Final Fantasy II saw Square experiment with narrative and level-up mechanics within the confines of the RPG space to mixed results. That game had some nice ideas that weren’t executed in the best way, and that would continue on into the third main entry in their at-that-point massively popular role playing series. Rather than making it an entirely standard RPG, they instead gave players access to a job system that allowed for more flexible party building, once again to mixed results. In the interest of full disclosure, my experience with the game is from the DS remake, which kept most of the actual mechanics of the original while giving it a cute chibi visual overhaul. It was the first time it was available in the states as well, so odds are I’m not alone in this.
Hearkening back to the first game, Final Fantasy III saw players take control of four different characters; you have Luneth, Arc, Refia, and Ingus. The remake sees you only start with Luneth, and you gradually gather the rest of the party. Each one has their own mini story to deal with, but each one is quickly resolved and past that, the party isn’t really given too much in the way of characterization. It was an odd mixture of the first game, which had completely blank slates for party members, and the second, which was an admirable attempt to give characters full back stories and motivations.
Also hearkening back to the first game is—you guessed it!—the focus on four elemental crystals that tie into the fabric of the world. The characters need to stop some evil wizard from summoning the Cloud of Darkness and ending the world. Ultimately, it’s an extremely standard story with little in the way of twists or turns, but the hunt for the elemental crystals does provide an excuse to dole out the game’s many jobs to players bit by bit. Expanding upon the party building of the first game, where players could choose their four classes at the game’s start but were stuck with them for its duration, Final Fantasy III gave players the chance to change their jobs on the fly.
Dragon Quest III, oddly enough, did something similar two years before that, and arguably did it better. Whereas in that game, you could level up your characters and have them permanently learn abilities (for instance, you could level someone up as a healer then change them to a Warrior and have them retain those healing spells), in Final Fantasy III, the game punishes you for switching classes, leading to some serious balancing issues. Let me explain. Each character has two types of levels—their job level and their overall level. Their job level determines their efficiency in whatever the class can use, while their overall level is impacted by whatever job they level. For instance, a Knight will have higher defense than a Black Mage.
The bigger problem is that Jobs are limited to only being able to use the abilities of that class. If you spend time leveling a character up as a White Mage, then switch them to Dragoon, they won’t have access to that precious healing magic. On top of that, when you switch jobs, characters enter a penalty period where they suffer from much weaker stats for a set amount of battles, which means that the grind is heavy in this game. That’s on top of the game’s incredibly unforgiving old school difficulty, where you can only save while out in the field and a party wipe sends you back to wherever you last saved. Did you just spend an hour getting through a dungeon only to be wiped out by the dungeon’s boss? Guess what? Back to the start for you with none of the experience or Gil you just spent forever getting.
This is all retained in the DS remake by the way. The remake is so old school that it even uses the series’ original magic system. Instead of having a pool of magic points and having more spells use more of said points, you instead buy spells and can only use them a limited number of times. If you run out, you need to go back to whatever town sells the spells you want. It means that you really need to plan your trips into dungeons. You need to properly prepare for them or suffer the consequences of having no healing options in the middle of a really long run.
Whether or not this is a good thing is entirely dependent on the player. There’s definitely a nice little niche in the JRPG market for old school, exceptionally difficult games that punish the careless. For many though, the genre may have made too many leaps and bounds for all of this to feel anything other than dated. It all just depends on an individual’s capacity for punishment. To me, this game is the blue print—the trial run if you will—of what they would achieve a few games later into the series, where they improve upon every idea present in this game.
That’s not to say it’s a bad game, just that it’s not for everyone, particularly since it’s a part of an RPG series that is known for being fairly user friendly. But it’s worth a look for people who want to experience the evolution of the franchise, or those that really enjoy punishing difficulty. Like II, it’s almost shocking how many early ideas are present that would also be improved upon. In addition to the job system, there’s a twist about a third or so into the game that, while not as drastic as later games, significantly expands the game’s scope in a way that was rather innovative for the time. You can even get multiple air ships that serve different functions, which is a nice touch.
Like many games of the time, it’s absolutely a product of its era, with all that implies. It certainly has its fans (a friend of mine constantly brings up how she had a Geomancer that somehow managed to steam roll enemies into oblivion), and was an important stepping stone for Square in developing the ideas the creative team had. To me, its execution is flawed, and as such the game is more to be admired and studied than enjoyed like other RPGs, and the fact that the job system is both flexible and extremely limiting inhibits my enjoyment of the game quite a bit (seriously, once you unlock the Ninja class, there’s very little reason to even entertain the notion of using another melee based class for your fighters). But without it, we likely wouldn’t have gotten the awesome title that was the fifth entry, and the series wouldn’t be the same. Whether it was worth finally bringing over to the West is up for debate, but it served as the prototype for one of Square’s most underrated games in the series, and that’s something to be celebrated.