Few games get such a bad rap as Mystic Quest. Developed by Squaresoft as a method of introducing the JRPG into countries where it had failed to be a successful genre, it’s a little on the simple side, but that doesn’t stop it from having a certain charm.
Intended as an entry level instalment into the more complex genre of JRPGs, Mystic Quest includes many elements seen in more advanced titles included but simplified. Adventure game elements are also included to keep the game interesting when exploring, and for a long time this was the only Final Fantasy instalment where the player could jump (until X-2 came along in fact) as well as wall climb and break terrain. This was an overall failed attempt due to the lack of understanding that the European interest in WRPGs (based mostly on D&D at the time) was due to their deep and engaging mechanics rather than the perception that JRPGs were too hard for them.
Graphically the game uses a 2D sprite based engine that’s not far off from the one seen in Final Fantasy V, although some character elements are drawn from earlier titles. The lead character, Benjamin, has a variety of animations and poses (including a shoulder shrug you’ll see used a lot for comic timing) that are put to good use, and he can be seen swinging a variety of weapons, jumping and climbing to his heart’s content. Some of the designs for the supporting cast are excellent, and although you’ll only spend a bare minimum of time with them there’s enough character to them to make them stand out. Locations are varied in a style similar to that seen in platforming titles, with forest, frozen and lava filled areas all appearing in a manner similar to stages in those games. The tiles used to build these areas are nice, but the areas themselves are built in a repetitive and largely empty manner that can make exploration through later dungeons a chore. There are a surprising number of small graphical flourishes included however, such as a Chocobo weather vane spinning away in one town and an encounter with a sentient tree. Monster graphics change based on the level of damage they’ve taken, making for some interesting visuals.
Sound effects are functional and see a lot of re-use from other titles from the mainline Final Fantasy series, perhaps as a cost cutting measure or maybe in order to better make the game feel like a legitimate entry into the franchise. Some new ones are added for factors not encountered before, such as the grappling hook and jumping noises, and these match in very well. Musically the title is a little weak, with a limited number of tracks on offer but those that are there are very distinctive. The choice to focus on more driving tunes in some areas feels very much like an attempt to encourage a certain mood when playing.
Story is the games major weak point, with there being little of it. Benjamin is a generic silent protagonist who is approached by a Sage riding a cloud at the games outset. The world is cracking to pieces around them and monsters are appearing. After slaying a Behemoth the Sage informs Benjamin that he must be a hero sent to save the world, and encourages you to set out on a quest to do just that. The game does feature some episodic content as each dungeon or town features a side character who will join the party for a limited time before leaving again once his or her work is done. The first village sees a young woman named Kaeli help you by chopping down a tree before being poisoned in an encounter and entrusting you with her axe to go retrieve an antidote from the local bone dungeon. Here he is aided by Tristam, a thief who helps him whilst teaching him the value of bombs. Ultimately the world is split into four segments based on elements and balanced by crystals that are linked by a tower at the centre of the world map. Restoring these to their correct places will save the world. It’s very kiddy stuff with little to no subtext to be found, but the game does manage to be amusing and rocket along at a brisk enough pace that the title doesn’t drag.
Gameplay sees the biggest overhaul of the JRPG, stripping back concepts to their most basic components and allow new players to better understand them. Aside from a few select locations, random battles are gone. Instead you see enemies on the map as static sprites barring your way and can prepare for them accordingly. Benjamin wields a number of weapons of the player’s choice with some dealing more damage to certain enemy types than others, for example axes flatten tree type monsters pretty quickly where a sword could lead to a longer fight. HP is shown as a lifebar, presumably because it was considered more exciting than numbers for the younger audience. Magic spells can be found in chests and cast a limited number of times per battle in a manner similar to the original Final Fantasy. The maximum party number is two at any given time, Benjamin and one ally. This at first seems limiting but does encourage one to learn what the other character is capable of. Usually they will act automatically according to a set number of basic actions. As mentioned, adventure game elements seep into dungeons and equipping a certain weapon then pressing the action button uses it in the field, with grappling hooks, claws for climbing, bombs to open passages and more available. Jumping is also used but not to a huge extent. The world map is set up as points on a fixed path, in a manner similar to Super Mario Brothers 3, with battlegrounds where stacks of up to 10 battles need to be cleared out to proceed. These are good for levelling and ensure that the player is never under-levelled for the next big encounter but grow tiresome fast in large quantities. There are more puzzles per area than an average Final Fantasy title, with some creative ideas on display, but none of them are difficult for an adult to solve. This game is very much aimed at a younger audience.
If Mystic Quest were developed today for the mobile market it would be heralded as quite a return to form for Square Enix. The elements that we all enjoy seeing in an RPG are all present and correct, and the lighter story and simplified mechanics are exactly the right fit for mobile gaming on the go. As a SNES title released between the complex systems seen in Final Fantasy V and the story focused Final Fantasy VI it’s something of a child’s play thing, but that shouldn’t stop an invested gamer from allowing a play through to charm them.