Whatever else you accuse Square Enix of, pandering to a casual audience cannot be one of them. Just working out what the title of this game actually refers to takes either a PhD in Square Enix mythology or several confusing minutes with the Google search box. The short story is that this is actually a sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the Game Boy Advance, which was itself a simplified spin-off from the original Final Fantasy Tactics on the PSone (and thus its recent The War of the Lions remake on the PSP).
Although the original GBA version took place in a fantasy world called Ivalice it wasn't the 'real' Ivalice from Final Fantasy XII et al, but a dream world based upon it. Like its GBA predecessor this starts in the non-Final Fantasy world location of St Ivalice but has you magically transported to the actual fantasy Ivalice, where you get to meet characters from previous games like Vaan, Penelo and Seeq. If you can imagine anything more confusing than that as the background set-up you're probably not safe to be around open flames.
The preposterously convoluted plot and ancestry of Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is all the more ridiculous because the actual gameplay is clearly aimed at being a simplified introduction to the world of strategy role-players. And in this capacity it works excellently well, being far easier to grasp than Disgaea and the other Nippon Ichi games or even the 'proper' Final Fantasy Tactics.
The basics are largely the same, though, as you order around a squad of half a dozen or so different characters on small isometric, grid-based, levels. Combat is turn-based but instead of the usual chorus line routines of traditional role-playing games you have to manoeuvre your troops around the map taking advantage of terrain, the direction enemies are facing and the fact that you can only move a few grid spaces per turn.
The only real complication is the Judge system, where each battle is restricted by an apparently random set of rules such as not using fire or distant attacks. If you keep to the rules you'll earn some bonus items at the end and get to use a stat boosting clan privilege. If you don't, you won't be able to resurrect characters during the current fight. It's meant to add variety but it just comes across as arbitrary and a bit silly.
For the first few hours or so that really is all you need to know, as you slowly level up your characters, kitting them out in an easy to use shop that goes out of its way to make it clear what advantages and disadvantages each new item or weapon has. Each new battle is selected from a list of quests in a pub, much like Final Fantasy XII. There is a world map but apart from shops and pubs you can't visit anywhere there isn't a battle going on at.
With a total of 57 different jobs for your characters to specialise in this is almost as complex as the other FF Tactics games at times, although learning new skills depends as much on having the right equipment as anything else. Anything specialised has to be swapped for loot at a bazaar, but said loot is doled out randomly by Grimoire of the Rift when you defeat bad guys. Since there are no random battles this means you have far less choice than it first appears, as you impatiently wait for the right loot to appear.
The business of managing your clan is less frustrating, as you try to increase your area of influence in order to attract new members via a sort of eBay-style bidding mini-game. You get certain stat improvements for particular areas you hold, while improving your clan's negotiation or teamwork skills can help either in combat or in money off when taking on a quest.
Although the bazaar is a pain everything elese generally works just as you'd hope, although battles do always seem slightly more long-winded than they need to be. The 2D graphics are generally excellent but it's often difficult to make out a particular grid space when characters are bunched up. Since the graphics are all two-dimensional you can't rotate the screen as you can on – whisper it – the PSP.
In terms of using the DS, the stylus control system is far too fiddly and you'll instantly default to using the D-pad and buttons instead. There doesn't seem to be much use for the top screen either, with the few bits of information it shows never proving especially vital. The music though, is uniformly excellent.
None of these problems are ruinous to the overall experience but it does ensure this never becomes more than an introduction to the genre, rather than a definitive title within it. The inconsequential story and bland characters are a million miles away from the consistently amusing Disgaea, which also has the advantage of deeper combat. In fact, the only thing the Nippon Ichi game doesn't have over Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is accessibility, so enjoy it as a starter and look forward to the main course that is Disgaea DS later in the year.