“I’ll never let go. I promise.” – Locke
I love video games, I have for as long as I can remember, and reviewing them is something that I have always wanted to do. Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Wrong. I racked my brain for days, trying to decide on the perfect title to dissect. I wanted it to be an RPG, that was obvious. It had to be something that I had enjoyed personally, and what i would consider to be a classic. Something that had a memorable cast, engaging game play, and that told a story worth telling. Actually, looking back, once I had those parameters set, it shouldn’t have been as hard as it was.
Final Fantasy VI, released as Final Fantasy III in North America, is not my favourite game in the series. That honour belongs to the much maligned, and admittedly somewhat angsty Final Fantasy VIII. No, it’s not my favourite, but I do think it’s the most important. Its strong focus on narrative, and character arcs would be aped by RPG’s for decades to come, and its more character specific take on the ATB (Active Time Battle) is something I wish the series would return too, where an individual party member is more than just a blank slate.
VI is the story of the mysterious, amnesiac Terra. Or arguably of the turncoat Imperial commander, Celes. I’ve even heard claims that the actual protagonist is the self styled treasure hunter/thief, Locke. And while today it’s tale of a ragtag rebel outfit resisting a nefarious empire might seem overplayed, but back in ’94 it was quite fresh (at least in video games). It’s a unique Final Fantasy game in that it’s hard to decide whose story it actually is, you could argue that XII is somewhat similar in that regard, but I digress.
Our story begins in the small mining village of Narshe, where an “Esper” is unearthed. Sent to claim it for the Empire, is the aforementioned amnesiac and initially brainwashed, Terra. Mounted on the imposing Imperial Magitek armour, slogging through the driving snow, and flanked by the ill-fated Biggs and Wedge, the opening cinematic is one of VI’s most iconic image’s, and should be instantly recognisable to any true RPG fan.
It’s full of touching moments, too many to list. My favourite, though, would have to be the iconic ”coin” scene. Edgar, atop the battlements of Figaro castle who would, with the toss of a coin, seal his own fate and that of his twin brother Sabin… and that of an entire kingdom. It’s a scene that’s bound to tug at the heart strings of anyone with siblings, doubly so when you learn that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. And of course, the whole scene is set to a stand out tune on what is a truly extraordinary soundtrack – The Coin Song, a melancholy re-arrangement of the unforgettable Edgar & Sabin theme.
And speaking of soundtracks, Nobuo Ueamatsu’s work on VI may (in my humble opinion) just be the finest collection the great composer has ever produced. While I think other games in the series may have stronger tracks, (To Zanarkand, Those Who Fight Further, and The Man With The Machine Gun come to mind, from Final Fantasy’s X, VII and VIII, respectively) VI’s score as a cohesive whole is quite simply masterful. It feature’s rousing anthems, like the aforementioned Edgar & Sabin’s Theme and Cayenne, to more sombre piece’s like The Mystic Forest and Forever Rachel. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games boss battle theme – The Decisive Battle. My personal favourite track, I once heard a street performer play a stripped down acoustic version on my very first visit to Akihabra, making it both a song and a day I will never forget. It never failed to get me pumped up for a boss fight, and really, what more can you ask of a boss theme?
“The Reaper is always one step behind me” – Shadow
Gameplay is very much traditional Final Fantasy, which is to say, it utilises the ATB system, and is very story focused. For those unfamiliar, the ATB system is a turn-based combat system in which the players characters are able to attack when their action gauge is full, with some attacks/abilities taking a little longer. The speed at which a characters turn comes around is tied to their speed stat, and can be influenced with spells such as Haste. Its a tense system, as it has a feeling of randomness to it, and you cant see your foe’s gauge so you never know what attack you will be hit with next. The basic gameplay loop consists of narrative scenes and dungeon crawling with a surprising amount of side-questing, which is truly impressive considering this was released as a 16-bit game. And of course, random battles. One of my favourite aspects of VI’s battle system is that each of the games fourteen playable characters have a unique skill that makes them feel truly different, making the choice of what party members to bring alone feel less arbitrary, and more like choosing the right man (or woman, and whatever Gogo is) for the job at hand.
Like most games in the Final Fantasy series, VI is a game that needs be experienced to truly understand why it is more than just the sum of its parts. Sure, it has an engaging narrative, a cast free of the many tropes found in the genre today, and an incredible soundtrack. It has an engaging battle system and tons of replay value. Its art style is original and instantly recognisable, and it has a truly evil arch villain (Kefka) that actually achieves his goals, and the better part of the game is spent trying to deal with the consequences of that. How many games can you name where that is the case?
You think a minor thing like the end of the world was gonna do me in?” – Sabin
Any of those qualities alone would make for a great game. But its the way these elements are woven together so effortlessly that truly makes VI such a timeless game. Its that, and its so much more. Developers are still trying to recapture VI’s magic,for the most part unsuccessfully. It has so much heart, and it’s full of real emotion. Its a story of growth, and of redemption. It’s a tale of longing, and of timeless love. Its an epic of adversity, and of friendship. It’s a fantasy based in reality….
And it’s a journey I would recommend taking.