by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift & r & Rated Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ix tiny figures descend a hillside, hopping over clumps of spring-green grasses and landing atop lollipop tufts of flowers. Towering trees hung with cables of moss rise behind them and toadstools with red cushion caps punctuate their path. As they leap down the storybook hillside, the six explorers are observed from the broad meadow below by another group of adventurers.
A figure on the meadow pulls a bow from her bright yellow sundress. The rabbit ears poking up behind her headband reveal her to be from the race of forest-dwelling viera. Lithe, swift and invariably females, vieras are some of Final Fantasy Tactics A2's most formidable warriors. She pulls back the string of her bow and looses an arrow. It flies in a lofty parabola, arching and speeding down towards the pompom-topped hat of a small, mousey character just reaching the bottom of the hill.
The tiny rodent adventurer is a moogle -- a Final Fantasy staple creature with bat wings and cherubic face -- who is currently adventuring as a juggler. Tossing balls and coins at their opponents, jugglers typically cause more confusion than harm. As the archer's arrow dives towards the juggler's cap, the moogle shifts out of the way. Long ago, while serving as an animist -- a spellcaster who harnesses the powers of animals -- the moogle learned the ability known as "Archer's Bane," a defense that allows it to automatically dodge arrows.
Beneath the juggler's cloak hide other surprises. Instead of tossing a dagger or Molotov cocktail (two of his job's most harmful attacks), the juggler draws on the powers he learned while serving as a black mage, invoking one of the game's most devastating spells -- "Blizzaga." Mammoth shards of ice burst from the grass beneath the archer's feet. As the ice shatters, the archer shudders, taking dozens of points of damage. The battle is far from won, but the archer has learned one of Final Fantasy Tactics A2's most important lessons: Sometimes a juggler is much more than a juggler.
THE GOOD: Like the other games in the Final Fantasy Tactics series, A2 allows characters to learn skills from one battlefield job and carry those abilities over into the other jobs they eventually assume. In A2, the characters must learn each of their job's skills by wielding different weapons in battle. This system prompts characters to frequently change jobs depending upon the equipment at hand, mixing the team up from the usual fantasy stalwarts of fighters and healers to include an ever-changing roster of bishops, beastmasters and tinkers.
THE BAD: Tactics A2 does so much so well that its only glaring flaws lie in what it doesn't do. It's impossible to rotate the battle maps, making for arenas that tend to slope towards the player, hiding potentially important squares behind outcroppings and the terrain's lavish features. And Tactics A2 inexplicably omits multiplayer battling, despite the ease of wirelessly connecting two Nintendo DSs. Though the game features something like 400 different missions, it's a major mistake to make it impossible to tackle human opponents.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is an enchanting, whimsical rendition of one of the greatest strategy games ever devised.