Saturday, April 29, 2017

Final Fantasy I (Dawn of Souls) - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Like with a lot of entertainment media, going back to a storied franchise's humble roots can be a difficult thing to do. The Final Fantasy series is one that's loved and adored by millions, but only a small fraction of those players are likely to have completed the original NES title. I, admittedly, am not one of them—even though my brother had a copy of the game growing up, I wouldn't really start to get into RPGs until the PS2/Gamecube era, and by then the last thing I wanted to do was trudge through an archaic NES RPG. Luckily for myself (and many others) Square Enix remade the first and second Final Fantasy titles and packaged them together in a single GBA cart, dubbed Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. With updated graphics, streamlined gameplay, and an enhanced story, players could finally reach the end in less than half the time it took to complete the original. While I greatly appreciated the changes the first time I played through the remake, my most recent playthrough saw a lot more... turbulence.

The Dawn of Souls edition of Final Fantasy I is torn between two eras. It proudly retains the flavor of the original game's world, staying loyal to its structure, dungeons, enemies, and equipment. Besides the graphics and music, the area that receives the most robust change is the gameplay: the level cap is doubled, additional healing items have been added, and potentially irksome spells-per-day system has been replaced (there's also four bonus dungeons, but I'll cover those later). On paper, this sounds like a fair balance, offering the player a chance to explore the classic world of Final Fantasy I while removing a lot of unfriendly burdens. But once you clear the Marsh Cave, you'll realize that all these changes have made the experience far too easy and, by default, boring.

Here are three aspects that outright neuter the Final Fantasy I experience:

1) Items are cheap
2) The encounter rate is high
3) You can save anywhere

In conjunction, these ensure that the player is well-stocked on healing aids, always properly leveled, and never in danger of losing any progress. For example: got a battle with a Fiend coming up? Chuck ethers at your mages, save, and proceed to steamroll the poor sap. Since the mechanics of the original game aren't all that complex, fights are pretty easy to find the optimal solution to. This causes a lot of battles to blend together into the same mindless "mash A to win" marathons, especially since every monster dies in one hit from your strongest team member anyway. Even the fearsome Fiends fall prey to this tactic, their combat repertoire a pitiable mess since few use any sort of unique spells or status debuffs.

The repetitive combat creates a surprisingly aggravating experience when combined with the unchanged maze-like layouts of the original Final Fantasy I dungeons. That game had sprawling underground complexes that were risky to explore due to your limited spell charges, but with infinite heals and an atrocious encounter rate, you'll find yourself sighing and groaning as you run into yet another dead end or open a treasure box with a scant 500 gil inside. The final dungeon in particular is a monotonous slog, lacking any kind of danger whatsoever since you'll likely be packing 99 hi-potions, ethers, and phoenix downs. Note that I'm not declaring the NES version to be better; I simply find that the changes to the gameplay to stand at odds with the plodding dungeon design and encounter design of the original.

Something I find inexcusable in both versions of Final Fantasy I is the long-winded trading quest after Astos. It's essentially a massive waste of time through areas you've already explored, which may have originally offered a chance to give the player more XP and gil, but provides nothing of value here. You deliver the crystal ball to Matoya, then sail across the sea to wake the elf prince up, then back to Cornelia, then over to the dwarves to deliver the explosives, then back to your ship to sail through a single patch of sea. To make matters worse, the vampire-cleansing Earth Cave quest is also a blatant waste of time that occurs right after the trading quest! Had the player been given a chance to buy the Exit or Teleport spells maybe I could excuse its existence, but those are saved for the class upgrades, which occur after you've already explored the dungeons you have to backtrack your way out of.

For all the flak I give it, Dawn of Souls at least introduces four bonus dungeons that are capped by four vicious boss fights each. And even though these fights are the most engaging parts of the game, Dawn of Souls manages to fumble this by forcing you to replay the dungeon if you want to fight more than one bosses. The bonus dungeons are just as dull as the regular ones too, and the fact that the floors are randomly arranged means that some runs of it will be more of a headache than others (that purple forest is torture). I tried to explore them during this playthrough but was tired of the game rudely bloating my play time, opting to head into the final dungeon and finish this adventure instead.

For what it's worth, my battle against Chaos was pretty spectacular, especially since I refused to use ethers while I was knee-deep in the Chaos Shrine, hoping it would make my struggle more tense and momentous. The mechanics of the Chaos fght itself isn't all that complex—Chaos tends to only throw out physically damaging attacks—but at least having to juggle restorative spells with replenishing my mages' MP added a dimension of strategy to the scuffle. At the end only my Grand Master Bric survived, a mere 180 health left in his worn, shaken body. So was it worth eight hours to play for that amazing, succulent victory?

Not really.

Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls offers a crooked glimpse into the appeal of the original, not only showing the faults of the NES title but creating a few of its own in the process. These problems were fairly glaring during my time with it: without limited spells dungeons become a cinch, the battle tactics of the monsters you'll face are woefully outdated (my mages didn't get silenced once!), and progress through the game is purposely obfuscated at times. I feel that the game is serviceable if you feel you need to play something resembling the original game, the prettier palette and faster gameplay a definite improvement. Outside of historic curiosity though, your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series.

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