Chess, With Moogles

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Great strategy, if you can stand it

Over the last week, I've spent 30 hours marching half a dozen tiny, cartoonish figures across a Lilliputian map, sending them off to die on a series of miniscule, ornately landscaped chess boards. They fight outlandish, three-eyed ghosts, or clans of sky pirates, or malevolent rabbits whose primary form of attack is a dance which against all odds kills.

Sometimes they survive, and when they do I use the proceeds from their brightly colored battles to forge more powerful implements of destruction. If my army has been good, I'll bless them with new pieces of kit before I send them on their next fool's errand.

I've stared at the three-inch screens that comprise my window to their universe for so long that I've developed a chronic headache and a series of cramps in my neck and hands. War is hell, even if it's a light-hearted, family-friendly one.

As the newest of the Nintendo DS's improbable time-sinks, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift's main advantage in the war on the American gamer's wallet is the kind of unrelentingly addictive gameplay that causes the unwary to unwittingly misplace large swaths of time. With dozens of combinations of race and class available, and hundreds of tight, varied battles in which to test their effectiveness, FFTA2's core experience remains novel for a length of time rare in the casual-heavy handheld market.

If only Square Enix hadn't missed the mark everywhere else.

Playing FFTA2 is like taking an expedition to the heart of an uncharted jungle. For every adventurous turn worthy of the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you're stuck with the allegorical equivalent of the months of preparation beforehand that Lucas and Spielberg didn't film. A properly prepared and equipped army can make FFTA2's battles fun (if in some combinations a little too easy), but the process of actually turning the ragtag bunch you find yourself stuck with into the elite fighting force the endgame requires demands an investment of time on the player's part that will keep the game firmly ensconced in the niche market of the genre.

FFTA2's plot is something of an afterthought. Square Enix hacked together a half-hearted attempt at a story about a book that eats children's souls, and mean-spirited teachers whose idea of discipline involves having problem students transported to other dimensions, where they're attacked by giant, carnivorous chickens. It plays out like the mutant offspring of the '80s-era Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and the "Knowing is Half the Battle" PSAs from G.I. Joe. In the world of Ivalice, they have anteater people who wear funny helmets and no pants. Some of them breathe lightning. Your mission is to herd them to tiny islands and make them do battle. Deal with it.

To its credit, those anteater people fight a lot. Square Enix stuffed somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 quests into FFTA2, and although the time it takes to get ready for them can be lopsided, that's still a copious amount of meaty gameplay. Ivalice is like the Brothers Grimm by way of Blackwater; practically everybody wants someone or something wiped off the map, and they're all willing to pay handsomely to see it done.

Ironically, this leads to a disconnect with the game's alleged storyline. With the main story's quests numbering in the teens and its side quests numbering in the hundreds, the epic scale common to the genre remains largely unevoked. While there is much to do in Ivalice, not much of it is really of much significance. FFTA2 is less the sword-and-sorcery campaign it should be and more a cosplay audition for I Want to Work for Diddy.

But I'll be damned if I'm not going to keep playing it. FFTA2 is one of those rare games whose defects, as crippling as they sound out of context, are water off a giant chicken's back when compared to its assets. Though its fantasy setting is more suited to fans of Peter Jackson than Garry Kasparov, FFTA2 is one of the better bits of bite-sized strategy gaming since the days of Battle Chess.