approach, with stunning 3D cutscenes for key story elements, Tactics was a game built on the foundation of the SNES era, and it plays like an enhanced 16-bit title. Top to bottom, every element of Final Fantasy Tactics is intelligent, controlled, and beautifully realized. The job system is classic Final Fantasy (a system which made its debut in FF III, returning most recently in FF XIV), wherein the player chooses from a number of character classes (with additional classes unlocked as certain conditions are met), and “job points” (JP) are earned through completed actions in battles to level the character up. It is a simple concept that grows deeper and more strategic as the game progresses. The story is epic, with such an involved plot that it demands a second (and third) play-through to catch everything. This is not a review of the game, and I admit to being partial to Tactics, owning multiple physical copies on PlayStation and PSP (with the phenomenal War of the Lions remaster), as well as digitally via PSN for PS Vita (and the mobile version on both iOS and Android).
Final Fantasy Tactics was not the only TRPG worth mentioning from the PlayStation era (or 1997 for that matter), and the next one had its basis on the Super Famicom in 1993. The Ogre Battle series began with Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, a Japanese release that finally made it to the U.S. in (you guessed it) 1997 on the PlayStation. But it is Tactics Ogre, also finding U.S. release on PlayStation that year, that occupies the next slot in this trio of titles. In many ways Tactics Ogre is the foundation of Final Fantasy Tactics, and this makes sense considering that it was essentially the same team behind both games, led by director Yasumi Matsuno (who also directed the first Ogre Battle game in 1993). The similarities in art direction and gameplay are apparent, though FF Tactics feels quite streamlined compared to Tactics Ogre, which is a rather complex game. While I have played Final Fantasy Tactics for more hours than I can account for, and completed it multiple times on different platforms, the same can not be said of my experience with Tactics Ogre. I find the latter to require more patience, and I lament that the former may have spoiled my appreciation of one of the finest TRPGs. Time will tell if I learn to love Tactics Ogre more, and the release of the PSP version (subtitled: Let Us Cling Together) and later digital release have made this game very accessible. Not having finished it seems like a good problem to have, and it is installed and waiting on my Vita as I write this.
Finally, we have Vandal Hearts, which was a PlayStation release in Japan in 1996, coming over to the U.S. the following year. Looking at screen captures alone, Vandal Hearts might appear to offer nearly identical gameplay to the above-mentioned titles, but Vandal Hearts is a very different game. (I must admit that although I own the game for PlayStation, I have spent very little time playing it. Again, I feel that FF Tactics has spoiled my taste for this genre – though this is likely an excuse as I meander through life starting, and subsequently abandoning, games.) The battle system is turn-based (naturally), with characters moving about on a grid and performing actions just as with the other TRPGs mentioned above. There are character classes as in FF Tactics, for example, but no job system as the various characters introduced throughout the game have predefined classes. There is an interesting story (with a familiar theme of royalty and politics), classic sprite-based artwork, good music, and all of the tactical combat goodness that makes these games so compelling (and addictive). I have no excuse for ignoring this game, especially considering its availability on PSN, and will work to rectify this in the future.
There you have it. Just three examples of tactical role-playing games on the original PlayStation, and all three were released in the United States in 1997! Just thinking about this for a moment makes me long for those glorious times, which, in addition to the tactical games mentioned in this editorial, produced masterworks such as Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. (Curiously, no Final Fantasy game was produced* bearing the number “VIII” for whatever reason.) The 1990’s were an incredible time to be alive and playing JRPGs, and thankfully these tactical games are easily available to play today, and very inexpensive at that. Anyone who appreciates turn-based combat should try one out, and I can think of no better introduction to the TRPG genre than Final Fantasy Tactics. Not only is this game available on almost every device imaginable, but it is also one of the best values in gaming as one can spend hundreds of hours working to level up character job classes and learn abilities; though endless grinding is not needed to finish the game. One of the best aspects of these tactical games is actually the ability to play for just about any amount of time, and still accomplish objectives. A single battle is sufficient to advance characters – and often story, depending on one’s position in the game; and tactical RPGs are especially well-suited to portable play. In addition to the availability of classic PlayStation-era TRPGs on Sony’s PSN store for Vita, there are worthy games of the genre available on the Nintendo Gameboy Advance as well as DS/3DS. Still, with everything that the PlayStation era had to offer, it seems unlikely that we shall ever see a year quite like 1997 again.
*Should have been produced.