Given the stature of the Final Fantasy series, it’s somewhat surprising to think that only very recently has the entire franchise been made available to a worldwide audience. Up until Final Fantasy VII, Western gamers had been largely ignorant of Square’s premier product. The aforementioned Playstation epic quickly changed that and RPG brand went on to became a household name, kick starting a Western obsession with turn-based Japanese adventure titles. The newly discovered English-speaking fan base began to grow restless and many wondered where the six other Final Fantasy games had gotten to.
Never a company to miss additional revenue streams, Square (by this point fused with former rival Enix) slowly began to publish properly translated editions of their former classics. The Playstation was lucky enough to experience two anthology collections and more recently Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance has been granted thoroughly enjoyable ports of the SNES editions. One game in the lineage has so far eluded hardcore fans, however - the Japan-only NES release, Final Fantasy III. Until now, that is. Resplendent in shiny, three-dimensional livery, Square’s untold classic is at long last available for the enjoyment of gamers outside of the Land of the Rising Sun.
For those fans that have been weaned on the semi-futuristic worlds displayed in more recent Final Fantasy games, this remake will come as something of a shock. Resolutely ‘old school’ in design and execution, FFIII certainly feels like a game from many moons ago. The storyline definitely isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but then it was written a decade and a half ago. The player assumes the role of an orphaned teenager who teams up with three other parentless adolescents with the primary aim of restoring peace to their troubled homeland. And yes, you probably have seen a plot like that several times before.
When the game was originally released on the NES it was notable for showcasing the unique ‘Job’ system. All of the main characters start the adventure as ‘freelancers’, which basically means they’re jack-of-all-trades, master of none. As progress is made, various options become available. For example, the player can change a character’s class to ‘Warrior’ and in doing so grant them increased physical prowess at the expense of magical talents. Turning them into a mage has the exact opposite effect. To begin with your job options are limited, but as the characters level up and improve their abilities a wide range of classes are unlocked, including ‘Thief’, ‘Monk’ and the incredibly cool ‘Ninja’. At the time this was a startling innovation and although more recent Final Fantasy titles have introduced much more complex class systems, it still manages to put most other modern RPGs in the shade.
Enemy encounters in FFIII are completely random and unpredictable – just as they have been in all Final Fantasy titles. You will either love or hate this, but it’s commonplace in most Japanese RPGs of this type and there’s little sign of it going away any time soon. Combat is strictly turn-based and features the usual batch of physical and magical attacks, depending on what character class you use. Gone are the ‘time battle’ features of Final Fantasy VII – here, you simply decide what action to take and then watch as the contest unfolds. In this respect the game is blissfully unhindered by over-complicated statistics, but more dedicated fans of the genre may be somewhat perturbed and see FFIII as a step backwards.
Graphically the game is sumptuous. The sparse 2D visuals of the NES original have been completely re-imagined in glorious 3D and as a result FFIII is arguably one of the best looking DS games seen so far. The standard of graphical spender shown here is easily up there with the best the Sony Playstation had to offer, and while this might seem like a minor boast when you consider the kind of visuals PSP owners are currently enjoying, it doesn’t stop FFIII from impressing. The sound is also of a high standard with some familiar tunes rubbing shoulders with new tracks – all nicely arranged and perfectly suited to the on-screen action. A mind-blowing CGI introduction rounds off the package rather nicely in terms of presentation – how developers Matrix fit such an action packed sequence onto a tiny DS cart I’ll never know, but it certainly gives the aforementioned Sony handheld a run for its money in terms of video quality.
Unfortunately the game is ‘old school’ in some rather less welcome ways. Most RPGs these days will allow the player to auto-equip any items they purchase, but FFIII forces you to drop back into your inventory screen in order to equip a weapon or put on a piece of armour. This might seem like a minor quibble but it adds a few seconds of totally needless button pressing in order to perform the most simple of tasks.
FFIII can also be painfully unforgiving at times. For example, there is one section where the player is told of a meddlesome dragon that must be defeated in order to access the open sea and advance their quest – jumping straight into combat with this beast (and ignoring the advice of a NPC who informs you of a temple further up the coast) will result in your entire party dying almost instantly. It’s an easy mistake to make and because the game doesn’t ‘auto save’ so it certainly pays to keep saving your progress as much as possible, lest you get yourself into a battle you shouldn’t be tackling until slightly later on.
Some later sections of the game ramp up the challenge to almost superhuman levels, with boss characters taking a hell of a beating before they finally succumb. Fans of the series will be more than familiar with this ‘uber-boss’ concept, but RPG novices may find the difficulty disenchanting. The solution is to make sure you regularly scout the open fields for weaker foes in order to level your characters up, and FFIII therefore falls into a rather predictable pattern of ‘find town, get quest, level up, tackle dungeon, defeat boss, move to next area, rinse and repeat’. Thankfully the storyline is engaging and the promise of attaining new job classes provides enough incentive to soldier on, but FFIII does show up the limitations of the traditional ‘turn-based’ RPG somewhat.
Final Fantasy fans are a dedicated bunch and chances are most will buy this game regardless of the outcome of this (or any other) review. Thankfully they’re unlikely to be disappointed. FFIII isn’t perfect by any means but it’s still eminently enjoyable and will provide hours of entertainment to RPG aficionados. The publication of this game (as well as the recently released Front Mission 1st) gives this reviewer hope that SquareEnix will look into updating some of their other Japan-only classics, such as Bahamut Lagoon and Seiken Densetsu 3, so that Western gamers can see why these previously unattainable titles are so worthy of the praise that is regularly heaped on them.