Becky Reviews Console Classics: Final Fantasy III (Or VI, Apparently)

Review
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My first RPG ever was Final Fantasy VIII. A classmate handed me his copy at lunch one day. “Here, I think you’ll like this,” he said. And boy, did I ever. I played it through in one breathless gulp, and dove into FFVII right on its heels. I lost myself in those games. We’re talking weeks of strategizing and exploring. I made grinding guides, okay — color-coded sheets of graph paper compiling the amounts of mats necessary to upgrade all my weapons, then mapping a strategic tour of the world to gather what I needed in the most efficient way possible. Clearly, I was the coolest kid in school.

That was twelve years ago. I have not played another Final Fantasy title since. So when I popped in the Final Fantasy III cartridge last week, I was more than a little excited. After a few weeks of puzzles and platformers, I was eager for an immersive story to jump into. My imagination was primed and ready for capture.

But that’s not what happened at all.

For starters, I didn’t even play Final Fantasy III. It says “Final Fantasy III” on the label, but it is, in fact, Final Fantasy VI. Apparently, the real Final Fantasy III was never released in the US, and Final Fantasy VI was the third Final Fantasy title to make it across the pond, so — look, it doesn’t matter. Right now, I’m too stressed out about the personal friendships I’m about to ruin with this review to worry about the correct name.

I tried with this game. I really, really tried. I had been told it was the end-all-be-all of JRPGs, and maybe I got my hopes up too much. I played. I leveled. I explored. I fought. I buckled down and barreled through.

Forgive me, FFVI fans, but I was bored.

On paper, the story is incredible. It’s a sprawling steampunk fantasy epic that takes place in a world jam-packed with potentially awesome things. Examples include an airship, a mechanically burrowing castle, a train full of ghosts, a floating continent, ancient magical creatures called Espers, cackling bad guys, plucky rebel heroes, and yes, an interactive opera. Oh, and a whopping fourteen playable characters. I should have been smitten with this game. I am nothing if not a sucker for a densely packed narrative in a gorgeous setting.

But the dialogue. Oh, god. The dialogue. I’m not even talking about Final Fantasy’s propensity for ellipses and exclamation points. The entire game felt like something vital had been lost in translation. The romance scenes were awkward. The jokes ranged from lame to downright creepy (“Here’s hoping you’re still around in eight years, kid”). There were some genuinely touching moments, such as valiant warrior Cyan seeing the ghosts of his dead wife and child, or the opera, which lived up to its hype. But jumping around from hard-hitting scenes like that to lines like “Hey! Squidball! Don’t you ever learn?” felt a bit bumbling.

Surely, though, some wonky dialogue wasn’t enough to put me off of the whole game. The stuff I encountered in A Link To The Past certainly wasn’t Pulitzer-worthy, but I enjoyed the heck out of it nonetheless. Once I thought about it, the dialogue in FFVI had merely come across as a relic from an earlier time, just as the artwork did. The game looked dated, no doubt, but I could appreciate what it had been at the time, especially when you look at the beautiful concept art. The final product may be a far cry from those watercolors, but bear in mind, FFVI was released for the SNES in 1994. They did what they could with what they had.

If I could live with the dialogue and the old graphics, then why didn’t I like the game? Was it because I had started off on the wrong foot? Admittedly, I spent the first two hours of gameplay yelling at Terra, who has more than a few things in common with the name of this website. She’s the world’s first magic user in centuries, and at the start, I liked her. The game begins with you playing as Terra — and only Terra — as you escape through monster-filled mines. Hey! Pretty cool! Here’s a female protagonist, fighting beasties and taking care of herself! Oh, wait, no. She gets knocked out (hey, happens to the best of us) and needs scrappy treasure hunter Locke to come save her. Nothing on the surface wrong with that, everybody needs a hand sometimes. She then tags along after the dudes who rescue her for no apparent reason, even though she has no idea who they are. She’s just happy to have somebody looking out for her. It’s as if she’s forgotten all about those ten awesome minutes she spent kicking ass and taking names down in the mines. With that, this potentially self-sufficient character is revealed to be a skittish amnesia-suffering super-powerful half-Esper hybrid who just wants to feel love and be normal.

Bleeeeh.

Look, I’m not saying that every female character needs to be hard-boiled and brave in order to be worthwhile. Female characters should be as diverse and nuanced as women are in real life, and that means that some of them are weaker than others. So do I instantly knock points off of any story that doesn’t have a Strong Female Character at the helm? No. But Terra got on my nerves. She was no Aeris (shudder), but you can only add so much passive martyrdom to a character before she becomes cloying.

With thirteen other characters to choose from, surely disliking Terra wasn’t enough to make me grumpy towards the whole game. So what about the actual gameplay? Ah, there we go. Irritating characters and awkward dialogue I can deal with. The combat, however, put me to sleep. In theory, turn-based combat is great for tickling the strategic centers of my brain, but given FFVI’s love of random encounters, a quick stroll from Point A to Point B quickly turns into a long slog through low-level monsters that pose no actual threat. That said, the combat found its time to shine during boss fights. The first fight that I had fun with in FFVI was against Ultros, a smart-alec river octopus (now there’s a phrase I’ve never written before). I thought the fight was going to be the usual Fight-Blitz-Magic-Heal loop until I discovered that Ultros had a wicked tentacle attack. The ante was upped. Suddenly, the fight turned into a race against time. I had to come up with the perfect order of attacks to smack that sucker down before he knocked out all of my dudes, plus keeping up with heals and having Phoenix Downs at the ready. Now that’s the kind of fight I like.

Though the boss fights were often fun, they didn’t alleviate the tedium of the random encounters. I got a kick out of discovering new character abilities, such as Sabin’s Blitz combos (which were seriously sweet). But the novelty of shiny new attacks wears off after a few rounds. After that, it’s just button mashing until you run into something challenging again. Which takes forever.

As I sat grumbling through another mindless fight, I realized that my gripes about turn-based combat and random encounters had nothing to do with FFVI, but with the series as a whole. FFVI executed a particular type of combat and storytelling very well. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

That’s when it hit me. I like my RPGs to have real-time combat, non-linear stories, and customizable characters. Could it be that I simply don’t like JRPGs? How could that possibly be true? It didn’t jibe at all with my FFVII and VIII experiences. The grinding guides! The leveling! The materia combos!

Yes, I loved my first fling with Final Fantasy, but like I said, that was twelve years ago. I’ve played countless games since then, and as I have done so, my tastes have changed. I fell in love with the quick combat and narrative freedom of the Western RPG, and after over a decade of becoming accustomed to it, going back to my turn-based roots was a shock to my system. It’s like how when I was a little kid, I thought Hershey bars were pretty darn good, right up until one of my German relatives handed me a chocolatey confection. To this day, I turn up my nose at cheap American chocolate faster than you can say “milchschokolade” (okay, maybe a bit faster than you can say that). In other words: my palate changed and I became a snob.

That’s not to say that FFVI is the equivalent of a mediocre candy bar. If you dig JRPGs, I’m sure this game is an absolute gem. You can spend countless hours exploring the world and tinkering with combat strategies. You can form endless combinations of party members until you find your dream team. You can grind in the forests until your thumbs go numb. For what it is, FFVI succeeds with flying colors.

So, I’m sorry, FFVI. It’s not you. It’s me.

Next time: Donkey Kong Country 2

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.


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