Final Fantasy VI – A Retrospective Review

If you’re in the market for a good Japanese role-playing game, the SNES is a good place to start. From Square’s exceptional Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars to the first two instalments of the Breath of Fire series and EarthBound, many of the most well-known and popular games in the sub-genre come from Nintendo’s second home console. Before Square moved their focus to Sony’s PlayStation, the Final Fantasy series also found a residence on Nintendo’s consoles. The last of the Final Fantasy games to be released on Nintendo’s home consoles until 2003, Final Fantasy VI brought a change of setting from the standard fantasy setting with some anachronisms found in the previous games to an amalgamation of fantasy and industry which persists to this day.

Final Fantasy VI is set one thousand years after a devastating war of magic which threatened to destroy the world. Two belligerent sides fought for control of magic and the potential it could bring before both sides were annihilated and nearly brought to extinction. In the years proceeding, humankind rebuilt, developing steam engines, gunpowder and industry. However, the power of magic wasn’t forgotten about, and one particular group, having become an industrial powerhouse, wished for more than their machines could bring them.

The game follows the story of Terra Branford, a peculiar young woman who has been discovered to have magical powers. These powers brought attention to her from the Empire, who have managed to create their own sort of magic with the amalgamation of the power of the magical beasts known as Espers with machinery. At the start of the game, Terra is under the control of the Empire using mind control, and is sent to the industrial mining town of Narshe with two Imperial soldiers to investigate the appearance of a frozen Esper in the mines.

The guards of Narshe resist the Imperial attack with valour, but ultimately pointlessly. Before long, the Imperial party reach the Esper, but the overwhelming power of the magical beast destroys the two Imperial soldiers before they can act, while leaving Terra alive and free of the mind control. Woken up later by a sympathetiser who saved Terra before the citizens of Narshe could capture her and try her for her ostensible Imperial activities, she finds that the mind control has caused amnesia. She is led out of the town by an anti-Imperial treasure hunter named Locke Cole, and before long, the pair are on a journey to find other anti-Imperial sympathisers to fight.

While the story in Final Fantasy VI may seem over-familiar to long-time players of JRPG games, it was distinctive in its time for taking the series away from the Crystals which had been an important element until then. The in-battle gameplay seems similiarly familiar to begin with, using the standard ATB (Active Time Battle) found in the other SNES games in the series, with turns being determined by the filling of an action bar which progresses over time. A bit more sophistication comes into the battles with the characters’ special skills, ranging from Locke’s Steal ability, to Edgar Figaro’s Tools command which gives him more battle flexibility, to Sabin Figaro’s Blitz command which depends on button sequences to unleash powerful martial arts attacks. Battles progress quickly, without the extended fighting animations of later games in the series, and even though random encounters are frequent, they don’t hold up the rest of the gameplay significantly.

Out of battle, the game begins as boilerplate linear JRPG plot-driven action, but Final Fantasy VI is notable for being a game of two distinct parts in this regard, with a complete shift of gameplay from linear progression to an open-world sandbox which owes more to the Western tradition of role-playing games than the series’ native Japan. Whether you will enjoy this element of the game depends on your motivations in a role-playing game, but it is a bold step and really does allow for character motivations to be explored in greater detail.

In any case, the game’s progression is aided by a fluent translation from Ted Woolsey, which despite some technical limits and limitations imposed by Nintendo regarding death and some of the more adult elements of the game, manages to create an excellent ambience on its own. His work is particularly significant when regarding the demented, cackling Kefka, a villainous madman who is presented as an ambassador to Emperor Gestahl early on in the game, and becomes a significant force against the characters of the game. Woolsey’s work manages to grant additional malevolence to Kefka, all to the favour of the game.

From a graphical standpoint, Final Fantasy VI is not the most impressive game on the SNES, nor is it even the most impressive game in its genre – the later Chrono Trigger presenting higher resolution and clarity to the graphics. However, with a vivid palette and a distinctive graphical style, the graphics do manage to go beyond functional, and despite the prevalence of palette-swapped monsters from the random encounters, the game cannot be faulted in this regard.

As with previous games in the series, the musical soundtrack was created by the veteran Nobuo Uematsu, and with Final Fantasy VI, he created a masterpiece. I can think of individual pieces of game music which transcend this game’s pieces; Chrono Trigger‘s “Magus Confronted” and Half-Life 2: Episode 2‘s “Vortal Combat” come to mind. Yet, I can’t readily think of a soundtrack which I would regard as consistently good as the one in Final Fantasy VI. A full set of leitmotifs for the game’s characters, an outstanding world map theme and a rousing set of battle themes for random encounters and boss battles combine with a multi-part, seventeen-minute long final boss theme which rates among the greats. Music even plays a small part in the gameplay beyond simple ambience in one of the game’s most well-known parts.

All in all, players of Final Fantasy VI can expect about forty hours of gameplay, which may fall short of the hundred-plus hours found in later games in the series, but which is devoid of the extended battle animations found in Final Fantasy VII and such. In any circumstance, forty hours feels right for the game; it is long enough to sate one’s hunger for the gameplay and plot without dragging on. The scale of the game also feels appropriate considering the length; it is sweeping and grandiose without reaching the heights of pretension.

As with all games, Final Fantasy VI does contain some flaws. Clearly, the battle system wasn’t playtested as much as it should have been, as it proves remarkably easy to break the game’s difficulty by exploiting glitches. Apart from some legitimate strategies near the end of the game involving certain items and magical attacks, there are several ways to unfairly win difficult battles. The Evade/Magic Block system was broken, with all attacks checking versus Magic Block rather than Evade, making it remarkably easy to create a character with the ability to avoid nearly every attack. The blindness characteristic is completely broken, not doing anything at all to all but one of the characters, and even then only affecting some skill learning. More egregiously, it is possible with the application of certain magical attacks to kill nearly every enemy in the game including bosses with two attacks flat. Even considering that the game is not terribly difficult to complete anyway, this is just a clear case of a broken battle system.

A frustrating element comes later in the game, where eight or twelve of the fourteen-character list are required to progress in some of the dungeons. While I acknowledge that this was designed to encourage the player to use all of the characters evenly, it isn’t aided by the fact that some of the characters are useless unless trained, and that training these characters takes a lot of grinding. Other characters are just useless in general, not living up to the potential of others.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed playing this game. Despite its age, it still stands up well to present-day RPGs, with a sweeping story which leaves few characters without resolution, well-crafted gameplay which works along traditional JRPG mechanics, but feels more involving than the standard turn-based system, and a beautiful soundtrack which helps create a sense of ambience throughout the game. The change of style served the game well compared to its predecessors, making something that felt distinct from the boilerplate fantasy which is common among RPGs, and the two-part gameplay was a bold move which may not entertain everybody, but which brings two types of RPG gameplay into one game.

Bottom Line: Final Fantasy VI is one of the pinnacles of the SNES-era JRPG, with grand scale, relatively sophisticated gameplay and a barnstormer of a soundtrack.

Recommendation: If you consider yourself a JRPG fan, you owe it to yourself to play this game. People trying out the genre for the first time would be recommended to start elsewhere, but to return to the game when they have the mechanics of a JRPG down.