Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blog: Thoughts on Final Fantasy VI (3)

As part of my ongoing tour through my childhood, SNES RPGs, I recently played through Final Fantasy VI (or 3 if you're from around where I was in space and time). As a kid, this game was the pinnacle of what a game should be, an rpg, full of adventure, drama, swords, magic and airships (sorry Earthbound, we'll catch up later). Replaying it, I found that the game generally holds up, but it definitely has some flaws. The characters were great, the story was very good and the combat was alright, but it also got in the way the characters and the story telling.

Final Fantasy VI as I remember it. (From GameFAQs user JagDogger2525)

This post covers my thoughts about Final Fantasy VI and it includes some spoilers. Incidentally I played on my SNES, so didn't have to deal with the *cough*crappy*cough* remake. (If you're interested, I did enjoy this article about what went on with the remake).

Things I Liked

Final Fantasy VI has an amazing sense of cinema, right from the opening cut scene. It isn't afraid to change up the gameplay to strengthen that cinema. The opening cutscene of the game provides a feeling of a cold and desperate team and that sense carries over as you start to get to play but you also get the added feeling of power as you have the magitec suits and are fighting really squishy minions. Other things like the rafting scene, the opera scene and the breaking of the world scene are also really interesting moments where you do something other than the normal game play but all in service to the cinema.

A strong opening (From GameFAQs user VinnyVideo)

The music and sound design are also really well done and serve that sense of cinema. The music may not be my overall favourite for a SNES game, but it's very very strong as you're entering new scenes and helps you to understand at a visceral level what a scene or location is about. The sound design is beautiful and I like the way the game uses sound effects (although some of that is a bit of nostalgia).

The thing I liked the most about Final Fantasy VI, is the characters. The game has twelve main characters, all protagging, and the story doesn't feel muddied. I think there are two main reasons why this works as well as it does. First each character is well written, with a clear arc, goals, dreams and flaws. Second the game is very good about managing when characters take up the story stick and when they don't. Characters, whether they're currently the main playable character or not, step up when it's their scene and contribute to the story. When it's not their scene they don't steal the show, but they do contribute. This lets the game have twelve main characters running around, all contributing but only a few holding the story focus at any point in time.

As I mentioned the characters are well written and that improves the game immensely. The heroes are all complex and the NPCs are interesting. For example, the character of Gsetahl leaves you guessing as to whether he was deluded, tricked, had a face-turn (or a heel-turn). Other characters,have a similar level of complexity through out the story and this helps flesh out both the world and the story.

Our enemy, but an honest man? (From GameFAQs user VinnyVideo)

Finally, there's Kefka. I think Kefka's may be one of the most interesting villains because he doesn't have a motivation, he's just crazy. In the same way Batman's endless resources are irrelevant in the face of the Joker, Kefka takes away all of the advantages the heroes may have and also that you have as the player. In terms of story, this has to be used sparingly (if too many games implement this then it's not special) and implemented carefully. You only really interact with Kefka a handful of times in the game and so it's surprising when his true nature is revealed and the world is destroyed. It also changes the nature of the story from a save the world story to a get revenge story and I think that's interesting as a less common video game story.

I quite like the story itself. It's Final Fantasy, so it inevitably gets to the point where you have to go save the world, but I prefer the ones where the saving the world is incidental to the rest of the story (this is one of the reasons why FF XII is probably my favourite Final Fantasy). I also like, as I said that this is the game where you don't save the world. The stories of video games tend to fall into a much smaller range than a lot of other media and so any game where the story does something unusual is a nice addition.

The strength of the story definitely comes back to the strength of the characters. Much of the story is based on the characters resolving problems that had been going on before the game began, but now heightened by the back drop of of a world war and the eventual end of the world. The characters aren't ever the chosen ones so much as the ones who are currently there who can probably do something.

The dialog isn't great, as it's suffers from early 90s translation and Woolseyisms (thought "Son of a Submariner" is and will always be a great line). But the story shines through the writing and especially now that it's been a few months since I finished the game, my feelings looking back are that the story was well done.

Finally, I liked the setting. As a kid FFVI was the game I set all other games by. Is it an RPG? Does everyone get a sword? Ok I think it'll be a good game (like I said, sorry Earthbound). So at it's heart the concept of an early industrial world powered by magic really appeals to me. The world is a little thin, there's not too many actual towns and not too many people in those towns and the towns are all very similar.  Still the game does a good job of making each place feel different and the people in each place feel different both from people in other places and from each other.

As with many games (especially from Square) at the time having spent hours walking across the land you get a really deep feeling for where things are and who's doing what. Then when you get the airship and can suddenly take in the whole world at once you get a real feeling of scale and speed, which supplements the adventure you'd already felt.

Final Fantasy VI really doubles down on this with the World of Ruin. After you've spent a long time getting attached to the world and the people in it, you're then forced to go around the world again and find where towns have gone and who managed to survive. So you get a very "home from away" feeling, which I think also heightens your attachment to the world.

Things I Didn't Like

The cinema of Final Fantasy VI is well served by the game play except for one big problem, the random encounters. It's pretty standard to bitch about random encounters, you're trying to get something done and then the game cuts into your peaceful walk with a loud clang and a messed up screen and then you have to fight a bunch of numpty little somethings that get killed without you actually paying any attention to what's going on.

Yay! A fight! Again! ... (From GameFAQs user KeyBlade999)

That's annoying. It certainly ruins the pace of the game and I think it's a reason why people have significantly fonder memories of games where this doesn't happen (Yes, yes, Earthbound, I'll get to you, I promise). I think that the problem in FFVI is a little more specific though.

The specific problem with random encounters in FFVI may be best illustrated by one instance in the game where having arrived at the top of a tower to fight a boss (and sorry I don't remember which tower or which boss), and watched the boss spar verbally with our heroes I then had to walk six tiles up to fight the boss. At this point I fought two meaningless random encounters before making it to the boss.

Gamewise of course this messed up my carefully refilled health and mp, but it also totally derailed the story. Suddenly the tension that had built up in the story was gone and the fight with the boss was a little anticlimactic. The game mechanic got in the way of the story.

The application of random encounters in FFVI creates this effect quite often (sneaking through an enemy base? Well don't forget to fight an endless series of soldiers). The game mechanic (which may have felt more relevant at the time) overrides the story and forces you to remember that you're playing a game. I'm not saying that the inverse, story overrides the game mechanic, isn't also a problem, it's just not the problem that FFVI has.

The other big problem the game has is that while in story each of the large cast of characters is interesting, in game play they're not. There tends to be a wide disparity in the usefulness/effectiveness of character's powers when fighting, some characters (such as Sabin) are so overpowered that you'd be dumb not to take them, but then they end up getting more power. However using underpowered heroes feels useless a lot of the time, since even if they get more levels their power is never useful (such as Setzer).

The crew is large and talented ... and at least Setzer brought the airship. (From GameFAQs user Super_Slash)

Square has done a lot of things in the following Final Fantasy games to try to manage this problem, but I think it largely comes down to it's hard to have a dozen interesting game mechanics in the same game.

The game also suffers from my pet peeve of unexplained status effects. Poison seems to mostly make sense both for the heroes and the monsters, but there's a lot of effects where I'm not sure what's happen or if anything is actually happening. The giant monster sprites are pretty and kinda cool, but obscure information really badly. As I've said in a few other of these posts, I think that status effects are by far the most interesting part of an RPG's combat system.

Finally the game is unnecessarily slow. I say unnecessarily because there's an item you can equip which makes the game faster. I recently realized that this might have been their attempt to include the concept of encumbrance, but really it just means that you're slightly less effective at fighting (very slightly considering that most random encounters last one round whether you have the sprint shoes equipped or not). This goes against what I think is one of the basic tenants of design, which is not to waste people's time. 

Things I'd Include in a Game

My favourite part of the gameplay from FFVI is the parts where it splits the party and lets you work through different parts of the action (or story) with different teams. It's certainly the most interesting game play (especially if you're used to cruising through fights with your over levelled team) and I think given a cast this big it's also the best way that the story gets told. So I think that's one thing I'd love to take forward, especially if you can start to include some of the concepts like party-chats you see in more modern RPGs.

I also like the way the game balances the gameplay and the story telling / cinema. Obviously the amount of ludo vs narrative you want in any game varies depending on what you want, but I think for a game about story this one does a pretty good job of managing the two, at least if you can ignore the random encounters.

Not enough opera simulators coming out these days (From GameFAQs user KeyBlade999)

Finally, I'm reminded again about how good a clear system for status ailments is. FFVI has really pretty enemy sprites, but as a consequence, it's almost impossible to see if you've inflicted an enemy with a status. It's also not very clear from the game generally what status effects are supposed to do and when they've worked or not (and why). So that's a thing I'd like to do better.

Final Thoughts

I love this game. I don't love it quite as much as I did when I was a kid and my replay has dropped it behind FFXII on my list of favourite Final Fantasy games. It doesn't have quite as much polish as I'd like, and I think having Chrono Trigger around puts it in a slightly dimmer light than it might stand it on it's own. I really like the story and the efforts the creators went to in realizing using cinematics and game play in a really balanced way.

A fight at the end of the world (From GameFAQs user KeyBlade999)

I like any game that doesn't involve "you are the chosen one now go save the world" and while this game has shadows of that, a the story isn't that one. I like how you're chosen by dint of being the only ones there and your saving the world has a lot more to do with getting revenge on the evil clown who's already destroyed everything.

If you haven't played FFVI, you should, or at least you should find a good Let's Play of it. I would be careful since apparently the new remake has some problems, not the least of which are really poorly implemented graphics. Still, it's a worthwhile game and I think it's an important part of gaming history as one of the strongest games before the dawn of the 3d era.

The End (From GameFAQs user noidentity)

Weekly Project Update (August 15 - August 21)

Here's the creative projects I worked on this week (August 15 - August 21):
  • Monday -
  • Tuesday -
  • Wednesday -
  • Thursday - Blogging
  • Friday - Drawing
  • Saturday - Blogging
  • Sunday - 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Favourite YouTube Videos (Volume 139)

In this volume of my favourite YouTube videos, we go to war, fall in love and learn not to trust anyone with a bucket full of icy water.

  • First we have Jesse Cox's Let's Play of Valiant Hearts. I found this to be a really interesting game, as it's used to explore the history and impact of the First World War. I like seeing different ways games can be used to teach and engage people and I think Valiant Hearts is a worthwhile experiment.
  • Next, you should know that Pomplamoose is "All about that (Super)Bass".
  • Finally, Destin from Smarter Every Day took a little science to his Ice Bucket Challenge. The primary results is that his cat is smart enough not to trust him and his son is fearless and also that thanks to sponsorship he was able to make a good donation to help research into ALS.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Weekly Project Update (August 8 - August 14)

Here's the creative projects I worked on this week (August 8 - August 14):

  • Monday - Drawing
  • Tuesday - Nothing
  • Wednesday - Blogging
  • Thursday - Blogging
  • Friday - Nothing
  • Saturday - Blogging
  • Sunday - Nothing