Part 18: Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Last we talked, I defeated Marilith and was growing increasingly tired of Final Fantasy I's monotony. Every level in the game repeats the same format. A fetch quest is completed to access a boss dungeon. Boss levels have an arbitrary number of floors, with a bevy of monsters to boot. Each ends with a fight against one of the "Four Fiends" with little pomp, and virtually no circumstance. It is a tiresome format.
In the moments preceding the Sunken Shrine, the designers tried something different. They had the gall to include a legitimate "side quest." But not just any side quest, mind you! Square shockingly included a side quest containing a permanent impact. After grousing over the game's shortcomings for two episodes, the "Citadel of Trials" was a marked change of pace. Unfortunately, it is only the sum of its parts.
The Citadel is only referenced by Bahamut, leader of the dragons, in passing. To even have the pleasure of meeting Bahamut, the player needs to explore a network of islands near the northern pole of the map. None of the previously encountered NPCs were explicit about where to find the Cardia Islands. Some mention a mighty race of dragons, others fawn over the formidable strength of Bahamut, but otherwise, you're on your own. Worse, several remote islands have nothing to do with progressing the story. Like much of Final Fantasy I, the level is a needlessly complicated network.
While my impressions of the Citadel of Trials is mostly positive, I still view it as a missed opportunity. Bahamut declares the Four Warriors of Light as "not ready" for the next leg of their journey. Unfortunately, Bahamut's words lack context. There isn't a "curb-stomp" battle establishing the need for a character transformation. For me, after hours of grinding, I was more than capable of laying waste to anything in my way. And concerning design, the Citadel does itself no favors. Like every dungeon before it, it is the same motif repeated ad nauseam.
Part 19: I FINALLY Have Something Nice To Say About This Game!
Despite my previously mentioned issues, the Citadel of Trails manages to craft a fun and creative moment out of nothing. The concept of the level seems simple on paper, but its execution is perfect. In every room of the citadel, there are teleporters, and only one will take the player to the next floor. The other teleporters transport the player to the previous room. The trial and error nature of the level means several attempts are needed to complete it. For once, the game makes the most of its RNG-heavy gameplay.
As weird as it may sound, the monotonous level design, and unforgiving nature of the puzzle all work. This level feels like a real test of our party's might. The game seems self-aware of the exhausting nature of its random encounters and builds that into the mythos of the Citadel. Bahamut mentions to the party that many have tried and failed to conquer the Citadel. When completed, there's a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Unfortunately, my good feelings about the Citadel cease here. I appreciated what it contributed to the narrative, and in this one moment, I saw a novel attempt at marrying gameplay and storytelling. Where my praise ultimately stops, are the "fruits" of your labor. Upon returning a rat tail to Bahamut, the dragon bestows the advanced character classes. While the new character classes are undeniably flashy, their improvements are wildly inconsistent.
For example, the Warrior transforms into a "Knight." The only practical improvement is the knight's ability to purchase stronger weapons and armor. Yes, the knight can use certain white magic spells, but they are limited to level three spells. Having more uses of low-leveled cure spells is pointless by this point in the game. The same sentiment applies to both magical classes. Mages gain access to new spells, with varying degrees of effectiveness. On the flipside, the Monk transforms into a death machine able to level any of the Four Fiends in under five turns. Ninjas, on the other hand, SUCK SHIT!
A matter we will revisit shortly is how multiplicatively powerful your characters become. Now that both mages have potent buffs, your party's power explodes. A Master or Knight buffed with Haste or Saber becomes an unstoppable killing machine. On top of that, there are ribbons. Ribbons protect against status effects, resist elemental damage, and block most Instant Death attacks. Bafflingly, the game provides THREE of these game-breaking items! By the time I acquired my second, the game was all but broken.
Part 20: This Game Sucks All Of The Joy Out Of Piloting An Airship
What I am about to complain about might seem minor, but level with me for a bit. Piloting the airship is meant to be a monumental accomplishment. Raising it from the desert was one of the more eye-popping moments in the game. Additionally, the vehicle allows players to circumnavigate random encounters when exploring the overworld.
However, could someone explain why the game is as strict as it is about parking the damn thing? I understand why I can't settle the airship on mountain ranges or oceans. Nonetheless, not being able to land the vehicle in deserts or swamps, is needlessly frustrating because most of the late-game content involves those environments. Knowing where to go in Final Fantasy I is already a chore. Add needing to find a parking space, and it becomes impossible to get your bearings straight. For me, finding places to land proved more meddlesome than the final two fiends.
To add insult to injury, the last handful of towns are miles away from the nearest parking spots. Case and point, the city of Onrac necessitates a five-minute trek through miles of swamps and mountain ranges. Lufenia is even worse as there is only one small area on which to land your airship. Once found, players must trudge through miles of prairie land with plenty of random encounters to boot. These treks add up because you have to complete them every time you wish to visit these cities.
I cannot preface enough how knowing where to go is a crapshoot. Final Fantasy gives you almost NOTHING concerning guidance. The game throttles players into isolated corners of the map, with their ultimate destination nowhere to be seen. It doesn't help the airship is meant to underscore the player's accomplishments. To have it as curtailed in usefulness as the boat upends whatever sense of majesty one could subscribe from it.
But the biggest issue with the airship is one that applies to every mode of transportation in Final Fantasy. After piloting the ship, and locating a viable place to park it, players have to remember its location. There's no in-game beacon or map marker. After spending hours in dungeons or towns, I frequently found myself stuck trying to remember where I last left the airship. With the overworld teeming with random encounters, this adds hours to any playthrough.
Part 21: Is This Game Done With Being Difficult?
Many of you may recall me moaning about Final Fantasy's punishing difficulty curve. After consulting online resources, I decided to do something about it. First, I spent two hours at the "Power Peninsula." Additionally, while slogging through the Ice Cave, my party whittled away at the "Evil Eye" more than once. My efforts bore fruit, and by the time I finished the game, my characters were bridging toward level sixty.
My "counter-measures" highlight Final Fantasy's biggest mechanical issue: it scales like trash. At some point, my Monk/Master was capable of punching anything into submission within two turns. My Warrior/Knight was decked head to toe in nigh-impenetrable armor. Both of my Mages had a bevy of spells that made it impossible for anything to KO my party. Most of the game's limiting factors fell by the wayside. With the in-game economy virtually broken, I was free to use any spell or weapon to my heart's delight.
Furthermore, Final Fantasy's item system is BROKEN! Throughout your journey, you'll come across several items that can be used to cast spells, at no cost, in combat. Some of these items bestow damage dealing magic spells, and others provide your party with critical buffing statuses. Any class can use these items, and as a result, every class shortcoming can be circumnavigated. Under normal circumstances, a Monk/Master cannot use magic, but if I were to equip one with the "Giant's Gloves," then can cast "Saber,"
And what of those game-ending status ailments I am oft to mention? By the end of the game, there are ribbons and restorative spells to help you in a bind. I'm not angry at the game opening up its options, but it does so suddenly and after hours of grinding. The jump between level three and four spells is , and the game doesn't have anything within its wheelhouse as a response. I find this all to be a bit of a shame. I'm not one who usually sees the worth of a game from its difficulty, but that's all Final Fantasy had going for it. Without it, much of the game is a blur.
Mechanically the game is sparse. Everything provides experience points, and the combat plays out slowly. However, there's a sense of tension because almost every battle has the potential to KO your party. Trash mobs are a severe problem, and most enemy types have at least one status effect up their sleeve. This difficulty disappears, and it's even worse in the Dawn of Souls version. With a more traditional MP system, players can use every spell with reckless abandon. The net result is most of the late-game content becomes an exercise of inevitability rather than skill.
Part 22: The Fetch Quest Before The Sunken Shrine Is Bullshit!
There is, however, one constant in Final Fantasy that cannot be avoided: fetch quests. Until the last level, every dungeon necessitates the completion of at least one fetch quest before attempting the boss. Acquiring the bottled faerie from the desert caravan is by far the worst questline the game brings to the table. At no point did I feel like I had a greater understanding of the world. Instead, I became increasingly frustrated by its amateurish design.
In the mountain-top protected city of Gaia, players find a spring once inhabited by a faerie. After consulting the city's MANY inhabitants, you discover one of them bottled the faerie and sold it to the owner of a desert caravan. There are two things about starting this questline that drove me crazy. First, you have no reason to believe the empty spring has anything to do with completing the story. There are a few references in Gaia about a magical faerie, but it is never communicated the spring has anything to do with the mainline quest. Second, thanks to Gaia's Byzantine city-planning, it's a pain in the ass to find anything.
Once again, Final Fantasy leaves you high and dry. If you elect to explore the city of Onrac before the caravan, you'll find the caravan owner's daughter. She has the common courtesy to direct the player to the desert west of Onrac. For some fucking reason, the designers elected not to have the caravan represented on the map. The player has to explore the desert until they walk over a small patch of sand meant to act as the caravan's entrance.
If you thought this shitshow was over with, you would be wrong. You still have to transport the faerie back to Gaia. Remember my earlier complaints about parking the airship? This part of the game is where that issue rears its ugly head. Regardless, the faerie bestows the warriors with "Oxyale" which is used to power a submarine at Onrac. Then, and only then, can the Warriors of Light fight the Kraken!
Part 23: I Think I Enjoyed The Late-Game World-Building?
I do have a bit of a compliment sandwich before I rip this game apart. Much of the late-game storytelling is compelling. If you consult with the citizens of Onrac before making a go at the Kraken, you'll find a weirdly well-crafted world. The city is all that remains of a once mighty civilization. This civilization's power came from its strong relations with the nearby mermaids. The sinking of its great shrine brought an end to these relations, as well as its strength.
The Four Fiends causing entire civilizations to either collapse or lose their societal stock is echoed throughout the game. Melmond was in ruins when we last saw it, and the same could be said of the Sunken Shrine. I thought it was a nice touch to include a level where mermaids cower and beg the player to free them. A similar point can be made about Lufenia. These NPC interactions are the only real sense of world-building in the game. Why they are optional is beyond my comprehension.
The main story is downright stubborn in its refusal to surface any world-building. If one were to blaze a trail directly to the Kraken, all they get is a single villainous speech. Worse, after their victory, your party is booted out of the Sunken Shrine with no apparent sense of what your actions mean. Instead, it reminds you there is one more elemental crystal left. A few NPCs surmise the last gem can be found on the "Lufenian Continent," south of Gaia. What sucks are the forested woods surrounding Lufenia. As you might expect, the player has to land the airship on a small strip of land far away from the town.
Once in the Lufenia, you'll find much of the same world-building as before. The elves of Lufenia have been maligned by Tiamat, and long for a return to normalcy. Regrettably, nothing in the game makes good on this potential. The new home of the Lufenians is pristine, and there's no mention of the Lufenians when you enter the Flying Fortress. Furthermore, the architecture of the Flying Fortress appears anachronistic to Lufenia.
Equally frustrating is translating what the elves are saying. To have the elves speak coherent sentences, the Warriors of Light need to complete an optional side quest. First, the warriors need to pick up a "Rosetta Stone" at the Sunken Shrine. This critical item is in a nondescript treasure chest on the third floor of the Sunken Shrine. The party then passes the Rosetta Stone to Dr. Unne in Melmond, who is tucked away in the center of the town. After learning their language, the Warriors of Light need to talk to dozens of NPCs in hopes of finding one with a story critical item before entering the next dungeon.
Part 24: A Very Bad Idea For A Very Bad Level
Reaching Tiamat is a slog. The Warriors of Light have to navigate two separate sets of dungeons, and they both suck. The first of these is the "Tower of Mirage." Like earlier dungeons, the Tower of Mirage is relatively small. Nevertheless, each floor in the tower snakes around a center and maximizes your time on each floor. Oh, and don't get me started on needing to pick up a "Warp Cube" in a far-off waterfall before entering the Flying Fortress! WHAT A LOAD OF BULLSHIT!
At the top of the tower, players fight a blue dragon before being teleported to the Flying Fortress. Once there, the game manages to find a way to compile every terrible RPG trope into one level. A monotonous art design where it's impossible to trace your steps? Check. Walking paths with loops that go nowhere? Check. A soul-crushing random encounter rate? Check. A bullshit infinite scrolling level?
If you have the "pleasure" of running out of MP or HP midway into the Flying Fortress you are shit out of luck. Your party needs to survive the trek back to the teleporter AND the Mirage Tower. The Exit spell only transports you to the beginning of the Mirage Tower. Around this point, I stopped giving a shit about the game. Completing it felt like an inevitability, and nothing about it was "grabbing" me. To compensate for this shortcoming, I decided to try something ill-founded. Upon reaching the fifth floor of the Flying Fortress, I decided to hunt down the "WarMech." Before you ask,
I am many things. But I think the word that best describes me is "stubborn." As many of you already know, I am someone who refuses to play these games with anything but keyboard controls. Why do I do this? Because I want to burn with the rest of the world. When I heard there was a notoriously difficult super boss that set the franchise's precedent of including such bosses, I had to see it for myself. What I did not realize was the Dawn of Souls version uses a "true" RNG encounter system. Luckily, by the time I encountered the machine, my party was able to off it with relative ease.
Part 25: The Final Boss Rush Is Bullshit
I want to talk about the structure of the final boss rush before breaking down how batshit crazy the game's story gets. First, just getting to the game's final level is a confusing nightmare. After defeating Tiamat, the game continues without any guidance. The last crystal teleports the Warriors of Light to the entrance of the Tower of Mirage. It's ultimately up to the player to discover they need to return to Crescent Lake and consult with the sages on what to do next.
All RPGs have a proverbial "point of no return." It's a game trope almost as old as time. I can forgive Final Fantasy for including such a moment. What I cannot tolerate is the breadth of its final level. The Temple of Chaos features eight levels, and every floor is a back-breaker. Worse, Square ran out of ideas for bosses, so they recycled the Four Fiends. Furthermore, dying at any of these bosses throttles the player back to the start of the dungeon.
It's an unmistakably BRUTAL affair. Each corridor is filled to brim with the game's hardest random encounters, and trips back to an inn are virtually impossible. Players are either ready to finish the game, or about to have their spirits crushed. I don't find this to be compelling gameplay. Tense moments of empowerment should populate final levels. Because everything in Final Fantasy feels superficial, none of your accomplishments feel weighty. At the Chaos Shrine, victories happen, and you move onto the next level.
Not only is he resistant to every element in the game, but he hits HARD! As with all enemies, Chaos follows a strict spell and skill cycle. Chaos' attacks feature all three elements, and within his repertoire is Slowra. Plus, he's able to buff himself with Haste and heals himself once per rotation. To top it all off, Chaos can cast Flare/Nuke.
All of this results in what I consider an arbitrarily tricky final boss. Chaos uses everything in the game without any constraints. Additionally, this final confrontation makes entire party compositions impractical. If your party doesn't have a healer, you are shit out of luck. Using items cannot make up for the massive health deficits Chaos inflicts. Parties lacking high intelligence characters also feel pigeon-holed into using equipable items, which elongates the final battle to a crawl.
Part 26: WHAT THE FUCK IS THE ENDING OF THIS GAME?
We now need to discuss whatever the fuck this game tries to market as a plot twist. While Final Fantasy's plot twist is far from the worst I have seen in this franchise, it is up there as the most bizarre. After idling away like a listless boat, Final Fantasy corrects itself and realizes it is a role-playing game. Upon entering the Chaos Shrine players interact with several bats that clue them into the game's greater machinations. And before you ask, it's FUCKING NUTS!
After restoring the elemental crystals, the Warriors of Light discover the Four Fiends were sent from a land two thousand years in the past. The final level, the Chaos Shrine, exists in a time loop. Then, Garland pops out of nowhere to add some extra craziness to the plot. Garland explains the power of Four Fiends in the present sent him to the past as he was about to die, and he, in turn, sent the Four Fiends in the past to the present. This scenario somehow allows Garland to live forever. I think I have that right? If not, send me an email at email@example.com.
If I understand this correctly, the Four Fiends and Garland swap places in Final Fantasy's timeline. Garland goes to the past, and the Four Fiends teleport to the present. So, did Garland create the Four Fiends? Has the cycle of Garland being defeated in the present been repeating before we started playing? Why are the Four Fiends okay with continually getting their asses handed to them by the Warriors of Light? Then, Garland becomes Chaos? Or is Chaos a different character? Did Chaos eat Garland? Is Final Fantasy secretly about vore?
Somehow defeating Chaos stops the time loop. But wait, what's allowing for this time-travel nonsense in the first place? How was Garland able to open a time portal? What did the Warriors of Light do differently that ended the time loop? Why did Garland place himself in a situation where the time loop could be stopped? Either way, the game reveals halting Garland's paradox erased everyone's memory of the Four Fiends and Garland. Everyone goes back to living their happy pixelated lives. The game even takes the time to pat you on the back during the epilogue.
What a moronic way to end a video game. Nothing preceding the Chaos Shrine prepares the player for Final Fantasy's ultimate pivot. The Four Fiends never feel like "characters" with an aim. Furthermore, Final Fantasy never scaffolds Garland as its keystone. Out of nowhere, he suddenly reinserts himself as the lynchpin to the entire game. Worse, we never see the impact of our accomplishments. When Chaos is defeated, the game ends with a dull text-only epilogue. There's no parade or pomp and circumstance. Final Fantasy first outing ends with a whimper.
Part 27: Don't Play This Game
Those words might sound harsh, but they ring true for almost everyone reading this blog series. Final Fantasy is a fascinating historical curiosity that sets the groundwork for better games to come. That's the nicest thing I can say. The moment you examine Final Fantasy as a game, let alone a role-playing game, it's impossible to recommend anyone go out of their way to play it.
Even when examined at the time of its release, it's hard to view Final Fantasy as anything but a "gateway game." Final Fantasy inspired a young audience to explore the role-playing game genre. In that regard, I cannot help but tip my hat, but times change. Gateway games are not experiences people should go out of their way to play if they already understand the genre or theme in question. Likewise, when you look at what the Dragon Quest or Ultima franchises were doing around the time of Final Fantasy's release, you cannot help but look at it as "amateurish."
At some point, we need to address a significant "elephant in the room." When did the ensemble of characters mean something? When did world-building start? When did named NPCs matter? When did missions amount to more than fetch quests? These are questions I have been wracking my mind over, and I haven't quite figured out the answer.
Hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare adeptly asked: "What's in a name?" If the Final Fantasy name means everything and the kitchen sink, you might gain something out of playing the first Final Fantasy, but even that's a reach. Unless you want to know how all of this gangster shit started, stick with your current memories of the series and never look back. I hate ending this series on such a grim note, but sometimes the truth hurts. So, until next time, that's a wrap!