Final Fantasy Tactics and Theme
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Final Fantasy Tactics (Square-Enix, 1997), the tactics RPG known for its nuanced characters and complex storyline. This essay will cover content up through the end of the gam. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Translation note: Final Fantasy Tactics has two substantially different English translations: the 1997 translation for the original Sony Playstation release and the 2007 translation for the Sony Playstation Portable re-release, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. This article will primarily use the 2007 translation, and any name changes from the original translation will be noted in parentheses.
When it comes to making games, legendary Final Fantasy Tactics writer and director Yasumi Mitsuda doesn’t see himself as a creative force. “This being a corporation, I’m trying to live up to the role of a salaryman or businessman,” he said in a 1999 Ultimania interview. “That means, even for something like a video game, I’ve got to first think about whether the idea makes commercial sense.”1
Despite this focus on sales-—or perhaps because of it—Matsuno’s game narratives have always been rich with complex themes. Final Fantasy Tactics is particularly noteworthy for its nuanced take on class warfare in Ivalice, a fictional medieval world torn apart by civil war. In a conflict inspired by Matsuda’s earliest days at square,2 the powerful and the powerless are fiercely divided, and members of each group are keenly aware of their place. Naturally, these groups come into constant conflict, but Final Fantasy Tactics isn’t satisfied to stick to the surface level. Instead, it dives down into each group and explores the schisms that leave them vulnerable to outside attack. The result is an exploration of political movements that feels all too relevant and real.
In-Fighting in Ivalice
The world of Ivalice has been fragmented by war, and few have felt its impact like the soldiers. One of the games’ earliest narrations is dedicated to the countless knights who returned home to a far lower standard of living than they’d enjoyed on the battlefield. “Many became rogues and traitors,” the narrator remarks, “men donning the thief’s cloak and plotting treason against the crown. It was a time of great unrest for Ivalice – murder and theft were commonplace.” One such group of murderers and thieves is the Corpse Brigade (the Death Corp in the original translation). Led primarily by the knight Wiegraf Folles, the Corpse Brigade is a unit of soldiers who have been denied their pay in the aftermath of the war. The jilted soldiers share a common enemy in the nobility, who have left them impoverished, but by the time the story begins, infighting has started to tear the Brigade apart.
Based on the beliefs of its leaders, the Corpse Brigade can be roughly divided into two groups: those who prioritize having their basic needs met, and those who prioritize dismantling the regime that spurned them. For Wiegraf, reforming the broken system is paramount, but for fellow knight Gustav, securing food and shelter is the more pressing goal. While both sides make good points, neither is willing to cede any ground, and the cracks in the Brigade create an opening for corruption. In a clandestine deal with the enemy nobles, Gustav agrees to destroy the Brigade’s reputation by kidnapping a prominent lord. The fallout ends in a bloody fight between the Brigade’s two commanders. Although Wiegraf emerges the victor, the Brigade never recovers from the breakdown, and they’re torn apart by the very nobles that worked with Gustav. Had the two sides of the Brigade been able to reconcile their differences, their story might have come to a different end, but their refusal to work together left them open to meddling from the outside.
Ivalice’s nobles are better off than its soldiers, but the war’s end has destabilized their lives, too. The most obvious source of upheaval is in the fight for the crown: there are two potential heirs to the throne, but only one can reign. It’s an ugly situation that has members of the royal family at each other’s throats, and their fighting has made them vulnerable to the machinations of the power-hungry. Noble houses from every corner of the country have taken sides, hoping to earn the favor of the eventual victor. These houses don’t always pick their backers unilaterally, however, and some noble families find themselves as divided as the royals. Even families that agree on which heir to support must decide how far they’re willing to go to support them and where to draw the line and step aside. For some, the line is obvious; for others, it doesn’t exist.
One of the clearest examples of in-fighting among the nobility occurs in House Beoulve, also known as the protagonist’s family. After the death of their father, elder brothers Dycedarg and Zalbaag run the house, and they’ve agreed to side with the queen and her infant son. Both men are willing to use underhanded tactics to win, including deception and assassination, but they don’t share the same limits. While Dycedarg’s only priority is accruing power for the house, Zalbaag still has enough of a sense of justice to balk at the out-and-out murder of an ally. When he discovers that Dycedarg also murdered their father, Zalbaag moves against his brother to defend the house’s honor. Naturally, this turns into another bloody battle, but Dycedarg has the advantage. Like Gustav before him, he’s got outside help: the church. Wielding their cursed magic, Dycedarg disposes of his brother, only to be brought down by another member of his family. In the end, House Beoulve is ruined, and its downfall can be traced back to the same in-fighting that haunts every movement in Ivalice—including the corrupted church.
Once upon a time, the Church of Glabados was one of the most powerful entities in Ivalice. Formed to honor the child-prophet Saint Ajora, the Church once held substantial influence over the people of Ivalice. That influence waned as the royal family grew in power. In the present, the Church has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Those who genuinely believe in the teachings of Saint Ajora are as upset about the Church’s downfall as those who abused the faith for power. Both sides see an opportunity in the ongoing fight for the crown. If the heirs destroy each other and their loyal lords, the Church can step in and re-establish itself as the dominant force in the nation. The problem is how far the Church is willing to go to rebuild and what they plan to do with Ivalice once it’s under their control.
The Church of Glabados has many members, even in the highest echelons, but their conflict can be reduced to two representatives: Isilud Tengille (Izlude Tingel) and his father, Folmarv Tengille (Vormav Tingel). Isilud is a true believer who fights for the Church’s Knights Templar out of a sense of duty to Saint Ajora. “The Church of Glabados envisions a world devoid of class divides,” he proclaims at one point. “A world where all men can live as equals!” It’s a beautiful vision, but not one his father shares. As the leader of the Knights Templar, Folmarv wants to restore the Church’s power for a singular purpose: the resurrection of Ultima, the demon that once possessed Saint Ajora. To that end, Folmarv has allied himself with a host of demons called the Lucavi. When Isilud discovers that his father has been dealing with demons, he’s naturally horrified, but he doesn’t have long to dwell on it before he’s killed by the very knights he trusted. Like the soldiers and the nobles, he’s unprepared for an attack from within, and it costs him everything he believes in.
The world of Final Fantasy Tactics is a harsh one, even for the people who stick together. In Ivalice, your true enemies can be hiding right at your side, and fighting with them will only make you vulnerable to outside attack. Writers who want to play with similar themes of civil strife should look to Final Fantasy Tactics as an example of how to make political in-fighting feel real, both for the powerful and the powerless.
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1,2 “Vagrant Story – 1999 Developer Interviews.” Shmuplations, translated from Ultimania, 1999.
* Reference Footage: PJWillow. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions – All Cutscenes and Dialogue – Part 1. YouTube, 2016.
** Additional Reference Footage: PJWillow. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions – All Cutscenes and Dialogue – Part 2. YouTube, 2016.