I have a weird relationship with tactical RPGs. I don’t dislike them as such, but most of the time when I enjoy a TRPG it’s in spite of the genre’s unique qualities, rather than because of them. I’ve played plenty and enjoyed plenty of them, but I tend to find their combat systems daunting, tiresome, and frustrating. This has become more and more the case as the genre’s grown over the last few decades, growing increasingly complex to sate the demands of its hardcore fans. That’s great for them, but not so great for someone like me.
That said, one TRPG I absolutely adore is Final Fantasy Tactics. This is the game that introduced me to the genre, and I know I’m far from alone in that. An intriguing story and Final Fantasy trademarks pulled me in, but it was the combat system that hooked me as much as anything else. A deep job system offered plenty of ways to develop and customise my party, with just the right balance of rewarding progression but not being an insufferable grind. A tactical approach was certainly required, but it didn’t have the same headache-inducing focus on strategic mastery of other games like it. Where most other TRPGs of the day felt like full-blown strategy games that had been pulled back a notch, Final Fantasy Tactics felt like a classic, turn-based Final Fantasy game taken to another level with the addition of an element of space control. I loved it.
The reason I’m talking about Final Fantasy Tactics in a review of a game that’s completely unrelated is that God Wars: Future Past is the first game since Tactics itself that’s given me those same feelings. It’s a relatively simple game by modern TRPG standards, and some might even say it feels dated, but that’s precisely what I love about it. Smart, tactical play is important, but you don’t have to plan five moves ahead just to get out alive. Battles aren’t as quick as in a regular JRPG, but they don’t overstay their welcome, either. Earning Job Points (JP) with every action discourages wasting turns and creates a constant sense of progression and character growth, within battles as much as at the end of them. Playing God Wars feels like playing a reskinned Final Fantasy Tactics, and I couldn’t want anything more from a TRPG.
The game does bring a few new ideas to the table but – crucially – it doesn’t fall into the trap that so many other TRPGs do of being bogged down with excessive layering of systems. There’s a threat system similar to those seen in MMORPGs, where enemy characters tend to focus their offence on characters with higher “Impurity” stats, and a lot of skills are based around raising or lowering that. It doesn’t make a drastic change, but it makes tanky characters less reliant on positioning to be a good meat shield, and more useful as a result. Instead of a traditional MP system, characters start each battle with 0 MP and recover a certain amount each turn, so you still have to manage your resources but you’re not doomed if you run dry.
These little tweaks refine the basic TRPG battle system, but without losing the simplicity that made games like Final Fantasy Tactics work so well. That doesn’t mean it’s not a deep game, but depth is introduced gradually and constantly through an ever-growing pool of characters, jobs, and abilities, rather than a needlessly complex web of game systems that turn fights into a chore. Like I said, this won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and that complexity is precisely what a lot of folks love about this genre, but I’m far, far more fond of this approach.
That combat system in God Wars: Future Past, as much fun as it is, is a means to an end: to tell a story about Japan’s early history and myth. The game is based on primarily on Kojiki, one of the earliest known texts of Japanese history and mythology, dating back to the 8th century. God Wars draws on these myths, as well as folk tales like The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter to weave together a beautiful story of duty, defiance, love, and sacrifice.
It’s a tale that’ll resonate most with people who have at least some familiarity with Japanese mythology, but that’s certainly not a requirement. The story is a beautiful one regardless, with soothing, spiritual, introspective tone that’s rare in video games. At the same time, this is still a JRPG inspired by the classics, and it has all the dramatism and quirky humour that’s typical of the genre. These may seem like contradictory approaches to design and storytelling, but God Wars ties them together incredibly well to create something that feels mythical, modern, and timeless.
The same approach shows through in the game’s presentation. The art style is a sort of contemporary interpretation of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and sumi-e ink paintings, with bold linework and striking colours. In character portraits and the map screen, this is set against a rice paper texture to create a distinctive look that’s utterly beautiful and not quite like anything I’ve seen before. Some of that texturing and linework is lost in the 3D character models seen in combat, but the colours and distinctive character designs carry through wonderfully. It’s not a game that pushes any technical boundaries, but it’s just more proof that art direction always trumps polygon counts and lighting effects. This game is gorgeous.
God Wars: Future Past won’t be for everyone. It’s charm is in its simplicity, so people wanting a complex, systems-heavy TRPG like Disgaea may find it wanting. It’s story is delightful, but it’s steeped in Japanese mythology in a way that might alienate people with no interests in such things. That’s fine – not all games are for all people. For me, though, this is everything I could want from a tactical RPG: a simple but captivating battle system to underscore a deep, moving story. That’s what Final Fantasy Tactics did perfectly 20 years ago, and God Wars is the first game I’ve played since that lives up to that legacy.
God Wars: Future Past is developed by Kadokawa Games and published by NIS America. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.