Friday, January 13, 2012

Final Fantasy Adventure

Platform: Game Boy
Developer: Square
Released: 1991
Genre: Action RPG

The Story
Life is rough for a gladiator. Wake up, slay monsters for the enjoyment and appeasement of the masses, eat, sleep, then do it all over again. Except today is different for one of these benighted souls. His friend dies in his arms, but not before imparting the secret to escaping the castle. Resolved to get the hell out of dodge, the now ex-gladiator manages to break out. Only moments after tasting his first breath of freedom, however, he overhears Dark Lord plotting to take the power of the mana tree and using it to rule the world, then gets pushed down a waterfall for his troubles.

Once he comes to, having survived the fall, our intrepid hero stumbles across a young girl who may just be the key to stopping the evil Dark Lord from accomplishing his sinister goal.

The Game
I remember when I was a kid, I played Final Fantasy Adventure a couple of times. I also remember giving up immediately both times because I couldn't figure out how to kill the first monster. But we'll get to that later. The point is, FFA was one of the earliest instances in which I learned that a game released here in the states had been given a different name than it had elsewhere in the world. In this specific case, FFA was known as Mystic Quest in Europe and originally Seiken Densetsu in Japan. I was later more shocked to learn that it was actually the first game in what eventually became known as the Mana series in the English-speaking world and not actually a Final Fantasy game at all. Now, imagine my further surprise to find during my research for this review that there was even more to the story than that.

As it turns out, FFA actually is a Final Fantasy game. Or at least it was intended to be. The full original name of the game was Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, meaning it was a side-story to the FF series. This puts it in the realm of games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Dissidia Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts, all of which use some of the setting elements while altering core game mechanics. Where all of the main FF games are still RPGs through and through, the gaiden games shift their focus to stuff like action, adventure, and strategy. In any case, it wasn't until later that Seiken Densetsu became a different series all its own.

The Characters
The hero of the story is an ex-gladiator turned defender of mana and the world. His name is . . . whatever you decide to name him, in the English version. In the original Japanese, he's named Sumo. Y'know, like the big guys who push each other for sport. Unlike other games in and similar to this genre, our hero isn't a silent protagonist, though just barely. He's not much of a talker, but then neither is anyone else in FFA. All that can really be said about his characterization is that he's a pretty decent fellah and he's willing to go through a whole lotta crap in order to save the world.

Early on he meets a young lady - named Fuji like the mountain in the original Japanese or whatever you decide to name her in the English version - who seems to be the key to protecting mana from those who would misuse it. She owns a pendant which also figures into the whole scheme, and both she and it spend most of the game as the macguffin you have to chase around the map since they both are continually getting kidnapped and/or stolen.

Dark Lord is the resident bad guy, presumably because his parents named him "Dark Lord". He's got a second-in-command named Julius who's a magician type and pretty mean and nasty.

And then there's some NPCs now and again. Most of them are your standard walky-around-and-spout-random-information types. A handful push the game along in some fashion or another, such as the Gemma knight (an order dedicated to protecting mana) who charges you with guarding Jo and the pendant. And some actively join you in your quest. All of them, however, are pretty much small change. Generally unimportant to the actual quest, only briefly a part of the narrative overall, and not much worth mentioning. No, seriously. I'm not just saying this to keep from having to type any more in this section. If the game has simply had signposts in the place of most of the folks, no one would have been able to tell the difference.

The Writing
Just as the characterization described above suggests, the writing is so bare bones as to almost be marrow alone. Hell, it's downright abominable in some spots. Dude plays some music, something happens as a result, and the entire explanation is: "Mystic tune?" "Yeah."

It would be easy to blame the localization of the game, and it would probably be a fair cop. It's true that a lot of games at the time had their stories dumbed down by the English translators, and this one almost certainly wasn't an exception. However, that doesn't explain away how skeletal the whole story overall is. It's not just the dialogue. Much of the action is just filler, fluff, stalling for time. A lot of the things you're called upon to do don't actually have anything to do with saving the mana tree or stopping Dark Lord. They're just random obstacles that suddenly pop up to keep you separated from the macguffin of the moment, be it the girl, the pendant, or both.

One of the earliest instances of this is when the hero and heroine spend the night in a tower during their travels and, oops, the girl gets kidnapped by a vampire. Not a vampire sent by Dark Lord or Julius to stop the forces of good from succeeding. Not a vampire interested in harnessing mana for himself. Nope, just a vampire out for some nubile girly flesh. Guess you better go take care of that before you get on to doing whatever else it was you were supposed to be doing. No no, it's cool, saving the world can wait.

I don't mind jumping through hoops to get to the end of the line. I don't even mind when a few of those hoops are sidelines to the main quest. All these hoops are, after all, a necessary part to the RPG process. But when only one out of every five or six missions has anything even remotely to do with beating the big bad guy, I gotta start getting the feeling that the writers didn't really know what to do with their own premise.

The Gameplay
For an easy comparison, FFA basically plays like the old top-down Legend of Zelda games. You view the action from above, moving the hero around on a square-ish battlefield and taking suckahs out left and right and up and down. A charge up meter sits at the bottom of the screen, charging up whenever you're not actively trying to slay things. When it reaches its peak, you can execute a special move with whatever weapon you have equipped, that move usually having to do with throwing the weapon across the screen.

Speaking of weapons, I do rather like the weapon system in place here. You get several different kinds of weapons to choose from, including but not limited to battle axes, whips, and spears. Many of them are not only useful in breaking down baddies into finely sliced, stabbed, or lashed open sections, they also have other abilities helpful in your quest, such as crossing gaps and cutting down trees that stand in the way. It adds a fair amount of depth into what might have otherwise been a simple little hack 'n' slash.

Sadly, the weapons have their downside as well, that being that it's difficult to be sure you've hit your enemy with most of them. If the baddie doesn't have a knockback animation - which is often - you have to depend on a "whack" sound that's sometimes difficult to make out over the "weapon swing" sound and the background music. It can lead to situations where you're wailing away at some evil fungus or goblin or hedgehog but you don't notice for a few seconds that you're not actually hitting the bastard and they end up turning right around and clobbering you right in the face quite handily.

I mentioned before that NPCs are pretty much useless in the game, but truthfully it's worse than that. Their crimes range from petty criminal negligence to outright belligerent harassment.

Let me go on record as saying that I hate hate HATE that whole "walk into someone to talk to them" thing that was so prevalent in Square's early RPGs. It's annoying as hell when you're trying to get by someone, there's only about an inch of space to get by (if that), and they have a twenty minute conversation loaded, cocked, and ready to fire each and every time you try to step around 'em. On the bright side, you can kill them dead.

Or, uh, so I heard.

AI controlled characters sometimes join you, but they're hardly any help at all as their entire schtick is to walk around aimlessly and shoot/magic/stab/nothing randomly all around them with absolutely no regard as to where the bad guys actually are. There are certain things you can get them to do if you use the "ASK" option, like heal you or whatever, but that's really where their helpfulness begins and ends.

But the thing that ended up annoying me the most was the fact that there were locked doors in dungeons for which you needed keys. Not so much that these things existed, as they're a perfectly good staple of video games overall. It was that I had to buy the keys at stores outside the dungeons, straining the seams on my tiny and usually already full-to-bursting inventory bag. It was either that or simply hoping that they would randomly drop from an enemy, which they only very rarely did.

This still wouldn't have been so bad if the locked doors were only to special areas with extra stuff. But as the game progresses more and more of these doors are part of the actual gauntlet that you need to run to get to the end. Furthermore, if you traveled enough rooms away, the doors you had already unlocked before will magically reappear, locked once again and requiring another key from your inventory to pass through! All put together, this smacks of simple douchebaggery on the part of the programmers, and it's the reason I finally gave up on beating the game about halfway through.

That's right, I'm doing a full review on a game I didn't finish. I usually don't like doing that, but I think I still managed to play enough to get a good feel of what FFA's about. The problem is that I got into a section of Dark Lord's castle that was about six or seven rooms from one end to the other, and both of those ends had locked doors on them. And I had run out of keys. And after nearly two hours of grinding through monsters I still hadn't found a key drop. I probably could have kept grinding for several more hours until a key finally fell out of one of the treasure chests, but all the other little annoyances in the game had already discouraged me and this was just the last straw.

The Challenge
Your allies are randomly attacking morons and the enemies are absolutely no different. With very few exceptions (those generally being the ones firing magic attacks), every single baddie just walks slowly around the screen, attacking the air around them in the hopes that they eventually hit something. More often than not, the threat they pose is one of being unpredictable as well as just sheer numbers crowding in your way.

I know it's just a Game Boy game, but surely something a little bit better than this was possible. At least getting either the baddies or the goodies to actively turn toward whatever side of the screen the opposition is on, even if they don't line themselves up exactly.

In any case, this makes the game frustratingly uneven in the challenge arena with everything being up to simply how the random number gods decide to fall that particular battle.

The Sights
If there's one spot I can say FFA does bring the goods, it's in the looks department. The backgrounds are pretty good, and the sprites are pretty much spectacular. While not tremendously expressive, they are very detailed and well designed. I am approve.

The Sounds
As mentioned in the gameplay section, the "hit" sound effect can often be difficult to detect. One of the reasons for this is that the background music is often loud and almost uniformly terrible. There's the occasional gem that slipped through somehow, but for the most part the music is clanging, piercing, grating, or otherwise just plain horrible. I tried not to pay attention to it as much as possible, and even tried to shut it off so I could listen to some of my own music, but unfortunately I still needed some of the sound cues to play the game properly.


The Bottom Line
I have to say that I wasn't sure I could make it through this review without inevitably drawing comparisons to the sequel Secret of Mana. Thankfully I think I managed quite well and such comparisons can wait until I do the SoM review.

Now, I know that much of what I've said here has been pretty negative, but I do have to say that for the most part all of my complaints are rather small ones. The annoyances were petty more often than not, and on their own I could have easily ignored them and gotten on with the game. It's just that there were so many of them all ganging up on me at once that my patience finally began to wear thin.

I could see, however, why so many folks like FFA, why it has a good-sized fan-base. It's just that I personally couldn't look past the flaws to truly enjoy the gem that I could sense hidden underneath. If you like action, RPGs, or action RPGs, I would definitely recommend you at least give this game a whirl. Who knows? You might be able to enjoy it where I didn't!

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