To examine the intersection between character progression and the battle system of Final Fantasy Tactics, we must first ask and answer a basic question about feedback: What do XP and JP reward the player for doing? They’re a reward for using characters to ACT.
Successful actions have a variety of effects in Final Fantasy Tactics: they can do damage–which is most common–but they can also restore health, increase or decrease attack stats, or inflict status effects like sleep that expire in a fixed number of clock ticks but do no lasting harm. Thus XP and JP are awarded for actions that ostensibly move a battle towards its conclusion, but also actions that can reset some elements of game state (like healing HP or restoring MP), or lessen the impact of actions that would move a battle towards its conclusion (like lowering Physical or Magical Attack).
This aspect of the Final Fantasy Tactics rewards system allows for some serious slack. The player can engage in a variety of stalling strategies, using abilities that heal or buff allies and cripple enemies, that result in their characters getting more XP and JP than they otherwise would from play that is wholly motivated by fulfilling the win-condition. These stalling strategies become extremely low-risk as fewer enemies are left in the battle. By employing this brand of low-risk, infinitely-repeatable reward-focused strategy, the player willfully compromises any quality gameplay arising from the risk-reward-balanced interplay between characters’ abilities that sits at the very core of the battle system’s design.
The design facts that lead to emergent low-risk reward-focused strategies are
- Rewards are granted per individual action.
- An action that grants XP and JP doesn’t necessarily move the battle toward its conclusion.
- A battle becomes much easier as the player eliminates more enemies–at some point the battle will become easy enough that the player can safely start optimizing for long-term character progression instead of having to optimize to win the battle.
- Battles can be manipulated such that the player directly controls when the battle ends and the player can indefinitely prevent it from ending.
Take a look at this video of a player exploiting the slack in gameplay that I’m describing.
Mustafa Anssar corners the last remaining enemy after killing all others. Then he uses the Monk’s Chakra ability to ensure all character have their health and mana topped-off, while using the very weak Gil Toss Thief ability to deal damage to the only remaining enemy. A Priest rounds out the team and provides some additional area-of-effect healing. Combining the Gil Toss, Chakras, and healing, all characters get in on the act and harmlessly can gain XP and JP until the player gets bored, at which people he can stop healing the enemy and kill it in a few hits. can limitlessly loop useless actions that end up making no lasting difference in game state except for the XP and JP gained by everyone involved.
But why is this a problem? RPGs typically allow the player to engage in some similar low-risk activity to increase stats and thus make subsequent battles easier. Why should Final Fantasy Tactics be any different? I’ll be examining these questions in upcoming articles.