A Note on Spoilers
Starting with FFVI we've reached a point where the story takes on a bit more of a complicated turn. Things are no longer as simple as save the crystals, kill the jackass. Due to this, I want to take a second and give a bit of a warning in regards to spoilers. Now I will do my best to be reserved about spoiling major things, but you also need to keep in mind that most of these games a very old and the statute of limitations has most likely passed. At this point if someone spoils a certain death in FFVII for you, you aren't going to find any sympathy here. So with that little note out of the way, lets get rolling.
The Big One
Final Fantasy VI is a monumental title, for several reasons. First and foremost is that, depending on how your sample population skews, this could be called the most beloved FF title ever, It would definitely place 1 or 2 in a popularity contest. The more personal reason is that FFVI was the very last main line Final Fantasy title that I had not beaten. As the credits rolled I realized that I had accomplished something great. I have stood upon the mountain made of FF final boss corpses and triumphed over all comers. Not going to lie, it feels kind of awesome.
So in relation to the first reason of importance, then the question becomes "Is FFVI as great as all the love and hype it is so often given?" It turns out, the answer isn't quite so simple as a pure yes or no. Usually when I finish the game, as the credits roll, I have a pretty good idea where I stand on my general feelings for the game. FFVI wasn't so cut and dry and it launched within me a several day period of reflection on what exactly I had just experienced. In the end, the only thing I can say about my relationship with FFVI is: It's Complicated.
Mechanically The Game Is Sound
FFVI represents further refinement to the precedent set by FFIV and continued by FFV. FFVI does not feature classes, and in fact presents probably the most freeform character growth seen so far in the series. Any character can learn any magic spell in the game, and via the games mechanics, be formed into pretty much any type of character you'd like, physical, magical, or support based. Characters do tend to be naturally inclined towards one path or another. However there can be a few oddities. For instance Sabin, the big muscled monk, is actually better to be built with mage stats. Why? because his character specific ability (all character's have one) of special martial arts techniques mostly scale off his magic power, a bit weird I know. In regards to overall usefulness of character abilities, some are best ignored, such as Cyans, others are ridiculously OP (Edgar's tools and Shadow's throwing shurikens will wreck face throughout the entire game). Magic lovers, your time has come, as the ridiculously high MP pools, combined with easy restocking via Osmose and special MP saving items like Gold Hairpin, makes battle mages a good source of damage. Rejoice, your time has come (only to disappear next installment). I do, however, have two main complaints with the gameplay.
The first complain deals with the main avenue of character growth, the Esper system. Character's in FFVI don't get massive gains from just leveling up, in order to truly boost your power, you'll need to equip an Esper (summon) to your characters. In addition to teaching your character spells, most Espers also confer some form of stat growth to your character upon level up (such as +1 or +2 Vigor/Magic Power, which are the only one's that matter). The problem with this system lies in the fact that you actually have to make significant progress through the game before you actually get to this system. Now this isn't a major issue because of complaint number 2, however I tend to prefer that systems so central to character growth make a quick appearance, as opposed to this which doesn't show up till lvl 15-20, and that's with me not bothering with any purposeful leveling whatsoever since i knew about the system beforehand. If you're the kind of person who likes a little early game grinding to better coast through the first half, or a OCD min/maxer, you might feel like you've wasted leveling. However as I mentioned, this doesn't become a major deal because of complaint #2, but I still knock it a bit because you don't KNOW it won't matter at first.
My second complaint of FFVI's gameplay is the fact that it's just so damn easy. All the lost potential from overleveling before the introduction of Espers? forget about it, you probably don't need most of it. The ultimate gear is pretty easy to find or gain through simple sidequests, and they really work miracles. 2-3 of your characters can fall down and get up in 128% M.Block set ups. 128% Magic Block is, apparently, the magic number that makes your character able to 100% evade any evadable attack (mostly everything except big spells like Meteor). Why 128% M.Block? some kind of bug involving regular evasion (doesn't actually work) and M.Block granting regular evade (that actually works). In my main party, Terra, Celes, and Edgar were basically unkillable. Shadow was the only vulnerable party, but he did such massive damage with cheap store bought throwables (tier 1 and tier 2 shurikens) that what little risk he brought to the table didn't even matter. The main challenge in the later portions comes purely from the final dungeon and it's requirement to form 3 separate parties. Unused party members don't gain any exp, reduced or otherwise, so the level disparities result in the most likely course of action being spreading out your main party to try and carry anyone you couldn't be bothered to use. All teams retain access to the shared inventory though, so you can just ferry your awesome gear between the parties, alleviating the issue for the most part.
The First Half Sells The Hype
The beginning of FFVI manages to start off strong, a mysterious young girl under mind control, a small resistance against an evil empire, and mysterious beings of magic and power. It's nothing ground breaking today, but it gives the necessary hooks to get you in till you get to the meat of the game. The high points of the story isn't so much the main plot, but the character substories which occur. the dynamics of Terra, Celes, and Locke, what they've done, who they are, and the emotional turmoil of their situations form the core block of engaging story to be had. Even the best part of the main story, the situation of the Esper's, can be considered a part of Terra's main development, as she ends up providing the link between humans and Espers. There are way more party members, 11 main party members and 3 hidden, but beyond the core three, your results will vary on how much you will care. Some characters don't get as much time in the spotlight but these were often characters, such as Cyan, Strago, and Relm, that I really didn't care about so it didn't often bother me. Between the choice of a insignificant character or no character at all, i'd rather have no character, so to be honest 14 total characters was unnecessary. I didn't even end up finding the third optional character. But this is a minor quirk at best when the first half is jam packed with a good core group.
Discussion of FFVI can not be considered to be conclusive without some attention spent on FFVI's main villain, Kefka. Kefka presents an interesting switch from the typical bad guys so far seen in the series. Instead of being present only in name or legend, or only showing up for a quick gloat/ass whooping, kefka remains hands on with the initial happenings of the game. He's also not the dark reserved type, but sort of a mad jester type, a bit of a emotional erratic bumbler in some regards. His dialogue and mannerisms can definitely be a bit funny or interesting, I'd like to have seen my face in a mirror when he uttered his "son of a submariner" line (stand in for son of a bitch). Now in my research, which usually involves hitting up TVtropes.org (awesome site, if you're ever bored at work or something, look up your favorite game, chances are you'll gain new insight, or just find some of the entries hilarious), I actually came upon an interesting note about Kefka. Apparently the manner in which he is depicted was modified slightly in the english translation, adding in a more dark and malicious slant, rather than the more humorous version originally written. This apparently has led to his english version accruing a much larger fanbase than his original version. Supposedly a lot of japanese players found him more annoying than anything else. Kefka in the west seems to be bestowed the moniker Joker of the FF series. However several problems appear in the back half, and with my overall feeling of the character that puts a few dents in this comparison.
The Second Half Seems To Throw Most of It Away
Kefka is considered unique amongst most FF villains in that he actually succeeds in destroying the world. At the halfway point in the game, the world changes massively, so much in fact that the entire composition of the game does as well. Gone is the traditional mostly linear progression of the first half, in its place is a open ended structure where, outside the initial required progression, most content is structured around quests to get the band back together. Unfortunately the switch is not for the better for quite a few reasons. When I mentioned the period of reflection this game elicited within me, this is the main culprit, but let us back up a second, and take this through one step at a time.
The initial segment features Celes and Cid, an ex scientist of the evil empire, believing they may be the last humans alive on a deserted island. Due to their past relationship, they begin to consider themselves in a grandpa/granddaughter relationship. It's probably supposed to be a touching state of what could be the last vestiges of humanity. In practice it struck me as extremely creepy due to the exact dialogue. You're also launched into a mini game of sorts in which you must feed a sick cid fish. This segment took me so long that I eventually looked up what I was supposed to do, and even after I realized the goal to make Cid healthy, it still took awhile. The kicker was that I looked up the what would have happened if I had let the high maintenance bitch die, and it was a way more interesting plot line than what i had given to me.
At this point Celes gets off the island and the second act proper begins. If you were hoping for some continuation of the main plot, more about the espers, new information about the war of the magi's or Kefka himself, you're out of luck. The entire main plot at this point consists of finding your party members that've been pissing away the last year, with varying degrees of good reasons for doing so, and going to kick Kefka's ass. Terra and Locke's stories make up the most sensible reasons to have abandoned their quests and going their separate ways. Terra finds a place she's needed and loved, Locke continues his quest to find a way to save his lost love. The other's generally vary. Cyan ends up spending time in seclusion on a mountain sending letters to a young woman posing as her dead boyfriend. Edgar and Sabin somehow manage to not find each other despite being found on the same continent and well...you know, you think two recently reunited brothers might search for signs of each other.
The final dungeon requires 3 separate parties that can hold their own, so whether or not you care to recruit a character, you should probably do it anyway. The next point will seem a bit nitpicky, but it ended up being one of those issues that seems petty on the surface, but below the surface tends to be a symptom of what exactly is wrong. After a point, the game is no longer able to account for who exactly you'll have in your party (to a point, it can assume that celes is at least available for a small cutscene, such as with the finishing of Locke's quest) so it results to generic dialogue whenever your party speaks to someone. I know what you're probably thinking, "Is that really such a big deal?" Well on it's own no, but what it came to symbolize to me was the drained and mostly absent amount of character the party has throughout the World of Ruin beyond whoever's quest you're doing. This is opposed to the first half that managed to weave the main plot and character development together into a single powerful thread.
The point I'm trying to make isn't that the game, or even the World of Ruin portion is bad per se. Overall I still enjoyed the game. The problem is that there is a major discrepancy between the front and back of the game. Overall it feels like the game regresses as soon as the world ends, which is both a shame, and strangely fitting. I had the realization that if a few of the WoR segments had been shifted to the WoB, they could have ended the game on the floating content and I would have loved the game way more than I do.
So let's get back to the infamous Kefka shall we? After his destruction of the world, gone is the hands on chaotic jester, and in his place is the same old same old FF villain we've had all along. Kefka is never met until the final boss fight, and only various references are made to him using a magical beam to wreck shit up. Like the rest of the game, Kefka feels like a regression rather than a paragon of the so called FF golden era. The biggest problem is I never feel there's any sort of deeper cunning to him. He wins purely from having power and anyone who could stop him acting like a dumbass and just giving him the opportunity. Now that can make for a fun bad guy, but it doesn't make for a deep landmark antagonist. Now credit where credit is due, his final monologue is pretty good, and if he had maintained his taunting lunacy throughout the World of Ruin, rather than just remaining holed up in his tower, I'd probably agree that he was a pretty good villain. But he doesn't so I end up not feeling all that impressed.
Final Fantasy VI Is A Game of Conflicting Emotions
Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? This is what FFVI asked me, in a way neither I nor the game probably ever expected. Does a strong first half manage enough forward momentum to carry the game home through a limping second half? Or does a disappointing second act sink the first half, dragging it down with the ship? I probably sounded extremely harsh when it comes to the second half, but I hurt because I love, and when all is said and done, I don't know if I can really judge which camp I belong in. The first half had me sold on it's legacy, the second found me struggling to reconcile its superstar status with what I was personally experiencing. Honestly I don't really know if I can say whether or not I liked FFVI, it certainly put me on a rollercoaster of emotions. I feel like for the first time in the course of this series, I'll be catching some backlash (keep it civil), maybe the problem isn't the game, maybe it's me, that's always possible, my word isn't law and if you thought FFVI was a gripping experience from start to end, then that's great. Maybe when this is entire series is done, I'll have to go back to FFVI one more time. In the end, I can say without a doubt, that FFVI is a game that everyone who loves JRPG's and FF should play, if only so you can decide for yourself where it truly stands in terms of greatness, because at this point I still don't know myself.
Don't Immolate Me Yet
If my abode hasn't been stormed by an angry mob, and I burned at the stake, then feel free to join me next week when we take a look at the next installment, the ever hyped Final Fantasy VII. "So will it be another month for an update?" No actually it won't, thanks to a ridiculous past month, which has been conducive to playing the games, but not writing articles, not only do I have FFVII finished, but I'm a stone's throw from finishing FFVIII as well. The series takes a bit of a different turn as we move in to the era of Final Fantasy that I have completely previously, no longer being first looks, but full on retrospectives of some games that were pretty instrumental to my gaming developments.