8.28.2013

Playing The Final Fantasies: Episode VI

Cast of Final Fantasy VI

Usual spoiler warnings, for those of you who have yet to play this. Also, don't be like me and wait 20 years to play it. Play it now. Play it YESTERDAY.

In my last post I detailed how I've been going through as many of the Final Fantasy games that I can this summer, many of which I have never played before. Last time I covered my first foray into the 3D world of Final Fantasy with my post on Final Fantasy IX, which was the first PS1 entry into the series I had played as well as the first game on my list for the summer. In short, it ended up being my favorite, even after playing several others.

However, do not let that deter you from playing Square's sixth title in the numbered series. To clear some confusion up, VI was actually released as the 3rd Final Fantasy here in the US for the Super Nintendo. The "true" 3rd game never saw American shores until it was released for the Nintendo DS in 2006. Since VI's original SNES release, it has been ported to the PlayStation and the Gameboy Advance. I wanted to play the original, so I fired up the emulator and played the SNES version on my Nexus 7.

Let me just say this - Final Fantasy VII might be the most iconic and recognizable game in the series (and for good reason), but it is its predecessor is the game that is often cited as being the best in the series, as stated here and here and also here. I'm no stranger to it, as I owned the GBA port but for some dumb reason never finished the game. I also attempted to play it on an emulator on my laptop, which also ended up going nowhere. 

After playing it, I have to agree. It's the best in the series (that I've played). 

There's something magical about the opening scene. A mysterious woman, apparently hypnotized, accompanies two soldiers to a snowy village to obtain a powerful creature called an esper. I will never forget the picture of those armored soldiers trudging through the snow. Those who have played the game know what I'm talking about:

Magic, I tell you.

I know that these are SNES graphics. Heck, the game was released twenty years ago. I played the original version, and unlike its predecessor Final Fantasy II (IV in the US), the translation is amazing. I found myself thinking countless times throughout the game that upon its original release in 1994, this game was way ahead of its time. Like, unfairly ahead.

So what makes this particular game so amazing? In my highly unqualified opinion, it succeeds in the story, character, and gameplay departments to the highest degree. I mentioned in my post about Final Fantasy IX that playing that game was the first time a game made me actually feel something. Usually I just breeze through games without really paying much attention to the struggles of the characters. Following in the same vein as IX, VI moved me even more. Strange to think that sprites and pixels could do this, but it's true. 

First of all, the story is just flat out awesome. Serving as a transition between the pure fantasy of the first five games and the use of more modern technology in the seventh game, VI utilizes a steam-punk atmosphere, while retaining a good amount of the "fantasy" in the series' name. There were so many epic sequences that I find myself struggling to pick a favorite. The game had me rushing down a dangerous river on a raft, fending off monsters to protect the leader of the Returners, the rebel faction opposed to the Gestahlian Empire. One of my characters had to pose as a famous opera singer to prevent another character from kidnapping the real actress during the show. You got to fight a freaking phantom train that shuttled souls to the underworld. A PHANTOM TRAIN.

You know you've all tried to suplex this beast with Sabin.

You can't mention how great this game is without discussing the awesome characters. Seriously, this game has the best cast in any of the FF games I've played (not to mention the largest amount of playable characters - 14). You have everything from a feral beast child that imitates the actions of enemies, to a king with a mind for technology and a knack for the ladies. You also get to recruit a yeti. A YETI. He's not very good, but how many games let you use the abominable snowman as a playable character?

Not only are the characters awesome, but they have equally amazing backstories. Terra (who is arguably the main protagonist) starts the game off not knowing who she truly is, due to her having her mind controlled by the Empire to find espers. She eventually amazes the others with her inherent skills in magic, which haven't been seen in a thousand years - and goes on to figure out she is actually half-esper herself. My personal favorite character (and a fan favorite) Sabin is a martial arts expert who abdicated his right to the throne after his parents died, leaving his older brother Edward to assume the position of monarch. 

The developers stated that their intention was to attempt to make every character the main character. Because of this, you are often bounced around from one character to the next, switching perspectives many times - as you sneak around an Empire-occupied city as Locke or feed a dying old man as Celes after the world goes through a near-apocalypse. This worked for some characters but not all of them. It didn't bother me much because I never used Gau. Or Relm, Umaro, and Cyan, for that matter.

No protagonist can exist without a villain, right? Well Final Fantasy VI introduced us to not only the best villain in the franchise, but arguably the best villain in any RPG period. You know who I'm talking about. Kefka Palazzo:

Clowns will always be scary.

Take a look at that picture. He's a freaking clown. Kefka looks ridiculous, but his appearance matches his animated personality, which is one of outright insanity. Final Fantasy V's Exdeath wanted to destroy the world for being imprisoned by the Dawn Warriors and taking him away from his planet. The ever-famous Sephiroth went berserk when he found out his true origin and summoned a giant meteor to destroy the planet so he could merge with its source of power - the Lifestream. Kefka is just an insane sadist who wants to destroy the world just because. He goes against orders and poisons the water supply of a city, killing all of its inhabitants and effectively causing a genocide. He murders one of the Empire's foremost generals after the general challenges Kefka's methods, finally realizing his insanity. He then kills the Emperor himself. Finally, he nonchalantly breaks the balance of magic by shifting the three statues that hold the world in place, unleashing espers into the world of humans and scarring the planet until it resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape.

He doesn't care.

Truth.

I also enjoyed the gameplay, as it employed the tried ad true battle system of the previous games while including a slew of new features. I liked that you could "equip" espers to characters and have them learn magic as they fought battles. I also found it cool that each character has their own special techniques. You could input button combinations to have Sabin unleash a powerful Blitz skill. Cyan had his Sword Techs, Gau had his Rages, and Setzer had his Slots. Some of them were admittedly worse than others (*cough* Sketch *cough*) but it made for a fresh experience as no two characters felt the same.

There was a scene in the second half of the game that made me question my life. Literally. It's after the balance has been shifted between worlds and you assume the role of Celes, who believes that all of her friends are dead, due to Kefka's breaking of the balance of magic. She is alone on an island, trying to take care of a dying man. After he ultimately passes away, leading her to believe she is the only one left in the world, she laments the outcome of her life and tosses herself from a cliff into the sea.

What the heck, Square? 

While there is always a happy ending, powerful scenes such as this and the many I've mentioned have persuaded me that this is indeed the best of the Final Fantasy games. It's not my favorite - that title belongs to IX - but I can see that changing. Many of the things I mentioned may not seem very revolutionary in terms of gaming, but as mentioned this game came out twenty years ago. It has aged exceedingly well, and you would be remiss to pass up this title. 

On a random note, I liked how you could make any one of your characters a god by equipping them with the Genji Gloves and Offering relics. It's incredibly overpowered. 

And lastly, let me mention the final boss. Good heavens, that fight. Easily, easily the most epic boss fight/boss music EVER. Maybe that's because I haven't finished Jet Force Gemini yet...

Exhibit A:


Skip to 4:10 for the fight. The last form is around 13:30.

Anyways, I believe I've said enough about this game. I recommend it to EVERYONE EVERYWHERE EVER. Seriously.

Thanks for reading! Next time I'll be talking about my playthrough of the best-selling Final Fantasy game in the history of the series' existence. 

Oh yeah. You know.

Prepare yourselves,

JDS



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