Original Release Date: 1994
Playthrough Platform: PS One
My History with the Game: I know this game better than any other game in the series. I remember when I saw the first footage of the game in Nintendo Power. I got it for Christmas in 1994 when the game was released on SNES as Final Fantasy 3. I can’t count the number of times I’ve played this game, and it never feels old to me. More than any other game in the series, I think this is the one that made me a fan of RPGs and Squaresoft. I even remember placing my cassette player near my TV speaker to record the music from this game. I drew Kefka in the margins of my notes in school. This game was in my top five when I was growing up (number 2, actually), and it is still a favorite.
Play Time for Main Story: 23:56
Final Fantasy VI begins with a prologue that establishes a steampunk world that lacks magic. Magic is thought to have died 1000 years ago after the War of the Magi, a conflict initiated by warring goddesses. Through this war, some people were turned into magical creatures called Espers and used to devastating effect. When the war ended, the goddesses turned to stone and the Espers moved with them to a magical realm. Magic vanished from the human world. However, the Empire has rediscovered magic, and a frozen Esper has been found in a mine in the independent city Narshe. The Empire sends Terra and a group of soldiers to recover the Esper. Terra is controlled by a slave crown and can only follow orders. However, when she encounters the frozen Esper, it reacts to her, and the other troops are killed. The story begins here, following Terra’s freedom from the Empire. She can use magic. The Empire wants her back. The rebel group Returners wants her to join them in their fight against the Empire. Terra must choose her path while trying to figure out who she is and why the Esper seemed to know who she was.
Many Final Fantasy games hint at ancient events that have resurfaced in the current game. FF VI is no different. But it is the complexity of the backstory that shines. The complexity helps to flesh out the world and make it feel bigger and more immersive. And in FF VI, I feel like I am exploring a world that has truly been shaped by these past events. The characters actively shape how the story unfolds, and Terra’s story is intimately connected to the plot and what the Empire hopes to accomplish.
There is also a massive plot twist halfway through the game. The Empire’s plans derail in a major way when the Emperor learns that Kefka had his own agenda the entire time. I didn’t see this coming when I first played the game, and it is still a shocking but believable twist based on what we know of the character.
I think Final Fantasy VI has the largest main cast of any Final Fantasy game. (In the main series, that is. I haven’t played any spin-offs like Type-0 or Tactics. One day . . . .) However, this large cast is surprisingly fleshed out. While you could argue that Terra is the main character, in reality, she’s not. She is an entry point and is pivotal in the early game, but after Kefka plays his hand, her prominence decreases. She is no longer the center of the story. This would work against the story if the rest of the cast was weak, but they aren’t. Almost every character has a backstory with a tragedy the drives them forward. They grow and change. In fact, this is part of the theme of the story: overcoming your past and finding a reason to keep moving forward. This gives the characterization more of a modular feel since each of them has his or her reasons for the fight. I would have preferred if Terra had remained the prominent character throughout, but with this many stories to tell (and with her arc and where they took her character), it works well.
Here is a brief overview of the characters (with links to their theme music):
- Terra – A young woman with a mysterious past. She can use magic, and is being used as a slave Magitek warrior by the Empire.
- Locke – A treasure hunter haunted by his failure to save the woman he loved.
- Edgar – The king of Figaro, who must navigate the political tensions between independence and being an ally of the Empire. He knows the Empire had his father killed and is secretly supporting the Returners.
- Sabin – Edgar’s twin brother, who rejected the throne of Figaro to train under the martial arts master Duncan.
- Celes – A Magiek Imperial general who has defected.
- Cyan – A samurai from the kingdom of Doma. His people were poisoned by Kefka.
- Gau – A child who was abandoned on the Veldt after his father became convinced he was a demon.
- Setzer – A gambler with the world’s only airship.
- Shadow – An assassin and mercenary who started his life trying to be a master criminal with his partner Baram.
- Strago – A mage descendant who once hunted rare monsters, but now raises his granddaughter Relm.
- Relm – A young artist who may be Shadow’s daughter.
Characters without much backstory are
These characters fight against Emperor Gestahl, who’s Empire has been expanding and destroying any who oppose it. Geshtahl is served by General Leo, a man who holds honor in high regard, and Kefka, a general who enjoys chaos and destruction. Kefka believes life is meaningless and derives great pleasure from destruction and anything that causes people to lose hope. For him, senseless destruction is the true expression of existence.
The graphics in this game take a large step forward from IV and V. The world map takes on a pseudo-3D look instead of being straight overhead. The character sprites used in the map are the same used in battle, which looks great and allows for more detail and expression. Since this world is defined more by technology than previous FF games, it has a more industrial revolution look in places. There are still a few castles, but we see far more technology here. The series is moving more toward science fiction.
The music is my favorite from the SNES era . . . maybe even from the entire Nintendo era. Nobuo Uematsu wrote over three hours of music for this game. Each character has a theme (see the list of characters above), and these themes are reused in interesting ways (such as Terra’s theme being used in the world map but also when she is freed from the slave crown). There’s even an opera. The music brilliantly communicates tone in the game. For example, the world music becomes dark and ominous after Kefka’s plan. But when the characters are reunited and renew their resolve to fight for the world, the music changes into something more inspiring and upbeat. And the final gauntlet of monsters in the lead-up to Kefka is possibly the second greatest Final Fantasy end boss theme in the series. In all, this soundtrack expands greatly on what video game soundtracks were capable of. And I think the U.S. branch of Square knew this because the first video game soundtrack that I ever saw advertised was this one. I wanted it at the time, but I didn’t have a CD player. Kind of weird to think back on a time before CDs, actually.
The only criticism I have is that the PS One sound design is not quite the same as the SNES version. The wind effects don’t sound as good, and some of the other effects are not quite the same. The Phantom Train music seemed to cut in and out because it seemed in conflict with the train effects. And the music for the ending cutscene didn’t match the pace of the original SNES version. It was really annoying as the airship flies off into the distance, the music builds . . . and gets cut off because the video advanced faster than the music. I hope future ports (GBA, mobile, and PC) of the game fixed this.
But at least they retained Kefka’s iconic laugh.
The basic mechanics have more in common with FF IV than with other games in the series. Each character has a class that determines stats. If you are familiar with the FF jobs, you have a good idea how characters progress: Sabin is a monk and has high health and strong bare-handed attacks; Lock is a thief (treasure hunter!), so he can steal; Strago is a blue mage; and so on. Some jobs operate a bit different here, such as Edgar’s Engineer/Machinist job. He uses spears and special tools (like the auto-crossbow or chainsaw), and have very little in common with FFIV’s Cid, who was also an Engineer.
The major difference is with the magic system. I appreciate that the magic system in this game reflects the lore of the world. While a handful of characters are natural magic users (Terra and Celes, to begin with), any character can learn magic through the use of magicite. When an Esper dies, it becomes a stone called magicite. Each piece of magicite contains spells that players can learn as they gain magic points. Some magicite allows players to learn at a faster rate. When a character has magicite equipped, they can summon the Esper. And if you are interested in min/maxing your characters, some magicite has stat bonuses for the character if it is equipped when they gain a level. Again, this system is lore-based and I appreciate the attempt to merge mechanics and story. Unfortunately, there isn’t much variety. In time, anyone can learn any spell. Some characters are naturally better at magic than others. You can use the stat bonuses to add enhance the characters as you wish, but it’s not necessary. As long as you keep finding better equipment and leveling your characters as normal, you don’t have to spend much time mastering any complex mechanics. If anything, that makes Final Fantasy VI an easy entry point for the series. The character advancement system is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of thought. But it makes sense within the story being told, and I enjoy that.
Playing through these games has given me an appreciation of the mechanics and growth of the series. And while I think Final Fantasy VI is a bit lacking in this area, it more than makes up for it is story and characters. The mechanics don’t get in the way of the story, as they sometimes did in FFII and V. But there was also enough exploration to feel like you are playing a game and not watching an animated series. It is a lot of fun. I also loved seeing how themes continue to be used throughout each game. This is the first Final Fantasy game to not use crystals! Magicite sort of takes the place of crystals, but they are still distinct. The themes of balance and ruin are present; though in this game balance is a force of light where ruin is a force of darkness. Honestly, moving away from crystals has been a good thing at this point in the series. As I recall, it will be a few more games before crystals return to the Final Fantasy games. I’ll be honest, I don’t miss them.
The game is over 20 years old, and I still enjoy playing it. That says a lot for its longevity and its status as a classic.
Final Rating: 9/10