Final Fantasy VI

When I began this big project to play through as much of the mainline Final Fantasy series as possible, there were certain games I had in mind as what I suppose were my “targets” – the games I’d played before but never beaten. Chief among them were the SNES trio of IV, V, and VI; between them they represent some of the most beloved entries in the franchise, games that I’d definitely tried out as a younger person as I took tentative exploratory steps into the history of a genre I loved but, for whatever reason, I’d never seen all the way through. VI in particular has been a white whale of mine for a while; it stands out as one of the most revered JRPGs of all time, and as a long-standing fan of the genre it felt almost odd to me that I’d never seriously played it. 

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Final Fantasy VI (Android, GBA [reviewed], iOS, PC, PS1, SNES)

Released Apr 1994 | Developed / Published: Square

Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 35 hours

We begin with perhaps one of the most famous openings in any RPG. Three hulking figures, trudge across a rocky plain, cloaked in the shadow of the night. A great snowstorm whips and whirls around them, as the snow is crushed beneath massive, clanking feet. Ahead, emerging from the gloom, shine the glimmering lights of a town clinging to the base of a great cliff face. As the light pools and washes across the marching trio, we get our first sight of them: the huge, rust-brown mechsuits which lumber inexorably towards the town. Two are piloted by soldiers with grim countenances, but on point is a mech piloted by a young woman with a tumbling shock of green hair. Around her head is a thin iron band bound tight across the skin, and her eyes are glassy and glazed over, and she meets the screams as the town’s guard scrambles desperately to intercept them with a blank silence. Behind her the soldiers bark orders and she obeys without hesitation, leaving charred and cauterized bodies in the wake of her mech’s lasers. They do not look back.

The trio force their way through the town mines until at the end they find a great crystal. Beneath the sheen of the surface, a stretched and mummified creature suddenly stirs and in a flash of light, the soldiers are vaporized. The green-haired girl wakes some time later in a bed in the town, Narshe. Her rescuer explains that she the iron band she wore was a slave crown, forcing her to obey the whims of the Gestahl Empire. Because of it, the town guard is baying for her blood, so he hurriedly shoves her out of a back door. She escapes from Narshe alongside a professional “treasure hunter” named Locke, who quickly introduces her to the Returners, a group organizing a rebellion against the Empire and their efforts to subjugate the entire world. Before she realizes it, our hero – Terra – and Locke become embroiled in a rapidly shifting war and find themselves swept along in its flow.

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At its heart, VI is a character drama. This game is often considered as the watershed moment where Final Fantasy took a humongous leap in terms of writing quality. Previous entries were mechanically strong JRPGs with some solid fantasy writing but VI is the culmination of a long process to become far more narratively impactful and to really try and introduce a sense of care and connection to the world and its inhabitants. We first saw this back in Final Fantasy II, which tried to use a more involved dialogue system and the threat of character death to draw players in, and again in IV, which presented character growth in almost episodic bursts. Here though, characters change and grow across the entire game, with events having clear impacts on their mental health and in turn dictating their reactions. It’s even more impressive that this happens with such a huge cast as VI sports one of the largest roster of playable party members in any of the main franchise entries; despite this, the host of characters who join in Terra’s mission are beautifully realized, with emotionally powerful ebbs and flows as their individual stories are explored. 

Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife might have set the franchise standard for the mopey amnesiac hero, but our protagonist Terra got there first. She cuts a morose figure, clearly traumatized by her subjugation by the Empire, and throughout the story she struggles to come to terms with having been used by them. Reduced to nothing more than a mindless weapon of war tuned to slaughter innocents, she finds her humanity stripped away and even though the game opens with her being freed from her enslavement, the actions she carried out as a pawn of the Empire leave lasting emotional and mental scars that she battles with constantly. It’s rare that she finds herself in the driving seat of the plot, and instead is often carried along, supported by her friends and comrades-in-arms. 

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I call Terra the protagonist, but that’s perhaps not strictly accurate. She is often seen as the main character purely by dint of being the first one that’s playable, but there’s as much an argument to be made in favour of other members of the cast being our primary heroes, namely the thief (sorry, treasure hunter) Locke and the Imperial general-turned-ally Celes. Locke I find reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX Zidane (another example of VI getting there first) – he’s a good-hearted thief, often caught up in trying to be suave but always tripping up over his insistence on being referred to properly. It becomes clear that a lot of it is a front; it doesn’t take long before it becomes clear he’s desperate to play hero, but his bravery masks a deep-seated personal trauma that he carries with him and that mars his relationships. Celes has a more obvious line of character development – she joins up with the heroes after already having been a successful general in a genocidal imperial war machine – and so she battles with the insecurity of knowing her past is bleak and blood-soaked. The character development isn’t limited to the tritagonists; almost every member of the party gets some excellent work done to humanize them, and much of it is simply part of the story rather than hidden behind optional content. 

Of course, no discussion of VI’s writing can be complete without mentioning the central villain, the murderous mage-clown Kefka. Our first sight of him spell out his malice clearly as he is responsible for enslaving Terra with a slave crown; his first in-person appearance gives us a little taste of comedic over-the-top villainy as he forces his lackeys to wipe sand off his boots in a desert, but it’s to lull you into as false a sense of security as the heroes. He appears stupid and silly, mean but laughably so, this daft pastiche of the Joker hamming it up in the desert who screams at his soldiers and makes excessive demands of them to demonstrate his position over them. When he next appears and gleefully poisons an entire castle’s water supply in order to break a siege via an act of genocide, it catches you off guard; just as his own army is shocked at the depths of his cruelty, so too are we hit with the realization that Kefka is a dangerous maniac, and it only escalates from there. His actions at the midpoint of the game make for perhaps one of VI’s most iconic moments, elevating him from a vicious accessory to Emperor Gestahl’s crimes to a legitimately terrifying force in his own right; it’s no exaggeration to say that by the end of the game he stands as one of the franchise’s most horrifically powerful enemies as he supplements his evil with a healthy dose of hate-infused nihilism. 

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No matter how good the writing is, if you’re not into the JRPG standards of classic turn-based combat and random encounter grinding then VI will unlikely be a game you stick with; of course if you do enjoy that kind of stuff, then grand! The game uses the series’ now usual ATB combat, as your party each take actions when their individual action bars fill up. Each character in your party has an entirely distinct identity and role, and setting your party up to accommodate this is key to working your way through the game’s challenges. Some are admittedly more usable than others though. The majority of party members you meet in the early stages of the game are straightforward; Terra can cast magic, Locke is a thief (sorry, treasure hunter) so he can steal, and the battleworn and grief-stricken knight Cyan chumps hits and hits chumps. Some are slightly more inventive, such as Edgar, who can use specific mechanical items in your inventory, functioning kind of life an armamentalist, or Celes, who can act as a lightning rod for spells thrown at you by your enemies. Others, however, are much trickier to get to grips with; the wild child Gau, for example, is a creative version of a blue mage, capable of using skills learned from your enemies. However, the process for acquiring these skills is laborious and time-consuming, so getting the most from him was, for me, never a priority, especially as other characters were both easier to use and more useful to slot into my party. 

I love the magic system in the game, as it’s very modular and open to customization. As you progress through the game and explore the world you’ll begin to amass a collection of magicite. Each of these are the crystallized remains of an esper, a summonable creature of magic and myth. By equipping a magicite to a character they gain access to a slew of spells that are associated with that esper; the old storm mage Ramuh’s magicite, for example, contains the Thunder line of spells, or the burning djinn Ifrit grants access to the Fire spells. Alongside experience points, each battle won while you have magicite equipped puts that character a little further along to permanently learning the spells linked to that magicite; once fully learned, you can safely unequip that magicite and swap in another one to begin learning another batch of magic. In this way you can supplement the innate abilities of each character in whatever way suits you best. Each equipped magicite also gives that character the option to summon the relevant esper once per battle, and they represent some of Final Fantasy VI’s strongest attacks for its players. 

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I mentioned earlier that an event partway through the game involving Kefka is one of the most iconic moments in the game, but in reality VI seems to be a game built of them; everyone you talk to who’s played it can recount another different point in the game that resonated with them. I feel like it might be no surprise but I have to agree with what looks to be a consensus regarding which piece of Final Fantasy VI hit the hardest: the opera scene. Perhaps it’s a little trite to bring it up now, nearly 30 years after the game’s release, but even as someone new to VI now the inclusion of an entire opera sequence remains mind-blowingly cool. When we imagine set-pieces in games I think we tend to have an image of an exciting, action-packed sequence that fills us with adrenaline; I can’t quite think of another game that would try something as daring as presenting a short musical without playing it for laughs or interrupting it with some explosive combat. There are some fights to be won here, for sure, but they come after we’ve had the joy of basking in longtime franchise composer Nobuo Uematsu flexing his already impressive musical muscles across a 4-song mini-opera. 

Of course, no discussion of Final Fantasy VI would be complete without mention of the game’s truly phenomenal soundtrack. It’s impossible to overstate the sheer force that Uematsu brought to his compositions this time around; I don’t know if it’s the improved power of the SNES or if he was simply coming into his own by the mid ‘90s, but I think there’s a good shout for Final Fantasy VI being his best work. Even down to the humble random battle theme Uematsu brings his A-game, with a trumpet-led piece segues into one of the most heavy metal feeling of the early Final Fantasy battle themes with its stabbing staccato breaks, underpinned by a wandering bass line. Terra’s theme is another one of the more memorable tracks from the soundtrack and it’s easy to see why; it’s one of the most morose overworld themes in the series! As you step out of Narshe for the first time and this plays you’re practically slapped in the face with the mournful melody that seems almost detached from the marching triplet bass and drums, representing the duality of Terra as the military theme lies subdued underneath a deep depression. And of course, how could one forget Shadow’s theme, the wonderfully bizarre uhh western… ninja… song. It’s a beautiful piece of work held together by the jaw harp and drawn along by a soulful and melancholic flute melody. It’s a mark of Uematsu’s ability, to provide a sedate, sorrowful Western cowboy ballad, attach it to a grim ninja mercenary, and have it feel perfect. 

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The soundtrack is capped by Dancing Mad, a final boss theme consisting of 17 and a half minutes of pure prog insanity. Uematsu has shown a massive love of prog rock in the years since, such as in his band The Black Mages, back when they performed, and here it feels like he’s really letting go and leaning into this manic, frantic explosion. I’ve never quite played anything like VI’s  final boss, which is a multi-stage epic in true grand Final Fantasy tradition but it also involves your entire party in a rotating sequence with new fighters coming in to replace eliminated ones, giving the whole thing a more massive feeling than anything the series has ever done – and indeed than I’ve ever played. For nearly 5 minutes we are blasted with the huge, eerie cascade of an organ as underneath a chaotic staccato string section plays scattered arpeggios; there is a rhythm in there, but trying to discern it is, hah, a madness. An ethereal choir adds to the sense of scale, especially when it’s joined by the rolling drums as the pace begins to pick up. Eventually it giives way to a carnival-style demonic calypso with the choir reduced to almost burps, punctuating the rhythm, fitting for Kefka who posits himself as the clown-turned-ringmaster of the world beneath him, and this entire motif is sold by the continued presence of the organ as the lead instrument. 

By the 8 minute mark a doom bell chimes, breaking the spell. The organ keeps playing as a more major key melody takes centre stage, almost hymn-like to reflect Kefka’s rising godhood but before the minute is out it has undergone a transmutation into a minor key, a dark reflection of the hymnal theming. It’s telling that throughout this passage the rapid arpeggiated rise that prefaces any random battle plays multiple times, as if signalling the beginning of the real fight. Rather than transition it fades out; replacing it is a massive crescendo to signal the finale, a musical monolith of sound and for the first time the organ gives way to a pounding drum beat that spreads across the toms into rapid-fire snare rolls. When the organ returns it is to play the most well-known melody of Dancing Mad, a screaming, twisting prog line in 7 / 8, the odd time designed to throw the players concentration and sell the notion that we’re know in the midst of Kefka’s reality warping power, and further entrenched by the constant change in styles, melodies, and rhythm. It’s no accident that this final movement, the zenith of Kefka’s power, is the one which forces the song into time signature and rhythmic changes the most as the fabric of the world around him is twisted and, finally, in the midst of it all is Kefka’s distinctive maniacal laughter. The argument of what is Uematsu’s best piece ever for Final Fantasy is a contested one. Across his career he made entire albums worth of stunning songs: the sombre quiescence of To Zanarkand, the charging power of Battle of the Big Bridge, the literal Classic FM Hall of Famer Aerith’s Theme, but for my money Dancing Mad is altogether one of, if not the, single best piece of Final Fantasy music ever composed by Uematsu, his crowning glory to cap off the greatest boss fight in Final Fantasy

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Finally finishing Final Fantasy VI felt like a milestone for me. That’s maybe a bit melodramatic, but I suppose we can’t help how we feel; as I said up at the top, VI has been one of my white whale games for many years, and getting to cross it off the backlog at long last feels like it was very much the culmination of the purpose of this blog. When you get to tackle beloved games there’s often a sense of wariness, an uncertainty as to whether you’re going to be playing something elevated by years of hype to an unattainable state. With VI, the experience gratifyingly meets expectations. That is in itself almost miraculous; Final Fantasy VI is largely regarded as one of the best games ever made, but it is also from 30 years ago and the game industry is nothing if not ruled by nostalgia. Thankfully, VI is fantastic, a marvel that surpasses the merely nostalgia-fueled epithet of “it’s still good;” instead it fully earns and deserves its status. 

7/7 – TOP TIER. 

As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play. 

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