‘Final Fantasy VI’ is still a masterpiece, but you better clear your schedule

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special… Or not.

Japanese role-playing games aren’t typically my cup of tea, but it would be foolish of me to not at least scratch the surface of the genre with recommendations from older, more experienced players. Growing up, Squaresoft’s seminal Super Nintendo RPG Chrono Trigger blew my mind with its intuitive battle system, time-traveling story, and iconic Akira Toriyama character designs, which hold up just as well in 2018 as they did when it launched in 1995. The next game on my “must play RPG” list was Final Fantasy VI, released in North America on the SNES as Final Fantasy III just a year before Chrono Trigger. After spending nearly 30 hours with the game, I can see the steampunk fantasy adventure is still a masterpiece, but, as an adult who can’t devote every waking second to games, I’ve struggled to fully enjoy playing it.

Role-playing games can be particularly derivative – there are only so many ways to tell a tale of swords and sorcery – but 24 years after its release, Final Fantasy VI’s tragic tale of imperial rule, magical “Espers,” and comradery still feels fresh. Rather than completely discard the series’ fantasy tropes in favor of its industrial steampunk-fueled setting, the game reconciles the two. Terra, one of several playable protagonist who you could argue is the central character, bridges the gap between the magic-enabled Esper World and our own world, and her lack of knowledge on her own Esper lineage leaves her with just as many questions as us – the “amnesia” trope has been done to death today, but by making her story just one of several in Final Fantasy VI’s central plot, it avoids feeling like a writing crutch.

Final Fantasy VI is a masterpiece, but, as an adult who can’t devote every waking second to games, I’ve struggled to enjoy it.

Final Fantasy VI’s story has surprises around nearly every corner. From new characters with hidden magical abilities to the morphing landscape of the planet itself, I found myself always looking for the next big story beat, and it was during these moments when my enthusiasm started to wane. Final Fantasy VI tells a long, winding story dealing with more than a dozen main characters, but much of its epic length comes from role-playing elements we’d consider unnecessary fat today. Random battles occur nearly everywhere aside from non-hostile villages, forcing you to stop going where you want to go in order to fight a few monsters or animals. The cooldown-focused Active Time Battle system is a blast to use, especially when you introduce healers to keep your damage-dealers from getting killed too early, but when you’re most interested in getting to the next chunk of the story, battles begin to feel like chores you are forced into.

That’s certainly something that would have been less of a problem in 1995, when there weren’t multiple big-name games demanding your attention through online marketing campaigns and YouTube walkthroughs. One could easily sit down with Final Fantasy VI as their only game for weeks at a time, particularly when they didn’t have adult responsibilities that could force them to stop playing. If you can’t give Final Fantasy VI your undivided attention from the beginning until the end, you’re going to come back confused and at a loss of how to continue. I took to keeping notes on my phone to remind me of my next destination. When I forgot to do so at one point, I had to scour online guides, hoping my current level could allow me to approximate where I was in the game.

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With an airship to use – as well as animals, which can help to eliminate the random battles – you can skip a lot of the random battle filler, and traverse the world quickly, but there were still several play sessions where I found myself effectively making no forward progress. Either I had to spend time fighting battle after mindless battle to level up my existing characters or acquire new gear. Grinding to earn experience and money is still present in many role-playing games today, but with such an interesting tale to tell, Final Fantasy VI’s uneventful pauses pump the breaks on an exciting story and make you forget why you’re taking the extra time to raise your stats.

If you can’t give Final Fantasy VI your undivided attention from the beginning until the end, you’re going to come back confused…

While these issues make the game feel dated, Squaresoft would go on to reckon with these issues just a year later in Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger doesn’t force you to worry about a random enemy popping up to fight every 10 seconds, as the game lays them out for you to see. Despite its twisty, turny time-travelling plot, its “critical path” — the essential tasks required to get reach one of the game’s endings — is focused, making it easier to jump back in if you hadn’t played the game for several weeks.

The majority of “best role-playing games of all time” lists put Final Fantasy VI at or near the very top, and almost all of them cite the story as the primary reason; it’s simply that good. But I can’t help but feel that, with a few modern gameplay tweaks, such as Chrono Trigger’s out-in-the-open enemies and a more accessible “critical path,” it would have aged more gracefully. Final Fantasy VI is still a tremendous role-playing game, but you need to be willing to put up with its monotony to enjoy it.

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