Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Essentials #37: Final Fantasy IV / V / VI

Square's Final Fantasy IV was the first of three 16-bit installments in the series. Released in North America in 1991 as "Final Fantasy II" for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, this marked what many fans still consider to have been the series's prime. I played about halfway through the SNES version, only later finishing the game when Square released a port as one-half (the other half being Chrono Trigger) of Final Fantasy Chronicles for the Sony PlayStation in 2001.

Development was led by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Takashi Tokita, while Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitaka Amano filled their usual respective music and art roles. In charge of battle design, Hiroyuki Ito debuted his "Active Time Battle" system.

A departure from the turn-based battling common among Japanese RPGs of the time, the ATB system lent combat an action-oriented twist. Rather than having the player set all actions at the beginning of a round, individual characters' turns were determined by their speed rating, with faster party members (and enemies) able to act sooner and more frequently. Battles felt more dynamic, and the system also tested the player's decisiveness in inputting actions quickly, since the ATB clock did not stop while they deliberated.

Final Fantasy IV's gameplay has been accused of being the simplest of any Final Fantasy to date. Not only would the player have zero control over the party's constantly changing composition, but characters also developed in a completely linear fashion. This left the player little freedom and almost no input, aside from taking on enough fights to keep the party at the proper level. The complaints are valid, but these design decisions had benefits as well. Making the characters distinct and consistent in battle lent them greater personality out of combat. You got the sense that, as warriors, Cecil and Kain were as powerful as their subordinates claimed, while Rydia, a little girl, would be far less so. The adventure was driven by its tightly woven script, rather than by a compulsion to provide balance or flexibility, allowing the narrative and gameplay to complement one another as no other Final Fantasy ever had or would. Meanwhile, the five-character party, still the largest in a numbered installment, yielded some layered strategy, with each member assigned a role against probably the series's toughest bosses.

The story, about the technologically dominant kingdom of Baron's ruthless pursuit of four magical crystals, was not the deepest or most original. The crystals were already a series staple, and the plot otherwise borrowed liberally from Star Wars. But gaming had never witnessed such a grand, riveting story full of betrayals, redemption, and noble sacrifices, as well as some of the most complex heroes yet proposed in gaming. The dark knight Cecil was the conflicted protagonist, who had done cruel deeds under orders that he was beginning to question. Even more troubled was his best friend, the dragoon Kain, one of the series's most iconic characters, whose envy of Cecil's life was a private torment. As the story began, they made for a pretty menacing pair. Their faces were even concealed beneath some mean headgear. And the player's very first mission led to them burning down a village that offered little resistance. Granted they were tricked into doing so against their wills, but there was little doubt that they were on the wrong side. This was some dark and unprecedented stuff.

In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy IV may have been my favorite in the series. Its linearity and simplicity, which some might call weaknesses, actually made it the most playable and replayable installment, consequently the easiest to like.

Additional Information

The original North American release was actually modified to be easier than the Japanese release. I've played enough of both to say that the differences were negligible. Mostly, the SNES edition dispensed with a bunch of largely useless abilities, such as dark knight Cecil's "Dark Wave."

The PS1 port appended crude, roughly Final Fantasy VII-quality CG movie sequences to the beginning and end. The opening depicted the Red Wings taking off before the game's proper beginning, while the ending sequence was a music video of sorts, showcasing some of the highlights in pre-rendered 3-D.

Another port (pictured above) arrived on the Game Boy Advance in 2005, adding slightly enhanced graphics, new optional dungeons, and the ability to swap in old party members for the final dungeon.

In 2008, Final Fantasy IV got the full 3-D remake treatment for the Nintendo DS. Players also finally got some customization options for character development in the form of the "Augment" system. I haven't played much of it, but, new graphics aside, the maps seem much the same.

Most recently, there was an actual sequel called Final Fantasy IV: The After Years released in installments to Japanese mobile phones in 2008. I don't know much more, but it's still in the process of being released via WiiWare to North America.

Originally released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, Final Fantasy V would not see release in North America until 1999, when Square compiled it with Final Fantasy VI as part of Final Fantasy Anthology for the Sony PlayStation. That was the version that I played.

Perhaps because it missed its own prime release window, FFV has never been as celebrated in the West as its 16-bit siblings. But that reasoning might suggest that the fans' love of those titles is driven by nostalgia, which they would not have for FFV.

In its own time, the game was deemed "too difficult" for Western audiences, which was why it was passed over for localization until many years later. FFV was not really a harder game than FFIV, but it was for sure less intuitive than its incredibly straightforward predecessor. Combat was much the same as before, only adding the "ATB Bar" to allow the player to actually see when a character's turn was coming up. But the key feature of FFV was Hiroyuki Ito's "Job" system, which allowed party members to switch between different character classes unlocked during the course of the game. It had roots in the class system of the original Final Fantasy, which had been further expanded upon in Final Fantasy III. But FFV, while retaining many of the same classes, was a massive upgrade over its predecessors.

Through winning battles, characters would earn Ability Points to unlock new skills in their current jobs. The true beauty of the system, however, was that, when characters changed jobs and took on the abilities inherent to the class, they could also still equip any previously earned ability as a secondary skill. Thus, whereas FFIII had basically just provided progressively more powerful classes over the course of its quest, FFV encouraged players to spend some time with every job in order to amass a healthy mix of stats and skills for combining. The ranger's "Rapid Fire" command, for example, was a nifty technique allowing the character to attack four times per turn with the mediocre bow and arrow. But adapted to a much more powerful sword-wielding warrior class like the mystic knight, the skill was several times more potent.

Although the characters were the most versatile in battle, outside of combat they offered nothing close to the depth of Cecil and Kain. The hero, Bartz, a traveling adventurer, was really little more than a simple country bumpkin who became accidentally entangled in world-shattering events. If the story lacked the pathos of its 16-bit siblings, it was nevertheless a well-paced and involved adventure that, like the earlier titles, treated the player to exotic cultures and fantastic sights, most notably the battles on the intercontinental Big Bridge. This would be the last installment where Hironobu Sakaguchi himself assumed the position of director, and it would also be the last Final Fantasy for quite some time to use the crystals plot.

Its champions would argue that Final Fantasy V was the deepest of the 16-bit installments, and, from a gameplay standpoint, I don't think there can be much disputing that claim. With the immensely rewarding Job system, it played better than almost any JRPG before or after. However, it was weaker in the areas for which Final Fantasy titles are traditionally best remembered, and I suspect that is why it is not now more fondly recalled.

Additional Information

As with the PS1 port of FFIV, the Anthology release of Final Fantasy V included new opening and ending cinematics, the former being a short prelude scene, the latter a highlight reel. These were closer to Final Fantasy VIII's movies in CG quality, though not quite there.

It also received a Game Boy Advance makeover in 2006, featuring some upgraded background graphics and a few extra jobs and optional battles. The GBA release also sported a brand new translation that greatly improved upon the sloppy work on the Anthology edition.

Square's final 16-bit installment, Final Fantasy VI arrived in North America in 1994 as "Final Fantasy III" for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Again, I did not play it until the PS1 port.

This was the first installment to feature Yoshinori Kitase in the director's chair, alongside Hiroyuki Ito. In many ways, it felt like a transitional game between the Sakaguchi and Kitase titles. While the 2-D graphics were still superficially similar to the older titles, no longer was it a swashbuckling adventure. It traded the wild frontier quality of the earlier games for a grittier, more sophisticated world in conflict.

FFVI's cast of playable characters remains the largest of any numbered installment, and, in a departure from the series, they were all about equally prominent. Instead of one protagonist and a crew of supporting characters, FFVI essentially had eleven main characters. This was not exactly an ensemble cast, however, as characters would simply take turns in the lead. At its best, the story felt massive and infinitely more layered than FFIV, shifting effortlessly from one perspective to the next in episodes that might only subtly intersect. While the official credits obscured this fact, the development team apparently included multiple writers scripting the plots for different characters. Soraya Saga, later an integral contributor to Xenogears and Xenosaga, for example, wrote the stories of the brothers Edgar and Sabin.

Striking a balance between FFIV and FFV, VI returned to giving each character a preset class, but also allowed for some customization via the "Magicite" system. Equipped Magicite crystals taught characters spells and sometimes enhanced specific stats at level-up, allowing a fighter to transform pretty easily into an effective mage. Magic aside, each character possessed one unique ability, although for some characters this encompassed multiple skills.

There was a definite degree of homogeneity to the characters, not only because every party member could learn every spell, but because their special techniques were not all that distinct. Sabin and Edgar had slightly different stats and equipment, but, in practice, their "Blitz" and "Tools" commands allowed them to fill the same heavy-hitter role in a party. Cyan and Shadow offered lesser versions of the same thing. The more unusual abilities, such as Relm's "Sketch" or Mog's "Dance," simply weren't that good. The only uniquely useful ability was Celes's "Runic" command, which could nullify any magic, rendering some spell-casting bosses impotent. It probably didn't help that this was definitely the easiest Final Fantasy yet, and, no matter the party, you could simply "Fight" your way through most battles. And even before working the Magicite system to subvert character classes, there would be an abundance of jack-of-all-trades types, compared to only two bona fide mage characters.

In all previous installments, the player's party at any given time would be determined by the script. That was true for much of FFVI's early portions, but eventually the story would gather the full cast together, allowing the player complete freedom to rotate any out of up to fourteen characters into the four-man party. In lieu of the FFV Job system, this added another element of customization, but it came at great cost to the narrative. Once character swapping became an option, the script could no longer know which specific characters would be present for a particular scene, so it would resort to either generic dialogue or none at all. This meant that characters didn't really say or do much outside of their own subplots. When Cyan joined up with Sabin for a multi-part adventure early on, the partnership provided some amusing interplay. What was their relationship after that quest? There wasn't one.

The story took a rather stunning turn halfway through, when the characters actually failed to stop a cataclysmic event that would leave the world in ruins. Unfortunately, it could be said that the game as a whole went to hell at that point. The entire second half of the game proceeded in an experimental non-linear design. Once the player gained access to the airship, it became possible to head directly to the final dungeon with as few as only three party members. Actually beating the game so soon would be impractical, but the game offered little impetus in any other direction, instead encouraging the player to roam freely around the map in search of old allies. This mechanic may have paved the way for my favorite JRPG series, Suikoden, but, in FFVI, it really stalled the narrative. Not only did I not feel like I was making any headway in the campaign against the main antagonist, but the open-ended progression also made the "personalities on holiday" problem most apparent.

And when characters did progress, I found myself disappointed by the turns, most notably in the case of the reserved and mysterious Terra. The girl riding the mech in the logo, she was the closest the game had to a single main character. The amnesiac daughter of a human and an esper, much of the first half of the game focused on her struggle to discover herself--not only her past, but her future as well. When you met her again in the world of ruin, she had finally found her place as the surrogate mother to a village of children orphaned by disaster. From my perspective, she was walking a path I could no longer understand or follow. I just couldn't relate to it, nor did I wish to. I still can't relate, but I suppose it was brave in a way to stay this course and carry the adolescent protagonist into adulthood that the players might not themselves know for years.

While I personally believe Final Fantasy VI was a more heavily flawed title than its 16-bit predecessors, I can certainly understand why many still hail it as the greatest Final Fantasy. The game was bold. This was never clearer than in the legendary opera sequence. Looking at it now, it's a technically primitive scene--the simple sprites and synthetic voice may not be terribly convincing for a lot of players who didn't see it the first time around. It actually featured crude bits of interactivity. I don't know that the scene benefited from their inclusion, but neither could the clumsy dance mechanics ruin the moment--a moment that was somehow bigger than the story that contained it. This was not an interstitial movie sequence between dungeon excursions. So complete was it that you had to believe that the creators must have conceived of a scene first before building a game around it. When Celes took the stage, all thoughts of empires and espers faded away. There was only the image and the vital instant. Moments like this showed why Square and Final Fantasy were the best. No pretenders building their games to formula could ever have constructed such a scene.

Additional Information

Again, the PS1 version included extra movie sequences, which were roughly of the same quality as FFV's. Pretty cool, but perhaps disappointing in that the scope of the original game meant many characters and scenes could not be represented during the ending highlights.

2007's Final Fantasy VI Advance was probably the most controversial of the GBA releases. Featuring no graphical enhancements, arguably because it didn't need them, the only minor additions were a few new items and battles. More questionable was the apparent softening of some content in deference to a more sensitive Japanese ratings board, while there was some disagreement over how well Tom Slattery's new translation compared against Ted Woolsey's original.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

It's interesting what you say about the narrative in FFVI suffering during the World of Ruin portion. I beat the game twice, and neither time did I notice any drop in drama or any dearth of story in the second half of the game. I think what you say is perfectly accurate, but it just didn't harm my enjoyment of or immersion in the game.

I do think the scattering of the cast works from a plot perspective as a result of the disaster. Once you're able to choose your own party, it's understandable that the game couldn't provide the same kind of story as before. I wonder if technology will ever be such that a game could follow your party choices and create or deliver the appropriate story lines.

I really enjoyed jumping around and looking for my comrades, which to me became the story - reunion. It is too bad that such fully realized and compelling characters suddenly stopped interacting much in the second half. But as with a lot of open world games, you start to supply your own narrative to make up for what the game lacks.

It seems to me that rather than making the perfect game within the limitations of the hardware, the designers of FFVI decided to follow ambition and see where it might lead, which to me is quite admirable.