Saturday, August 15, 2009

Final Fantasy

Back when games were created to be played and finished in a single setting, this title dared to be different. Square designed one of the largest and longest games anyone had ever seen, put in a save feature, stole as much Dungeons and Dragons material and gameplay as they could without infringing any copyrights, and looked on as players would spend hours upon hours trying to complete their creation. Final Fantasy was born.

The game opens with some lovely midi arpeggios while a loose backstory is given through a wall of text. You are then taken to the party creation screen. Here you select four characters out of six possible classes (though it is possible to have multiples of the same character should you desire it), and name them. These are now the Warriors of Light, prophesied to save the world. The classes are: Fighter (high attack and defense), Black Belt (high health and accuracy), Thief (high ability to run from combat like a coward), White Mage (healing and defensive magics), Black Mage (damaging and other offensive magics), and Red Mage (limited proficiency with both schools of magic and reasonable combat ability).

A-Team.With your selection, the game begins, but don't let this title screen fool you. You don't see this until a ways in. Instead, after choosing your party, you're sent right into the world. You know that the basic background story has something to do with some orbs that you're carrying, but that's sort of all you've got to go on. So you find the nearest king and ask him what in the world you should be doing. He tells you that some rogue knight named Garland has kidnapped the princess (ugh...) and is holding her in a ruined temple. So off you go on your little errand.

It's only after defeating Garland and saving the princess that the title screen even shows up. And looking at it, I can understand why. If the A-Team had a hand in the making of this game, of course they want to jump straight into the action. It suddenly makes a lot more sense. Sadly, the same can't be said for the plot itself.

While it might have seemed like saving the princess was important from the way everyone was yelling at you to do it, your actual reward is a locked castle treasury (the key to which is who-knows-where) and a bridge to go to another town and see if they have any errands for you. Aren't you supposed to be the mighty Light Warriors? Isn't your goal supposed to be saving the entire world in some way, or at the very least felling all manner of foul and ill-tempered beasts so that your name might be passed down in legend?

Seance.Instead you get to jump from town to town doing things like scaring off pirates. Please. And really, even if you're not saving the world right now, what you really want is to just get into that treasury in the first castle. That's your real motive as you're playing the game at this point - you want that damn treasure, so you have to find the key. And that's when the horrible truth reaches you. The desire for this key will send you on a chain of monotonous and otherwise pointless errands. You find out that the key is held by the elven prince, so you go to talk to him. But he's been cursed and the only cure is an herb, held by a witch on the other side of the continent. So you find her, but she won't cough up the herb because she's lost her crystal and gone blind. Some guy named Astos evidently stole it, so now you're hunting him. So you find an area you haven't been to and ask some guy about Astos, and he won't help you until you find him a crown. The crown just happens to be in a cave swarming with enemies, but in you go anyway, because what else can you do? So you get it for him and he tells you he actually was Astos all along and then tries to kill you. Are you bored yet reading about this? If so, that's a good thing - it means you're still sane. And imagine having to play it! Let's sum up your order of tasks here:
  • Get a boat so you can...
  • Find a guy to tell you about a cave so you can...
  • Clear the entire cave of monsters to get a crown so you can...
  • Find Astos to give him the crown so you can...
  • Defeat Astos to get a crystal so you can...
  • Give the crystal to the witch to get the herb so you can...
  • Give the herb to the cursed prince so you can...
  • Get a key to finally get some freaking treasure.

80s goggles.That's a whole lot of work just to open a few treasure chests, but there is literally no other motivation provided for doing any of it. And the entire time you're wondering why you aren't doing something more important, or even related to the overall plot. So off you go, destroying groups of undead Thomas Dolbys, hoping that eventually you'll have a real purpose in this game. But it won't come soon, considering the treasury just gives you another item that causes you to go off on more errands. Isn't this game supposed to be about story? Isn't that supposed to be its strength? Shouldn't I have some reason for engaging in battle after battle?

The good news is that the battling itself isn't terrible. Battles consist of rounds, with each round providing an opportunity for every participant in the fight to take a turn. You are given a menu with the options to attack an enemy, cast a spell, drink a potion, use a magical item, or attempt to run away. The order of turns is apparently random each round, although it seems like some characters tend to take longer than others to act. With each attack you are shown who or what is attacking which target, how they are attacking it (if in an unusual way), and then the result of that attack (either the damage dealt, or that the attack missed, or possibly some other effect). After everyone has taken a turn, the next round begins until there is either a winner or you flee the battle. Upon a battle victory, you are rewarded experience points and gold. The former of these grants you better stats as you reach certain numbers of points (to "level up"), and the latter obviously lets you buy things.

Artie Action Land Canoe.And you'll need a lot of gold because things get expensive in a jiffy. Some characters are cheaper to maintain than others (for example, the Black Belt never uses any equipment), but by and large you will be pressed for cash quite often. Which results in a need to "grind" out extra gold by deliberately engaging in battles. This aspect of the game is honestly a bit of a nuisance, and would be incredibly detrimental if the battling weren't enjoyable in itself. Even still, it does get tedious, particularly because the battle system isn't perfect. For instance, if you told a character to attack an enemy, and that enemy dies before your attack occurs (say, from an attack from one of your other three characters), your attacker will not follow common sense and target another enemy. He will instead unleash a fury of blows upon the empty space, and you will be told it was "Ineffective." That's just silly. Battles can also last longer than it seems like they should, because magic spells work incredibly slowly. Casting a spell is often necessary, or at least highly beneficial, but they take so much real-life time that you might just skip it most of the time.

But the magic is a pretty neat addition regardless. You buy the spells from shops (and these are the most expensive things in the game), and thus "teach" them to your mages. Spells are divided into schools of white and black magic, and then again into spell levels, of which there are eight. Level 8 spells are very powerful, while Level 1 spells are pretty worthless. There are four spells per level per school, though any given character can only learn three spells per level, requiring some planning and choice in the matter. While the Red Mage class can get by attacking with swords and the like, the White and Black Mages are far too weak to do anything but cast magic. By the end of the game this is great because their arsenals of spells will be exceedingly helpful, but it's a pain in the ass when you start. Especially because you are limited to a certain number of spell casts per level before you need to rest, so early on when that number is low, you will be out of magic quite often. And since their attacks are worthless, you end up just carrying dead weight on your team. No good.

Size discrepancy.Now I'm aware the tone of this review has seemed more negative than positive so far, and that's probably because the areas in which this game falls short are the ones that drag it out longer and create an impression of mindless repetition in the game. But if you are patient enough to get through the meaningless adventuring that comprises the first half of the game, you're nicely rewarded with a very fun experience. Suddenly you start to find out more and more about the mysterious orbs you're lugging around. Suddenly you start encountering the powerful evil beings that are threatening the world as you know it. Suddenly you realize that your mages have enough spells to not be annoyances, and that battles take less time to complete with a higher reward for their completion. Suddenly you start finding yourself in various vehicles, including, eventually, an airship that lets you travel the entire world very quickly. And that's a godsend. Suddenly you start seeing and appreciating the subtle humor in the game's text and dialogues, such as a mermaid in the underwater shrine asking you how you can breathe underwater (for which no explanation actually is given), and another making a pretty hilarious reference to Splash.

There are even some fun side-quests that really help you out, such as finding Bahamut, King of Dragons. He sends you to a dungeon of sorts - appropriately called the Castle of Ordeals - to prove your courage, and then rewards you by giving each of your characters new and improved classes. The Fighter becomes a Knight, the mages all become wizards of their respective colors, the Black Belt becomes a Master, and the Thief (who as you might recall was good solely at fleeing battle) now becomes a Ninja, and that's awesome. It's like an added bonus for putting up with an otherwise worthless class for so long. With these new classes come new abilities, such as the casting of higher level spells, or drastically improved stats, or the ability to use more equipment. And with your newfound power you recharge each of the orbs, one by one, to reach your final destination.

Fission fists.Now I won't spoil the plot here, because it's actually pretty neat. I think that was their plan, really. They made the story so worthless for so long that when it finally shifts back into reasonable and interesting territory, you're eating it up like it's the best thing you've ever heard. And hey, can't fault them for what works. I will say though that the "ultimate evil force" that you have to defeat at the end (regardless of how or why it got to that point) is Chaos. That's right, your goal is to fight an abstraction and lay it to waste. And by abstraction I mean big yellow demon. Because I'm sure that's what chaos would really look like, if it materialized.

And how sweet is it that you get a spell called Nuke? Oh sure, there's fire and ice and lightning, and sure you can heal people and blind enemies and all that...but we're talking about a guy splitting an atom and doing it like he's firing a Street Fighter-style hadouken. And directing it all into your face. Is it worth all the hours of play to get to the point at which you can begin detonating nuclear bombs on people's heads? Unequivocally, yes. Yes it is.

Final Fantasy was definitely groundbreaking in a number of ways. While it has some noticeable flaws (even some spells that outright weren't programmed correctly), and its first half is grueling and pointless, its second half is really engaging and entertaining. The plot goes from possibly interesting when you turn on the game, to cliché, to non-existent, to minimal, and then back all the way to well-thought out and surprisingly decent. It's a game with ups and downs, but it's always better to start with the down and improve than the reverse, and Final Fantasy does this. It's certainly worth a look, although you may have to be patient at first. Give it time - it grows on you.

Bottom Line: 14/20

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