Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review - Final Fantasy VI

Released on the SNES in 1994, Square's sixth Final Fantasy game is widely considered one of the greatest Japanese RPGs of all time. It features a large, varied cast, a huge number of skills to learn, and a fast-paced story that unfolds across two unique worlds. This game includes some of the most memorable heroes and villains in the Final Fantasy series, and for the most part, holds up well today. It has a few flaws that I can't ignore and some pretty awful battle balancing, but Final Fantasy VI is worth playing whether you're new to the series or an old fan.

I'd like to go into the history of this game and its various versions before getting to its content. When it was originally released in North America on the SNES, Square renamed the game as Final Fantasy III, since it was the third Final Fantasy released in the west after II, III, and V were skipped. Either Square or Nintendo assumed people would be confused or frightened away from the game if they felt they had missed out on other entries, a theory that was proven ridiculously wrong years later when Final Fantasy VII was released and retained its Japanese numbering.

Final Fantasy VI was re-released on the original Playstation in 1999 as part of a collection that also included the first English language release of V. The re-release largely retained the original SNES translation but didn't rebalance or bugfix any of its issues. The only additions are a couple of CGI cutscenes at the beginning and end and a horrible amount of load time to sit through whenever you enter battles or menus. It won't seem as bad if you haven't played another version of the game before, but if you have, the load times are going to frustrate you. This version is now available as a downloadable game on the PSN, complete with the awful load times.

Another re-release on the Game Boy Advance followed in 2007. This version features a new translation (while retaining some iconic lines), a couple of bonus dungeons, and some new spells. The visuals look a little squished, but their detail isn't lost. There are a couple changes to plot scenes (Locke rescues Celes from torture in the original release; in the GBA version, she's unharmed. Some of Setzers' introductory dialogue is pretty different, casting him in a less rogueish light. He's been George Lucased just a little) that seem weird, but for the most part, it's the same game.

The SNES version has been re-released as a downloadable title on the Wii's Virtual Console, and, stupidly, it's under the name Final Fantasy III again, in spite of the fact that all previous re-releases have used the proper numbering and a remake of the actual FFIII is now available in North America as well. If you played the original on the SNES, the VC release will be exactly what you remembered, down to the dumb name.

Like all of the other Final Fantasy games leading up to it, VI features a unique character system while retaining elements of its predecessors. Every character has their own unique skills and stats but can be customized by equipping Espers, magical stones containing the souls of powerful monsters, which slowly teach that character new spells. You can choose to give magic to only specific characters, or divide the type of magic available evenly between heroes, or spend hours grinding to teach every spell to everyone. It's a good mix of customizable characters while still retaining abilities to make everyone unique, something that, sadly, Final Fantasy VII would abandon.

While every character has unique abilities, those abilities are far from equally useful. You have 14 playable characters, including a few hidden ones. Square did a fairly poor job balancing the risk/reward aspects of these skills. Sabin, this game's resident muscleman, uses abilities that are executed through Street Fighter style command prompts rather than choosing options from a menu. Most of these attacks are extremely strong, and can be used at no cost; there's no casting time, and no MP consumed by using them. From start to finish, you can use Sabin's strongest available skills every turn with no downside. His brother, the playboy King Edgar, is similarly designed. He uses tools that must be purchased or found, but after that, these overpowered skills can be used every turn with no cost. If you have Sabin and Edgar in your party, you're not going to have much trouble with the majority of enemies in this game.

While some skills are greatly overpowered, others could use some buffing up. Relm, a sassy young girl with a paintbrush, can paint pictures of enemies and use their own skills against them, but this skill usually misses against any enemies that can pose a real threat. Her grandpa, Strago, can learn certain spells that are cast on him by enemies, but by the time he joins your party you'll have already learned Esper-taught spells that serve as analogues for these and can be used by other, stronger characters. Setzer is a gambler who uses a slot machine which usually ends up doing nothing. Celes, a former general of the Evil Empire, is strong with both physical and magical attacks, but her unique skill, one that absorbs certain enemy magic spells and converts them into health, becomes obsolete fast. The thief Locke has a Steal command, but there aren't many items in the game worth stealing, and his stats aren't very impressive. Worst of all is Cyan, a knight whose family is murdered, whose attacks cause you to sit and wait for a meter to charge up while you're left unable to do anything else. Some of his skills are useful, but the time you have to spend waiting for them to charge up means you're letting your other characters sit and do nothing while they could be attacking. This could be fixed by keeping his charge time, but letting you select an attack from a menu and then leaving him on his own to charge. Forcing the player to watch the meter is both boring and a terrible strategy in battle.

Some characters are balanced more properly. Terra, a magical girl who the story follows when it begins, can transform into a massively powered up state, but there's a time limit for how long she can remain in this state. Mog, a fuzzy Moogle with an attitude, can Dance, which causes random effects of varying strength. You have no direct control over him in this mode, but the Dances are well balanced. Umaro, a yeti, is a very strong attacker who can't learn magic. The fact that a few characters, including some optional ones, are well balanced tells me that Square could have done better if they'd spent a little more time ironing out the kinks in their characters' abilities.

Abilities aren't the only poorly balanced part of the game; there are also a couple of harsh difficulty spikes that are easy to manage if you're well prepared, but don't really fit in with the rest of the game. The game starts out extremely easy, gets very tough for one dungeon mid way through and then becomes extremely easy again, until almost the very end, outside of a few optional bosses. It's frustrating and confusing to beat one boss while taking almost no damage and then to die instantly against the next, especially in areas where save points are far between. I like a challenging game, but I like its challenge to have a decent curve. Of course, this isn't an issue if you enjoy grinding for levels. At the proper levels, everything becomes trivial.

The fun of Final Fantasy VI's gameplay comes almost entirely from figuring out how to break it. Deciding which Espers to equip on which characters to most benefit their stats on level up is fun, as is finding equipment combinations that completely ruin enemies. Since the core game is badly balanced and usually not challenging, even if you use the weaker characters, you might as well just go all out and break it as hard as possible. It's satisfying to beat a boss monster ludicrously fast, even if it's not challenging. The game's charming enough for this to still be fun.

I think it's pretty safe to say that the story and characters are what continues to draw people to Final Fantasy VI rather than its gameplay. Even with all of its characters, it's a pretty simple story; an Evil Empire is hungry for power, and is taking over the world by controlling magic. It begins with them experimenting on Terra, trying to figure out her innate magical ability. She escapes, is found by Locke, joins the Rebel Alliance and begins a world tour recruiting heroes to fight the bad guys and uncover her past. She is the core of the first half of the game, even though it features an ensemble cast. Throughout the first half, the party is hounded by Kefka, an Imperial general who happens to be a Magical Clown that likes setting stuff on fire, and occasionally Ultros, a sleazy octopus monster who is probably one of the best parts of the game. It's a straightforward story, but its characters are almost all likable (I don't know how anyone could like Relm or Strago) and the pace is fast enough that something important happens every hour.

Mid way through the game, everything changes. The world is left in terrible shape, the Empire and the Rebels are both mostly gone, and Kefka is King of the World. The plot shifts focus from Terra to Celes, who, after a tragedy (that can be avoided if you try hard enough), must travel the world and reunite the heroes for another shot at kicking Kefka in the neck.

After Celes reunites with Edgar and Setzer, the game world becomes very open. You can recruit the remaining characters in any order you like, or ignore them all and go straight for Kefka if you're willing to spend a few whole days leveling up first. This nonlinear shift should be welcome, but unfortunately, it's pretty sloppy. You're never forced to use specific characters once you have these three, and the game's dialogue isn't designed around that. There are a few scenes in the second half that require certain characters to be present, but for the most part, you'll get to read personality-free dialogue with no named speaker, since any of your characters may be playing that role. While there are still some good subplots in the second half, this severely hurts the game's charm. There should be a difference between what Mog, Sabin, and Gau say when reuniting with Terra, but unfortunately, there's none. The game is not scripted to compensate for variety in your party.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the game's ending. Every character you've recruited gets a nice farewell scene, but with only the exception of Relm and Strago, these scenes involve each character interacting with a combination of Celes, Edgar, and Setzer, since these are the only three characters the game can guarantee you'll have at this point. It feels cheap, lazy, and sacrifices opportunities for nice moments between our heroes. Cyan joins the party after meeting Sabin, and the two of them find Gau together. Maybe they should have had some interaction during the ending? Any, at all? That said; the ending looks very nice and has a gorgeous medley of character theme songs playing over it as everything unfolds.

I still really enjoy this game and it's characters, but so much personality is sacrificed in order to make way for the nonlinear design of the second half that it's hard to ignore. Battle balance aside, I think the first half of VI is probably my favorite Final Fantasy. It doesn't totally fall apart in the second half, but it's nowhere near as strong.

Final Fantasy VI has a very strong sense of art design, both visual and audio. Sure, there are some enemies where you absolutely can't tell what they're supposed to be, and the second half of the game is way, way too brown, but this game contains some of the best pixel art I've ever seen. It's unfortunate that the game's two main female heroes are both essentially wearing swimsuits with shoulder pads, but at least in this small, pixelated state it's kind of hard to tell. Everyone has a lot of personality in their animation, and the world looks lively. The extremely strong soundtrack definitely plays a big role in establishing the often melancholy, occasionally funny tone of this game's story.

The tone of the game is one of its strongest points. There are plenty of moments where the game plays on the player's emotions, but it never feels cheap. It's melodramatic, but very effective, even with its small sprites and simple dialogue. The death of Cyan's family, and his farewell to them, stands out as one of the stronger moments in the entire series, as does Celes's moment of desperation at the beginning of the second half (which, unfortunately, is hampered by bad, 90's Nintendo censorship.) Terra's discovery of her identity and her people's history is well done, and the backstory between Sabin and Edgar is also handled well.

One of the most famous scenes in this game involves a scheme in which Celes is cast as the lead in an opera, in order to draw the attention of Setzer so that the party can ask nicely if they can steal his airship. A lot of fans cite this as a pivotal emotional scene, but I've personally always seen it as an intentional, over the top farce. It's not hard to find accounts of people weeping over this tale of lost love, but it's hard to take it seriously when Celes is being threatened by a giant cartoon octopus trying to push an anvil on her head. It's an effective scene because it's theatre of the absurd, not because it's just a straight, sad song. My only wish is that I wish the scene would continue to play even if you choose the funny, flubbed lines during the song.

The theatrical elements of the game are critical to its tone without shoving them into the player's face as we later see in Final Fantasy IX. Even outside of the opera itself, a lot of events feel staged and operatic, from the play-within-a-play tale of Terra's parents to the fact that Sabin and Edgar bear the surname Figaro. Kefka's a big part of this theme; he's a major military leader of the Empire, but dresses as its court jester. He chews the scenery better than any RPG villain, even FFIX's Kuja who is designed along the same lines. He calls out the ridiculousness of the heroes' RPG tropes while being a complete and utter maniac. His actions are disturbing, but they're played up with such bombastic glee that he remains likable. He's Final Fantasy's take on a Richard III type villain, and that's a big part of the reason he has remained so memorable. The final confrontation with Kefka, of course, takes place on a plain that resembles a stage. Bringing it full circle; the game ends with a roll call of its cast, showing whatever you happened to name the heroes as "actors" playing roles. If you named Cyan "Biff," you get a roll call reading "Biff as Cyan Garamonde." This is a game that lovingly embraces theatrics. All the world's a stage, and all that.

When it comes to theme and tone, not many Final Fantasy games can compare with VI. It uses archetypes for its characters, but in the context of the world being a massive opera, this works perfectly. I'd still cut Relm and Strago entirely and relegate Setzer to a non-combat role, but aside from that, everything fits. The only major plot element that I don't think works is Celes's backstory as a top general of the Empire. The only time it matters is when the party, for no real reason, listens to Kefka and wonders whether or not she's a spy, even though she really, obviously isn't. Her background as an Imperial general should give the audience a deeper insight into what the Empire was all about before they started getting power-hungry; otherwise, why did this pure-hearted hero ever join up and how did she rise to its top ranks? Someone who serves as one of the three highest officers in the Empire probably shouldn't giggle and fall down so much either, and probably shouldn't be fighting in a swimsuit. The way she's portrayed in the second half of the game works, but prior to that, she's really not a well written character, and at times appears mostly to serve as someone for Locke to fall in love with and try to "fix." Their romance is both subtle and blunt, serving the game's theatrical themes well, but it's not compelling.

With all of those gameplay gripes and story nitpicks, I still think Final Fantasy VI is a spectacular RPG. The gameplay issues bother me the most because they shouldn't have been hard to fix, but in order to fix my issues with the second half Square would have had to massively overhaul the way it was designed. Maybe they should have. There's a lot more to this game's theatre theme than I've gone into here, and I think that's part of what makes it so great. Under the simple story and character archetypes, there are a lot of layers to dig through to get to the good stuff. In this way, VI is everything Final Fantasy IX tried to be but fell just short of its goals. The two games feel almost like companion pieces, but everything IX does, VI does better. If you haven't played it yet and can tolerate Japanese RPG gameplay, definitely give it a chance. Just avoid the Playstation port if you have other options.

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