[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introduction. The first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]
I think I was desperate for something to do the day that I picked up Final Fantasy Tactics. I had heard good things about the game, and it was certainly intriguing that Square had almost decided against releasing it in the West due to controversial religious content - but the graphics were a step backwards from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, and as a tactical RPG the gameplay was not what I was used to.
And so I delayed, and delayed, and delayed some more. I might still be delaying to this day if not for the most powerful force known to man: boredom.
Sadly, Final Fantasy Tactic's opening movie is not the most thrilling.
The music is great, and the idea of turning chocobos - the cute yellow birds omnipresent in Final Fantasy games - into war steeds is really cool, but the movie itself is dated and doesn't reveal much about the story.
I do find its restraint admirable, though; better too little than too much. And it segues nicely into the introductory level. The player controls Ramza and his party - the chocobo riders - riding to the church to protect Princess Ovelia. But they are too late; they fight off a wave of attackers, only to see another kidnapper ride away with the unconscious Ovelia. And Ramza is shocked when he realizes that the kidnapper is his former friend, Delita.
The game is split up into four chapters, and I'm going to detail most of Chapter One now (stopping right before the shocking moment neat its end) to add some context to the rest of the game. Chapter One flashes back to a time before the introduction. Ramza Beoulve is the third son of a noble house, training to become a knight. Delita Hyral is the son of a servant, but despite their class differences, they are the best of friends.
But trouble is brewing: a group of disaffected peasants-turned-bandits led by a man named Wiegraf threatens local stability. Wiegraf and his band kidnap Delita's younger sister, Teta, believing her to be a Beoulve. Ramza, Delita, and various Beoulve retainers chase after the bandits. Along the way they rescue Algus, a noble fallen upon hard times.
Algus shows great respect towards Ramza and his name. However he is far less respectful towards those he considers his inferiors and constantly belittles Delita. They fight battle after battle against the bandits, but arguments eventually come to a boiling point. Ramza siding with Delita, and Algus leads the party in disgust.
Matters come to a head when the bandits are cornered at their mountain hideout. Ramza and Delita arrive at the scene at the same time Algus does. Algus has joined up with Ramza's elder brother, Zalbag. Without hope of escape a bandit holds a knife up to Teta's throat, screaming at them all to leave, and...
The Rest of the Story
Up until this point in Final Fantasy Tactics, I had been playing on auto-pilot -
concentrating on the game mechanics, fast forwarding through the text
scrolls. I had already marked the plot as uninteresting. Bandits? Who
cared about the bandits? Where were the dragons and sorceresses and world-ending threats?
And then I watched as Zalbag commands Algus to shoot both the bandit... and Teta (0:35 - 1:55).
Only now do I realize that my shock was pretty much the same as the bandit's: "What's this?"
It was a transformative moment, and readers of epic fantasy who have been punched in the brain by George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" will know how I felt. It was the moment when I realized that games could tell dark and moving stories on a human level, ones that moved you and pained you and made you look at the world in a new way.
The rest of Final Fantasy Tactic's story is extremely complex. There's the tale of Delita's wrath and vengeance against the Beoulves; how his morals fall away as he intrigues his way ever upwards, eventually marrying Ovelia and becoming king.
That's the background story of the game. In the foreground Ramza and his growing party learn about secrets and deceptions and plots within plots. There are nefarious noblemen and sly clergymen (in fact the entire church hierarchy is revealed to be evil, if you're wondering about the potentially 'objectionable religious content') and awakening demonic forces.
Ramza defeats the truly inhuman evil, of course. But in doing so he is branded a heretic by the church. His story is suppressed by King Delita, with the one surviving historian with knowledge of the truth burnt at the stake.
After the ending credits, there is an epilogue.
A story that ends with an ellipsis, the final weight of a man's ambition crushing within that silence. The contrast between the dry sweep of foregone history and the truth of all the blood and tears needed to fulfill that outcome. It was Final Fantasy Tactics that made me understand those things, and that's really not bad for a game I picked up because I had nothing else better to do that day.