Before this gets too involved, I'll admit I had a bias for this game. I picked up Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation, and that was my first romping foray into Turn-Based Strategy games. As a rule of thumb, any game that reminds me of the depth you'll find in FFT is pretty much guaranteed to be one I will like. The original Tactics Advance game was not only a portable dream come true... It was also a let down.That said, let's move onto the actual review.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2: The Grimoire of the Rift is a turn-based strategy game created by Square Enix for the Nintendo DS handheld platform. It's also the spiritual sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance.
Gameplay-wise, the game hasn't changed much from it's prequel. The game revolves around job-based characters fighting on a map of varying heights and terrain types. Like any turn-based strategy, placement, unit type, and equipment has a lot to do with how well off you are during battle. Because you control your units and their abilities, the game leads a lot more in the way of customization than you would find in other titles, like Fire Emblem or Hoshigami. As well as that, height and terrain types will slow or speed your units' movement, or affect how far they can loose their arrows or fling their spells. As a whole, the game is highly strategically inclined, with a lot of factors playing into how the battle comes about.
The problem with the jobs is that they often feel arbitrary as their skills and abilities are dependent on the equipment, with the equipment controlling which abilities any given job can use. This is a painful restriction to a job's progress which will limit your available strategies by limiting your available abilities. This adds a bit of depth to the gameplay by making units more specialized, but loses out when an ability that was previously available is no longer just because the next set of equipment decided that it was worth losing Skill A to have better attack or defense.
As well as the limiting nature of equipment and abilities, the game also re-introduces the Judge. The judge is a large and armor-clad individual who maintains the rules of combat. Which means that he will restrict certain abilities, elements, or equipment. One battle may outlaw swords, or prevent magic. The game rewards you when you complete the battle without breaking any laws, and only slightly penalizes you when you break a law. This series of checks-and-balances for the laws is a welcome breath of fresh air compared to FFTA, but still feels like an arbitrary addition just to squeeze a little more restriction onto the game's engine. Because of this, it almost feels like the game wants you to have to think about the little things as well as the big ones, but comes off as trying a little too hard.
Once you get past the little nitpicks, and balancing your abilities in the equipment, the actual battles are where the fun parts begin. The combat itself is rewarding and carries itself very well with the system. Everything has a certain balance to it, and no one unit or enemy feels too strong nor too useless. The engine is also very intelligent, and will reward you for clever thinking and tactics.
Graphically speaking, the game knows the word style. Without strong graphical power or high-specs, the game still manages to look good with what it has. The colors are bright and stylish while still clear and telling. Units look good, menus are big enough to read without strain, and the game provides you with all the information you need. The only problem is it can sometimes do too much. With lots of information being displayed, the screen can become still crystal clear, but displeasingly cluttered.
As well as that, it can also be just a little too flowery at times. Even simple attacks can come with long animations and dynamic effects. While these are fun to watch, it slows the pace of the game and will squeeze at least an extra five minutes of wasted time out of even the shortest battle. While telling, the menus make you look for your information. A simple "15 dmg at 97%" would do, but they give you a large arrow and big outlined HIT at the center of the screen with the percentage change and damage occupying a smaller font just below. After you train your eyes to look for it, you can learn to look past the arrow and HIT, will slow the game down between hitting "Attack" and actually going through the desired ability. When you add this to several superfluously long animations during combat, the battles feel like they're dragging on endlessly longer than they need to be.
Once outside battle, you will be navigating a lot of menus, making a lot of decisions, and spending a lot of time tweaking every aspect of a character. While this is a lot of fun from a management and customization perspective, it takes a lot of time. This is a game that will sit down and demand a lot of attention during any given point in play, from menu surfing to battle.
The game is really a lot more goofy than it should be. The bright colors, almost childishness of the protagonist, and absurdity of some of the quests and situations really detract from what could be a much more fittingly-serious title. These jokes and occasional bizarreness really set it apart from the more mature-themed titles like Fire Emblem or the original Final Fantasy Tactics. That's not to say it doesn't do it's story-telling as well, but it certainly could do more with itself.
Musically, the game isn't terribly stand-out. The songs blend well to the atmosphere and tone, but really wouldn't fit in any other setting. As well as that, because of the limitations of the DS, an ambitious soundtrack can't really be achieved to the full capability. The sound effects are as cartoony and overt as the graphics, so they aren't terribly realistic, but are still enjoyable. Sometimes, though, the whines and whistles feel like they don't belong with their equivalent actions.
Bottom Line: Long-winded, drawn out, slow, but also fun, clever, and inviting. As a handheld title, it leaves a lot to be desired in the pick-up-and-play department, but still makes a good title to play if you have the patience to invest into it.
Recommendation: Buy it. It's not a title that will ever replace something like Final Fantasy Tactics, but it's a fine game if you can remember to keep it separate from it's predecessors, and is even fun if you can enjoy it for what it is.