Probably the two things that bother people the most about this game are the judge system and the story. For one thing, given the status of the original Final Fantasy Tactics for Playstation, it was natural for people to hope for a direct sequel. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance shares some similarities such as the name of the land of Ivalice, the job system, and the standard Final Fantasy tropes such as references to moogles and chocobos, and of course it's a strategy/RPG hybrid, but it's a very different sort of story. But I like it.
The thing is, the story of FFTA isn't world-sweeping in nature. It's not even much of a "grown-up" plot. But I think it would've made one hell of a young adult novel. FFTA's cast is a little on the young side, with one exception. Their ages aren't given in the game itself, but I'm under the impression the kids are probably around ten or eleven. They're all social misfits of some sort, but other than that they have very little common ground. When Mewt brings an old book over to share with Marche, Ritz, and Doned, the four are shortly thereafter transported from the real world to a fantasy land called Ivalice.
It turns out Ivalice is a world created to fulfill their wishes--largely Mewt's, but everyone else's as well. The driving plot behind the story is Marche's wish to go home versus everyone else's wish to stay. Each of the characters, including Cid, Mewt's father, who is the only adult from the real world to have wound up here (I'm not sure exactly how since he wasn't present when the book was opened), has reasons for why they became what they are in this world and, for the other children, reasons why they want to stay. Though Marche likes this other world because he can do things he could never do before it, he knows it's fundamentally wrong. It's not real and staying here is just hiding from the truth. Of course, nobody likes being told such a painful truth when it's happier in Ivalice than the real world, so Marche is forced to cajole or defeat his friends in order to pave the way for the world to return to normal. Not an easy task for someone so introverted his classmates refer to him as "the new kid" because he hasn't even told anyone his name.
I think that's what I like about this story though. Initially I thought all the kids stuck in Ivalice would eventually band together and defeat some evil in this other world (like in so many other stories where kids are sucked into another world), but in the end that doesn't happen. None of the central characters ever band together. Instead this is a story about facing the truth about yourself and your circumstances. Once Marche and Mewt accept that they can't change the real world, only themselves and their way of looking at it, Ivalice disappears and they're able to go home. All the characters realize by the end that the real world only hurts because they let it. Once freed of their doubts and fears, the characters come back to the real world stronger than before and life goes on.
If people complain about the realism of the game system it's often because of those annoying judges and the law system that puts down a new set of rules nearly every time Marche and company do battle. In just about any other game it would be yet another nonsensical combat system meant to provide players with something "different." However it actually makes sense in a perverse way in this game because the world is built on the wishes of the characters. Mewt, who has little control over anything in his real life, is prince in Ivalice and changes the laws almost at his own whim. No one permenantly dies in combat (usually--there are certain wild spots where death can happen) and it's not at all unrealistic for children to be running into battle against each other because this is a world created by children so they can be the heroes and do things they can't in the real world; Doned can walk, Ritz does not have white hair, Mewt is prince, and while Marche's wish is never spelled out, I think his was to belong.
If I must complain about anything i nthe story though, it has to do with the way the game is set up. I logged in almost ninety hours doing a first run through the game. I'm the sort of person who has to do as much as possible before the end of the game because otherwise I probably won't come back to it unless I play it a second time. And ninety hours is darn near unheard of for a handheld game! There are 300 missions, most of them optional, and I only did 233 before I finally completed the final battle. I just couldn't wait anymore and since I wasn't using a walkthrough I didn't know how to complete the other missions (I have a feeling some of them were one-time chances I missed too). In order for the plot to move forward, the player generally either explores new areas or completes missions. Early in the game, it's entirely mission-based which results in running back and forth across the known area of the map doing random tasks. Until the player has completed a few missions, it's not immediately obvious which of the combat missions are necessary for completing the game and which are fluff missions done for leveling up and gaining items. Even afterwards, there are so many optional missions. Only twenty-four missions must be completed to finish the game, but with 300 available that's just insane. Most of the 300 don't require the player to actually go out into battle, but they can be just as irritating because they'll put one of the party members out of commission while that character indivudally handles the task. Also, a lot of the later missions require special items that can only be obtained by completing certain other missions. By the end of the game, most of the missions available are recycled missions I passed on over and over again because I lacked the items, and I still lacked the items.
Because I did over two hundred of the missions, this meant that the twenty-four actually required for the plot were thinly spread out. By the time I got to the end of the game it had been a couple weeks since I had seen the last plot event, and that's terrible. It's nice to have a lot of options available to the player, but it takes away from the story when the player is separated from the main plot for so long. I know I'm not the only one who tries to finish everything before getting to end of the game, and at some point the player's just going to give up and go to the end or give up entirely, which isn't any fun either. I really doubt I'll play FFTA again because of this.
As far as the game itself went, the method of obtaining new skills was a bit irritating because it involves equiping the party with various items until they master that particular ability. Once that ability is learned the skill sets function much like they did in the Playstation Final Fantasy Tactics. Despite the fact that made learning some skills difficult due to not being able to find certain items with the abilities my opponents were using, I could live with that. What got me though was that I wanted to keep each item that had a skill attached to it so I could readily teach it to any of my characters if they needed it. I had gobs of gil in the game. My characters were so insanely wealthy they probably could've retired in a Beverly Hills mansion if gil transferred into dollars. So I merrily sold off anything I could buy back later. The problem was, most of the items I couldn't buy back. This resulted in me having an extremely unwieldy inventory screen with one of nearly every weapon in the game just in case I needed it. There's no way to scroll through the list other than holding up or down on the d-pad, so I dreaded having to hunt and peck for a weapon. It just wasn't fun.
Fortunately, the game itself is very forgiving. The original FFT neatly handed my butt to me on several occasions, often in the same battle. In FFTA I rarely had a problem. The enemy AI is not the swiftest set of chips on the block and will often make mistakes, sparing the party the thrashing it could have done if it had made a different decision. That's not to say I never lost a party member, I've had characters ganged up on before, but with the exception of the ridiculously overpowered last boss battle (in comparision to any other fight in the game up until then) and one of the Totemas I never felt I was in any danger.
This last point is possibly a minor one, but I had really been hoping to name my party members in FFTA. It was rather silly, but in the original Tactics I would "fire" my original party members and hire on new characters I would name at my first opportunity. Since they're all generic anyway I might as well give them names that have meaning to me even if they have no meaning to anyone else. FFTA doesn't let the player hire their own troops. Marche joins a clan shortly after arriving in Ivalice and gains his starting party that way. The only way to get new troops is to just complete missions and see who randomly shows up. The units show up and the player can take them or leave them, but can't name them, or, for that matter, select their race. Races determine which classes are available to a character and which classes they tend to be good at (and some missions can only be completed by specific classes). Also, the characters don't have genders this time so all humans, moogles, nu mou, and bangaa are male and only the viera are female. Right... And to think I had wanted a female spellcasting bangaa before learning that they're only male and oh yeah bangaa are the least magically inclined of the races.