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FOR THE FINAL FANTASY COMPLETIST ONLY
on January 3, 2007
(Note: for the purposes of this review, US release FF titles use Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3), while Japanese versions use Roman numerals (I, II, III); the DS version of FF III - while a US release - uses "III" instead of "3" to keep it from being confused with the excellent SNES FF 3 title.)
When I first heard the news this game was going coming to the DS - in a refurbished, graphically updated version, no less - I was ecstatic. As a lifelong FF fan who has played to completion every other entry in the series, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the only game not to have SOME version released in the US. Boy, was I disappointed.
I might as well begin with the pros, since that will only take a second or two. The game has beautifully rendered, fully 3D cutscenes that are on a par with those in FFXII...but this only serves to point up how abysmal the in-game graphics are (more on this later). Oh, and you can change the spells your characters "know" (are able to cast in combat) on the fly, and you don't have to "erase" or permanently lose any spell to free up a space to learn a new one - spells in FF III are treated like items which you can equip and unequip via the menu screen.
Now for the bad news. My biggest beef with this game is that there are NO SAVE POINTS IN THE DUNGEONS - NONE! Period. Which, in some cases, doesn't really have much impact on gameplay, and can even sometimes positively affect the experience, serving to heighten the adrenaline rush during boss fights and arouse a constant sense of anxiety while exploring. But when it takes FOUR HOURS of dungeon tramping just to get to the final boss of the game, only to have said boss wipe your party out in ten seconds if it performs a particular combination of attacks (which it usually does), I cannot even begin to express the complete outrage and frustration one feels with this game. You don't just want to whip your DS at the nearest wall, you want to hurl it into the nearest star and watch the damn thing go supernova, exploding with the white-hot savagery of a thousand suns until every last molecule of the cartridge has been vaporised into non-existence. I don't mind having to fight a particular enemy several times in order to figure out how to beat it, but I DO, in fact, mind intolerably when it takes four hours just to get to that enemy for one attempt at figuring it out.
Another big problem I had with the game was its lack of balance. First of all, the game's too short: the actual amount of time you need to spend exploring and fighting key monsters to advance the story line (and the percentage of the game world real estate devoted to this) is very small. Subtracting the amount of time you'll spend level grinding, this game is about three to four hours long. However, just to be able to have a chance in hell of defeating some of these monsters, you'll need to literally spend a day or more just leveling up your characters (AND their jobs)...and you can't select many of the best jobs until the game's about 70% over, so you will be wasting a lot of time leveling up job classes you won't even want to use again!
Second of all, the gameplay difficulty doesn't ramp well at all. It starts off much harder than it should - you wake up in a cave (read "dungeon" - and remember, "dungeon" means "NO SAVES"), by yourself, with no access to weapons, armor, or items, and you have to fight your way blind, against waves of up to three enemies, to the exit. If you're lucky, you'll find the pond that restores HP and MP (but does not cure status ailments - hmmmm), and you can even spend some time leveling up here, but if the enemies get lucky or you hit the wrong button (including the Power button), too bad, sucker, you just lost an hour or two of gameplay and have to start over from the beginning!
Once you find the other three playable characters (no easy task in itself, as the game doesn't really guide you to finding them), the game gets a little easier to play, but then you're plagued by a host of other problems, like not being able to buy Phoenix Downs anywhere (you can only find them or win/steal them in battle) - and the game is half over by the time it gives you access to a Raise Ally spell - and the fact that there are no Ether potions at all in the game! Unbelievable! There is a cheat that basically lets you copy items in your inventory, but it can corrupt your saved files, and the game should be balanced without having to resort to cheats.
Thirdly, there are just too many encounters to make this a balanced, fun game. FF 1 had an area where every step you took lead to another encounter, but this was an area only about 10X3 steps large, it was only in one dungeon, and you didn't have to go through it to complete the game. As much as you will need to retrace your steps in FF III's dungeons (because of the muddy graphics and lack of a top-down map) to make sure you've explored every nook and cranny, the frequency of encounters soon becomes incredibly aggravating. And, because you can't save in the dungeons, you may just have to wait until you've leveled up your characters quite a bit before taking a chance on being able to explore a dungeon fully, since the high number of random battles means a higher chance you won't make it to the end and back.
Finally, when you get to the penultimate dungeon, just before you exit to the final boss dungeon you encounter a RANDOM enemy (the Red Dragon) that's ten times harder than any other BOSS you've fought so far, takes five to ten minutes to defeat, and like as not will wipe out your entire party (and since you're in a dungeon (say it with me now: "with NO SAVES!")), you've just lost three hours of your time!). My crew were all at level 50+ with job levels of 100, a full complement of healing potions, and the best weapons, armor, and spells available in the game to that point, and they still got wiped out half the time against the Red Dragon. This to me is just insufferable.
Another problem I had with this game was how many features were poorly implemented. Now, I realize that a lot of these features were new and innovative at the time, but it's 2006, and many, many iterations of FF have passed since FF III first came out. I'm not saying Square-Enix should have incorporated all the newest and latest features of the series - that would not have been true to the spirit of FF III - but they could have adjusted some of the features they did include to make them less annoying. Take the jobs, for example; in FF V (also recently released, for the GBA), if you switch from a non-magic-using class to say a Mage or Summoner, you instantly become that class, AND you get all the spell points you're supposed to have. In FF III, however, you have to engage in up to 12 battles before the class switch takes effect, AND you don't get ANY spell points - you have to rest! Also, you don't learn any skills by leveling up your job class (as in FF V), you just get one new command in the battle menu. Which means you aren't able to carry any of those commands over to another job class as you can in FF V (allowing you, for example, to have a Monk who can Equip Swords, a Knight who can Steal, or a White Mage who can cast Black spells). And to make matters worse, there's no onscreen indication of how far along you are to advancing a job level as there is in FF V.
Other problems with implementation include no auto equip feature for weapons and armor (even when you change jobs - very annoying!), no auto spell school switching (if you have a White Mage who only knows White spells and change his class to a Black Mage, you have to manually remove every single White spell and have the character "learn" (equip) whatever Black spells you want him/her to cast, since Black Mages can't cast White spells), and loss of items beyond the first 99 in your inventory (for example, if you have all your characters equip a Bow and 99 Iron Arrows each, then change the job class of all four characters, you will lose 297 (3X99) Iron Arrows, because the game automatically unequips all weapons and armor, and the menu can't keep track of more than 99 of any one item.).
Oh, and the zoom feature is also annoying. At the start of the game, you're told you may need to "zoom in" to look for "sparkles" (a nearly invisible graphic that indicates that an object is actually a switch or pressure plate of some kind). OK, so you press the R button to zoom in to varying degrees up to a maximum amount; if you only zoom partway and let go of the R button, then press the R button again, you continue to zoom in and can't zoom out until you've zoomed all the way in, let go of the R button, and then press and hold it AGAIN. It would have been much more functional to have the camera snap back out 100% from any zoomed-in view.
One final exasperating feature, more a matter of design than implementation, is the hidden objects. Other games in the series have been very intuitive (and sometimes downright clever) in the way they hid special objects in the environment (in FF 2, you even had to go through a fireplace to get to a secret area with some great items. Again, not obvious, but when every other fireplace in the game has a roaring, interactive ("Ouch!") fire that blocks your way, coming across an empty one sure makes you curious.). Usually, these objects are placed in barrels, jars, or books; of course, there's nothing obvious about clicking on a jar in hopes of getting a Gesahl Greens or 1000 Gil, but it's definitely compelling when you see a barrel sitting in the middle of nowhere to at least check it out...and then to check every other barrel you come across, since the one you just clicked on gave you a much-needed item. But not in FF III; in this game, objects are "hidden"...on the GROUND! No rhyme or reason, no clue, nothing to arouse your curiosity, these objects are just lying (invisibly, of course) willy-nilly anywhere you might walk. You basically wind up playing FF III by tapping constantly on the A button, hoping you'll stumble across something valuable...which turns the game into something akin to Minesweeper. I felt like I was at the beach being forced to scan every square inch of sand with a metal detector for a lousy quarter when all I really wanted was to jump in the ocean. To make matters worse, there are several suspicious, hard-to-get-to, partially hidden areas in the game that contain...absolutely NOTHING!
Finally, the graphics and sound were just not compelling, and in some cases downright deplorable. The game uses true 3D models in a 3D world, but the DS is just not capable of displaying this with any justice. The characters look muddy and pixellated, especially in the zoomed-out view you're going to be playing in 98% of the time, and the environments, especially the foreground objects in the battle scenes, are terribly low-res and pixellated. The music is okay, with a few tracks that are enjoyable to listen to and that convey the atmosphere of the area they play in, but nothing spellbinding or even mildly enchanting. And the sound effects are for the most part merely adequate, with many of the battle noises sounding like heavily compressed MIDI files.
Overall, FF III is a tedious, empty, artificially protracted game that had updates in all the unnecessary departments. Beautiful CGI cutscenes are great, but if I'm too frustrated with the gameplay to get very far, I'm not even going to see those cutscenes. In fact, FF III might not even be for the completist: I probably won't even bother to finish the game, since it isn't worth it to me to spend 24 hours trying to get to the final boss enough times to figure out how to beat it to watch a CGI movie I can probably download from YouTube anyway. I believe there's a reason this game never made it to the US before, and touching up the paint job and polishing the chrome doesn't change that. It was probably halfway decent for its time, but I much more highly recommend FF V for the GBA as a much better implementation of all the features (and then some) that FF III pioneered.