Category Archives: Anatomy of a Game

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 13 | Triple triad (part the third)

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With the introduction of Cyan comes a weird new special command: Bushido (formerly SwdTech). It’s almost really interesting as a command, but it suffers from a deep flaw that renders it largely useless — or, at the very least, ensures you’ll never make use of its advanced permutations. Weirdly enough, the otherwise dreadful iOS port of FFVI changes the workings of Bushido with a single, small tweak that makes it massively more valuable. In its vanilla permutation, however, it’s largely a waste of time.

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The problem with Bushido is that it preempts the rest of the game. Once you choose the menu command, a new action meter pops up, slowly advancing from 1 to 8. Press the input button again and the currently highlighted number becomes Cyan’s command; each number represents a different sword technique for him to execute.

For example: Bushido level 1 yields you Fang (formerly Dispatch). This action is a single powerful sword strike that you can basically execute immediately; it’s a single button press more complicated than the basic Attack command, yet works out to be far more powerful, especially in the early game.

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Bushido level 2 gives you Sky (aka Retort), which places Cyan into a defensive state from which he will perform a counterstrike against any enemy that hits him with a physical strike.

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This counterblow is even more powerful than Fang. Higher Bushido levels yield instant death attacks, multiple strikes, status effects, and more.

The problem is that while Cyan’s Bushido meter is filling, so is every other meter. Your party continues to accumulate ATB charges, and so do enemies. Unfortunately, since the Bushido meter dominates the command interface, you can’t give any other party members commands while it’s active. Your enemies, of course, have no such limitations; they’ll continue to attack with impunity while you’re tied up with Cyan.

To FFVI‘s credit, though, it does a nice job of introducing you to this new skill while at the same time encouraging you not to get hung up in pointless encounters. Cyan leads a counterattack against the Imperial assault on Doma Castle, facing off against groups of soldiers singlehandedly. It’s a great chance to learn about the different abilities offered by Bushido; since Cyan is the only playable character here, the Sky command is super valuable — everyone’s going to target Cyan, meaning lots of opportunities for counters.

However, every enemy here has an extremely high chance of using a final attack: A free action performed as a counter once you land the killing blow, regardless of that enemy’s ATB status. These death attacks hit much harder than standard attacks and quickly wear down Cyan’s health in short order, and they break the rules of the game’s counterattack mechanics: These soldiers can use final attacks even if they die from Cyan’s Sky technique (typically no one in FFVI can counter a counter). So you have a chance to get a handle on Bushido in a fairly safe setting, while at the same time being encouraged to hustle along to finish off this sequence by taking on the boss to prevent Cyan’s health from being worn down completely.

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Meanwhile, your main party has to sneak through an Imperial encampment that’s set up camp in front of a bridge blocking the road to Doma and the world beyond. This is a light stealth section, and you can largely avoid conflict if you follow the dialogue cues and sneak past enemies. Of course, you can also fight your way through the encampment like you just don’t care, too.

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The game rather unsubtly contrasts the two remaining Imperial generals here: General Leo commands the uncompromised respect of his men for his integrity and compassion. Kefka, not so much. But Leo gets called back from the front lines, leaving you to face off against Kefka.

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For a general, he turns out to be less impressive than one might expect, scurrying in retreat as soon as you land a blow on him.

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Kefka manages to throw his underlings in your way long enough to make a break for it and enact the dumbest plot event in the entirety of FFVI: The poisoning of Doma. It’s a tragedy, yes, but it also makes no sense. Kefka poisons the water, which causes everyone in Doma to suddenly drop dead… except, inexplicably, Cyan.

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But, unfortunately, including Cyan’s family.

The idea here is sound — showcase Kefka’s wretchedness once and for all, while giving the party a new ally with a profound motivation for hating the Empire — but it’s borderline nonsensical. The way Cyan’s son flops out of bed just makes the whole thing seem goofy, too. This is one of those cases where Square’s designers really needed more than the Super NES could offer in order to express their ideas….

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Nevertheless, this does lead in to the most intense character recruitment in the game: Cyan goes full on berserker, fighting the entire Imperial camp on his own, leaving Sabin (and, optionally, Shadow) to sit in as more or less bystanders to the event who mostly offer moral support. Eventually, Cyan begins to wear out and accepts the other men’s help, and they all scramble into Magitek armor.

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All three men, of course, only have access to the basic functions that were available to Biggs and Wedge. Terra’s enhanced capabilities are nowhere to be seen, once again reinforcing the fact that she’s basically awesome.

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The road leads to the Phantom Forest, where everything is undead. Observant players may have noticed the holy elemental nature of Aura Cannon; this makes Sabin the star player by far, with Aura Cannon doing ludicrous damage to everything in sight.

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Observant players may also have noticed that the reflective pool here restores your HP and MP, similar to the recovery buckets in Final Fantasy IV though far more elegantly rendered.

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As you continue to venture into new territory during this phase of Final Fantasy VI, the game rather unapologetically railroads you in a specific direction. In this case, like it or not, lunkheaded Sabin wanders into a haunted train because what could possibly go wrong? By and large, this is how FFVI works: It features plenty of nonlinearity, but mainly in the sense of backtracking or revisiting familiar ground. As you push into regions you’ve never explored before, however, the firm hand of Game Design presses at the small of your back to prevent you from wandering off-path.

Not only are you pushed enthusiastically into the Phantom Train whether or not you like it, the subsequent adventure is probably the most literally linear sequence you’ll encounter in the entire game (at least until the Fanatics Tower, I suppose). It’s a train, a dungeon literally on rails.

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But you do get to see a rare treat if Shadow hasn’t abandoned you yet: Even the unflappable ninja warrior has a surprised sprite.

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Even if you’re down to your two core characters Sabin and Cyan here, however, you can still take on the Phantom Train with a full party. The train is populated by character sprites, some of which are enemies as you’d expect… but some are ghosts who will tag along and participate in combat. It’s quite kind of them.

In fact, they’re so kind that they’ll even commit the ultimate sacrifice for the party. A ghost’s special command is Possess, which causes it to self-destruct, taking any target with it but also removing it from the party. You can return to where you recruited the ghost and team up with it anew afterwards, though this isn’t particularly practical if you have to backtrack all the way to the start to find the ghost… and impossible after the point of no return.

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Despite the simplicity of this dungeon’s “design,” the Phantom Train features enough unique events to make it memorable. The setting alone is fairly unique, but then you deal with events like being pursued by a legion of undead who can only be defeated by unfastening the train’s car junctions and leaving the rear cars behind… which presumably damns every soul aboard to eternal damnation or torment or wandering or whatever, since the Phantom Train ferries the dead to the afterlife. Probably best not to think too hard about the theological ramifications.

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You can optionally stop to restore your party’s health in the train’s dining car. You’re given the choice not to do it, which might seem wise — don’t want to go all Persephone here, right? But actually, there are no ill effects, and it’s a nice little character-building scene for the devil-may-care Sabin and skittish, uptight Cyan.

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There’s also a completely useless boss battle against a pompous swordsman who ambushes you, flails about pathetically, and makes off with a treasure. Siegfried’s role or nature is never explained; it’s just a bizarre one-off encounter against a foe whose mere presence makes no sense whatsoever.

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More difficult is the palette-swapped spirit enemy Apparition, which is the first time in this leg of the adventure that you’ve faced a foe casting legitimate magic spells — something that will grow much more common from here on out. Magic, at least for now, hits your party tremendously hard and poses a major threat.

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Any ghost companions you still have in tow will leave the party once you reach the engine car. Wouldn’t do to instantly-kill the upcoming boss, right? On the other hand, your erstwhile partner’s departure sends a clear signal that you need to brace for a big fight.

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To engage the boss, you need to complete a small puzzle… which isn’t really much of a puzzle, since the instructions are given clearly. A weirdly pointless little exercise.

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The Phantom Train culminates in a fight against… the Phantom Train. In a pretty fun twist, the final boss of the dungeon is the dungeon itself, annoyed that you’ve been ordering its denizens to commit eternal suicide and relegating half its passengers to eternal purgatory. Even though this boss is probably best know for the fact that…

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…Sabin’s Meteor Strike maneuver…

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…allows him to suplex a train

…it’s worth remembering simply for its creativity. The Phantom Train attempts to run you down as you scurry ahead of it, gaining the rear-attack advantage and using a variety of abilities against you, including a particularly nasty attack that only seems to appear if you no longer have Shadow in the party — which is a weird design choice, because you’re already at a huge disadvantage with only two party members against this boss.

Then again, like everything else in the dungeon, the Phantom Train is undead and will crumble at the touch of curative powers, and dies instantly if you hit it with a Phoenix Down.

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At the end of the dungeon, Sabin notices that Cyan looks like he’s seen a ghost. Because he has.

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Completely unique to this sequence, this scene ends only after a specific amount of time has passed — a moment of silence, as it were. You can’t leave the dungeon of your own volition, and you can’t stick around. Cyan reflects mournfully for several seconds while you control Sabin (Shadow advises giving the other man some respectful distance), then the scene fades to black before dumping you on the world map. This unusual presentation adds a subtle emotional punch to this sequence. You can only move along when Cyan is ready to move along. It’s little details like this that make FFVI so effective at character and story development despite its overall simplicity; not how much is said, but how smartly what little it does say is presented.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 12 | Triple triad (part the second)

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Locke and Celes’ path takes them from South Figaro back to Narshe. You know this route; you’ve already traveled it in the other direction. The prevailing theme of the game so far has been “retrace your footsteps,” and this sequence doesn’t disappoint. In this case, you need to pass through the cave between the desert and South Figaro.

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To keep it interesting, though, the designers have stocked the caves with enemies more appropriate to the current party’s (presumed) levels. These two could steamroll the hornets and other puny enemies from the previous trip, but the upgraded foes pose more of a threat. Why exactly the monsters here have been replaced by more dangerous creatures is never really stated — maybe there was some sort of ecological apocalypse while the team spent years locked in the Lete River experience loop? — but it makes this sequence into something more than just a perfunctory trip through known territory. It also provides attentive players with a cue: You’re on the right path, even if it seems like you’re just covering old ground, because here’s something you haven’t seen before.

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Throughout the trip through the cavern, the screen occasionally vibrates in sync with a strange rumbling sound. As you approach the exit, the source of this sound becomes clear: The Empire has attempted to stop you by sending a magic-slinging tunneling weapon after you.

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This is a nice little bit of setup; Final Fantasy games usually see you fighting a boss in dungeon scenarios like this, but unless the boss is specifically story-related, what you face off against usually just amounts to a random super-powerful creature that happens to reside along your path. In this case, the “random” boss isn’t quite so hard to explain, and it even comes with its own built-in foreshadowing.

The Tunnel Armor is by far the most powerful opponent to have appeared in the game so far save the Heavy Armors, which were optional. Unlike them, you have to pass Tunnel Armor to get to your next destination… and it comes at the end of a dungeon with no mid-point save opportunities, so the stakes for loss are higher than usual.

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The Tunnel Armor battle poses a challenge in its own right, but it also serves as a tutorial battle for Celes’ mysterious Runic skill. As the fight begins, Celes tells Locke that she can shut down many of Tunnel Armor’s attacks with her Runic skill. While this ability served zero purpose in the passage beneath South Figaro, where no enemies used magic, here it has tremendous value — though Runic alone can’t win this fight.

Runic is an entirely passive skill, which is why it seemed so useless in South Figaro. Celes’ class is Runic Knight, and Runic basically works like a magical Cover skill. Rather than acting directly for a turn, Celes will instead use her spell blade as a sort of lightning rod…

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….literally, in this battle, wherein the Tunnel Armor frequently casts the Lightning spell.

While the Tunnel Armor’s magic attack power is sufficient to make this spell a one-hit KO to a single-targeted character and bad news if it splits the spell across both party members, with Runic active Celes is able to absorb the spell. It hits her sword and disperses, doing no damage.

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And, as a bonus, the absorbed spell restores to Celes the number of magic points the caster expended on the spell. She will continue to suck spells from the air for as long as she maintains the Runic stance, no matter how many spells are cast. Once her turn comes up again, she’ll lower her posture until you select Runic again. This means that Runic is a rare instance in which Slow status can be a boon: Because Celes remains in her Runic state until her ATB meter refills, if you slow down her charge time she’ll maintain her defensive posture longer.

However, Runic does have some downsides. It only works on “normal” magic — that is, spells the party can learn. Special magic-like attacks, which most enemies favor over straight spells, won’t be affected by Runic. Worse yet, Runic absorbs all spells during that turn, both the enemy’s and the party’s. Forget about casting Cure or Raise while Celes holds her sword high. Sure, you can use this factor in a pinch to restore some MP to Celes without using an Ether or a spell like Rasp, but it greatly limits her efficacy in the latter half of the game, when the entire party has access to all kinds of crazy magic spells and uses them on the regular. Still, Runic does have its uses, and in battles like this it proves invaluable.

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However, as I mentioned, Runic alone won’t win this fight. While Celes wields her Runic blade, all her other skills are unavailable, placing both attacking and healing duties on Locke’s shoulders. Tunnel Armor doesn’t strictly use magical attacks, so healing plays a role here; the machine has a Magitek Laser that bypasses Runic, and its physical Drill attack inflicts major damage to a single character. Thankfully, it has fairly low HP, so Locke can beat it down on his own despite his low attack power, but it can be a tough fight — especially if Celes’ Runic falls out of sync with the Tunnel Armor’s spell-casting and it manages to slip in one of those powerful spells during the brief interim between her turns.

This would also be a good time to mention the importance of the evasion stat, which didn’t work correctly in the original Super NES version of FFVI (FFIII) but saved my bacon in this battle on GBA. Locke managed to evade two consecutive attacks in his critical state, giving him enough time to revive Celes and heal up before launching a final salvo of winning attacks against Tunnel Armor. Some armor and Relics and most shields boost a character’s evasion stat; the importance of shields here makes their value far more apparent than in many RPGs, and turns tactics like duel-wielding or two-handed grips into a tradeoff between defense and offense.

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With the Tunnel Armor defeated, Locke’s scenario ends — you don’t actually need to travel to Narshe on your own power, because as much as this game likes for you to retrace your footsteps it has to draw the line somewhere.

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And for our purposes, that leaves just one final scenario to explore — by far the lengthiest and most involved sequence of the three, spanning far more ground than Terra and Locke’s scenarios combined and introducing two new permanent party members (plus a third semi-permanent member, and a weird guest as well).

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It begins, as so many Final Fantasy scenarios do, with Sabin gaining consciousness after having washed ashore. This isn’t an Ys game, so there’s no winsome local lass to find him. Instead, he simply pulls himself to his feet and heads out.

There’s a small house in the wilderness immediately to the side of Sabin’s landing point on the coast — an optional stop, but one you’d be foolish to pass up. There’s a merchant here, along with that guy from the pub in South Figaro.

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The merchant offers some standard wares, but he also sells a few new items whose value isn’t immediately apparent: Shuriken and scrolls. No one can equip these, but the other part of this little puzzle is standing immediately to your left:

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Shadow. Despite his dark reputation, he seems a fairly affable fellow. He’s just hangin’ out in front of some crazy old dude’s house, offering advice to passing martial artists and even offering to tag along. How convenient, and equally handy that there just happened to be a merchant here ready to sell you consumables for Shadow’s special skill. In fact, this entire scenario relies heavily on narrative convenience, coincidence, and downright implausibility.

Shadow isn’t a permanent party member at this point; as he warns, he can potentially leave the party at (almost) any time, bugging off at the end of a battle and leaving Sabin solo. That’s only happened to me once in all the times I’ve played FFVI, though. Normally, he sticks around until the fixed point in the story at which he goes his own way no matter what.

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Shadow doesn’t travel alone, and his dog Interceptor wasn’t given his name by coincidence. Besides whatever statistical chance Shadow has of evading enemy attacks, there’s also a pretty strong chance (even odds, based on my experience) that Interceptor will leap in to parry any physical attack that targets Shadow, all but nulling the damage. Not only that, but from time to time Interceptor will follow one of these parries with a counter, dashing into the battlefield to deliver an insanely powerful strike in response to the attacker. While there are some limitations to Interceptor’s aid — there’s a chunk of the middle game where Shadow travels solo and doesn’t benefit from Interceptor’s help, and you can lose the dog forever due to a weird status-swapping glitch late in the game — this added defensive element makes Shadow an incredibly valuable party member.

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However, that’s not Shadow’s real special technique. Interceptor’s just a bonus! No, his unique secondary command is Throw, which works exactly as it did for Ninja characters in previous Final Fantasy games: Shadow is able to throw any edged weapon at an enemy for considerably greater damage than it would inflict when used for a standard attack. The downside, however, is that once you toss a weapon, it’s gone forever. So while you could theoretically chuck a one-of-a-kind sword like the Atma Weapon at a foe, that would be deeply foolish.

Luckily for Shadow’s utility, you can buy relatively inexpensive consumables like Shuriken to use with the Throw command. They don’t hit as hard as high-level weapons, but they do the job regardless… and won’t break the bank.

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Shadow can also “throw” scrolls, which work as special ninja techniques. An invisibility scroll, for example, causes Shadow to become invisible, making him ineligible for enemy AI to target with single-target attacks.

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However, group effects and multi-target magic will still hit him, bringing his invisibility status to an abrupt end.

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He can also use a Shadow Scroll, which basically works like the spell Blink: It creates an illusionary image that confuses enemies.

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While they can target him, they can’t land a hit. However, his “blink” state wears off after evading a couple of attacks.

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Shadow suggested to Sabin that the only way forward was to traipse through a haunted forest, but this is a video game, and that means there are always obstacles to deal with before you reach the other obstacle before your main objective. In this case, the Imperial Army has set up camp en route in order to stage an assault against the castled town of Doma.

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It’s not a very effective assault, as it consists of a handful of soldiers ramming the wall, trying to climb it, and comically failing. Still, the Empire has been remarkably industrious of late: Besides their small assault on Narshe, they’ve also conquered South Figaro and now are making a move on this kingdom.

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More importantly, though, the cut to Doma reveals that Sabin’s going to have another hungry mouth to feed soon. His name is Cyan, but you can call him “Obi-wan.”

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI: Video Edition Pt. 2

Because sometimes dry text isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a dry voice to go with it.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , , .

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 11 | Triple triad (part the first)

Until now, Final Fantasy VI has treated Terra as the game’s main character. Even in the brief sequence where you controlled Locke, you didn’t really control him — he made his way through the Narshe caves on auto-pilot, and the entire multi-party battle transpired with Terra unconscious in the background. She’s been a constant presence through the story, but that changes in a big way here and we finally get a true sense of FFVI‘s ensemble cast structure.

The story at this point splits into three, allowing you to follow Terra and Edgar, Locke, or — somewhat surprisingly — newcomer Sabin. Along the way, they katamari themselves some more party members, and by the time the group reconvenes in Narshe your list of available protagonists will nearly have doubled.

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Not only is Terra no longer the sole lead for FFVI, her branch of the triple scenario is by far the shortest and least interesting. You head back the way you came, toward Narshe, retracing your footsteps through previously covered ground once again.

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You can wander through familiar ground if you like, but there’s even less point to it than the first time you came through this way: Figaro Castle remains submerged beneath the sands. Edgar must have left his remote in his other pantaloons.

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While your goal is Narshe, you can’t enter through the main gate — the guards are still salty about Terra killing off a few dozen of their friends. I suppose the fact that they simply won’t let you into town is them letting you off lightly, all things considered.

You can swap to different lead party members here, but it makes no difference. These guys don’t know Banon, and they understandably assume that Edgar claiming to be the king of Figaro is this world’s equivalent of claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte.

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At this point, the game doesn’t explicitly tell you the next step in progressing the plot, instead relying on your ability to remember how things went the first time you were in Narshe. While it’s a bit of a risk to hope you’ll remember Locke’s secret exit from several hours ago and make the connection that it doubles as a secret entrance, the game design doesn’t leave you a lot of other options. There’s really nothing else to do in this region, and it’s clear you need to make your way into the city somehow. The one flaw here is that it hasn’t been possible to activate this secret door until this very moment — so if, for example, you tried poking around with Terra (or even later with Edgar and Locke as well) to re-enter the caves only to find no interactive elements in this cliff, it might not occur to you that suddenly the passage has become available as an option.

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Inside, there’s more retracing of steps, though the game tries to mix it up a little. Here in the large cavern, where you formerly fought a multi-party battles alongside a bunch of moogles, you’ll now find a security system. A light appears and travels along a specific path, which you need to follow precisely lest you trigger a battle and get dumped back to the entrance. This could be interesting, but there’s no discovery here: Edgar straight-up tells you that you need to follow the light. So rather than becoming a puzzle, it’s just a small bit of busywork.

On the other hand, an older RPG would have forced you to figure out the route without the aid of the light, resulting in tedious trial-and-error and massive frustration. Progress isn’t always perfect, but a small chore sure beats a lengthy and tiresome hassle.

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The back entrance to Narshe leads you, not surprisingly, to “old man” Arvis’ home, where it all began. And… that’s it for Terra (and Banon, who will make one last cameo or two in the story ahead but never as an active party member). A simple and uninspired diversion that could just as well have been explained in a sentence of narrative.

The other scenarios, on the other hand, are considerably more extensive and imaginative. Of the two, Locke’s is the most compact, so we’ll begin there.

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Locke, of course, headed to South Figaro to cause interference with the Empire’s conquest of Figaro, which obviously serves as a foothold for the advance on Narshe and a larger-scale attempt to take the frozen Esper in the caves. He left before the party ventured onto the Lete River, and in a small nod to continuity and timelines, we rejoin him after he’s done his sabotage. Now the task is simply to escape from the city…

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…which is more difficult than it sounds thanks to these advanced Magitek armors stationed about the city at all the exits. Any time Locke talks to a soldier in town, he’ll enter a fight. Regular soldiers he can defeat easily enough, but a Heavy Armor will destroy him in about two turns. With the equipment and items you have at this point in the game, you can’t simply attack and heal your way to victory; you need to spend every turn restoring health, meaning there’s no way to sneak in some damage. While they look like Magitek Armors, which you’ve fought and beaten before, Heavy Armors are far more durable and powerful… though the fact that they’re balanced so as not to kill Locke instantly is a nice touch. If you wander into a fight assuming you can steamroll through, you’re in for a nasty surprise, but you still have time to flee.

For all intents and purposes, though, Heavy Armor is unbeatable at this moment, forcing you to find a more indirect route to the exit.

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If you took the time to poke around in South Figaro before, when it was a neutral space, you probably have a good idea of what you’re meant to do: Find the underground passage and sneak out that way. This is more easily said than done, however, as the rich man’s mansion is now under heavy garrison, serving as a makeshift headquarters for the Imperial incursion. This initiates a trading quest of sorts as you need to find your way into the mansion, which involves getting past certain Imperials and a kid blocking the path through town.

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This doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle, but this is an RPG. Children are even more indestructible than Heavy Armors.

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South Figaro has no random encounters, but you can still get into battles with enemy soldiers, Heavy Armors, and… merchants? Yes, it’s possible to fight merchants, which seems pointless at first — they offer little in the way of experience or gold, go down in about two hits, and attack with all the force of the losing contestant in a slap-fight. But if a thief-by-any-other name is going to fight a merchant, wouldn’t you want to see what happens if you try stealing from them? Who knows what kinds of goodies you could pilfer!

The answer, it turns out, is that you can basically steal their best armor (and occasionally their best weapon), the Plumed Hat and the Main Gauche. These are worth having by hook or by crook — especially the Main Gauche, a dagger that increases Locke’s defense (just like a real-world main gauche, which has a special guard that allows for parrying despite its small blade size). But when you steal from a merchant, you also get the bonus of stealing his clothes, leaving him to scurry off in embarrassment… and also in his undercrackers.

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This allows you to get about town as a merchant, which soldiers will give you passage to areas that Locke couldn’t reach. However, you’re pointed toward one specific merchant, who carries a special stock of cider, which is mentioned conspicuously by an old man who in turn is mentioned conspicuously as a means of gaining access to the north mansion. If you approach this merchant while disguised as a competitor, he’ll go on the attack, allowing you to acquire the all-important cider.

You can also use the steal trick on green-garbed soldiers, which allows you to swipe their uniform and relieve certain soldiers at key points in the city. You still can’t slip past the Heavy Armor, but getting about in disguise is generally the way to go here.

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Once you have the cider, you give it to the old man, who… does nothing for you. Weirdly, the game drops you into a guessing game, since the old drunk forgot the password to get through town. Still, this does open up a dialogue prompt with the kid obstructing the stairway that leads to the back part of town and the mansion’s service entrance, which is the real point. But you have to take a wild guess at the password to get through. Though there’s no penalty for failure, so again, this is one of those instances where FFVI puts up a semblance of complexity without really delivering.

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Inside the mansion, however, there’s a nice touch of sound design. Duncan’s wife, who lives in the city, mentions that there are secrets where draught excluders don’t live, and it’s pretty easy to put together two and two and deduce that you need to look for a secret passage in a drafty room. When you enter the rich man’s study, the game music fades away — conspicuously, as this is the first time in this South Figaro sequence that the background melody has disappeared entirely — and as you approach the bookshelves in the west end of the room you begin to hear wind noises fade up. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s a clever use of audio to create a clue while still allowing the player to draw his or her own conclusions.

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Behind the bookshelf is a cellar that’s been turned into a makeshift cell: A woman has been locked up here by Imperial soldiers. You can name her if you like, which obviously means she’s about to team up with Locke…

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…despite ostensibly operating on the other side of the law. Locke and Celes (or Han and Leia, if you prefer) have a lengthy conversation right in front of a sleeping guard before making a hasty exit through the cellars.

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You’ll find an even more secret passage leading forward if you wind the broken clock. If you spoke to the rich man’s daughter, there was a clue here… though the game won’t let you out the other way, and this is a dead end, so it’s not like you have a lot of other choices here.

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In a nice little touch, the treasure chests in the hidden passage appear to contain Celes’ armor and weapons, which the Empire obviously stripped from her when she was put into prison for being insufficiently horrible.

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The so-called secret passage also plays home to a lot of soldiers and guard dogs, making this one horribly-kept secret. However, the combat sequence here does allow you the chance to get a sense of Celes’ capabilities… sort of. Like Terra, she can use magic — her specialty is ice versus Terra’s innate fire skills. Once again, this serves to highlight Terra’s uniqueness; Celes is one of the few humans capable of casting magic, and she was installed as a high-ranking soldier in the Empire as a result. None of the mooks you take on here can use spells. At this point, Locke has become best pals with the two most powerful ladies on the planet in the space of a few days.

Unlike Terra, Celes also has a special command unique to her class (Runic Knight) to complement her spellcasting: Runic. At this point, however, Runic appears to do nothing whatsoever besides wasting a turn. This is actually true of most of the game! But Celes’ unique skill does have its uses and will come into play soon enough.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 10 | Down the dolce vita

The other side of Mt. Kolts doesn’t offer many points of interest to choose from. Two or three hours in, FFVI is still very much in “linear” mode as the story’s premise continues to unfold.

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The only point you can travel to here is the Returner hideout — which, if we’re still going with the Star Wars parallels for this one (and we should be!), is basically Yavin IV.

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You have one task here, which is presented in fairly explicit terms by the Returners hanging out and blocking passages: Talk to a guy named Banon. You can wander around a little before doing so, but the base is small and mostly obstructed, and there’s nowhere else to go here but to Banon’s office.

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Banon is a wild-haired old man who relays a healthy amount of exposition despite his unkempt appearance. His monologue brings all the disparate plot elements we’ve seen so far together into a single nexus of party objectives: The Empire is awful and mean, the Returners aren’t particularly happy about that fact, and they hope to capitalize on Terra’s inexplicable resonance with the creature in the ice caverns — an “Esper” — to give themselves a leg up on the bad guys.

Terra (and thus the player) is given a choice of whether or not to help the Returners’ cause.

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The characters give this “choice” some nice lip service, admitting that forcing Terra’s compliance would make them as crappy as the Empire, but in practice it all works out the same. You the player can’t advance the game or go anywhere beyond the ground you’ve already covered unless you commit to the Returners; until you join the cause, all you can do is wander sadly through the world as a lonely Terra. While it might be interesting if you could make an active choice here and potentially march off to join the Imperial cause, that’s not really how Final Fantasy rolls. (Or should I say, “roles”? No, never mind.)

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That being said, your decision here does count for something. Banon gives you a gift — a Relic — once you join his team. If you say “no” several times before acceding to the cause, you’ll receive a precious Genji Glove, which lets you dual-wield single-handed weapons. Sadly, I didn’t say “no” enough and only received the lesser reward, a Gauntlet, which does the opposite: It allows you to wield a single weapon in both hands for extra strength. But that’s OK, too: If you give a character a Gauntlet and a Knight’s Code, they essentially become a classic Final Fantasy Knight-class warrior. As I mentioned before, Relics represent about one-half of the game’s Job System substitute.

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Whatever choice you make, narrative convenience asserts itself and this messenger collapses in the Returner hideout to announce that South Figaro has fallen to the Empire. Almost as though the city had a traitor in its midst. If only someone had caught wise to their plan….

At this point, the party divides up: Terra, Banon, and Edgar head back to Narshe to meet with the Returners there and hang out with the Esper, while Locke scurries off to run interference in South Figaro and hinder the Empire’s inevitable assault on Figaro Castle (and Narshe). This has the side effect of Locke leaving the party, which incidentally opens up a slot for a new companion to join…

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Locke leaves the scene, and the game continues to follow Terra’s tale, further cementing the idea that she’s the main character of the piece. The party now consists of her, Edgar, Sabin, and new arrival Banon. You’ll notice that there was no rename prompt for Banon; he’s in the party, but he’s not a true member, taking part only in this portion of the game.

Before we discuss Banon, though, it’s worth looking at Sabin’s Blitz skill, to which we were so indelicately introduced at the end of the Mt. Kolts excursion. While Sabin’s Monk class is the first “standard” Final Fantasy character class we’ve seen in FFVI, his actual skill set is a decidedly unconventional take on the role. The Monks we’ve seen in previous games were defined by their raw physical power and inability to equip heavy armor or traditional weapons, which is largely true of Sabin as well. His weapon choices are largely limited to the Claws Yang used in FFIV… though unlike Yang’s Claws, Sabin’s tend to add to his attack power rather than simply adding an elemental or status modifier to his attacks.

But Blitz bears very little resemblance to Monk skills of yore. In previous games, the class’ special traits consisted of passive modifiers and buffs: The ability to double attack power at the expense of defense or vice versa, or simply stat modifiers that boosted that character’s health. Blitz’s, however, mostly consist of various special attacks, largely directed at single targets.

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Raging Fist, for instance, allows Sabin to launch a vicious physical attack against a single foe. Aura Cannon lets you blast a single foe with a holy-element beam. Rising Phoenix hits the entire enemy party with a fire-based attack. All handy, but the only skill in the entire Blitz repertoire similar to those of FFV‘s Monk class is Chakra, which raises another party member’s HP to whatever Sabin’s current HP is. While powerful and free (in terms of mana cost), Sabin’s Blitzes have downsides; many of them are based not on his physical power but rather his spirit (magic) stat, which is terrible by default. Many of them hit only a single target, and in most cases this target is selected at random. That makes some skills practically useless in certain situations; for example, Meteor Strike doesn’t have any effect against certain foes (e.g. flying enemies), and there’s a chance the game could randomly select a null target like that if one is present in a battle.

The biggest drawback has to do with the way Blitzes are input, though. As discussed last time, you execute these actions by punching in memorized sequences of controller commands, similar to fighting game commands. It’s a clever little addition, given the nature of Sabin’s skills (Aura Cannon is essentially a Hadouken and the input is exactly the same), but it doesn’t feel very Final Fantasy-ish. The game can also be rather persnickety about timing these inputs, which can lead to this error message:

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…at the worst possible times. A fumbled input equals a wasted turn for Sabin.

On the other hand, while Sabin’s skills don’t seem to have much to do with the Monk class as it existed before FFVI, he became the template for other Monk-type characters in subsequent games. Tifa, Zell, Amarant, and especially the Monk class in Tactics all use skills patterned around Sabin’s. So there’s that! Still, despite being a fairly amazing character at this early stage in the game, you really have to custom-build Sabin to make him a long-term contender… and given that he’s one of three mandatory characters in the end game, it’s important to understand how the advanced game systems work to maximize his potential. Something the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain, unfortunately.

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Banon, on the other hand, is much easier to explain. His class is listed as Oracle, but his powers don’t really resemble the strange abilities that Oracles in FFV Advance or Tactics command. Since he only appears in this brief sequence on the Lete River and shortly after, his skill set consists of a single ability: Healing the entire party for free. Why have Terra waste her magic points on Cure when Banon can recover the entire party for more HP without cost?

And there’s really no reason not to have Banon use his healing skill on every turn. His physical power is laughable, and more to the point, you’re given a key condition for this raft ride at the very beginning: If Banon dies, it’s game over.

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And since he’s super weak, it doesn’t take much to do him in. Of course, if you paid attention to how row positioning works, you can move him to the back to cut the physical damage he takes in half. This also halves the physical damage he deals, but since he’s basically your healbot, that shouldn’t matter.

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It might be worth mentioning how Game Overs work in FFVI, because loss is handled differently here than in any other Final Fantasy: Namely, there’s no such thing as a Game Over. If your party falls, or you fail to meet a victory condition, you hear a sad little tune and your party leader collapses despondently… and then immediately respawns at the last save point, with all experience you’ve earned since that save point intact.

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This is more a Dragon Quest approach than Final Fantasy but is even more generous than in DQ games, since you don’t lose half your gold for dying. It’s not a bad design choice, but it’s very unconventional in a Final Fantasy game.

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As for the Lete River itself, this entire sequence is the first of several in the game where you have no control over your progress. Your team drifts down the river on the current, encountering random battles as usual but otherwise helpless to act (you can’t even access the menu screen while on the raft). Your only chances for interaction come at a handful of forks with decision points that allow you to pick the direction you’ll advance. Generally, one direction takes you forward, while the other sends you back up the river in a loop (which some people exploit to grind for gold and experience).

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Eventually, you’ll make it far enough downstream to engage the interest of the game’s most memorable recurring boss, a weird octopus named Ultros.

While this fight works as you might expect, Ultros is considerably more powerful than previous bosses. He uses primarily physical attacks, generally hitting the entire party at once for moderate damage — something Banon can easily negate by using his Pray command.

However, he’ll occasionally turn his attention to a specific party member for a focused attack, which almost always hits hard enough to knock that character out of action. You can cheat this by putting the entire party in the back row and using only secondary commands (most of which ignore row modifiers), but even if you play it straight the game still gives you a fighting chance.

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Ultros betrays his intentions with his combat banter, giving a hint of which character he’s about to target. You can act quickly and set this character to defend, which will minimize the damage they take from a single attack.

Also, it’s here we learn that Ultros is a gross pervert.

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This is the message you really don’t want to see, since it means Banon is the next target. And even if you have Phoenix Down with which to revive him, the instant his HP hits zero you lose the fight.

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His chattiness also betrays a certain weakness to fire: If Terra casts Fire on him, he responds with indignation and counterattacks. However, his counter is to squirt ink, which does light damage and potentially inflicts Blind status on Terra. But since spell accuracy isn’t affected by Blind, this doesn’t actually matter. You can keep hitting him with Fire to end the fight rather promptly.

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You don’t really win, however. Ultros simply bails on the fight when he realizes he’s in trouble, and Sabin jumps in after him, only to be flung to parts unknown. Edgar, ever the loving brother, shrugs and heads along the river with the remaining party.

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All of this has been a contrivance to introduce the next game mechanic: The split scenario system. Once again, you have multiple parties to control, but this time it doesn’t work like it did in the battle of the caves at Narshe. You can’t swap between parties here. Instead, you use Mog to pick a party, whose scenario you follow to its conclusion. In previous Final Fantasy games, the secondary scenarios probably would have simply played out in a cut scene, but here you’re given control over both each party and the order in which you experience their tale — adding a neat bit of player agency to what ultimately is an arbitrary narrative direction.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 9 | Martial law

There’s a lot to say about South Figaro, considering it’s a totally optional space in this portion of the game. However much time you spend there, though, all roads will eventually lead you to Mt. Kolts, the path leading to your next story objective: The base of the rebellious Returners. Coincidentally, a new party member happens to be hanging out along the way. It’s a small world.

Although, in fairness, Mt. Kolts makes the world somewhat larger than it has been until this point. Every area you’ve visited to here in Final Fantasy VI — Narshe, its caves, Figaro Castle, its caves, and South Figaro — are places to which you will eventually return. As such, every part of the game you’ve seen until now has an unusual amount of substance and a remarkable number of inaccessible features (such as, for example, pretty much the entirety of Narshe). With Mt. Kolts, however, this is it. Blink and you’ll miss it, because there’s no good reason to come back this way unless you really screw up with some of the one-way transit features within the world.

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The theme of the caves of Mt. Kolts is “martial arts.” Several people in South Figaro mention the fact that local martial arts master Duncan likes to hang out in this area, and that probably accounts for the fact that most of the enemies in the interior portions of this region are kung fu dudes named Zaghrem. An interesting fact about these guys is that — although there’s no way for you to know this without hacking the game’s data — Zaghrems are always under Berserk status. (Though the fact that they have red faces could be meant as a tip-off; berserk status causes party members to become tinted with red.) This means they always use physical attacks rather than any of their special abilities, and they hit harder than their base stats would suggest. In practice, this is completely opaque to the player, though; enemies in this game almost always attack a target at random (one of the factors of the berserk condition), and since you never see any of their alternate techniques, it makes no nevermind anyway.

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The other encounter inside the caves of Mt. Kolts are these mammoths called Gorgias, which use a powerful counterattack to physical strikes. Like Zaghrems, Gorgiases are much more powerful than enemies you’ve faced until this point. If you bought a Knight’s Code in South Figaro, it’ll probably get a workout here at some point or another. But the real point of these enemies is to help reinforce the importance of not just mashing “Attack” over and over again — special abilities like Tools and Magic aren’t simply powerful, they also don’t trigger counters.

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The layout of Mt. Kolts is quite involved, though; in addition to the caves, it also consists of outdoor spaces that you need to traverse in order to advance. This allows the layout of the “dungeon” to be fairly complex without being too confusing; the caverns and hillsides alternate, creating visual variety that makes it much easier to keep track of your progress and not become lost. Compare Mt. Kolts to the previous dungeon, which was much smaller but more confusing due to its monotony. There’s only so much a game with 24Mb of data and so much ground to cover can provide in terms of visual variety, so the designers compensated here by mixing up the layouts between two different tile sets.

Also, a mysterious shadow appears a couple of times, vanishing into the background ahead of you. How strange!

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And the mountain pass really does get intricate: You’ll spot inaccessible chests and out-of-the-way entrances along the route, prompting you to explore as much as possible. You can find the main path through the dungeon easily enough, but when you’re taunted by chests like this, you’re more likely to take the time to poke around for alternate routes and even backtrack if you miss something.

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In the outdoor spaces, you won’t encounter any martial artists; instead, you’ll encounter much more varied creatures with some unique traits. Trilliums, the green-and-purple plants, introduce you to poison status: There’s a one-in-three chance Trilliums will use an attack that causes its target to become poisoned. You’ve potentially seen poison in action against bad guys thanks to Bio Beam and the Bio Blaster, but this is the first time it’s been directed at your party. Poison does the same thing to player characters as to bad guys, but there’s an important difference: It sticks. While poison basically just helps you kill bad guys faster, it’s a long-term irritant when used against you. Poison doesn’t disappear at the end of a battle, and any affected character will continue to have their health sapped as they walk outside of battle until you use an Antidote or Terra’s Poisona spell.

That’s something worth mentioning: As Terra levels up, she occasionally learns new spells. The first additional spell she gains beyond her starting point is Poisona, which clears up Poison status in one target either in or out of battle. It’s essentially an Antidote, but it operates on Magic Points rather than being a consumable item.

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The enemies in Mt. Kolts’ outdoor areas tend to attack in fairly large numbers, which makes Edgar’s Noiseblaster useful; it inflicts confusion status, which causes enemies to attack one another. Against large groups of enemies, it offers a good, cheap way to minimize the number of attacks they direct toward the party. Edgar’s Auto Crossbow can’t kill the enemies here in a single hit, so it’s better to tie them up attacking one another… which has the double benefit of keeping them from damaging the party while chipping away at their hit points to soften them up for Edgar.

Noiseblaster has another interesting trait: It makes the bird enemies here, Cirpius, more likely to use their special attack Beak, which petrifies its target. Petrification is effectively like instant death: A petrified target is taken out of action, unable to attack or move, and if all members of a party become petrified it’s as good as them all being killed: You win if it happens to the enemy, and game over if it happens to your team. Anyway, when a Ciprius is confused, it’ll frequently use Beak and petrify a fellow enemy, which neatly takes that foe out of the battle for you in a single shot.

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Near the exit from Mt. Kolts, a man stands in your way: The dungeon boss, Vargas.

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This is a different battle than what’s come before, because Vargas himself is untouchable. He sends out a pair of trained bears (Ipoohs) as his frontline fighters, and they create an impenetrable wall between you and him. Physical attacks, magic, Tools, even Steal — it’s all intercepted by the Ipoohs.

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Well, the Ipoohs aren’t entirely impenetrable. Vargas has no trouble blasting your party despite the meat wall standing in front of him. His physical strikes have plenty of power, but his Gale Strike is especially devastating; it hits all three of your party members to devastating effect. But you can’t do anything about it until both Ipoohs are down.

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Thankfully, they take arrows quite well. Being boss-class characters, though, they’re immune to basically every kind of status effect (a standard state of affairs for bosses in RPGs not developed by Atlus), so you can’t do anything devious like Noiseblaster them to get them to turn on Vargas.

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Once you have a clear shot at Vargas, you can dogpile him as you like. After he absorbs a few hundred hit points of damage, a cut scene begins. The mysterious shadow appears in the flesh, and — again, small game world — it turns out to be Edgar’s brother Sabin. This is what the hint about Edgar looking like Duncan’s pupil was about.

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At this point, Vargas uses his Gale Strike to blast everyone but Sabin out of the party — in the middle of the fight, your playable team completely changes and you’re controlling a character you’ve never used before. That’s pretty bold! Unfortunately, this gambit isn’t pulled off quite as smoothly as it should be.

Incidentally, the trick Vargas pulls off here (blowing party members permanently out of combat) is something a number of enemies can perform throughout the game. It’s presented as a plot event here, but it actually is your first glimpse of one of the more devious mechanics you’ll face in FFVI.

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Once Sabin and Vargas face off mano a mano, your foe immediately uses a special technique called Doom Fist which initiates a one-minute timer for Sabin. This is one minute he has to defeat Vargas; when the countdown hits zero, Sabin dies. Vargas is pretty tough and you probably couldn’t beat him in a straight fight (he has a ton of hit points), but it’s a moot point because there’s no way to grind down his health before Doom Fist takes out Sabin. And since you’ve been reduced to a single party member, once he dies, it’s game over.

So what’s the secret to victory? You need to read dialogue cues to figure it out. Vargas is bitter because he thinks Duncan selected Sabin as the heir to his school of martial arts rather than his own son (that would be Vargas). So the secret is to use Sabin’s techniques versus Vargas’.

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At the moment, Sabin knows two skills: Aurablast and Raging Fist. Aurablast is basically a Street Fighter hadouken… literally. Blitz attacks aren’t typical RPG command selections where you pick an action from a menu and it happens. Instead, you choose Blitz, input a button combination, and then press select to execute the command. If you blow it, you waste a turn. If you perform the inputs correctly, though, you’ll perform a powerful martial arts move for no cost.

Aurablast uses a hadouken command: Down, down-forward, forward. However, that won’t do anything for you. It’ll hurt Vargas, but not enough to win the fight.

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Instead, you need to use the technique Raging Fist (forward, backward, forward). This actually hits for less damage than Aurablast, but it destroy’s Vargas right in his self-esteem. Devastated that dear ol’ dad taught Sabin this move but not Vargas, he crumbles and you instantly win the battle.

OK, cool. Dramatic intro to a new character, and an interesting way to introduce a new mechanic. Unfortunately, Square sort of bungles it here. This is an opaque, unintuitive conclusion to the battle; even if you take out the Ipoohs and Vargas perfectly, the second phase of the fight can cause you to lose simply for not knowing what to do or how to perform an action that isn’t explained, demonstrated, or presented in-game until your time has almost run out.

Not only that, it represents the first-ever change of input modality in a Final Fantasy game. Until this point, not only FFVI but the franchise as a whole has operated through menu-based actions. Blitzes, however, work with fighting game button combos. This is not explained in-game until Doom Fist runs down to around 20 seconds. Even then, it’s hard to intuit the precise method of using Blitzes, including the fact that you finish them off with an unprompted press of the confirmation button. You reach a story point in a boss fight that expects you to perform an unknown action in a style you’ve never seen before, at which point you’re expected to figure out how this new command technique works with enough time for two or three before your timer runs out. Frankly, it sucks.

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On the other hand, victory results in Sabin joining your party. Finally, a traditional Final Fantasy class! Whose class skills are deeply unconventional. No status quo for this Final Fantasy, thank you.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 8 | Anatomy of a town

Once you get to South Figaro, you can…

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…skip right past it, as a matter of fact. For the moment, nothing in the city is mandatory; in fact, you don’t even need to stop there at all once you complete the cave linking the city to Figaro Castle (or at least its former resting spot in the desert). By why wouldn’t you? At this point in the game, South Figaro is simply a resting point where you can recover from the journey and stock up for the future. Plus, it’s conveniently located between the cave you’ve just completed and the caves you’re about to explore.

So while you can head on to the destination shown above, the layout of the world map shows that the game designers clearly want you to stop in and see what’s hopping in South Figaro.

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And here’s the first thing that’s happening, aside from the obvious future party member who totally blows you off for now: The first proper equipment shop of the game. This is actually pretty weird. Most RPGs let you go shopping within minutes of initiating the story; in fact, a properly old-school RPG makes a trip to the store your first task once you finish talking to the king/mayor/regent/whatever; dude gives you a mission and a pittance of gold and lets you buy gear.

Not so in Final Fantasy VI. The starter gear each character entered the game with has served you in good stead until this point, and it’s only now that you’re moving on to more challenging scenarios that you need to upgrade your equipment. This actually makes good sense from a narrative standpoint; what kind of sad sack adventurer begins an epic quest with no gear whatsoever? Locke and Edgar had a sense that they were heading into action, and Terra was presumably kitted out by the Empire, so why would you need to blow cash right away on gear?

However, the downside of this is that you went to the shop in Figaro Castle — the only that sold only tools for Edgar — without knowing about some of the helpful iconography of FFVI‘s shopping interface. (Unless, of course, you stopped in the tutorial rooms outside Narshe… but that was a lot of information being firehosed at you, and it’s easy to forget or overlook small details until you see them in action.) So it’s not until here that you’ll probably appreciate one of FFVI’s nicest innovations: When you go shopping, you can see every party member and get a sense of not only who can equip a specific piece of gear, but whether or not it represents an upgrade.

When an item is compatible with a specific character, that character’s sprite raises his or her arms. The relative effectiveness of a new item is denoted with a small icon: A green arrow (pointing upward) means it’s an improvement, a red arrow (pointing downward) means it’s weaker than your current gear, an equal sign means it’s a wash, and an E means it’s already equipped. This is a simple, brilliant way of making transparent something that traditionally was a confusing, unintuitive mess in RPGs, and any post-FFVI that didn’t or doesn’t adopt a similar system deserves to be kicked in the pants.

This system isn’t perfect. The relative stat indicators are based on the item’s most fundamental stat — Attack Power for weapons, Defense Power for armor. It doesn’t account, for example, for a sword that boosts its user Magic Power stat, or for a breastplate that improves your Evasion stat. It’s always a good idea to do a granular comparison by item. Especially if you come to a new shop and find a weirdly expensive piece of gear that nevertheless has a red arrow icon. There’s probably some sort of special trait to it that doesn’t factor in to the icon calculations — a fact the game doesn’t really explain.

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The other new kind of shop in South Figaro — and this is a doozy — is the Relic Shop. Let’s look at Relics, shall we?

Final Fantasy VI dispenses with the Job System of FFIII and FFV, but unlike FFIV it doesn’t lock your characters into a single, fixed class. Instead, it splits the difference; each party member has his or her own specific, assigned class, and that class comes with a set skill (Edgar’s Tool, Locke’s Steal, and Terra’s Magic — well, seemingly Magic for now, though sharp-eyed players may have noticed that Magic occupies a different action menu slot than the other heroes’ class skills). This never changes, even after many class skills have been rendered obsolete in the late game.

However, FFVI dives head-first into the idea of character customization through two different mechanics. One of those won’t become available until you’ve traveled a fair distance into the game, but other becomes properly available here: Relics.

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Relics look like standard equipment, but there’s an entirely separate menu slot dedicated to equipping them. In other RPGs, these might be designated in the accessory slot, but while Relics do often confer the same sort of boosts and buffs that traditional RPG accessories do (a stat bonus here, a status immunity here) many Relics can completely change the nature of your character. In short, with the proper combination of Relics, you can effectively grant characters a subclass.

You get the first proper taste of that here. The Relics available in South Figaro mostly offer passive bonuses: Silver Spectacles prevent Blind status, Sprint Shoes allow you to move twice as quickly while exploring (moot in this remake, where you can sprint by default), and so forth. However, the Knight’s Code does something completely different; rather than buffing your stats, it instead gives you permanent “Cover” status.

Final Fantasy veterans would immediately recognize Cover as a trait of the Knight class, beginning with FFIII. Even Americans in the ’90s, who missed out on FFIII and FFV, would have known it: Cecil gained the ability once he became a Paladin in FFIV. By equipping a Knight’s Code, that character will always jump in to take a physical hit for any other character in critical status, preventing the critical character from dying while absorbing the damage with a defensive bonus. So, with a Knight’s Code, a character gains a key trait of a Knight, even if they can’t become a Knight in the literal Job sense.

A few plot points from South Figaro, you can potentially acquire a second relic called a Gauntlet, which allows a character to wield a weapon with two hands for extra attack power (though of course without the defensive and evasion perks of a shield, which can no longer be held in the off hand). By putting both a Knight’s Code and a Gauntlet on a single character, you’ve effectively created a Knight. It’s not the Job System, as you don’t level up your Relics through use, but it’s an attempt to provide a similar sort of flexibility.

While the game doesn’t explain the Job connection directly, it does once again trot out a Moogle to explain the mechanic so there’s no chance of you failing to understand this equipment’s importance.

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Besides capitalism, the other role South Figaro plays at this point is expository. You can wander through the (surprisingly large) town, chatting with citizens to get a sense of the world beyond the limited view you’ve seen so far. While much of it has to do with the omnipresent threat that the Empire poses, you also get some local color; apparently a martial artist named Duncan is a big deal.

It’s not clear from this dialogue box, but this is meant to be directed specifically at Edgar — a hint for an upcoming plot twist, though one that unfortunately makes sense only in hindsight.

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Mouthy kids giving away the big plot twist after that one.

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Clearly the citizens of South Figaro are all quite upstanding. This, as it happens, is a bit of eavesdropping you do in the home of the city’s richest man. Evidently simply being the wealthiest man in town isn’t enough for the guy and he’s trading state secrets. Or is it that he’s the wealthiest man because he’s trading state secrets?

In any case, Edgar seems oddly silent on what is clearly a matter of border security.

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Although it’s currently optional, poking around through the streets, shops, and homes of South Figaro is the first chance you’ve had to really roam freely in FFVI. Everything up until now has been blocked off, locked away, or otherwise pushing you inexorably forward. Here is an entirely discretionary location filled with dozens of people with information and tips to relay; it’s a chance to dabble in some world-building, to establish some context for the adventure ahead.

You can also stumble across sights like the room above. It seems innocuous enough at first glance, but armed with hindsight of having experienced the game, a returning player knows the more ominous role this room will play. You’ll be revisiting South Figaro in the course of the game (and really, not too far out), and the fact that you can poke around in places that have a crucial story role while they’re still in a blank, neutral state is pretty cool. Usually games lock you out of plot-specific locations until they become relevant, or else the first time you visit a place is the only time it is relevant. FFVI‘s team put in a little extra effort to render this city in multiple states, and the game world is richer for it in a way that few people will even consciously notice.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI: Episode I

Finally, at long last, I’ve kicked off the promised video companion series to Anatomy of Games. This is a complement to the text pieces, not a replacement. Please enjoy, or at the very least don’t be too nasty if you hate it.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m launching this on Thanksgiving. When I think of Final Fantasy VI, I think of getting hooked on it all over again over the Thanksgiving break, to the point that I went out and bought the strategy guide and paid way too much for the mail-order three-disc official soundtrack release….

I’ll probably put together new episodes every couple of weeks. They’re a bit involved and rather time-consuming, if you can imagine that.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 7 | M-m-m-m-magic

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The party’s escape from Kefka’s assault on Figaro involves yet another fixed, mandatory fight. All appearances to the contrary, these are not the norm for Final Fantasy VI. They seem to be heavily front-loaded, or at least attached to major plot events… which are heavily front-loaded.

This time around, you the player are on the receiving end of Magitek Armor… which also get a pre-emptive attack on you, since they’re in pursuit of you (hence their appearing on the right side of the screen, where the player’s party normally lines up). Despite the sheer havoc you wreaked on Narshe with a trio of Magitek suits in the prologue, though, these guys don’t immediately stomp you into an ugly paste.

This isn’t as inconsistent as it may seem at first glance, because the different between that scenario and this one boils down to which side Terra happens to be on. Much ado has been made about the importance of her innate powers, and this battle helps to reinforce that idea…

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…especially if you happen to have her cast a spell during the fight, which brings the battle to an improbable halt so that Edgar and Locke can share a whispered aside about her spell-slinging capabilities. Courteous of the Magitek soldiers to oblige, eh?

This sequence consists of Edgar freaking out about Terra’s magic powers and realization slowly dawning on Locke that all the spells she’s been casting as they travel together are kind of a big deal. You get the impression he’s maybe not the sharpest rake in the shed, since he didn’t really blink at teaming up with an army of moogles, either. Edgar, on the other hand, realizes exactly why people have been making such a big deal about Terra, though he tries not to make her feel bad about being a petite weapon of mass destruction.

This conversation doesn’t have to happen here; in fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen at all. If Terra uses magic during the events of this particular update, while traveling with Edgar and Locke to escape Figaro, you’ll see it. Otherwise, if you somehow decide “Eh, it’s too much trouble to bother using the features that make this character unique in combat” and just mash attack and heal with Potions, it’ll never happen. It’s an optional, though fairly likely, dialogue event meant for world-building.

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Whether or not you trigger the event, once you destroy the Magitek soldiers, a short scene plays out in which the men make their case for Terra to at least consider hearing their side’s story. Again, even though you’re ostensibly taking up the role of Terra as your point-of-view lead for now, you don’t have a choice but to accompany them. FFVI isn’t in the business of giving you multiple or branching plot lines, though as the optional m-m-m-m-magic cut scene demonstrates, it is in the business of letting you uncover additional context or meaning through your actions — something that will become especially apparent in the second half of the game.

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The road ahead sends you through the guarded cave; with King Edgar in the party, the dude at the entrance can’t really turn you away any longer.

So let’s talk a little about Edgar.

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Edgar’s role in the game is “Machinist.” Even though FFVI steps away from Final Fantasy V‘s Job System, characters still belong to a given class. Final Fantasy IV did this as well, with each party member slotting into one of Final Fantasy III‘s Job roles — Cecil as Dark Knight then Paladin, Tellah as Sage, Rydia as Evoker then Summoner, Edge as Ninja, etc. — though FFVI doesn’t really map to FFV‘s classes. Sure, Locke is just a euphemistic Thief, but there was no equivalent to a “Magitek Elite” or “Machinist” in FFV.

FFVI‘s character customization feature will unfold in the fullness of time, and once it does it renders these class distinctions more or less moot. But that customization comes fairly late in the game; FFIII and FFV open up their respective Job Systems after their first proper dungeons, but FFVI‘s system doesn’t become available until nearly a third of the way through the story. Until then, each hero’s class-specific skill plays a fairly major role in both defining the cast’s combat capabilities as well as maintaining some variety in battle, as only a quarter of the characters wield an innate command of magic.

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So what, precisely, does a Machinist do? Well, he wields an arsenal of machines, obviously. Specifically, the tools that were available for sale in Figaro. (If you didn’t buy them in Figaro, which now has vanished into the sand, you’re stuck with only the Auto Crossbow until you reach South Figaro). At the moment, you have up to three different tools available for Edgar’s use.

These devices are, to be somewhat honestly, practically game-breaking at this point. Edgar’s tool command has no cost; the weapons aren’t consumable, nor do they draw from a mana pool (because, after all, only Terra has the ability to use magic). The first three weapons you acquire hit all enemies with powerful effects. The Auto Crossbow alone can end most battles in the cave that lies ahead in a single turn.

But that’s fair enough for the moment; this is meant to be the player’s first real dungeon adventure, and as such the game is still easing you into things. The cave you must traverse is considerably larger than those behind Narshe (at least so far as you’ve seen to this point) and features a number of dead-end branches. Having Edgar on hand to wipe things out means this amounts, more or less, to an extension of the tutorial phase of the game; though, of course, using the Tool command is left to the player’s discretion, so you can fight through the traditional way if you prefer.

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Edgar’s Noiseblaster does no damage to foes, but it has an extremely high probability of causing confusion status to the entire enemy party. Because status effects like confusion are binary, tougher foes have a lower probability of being stricken by it (you’ll almost never confuse a boss, for example). The efficacy of skills like Noiseblaster (or their magic equivalents) are determined by various unstated mathematical formulae that involve your character’s level and the innate level of the enemy, which you can scan with the appropriate skill; but basically, like Steal, this sort of power has greater effect against less powerful foes and lesser effect against stronger ones.

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You can tell when an enemy is confused, because its sprite becomes mirrored — in effect, it becomes a temporary member of your party, facing off against its former allies until it suffers physical damage (which jars confused enemies and party members like to their senses) or the confusion wears off on its own.

Then again, why mess with status effects when you have access to the Auto Crossbow, a preposterously effective device that hits every enemy for several times the amount of damage a standard attack can deliver? It can kill every foe at this point in the game with a single shot, and because of affinities and weaknesses and such it delivers even greater damage to flying foes. Basically, if you want to cruise through the Figaro cave practically unharmed, just have Edgar use Auto Crossbow every round.

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But where’s the fun in that? It’s always nice to mix things up. The Bioblaster handily combines the damage-dealing effect of the Auto Crossbow with the status ailments of the Noiseblaster: It delivers a poison attack as pure HP damage, then causes poison status to linger, steadily draining the health of afflicted enemies each round.

This attack will remind you the Bio Blast ability Terra had access to in her Magitek armor, and not coincidentally: The idea is the same. I believe the visual effect is the same as well. Again, it’s a case of story being expressed through game mechanics. What Edgar can do with a machine specifically designed for the purpose, Terra can do innately when augmented by technology. Science has reproduced many of the effects of magic in this world over the past millennium, but having access who can do all this and more by herself would be a huge advantage for a power-hunger warmonger.

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Edgar Roni “Instant Win” Figaro; at this point in the game, basic attacks hit for 50-70 HP, making the Auto Crossbow hilariously overpowered.

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If you deign to let enemies take a turn in combat, you’ll see a new effect in battle: The furry eyeball monsters, Fopers, use a skill called Forty Winks that, yes, causes a party member to fall asleep.

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Sleep status isn’t quite as debilitating here as in, say, Shin Megami Tensei, where a sleeping character’s defenses drop to zero. Still, sleep takes that part member out of the action until they’re struck.

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Or until the effect wears off on its own, which happens when a tapir comes and eats your character’s dream.

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The Figaro cave, again, is lengthy and convoluted compared to what’s already come. However, the layout branches from a couple of fairly central points, meaning the recovery spring at the beginning of the cave — which restores both health and Terra’s mana — is never too far away.

There’s also a turtle hanging out in the spring, which might seem vaguely familiar to anyone who’s played FFV; for now, though, it’s just an intriguing detail. You can’t do anything with the turtle, though seeing it there is likely to have the side benefit of drawing you closer to investigate, at which point you’ll discover the curative properties of the spring. These healing pools aren’t especially common throughout the game, but they show up just often enough that it’s good to be made aware of (or rather, to discover on your own) their existence.

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The other new enemy type in Figaro’s caves is the Hornet, which basically appears to be here to demonstrate how much more powerful Auto Crossbow is against flying enemies than grounded ones. Though you may not catch on right away, because it’s all just different degrees of overkill at the moment.

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The other end of the cave dumps you in a stretch of land hemmed in by mountains and sea, with one obvious point of interest: The town of South Figaro.

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South Figaro is the first time you’ve visited a totally open, unguarded city. You can walk right in and go anywhere you like, and it’s a rather sprawling village for a game of this vintage. Such is your newfound freedom that you might not even notice the man dressed in black who heads toward the pub as soon as you enter town.

If you chance to follow him, though, he won’t talk to you at the bar.

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Though you do get to rename him, intriguingly.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 6 | The meretrix of Figaro

Once you leave Narshe, the overworld is basically walled off to give you a small amount of territory to explore, but not so much that you’ll get lost. Between Narshe, the Chocobo Stables, the blocked cave, and a castle standing in the desert to the south, you can only travel to four destinations.

Everything but the castle is just a distraction, though. You can’t move the game forward until you visit Figaro Castle. You can dawdle and grind for levels in the overworld all you want, but fairly soon your character growth will hit the wall at which even fighting those relatively valuable desert creatures will yield so little experience that you can’t gain new levels in any reasonable amount of time.

The castle stands as the sole geographic feature in the desert, so it’s fairly hard to miss. You can see if even if you stick to the grasslands and their relatively weak enemies.

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The gatekeeper lets you in; evidently Locke visits Figaro often enough to be recognized on sight..

Once you enter the castle, you need to see the king. You can’t really stray from the path to the throne room yet, because once again the map is designed in such a way as to railroad you. Guards are stationed at most doors to turn you away, and the one side path that appears to be open leads to the engine room, and the castle’s chief engineer scurries over to stand in your path if you try to snoop.

It’s natural to be curious, though. What on earth does a castle need with an engine room?

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Gadgetry is the prevailing theme in Figaro, though. The one side excursion you can make before seeing the king is to duck into a pair of rooms where shopkeepers dwell. The first simply offers consumables that you either have already seen in battle (Potions and Antidotes) or goods that strain your budget (Phoenix Downs and Tents).

The other shop, however, is much more interesting. A stocky bearded gentleman is selling some impressive-sounding device…

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…the Auto Crossbow, Noiseblaster, and Bioblaster. The precise utility of and need for these devices isn’t quite clear yet.

Honestly, the placement of this particular shop here seems slightly ill-considered. One of these devices will be added to your inventory in short order, and because this is your first view of an equipment shop interface, you may not be aware of one of the helpful mechanics FFVI introduces (unless you were paying very closely attention during the tutorial room).

Each party member appears in the lower pane of the shopping window, and when you select equipment that character can use — weapons, armor, accessories — their sprite animates and you see a small icon to indicate whether that new item represents an increase or decrease in their core stats. Since you haven’t bought gear for your party at the point in the game, it may not be immediately intuitive that neither Terra nor Locke have any use for these tools.

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Aside from the shops and some obstructive guards, there’s nothing else you can do in Figaro yet except meet its monarch, the regal…

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…Edgar. His icon looks remarkably like the official artwork of Faris from Final Fantasy V. But rest assured that he is in fact a man rather than a woman in disguise, a fact he makes abundantly clear throughout the game.

Also, his full name is Edgar Roni Figaro. But you can call him Lando if you like.

Edgar and Locke discuss the story a bit and make it clear that while this particular kingdom has a treaty with the Gestahlian Empire, Edgar has no particular love for their allies. They dearly want Terra to join up with them, if only to deny the Empire her skills, but rather than pressuring her to agree they leave her to take the time to explore the castle and talk to people about Figaro.

Of course, you ultimately have no choice but to team up with Edgar — this isn’t Elder Scrolls — so the free-roaming time amounts to an opportunity for the game to provide more backstory and context.

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You can also take a rest for free to restore Terra’s HP and MP totals.

The most interesting nugget of narrative plays out if you visit the High Priestess.

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She kicks off a flashback where a younger Edgar and his brother discuss succession in the very likely event their ailing father passes.

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Edgar’s brother is named Sabin (Sabin Rene Figaro, to be precise), and… I can’t come up with a punchy Star Wars-themed moniker for him. Sorry. He’s a powerful monk who doesn’t want to play by the rules, so let’s dig into the prequels and call him Qui-Gonn. Anyway, his original name from the Japanese version is always listed as “Mash,” which I thought was remarkably inconsistent with the more common Western names prevalent throughout the game until I realized it was actually meant to be “Matthew.” Romanization, folks.

Sabin and Edgar’s flashback shows them flipping a coin to see who will take up the succession; we don’t see the outcome, but we do see Edgar hanging out as king sitting next to an empty throne, so clearly Sabin split for parts unknown. At this point, the presence of the name entry screen should make it clear that Sabin will have a part to play in the game.

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Otherwise, what you learn here simply sets up details about the world: The Empire is not the only power, and Figaro has a place in the global economy.

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And no one seems to have seen magic in person, which makes Terra’s combat capabilities all the more intriguing.

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And there’s also this bozo, who seems incidental at this junction but plays a minor role much, much further down the road.

Anyway, Terra is allowed to roam freely now, but only within the limitations of the existing game world. The cave to the east of Figaro remains blocked by a guard, and the plot won’t advance until you talk to Edgar again. On the plus side, even though the game is railroading you and Terra both, it’s being very nice about it.

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Edgar may be king, but he doesn’t take anything by force. This is reinforced by his reputation as a shameless womanizer who throws himself at every woman in the kingdom, young and old alike. It’s actually kind of gross if you pay attention to the actual breadth of women who talk about his romantic attentions.

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Once you speak to Edgar, the gears of plot begin to grind in motion as the kingdom receives a visitor: A guy named Kefka.

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Who should look familiar. We’ve already seen Kefka a few times already: As a tiny, tiny cameo in the game’s introduction, standing with the Empire’s other generals in Terra’s flashback, and — most importantly — goading Terra into burning everything in sight and murder his army’s soldiers. He is an over-the-top monster with no remorse or redeeming features, though he also looks and dresses like a clown. So it’s a little hard to know what to make of the guy.

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Though, when he sets fire to Figaro, it becomes easier to make up your mind.

At this point, the game gives you temporary control of Edgar — though your options are even more limited here than we’ve seen in other situations where the game needs to drive the plot forward. You can talk to your soldiers, Kefka’s soldiers, or Kefka. Speaking to the castle’s chancellor toward the back will continue the plot’s momentum: Figaro Castle submerges beneath the sand (hence the need for an engine room), while Edgar, Terra, and Locke leap onto chocobos and race to freedom.

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Not bad for a perverted sex fiend.

This little scene is really unusual for an RPG of this era: It’s a dramatic action that involves quite a bit of movement and even changing scenery. You definitely didn’t see this sort of thing in PC and cart-based console RPGs, and disc-based RPGs like those on Sega CD or Turbo CD used animated cut-scenes to convey this sort of action. There’s a lot happening here, and FFVI really goes out of its way to keep the pace lively. The trade-off for this, as we’ve seen, is an unusual degree of limitations and linearity. Nearly an hour into FFVI, and there’s been exceedingly little freedom. This definitely puts FFVI at odds with the normal sensibilities of the genre. Not necessarily a bad thing… more the shape of things to come for a huge percentage of the genre.

Let’s break down the game so far: After the opening dialogue and credit role to set the stage and mood, you controlled a girl and two soldiers through a series of escalating battles with fixed locations and enemy parties. Soon, your team is demolished and you’re left with just the woman, Terra, minus her soldier pals and her snazzy suit of mech armor. As Terra, you can only travel through a short, linear cave, but now the battles are random in nature. The scene changes to Locke, a thief, who teams up with a gaggle of moogles to defend Terra while teaching you about the game’s (uncommon but nevertheless essential) party-swap mechanic, stealthily introducing a future party member (Mog) and the opportunity to try out both characters’ unique skills (Steal and Dance).

At this point, you’re ushered out of the city you invaded and finally get a chance to experience a proper tutorial — if you want. Otherwise, you enter the game world proper and experience the overworld’s workings, such as random battles that change as moving through scenery leads you through different environments. You can also rent a chocobo before reaching the game’s first proper “town,” Figaro Castle, where you learn more about the world, team up with a new character (Edgar), and have a proper meeting with the villain of the piece (Kefka).

That’s a huge amount of story and gameplay information to absorb in the space of an hour, but FFVI does an excellent job of doling it out in small, easy-to-digest pieces. For veteran RPG and Final Fantasy fans, this sequence offers a breezy chance to enjoy some flashy storytelling; for newcomers, though, the flashiness puts an accessible face to a traditionally complex and arcane genre. Meanwhile, the low difficulty and gated design of the world prevent the inexperienced from wandering off course and dying unexpectedly, minimizing frustration. While you can argue FFVI takes a little too long to open up its design to players, this prologue perfectly demonstrates how to introduce players to a world, its characters, and its game mechanics, setting up story and play hooks for the rest of the adventure, without forcing didactic tutorials into the mix. There are a lot of reasons some people consider FFVI the greatest RPG ever, and in many cases it’s because it served as their entry point to the genre. The excellent design of opening hour pulled them in.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 5 | The didact

Everything until this point of Final Fantasy VI — approximately 45 minutes of play time — has been a sort of prologue that doubles as a subtle tutorial. But now that you’ve made your way into Narshe and back out again, you have the opportunity to experience a genuine, overt, no-bones-about-it tutorial section. These training houses appeared first in Final Fantasy IV and continued through Final Fantasy VII, which really makes sense as those four games represent a very specific phase in the series’ life that ended when Final Fantasy VIII came along.

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The tutorial house is completely optional, but it’s incredibly valuable. These guys, who either have big blond bouffant ‘dos or else are wearing ‘coonskin caps, offer you play advice and details on many unintuitive mechanics.

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Some of what they pass along is standard RPG lore.

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While others have to do with how FFVI specifically presents standard mechanics. Character status effects — both positive and negative — are denoted not with icons or text pop-ups in this game but rather by changing the coloration of the black outlines around the afflicted sprite.

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The tutorial room is worth the price of admission for this tidbit alone. At no point in combat is the fact that you can hit the shoulder buttons to change spells from single- to multi-target self-evident, but this is a tremendously valuable piece of advice that can save both time and magic points; if you can wipe a party of enemies with a single multi-target spell, you don’t have to beat down each one individually, or spend the magic for multiple spells.

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There’s even a room which is specifically designated as experts-only. Although you’ve already been forced to take part in several battles by the time you reach the tutorial house, which means you have context for most of the information you’re given here, much of the more advanced info is sequestered so as to minimize confusion.

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In fact, there’s only one bit of dialogue that makes any sense whatsoever here: You’ve already come across Mog’s Dance command (at least potentially), so now you know (1) how it works and that (2) it’s not wholly unique. You can take notes if you like here, but eventually you’ll return to Narshe and can visit then — a fact that should be fairly self-evident given the way you didn’t actually destroy the city, and you’re actively blocked from exploring obvious interactive portions of the city.

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For now, though, all you can really do is venture forward. There’s only so much to do in the tutorial house, and the guards continue to chase you away if you try and wander into Narshe.

Once you leave Narshe, the perspective changes, which can be a little confusing for a newcomer. This is another level of abstraction inherent to RPGs of this era: When you travel across the world, everything zooms out. You travel across a map, and regions you can enter and explore become represented as small icons. Unlike a lot of other RPGs, in FFVI you don’t venture out from an obvious castle or city or the like; Narshe is depicted as a small path leading into the mountains, which makes its iconography somewhat less than obvious.

Despite the visual difference, functionally this portion of the game works more or less like Terra’s solo walk through the caves. The overworld is, of course, much less maze-like; it largely consists of open spaces. And you can save freely (or use camping gear like tents and sleeping bags to restore the party’s health) at any point while in the overworld. You also won’t find treasure chests.

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However, you will encounter random battles with new enemies. These battles work the same as in dungeons: Every step you take, there’s a mathematical chance you’ll be whisked into combat and forced to fight some sort of wildlife or other sort of marauder. The monsters you fight throughout the game vary according to your location, and the creatures outside Narshe are completely different from those inside the city and its caverns.

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In this case, the monsters are nothing to sweat. I mean, there are bunny rabbits who ambush you from inside heads of cabbage. It’s not exactly intimidating.

Leaf Bunnies have two forms of attack: Basic weak attacks, and a skill called Incisors, which hit one and a half times as hard as a standard strike. The crows, called Darkwinds, are basically the same deal: They can attack or use a skill called Dive, which again confers a 50% attack bonus. But neither has group attacks, special counters, or weird behaviors. These creatures do have some specific affinities and status traits — Darkwind, being a flying enemy, permanently carries the Float status, making it immune to Earth-element attacks — but none of these matter right now. The one thing worth knowing is that both are weak to Terra’s Fire spell, which makes encounters like these a handy test case for the shoulder-button spell targeting feature.

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As you roam through the overworld and encounter enemies on different kinds of land, you’ll find the scenery in the battle background changes to reflect the nature of the environs. This actually does have a functional gameplay purpose, but that comes much later; for now, it’s strictly aesthetic.

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Well, mostly aesthetic. The territory in which you enter battle can have an impact on the nature of the enemies. Sand Rays, for example, will only attack in desert regions, while you’ll never encounters Leaf Bunnies in those areas. Never mind that in about 20 seconds of walking you can go from snowy mountains to shimmering deserts… like I said, the overworld is abstraction.

Would you be surprised to learn that Sand Rays can also use basic attacks and a special action called Tail that hits for 150% damage? Unlike all the other enemies you’ve faced in free battle so far, though, the item Locke can steal from Sand Rays isn’t Potions but rather Antidotes. They’re also about 50% more powerful than Leaf Bunnies and Darkwinds, and appropriately enough give more EXP upon their defeat. The further you roam from Narshe, the more powerful enemies become… but, generally speaking, the rewards for victory grow commensurately as well.

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There are only a handful of places you can visit at this point in the game, but the most obscure is a patch of forest that turns out to be an interactive location: A chocobo stable. Chocobos are returning creatures from previous Final Fantasy games, and here they serve as steeds that allow you to travel rapidly across the map without fear of enemy attacks.

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There’s a clever panning and rotation effect applied to the map when you ride a chocobo; rather than orienting itself with north toward the top per usual, the map becomes as immersive as the Super NES was capable of managing, with the world rotating around you as you turn and scrolling beneath you as you run. The effect is somewhat diminished on Game Boy Advance thanks to the washed-out colors and the shorter vertical height of the screen resolution, which causes the horizon and its concomitant fog to dominate the screen.

This can be a little confusing at first, so this is probably a good time to point out the mini-map overlay that accompanies overworld exploration. A small, super-zoomed-out version of the map sits translucently atop the overworld map screen, with the player’s position relative to the surrounding landforms depicted as a red dot and possible destinations blinking as points of white light. When you ride a chocobo, your forward orientation is depicted as a smaller red dot to help you maintain your bearings. It takes a little getting used to, but it works well enough.

Enemies can’t attack you while you ride a chocobo, so this is a safe and convenient way to find your next destination. Of course, the downside is that you don’t gain any experience or cash if you’re not getting into battles… and if you hop off the chocobo at any point, it’ll run off for good and you’ll be out 100 gil.

Ah, right, gil. We can talk about money next time….

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 4 | Moogle rush

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FFVI uses Terra’s second lapse into unconsciousness as an excuse to do something Final Fantasy has never done before: Change points of views for the gameplay. The five previous games in the series either treated your party as an indistinct, uniform mass of people, or else they transpired from the perspective of a lead character (Firion, Cecil, Bartz). Sure, FFV had that one section where you controlled Faris at the dance, but that was a brief intermission and Bartz resumed the lead as soon as the action kicked in.

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Not so in FFVI. The scene switches back to the old man’s house in Narshe, where this vest-clad scalawag bursts in and responds in a huff to aspersions against his personal morality. By default, his name is Locke Cole, so that’s what we’re going with. But you can also call him Han Solo. It’s cool.

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Locke is sent to catch up with Terra, whom the old man had to send alone into the caves when the heat came a-knockin’. Clearly the intent was to have Terra wait up until Locke arrived, but the best plans can go awry. Sometimes Alderaan gets blown up, sometimes the Narshe town guard wants revenge against a green-haired cop killer.

You don’t control Locke’s actions here just yet; all of this plays out on autopilot. He finishes his conversation and then dashes into the caves, catching up with Terra rather easily thanks to her being sprawled unconscious on the ground. As a testament to this character’s agility stat, he manages to make it here before the guards, who had already caught up to Terra moments before. Then again, they had to take the long way around; Locke dropped in through the freshly-made passage between levels that Terra helpfully constructed.

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Such is the nature of narratives that Locke turns out to have arrived in the nick of time.

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Though evidently with insufficient numbers to stand up against Narshe’s surprisingly large army. Didn’t we already kill most of these guys?

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It’s at this moment that a beloved Final Fantasy standard bursts into the room to offer help: Moogles. Coincidental timing? Probably not, actually, given some dialogue later in the game; Moogles appear to be in cahoots with that mysterious thing trapped in the ice. But for now, the important thing is that after a series of mandatory scripted battles and about two screens’ worth of random encounters, we’re bring introduced to a third combat format. It’s a lot of information all at once, but the central mechanic here — dividing what will prove to be an absolutely huge playable party into independent groups — comes into play throughout much of the game. The game is laying on new elements here at the beginning, but the shifting scope of gameplay keeps things fast-paced and exciting… which is something you can rarely say about game segments that function as tutorials.

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Because this is a mechanic that, to my knowledge, had never before appeared in a console RPG, FFVI offers an optional explanation. (Optional! Take notes, contemporary game designers.) You control three different parties here, each represented by a Moogle leader (Locke take position two in the initial party, incidentally). You control them like you have your previous parties of Terra and Imperials and just plain Terra, one by one. To swap between parties, you simply press the Select button.

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Unlike the caves above, this sequence is free of random encounters. Once again, all the encounters are fixed. Unlike in the initial invasion of Narshe, battles don’t happen at set points in the environment, though. Rather, the army of bad guys you saw when Locke found Terra begins to spread out and advance on where she lay in a crumpled heap. They march slowly through the maze-like cavern, traveling from the bottom of the map to the top, with the stipulation that if they manage to reach Terra’s position the game will end. So there are stakes at hand, and you’re outnumbered. Fortunately for you, Moogles, much like moms, are tough.

What you’re seeing here is basically a very early take on a tower defense game. The optimal approach, which seems fairly intuitive, is to position your Moogles at chokepoints to obstruct the enemies and leave no path to Terra open. You can wait for the enemy host to descend upon your parties, or you can take the fight to them.

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Whatever your tactic, your first battle (assuming you engage the foe with your initial party) introduces several new elements to the combat mix. First, Moogles! Look at how cute they are. Aw.

Moogles all fight the same, with one notable exception. Each has different stat values — clearly Moglin there is quite the Moogle bruiser, whereas Mogret probably ought to stick to a desk job. Your actions available with the Moogles boil down to attacking or using items; one of the convenient abstractions of FFVI is that, unlike in many games such as Dragon Quest, your access to the group inventory in combat is universal rather than limited to whatever each individual character has on hand in their personal satchel. In this case, you can rummage through poor Terra’s stuff. Does it make sense? No. Does it make the game more flexible and friendly? Yes.

Another big factor here is the introduction of Megalodoths. There’s nothing special about this monster specifically, but it’s the first enemy in the game that has a group attack. The icy blast shown above hits all members of your party for roughly 30-40 HP apiece. That’s fairly devastating at this point, and it only takes about three rounds of Megalodoth attacks for Mogret to go down, muttering darkly as he/she dies about not taking that stupid desk job after all.

The Megalodoths you face can outpace your party in terms of damage output quite quickly. While it may seem tempting to start by attacking the weaker Silver Lobo enemies and thin the enemy ranks, the longer a Megalodoth is alive the longer it has to smash your party for huge amounts of damage — and at this point you only have a limited number of Potions to rely on for healing. With Terra out of action, you can’t rely on her healing magic, either. So while this sequence isn’t incredibly difficult, it does force you to learn to assess your enemies’ relative threat level and make smart tactical choices.

That being said, you do have the potential to somewhat increase your stock of Potions here. Your new lead character Locke, being a “treasure hunter” and all, has a special unique command: Steal. This is exactly as it sounds. By selecting Steal and choosing a target, you can potentially swipe goodies from bad guys — basically, the same stuff you get at the end of battle, though occasionally something much rarer. The mathematical formula for Steal’s success is heavily dependent on Locke’s level vs. the level of his target, though, so attempting to Steal here is not really the best idea; it’ll mostly result in wasted turns, which gives Megalodoths more time to rake your party across its icy coals.

Still, if it succeeds, that’s a free Potion… which heals one character for 50 HP. Which basically means it can undo one quarter of the damage yield of a single Megalodoth attack. So, not a great tactic at the moment.

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Locke isn’t the only one with a special command, though. The leader Moogle of the second party here, Mog, has unusually high stats among his peers as well as a unique menu option called Dance. If you select Dance, a submenu containing an item called Twilight Requiem pops up, allowing you to target Mog and Mog only.

If you choose to issue the Twilight Requiem command, you lose control of Mog for the rest of the battle. He enters a sort of berserk state, acting independently every time his turn gauge fills. Sometimes he’ll jump forward and use a standard attack. Other times, though…

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…he uses something called Snare, which causes a portal to appear under a single enemy. If it connects, and it has a high hit rate, the enemy simply slides into the portal and vanishes. So essentially it works on the same principles as Magitek Terra’s Banisher command, though you are at the computer’s whims for executing it.

Once you work your way through the legions of Megalodoths and Silver Lobos, there’s one last enemy to deal with: The guard commander who initiated the rush against Terra. He remains fixed to his position at the rear ranks, though, so once his minions are gone there’s no more direct threat to Terra. Still, you have to defeat the enemy boss, which can be tough…

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…especially if you fooled around fighting those Megalodoths.

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Because this is still the tutorial phase of the game, though, losing to the Guard Leader isn’t game over. Not only do you have two other parties to choose from — the point of view swaps over to the next group in line if you fall — but the defeated party is sent back to Terra’s position with their hit points reduced to 1. If you have Potions on hand, your defeated group can heal up and return to the fight.

On the other hand, with three groups to work with, alternately taking on the enemy hosts, you should have plenty of stamina remaining in at least one of your parties.

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Mog’s group being the most likely, giving his monstrous stats for this point in the game. The Guard Leader can only target one character at a time, and while he hits hard — sorry, Molulu — he’s still less of a threat than the Megalodoths were.

Despite being a boss, however, Guard Leader doesn’t have instant-death protection. One lucky Snare attack and the battle can potentially end quite unceremoniously.

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With the bad guys beaten and Terra safe, the Moogles make their exit and… you’re not given a chance to control Locke, or explore the caves. The game takes over and Locke rushes to the caves’ exit, using a secret door to slip out of Narshe through the back route.

At this point, Terra regains consciousness and Locke gets a little creepily over-solicitous, even if it is in a well-meaning way. But with Terra awake, she returns to the lead position in the party. Locke recommends heading to a nearby town in the south, giving you your hint for where to go once you embark on the post-prologue portion of the adventure.

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You can try to return to Narshe, but you still haven’t managed to wipe out the town’s reserve of guards. Ever vigilant, they’ll spot Terra in an instant and cause her to panic and dash over to the side automatically. Basically, you’re not allowed in here yet — but while this amounts to an invisible wall, at least it’s a clever one.

That’s FFVI in a nutshell so far, really. It does all the things you’d expect from an RPG, but it presents it all in such a clever, narrative fashion that it feels far removed from the comparatively old-fashioned methods the genre typically employs.

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