Gameplay, Story and Value:
For all the great things there are to say about Final Fantasy IV, the quality gap separating that game from Final Fantasy VI is so large it’s practically a chasm. The game is a classic Final Fantasy adventure through and through, but the amount of things it gets right along the way, the amount of content that feels revolutionary for its time, is just remarkable. Sure, it stumbles here and there, but anything complaints I have are ones I really needed to think about.
Let’s start with the mechanics, the gameplay. It’s standard 16-bit RPG affair here. The battle system has been improved over FF4’s namely with the introduction of a visible ATB gauge allowing you to plan your turns more strategically. Additionally, you can use the Y button while in combat to switch between active character, to keep a healer on standby or keep a powerful attack at the ready when timing is important. Like FF4 before it, every character in the game has an ability unique to them which helps in maintaining uniqueness among the roster, given the largely shared equipment pool and the fact that all characters have access to all magics in the game. Actually, this brings up my first nitpick. While the characters themselves are all unique in terms of stories and personalities, the way the game works results in characters being defined, mechanically, entirely by their equipment. On one hand this offers the player a TON of customization options, allowing you to effectively build any kind of party setup you want. On the other hand, there ends up being a lot more mechanical ambiguity than I like, resulting in a party that’s basically a sum of its equipment and trained abilities, rather than the characters that are actually in it.
That’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, given how fun it is to actually build out your party! The actual equipment itself is pretty standard issue, though tertiary abilities on higher end gear keep things interesting. The real meat comes from Relics and Magicite. Relics can be equipped two to a character and allow for a wide range of abilities such as passive status like Haste or Shell, additional battle commands like Jump, dual-wielding, multiple attacks, counterattacks, reduced MP costs and even things like faster movement speed outside of combat. Magicite, on the other hand, are your primary means of teaching magic to your party members. Different Magicite teach different spells at different rates, and offer different stat boosts to the characters equipping them on level up. They can also be used once per battle as a strong Summon ability. Half the fun in the game is actually in tracking down and discovering some of these Magicite.
As far as gameplay is concerned, there’s really nothing to complain about. Every just works intuitively, as it should in a game driven by its story.
So let’s talk about that story. The sad truth of the matter is, I’m pretty easily entertained. I’m also pretty easily confused and bored… So, when a game’s story manages to be set on such a large scale, include so many different characters and still manage to be amazingly succinct and complete, it’s a damn achievement. There are many characters to keep track of in Final Fantasy VI, but they all manage to get an appropriate amount of attention, with complete backstories and fleshed out personalities. The main story itself, in spite of all of its twists and turns and *ahem* world altering events still manages to remain solid and sensible. There is a perfect beginning, and excellently paced middle, and a satisfying ending. There’s plenty of speculation to the lives of the characters after the fact, but no loose ends to worry about. It all just comes together in an excellent little package of storytelling.
There are a total of 14 playable characters in the game, some of which can be missed entirely. The main cast is all introduced in a timely manner, and all have good reasons to join your cause. You’ll get a general idea of their backgrounds early on, but even the lesser characters have their backstories further revealed over the course of the game. By the end you’ll find yourself invested in many if not all the people you’ve met over the course of your adventure.
That adventure is littered with great set pieces and twists on gameplay that keep things interesting. You’ll have carefully choreographed dinner meetings with evil emperors, navigate a rushing river, and of course there’s not enough that can be said about the spectacular sequence that is the Opera Scene. It all culminates in an incredible and emotional journey that holds up as well today as it did over 20 years ago. If I had to pick one thing I disliked about how FF6 handled certain events, it would have to be in the multi-party sections of the game. Really, for the most part they all worked really well, the only exception being in the final dungeon. With so many characters in play it’s impossible, or at least very difficult, to give enough attention to leveling and training all of them. When suddenly, in the game’s most difficult dungeon, you’re forced to use all of your neglected party members. This leads to what feels like some very arbitrary grinding just to get through a single dungeon, especially when the final boss himself is nowhere near difficult enough to warrant that extra effort.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
It’s easy to remember Final Fantasy VI as having decent to good graphics for the time. I did anyway. The truth is, when compared to its predecessors the game actually looks fairly remarkable. Sprites and maps are all incredibly detailed and well animated. Characters have a wide range of poses and means of conveying emotion that just weren’t there in there in Final Fantasy IV. Different maps and environments all exude their own unique tones and atmospheres, and everything just feels special. Enemy sprites and combat animations, but spell and character animations, all look excellent and aside from some barely noticeable and infrequent tile clipping there’s no complaints to be made in terms of visuals.
I’m not going to say Final Fantasy VI boast the greatest soundtrack to come out of a Square/Soft/Enix game, but it’s still phenomenal. Every character gets their own theme, and every character’s theme receives various arrangements to suite the current events of the game. Every theme is distinct, and excellent, and draws out a specific set of emotions appropriate to that character. I guess what I think is unfortunate is that while absolutely none of the music in the game is less than fantastic, some of the best tracks are somewhat underrepresented. I’m specifically talking about Relm’s theme, which frankly I think is one of the best tunes in the game, and perhaps Prelude to a lesser extent, though it does make an appearance. As far as sound effects go, they’re all pretty standard issue, though the quality on them is very high. Elemental sounds like the crack of thunder, waves of fire and shattering of ice are all very clear and well suited to their animations. Of course, Kefka’s iconic laugh gets bonus points here.
I remember the first time I ever played this game. It was back in the mid 90’s and I’d only just finished the copy of Final Fantasy II (4) that a friend of mine had lent me. That was, of course, my very first taste of the genre so when he asked me if I’d be interested in borrowing the next one in line I jumped on it without hesitation. I didn’t realize, at the time, what I had just signed up for. I was too young to fully comprehend the depth of what I was playing through, but even then I knew it was something special. I would go on to beat the game the game two more times in the next few years, once on an emulator and again on the PS1 Anthologies collection, but this is the first time I’ve sat down with it since around 2001.
Not only do I feel the same way about the game now as I did back then, but as an older gamer I have a greater appreciation for some of the story’s more meaningful moments. The Opera Scene in particular was something to behold. I always knew there wasn’t something to it, but seeing Celes in that light as an adult simply had so much more weight to it. Sure, things kind of dragged on for me towards the end, but at this point I’m expecting that out of just about every RPG, even the greats. I’m eagerly waiting to pick this one up again in another 10 years!