As our slow playthrough of the Final Fantasy series progresses inexorably through the myriad games in this never-ending franchise we have finally reached the end of the NES era. This time around we’re playing Final Fantasy III, a game that took an extraordinarily long time to see an English release. In fact, it wasn’t until the DS, when it both saw a first English language version and got a full 3D enhanced remake at the same time. A new edition of this game came out about a year ago at time of writing on Steam as part of the Pixel Remaster series, but I’ve opted to stick to what I know and dive on into the DS version instead.
Final Fantasy III (Android, Famicom, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PC)
Released Apr 1990 | Developed / Published: Square
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 19 hours (NES), 31 hours (NDS)
Final Fantasy III sits in an odd spot between its fellow NES entries. As the third game in the series it had the advantage of seeing all that worked and failed in its predecessors, and had the opportunity to avoid the pitfalls they made and to improve where they succeeded. Its remit seems to have been this: where Final Fantasy set the baseline for gameplay with its classes and party customization, III sought to expand it with an extensive new Job mechanic; where Final Fantasy II built a huge, sprawling, and human story as a small band of rebels fought against a demonic emperor, III would look to return the series to more fantastical roots. In many ways Final Fantasy III is defined by how it interacted with its prequels, and in turn how it codified the commitment to reinvention that would come to characterize the way the Final Fantasy franchise approached its games.
Perhaps one of the most drastic additions to the franchise given to us by Final Fantasy III is the Job system. The first Final Fantasy might have had a class mechanic, letting you select the role and skills you wanted each character in your party to have, but what makes a Job system that much more engaging is the fact that you can change those roles on the fly. It confers upon the player an incredible degree of tactical control and gives you myriad options for changing up future playthroughs. As you progress through the game you unlock new Jobs to try out with your party; in general, you pick up stronger classes as you get further in, or at the very least you get more specialized ones, but in theory there’s little stopping you from attempting to push through the game with your favourite starting classes – indeed, I’m sure there are plenty of challenge runs out there that do that very thing. In practice, that’s a little impractical, of course; often you’ll want access to the strongest weapons, armour, and magic that only the later classes can wield.
In the original Famicom release the finale gives players an opportunity to unlock super-powerful prestige classes, and having a party of these is an absolute necessity to best the final dungeon; blessedly, the remake opts instead to rebalance these jobs and make them part of the last batch of jobs you receive when progressing through the game, which makes the endgame more engaging since you have a reasonable chance of using other classes and getting anywhere. To be honest, in general Final Fantasy III makes some strange bungles with its implementation of the Job mechanic. For example, there are points where certain Jobs are all but required, such as dungeons which need you to be under status effects like Mini or Toad which wrecks your physical attackers so unless you’ve got good Mages you’re a bit screwed over. Square also buggered up changing Jobs for the longest time; in the original you had to spend resources to be able to change Jobs, which is a pointless requirement, and in the DS remake changing Jobs incurs a hit to your stats, giving your characters a temporary debuff, which is unnecessarily harsh. In fact, that whole palaver wasn’t fixed until the latest remakes currently on Steam.
Messing about with the Jobs produced some unfair pushes to Final Fantasy III’s difficulty, but in general the game is notorious for its spikes. Aside from the aforementioned dungeons that force status effects on you, some bosses and even random mooks will kick your arse without certain Jobs in your lineup, and that of course necessitates huge amounts of grinding. As a rule, games with Job systems wind up making you grind more as you have to grind not just for the usual regular leveling-up purposes but also for Job levels that increase your capabilities with your chosen class. The finale of Final Fantasy III is also infamous for its difficulty as it throws waves of bosses at you as random encounters and requires you to complete several dungeons worth of progress in a single sitting as there’s no way to either retreat and heal nor save in dungeons. This is finally fixed by the Steam remasters but it does beg the question of who on Earth thought it was a good decision to build the game in this way initially. It’s honestly a travesty of game design and hardly a mistake that ought to have been made this far into either the Famicom’s life cycle or the franchise. I suspect if you ask people to talk about the grind in the original Final Fantasy trilogy then they’ll point to II and its endless stat grinding, but personally III pips it for me in terms of sheer tedium. It’s also incredible that the grind gets worse in the DS remake, which not only feels slower because of the 3D animation, but it also suffers from the enemies getting rebalanced. Random encounters are now restricted to only 3 foes on screen at once, and in response to this Square-Enix gave the enemy parties a significant buff, which in turn results in a stodgier, grinder experience.
The dodgy difficulty certainly is a major mark against the game, but I think there’s one area where Final Fantasy III commits a worse sin and that is in the writing. It seems that one of the decisions made during development was that Final Fantasy III would represent a move away from the more human, involved story of Final Fantasy II and instead try to tell a simpler narrative, a la the original Final Fantasy. That is fair enough in principle, but the thing about Final Fantasy’s story was that it was clear, concise, and well-told. Regrettably, III fails on all of these points.
Our story starts simply enough. It focuses on our party of adventurers who discover that they are the fabled Warriors of Light, destined to save the world from an encroaching wave of darkness. To do so, they must embark on an epic quest to find the four elemental crystals that are locked away across the land. There’s a directness to this which I respect; even if the plot sounds trite and cliche to a modern audience, Final Fantasy is of course the series which codified the “heroes questing for elemental crystals to save the world” narrative, and its resonance is because of games like this one. I’m also just generally in favour of the freeform approach to player-led role playing that comes in games with straightforward plots where you get to name and make your own party of characters – it’s the kind of charm that the original Final Fantasy had in spades as it treated its own story like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Interestingly, this is something that the DS remake chooses to change. In that version, each character is now defined, with a unique look, name, personality and dialogue. I can appreciate this decision, as one key issue that comes with player-created characters is that if you don’t engage fully with that system then your party of heroes wind up having no personality at all.
Unfortunately, although I’m sure it was done with the best of intentions, the remake’s Warriors of Light aren’t all that much better. Each one has maybe the faintest shell of a personality: Luneth is the designated hero by dint of being the first character we control, Arc is the timid friend, Ingus is an honourable guard, and Refia is the token woman. Even though they get some bits of individual dialogue, mostly it serves to highlight how vapid a set of characters they are, and they aren’t even the only characters to get this treatment. The whole cast is made up of one-note NPCs, resulting in a game’s worth of bland, grey nothings that spout off cliches and empty plot points in a lame attempt to advance the story. This even extends to the villains; Final Fantasy III is infamous for introducing its core threat literally at the end of the game, but it’s shocking just how badly this is handled. Even the baddie responsible for much of the plot’s goings-on, Xande, doesn’t crop up in the dialogue until the late-game and he shows up in person precisely once, right at the end. Final Fantasy III stands nowadays as a showcase of how not to write either villains or heroes; if the first game felt like someone’s homebrew D&D campaign, this one feels like a story written by an excitable child, making it up as they go along.
It disappoints me to feel like I have to be so negative about Final Fantasy III. I really do want to like it. At the time of writing we’ve played though a fair few games in the franchise, and I know that some of the later games are among my personal favourite games of all time, but I think I was hoping to be able to see the genesis of where those games were going to come from here (not to mention from the other NES-era Final Fantasy games). On paper III should have been a game I enjoyed; it has a ton of features I know I love in JRPGs, from fast-paced battles to a Job system, to a strong appreciation for classic fantasy roots, but in practice it’s a bit of a mess. It tried to be a game that sat in-between both Final Fantasy and II, but ultimately I think it sits behind both of them; it lacks the same spark of ambition as II, and can’t match that game’s more interesting writing, and on a purely mechanical level it trails behind the first game, which doesn’t have to contend with a clunkily-implemented Job mechanic and offers players much more freedom. I’ve now played through both the original Famicom version of III and its DS remake, and both times I was left with a sense of fatigue as you battle to unearth the foundations of a great game from underneath the detritus of the decisions made during this game’s development.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.