Review by Pluvius

"For this, I can almost forgive Square for Final Fantasy II. Almost."

Final Fantasy III was the last extant game in the series to be released in America. Indeed, it was released a little over a week ago, over sixteen years after it was first published in Japan for the Famicom. This re-release was for the Nintendo DS, and unlike the revisions of other Final Fantasy games, this one was apparently a major overhaul, introducing 3D graphics and many other improvements. I have not yet had the opportunity to play this remake, but the original Famicom version is certainly different enough to ponder separately anyway. And despite its age, the original Final Fantasy III is better in some ways than its counterparts over a decade later.

In my Final Fantasy II review, I said that Final Fantasy IV took a lot of its story cliches from that game. Well, Final Fantasy III is where the SNES game got everything else. Final Fantasy III looks and feels a lot like a primitive version of the latter game, with very similar graphics and lots of false walls, secret passages, and optional diversions throughout the many towns and dungeons. Final Fantasy III is also the origin of several archetypes that were popularized in Final Fantasy IV, such as the Dragoon and the Conjurer/Summoner. Really, the only big difference is the Job System.

Ah, the Job System. Ever since I played Final Fantasy V so many years ago, I've repeatedly claimed that the Job System was a ridiculous and overrated system, and Final Fantasy Tactics only cemented my opinion. That was before I played Final Fantasy III, however. What's so special about it that makes it better than the other two games? Simple: logical consistency!

Anyone who's played the two games mentioned above knows how the Job System "traditionally" works. You select a job for a character, and he has two different experience meters, one for the character himself which controls attributes and the other for the job which controls skills. (Tactics is a bit different, but it's the same idea.) You gain XP to increase attributes and JP (or AP or whatever) to learn skills. Once you learn these skills, you can transfer a limited number of them to other jobs, which allows you to have a Knight who can cast black magic, for example.

And that's where the problem lies. Neither of these games explains why you can use some of the abilities you've learned in another job but not use them all. Unless there's a reason given in the game (for example, Final Fantasy VII puts skills in the equipment through Materia, not in the characters), you should either be able to use all of the skills you've learned in a job in another job (as in the later Dragon Quest games) or none of them. Final Fantasy III does the latter. In fact, the only skill or attribute that is carried over between jobs is the maximum HP, and that isn't very significant as your strongest character will generally only have about 5-10% more HP than your weakest. Everything else--strength, magic power, MP, skills, and so forth--is unique to the job that your character is in based on the experience level he's at. And since your characters don't learn skills or magic spells--you start out with them and buy them respectively--the game doesn't have job levels either. (Well, it does, but they're mostly irrelevant; more on that later.) That way you don't have to worry about leveling up your Shaman just so he can do the same things that your White Wizard can do (but better), for example.

This incidentally helps to make Final Fantasy III very balanced. If you want all of your characters to be able to cast healing spells, then you're going to have to put all four of them into one of the white-magic jobs, which of course will make the game very difficult. The game keeps you from switching jobs at will through a Capacity pool that is common to all four characters. You get Capacity Points (up to a maximum of 255) by winning battles, and use them when you wish to change jobs. Since you only get up to 255 CP to spend on the whole party, you have to be somewhat frugal with them. You can always get more, but not until the last quarter of the game does that become quick and simple. This is where the job levels come in; the higher your level in a particular job, the less CP it costs to change to that job. It's also cheaper to change between certain jobs; for example, a warrior job can switch to another warrior job more easily than to a mage job. That allows a little strategy with job switching; there was one instance when it was cheaper for me to switch a character from Thief to Monk to M. Knight than it was to switch straight from Thief to M. Knight because I had a high Monk level in that character and the Monk job was "closer" to M. Knight than Thief was. At any rate, the Capacity system plus the sheer inconvenience of switching jobs--you have to remove all equipment, then change, then re-equip--keeps people from abusing the Job System.

Not that there's much to abuse, of course. As I think I've shown already, the system is very tight, and the various battles in Final Fantasy III make it tighter. Many times in the game you'll have to figure out what party composition is best for the task at hand, and excessive job-switching will not help you to any great extent. Neither will hard-leveling; if you're using the wrong jobs for a battle or environment, then you'd have to do a lot more leveling than it's worth to overcome that. Early in the game you get a lot of hints (mostly from NPCs that tag along with your party in an advisory capacity sometimes) as to how to handle various situations, but after about halfway through the game, you're mostly on your own. This makes even a number of the game's random battles more interesting than they are in any other Final Fantasy, not even mentioning the boss battles. It also makes most of the game's 22 jobs interesting and useful in at least one or two places (though Bards, of course, suck). And if you're like me and don't care about balance, then there are a couple of optional ueber-jobs that become available at the end of the game for when you've already fully enjoyed the strategic aspect of the game--and even those don't make the last dungeon a slam-dunk.

I have realized that this game has led me to appreciate Final Fantasy IV more. No minor miracle, I assure you, as I have long felt that that game gets way too much adulation heaped up on it. All of the strengths of Final Fantasy IV's gameplay flow straight from Final Fantasy III, though unfortunately strategy in the 16-bit game is often not nearly as devious as it can be in its predecessor, likely because you can't customize your characters in Final Fantasy IV. The latter game also relies more on hard-leveling and luck than Final Fantasy III does, though I certainly grant that success in Final Fantasy III does require luck and levels. But certainly anyone who liked Final Fantasy IV would also like Final Fantasy III, and Final Fantasy III has allowed me to see exactly where Final Fantasy IV came from.

As for the story? I said that Final Fantasy II had a fairly impressive plot for an 8-bit game, but Final Fantasy III's story makes the other's look frankly inept. I won't spoil the interesting (and sometimes surprising) aspects of the gameworld for you, but I will say that the basic theme of the story is that light and darkness must be kept in balance, and that only the hearts of people both light and dark can keep everything from falling into the abyss. Not very original or even nuanced by normal literary standards, really, but for an 8-bit console RPG it's quite compelling.

The biggest thing that lets the story down, as usual for an early game, is weak characterization. The four PCs are apparently quadruplets, and their personalities are just as identical and generic; the first character in the party tends to be the mouthpiece, but he does little to distinguish himself from the others, and none of them do much to distinguish themselves from background noise. The NPCs are at about the same level of mediocrity as you'd expect from a Final Fantasy of this era.

Any other flaws? Well, the plot gets jumbled up early on due to a bunch of events barely related to the overall story being thrown at you in rapid succession, but this clears up quickly enough. And on the gameplay side, the MP system is the same D&D-like construction we saw in the original Final Fantasy, while I prefer the unified MP system of the other FFs more for various reasons. But these are minor, and if the graphics and sound were upgraded to current technology, the story polished, and the characters fleshed out--at least some of which the DS remake has done--then we'd easily have one of the best console RPGs ever created.

Like Final Fantasy II, I had only played a small part of this game before, not enough to make any real judgments. (In this case I believe I got just past the Viking Base, which is very early indeed in a game of such satisfying length.) Unlike that game, Final Fantasy III is now my favorite 8-bit console RPG. It's simply a travesty that Square has only now released it in America while having ported the other game twice; I believe that Japan should look into making this a punishable crime. But at least it is in America now, though in an altered form.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/27/06

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