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.

Final Fantasy VI: Planning for the End

It strikes me that if I’m going to be wasting time on a JRPG, I might as well try to finish FF6. I mean, ye gods, it’s been more than two years since I started it. I had kind of hoped to be done with it by year’s end, but it looks like that’s not happening. In terms of game state, I’m ready to storm Kefka’s tower. In terms of brain state, hardly. I have a vast array of equipment and abilities that I’ve once again forgotten how to use, so I’m taking all the characters out grinding first, not so much to increase their level or let them learn more spells (helpful though that will be) as to remind myself how they all work. There’s one fellow in my party roster who I didn’t recognize at all at first: Gogo the mime, a very late addition from the 2010 sessions. Gogo was in FF5 as an optional gimmick boss who unlocked the Mime job, but here, he joins your party. Presumably he noticed that all of the player characters were in your party and decided to imitate them. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve actually used Gogo at all, but I’m going to have to when I go after Kefka.

Why will I have to? Because the final dungeon makes you split the party into three groups, which means twelve characters: there are four slots per group, and leaving a slot empty is just a waste. (Even an otherwise-useless character will draw the occasional attack away from the useful ones.) There are fourteen playable characters. One, Shadow the Ninja, is still AWOL — I’ve met him, I’ve talked with him, he still won’t rejoin the party. 1My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this. And one, the yeti, I just don’t want in my party. He’s uncontrollable, and sometimes not being able to rein in a character in combat is a liability, as when fighting a monster that does counterattacks. So that leaves me using all of the other twelve.

A couple of the remaining characters are also a little uncontrollable for my tastes, but not too much so. Gogo does only one thing: mimic the previous action (importantly including spells he hasn’t learned, which he casts without consuming mana). But that’s generally going to be something you want done, right? Not always, admittedly: if you just had one guy cast Cure 3 to bring the party back to full health, Gogo doing it again doesn’t help. But you can always just skip his turn if you don’t want him to act.

Gau, now. Like Gogo, Gau the wildboy doesn’t have a normal “Fight” command in his combat menu. It’s replaced by “Rage”, which assigns him a set of monster attacks and renders him Berserk, which makes him uncontrollable. But you know something? That’s not his only option. He has the normal “Magic” option that any character has. So I’m trying to train him up as a mage. I have an Esper that increases your magic power stat by 2 on leveling, and I wanted to level Gau a bit anyway, because he was lagging behind the others from lack of use. A little time at dinosaur forest, and he’ll be as good a spellcaster as Terra and Celes.

And then we storm the tower. Next post: Victory! Maybe.

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1. My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this.

Final Fantasy VI: Tower of Mages

I’ve finally conquered the tower of the Cult of Kefka — not the tower of Kefka himself, but a lesser imitation, which can actually be climbed. It provides a nice bit of variety by changing the way combat works: within the tower, neither you nor the monsters can perform any attack other than casting spells. A largish fraction of the monsters seem to have the Reflect effect on them, too, even if they don’t explicitly cast Reflect first. This means that you can’t rely on direct-damage spells. At least, not targeted ones — area-effect spells do fine, and that includes most Esper summons, which count as spells. Alternately, you can cast Reflect on one of your own guys, and then cast direct-damage spells at him, reflecting them back at the enemy. (Spells can only be reflected once.) My favorite tactic here is to summon Carbunkle, which is the equivalent of casting Reflect on everyone in your party at once. Then you can cast a whopping big direct-damage spell like Fire 3 on your entire party at once, splitting the reflected effect four ways — and, of course, get the added advantage of complete protection from the enemy’s direct-damage spells while you’re at it. So, basically, most of the encounters here are a breeze once you figure out these tactics, as long as you don’t run out of mana — Carbunkle is one of the cheaper Espers to summon, but I still had to bring a load of mana restoratives in with me, and used most of them. Which wasn’t strictly necessary: Osmose, the mana-leeching spell, works really well here, if you can bear to waste valuable attack opportunities on it.

Anyway, the whole experience is a nice rules-puzzle. Encountering the Reflect-enhanced creatures for the first time, my reaction was basically “Aaaaah! What do I do? I can’t hurt it with spells, and I can’t take it down with a melee attack, like I’d normally do to something that I can’t hurt with spells!” But really, there are quite a few things you can do, once you think of them. You just have to get out of the rut of thinking like you do in normal encounters.

Even having mastered all that, though, I wound up basically playing through the whole thing three times, because of the tower’s boss. It’s not that he’s hard to beat — he has randomly-changing elemental resistances, but by this point, my entire team had mastered some non-elemental damage spells. I trounced him handily on first encounter, only to find that my entire party somehow perished during his death throes. On my second attempt, I was careful to keep everyone at full health and have some protective buffs on at the end, but the same happened. I resorted to hints to find out what was going on: apparently dying there is inevitable, and the only way to continue is through the Life 3 spell. Life 3? I had that spell, but hadn’t used it — generally speaking, the resurrection spells are ones you want to avoid needing to use. The in-game description of the spell was “Protects from wound”, which didn’t seem to justify its insane mana cost: there were other spells to protect you from damage, and other spells to heal damage as well. What I had forgotten is that “Wounded” is the game’s name for the status I had been thinking of as “Dead”. Life 3 is a preemptive resurrection, like the Ozmoo spell in Enchanter. Cast it on someone, and they’ll be automatically resurrected after the next killing blow.

I’ve been told by now that the edition I’m playing is not a very good translation. I keep finding more and more evidence of this. Some of the creatures in the tower had a spell called “Merton”, which seemed to be an area-effect heat-damage spell, judging by the graphics. Merton? I finally figured out that it was probably a bad re-romanization of “Meltdown”, and a glance at Wikia confirms it. But that didn’t impede my ability to play the game. This confusion over the meaning of the word “wound” did. I suppose “death” isn’t really a good description either — this is an effect that can be cured by a stay at an inn. “Unconscious” or “Knocked Out” would be good, and apparently some games in the series use the latter term. Maybe even the better translations of FF6 do. But I’ll keep playing the one I have.

Final Fantasy VI: Moving On Again

To judge by my last few posts, you’d think that I’m on the verge of completing the second half of Final Fantasy VI. And I am. But it’s a very wide verge. I spent about three months in a similar state at the end of the first half. Admittedly, that was because I wasn’t actually playing for most of that time. But the reason I wasn’t playing was that I had grown impatient with the game: I felt so close to the momentous transition that all the mopping-up I felt compelled to do before taking the plunge became burdensome. As much as I want to face off against Kefka — recently named 18th greatest videogame villain of all time by IGN, right above M. Bison — I also want to see the rest of the game.

Rushing through the game is no way to play it, if only because the game makes it impossible. Sometimes you only get to take a couple of steps between random encounters. Some games in the series have a rare and special piece of equipment that decreases the rate of encounters, or even eliminates all encounters with anything other than bosses. If such a thing exists in this game, I have yet to find it. And if you’re approaching the game from a position of impatience, these constant interruptions will only make it worse. I wrote before about the annoyance of all the system’s little delays when working under a time limit. My self-imposed time limit of two weeks is no exception.

So, on to 1995. I’ve already started on my next game as I write this. But I intend to keep dipping back into FF6, in small sessions, for however long it takes.

Final Fantasy VI: Splitting the Party

I began this weekend hoping that I’d have just one more post to do on FF6, but after multiple hours of play, I still haven’t made a serious attempt as Kefka’s junkyard-like tower of magically-attracted debris. Oh, I’ve visited it, and I think I might even be able to conquer it at my current level, but it’s going to take more time and preparation than I felt like giving it at the time. You see, it splits the party in three, and that complicates things.

This isn’t the first time the party has been split. Way back near the beginning, there was a part with three sub-scenarios that I had to play out with different characters, but that was different: the scenarios were self-contained and independent from one another, and were played out in sequence. More recently, the descent into the treasure cave to find Locke involved splitting the party however you like into two groups, then switching to control whichever group you like at any given moment. And you couldn’t just use one group and leave the other alone: every so often, each group would run into an obstacle that could only be cleared by having the other group stand on a pressure plate somewhere.

Kefka’s tower works like that, but with three groups, which makes it a lot harder to decide how to split things up. Through most of the game, you get your pick of four characters out of the entire party roster, so it’s easy to take your choice of combat specialist, your choice of mage, and your choice of guys with weird special abilities, and still have one slot left over for whoever you’re trying to level up. With three groups and 14 playable characters, you don’t get much choice of who to take. You just get to choose who to partner them with — and my experience is that some combinations have a much easier time surviving than others. It isn’t just a matter of taking one from each of the four categories I just mentioned — you have to take into account that characters are going to be killed or disabled sometimes, and get some redundancy in there, like a mage who can fight in a pinch. (Or, I suppose, you could just grind until everyone is level 99 and not worry about it, but I want to enjoy playing this game.)

Then there’s the equipment. The very best armor and weapons are, of course, not available in stores: you have to find them locked away in dungeons or loot them from bosses. There’s an item called the Atma Weapon 1Another questionable transliteration: some versions call it Ultima Weapon. But Atma fits pretty well too. It’s a glowing lightsaber-like thing that visibly grows with the wielder’s experience level, as if responding to the strength of your soul. that simply does way more damage than any other weapon I’ve seen. I try to always have it equipped, but there’s only one in the game, which means only one of the three groups can have it. I suppose I could just unequip it whenever I switch control to a different group, but that starts to get cumbersome. And it becomes even more cumbersome when you factor in the Espers. I frequently swap those around between characters even when I’m dealing with only one group, to make sure everyone gets a chance to learn their spells, and also because many of them grant permanent stat increases when their wielder levels up. I’ll probably have to just abandon that habit in the tower if I don’t want to spend 90% of my play time in inventory menus.

Or, like I said, I could stop optimizing and do more grinding. I think it was Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw who said that Final Fantasy gives you a choice at the end: you can spend 40 hours building up your characters to the point where you can take the end boss easily, or you can spend 40 hours fighting the end boss. This kind of applies to the entire final dungeon as well.

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1. Another questionable transliteration: some versions call it Ultima Weapon. But Atma fits pretty well too. It’s a glowing lightsaber-like thing that visibly grows with the wielder’s experience level, as if responding to the strength of your soul.

Final Fantasy VI: Dragon Hunt

The story in the second half of FF6 is all about finishing things, tying up loose ends from the first half. And it’s funny, because a lot of those loose ends are things that I don’t remember until I see them tied up. There was even one major loose end — the Terra vs Phunbaba 1A bad transliteration: it should be Humbaba, the demon from the epic of Gilgamesh (and in some later editions, it is). Mistakes like this happen a lot in the translations of the Final Fantasy series, due to their predilection for throwing in random elements from diverse mythologies that the translators aren’t necessarily familiar with. arc — from the early part of the second half that I didn’t remember. Things I don’t remember are things that I can’t pursue as goals. But that hardly matters, because implicit goals are provided by the game’s very structure: you visit every dot on the map, talk to every NPC, and explore every dungeon, and in the process, you wind up completing the story.

But there’s one other set of major goals the game has provided for me: finding and slaying the great dragons. There are eight of them. I know this because the first time I killed one, I got a message telling me I had killed 1 of 8 dragons. Re-exploring the parts that Celes passed through alone a year ago, I find there’s an NPC who explains how the dragons were released by the cataclysms or something — I don’t remember the details, but there’s some kind of reward for killing them all — probably some magicite yielding Bahamut, the dragon-king summonable from previous games.

I’ve racked up 5 dragons already without really trying, because they tend to show up in places where you’d go anyway: slightly off the main trunk of a dungeon, for example. One of them was even squatting in the opera house. Unlike random encounters, you can see the great dragons as you wander the area: they show up as single-map-tile sprites just like heroes and NPCs, and they look misleadingly cute in that form, like geckos with little wings. So you know when you’ve found them.

Nonetheless, I’ve pretty much run out of places to look, and I’m still short three. I suppose I should recheck the places that I visited with only Celes and Sabin. I would have been avoiding optional boss fights at that point, so I might have passed a dragon by. And after that? I’ll just have to recheck everyplace else. This is basically the stage of the game where it all comes down to grinding: I’m preparing to assault Kefka’s tower, but I need to be stronger before I can make a serious attempt at it. The dragon hunt at least turns the final grind into something purposeful. It gives you something to do other than just wander back and forth and wait to be attacked.

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1. A bad transliteration: it should be Humbaba, the demon from the epic of Gilgamesh (and in some later editions, it is). Mistakes like this happen a lot in the translations of the Final Fantasy series, due to their predilection for throwing in random elements from diverse mythologies that the translators aren’t necessarily familiar with.

Final Fantasy VI: Pixel Art

Final Fantasy VI really is the pinnacle of its form, but that shouldn’t be surprising, considering that it’s also the last of its form. The next game in the series shifted to blobby low-polygon-count 3D, and, while that style has its charm, it required different techniques than the rest of the series up to that point. There’s a real craft to storytelling via tiny pixelated sprites, and it was pretty well-developed by now. The human figures have a large library of emote animations for use in dialogues and cutscenes, some of them quite expressive despite differing from the neutral expression by only a few pixels — although others involve running back and forth or leaping in the air several times the character’s height. Everything I said about the theatrical gestures in Police Quest 4 applies even moreso here.

Cutscenes are the obvious place to show off sprite animations, but there’s even more impressive work in the combat. The most noticeable part of this is in the special moves, such as when Cyan swoops into the midst of the enemies, with a comet-trail of desaturated afterimages behind him. The movement there doesn’t doesn’t look at all natural, but then, neither do fireworks. Personally, though, I’m more impressed with the subtler touches, like the alteration in posture to indicate each character’s state. Someone who’s been ordered to cast a spell, for example, will bow their head and make muttering motions until it’s their turn to act. This actually provides useful feedback about what’s going on, whereas the flashier attack animations are just a matter of showing off. The one disappointing thing is that the monsters aren’t animated in combat at all. Certain monsters — mainly bosses — have a fully-animated sprite representation that’s used in the main movement-and-exploration mode, but during combat, all monsters use larger portraits that just stand still. Presumably it would have been prohibitively space-consuming to include animations for every monster type in the game within the constraints of the SNES — even using still images, most of the monsters are palette swaps of other monsters. I suppose the shift to 3D in the next game helped there: suddenly animations were relatively lightweight, consisting of differences in vectors instead of a full copy of the bitmap for every frame.

Today’s indie game developers are in love with minimalistic pixel art, partly because it’s the aesthetic of least effort. But that’s certainly not the case here: the artists put in loads of effort and want you to know it. To the extent that it goes all “less is more”, it’s a product of systemic constraints. Considered purely in terms of style, the closest recent game is probably Braid, which similarly tries to be as evocative as it can with a super-deformed sprite with a limited number of cels. But even Braid was deliberately retro, and there was nothing retro about FF6 at the time of its release.

On the other hand, the game’s biggest reach beyond sprites is something I regard as its biggest failure: the character portraits. In my posts about FF5, I described the concept art created by Yoshitaka Amano, and how little it resembled the stuff in the game. FF6 puts a closer approximation to the concept art in the party stats screens, fitting in greater detail by showing just the head. There’s just something off about these portraits. Some of the faces are just ugly in a way that their sprites are not: Gau looks misshapen, Setzer has scars that you can’t normally see. But even the pretty ones look very wrong to me. I don’t think this is the famous “uncanny valley” effect — even the portraits are too far from human for that. It’s more like Scott McCloud’s famous observation that it’s easier to identify with simplified and cartoony characters than with highly-detailed ones. So anyway, here’s a case where I think it would have been better for the art to be more minimalist than it is, and therefore for the artists to choose minimalism rather than do as much as allowed by the medium (and the budget, and the deadlines).

I’m kind of wondering now what FF7 would have been like if the series had stayed 2D. Would it be a better or a worse game? It was astounding at the time, but today, I tend to think that the primitive 3D of the day has weathered worse than well-crafted 2D of the same era. A remake of FF7 in the style of FF6 seems like such an obvious fan project that I’d be a little surprised if it doesn’t turn out that someone is already working on one. But a quick google only yields rumors and arguments about Square going the other direction, doing a HD remake for the PS3. I guess we all at least agree that FF7 in its current form falls short of ideal.

Final Fantasy VI: Yeti Attacks!

I’ve finally reassembled the whole team. Actually, I’ve done more than that: I’ve picked up a couple of extras. In fact, I have more characters now than are mentioned in the manual. Mog the dancing moogle, who showed up only briefly in the first half, is briefly described there, to document the basics of his dancing abilities (which hardly need documentation, really — it’s not as if they made a DDR-like minigame or anything out of it, intriguing though it would be to try to combine such a thing with ATB combat). His yeti friend is another matter. The presence of a yeti doesn’t come as a complete surprise, because I recall hearing the miners of Narshe talk about it back at the very beginning of the game, and I remember wasting some time hunting for it. But that it joins my party? That was unexpected.

I suppose the reason it’s not mentioned in the docs is that, unlike Mog, there’s no special interface associated with it. In fact, the distinguishing feature of the yeti is absence of interface. You can’t give the yeti equipment, or teach it spells, or even give it orders during combat: it is, in effect, always berzerk and naked. It’s like the Barbarian class from previous games taken to its logical extreme. This makes it the simplest of all the characters to play, and therefore the least interesting. I doubt I’ll be using it much, unless I have an urgent need for more melee power, which it’s got in spades.

But I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe it would have been useful to have a yeti around when I made my assault on the treasure cave where I picked up Locke, but I tackled that cave and the yeti’s lair in the wrong order. Once you have an airship, the game doesn’t much try to force you to do things in a particular order, but there’s definitely an optimal sequence. There are soft walls, and, because of a misunderstanding on my part, I forced my way through some of them prematurely. The result was a nice bit of power-leveling, but now that I go back to the places where I should have gone first, I’m finding them tediously easy. But that’s a risk in any CRPG with an open environment — I remember having a similar experience in Planescape: Torment, for example. Anyway, I think I’m past the point where mere brute muscle is an asset. Everything I meet is either much less powerful than my party, in which case I don’t need the yeti, or a boss, and best handled with judicious use of spells or special powers that the yeti doesn’t have.

And ultimately, this isn’t a yeti’s world. It’s far too genteel. I’ve seen the game described as steampunk, but that’s not quite right: it’s a century or two early for that, fantasy-classical or even fantasy-baroque, with major set-pieces built around things like an opera house and a private art collection. Even after the apocalypse, the men tend to wear long dress coats and tie their hair back with ribbons. A hairy, slope-browed man-beast is somewhat out-of-place, lumbering through the elegant and tastefully-appointed mansions here. But then, of all the playable characters, the only one who’s fully at home in this environment is Edgar. Everyone else is a misfit or outcast of some kind, and several of them have animalistic qualities: a feral child, a girl who transforms into a beast, a moogle. Once again, the yeti is just an exaggeration of something that was already present.

Final Fantasy VI: Character Reassessment

One nice thing about the companion-hunt in the FF6‘s second half: you find people in a different order than the first time around. This forces you to spend some quality time with the ones you acquired late and never really saw the point of. So I’m rethinking some of what I said before.

I said before that the time needed to charge up Cyan’s special “sword technique” attacks made them less than worthwhile in the time-sensitive ATB system. This might have been the case earlier in the game, when attacks were resolved relatively quickly. But the more powerful attacks — both yours and the monsters’ — tend to have longer and more elaborate animations associated with them. The extreme end of this is of course the summon animations, but simple high-level spells take multiple seconds to execute, and when there are a lot of them flying around, you can wind up with your entire party queued up, waiting to carry out the orders you’ve already given them. This is the time to start Cyan charging up a special attack. This isn’t always practical, but that’s a good thing. It gives you a reason to not just automatically use the special attack all the time.

With Setzer, I complained about the slot-machine-like interface for his special moves: it asks you to stop three wheels with precise timing to get three matching symbols. I didn’t use it much before, because I found myself incapable of timing it right. But now, I’m certain that it didn’t really matter. I heard tell of some other game with an interface of this sort that only pretended to rely on the player’s timing: the outcome was really predetermined. And now that I’m aware that this sort of thing goes on, I’ve been paying closer attention to Setzer, and I’m quite certain that he’s cheating as well. I’m putting absolutley no effort into getting the timing right, and I’m still getting matches far more often than you’d expect from chance — in fact, if the first wheel stops at a picture of a gemstone, I always get three gemstones. No exceptions. I hadn’t noticed this in my earlier sorties, but Setzer is significantly higher level now, so perhaps he’s just better at it. It all makes me wonder how prevalent this kind of fakery is. Are there any games that use this kind of interface and don’t cheat the player determination? What’s the psychological effect on all the Japanese children growing up immersed in this? Are they developing an unjustified sense of confidence in their abilities? I suppose that’s part of the RPG experience anyway — the sense of personal improvement that’s really just a matter of the computer gradually making things easier for you. But at least it’s more honest about it most of the time. At any rate, now that I know that Setzer’s special attacks aren’t really dependent on my reflexes, I’m much more willing to use them. It means he’s the game’s specialist in powerful but randomized and unreliable effects, like FF5‘s Geomancer. I kind of liked the Geomancer.

Little Relm’s special power is that she can “sketch” monsters to use their own attacks, randomly-selected, against them. In most cases, this isn’t a very useful ability: the monsters are so much weaker than the party, and often immune to the same kind of elemental damage that they use against you. But I’ve come to realize that she’s got an even better power: her wardrobe. She can wear tiny but powerful outfits that no one else can. (Although I’ve discovered that her grandfather Strago can fit into the moogle suit too, which is a little creepy.) Okay, so that’s not unique to Relm. There are a bunch of character-specific items — mostly weapons — and most equipment can be used by only a few characters. But Relm starts off with an item that’s very powerful, and which only she can use: the “Safty Ring” [sic] left to her by her mother. I don’t think I fully appreciated this before, because it has no effect on her stats and the in-game description is ambiguous. What is does is, it gives her a near-total immunity to direct-damage spells. That is a very big deal. In the second half, there’s a tower populated entirely by spellcasting Kefka-worshippers (and one dragon). I’ve made several attempts at ascending it, and still haven’t reached the top. But I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without that ring.

Well, except that an item identical to the ring but useable by anyone can be found in the tower’s lower reaches. I really should have figured this out back when it made more of a difference.

Final Fantasy VI: Swapping Out

My merry band has picked up three more: Relm (tyke with magic paintbrush), Cyan (dour samurai), and Gau (wild boy), in that order. This means I’m once again over the limit on how many can be in the party at a time, and have to choose who to take with me. Obviously the last one to join up always gets a spot, just because I want to try them out and see if I want to keep them around more permanently — my memories of everyone’s relative usefulness are not necessarily reliable, and new abilities come with higher levels or better equipment I’m picking up. (For the wretched inhabitants of a destroyed world, the weapons and armor dealers have really managed to advance the state of the art. But I suppose this could be the result of necessity, as the world turns harsher and the monsters tougher. Or it could be a result of magic returning to the world, or of buried artifacts unearthed by the cataclysm. Or, y’know, it could be a RPG.)

To some slight extent, I’m choosing characters for story purposes. Cyan has been writing letters to a woman in one town, so I take him to meet her. Gau’s father is around — I don’t really remember meeting him before, but I must have, or else a lot of the dialogue in this section doesn’t make sense. Anyway, there’s a fairly involved cutscene about reuniting father and son, and its unsatisfactory consequences. I haven’t been to visit the moogle warren yet, but when I do, I’ll have to be sure to bring Relm so she can show off her newly-looted moogle suit. Celes is a constant fixture in my party (and consequently leveling up faster than anyone else) simply because she was the only playable character at the beginning of this half of the game, and therefore it feels like it’s her story. It was her idea to put the old gang back together, so she should be on hand to recruit each member personally.

Notably, even though the choice of characters is the closest thing this game has to FF5‘s Job system, I’m not choosing characters on the basis of their utility in the immediate context, like picking the ones with the skills to overcome the monsters or other obstacles in a particular area. What’s more, I didn’t even really do this back in the first half. I remember putting together some special teams to accompany Gau into the Veldt, but that was a matter of choosing the characters that benefit the most from the context, and that’s not quite the same thing. I mainly remember swapping people out as a way to level everyone up evenly, and to make sure everyone learned all the spells. And I may settle into that pattern again, once I’ve got everyone back. It’s certainly the way to go if you want to experience the game completely, to try out all the special powers and so forth, and it’s kind of necessary because you never know when the game is going to force a character on you. Characters that rejoin your party after an absence seem to get artificially leveled up to match the ones you’ve been leveling up yourself, but ones that you’ve simply kept waiting in the wings get no such handicap. But also, the first half frustrated the natural tendency to identify a core team: the sole initial character there was Terra, and she was simply pulled out of the party early on. Imagine losing Cloud Strife that way, or Heimdall, or Pikachu. It made it clear that this is not simply a hero’s journey, but an ensemble piece. Perhaps I’ve been forgetting this. Perhaps I should remember.

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