Final Fantasy III (SNES) review
"Certainly, you can take that route if you wish. Or… you can slow down and have a good time exploring each of the world’s nooks and crannies. There are even optional monster and towers you can defeat for seriously cool rewards. Much of the game’s second half is optional but cool. You can play however you like, with only a few exceptions. Some choices you make can even affect the game’s plot."
Three machines work their way up the face of a cliff, toward a gaping maw that leads into the heart of a mountain. Beneath them lies the mining village of Narshe. Smoke rises from chimneys and forges, toward a lifeless sky. The only sounds are the crunch of metal against packed snow and the gusting wind. There are two males and one female piloting the metal behemoths. The latter moves ahead, determined. Her companions hang back and ask the questions they can’t get out of their minds: are the rumors about their fellow soldier true? Is she really a witch?
Their journey takes them into a cavern, to a passage where not long ago, the people of Narshe found a mysterious object. It beckons them now, a luminescent blue stone so massive it defies the bounds of credibility. A monster lies encased within the eerie shell. It suddenly reacts to the girl. Beast and machine grapple with one another, until the air crackles with magical energy. A final surge of power fills the area. That quickly, the men are dead and the girl loses consciousness. Why was she spared?
Final Fantasy III begins with the simple, straight-forward appeal that comes from a good mystery. Yet the game is not just about one girl, fascinating though her story is. It’s about many people who share one common thread: they’re interesting. The girl from the cave is soon joined by a “treasure hunter” that frequently helps himself to others’ possessions. He helps her to escape from soldiers and they soon encounter a lecherous king, his muscle-bound brother, a rebel leader, a lady general with a sword that will absorb magic and many others. You’ll see loyal knights, timid moogles, wild children and ancient spell casters. Each of these characters will join you in the battle against an evil so fearsome it can only be summed up with one name: Kefka.
Part clown, part abomination, Kefka is one of the most memorable villains ever to grace a game cartridge or disc. Most of that comes from his frequent presence. As you explore the mysterious forests and the lush plains, you’ll feel his touch at every turn. Rivers run murky with death and poison. Good men lose their lives and tearful women mourn the loss. Not even children are spared. Treachery is commonplace as an Empire hovers on the brink of chaos and ruin. Through all of it, Kefka laughs maniacally. He revels in the anguish and refuses to let it stop him from that which he most craves: world domination.
Kefka’s dreams don’t stop there. Halfway through the game, events transpire that radically alter the way you’ll view the hours of gameplay that remain. Your characters are torn asunder, forced to reunite and to preserve a mangled landscape as dark as the one who ruined it. They’ll fight for justice because it’s in their blood, because they know that without their efforts, Kefka will destroy everything.
What makes Final Fantasy III so good is simple: it’s convincing. If you play it the way it was meant to be played, you don’t have time to wonder if you’ve seen some plot strand in some other game, or if the number of colors on-screen compares favorably to the amount in some other game, or if that midi file would’ve been crisper on the TurboGrafx-16. Such comparisons lose any marginal value they might’ve had because you’re completely absorbed. When the characters cry for loved ones lost and the nearly-orchestral soundtrack swells to a gut-wrenching crescendo, it’s every bit as stirring as any moment Aeris and Cloud shared later in Final Fantasy VII. When you first step into the barren wasteland known as the Veldt and a drumming crescendo blasts from your speakers, you don’t question for a moment that you’re living out a dangerous adventure.
16-bit technology never really interferes. Caverns are as dank as anything you might have encountered in three dimensions, complete with moss, algae and water crystals. Ponds glisten in the shadowy Phantom Forest. When you ride a runaway cart down rickety tracks, it’s not presented from a distance; you see it through the eyes of the protagonists. When an airship lifts into the sky and flies toward a distant sunset, you watch it all from just behind the action. Forests and towns, oceans and mountains glide beneath you. Even in battle, you’ll see the lush vegetation in every pixel.
Summoning spells have also reached a new level of visual splendor. There are numerous monsters (called Espers) that will join your cause throughout the game, and each comes with an impressive animation. None of them are drawn in the style of those you may recall from Final Fantasy VII, and they certainly aren’t on that visual level. Nevertheless, they’re effective. They also remind you how much you want to increase your stock of mystical allies. Entering a battle without a beast to call your own becomes downright disappointing, later in the game. Of course, much of that comes from the realization that you won’t be learning any new skills.
Like its successors, Final Fantasy III asks you to customize how your party members learn new skills. You’re no longer limited to just one healing mage, for example. In this world, magic comes only from the Espers. Since anyone in your group can learn new abilities, you can always find a way through problems that arise. If you need of a lot of fire magic, just level grind in the appropriate forest or cave. The only requisite is time. By game’s end, you can easily have a group of warriors that no one--even Kefka--could ever hope to challenge. Of course, this might also be considered a flaw.
Some people will be quick to exploit the character customization, then post on message boards saying that they were forced to build levels in order to beat the game. As you might expect, this is complete rubbish. The game’s story elements and dungeon exploration are enough to keep anyone busy for around 20 hours. Oddly enough, that’s about how long it will take to finish the game if you make a concentrated effort to ignore all of the optional stuff (random battles can even be blocked entirely once you obtain the proper item). Certainly, you can take that route if you wish. Or… you can slow down and have a good time exploring each of the world’s nooks and crannies. There are even optional monster and towers you can defeat for seriously cool rewards. Much of the game’s second half is optional but cool. You can play however you like, with only a few exceptions. Some choices you make can even affect the game’s plot.
At the end of the day, role-playing games aren’t about the small stuff that time and more powerful consoles render obsolete. They’re about the experience as a whole. If you can ride a makeshift raft down the rapids southeast of Narsh, witness betrayal and murder, watch the very world be torn apart and never blink an eye, maybe you need to find another genre. Me, I like to be right in the thick of things. I like to be pulled into a world so absorbing that I forget it’s not real for hours at a time. Final Fantasy III does that for me like few other games ever will. Everything else is irrelevant.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 16, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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