Final Fantasy: Baited Guilt

March 15th, 2009

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Final Fantasy is cruel punishment delivered cold, in the innocent guise of obligation to bait guilt among Final Fantasy VII players.

For everyone whose played several of the numbered installments, a game like Final Fantasy Origins is an attractive proposition, a tempting entree to persuade you into giving the earlier titles a go. Two Final Fantasy games in the one package, updated graphics, reworked gameplay and some spiffy intro FMVs – it is a fair package, especially considering the relatively cheap price the compilation still fetches.

Origins is designed to make you think this way, as is Dawn of Souls on the GBA and the latest two PSP “remakes”. They are bait for bottom feeder Final Fantasy fans that want to harden up, in the business sense; an easy way to make a few dollars. In the past few years Square-Enix have pulled this trick numerous times on consumers – they’ve turned it into a well oiled machine and am now repeating the procedure for the Dragon Quest series.

As a PAL gamer, this whole phenomena is different again, the first numbered Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles to hit our shores were Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VIII respectively. Only in recent times, as you can see. We are perhaps the biggest consumers that Square-Enix are pitching to here.

Whatever your background in this monopoly, the motive is the same; guilt the players who skimmed these titles the first time around or persuade newbies to join the fold. It’s ironic then that the first game, on the first of several later to be released compilations of Final Fantasy plays as sourly as the itents of the publisher. Imagine if all games were like this; straight reflections of their publishing giants. Would be quite telling, wouldn’t it?

If Final Fantasy #1 is the game in question, and Final Fantasy Origins is your method of entry, then I’d recommend you avoid at all costs. The Origins port of Final Fantasy is overtly archaic, maliciously so, and from what I’ve heard, a stark contrast to the walk in the park cinch of the later GameBoy Advance and PSP ports.

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On beginning a new file, the game prompts you to characterize your 4 vanilla avatars with the regular RPG suits: warrior, monk, thief, black and white etc. You also need to select names for these characters too – there are no defaults. The lack of pre-built characters alludes to the blank template story that shortly follows. And that’s pretty much what you have, the actual definition of a cardboard cut out: four light warriors come, retrieve four crystals, lock away bad guy, The End. The story, which is often meant to be the hook in these types of games is all but non-existent. It makes you hanker for motivation. The presentation, while redone to 16bit pizazz, similarly lack soul.

The free choice party selection prys on your savvy enthusiasm for selecting a balanced party. You know that a fruit salad of black mage, white mage, warrior and monk for instance is probably the ideal party set-up. Unfortunately the class balancing is completely out of wack, as it contritely balances itself through unrelated mechanics such as limitations on spell casting and lack of healing items.

Mages are weak, pathetic creatures shackled to a tight magic system where casting magic feels very much privilage. Their defence and regular attacks are weak, if anything at all. Warriors on the other hand can take off hundreds of HP in contrast to the mage’s piddly 1-20. Their defence is the same – these guys rarely take a hit (no seriously, often 1hp) despite unloading massive damage. The downside is that they are limited to simple attacking, but even with that in consideration, these guys are far superior to any other class available. Monks and thieves are both just weaker variations of the warrior type with no real intrinsic talents to speak off.

As you can see by the examples, the class system is ultimately broken, with warriors reigning supreme by a wide margin. In order to balance out the strength of the warriors, all non-mage healing in the game is reliant solely on potions. That is regular potions that cure only about 25hp. They are the only portable healing agents in the game – there are no high potions, phoenix downs, only the straight 25 hp potion – without them you are reliant on Inns and mages. This contrived way of forcing the player to include a white mage in their party falls flat on its face once the vulnerable female (yes, white mages are automatically type casted as female) loses all HP. And this often happens as their weak defences ensures that they die more often than they deserve. They are far too fragile for their own good and yet a necessary obligation for your party. Mages are like the supporting cast to the warriors.

It makes no sense that the only way to revive a fallen ally is through the white/red mage life spell or in towns and inns. Once the white mage in your party is dead, pushing on through the game’s dungeons is all the more risky, but having them in your party yields little use. So they just feel like necessary dead weight.

Anything except warriors feels like a detriment to the whole party, thanks to the issues with balancing. This class system slows down the ability at which you can progress through the game. It drops the game down to 5km an hour. Once the weaker classes are picked off, your in-game progress suddenly becomes vulnerable, so you’ll retreat back to the nearest town to revive and start over. It’s pointless mileage back and forth, over and over, and extends the play time dramatically. The whole game is like this; one slow plod to the end.

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This is made even worse by the fact that can’t save in the dungeons, instead saving is limited to inns or on the world map with given item. By then it’s often too late, and you’ll die before you have a chance to escape, further panning out the experience. Each segment of the game therefore greatly outstays it’s welcome.

On top of all this, equipment is very unevenly distributed. Every town in the game provides new weapons and armor for warriors and (ocassionally) similar classes, yet mages only ever receive two or three equipment upgrades throughout the whole game. No wonder they are so underpowered.

The classes are credence to the battle system, the veins of an RPG and they are broken from the outset. The lack of narrative to persuade you to the game’s conclusion is completely absent. Most NPCs speak pure filler, the rest are there to point you in the direction of the next location, but even these people make no sense. I quickly learnt to befriend a FAQ before the exploration became questionably trite.

That’s the bulk of it. A game built on ultimately broken foundations. It’s a tough slog, and a rough entry into the series. It’s no doubt workable, but only if you’re willing to invest, it’ll be doubly as hard for every less warrior included in your party. Two, I’d say is fairly balanced, teamed with a black and white mage. The context of this game (as the original Final Fantasy) is the guilt trip, the game itself is the punishment and together they combine for a rather gruelling package. Fortunately Final Fantasy II alleviates all of these issue and – at least so far – is 10x the product for it.

NB: This isn’t a brazened attempt at snarking, snark or no snark, this game was difficult to swallow. Also, this is what this “critique” is centered around, understanding how the game is such a grueling slog, sinister like the publisher’s side of the fence.
  • Certainly, the game is best understood as a product of its time. We don’t read Beowulf expecting Harry Potter, just as we don’t play Contra expecting Gears of War. That said, behind the impenetrable, poorly documented presentation, there’s actually a good set of mechanics hidden in there.

    The limitations on spellcasting by the mage classes become less and less onerous as their levels increase; a Red Mage makes a decent physical fighter in the early-to-mid game, and a decent caster in the late game; magic classes are quite valuable in boss fights, and physical classes tear up normal battles. Monks are actually more powerful -without- equipment than with after about level 13, and Thieves become a black magic-wielding force of nature after their class change. I actually find Warriors the least interesting of all the classes to play — if you have more than one, they compete too much for equipment (but be sure to buy the Steel Armor in Melmond, expensive though it is).

    The game of Final Fantasy does require some time sunk into leveling, but the remakes are much kinder in this regard than the original. Each party composition gives a totally different feel to the gameplay, and the fact that a common approach in this game is the “single class” or “single character challenge”, with only one class in the party (or only one living -character- in the party) speaks to the versatility of its combat and progression.

    All that said, I don’t blame you for feeling confined by the Spartan mechanics and presentation — the lack of an in-dungeon quicksave (in the GBA style) is a serious issue for players who have real life obligations, and I, for one, don’t wish a return to the times of “just give me half an hour, I need to find a save point”. (Not only that, but the original was positively bug-ridden — “evasion” was a useless stat on armor, and weapons like the Dragon or Giant Sword did… nothing out of the ordinary against dragons or giants.)

    I never quite got into FF2 — I always got a few hours into it and then lost interest. That probably says more about me than about the game, however.

  • G’day Joe, thanks for your insight.

    I’m interested to know which port you played of the series (or perhaps the original?), the PSone and GBA/PSP iterations are radically different in context to my quibbles.

    Your points are all well justified though. Still I did not find my experience to match your own. Spell limitations were a huge hassle for me, I found the final boss to be hugely representative of that, with so few slots (3-5) left to cast any of the powerful spells, I found myself conserving constantly, considering I could only use them infrequently. I also originally played with a monk it my team, but didn’t find his attacks to be that worthwhile, I mean he does the same thing as the warrior except is weaker.

    Although this genre isn’t my forte, I did spend much time levelling, particularly with my first attempt in which 80% of the game was (optional) level grinding, and even then my “balanced” party struggled. No doubt the buffet of character selection crafts its own experience – I quite liked this aspect too – but it all falls apart with the balance.

    As for your first comment, I totally agree and wouldn’t be such an avid player of retro content if I didn’t. But, with all things considered, the flaws I’ve presented are quite frankly a nightmare, they are broken rather than dated and archaic, I probably should have expressed that part a little clearer in the text. Furthermore, this is a remake of a game that never originally came to Europe, Australia and NZ. One would assume that more work would have been done to rectify such obvious blindspots. The 6-10hrs I’ve played of FF II on the same compilation have been wonderful, completely devoid of all these steep issues in FF I, which I think says a lot for the arguement I’m pursuing.

    Again, thanks for your rebuttal, you taught me somethings I didn’t know about the game.

  • I’ve played the NES original five or so times through (possibly more on emulators), the PSone port to the final dungeon, and the GBA port to a bit after the class change. I have not played the PSP or WonderSwan Color ports.

    I agree that the need to conserve magic seems to hamstring your poor casters — some of the remakes move to an MP system to avoid this issue. Also, give monks a better shot! Grand Masters are much stronger attackers than Knights could hope to be, since they get about twice as many hits in. On a single-character challenge on the NES original, my high-level monk killed the final boss in a single round — they’re more brutal than one might suspect!

    For me, the biggest issue with Final Fantasy Origins — a problem shared with Chronicles and Anthology — is the abominable, unjustifiable slowdown during certain spell effects, battle animations, or stage backgrounds. It’s worst in FF6, where the Playstation strains to render the watery backgrounds like the Lethe River and just feels slow overall. (I have a similar complaint with the FF Tactics PSP remake, though the improved translation makes up for it. If you haven’t played FFT yet, you really should — it has one of the best stories in any FF game, main series or not.)

    I would be interested in hearing your impressions of FF3 and FF5, since there was a trend in the series from 1-6 that the odd-numbered games were mostly about fiddling with spreadsheet characters and the even-numbered games were more story-driven.

  • Wow, you’ve certainly played this game and several of its variants quite a lot. Guess I’ll take your word about the monks.

    It’s strange that you mention the slowdown, which I didn’t notice myself (very sure of this). The PAL and NTSC compilations are actually different, with the PAL version on two seperate discs, which may have altered these issues, perhaps. I also have FF Chronicles, but will be playing FF IV-VI on the GBA. As mentioned in the prelude to this post, I adore FF Tactics, it’s one of my personal favourite games, particularly the music which is divine.

    Ok, I will look out for these trends when I get around to those installments. My copy of FF II seems to ocassionally freeze up at random points in the game, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that. >_<