project2501: (fascination)
[personal profile] project2501
[Note: This review is part of my series on the Final Fantasy games. To read them all, click here.]

Completion Time: 38:46.

I'm sad to report that I found this game disappointing. In terms of characters and story, it feels like a direct descendant of the original FF game. After the complex world and interesting characters of FFII, it's just a letdown to have to go back to this very straightforward world inhabited by shallow characters. Of course, it did debut a couple of Final Fantasy paradigms which Square would use to great effect in later games, so it is interesting to that extent. But the predictability of the story combined with the lack of sidequests make for a very generic experience.

Story and characters. Like Final Fantasy, the game begins with the four heroes being chosen by the four crystals of light and tasked with fighting back the darkness and restoring balance to the world. The "balance" aspect is emphasized more than in prior games, which I thought was interesting -- the point is not to drive darkness out of the world, but to bring the worlds of light and darkness back into balance. There's even a backstory of how all this happened a thousand years ago -- except it was light that got out of control, so the crystals chose four Warriors of Dark. (Whose powers you can gain during the endgame, where you are fighting the Cloud of Darkness which is trying to return both the worlds of Darkness and Light to the Void. So it should probably be the Cloud of Void, but whatever.)

Speaking of the endgame, the villain is named Xande; he was one of the proteges of the great magician Noah. When Noah died, he bequeathed gifts to each of his three apprentices. To Unei he gave control over the world of Dream; to Doga, the realm of magic; and Xande got... mortality. It's interesting in a zen sort of way, but, let's be honest, he really got the short end of that particular stick.

As for the heroes, they have some small amount of backstory, but not a ton. You start as Luneth and acquire the other party members along the way -- Arc in the first village (Luneth's BFF), Refia in the second (the blacksmith's daughter, who rebelled and ran away because she wanted to have adventures), Ingus in the third (a knight of the kingdom you have to save). Their personalities are sketched out a little, but they don't actually interact very much, so they're basically interchangeable. (Interesting: In the original version the four heroes are apparently just four boys from the first village and you start the game with all four at once.)

light and darkness
Um... right. I guess Astronomy isn't a required class on the Warrior of Dark track.

Pimp My Airship edition. The plot is super-linear -- there are basically no sidequests at all, and everything has to be done in a particular order. And the same tactic is used over and over to enforce this: the party gets to the next village and the airship gets destroyed or otherwise incapacitated, until you do whatever had to be done in that town, at which point you get a new or upgraded airship. It's actually kind of silly how many airships I went through over the course of the game. There's constantly these artificial barriers being put in the way -- oh, there's mountains, the airship can't go over mountains. Oh, there's a rockfall, you have to get a battering ram for the airship. Oh, you have to get an airship that can go underwater. And so on. In the end, I had not just one airship, but two -- one that was super fast and could go underwater, and one that could go over mountains and was tricked out with a portable inn, item/weapon/armor shop, Moogle, and Fat Chocobo.

The World. On the whole, the world of FFIII is just kind of ... dull. There aren't very many interesting NPCs (gone are the "rally-ho!" dwarves and the dancing girls). Some villages have to be saved from ruin, but none are ever destroyed (or actually change at all once you've moved on to later parts of the game). There's hardly any silliness -- a funny line here and there, but mostly there are no surprises. (The exception here is Fat Chocobo, who is far, far weirder than anything else in the game. He's an enormous, apparently featherless Chocobo who can be summoned by burning Gysahl Greens in an incense burner, and will store items for you... in his stomach. So you can retrieve them later. Um, yeah.) Hardly anyone dies -- one NPC who had joined your party seems to bite it, but at the end of the game it turns out he was okay. And a couple of the old mages who help you out die, but show up to help you a few times afterward, and say over and over how their bodies are dead but their souls live on.

Mostly, you go to the only place you can go, you hit up the shops for the latest round of equipment upgrades, you find out what the deal is, you do the obvious thing, you upgrade your airship, you move on. Lather, rinse, repeat. The only redeeming quality is that it's at least fairly well-balanced -- I had to do a minimum of level-grinding in order to keep things moving. Definitely a bonus since no one likes fighting the same three monsters for hours on end.

Party Dynamics. For many parts of the game, you get a bonus party member, like in FFII. Unlike FFII, the party size is four normally, and when the bonus NPC joins you, you don't get to control them or anything. You can see them follow you around on the map, and when you get into a battle, there's a chance they will jump in with an attack or some support magic before you do anything. I found it was helpful because NPCs tended to invite themselves along when I went off to explore a new area, so it was an added boost while the monsters were still somewhat challenging. Though it's very limited, I think it's a better system than in FFII, where you had to spend time leveling the bonus party member and giving them equipment, only to lose them again.

One interesting note about party formation: The typical back row / front row distinction applies, with characters in the back taking (and dealing) significantly less damage. The theory, as I understand it, is that the characters in the front row protect the ones in the back. But, amusingly enough, you can put everyone in the back row -- and they all receive less damage. Which makes no sense, but you didn't hear me complaining when I moved everyone into the back so they'd survive the final boss's particle beam attack.

Cid, played in this game by Jerry Garcia.

Job System. Definitely the most innovative aspect of FFIII is the introduction of the job system, which Square refined for the Tactics games. The basic idea is that, instead of having fixed classes (as in FF) or skills/magic that anyone can learn (as in FF2), each character can change classes throughout the game. Each class, of course, has its own skills, capabilities and equipment. One weird thing for someone who is used to jobs as they appear in the Tactics games is that, instead of new classes opening up as the characters gain job levels, new classes are unlocked at key points in the game (as you reach each of the crystals), and any character can change to any available class. It feels a little rough in other ways, too -- one issue is that the number of available jobs quickly outpaces the available inventory of the stores. Since stores in each town tend to only carry equipment for one or two classes, some characters can go a long time between weapon/armor upgrades. And, of course, nothing beats fighting your way to the bottom of a difficult dungeon only to find multiple chests containing items no one in your party can use.

Changing jobs is handled well, with a penalty of 3-10 battles being applied while the character adjusts to their new role. During the penalty time, their stats are lowered. The penalty is less when switching between similar jobs (e.g. two sorts of mage) than when switching between disparate ones.

The jobs are very distinct and there's a good number of choices, given that anyone can do any job. Several different kinds of mages with different categories of magic -- not just Black, White and Red Mage but also Geomancer (terrain-based magic with spells that vary based on the surroundings), Summoner and Bard (support magic by playing music, effect differing based on the instrument used). Several different kinds of fighters, including Ninja, Thief, Viking(!?) and, of course, Dragoon. Gotta love Dragoons. There are lots of jobs I didn't even experiment with -- Viking, Knight, Dark Knight, Bard, Ranger, etc. Probably a lot of untapped potential for a replay, but to be honest, the game is just not interesting enough to warrant it.

(While doing dull repeat battles, I invented a new sort of game -- Luneth, as a Dragoon, would start off a battle with Jump. Then I would try to kill everything before he landed, the next turn. Kind of like jumping jacks.)

The flexibility of the job system allows for some interesting situations. For example, a few places have very tiny entrances, so you have to cast Mini on the entire party. Characters that have been mini'ed only hit for 1 damage, but can still effectively attack with magic, so in order to fight my way through that area, I had to change everyone's job to some variety of mage. Another cool special case: if the first person in your party is a thief, you can unlock doors without having a key.

My party: Luneth started out as a Red Mage, then became a Dragoon for the remainder of the game. Arc was a Black Mage, did a brief stint as a Scholar, then Evoker, and finally Summoner. Refia stuck with White Mage and then Devout (White Mage++). Ingus went from Warrior to Monk to Black Belt. (In general, this is my tried-and-true formula: two fighters + black mage + white mage.) Whenever I ran into a locked door I would just switch someone to thief, unlock the door, and switch back, even though it meant a penalty for the next few battles.

black hole
That seems a little... not good.

Magic System and Spells. Similar to the original Final Fantasy, spells and MP are divided into eight different levels. This setup works better, though, since the MP is more plentiful and balanced better. It's interesting that each mage class has a slightly different distribution of MP -- for example, White Mages have a TON of level 1 MP (Cure!), whereas Devouts have sort of a bell curve, with less low-level magic like Cure, lots of mid-level magic like Curaga, and only a few casts of high-level Arise, Curaja, and Holy. Magic is exactly powerful enough, with the cures supplying about the right amount of HP and the damage of attack spells comparing favorably to the attacks of the physical classes. Though Phoenix Downs are rare items (can never be bought, only found throughout the game), white magic is plentiful, including a nice spread of cures, Esuna, Raise (from dead), and later Arise (Raise with full HP restore). I also wound up with a ton of Elixirs, since they are dropped by the dragons in the final dungeon (which I was hunting since I needed to do some leveling before the final boss and they are worth 20,000 EXP).

There's also a nice spread of black magic, especially since there are several different jobs to try out. Also, finally, summons!! There are eight, one for each magic level: Chocobo, Shiva, Ramuh, Ifrit, Titan, Odin, Leviathan, Bahamut. The latter three represent the game's only real sidequests -- to get each of their summon spells, you have to hunt them down in their respective dungeons and defeat them. The basic summoner job, Evoker, has a chance of getting either a "white" or "black" magic effect from each summon. In other words, support magic or an attack, except for Titan who has two different attacks. Generally the white effect is basically useless, with the notable exception of Ifrit, whose white effect heals everyone for a LOT of HP. For the advanced version of the job, Summoner, every summon deals a nice attack to all enemies. I definitely used these a lot... and not just because I'm partial to summons.

Sidequests... or the lack thereof. So, in summary: there's nothing else to do in this game aside from saving the world. It turns out there were actually a few sidequests added for the DS remake, which would be really cool. However, in order to unlock them, you have to use the built-in WiFi functionality in order to connect up to a real-world friend and send them at least seven emails. I played around with it a little, but given that I don't know anyone else who owns this game, and I'm not going to encourage anyone to buy it just so that we can exchange a couple of fake letters, I just decided it wasn't worth the bother. Lots of people online are trading "friend codes" but, whatever. Apparently the only thing it unlocks is the "Onion Knight" job (which has the best stats and can use all equipment and cast all spells) and one bonus dungeon.

Overall, the whole thing seems to work better than the previous games. The balance between magic and physical attacks is good, the enemies and bosses are appropriately difficult based on the level your party is at by the time they get there, it's free of the bizarre frustrations that plagued the earlier games (inventory limits and such). But I can see why this game took so long to make it to a US release -- aside from historical interest, there's really just not that much meat to it.
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