Final Fantasy VI: At Long Last

Of all the Final Fantasies I’ve played — and I’ve played exactly half of the main-line titles by now — FF6 is the one that took me the longest to beat. Not because it’s a longer or tougher game than the others, but because I kept stopping. I guess this is a pretty good indicator that I didn’t find it as compelling as FF5 or FF7. The story and setting are interesting enough, but most of the time, my attention was on the mere mechanics, which just didn’t keep me interested the way FF5‘s freewheeling Jobs system did. I can blame my urge to optimize for part of that: the dual use of Espers, teaching spells continuously and raising stats when you level, meant that I spent a lot of time shuffling them around from person to person.

Ah, but I leave out the Espers’ third use, that of summonable. That’s because I was hardly ever using them that way toward the end, as my characters came to dwarf them in power. Maybe half of them knew the Ultima spell (the ultimate area-effect direct-damage spell), and most of them knew Cure 3 (enough healing power to usually restore the whole party to full health) and Life 2 (resurrect and restore to full health). These are all big mana-drains, but they also knew Osmose (absorb mana from an enemy) — something that I never used much for most of the game, but which proved useful in the three-stage boss fight against Kefka.

There’s a certain amount of philosophizing before and after the fight, with Kefka taking a garden-variety nihilistic stance, countered by Terra’s nurturing the-journey-not-the-destinationism. With his makeup and hyena’s laugh, Kefka always seemed a bit like the Joker, but when he goes into ultimate-battle mode, he adopts a more mock-angelic form that’s a clear anticipation of Sephiroth in FF7. I suppose that to people who played the games in order, it came off as Sephiroth being a variation on Kefka’s theme, but from my point of view, Kefka looks like a transitional form, a step on the way to the more familiar.

At any rate, as I had been told, the end boss fight turns out to be pretty easy once you’ve come that far and survived the other encounters in Kefka’s junkyard tower. The main obstacle to completing the dungeon is simply its length. I may be just remembering badly, but I don’t recall the final dungeon in FF7 taking anywhere near so long to traverse. And, once you’re through with it, you get the cutscenes. Just like in FF5 (or, at least, the Playstation remake of FF5 that I played), this game just doesn’t want to end. It wants to keep showing you stuff for as long as you’re willing to look at it.

Notably, there’s a series of in-engine vignettes showing the crew rushing to escape the tower before it collapses: each character (or set of related characters) gets their own little mini-sketch highlighting their role in the story — yes, even Gogo and the yeti, who aren’t really part of the story, and who shouldn’t even need to escape the tower, because I left them cooling their heels on the airship. Each of these vignettes is preceded by a credits-like listing, showing their name twice, in small letters in the form it’s usually given and then its full form in larger letters: “Edgar as EDGAR RONI FIGARO”, for example, or “Gogo as GOGO”. It took me a while to realize that the first form was probably the player-assigned name, and that it only looked weird because I hadn’t renamed anyone. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m strange for doing that, if most people reassign them. Certainly whoever designed that sequence assumed that they do.

Once out of the tower, the real credits for the game are punctuated by scenes of the world, freed from Kefka’s random destruction, being restored: the grass comes in green again, a child is born, a seedling sprouts where some children planted it, some villagers manage to finish repairing a building without it getting wrecked again. These are all things that were set up as you roamed about talking to NPCs earlier in the game, and it feels very good to have things tied together like that, to make it clear that your actions have made a difference — but also that your actions aren’t solely responsible for the recovery. This is a matter of people all over the world working to heal it, not a burst of magical Disney energy restoring everything. In fact, that’s kind of important to the themes here. In the end, defeating Kefka involved destroying magic.

Now, lots of fantasy stories, from The Lord of the Rings to Spellbreaker, culminate in the end of the magical age and a transition into something more like the real world. I suppose it’s a metaphor for growing up. But usually it’s portrayed as a loss. Here in FF6, magic is unquestionably a bad thing, and the world is better off without it. There are mentions of the Mage Wars that almost ended the world a thousand years ago, and the Empire’s attempts to resurrect it result in a cataclysm of similar proportions. The only thing that makes the heroes hesitate to get rid of it all is half-Esper Terra, whose fate once the Espers are gone is uncertain. She survives, but only by giving up her magical half — just like the world itself. It suddenly strikes me that this is the reason for her name.

At any rate, that’s one more Final Fantasy off the Stack. Two more were released while I was playing it. The game is very completist-friendly, providing the winner with big lists of all the spells, lores, blitzes, rages, and dances the various characters did and didn’t get. The only place where I was at all complete was Cyan’s sword techniques, and that only because completing a certain quest unlocks all the ones you haven’t got yet in a single lump. I did manage to find and kill all eight of the Great Dragons, and received for my trouble an Esper that I hardly used. Contrary to expectation, it wasn’t Bahamut, either; I never did find Bahamut, although the lists tell me he was around somewhere. The one place where I failed completism most completely was the Arena, where you can wager items on noninteractive duels (one of your guys vs a monster of some sort) in order to win better items. I had used the Arena minimally, due to a misunderstanding on my part. I had found that most of the time I wound up in combat with a freaky-looking facecloud called Chupon who seemed completely undefeatable, because he would always use his Sneeze attack to simply expel my guy from the ring. “I should hold off on arena fights until I know how to block a sneeze!” I thought. “I don’t want to wager a valuable item and have Chupon just take it away from me.” Well, it turns out that the opponent you get is determined by the item you wager, and Chupon is the player’s punishment for wagering too low. So I missed out on some stuff there, but obviously nothing I needed to win the game.

Since I’ve already played FF7 and FF8, the next game in the series I play will be FF9. We’re getting pretty close to the end of Final Fantasy on the Stack, provided I don’t buy any more or take another two years to play each of the remaining games. But I’ll probably want to finish Chrono Trigger and Recettear before starting any new JRPGs.

Chrono Trigger: Mass Destruction

Having now been through scenarios past and future, I reach what seems to be a sort of time-travel hub. Described as “the end of time”, it’s your basic stone platform in an inky void, with a mysterious elderly guardian-of-the-balance type on hand to explain things. There are a few permanent time portals there, including one back to the present. (That is, the time period in which the game starts. To some of the player characters, it’s the past or the future.) But it doesn’t go to the same geographical location that you started in. It goes to Monstertown.

That’s not its real name. It’s just a more descriptive name than the real one, which I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, it’s the place where an evil wizard tried to take over the world 400 years ago, and it’s still inhabited by the descendants of his minions, who still bear a grudge against all humans for defeating him. Not an attack-on-sight sort of grudge like most monsters, just a seething prejudice and an active project to eventually summon a Godzilla-like lava monster to lay waste to all human civilization. And when I say “Godzilla-like”, I mean it’s an obvious metaphor for nuclear weapons. The future you visit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with starving survivors huddling in shelters and mutants in the ruins outside, and it was Lavos who made it that way. The present seems to be in a state of cold war.

It seems to me that East and West have different trends when it comes to post-apocalyptic scenarios. Japan is the only nation on Earth to be the target of a nuclear attack, and understandably has never forgotten it. America is the only nation to have launched a nuclear attack, and has done its level best to forget. Thus, in American games with post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Wasteland and the Fallout series, the details and origins of the conflict tend to be either lost to history or just not particularly relevant to the story — the world has moved on and developed new bad guys from the chaos following the war, and thus has more important things to worry about than who nuked who. Japanese games, on the other hand, are generally very clear that whoever activated the doomsday device is the story’s villain. We see this most clearly in the Final Fantasy games, where, as I’ve noted before, the world tends to get destroyed at the end of the first half. In FF5 and FF6, even after the world is shattered, the villains continue to target individual cities for destruction with city-destroying weapons.

Final Fantasy VI: Bridging the Gap

Usually, when I play a series of games, I play them in order of release, even if that means suffering through the crummy ones before I get to the ones everyone raves about. Final Fantasy has been an exception, and that provides me a rare opportunity to observe the earlier ones with full knowledge of where things were heading. FF6 is a bridging element in my experience of the series: I’ve already played FF5 and FF7. And it’s interesting to me to see the ways it fits a niche halfway between those two games.

As I’ve commented before, the setting of FF5 seemed to be a medieval veneer over advanced industrial technology. The designers wanted to use submarines and force fields and interplanetary travel, but they still wanted to present it as basically a standard pre-industrial fantasy gameworld with castles and dragons and so forth, so the high tech came off as somewhat incongruous and anachronistic. In FF7, this was reversed: the swords-and-sorcery stuff was the anachronism in a setting that’s basically modern and even futuristic in places. Now, FF6 still has castles and kings, but the idea of technology substituting for magic is central to the premise, so they can’t try to sweep it all under the rug without comment the way FF5 did. On the contrary: whenever there’s technology around, which there frequently is, the characters essentially keep saying “Look! Technology!” One of those kings is a playable character, and also a gadgeteer who’s fitted out his castle with all the latest things, including engines for burrowing into the sand and traveling underground.

The character system also has aspects of both FF5 and FF7. Like the former, you have job skills: only the thief can steal things in combat, only the gadgeteer I just mentioned can use clockpunk contraptions, etc. Like the latter, character class is inextricably bound to individual characters, and each “class” has exactly one character in it. Class doesn’t really mean all that much in FF7, though, since the function of job skills — the main thing the whole Job system was used for — is taken over by Materia. The characters differ only in their base stats, what kinds of equipment they can use, and their “limit breaks”, the special attacks that you only get to use after taking a lot of damage. FF6 seems to have a proto-limit break system. At least, the manual claims that characters can make more powerful attacks when they’re low on health. I haven’t observed this myself, because it’s hard to keep a character low on health long enough for them to make an attack: any enemy group capable of reducing someone to that state is probably also capable of finishing them off unless you provide massive healing at the earliest opportunity. I suppose this is why the designers altered the rules when they made FF7. (“Has taken a lot of damage” is not the same as “is currently low on health”, and is a much easier state to achieve.)

I can’t say much about the plot at this early stage, but so far it’s revolved around an “Esper”, a being of great magic, discovered embedded in a crystal in a mine. The empire wants it, and the player characters don’t want them to have it. After a while, it essentially hatches from its mineral shell and somehow merges with the party’s magic specialist, Terra, who transforms into something other than human and flies away. This could be seen as FF5‘s defend-the-crystals plot combined with the FF7‘s business about Jenova, a powerful alien being discovered underground, whose living cells were injected into humans in a super-soldier project. Or is that too much of a stretch?

Final Fantasy V: Ending

Not only have I triumphed over my xyloid adversary, I managed it on my first attempt and with no casualties. Honestly, X-Death (and his ghastly chimeric alternate form, Neo X-Death) isn’t the toughest boss in the game. There are several optional bosses as extra challenges for those who want them. The toughest of them all is Shinryu, a dragon found inside a chest near the end of the final dungeon. The first time I opened that box, Shinryu wiped out my entire party with a single tidal wave; the second time, I was prepared for that, but only lasted slightly longer. But after some more spectacular failures, I managed to defeat Shinryu by exploiting Mimes.

The Mime job is the last one acquired in the game, and is itself optional. Like many things in the game, it’s not obvious at first glance why it’s worthwhile: its sole special ability is the Mime command, which just repeats the action of another player character in combat. So it quite specifically doesn’t let you do anything new. Its big advantage is that miming costs no mana, even when it duplicates spell effects. So, I made a party entirely out of Mimes. By combining Red Mage and Summoner abilities, one of them could summon Bahamut, the strongest summonable in the game, twice in one turn. This was a very expensive cast, but once it was cast once, everyone just passed it along, resulting in eight Bahamut summons in every magically-accelerated combat round. Even facing this much damage, Shinryu managed to wipe out half my party before dying. There may well have been more efficient ways to win that fight, but this was my way, and it worked. It also worked beautifully on X-Death, who barely managed to scratch me at all before deresolving.

Let this be the epitaph of he who would dare control the terrible power of the Void: “Here Lies X-Death, Slaughtered by Mimes. He was a tree.” Not that there would be a grave to inscribe this on or anything. We can’t even put up a commemorative plaque at his place of death, as the fight took place in an extradimensional void.

After victory comes the longest ending sequence since The Return of the King. First there’s the denouement: the the party is escorted out of the Void by the spirits of the Dawn Warriors (“Your work is not yet finished…”), and there are assorted scenes of the world restoring itself, the crystals reforming, the various towns and castles that X-Death cast into the Void during chapter 3 reappearing, and so forth. Then there’s an epilogue set a year later, wherein we learn what the player characters have been doing, and get sepia-toned replays of scenes from the game. Apparently any party members who died in the last battle and were left behind in the Void get resurrected at this point, just in time to ride chocobos around behind the triumphant credits. When the credits are over, the final stats of each player character are displayed one by one, with a scrolling list of all the job abilities they learned. And when that’s finished scrolling, there’s another montage, presumably added for the Playstation version: it consists of scenes from the game re-created as pre-rendered FMV, using 3D models of the characters that look nothing at all like they do in the actual game.

ff5-farisIn fact, they look a lot like the original concept art by Yoshitaka Amano, which also doesn’t look much like what’s in the game. There’s a phenomenon here that I don’t really understand. Amano, the chief character designer for the Final Fantasy series from its inception, does all these vaguely-Pre-Raphaelite-influenced ink-brush drawings of slender people with delicate facial features and elaborate costumes, and then someone has to try to squash that design into a pixellated super-deformed version that fits inside a single map tile. The first six installments of the series were like this, so it’s not as if he didn’t know what was going to happen.

Anyway, I’m done with it all now, and I’m glad I played it, even though I’ll probably have the battle theme going through my head for weeks. It’s definitely one of the best games in the series (of those I’ve played), and it’s all due to the story not strangling the gameplay for once. Tomorrow, Portal! I suspect that it will not take quite as long.

[23 January] Did I say “tomorrow”? Obviously I meant “next week”.

Final Fantasy V: Almost Finished, For Real This Time

I’ll be brief. No, I haven’t finished the game. I’ve reached X-Death’s hideout in the void, where, confronted, he transforms back into his original form: a tree. Yes, a tree. No, this wasn’t a surprise. This gets into the pre-backstory: long ago, someone sealed another evil sorcerer’s soul in this tree, and over the centuries it corrupted and transformed it into the baddie we know. I’ve mentioned how the Dawn Warriors seemed to be the previous generation’s iteration of the same quest the player characters are on, but it seems that variations on the cycle have been going on for a long time. I expect that the final cutscene will contain hints that the evil still isn’t gone for good, and that future generations will face their own version of the story, making the title ironic in a new way.

Anyway, the reason I haven’t plunged ahead into the final battle (or, I suspect, final uninterrupted series of battles) is that it’s so tempting to just keep mastering jobs. It’s so easy now! New job levels come so fast in the end zone. In fact, I was so keen on getting job experience that I didn’t even notice that the encounters in this area don’t yield any normal experience points at all: if you enter with a party of level 50 characters, they’ll still be level 50 after they’ve mastered every job in the game. This strikes me as a clever compromise. In a well-balanced CRPG, it takes about as long to get through the story as it takes to get enough XP for the final battle. But there’s always some danger that the player will decide to spend more time on that treadmill, rendering the mid-game boring and the endgame too easy. Extra character experience comes at the price of a diminished player experience. My singleminded pursuit of job mastery could have easily led me down that road, but for this XP-free zone. Mastering all the jobs in the game mainly just makes your characters more versatile, not more powerful.

Except that versatility yields power. Some job skills allow for extremely potent combos. Give the Ninja’s dual-wield capability to the Berserker, and you get a character who can hold a warhammer in each hand.

Final Fantasy V: Bosses

I honestly thought I would reach the end of the game this weekend, but the last bits have been taking longer than I expected, largely due to a whole slew of trick bosses. Generally speaking, there’s an approach that makes each boss easy to beat, but it’s different for each boss. Maybe it’s vulnerable to a particular kind of elemental damage; maybe it’s invulnerable to spells and has to be taken down entirely through melee attacks, or vice versa; maybe it has an attack that can wipe out your entire party in one round if you’re not prepared with specific defensive magic. The number of possible gimmicks increases as your capabilities increase over the course of the game.

The scariest boss I’ve encountered so far is definitely Atomos, the final guardian of that force field generator back in world 2. This is one of those monsters that’s so freakish it doesn’t even look like a monster. It looks like a gateway to the swirling void, its frame irregularly decorated with spikes and fins and things. Its modus operandi is to bombard you with the Comet spell more or less constantly until someone dies, at which point it starts slowly drawing the corpse toward itself. Things don’t usually move around during combat, so it took me a while to notice that this was happening, and to convince myself that I wasn’t imagining it. When I did, I freaked out. The natural reaction here is to immediately resurrect the fallen as they fall, lest they disappear into Atomos’ inky maw. It’s also exactly the wrong thing to do. As long as Atomos is drawing someone in, it isn’t attacking. If you just concentrate on doing damage to Atomos, you can kill it before your comrade disappears, or, if that doesn’t work, distract it by deliberately killing another party member before resurrecting the guy who’s about to disappear.

The most unusual gimmick boss is Gogo, a jester-like entity who guards the crystal shard from which you learn the Mime job. Gogo insists that he’ll only step aside for a master of mimicry like himself. In combat mode, Gogo waits for you to do something, and then replies in kind: if you hit him, he hits you back for 9999 damage, and if you cast a spell — even a defensive or healing spell — he casts some heavy-duty attack spell. The key here is to take what he says seriously: he wants you to prove that you’re a master of mimicry. If you don’t attack him, he stands there and does nothing, so you have to do the same. After a minute or so of just standing there, he declares that you imitated him perfectly and leaves. This strikes me as very much a late-game gimmick — the designers’ way of saying “OK, so, by now you’ve proved that you can fight. So let’s try something else.” (I understand that some people actually have managed to kill Gogo by conventional means, but that would take more insanity than I can spare.)

Most of the summonables in this game are bosses first, and become summonable when you defeat them. In fact, this game is fairly explicit about the idea that things become summonable by dying. There are two dragons in the game who are friendly with the party, die plot-related deaths, and become summonables in the process; one of them sacrifices its life specifically for that reason. Even weirder, there’s a couple of bosses in this game who show up as summonables in later games. Atomos is one, although I haven’t yet played the games where you can summon it. The other is Gilgamesh, X-Death’s incompetent right-hand man, who runs away from the first few battles (making him the first boss in the series that you have to fight multiple times) and ultimately gets banished to the Void by X-Death. I first saw Gilgamesh in FF8, and was baffled: he just showed up out of the blue, replacing Odin as the guy who randomly appears and ends battles for you. But at least Odin looked like the Norse god; what did this guy in the ridiculous puffy red outfit have to do with the hero of Sumeria? I’m pleased to now know where he really came from.

Now, the endgame is basically a very long dungeon with a boss fight approximately every other room, and sometimes multiple boss fights in the same room. Most of them aren’t too gimmicky, and can be finished with general-purpose equipment and job assignments, but still, any boss fight I’m not expecting has the potential for an instant TPK. This makes for nervous exploration. I find myself running back to the save points a lot. But that’s okay, because that just means more ordinary random encounters, and in this area, ordinary random encounters yield grossly disproportionate amounts of job experience. This is the last chance to master jobs for the final battle, so the designers help the player along a little.

Final Fantasy V: In Comparison to its Contemporaries

Final Fantasy V was released in 1992 in Japan, but didn’t get a North American release until 1999, when Final Fantasy VIII was already out. As such, Americans didn’t see it as a new release, or even as a nostalgia item. Its main audience may well have been completists like myself. Eventually the publishers would start pandering to completists even more, adding features to track what percentage of the treasures in the game you had collected and suchlike. (And really, without that 100% treasure-collection rate to aim for, very few of the treasure chests in the game are worth opening. Most of them yield things that you can buy from a shop with the proceeds from a single encounter.) Such things were included in the later remakes of the earlier games, but not in the version of FF5 that I’m playing.

So there are really two contexts for this game: Japan in 1992 and the West in 1999. In 1999, the big RPG titles in America were Baldur’s Gate and first wave of MMO’s, like Everquest and Asheron’s Call. Diablo was a couple of years old, and its influence was still strong: the emphasis in the RPGs of the day was on realtime action, with no hard separation between exploration and combat modes. Also, support for multiplayer play over the Internet was rapidly becoming a mandatory bullet point, even in games really not suited for it.

I haven’t played a lot of Japanese RPGs, but it seems to me that they were developing quite differently at that point. FF8 did a lot of experiments with gameplay (some of them unsuccessful), but still used essentially the same ATB system as FF5, modulo changing camera angles. Pokémon came out very close to this time, and has mechanics very similar to an early turn-based Final Fantasy. Pretty much the only thing separating FF5 from other Japanese RPGs circa 1999 was the SNESy graphics.

So it seems like FF5, at the time of its American release and Japanese re-release, would have seemed more retro in America than in Japan. Indeed, the trends I speak of in Western RPGs were already starting at the time of FF5‘s original release in 1992, the year that saw Ultima VII put combat and exploration in a unified realtime environment (which Dungeon Master did five years earlier).

But then, it kind of depends on how you define “RPG”. I noted before a bit in Metal Gear Solid 2 where the game refers to itself as “a kind of role-playing game”. I’ve seen the Zelda series classified as RPGs; if that counts, then they’ve been doing realtime integrated stuff since 1986, a year before Dungeon Master. I wouldn’t classify either of these things as an RPG — to me, the term basically means “imitates the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons“, which is to say, stats and experience points and levels and so forth, and everything determined by die rolls modified by these figures. Notably, my notion of “RPG” has nothing at all to do with playing a role. And to the Japanese, who speak an entirely different language — well, who can say?

Final Fantasy V: ATB

FF5 does not actually have a monster called AAA.  It does, however, have one called ????.Combat in Final Fantasy V is handled through a system called “Active Time Battle”, or ATB. Introduced in FF4, it’s somewhere between realtime and turn-based systems. It has a Wizardry-like abstractness, in that there’s no tactical movement on a battle grid or anything like that. The monsters and the party are displayed graphically (usually with the PC’s on the right side facing the monsters on the left, because that’s the direction that seems like forward to people who read Japanese), but this is basically just a more visually interesting way of presenting a list of creatures. That much was true of the FF combat interface before ATB. The distinctive part, the thing that makes it ATB, is the realtime bit, wherein each combatant has a timer that governs when they can take an action. Each player character’s timer is represented on-screen by a gauge that fills up at a rate governed by the character’s Speed rating. When it’s full, you get to select something from a small menu that pops up at the bottom of the screen, typically including the options “fight”, “item”, and, if relevant, “magic” (although the Job system adds complications to this). But while you’re making your selection, the clock is still ticking. If you’re not fast, the monsters can get in an attack while you’re making up your mind. (This is another reason why it can be good for your tanks to be berserk: that way the game doesn’t waste time asking you what they should do.)

The whole system is very strongly associated with Final Fantasy in my mind. Fight/Magic/Item is as emblematic of Final Fantasy combat as Name/Job/Bye is of Ultima conversations. And the only game I’ve ever seen that even tried to do something similar to ATB was Grandia 2, another Japanese console RPG, which places an ATB-like action timer (albeit with a different user interface) in a system with less abstraction and more running around the battlefield. Presumably the patent 1Be sure to click on the “more” link where that page displays the diagrams. They’re really the best part. prevents a direct imitation, but given the popularity of the Final Fantasy games, you might expect more outfits to try to create similar gameplay.

But gameplay is not perceived as the Final Fantasy‘s strong point. Ask the fans what they like about the series, and they’ll talk about the stories, the characters, the worlds. It’s strange, then, that in FF5 I’m finding the gameplay (mastering the Jobs system) more engaging than the storyline (defeat the one-dimensional Bwa-ha-ha villain).

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1. Be sure to click on the “more” link where that page displays the diagrams. They’re really the best part.

Pokémon: More Grind

Away from my usual devices until January, I devote some attention to the Unknown Dungeon, haunt of Mewtwo. This is a mazelike area with frequent encounters with wild pokémon of about level 50 and up — approximately as strong as my strongest pokémon, but more numerous and, unlike the champion trainers, not divided up into predictable themes. It’s clear that I’m going to be doing some leveling up before I make much progress.

Naturally, I’m seeing the whole thing in terms of my recent experiences with Final Fantasy V. It’s similar in a way: where FF5 makes you choose which jobs you want to level up, Pokémon makes you choose which individual pokémon to advance. But in FF5, there’s character XP on top of job Ability Points. No matter what jobs you exercise, you’re going to wind up with more powerful characters, with more hit points and magic points. Whereas in Pokémon, when you put your Rhydon into storage and replace it with a Staryu, you just lose all the benefit of the effort you put into leveling the Rhydon.

There are basically two ways to level up a particular pokémon quickly. First, you can put it in front of the stack, so that it comes up first whenever you go into combat. Even if you immediately switch to a different pokémon, this counts as participating in combat and gets it a share of the XP. The problem is that switching away like that loses the initiative. The best way to win combat is always with a single devastating blow right at the beginning; if you can’t do that, the enemy is likely to do a move that raises its defense, or lowers your ability to attack, or paralyzes you, or even just damages you, making you go back to the Poké Center for healing earlier than you otherwise would. So this is approach is best taken when the pokémon you’re trying to level has at least some chance of winning fights on its own.

The other way is to equip the “Experience All” item, which shares a fraction of the XP from a fight with everyone in the party, even if they didn’t participate. The pokémon who participate still get the bulk of the XP, but a low-level pokémon is still going to get more from the cast-off scraps of a battle between champions than from fighting someone his own size.

The real problem, then, is what to do when the other pokémon are only slightly more powerful than you. You can’t earn disproportionate XP by sitting in the back with “Experience All”, and you can’t fight them all by yourself. Mostly what you can do is go out in short sallies and retreat to the Poké Center a lot.

Final Fantasy V: Mastery

I’ve been devoting some effort to trying to “master” various jobs. Every job maxes out at some point: eventually you have access to all of the powers it grants. But that’s not all there is to it. A character who switches back to the “Bare” job — meaning no job at all, the state everyone starts the game in — gets the benefits of all the jobs they’ve mastered. This includes the greatest stat bonuses of any mastered jobs — so you can have the strength of a Knight and the magical power of a Summoner at the same time — and it also includes any passive effects of the job. I’ve turned Krile into a Master Thief; consequently, if I switch her to Bare, she keeps the Thief’s ability to see secret passages. And I kind of want to master the Thief job with all the other characters too, because it has the best Speed bonus.

In short, the one job without any special abilities of its own becomes the most powerful one by the end of the game. I assume that I’ll eventually want to switch everyone to Bare, although this would mean that I wouldn’t get any more job levels, which would deprive the game of its main way of rewarding the player. The “addictive” quality in RPGs in general comes from the way that players look at their character stats and see that they’re really close to advancing to the next level. It makes you say “Just a few more monsters, and then I’ll quit for the night,” often multiple times in succession. The more things you’re simultaneously leveling in, the closer, on average, you’ll be to a new level in the closest one at any given moment. RPGs where you control multiple characters have an obvious advantage here.

Still, there are a couple of classes that I don’t think I want to master. Like the Berserker. Most games in the Final Fantasy series have this status effect called “Berserk” — it’s one of the more interesting things in the series, because it can be either good or bad, depending on context. Berserk characters hit a lot harder than normal characters, but they can’t do anything else. They just take a swing at a randomly-chosen enemy whenever they’re up. So it can be a good thing to have on the party’s tanks, but it effectively disables spellcasters. Now, the Berserker is a job that makes the person doing it berserk all the time. I assume that this carries over to Bare if you master it. So mastering Berserker seems like a liability — you’re effectively declaring “I don’t expect to use this character as anything other than a tank in the endgame”.

The Monk has a similar but lesser problem: the Counter ability, which makes characters automatically counterattack after being hit. Normally, this is a good thing, as launching extra out-of-turn attacks means you kill things faster. It’s the “automatically” that gives me pause. There are situations where hitting an opponent is bad. For example, if you’re using a weapon that does fire damage, hitting a fire-based monster will heal it. As with the Berserker, the Monk deprives you of a certain amount of control: you can’t choose to not counterattack. On the other hand, it’s kind of an anomalous case there, so I don’t think this problem outweighs the Monk’s benefits, such as having the best Strength in the game.

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