One of my major gaming life goals has been to play the entire Final Fantasy series in order. Since I’m rebooting The Hannie Corner, starting a big new project to kick off my relaunch seems like a good way to start the journey. I finished the first Final Fantasy a few weeks ago using the new remasters available on Steam and I’d like to write a little about my experience while the details are still fresh in my mind.
Straight off the bat, one of my favorite parts of the first Final Fantasy is the fact that the party classes are completely customizable. The classes are pretty simple: warrior, thief, monk, red mage, white mage, and black mage, but which four are chosen to make up the game’s party is up to the player. To breeze through the journey, try picking three warriors and a white mage. If you hate yourself, however, pick four white mages and see how long you last.
Since I like to cause mass destruction with magic when I play an RPG, I went with a mage-heavy party build. I had a warrior for tanking while casting as many spells as I could with a red, white, and black mage. While I think that the class balance stayed fairly consistent throughout the game, on future playthroughs, I would probably skip the black mage and add a monk, as I found that the endgame magic that only the black mage could use wasn’t worth the class’ inability to wear halfway decent armor or attack effectively without using mana.
In terms of difficulty, this will obviously depend on the overall class setup, but I didn’t find the game terribly hard. There were a few huge difficulty spikes, most notably the first major dungeon being significantly harder than the overworld monsters I was used to, but for the most part, all challenges were manageable. Thankfully, the pixel remasters included the ability to quicksave and autosave in a dungeon, so I never lost more than a few minutes of progress if something unfortunate happened. I’m sure there are some fans of retro gaming that won’t like this addition, but it also makes the title more accessible to new players, so this is a welcome change for me.
What is less accessible, admittedly, is the classic old-school JRPG trope of not always making it clear where I’m supposed to go next. NPCs in each town will give some vague hints at a direction or particular item I may need to find to aid me on my journey, but telling me to simply go east is a bit on the vague side. There were some times where I would get to a new dungeon and realize that I was unintentionally overpowered simply because I got lost for so long and had to fight endless monsters while trying to find the right place to go next.
I spent so much time wandering around looking for where I could make progress that I would sometimes forget what was actually happening in the game’s narrative. Overall, the story is a mixed bag. I have seen a lot of people joke that Final Fantasy doesn’t have a story, and I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. This game has a core plotline, and it’s actually a pretty decent one that I found myself engaged with as I moved through the game. The problem is that this game conveys its story poorly.
Where Final Fantasy went wrong with its story can be traced back to its biggest weakness: Characters. There are almost no major characters of note in this entire game, as even my own main characters are just generic warriors of light with no real personalities or motivations. Unfortunately, how do modern games tell stories? In my opinion, good characters tell a good story, as those characters are the vehicle in which the narrative travels to the player. With Final Fantasy, since I was mostly getting my lore at random intervals from generic NPCs in each town, this kept me distanced from the story, even though I was theoretically the central character to the events occurring in the world. If a modern remake of this title was done and the story was told in a more traditional format, it would fare much better.
As I traversed the world of Final Fantasy and got repeatedly lost, I spent a lot of time in battle due to the high enemy encounter rate. I would describe the combat mechanics here as “basic, but solid.” It makes use of a simple turn-based combat approach in which every character’s action is chosen at once and then all players and enemies take their turn, one after another. Fighter classes don’t have any abilities until late in the game, so their only real options are attacking, defending, and using items, whereas mages have a variety of magic to cast with their spell power. I had fun with the combat system throughout the game, but I did find myself spending a lot of time mashing the attack button four times after a while because there wasn’t a lot of depth here to shake up the battles in the majority of encounters. That said, I did fight the game’s superboss, Warmech, and found that there was still some fun to be had getting the right combination of spells and attacks to take down an enemy that can nearly wipe the entire party out in a single attack.
Spells are one of the most unique features of Final Fantasy and I’d like to dedicate some time to discussing why I love the design choices made here so much, even if I was sometimes afraid of using any magic at all. There are eight tiers of magic, with each mage being allowed to learn three of the available spells for each tier. Instead of having a set mana pool from which mages can cast spells, they get a set amount of casts per spell level. For example, a black mage may be able to cast a tier one spell five times, but might only have two casts of a tier four spell. At first, I didn’t really understand the point of choosing this over a mana system, but it turns out that it allows for early-game spells to still feel viable in the late-game. If I only have one enemy in a battle that is weak to fire, why not use the low-tier fire spell, allowing me to ration my much more powerful spell for later?
Regardless of my frustrations with Final Fantasy, it was a lot of fun to see the series’ roots. While I am trying to keep my mind clear of the later entries that I have played in order to truly appreciate the evolution of a series from the beginning, I have to mention how many traditions that become commonplace in the franchise start here. The musical score is phenomenal and I find myself listening to it regularly, classic enemies like the Sahagins and Flans appear for the first time, and the warriors of light trope that will be used as a starting point for so many journeys throughout the franchise gets its start in the core narrative of this entry.
Overall, I loved my time with the first Final Fantasy and I’m so glad that I played it. Sure, it’s rough around the edges and incredibly simplistic by modern standards, but it’s still a great experience that I’m glad I gave a chance. I don’t think I would recommend the first entry in this long-running series to anyone new to the franchise, but any long-time fan that wants to see how it all began won’t be disappointed by giving this a play.