The debate on best Final Fantasy title rages to this day, but whenever the argument is made there’s always hefty debate over the sixth installment into the blockbuster franchise. Final Fantasy VI is a masterpiece on the SNES and one of the best RPGs ever made.
The most impressive part of this title is that it’s almost impossible to point a finger at the game and single out the lead character. Final Fantasy IV had Cecil, FFV had Bartz, but it’s much harder to do with FFVI. You start the game playing as Terra, so logically she’s the first person the player latches onto, but shortly afterward you take control of Locke before the whole group gets scattered into a series of individual stories cumulating in the end of the world. From here you play as Celes, and it’s she who gets the group back together but even then it never feels exclusively like her story. Final Fantasy VI is an ensemble piece in the true sense of the word and it draws a lot of its popularity from its diverse and wonderful cast of characters.
Graphically the game makes excellent use of the SNES’ colour pallet by rendering detailed 2D sprites onto chipset backgrounds. The game designers wisely choose to mute the colours this time around, making things darker and more serious in tone than the bright, vivid worlds seen in pervious entries. The sprites themselves display a series of animations covering most bases with additional poses unique to each character (such as Edgar wiggling his finger) and are detailed enough to forego the change to larger variants on the battle screen. Battle backgrounds are well drawn and more varied than they have previously been, and effects for spells and summoned beasts called ‘Espers’ are visually pleasing. Overall it has aged extremely well, although some elements stand out as less successful, in particular a scene where the party escapes a base using a mine cart. When using the airship or riding a Chocobo the map has a suedo-3d effect that stands out from other games of the era. The opening sequence with three mechs slowly striding toward an unsuspecting mountain town through a blizzard is eerie and sets the stage perfectly.
The original score for this title is perhaps the best of the Final Fantasy series, threatened only by VII in terms of memorability. The overworld theme, intro sequence and individual character pieces are wonderful and they make the most of the SNES’ aging hardware at the point of original release. Orchestral renditions sell to this day and more recently the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded their own live session playing some of them. Sounds are memorable as well, especially the strange and haunting effect used to generate a laugh for the main villain (reused in Chrono Trigger!) and operatic singing from both Male and Female characters.
The plot centres around the central concept of an Empire that has learned to harness powerful beings known as Espers to bestow magical powers on to its generals. Upon discovering a woman born with a seemingly natural ability to use magic they immediately grab and weaponise her, turning her into a mindless slave by use of a headband that robs her of her will. This woman, known as Terra, wipes out whole armies in the field before being sent to the small mountain town of Narshe to investigate reports of an Esper frozen in the mines there. Upon arrival they fend of opposition from the towns occupants before an encounter with the Esper frees her from their control and the game begins. The game slowly ramps up the stakes rather than hit the ground running, instead focusing on a series of character moments whilst gently filtering in the bigger narrative. This allows a grand total of 16 playable characters to be put into play over the course of the game and every one of them manages to be equally interesting from a narrative standpoint. Juggling angst (Shadow) with well-judged comedy (Ultros) and setting down character templates that we are still seeing repeated to this day. The games main claim to fame is of course the fact that it had the guts to end the world at its mid-point, but for me the high point has to be the amazing opera scene that juggles multiple objectives, an amazing soundtrack and excellent character moments to create a genre high-point. That the game introduces a talking squid-king who holds a grudge against the party and follows them around for a series of comedy interludes and boss encounters without losing credibility speaks volumes.
Gameplay is traditional turn based combat using the ATB system first introduced in Final Fantasy IV with a few additional wrinkles. Each character has his or her own special move that is unique only to them, allowing for a character class structure and a sense of individuality. In this manner different gameplay elements are introduced, such as Setzer’s slot-machine mechanic or Sabin’s ‘Street Fighter’ themed blitz attacks. This is moderated by the fact that equipping an Esper allows each party member to learn that spirit’s magical spells and reap the benefits of a slight stat boost upon level up. Relics also play a key part in building a character, with two able to be equipped on top of the regular weapons and armour. These add additional abilities and enable characters to bend some of the games rules to their benefit. At their weakest they enable slight stat boosts or increased running speeds, at their strongest they enable new moves and allow you to attack twice by equipping two weapons. Exploration is largely unchanged from other Final Fantasy titles (be sure to check all the clocks for hidden Elixers) and the game avoids branching paths of any kind with the exception of one sequence where your actions decide the outcome of a sick character. It’s not that this game redefines the formula of the SNES rpg series, but it certainly refines them into a near-perfect format.
Overall Final Fantasy VI is a series high-point in a series of amazing titles. Available now for iOS in a highly polished form that shows real care and attention on the part of SquareEnix (movement on a virtual D-Pad will never feel right but combat feels amazingly natural with the new layout) and ported to the PSOne and Playstation network unchanged, it’s easy to get a hold of so there’s no excuse not the play it. Really it’s an RPG everyone should have played at least once.