Saturday, February 28, 2015

Impressions #26: Final Fantasy VI

Like many gamers in my age group, Final Fantasy served as my entrance into the JRPG genre. Before my initial playthrough of Final Fantasy X at a cousin's house, I had never really given them much thought. Since then, I have been gradually playing the other Final Fantasy games whenever the opportunity arises. With my new-found mass of free time, I decided to use this chance to play through the 6th of the franchise's numbered entries. Aside from the 3rd, it was, until recently, the only non-MMO main-entry that I had yet to play. Because of many of the old school fan-base call it the best game in the entire series, I was more than interested.
Released in 1994, Final Fantasy VI was originally released for the SNES in both Japan and the United States. Back when the US first got the game, it was the third Final Fantasy game released in the region, so it was titled “Final Fantasy 3”. To this day, there is still a degree of confusion born as a result. However, subsequent releases have attempted to correct these errors by giving the game its proper title, now that Final Fantasy has become so well-known throughout the world. The version I played for this article is the version for the original PlayStation, obtained from the PlayStation Store and played on my PlayStation 3.

What I found most interesting about Final Fantasy VI is how much darker in tone the story was compared to previous entries. This is especially true since the 5th entry in the franchise is known to be one of the most light-hearted by far. The game is not shy about killing off very prominent story characters (but no one in the main party). In fact, the protagonists learn magic by holding onto the corpses of magical beings called Espers, turned into gemstones called Magicite. The villain is also one of the most well-known for being the only Final Fantasy villain to ever succeed at destroying the world. Though it may not be the darkest game in the franchise, it is definitely one of them.

And of course, the tale would not be anywhere near as good if it did not have a excellent cast of characters. This is something that Final Fantasy VI has in spades. The game is interesting because it is one of the few in the series that does not have a true protagonist. Some of the party members are less vital to the story than others are, but none can be truly said to be the driving force of events by themselves. The story is more about how all of these characters, from different regions and with their own unique backstories, gather together under a common banner to fight the evil empire.
As villains, the Gesthal empire serves its purpose well. Particularly, Kefka is one of the franchises most infamous villains. In a nutshell, he is what one would get when combining the joker with the resources of an organized military and immense magical power. Callously destroying many villages and ending countless lives, Kefka serves as a great motivation for players to keep playing. Furthermore, thanks to the superb translation, his dialog throughout the story will just as often entertain as much as it will horrify. He has so many memorable quotes that there are pages dedicated to them. The cast of characters work, and are a massive part of why the game is so well-loved.

The other reason the game is notable is because of what it did it terms of design. In the beginning, Final Fantasy VI plays like any other Final Fantasy before. Though the map is large an open, players traverse it in a linear fashion, from point A to point B. Later on, after an extremely important plot event, the party gets separated. From then on, the world is much less restrictive. Taking the role of one particular player character, the goal shifts to gathering up the party in preparation to challenge the final boss. It is made clear at this point that who the final boss is and where they are hiding. At this point, it is possible, though difficult, to skip the rest of the game, head directly to the end, and finish it.
Alternatively, players can try to find and retrieve all of the old party members, deal with their baggage, and prepare them to come together to tackle this challenge. In essence, all of the content aside from the last dungeon at this point consists of side-quests. Those missions are about 15 hours of the game's roughly 40 hour playtime. Fans of modern-day RPGs like Skyrim and Mass Effect 2 probably will not be too impressed by that. However, since this game originally came out on the SNES, this was an extremely bold and revolutionary move at the time. Honestly, it is a little surprising that this style of RPG took so long to become mainstream. The transition from linear JRPG-style play to that more familiar to us in the west was handled smoothly, and the game is better for it.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, the game does have some noteable blemishes. Unfortunately, these flaws have much more to do with circumstances than any real measure of quality. First, at least on the PlayStation version, I noticed an issue with loading times. About 2 or 3 seconds are required to transition between scenes or to go to the menu to use items or manage characters. While that does not sound like much, having this same slowdown compounded over the hundreds of times these events will happen in a given playthrough can become a major nuisance. Since I had this same problem with the PlayStation versions of other sprite based RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy V, I suspect it had more to do with technology than anything else. It is nothing Square could help, but it is nonetheless a source of frustration.
The other issue, at least for me, comes from the time in which Final Fantasy VI was originally designed. Back then, random encounters were seen as one of the best, and most well-known, ways to make sure that players always have the opportunity to strengthen their party before a boss fight. Given how much game design has evolved since then, I can no longer subscribe to the thinking that random encounters are a good game design decision. Personally, I find them quite frustrating, especially when I am in the middle of navigating a dungeon, among many other grievances the typical method in which they are implemented. Again, it is hard to blame an SNES game from 1994 for following standard genre conventions of the time (especially when it challenges others), but it can be a detractor for people who subscribe to modes of thinking similar to my own.

As a total package, Final Fantasy VI is a classic game that is definitely worth completing at least once if you have even a cursory interest in the genre. There is good reason to consider it one of the best entries in the Final Fantasy franchise. In some ways, it can be seen as an experimental game, and a precursor to the more open-worlds we see in video games today. Even from a modern perspective, it aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries, serving as a good example which budding game designers can learn from. In all, it has earned its place among the pantheon of legend RPGs, but you are probably not surprised by that.

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