Like chess, Final Fantasy Tactics is a strategic battle game where a group of warriors under my command fights another group of warriors for control of a battleground. Divided into squares like giant chessboards, the battlegrounds in Tactics have buildings, hillsides, trees and rivers, making them contoured and trickier than the flat field of a chessboard. Tiny, whimsical characters with big round heads and large oval eyes represent my warriors as they hop up, down and around these gameboards.
I have a wide range of units to deploy: knights, archers, black mages, white mages, everything-in-between mages and all the oddballs of fantasy warfare. The game's soldiers can follow their own paths through Tactics' labyrinth of archetypes, receiving on-the-job cross-training in all the offices of battle -- from monk to ninja to battleground belly dancer. As the characters move from job to job, they pick up unique blends of skills. A knight might have served as a thief and know how to pick a foe's pocket. A white mage may have spent enough time slinging swords to be carrying something more than a healing spell beneath his cloak.
Once these custom fighting units take to the field, the skirmishes go like the wind. There always seems to be some untested improvement or combination of skills that lies just ahead in a character's development. And while the game does chronicle the fictional War of the Lions by engaging me in battles and telling me a story, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is really a videogame of individual growth, where pawns choose their own fates.
THE GOOD: The PSP is turning out to be a good system for Final Fantasy aficionados. The original Final Fantasy is available in a remixed version, as is the second game in the series. Tactics is available now, and an upcoming Final Fantasy VII spin-off is being published for the system this spring. Even with the PSP's price tag, these games represent an entertainment bargain. If videogames are your thing and Final Fantasy is your jam, about $200 will get you started on several hundred hours of gaming goodness.
THE BAD: Final Fantasy Tactics is not an easy game. Like chess, a rank novice can be beaten by a slightly less-rank novice simply because he doesn't understand the full suite of rules. And strategists who want to run rapidly through the game's maps will be blockaded if they fail to develop their specialized characters. The investment of time that this game requires can be a blissful eternity.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Final Fantasy Tactics may be the greatest strategic battle game since chess, with the character development and high-fantasy finesse of one of the world's best role-playing game franchises.