Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Final Fantasy 6: Intro and Combat

Wow, we’ve sure had a lot of Oblivion here lately. It’s a big change of pace for me, both because I’m updating regularly and because the game is only 9 years old. That’s way too current for me. Next thing you know I’ll actually be covering current news and things that are relevant to reader’s interests! I can only imagine how horrible such a future would be. What’s next, having loving and supportive fans with whom I share a healthy and non-abusive relationship? Gross.

“We love you Genericide!”
“Ugh, go away weirdos, your positive reinforcement is unsettling! I bet you don’t even enjoy bad fan fiction!”

So this week we’re going to take a break from the 9 year old game to talk about one over 20 years old, Final Fantasy 6. Final Fantasy is one of the most well-known franchises in video games, and defined an entire sub-genre, the JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game). Final Fantasy 6 was the last of the main series to use 2D sprites instead of 3D models. It was also the last to appear on a Nintendo console, showing up in America as Final Fantasy 3. (Due to lesser sales, many early games weren’t released outside Japan until later).

Final Fantasy 6 is also considered by many to be the best in the series, and consequently one of the greatest RPGs, if not greatest games, of all time. Knowing this, I started playing the game several years ago. However, I borrowed that copy of the game from someone who was not very keen on taking care of his game discs. The sinister thing is that the game played fine for months. Then one day, about 30 hours into the game, it abruptly stopped working. It simply decided that it wasn’t going to run ever again.

Nah that’s totally fixable, lemme just wipe it with the bottom of my shirt...

So years passed, I went through most of college, and then rebought the game about a year ago. I finally finished it last week, so with all that build-up, does the game live up to the hype? Is it one of the greatest games of all time? Well...not quite. Final Fantasy 6 is a game that has some problems, as well as a fair number of things that, though not problems per se, could’ve been better executed. I wouldn’t call it the best game I’ve played, or even the best Final Fantasy game. Over several different posts I’m going to tackle what I didn’t like about the game, from the combat mechanics to the story.

But that’s not all. I’m also going to talk about what I did enjoy. Because make no mistake: Final Fantasy is a fantastic game. It’s not just beloved for nostalgia, it genuinely does a lot of things right in multiple areas. I highly enjoyed the experience and could recommend it to anyone who enjoys turn-based RPGs. So enough pre-amble, let’s get into Final Fantasy 6, starting with how the game plays.

Old-School Brawling, For Better or Worse

A picture of FF6 battles, for reference. Apologies for the small size, my google fu is weak.

Final Fantasy 6 uses the classic system used for much of the series known as Action Time Battles (ATB). The difference between this and traditional turn-based combat is that when a character acts is based on a timer. Instead of you and your enemies taking turns to smack each other back and forth, each combatant has bars that fill up over time and let them act when full. The main way this changes things is forcing the player to make quick decisions, and punishing them for not doing so. Is this a good thing? Well...

I’m often torn on the issue. Adding this real-time element to the game definitely adds tension at times, when your party is on the way to being annihilated and you’re scrambling to either patch your friends up or rush down your enemies before it’s too late. But not all tension is good tension, and this system often invokes the wrong kind. Namely, it discourages thinking too much about your decisions, or crafting particularly elaborate strategies. Sure you could meditate on the perfect battle strategy. You could optimize your characters for intricate combinations of attacks that work together in exact synergy to conquer any situation.

But you know what’s easier than that, especially in a time-sensitive environment like this? Finding the biggest numbers.

Oooh! Oooh! That one! That’s the highest one. I found it. Did I win the video games?

Deal the most damage, heal the most damage. Apart from several exceptions (mostly end-game magic), spells that don’t damage or heal are useless. Most characters have unique skills separate from magic, but the best way to use them is to just to find what hits the hardest. This has always been an issue I’ve had with combat in old Final Fantasy games. They don’t seem good at encouraging strategy beyond a few basics. Namely: What moves do the most damage, when should I heal, when should I cure status ailments and what element should I use? That may sound like a lot, but they’re all very straightforward. Spell weaknesses are hard to determine without wasting time testing everything, at which point it’s just spam the biggest number. Status ailments like poison can change up gameplay but they’re rare and typically trivial to fix. In fact, the game is pretty easy in general, which brings me to my next point...

The Fun of Unbalanced Gameplay

Final Fantasy 6 is not a well-balanced game. This is mainly because it is so easy to break. Characters unique abilities vary wildly in effectiveness, with some being ridiculously strong. Magic is relatively unassuming in the early game but horrifically overpowered by the end of it. Degenerate strategies run rampant. This can really hurt the game. It makes lots of choices in progression, such as what abilities or even entire characters to use, objectively better or worse than others. It cripples many interesting options and strategies. Sure you can put in extra effort into beating the game with weaker choices, but this is inherently unsatisfying in terms of problem solving. The combat is busted.

It can also be a ton of fun.

The game starts with you rampaging through a town in giant magical mech suits. Balanced? No. Empowering? Oho yes.

By the end of the game, every single one of the dozen party members I took to the final dungeon was completely over-prepared. We blazed through that place atop a pain train of burning corpses. What should’ve been a climactic showdown was turned into a farce, a sham, a hilarious victory lap. To be fair, I spent a short time training before the last leg of my journey. But also being fair, my weakest characters could disintegrate horrific monstrosities by coughing at them.

There are definitely problems with this. Any semblance of strategy was shattered. I had my mages spam the strongest magic and the others spam regular attacks. For the epic, multi-stage final boss, I did the exact same thing but with one party member healing each turn. Fights other than bosses became annoying filler popping up every several steps. Even without grinding, this happens well before you run out of content. It’s pretty disappointing to reach the later parts of a game about making tactical decisions and find tactics even less required than they were before.

This is Ultima. Get used to seeing this spell effect, because you will be spamming it all the way through the last dungeon.

All that being said, I have to admit: Being overpowered is very, very gratifying. Destroying all difficulty in the game makes it more boring, sure. But the goal is no longer challenging your brain, but letting you kick back and enjoy being better than everyone else. There are also plenty of different ways to become overpowered. Near the end of Final Fantasy 6, extremely strong equipment, spells and abilities are handed out like candy on Halloween. So the game isn’t just one strategy that’s superior to others, there are all sorts of broken tactics to employ. It’s like building a custom death machine and watching it grind monsters into a pulp.

One last note before we move on: Most enemies in old Final Fantasy games suck. Final Fantasy 6 is no exception. The vast majority just amount to different numbers and sprites being assigned to monsters that are tactically identical. Very few enemies force you to change your strategy in this game, and those that do typically just change it to “hit that enemy first”. There’s a huge amount of different monsters and many of them look quite strange, but this actually just makes things worse. You can never tell anything about an enemy from its appearance, and you’ll probably kill it before finding out more.

Some fantasy monsters are just timeless. Dragons. Orcs. Bulbous-purple-muscle-tumor-demon-with-tricycle-limbs-and-a-tailpipe-sticking-out-its-ass. Y’know, the classics.

So to sum up, Final Fantasy 6 has broken combat. This makes it enjoyable in a straightforward kind of way, but robs it of a lot of tactical depth it could’ve aimed for. I’d say it’s the game’s biggest failing for me. But there’s one last element to the combat of FF6 that I have to mercilessly nipick criticize before we wrap up.

Character Customization

If you read my rambling diatribe on Oblivion’s leveling system, you’ll recall that I took the game to task for having stats that didn’t add to the game. It’s something that wouldn’t bother most people, but I’m a grumpy stick-in-the-mud on the subject. Final Fantasy 6, like much of the series, suffers from problems with clarity of stats. For example, FF6 has a stat called “Vigor”. Vigor is the same as Strength in every other friggin RPG in existence. In fact, it was even called Strength in later remakes of the game, so they eventually realized how pointless it was calling it something else.

Vigor increases the damage of physical attacks, but it’s unclear by how much. Physical damage is calculated by a combination of Level, Vigor and Bat Pwr (in remakes referred to as Attack). Bat Pwr is damage based on the weapon you have equipped. If you have to choose between upgrading Vigor and Bat Pwr, there’s no way to tell which is better. I looked it up on the internet, and only found people on forums speculating that it’s probably better to upgrade Bat Pwr until you reach a certain amount of Vigor unless you want to use certain characters special moves instead of regular attacks and AUGH! Look, I understand this was a standard back then, but this kind of stuff drives me insane. If you want someone to make informed decisions they should understand what the consequences are!

Well, you do know one thing: Make the numbers go higher to get better. ENDLESS TACTICAL POSSIBILITIES!

But fine, many people won’t have an issue with this as long as they know they’re getting some benefit to raising the stat. Here’s an even juicier tidbit about the Vigor stat: You can raise it up to 255, but any points beyond 128 will have absolutely no effect. They don’t tell you this, so it’s hard to find out without looking up.


Why would you do that?! What’s the point?

Here’s another fun stat: Stamina. In Final Fantasy 6, Stamina does a few things.

1. Increase your resistance to instant-death attacks.
2. Increase the amount you heal each turn from the spell Regen.
3. Increase the damage you take from damage-over-time effects like poison.

It’s a stat that offers a rarely used edge benefit in exchange for actually making your character WORSE elsewhere. In other words, it’s an objectively bad stat to level up.

In a game with only 6 stats you can level up.

So the question to ask is: How do you increase these stats and customize your character? There are the standard weapons and armor to equip that increase attack and defense, occasionally adding unique effects. Nothing much is new there. FF6 also introduced relics, which are pieces of equipment with wide, sweeping effects not tied to simple stat boosting. For example, relics might give you a chance to counter-attack when hit, halve the cost of magic spells, or increase movement speed outside of combat.

I better break up this wall of text with something interesting to keep readers from getting bored. MORE MENUS!

I quite liked this. I’m a fan of equipment that creates big changes, as it promotes swapping them out to suit different situations. That’s exactly what I did...but only a few times in the entire game. You see as cool as relics are in theory, there are some that are simply better than others. Can you guess which ones? It’s the ones that just increase damage. This is the same problem I mentioned earlier, where higher numbers are the quickest path to victory. Oh well, baby steps.

Apart from equipment, characters also increase their stats by leveling up. Characters have certain base stats that are better or worse than others, but there is one way you can influence them yourself: espers.

Espers are like Summons in other Final Fantasy games. You equip one to each character and then that character can summon a big ol’ monster to deal one massive blow to your enemies. But that’s not the only thing they do. Espers also have stats attached to them that increase every time a character levels up. Each esper also teaches spells to characters who equip them, at varying rates. Once a character learns a spell from an esper, they know it permanently. You know what would help break up this explanation? MORE SCREENSHOTS OF MENUS!

...alright fine, have a picture of one of them attacking instead.

As a system, espers are...eeeeh, okay. It sounds great at first, like they’re condensing all these cool features into one package. But these systems are usually separate for a reason. Espers are sort of like stapling a toaster and a filing cabinet to your Swiss army knife. It doesn’t make the individual parts more useful, it just makes them a hassle to use. The most efficient thing to do is pick whether you want a character to be a spell caster or not, then equip them with an esper that raises Magic or Vigor respectively. Raising HP or MP changes them by a negligible amount, only one esper in the game raises Speed, and Stamina is worthless. So there’s stats sorted out for the entire game.

As for spells, the espers that give the right stats aren’t always the ones with new spells. So the most efficient way to do things is to equip espers that teach the spells you want and then when your character is one battle from leveling up, switch back to the esper that increases stats. The only real “choice” here is whether you’re too lazy to manually swap them out all the time and exploit this. If you are, fear not. As I mentioned earlier, this game is easy. All you really need is to give your casters the spells with the highest numbers and give the fighters at least one healing spell so you can make use of their MP outside of combat. The ability to give everyone spells is yet another way this game is totally broken in favor of the player. That’s all the depth there is to espers.

You can also summon them in battle. They’re pretty expensive to use though, and the constant swapping makes the ones you have access to vary. I think I summoned like three in my entire playthrough. It’s superfluous.

So that’s the combat system in Final Fantasy 6. Some basic but serviceable combat that gives you the fun of broken character builds. It also gives you mediocre tactical depth, broken or confusing stats, and a deceptively shallow method of customizing your characters. But if you remember the beginning of this article, I said this game was fantastic. If the combat wasn’t what won me over, what was? Look forward to a little more positivity in the following couple posts. Next time, I’ll talk about the game’s writing.

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