In 1994 the world of gaming changed. Donkey Kong Country proved that there was plenty of life for 16-bit machines outside gimmicky CD add-ons, Super Metroid showed gamers how deep 2D gameplay can go, and Final Fantasy III introduced RPG players to a brave new world. Final Fantasy III is the milestone entry that almost every RPG since has tried to emulate. And it’s about damn time we discovered why …
Gone are the whimsical storylines featuring crystals and light warriors, instead introducing us to a world on the cusp of a new magical/industrial revolution, fast heading toward dooming itself by repeating mistakes of the past. The vehicle for this doom is the Gestahl Empire, an industrial society aiming to bring the world to its knees using their newly-found magical aptitude. By the time our adventure starts, the empire has already conquered the entire southern continent and is beginning the campaign to conquer the rest of the world.
And so our tale begins, where a frozen Esper (magical being) has just been unearthed far to the north in the town of Narshe. Naturally the Empire has sent a detachment to collect this specimen and in doing so help to set up the first two characters; Terra, a brainwashed girl sent with the detachment, and Locke, the chivalrous thief that decides to help her. Before you know it, Terra is freed and our two heroes are dispatched to the nearby kingdom of Figaro in order to assess her potential to aid anti-imperial rebels.
Note that these are only the first members of a massive party of 14, the largest and most diverse of any Final Fantasy game. And you will get to know almost all of them intimately, since Final Fantasy III eschews the typical throwaway nature of its secondary characters in favor of an ensemble cast. This characterization is at the heart of FF3’s substantial narrative, as each character’s backstory also contributes to their motive for joining the rebellion. Locke’s feelings of guilt, Terra’s quest for identity, and Cyan’s drive for vengeance are just a few examples on how Square manages to drive such disparate individuals towards a singular purpose without getting lost in such a large roster. And because there is no focus on any one character, we are able to learn things about these heroes that no ham-fisted exposition can deliver. The subtle love between brothers separated by tragedy and the unspoken narrative between Shadow and his daughter really show off Square’s storytelling potential, something we have never seen before or since. In short, this is one of the few games that manages to transcend the medium to really tell an exceptional story.
The one caveat to having such a large roster is that every character ends up with essentially the same stats. This comes out of necessity since there are many times where a player will find themselves forced into using every member of their party, even ones that they typically never use. To this end Square gives us the Esper and Relic systems. Espers are the game’s versions of summons, and they can be attached to a character to provide various level up bonuses and teach the equipping character magic. Yes, in FF3 everyone can learn any spell in the game, which ties in to the game’s tale of magic becoming a commodity neatly. Relics are items that give your party members new abilities such as the Jump and Mug abilities. This allows anybody to do anything, leading to some insanely broken combos such as Gem Box+Economizer(cast any spell twice for 1 MP), and Offering+Genji Glove(attack 8 times in a row).
So how does a player decide who to use if anyone can play however you want them to? The answer lies in their individual talents, all which operate as an extension of who they are. So you have the martial arts combos of Sabin, the wacky inventions of Edgar, thievery from Locke, and so on. Also new to the series are Desperation Attacks. These rare maneuvers are randomly dished out once a party member reaches low health. Try not to rely on them, since they hardly ever show up when they need to.
Outside of these differences, FF3 plays similar to 4 and 5, with gameplay spent either engaging in ATB turn-based combat, exploring the world, and advancing the narrative. While all these elements are still in place, they do get a boost in pacing. Dungeons are shorter this time around and battles move at a much faster pace, with many ways available to end them quickly (it is easier to run away this time around). It makes sense. With the party being directly involved in fighting a war, the pacing must be based on the threat of the empire’s forces rather than some maguffin hunt.
No one represents this threat better than Kefka, the emperor’s main lackey. When we first meet him we are introduced to a clownish character that hates his job and is more occupied with “watching the clock” than getting the job done right. This attitude paired with an insane disregard for the well-being of others eventually causes this buffoon to manifest as one of the scariest villains in gaming, and watching him grow in power while maintaining his selfish, lazy, and nihilistic outlook foreshadows the doom to come.
You cannot discuss Final Fantasy III without talking about the mind-blowing second half. Though it has likely been spoiled for you (maybe you read a Final Fantasy article once, or spoke to a FF fanboy, or just looked at the map that comes with the game), let’s assume it hasn’t been. Suffice to say that an event occurs midway through the game that has NEVER BEEN TOPPED, and you are left in the closest thing the series has ever come to an open-word sandbox that lets you go anywhere with the sole goal of gathering enough support and power to defeat the Big Bad. And yes … you can go fight him after only spending a couple hours in. That said, take your time here and you will be rewarded in more ways than one. The task of finding allies and finishing each party member’s individual “episode” is a great coda to the whole message that even in your darkest hour there is always the hope of a better tomorrow. It’s also a great way to contrast a first act where you are always on the run aside from a great part where everyone is separated and your fellowship becomes shattered into three parties.
On a personal note I always find it amusing to point out to gamers discussing Mass Effect 2’s “brilliant and original build your team for a final mission”dynamic, that FF3 did it first on the SNES!
The presentation is astonishing on all fronts. FF3 is a true work of art, ditching the cartoony designs of past entries for a more classical approach to enemy and location design. Sprites are incredibly expressive and you may find yourself missing dialogue to watch their reactions if you are not careful. The game also takes Mode-7 to the max, with mind-bending airship and Chocobo sequences and various layer and scrolling effects.
The music and sound design is equally impressive with a soundtrack that serves alongside Terranigma and Chrono Trigger as the triumvirate of the era. Each character has their own theme song that nails the characterization and sometimes even manages to tell a story that isn’t even there (Gau is a good example). Aside from that, the battle themes will haunt you, and two penultimate tracks are offered at two major moments that still stand as the most epic and ambitious music Square has ever put to score. There is a reason why FF3 has no less than three different commercial versions available for purchase!
I could go on forever, and I have! But in the end Final Fantasy III is a product that speaks for itself better than I ever could. Take the opera scene. I have always thought of the opera scene as a jarring big-lipped alligator moment, and it is only now with this recent playthrough that I now see it for what it truly is: A self-contained micro version of the game itself. It’s a stirring and emotional message that foreshadows the rest of the game, telling us that even in our darkest hour, when all seems lost, that this is when we persevere and let hope find us again.
And you thought I forgot to talk about it, didn’t ya? 😉
Five Out Of Five Stars
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