Final Fantasy VI review
Nestled in the mountains of the northern continent lies Narshe, a humble mining town. Greyish blue, cobblestone streets lead through the outpost, metal vents covering its walkways, fuel burning furnaces and steam pipes jutting from its snow covered houses and shops. Up a set of stairs and boardwalks, a second layer to the town can be reached where wooden bridges, pulley machines, and other devices line the path to the caverns where the miners work. The rustic detail and homespun charm is inviting, but your first visit to Narshe isn't on such friendly of terms. Outfitted in bipedal, mech armor, you march two Imperial soldiers and an elite magical sorceress towards the settlement, the warm light shining through the windows of its residencies slowing coming into view over the night's horizon. A war is starting.
A source of powerful magic has put Narshe's caverns on the map as a target of interest for the Empire. The townspeople don't take kindly to this advancement, blurring your screen several times into battle formation as you enter the town, watchdogs and a primitively equipped guards blocking your path only to melt in the high powered beams of your machinery. Hardly enough time to appreciate the lovely kick of the battle theme, the sorceress, Terra, and her troops will fight a handful of these quick stints until they reach their destination: a magical beast entrapped in ice. The creature reacts strangely, and after a wash of light, Terra awakens to find herself separated from her party and in the care of a Narshe resident. She has no memory of her life.
The only natural born magic user the world has seen in quite some time, Terra was hypnotized to serve the Empire as an invaluable asset to its army. Now in the hands of a rebel force called the Returners, she is again of great value, but now as the driving force for the underground movement and narrative of the game. Although Final Fantasy VI is a random battle encounter RPG with a massive emphasis on throwing you into battle screens, it operates under a complex story board that characters like Terra make possible. Given her state of mind, she can't speak for herself convincingly, but the Returners help her find a group to call her own, advertising her power to others as you recruit a slew of others to their cause.
Meeting each of these warriors is what Final Fantasy VI is all about, the game taking on a sort of theatrical style of storytelling for each individual. Escaping to the nearby desert kingdom in the early segments of the adventure will introduce you to Edgar, "master designer of machinery." That bio is actually written out for you to read upon meeting him. In fact, he'll walk towards the screen, as if coming onto the edge of a stage to address an audience, and cutely wag his finger at you. The joking even extends to battles, action sometime freezing so characters can huddle and discuss some points of interest as if out of earshot in a play. A strong musical accompaniment for each personality and his or her bravado, there is an unmistakable tongue in cheek quality to much of the dialogue, its cutscenes, and drama.
And there is drama here, some of it surprisingly poignant; an oddity given the often humorous tone. For example, it at first seems the villain, a crazed clown of a military officer, is just as cute as the rest of the cast, using phrases like "ah phooey!" and presenting himself similarly as a stylized caricature. But he in fact wreaks great and very real havoc, his carnival like theme music playing over the death of innocents, things quickly becoming personal. At one of the few points in the game where all music stops, silence greets one of your party members as he walks into his bedroom chamber to find his family murdered. However bizarre Final Fantasy VI may be, pooling together martial artists, engineers, painters, thieves, and feral children, some of its episodic elements still manage to feature unexpected and emotional curveballs.
The episodic construction and its inherent variety -- from an opera performance, sneaking around occupied cities and stealing clothes from soldiers, to riding river rapids -- means that your party will often be separated. While you'll acquire quite a handsome sized crew, the linear nature of the game's first half means that parties will stay restricted to who you meet in particular sequences. You lose somebody for a bit, and then you find two more. Each with a unique battle trait, random encounters are quite bearable as you get to see each new addition to your team step up to bat. Sabin, muscle headed martial artist, can input directional inputs to do a variety of special attacks, whereas Celes, a magic infused military general, can raise her sword and absorb incoming spells. Other examples are much less useful and are often gimmicky, but combat moves along thanks to this pinch hitting, along with the quick and pretty animation work. Select 'Ice' on Terra's turn and she'll walk forward, hands clasped, lips murmuring the spell, and cast pillars of blue light that flash across the rows of enemies in wicked succession. Oh, the beautiful white text of high damage numbers.
However, the latter half of Final Fantasy VI breaks this pace. Not without good reason, but nonetheless, it does so in an unfortunate turn away from the design's advantages. Some time passes, the world changes, and the game turns into a more traditional dungeon grinder as you prepare for a final fight. It's an ambitious and theoretically sound portion to the narrative, but overestimates the use of its thinly spread character roster. Basically, you're asked to retrieve everyone you met in the first half of the game (or as many as you need), one by one through a series of endurance tests, hidden event triggers, and additional cutscenes that round out the characters. Characters that benefited from brief and action packed introductions now have to be found again, where instead of hilarity and excitement, their encores come with their own dungeons, obnoxious amounts of encounters, and undeserved, overly dramatic attention.
Because, really, only a few of personalities are truly worth that dramatic attention. But the game backs itself into a corner by demanding that each member learn a life lesson and abide by the ending theme. Terra for example, is rather air headed and without a cause to call her own (understandable given her amnesia). Thus, the writers just insert a problem for her to solve, rather unnaturally. Several conversations will be abruptly hijacked by her sudden, unrelated interjection of, "What is love...?" Locke, your broken man of a thief, is also a bit of broken record, exclaiming to every woman he meets that he'll "protect" her, making over earnest and creepy promises to them upon each meeting. It's supposed to be touching, somehow.
Not that there isn't fitting and powerful moments in its attempt to tie up all the loose ends, but with a cast this large (14 playable characters), and an ending segment this drawn out, one would have to expect a hit and miss quality to the game's refocusing of each individual. During this segment, it's difficult not to longingly reminisce on the emotional depth and imaginative brilliance that the adventure first carried with it on that trek through the snow to Narshe. But while an insanely illustrated final boss and masterfully layered musical score may be enough of a reprieve for some, the best part of that showdown is without a doubt the class act that follows it: the credits. Watching them roll, it's like each character is again coming forward for a last bow, and for their performance on a stage as bold as Final Fantasy VI's, a standing ovation is certainly deserved.