We waited sixteen years for this?
Sixteen years after its original release in Japan, Matrix Software has remade Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS. Final Fantasy III came at the end of the Famicom (NES) lifecycle in Japan. As such, it was the most technically advanced of the three original Final Fantasy games. The game eschews the epic story line and deep characters, which began in Final Fantasy II and later became the hallmark of the series, in favor of the more combat oriented style of the original. This gameplay has aged considerably in the past sixteen years and does not hold up well today.
FF III is a dungeon crawler at heart. Do not come expecting the epic stories of later games in the series. I can already hear the cheers from those who have chastised the series for being overwrought with drama and who welcome the return to a simpler time, but not so fast. Matrix Software did not leave the story alone; they added personality to the formerly faceless and nameless characters and expanded on a few story sequences as well. This compromise between story and action, between character development and gameplay, is actually worse than either extreme. What has been developed is a game that has a minimal story and almost zero character development but has pretensions of being a grand adventure story. The dialogue is terrible, filled with Japanese clichés and overdramatic word choice (this may yet be changed in localization). The story itself is predictable, and when it does take a dramatic turn, the ham-fisted dialogue robs the scenes of any dramatic flavor.
The game does try to spice things up with humor occasionally, but these attempts fall flat or seem incredibly out of place. For example, if you activate a piano in a certain inn, the patrons of that inn will dance rather crudely to "Grease Lightning". Most other attempts at humor revolve around the "old man" stock character familiar to Japanese audiences.
If you do not have a solid grasp on the Japanese language, it's better to just wait for the localized release in November. In order to understand the basics of the game, like where you need to go and how to get there, you will need to be able to read Japanese on a level most students don't obtain until at least their third year studying the language at a university level. Understanding the story (as simple as it is) would take an even higher level of proficiency. However, if you are a fluent reader, you can import the game from our partners at Lik-Sang.
The game is hard, and difficulty is something that tends to be rather rare in games these days. In the past sixteen years, developers have realized that being creamed by enemies within minutes of the first encounter is not fun. In this respect, Final Fantasy III is definitely old school. Most of the enemies you encounter will not be that difficult. There are a few annoying enemies that will replicate themselves if you cannot kill them in one hit, but this is more of an annoyance than a problem. The normal enemies are deceptively easy; the bosses are where the real problem lies. You can waltz through a dungeon, barely taking a hit, and then be slaughtered in two turns by the boss. The bosses in Final Fantasy III have moves that will kill most party members in two hits, or just one if it is a critical hit. This issue, combined with the fact that bosses have between two and four actions per turn, means that your characters will drop fast. Victory in combat is determined by the luck of the draw; if the enemy decides to take out your White Mage, and you do not have any precious and rare Phoenix Down items, there is not much you can do other than take the punishment the boss gives you and try again.
The turn system only aggravates the issue. You issue orders to all four of your characters at the same time. The character's speed stat is then used to determine who goes first. This means that whether or not you can heal your party (healing is effectively required every turn in boss battles) before a boss gets his lethal strike off is just a matter of luck. Should a character die and you have to resurrect him, the battle turns into a game of whack-a-mole, with you reviving one character just as another is taken out. In most RPGs, you can level up if a boss is giving you trouble, and while this is a possibility in FF III, it doesn't do a whole lot of good. How much damage you deal and take is determined more by equipment than by level. There are many places in the game where the next best armor and weapons are available only after you take out a boss. This asinine system results in you having to fight boss battles repeatedly until you get lucky and actually win. As victory in battle is a result of being lucky rather than work or skill, it saps away a good chunk of the rewarding feelings you would normally have from beating the boss.
Final Fantasy III introduced the “Job System" to the series. Since then variations on what FF III developed have appeared in no less than five Final Fantasy games since. The system in Final Fantasy III can be obtuse and counter-intuitive. It takes third fiddle to equipment and level in terms of taking and dealing damage. There was a large chunk of the game where my white mage was dealing as much damage as my character I was guiding through the fighting classes because I found a good staff for her, but I could not find a good blade for my Knight. Even worse was when my geomancer and my archer were outperforming him, in physical damage. The job effects how fast certain stats level up, but equipment and level are so much more important.
The art style resembles that of Final Fantasy IX, which is not surprising as that game was a tribute to the older Final Fantasy games. The character models, while simple, remain faithful to the style of the original. What's more, the towns and dungeons are fully rendered, unlike the pre-rendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX. These dungeons are actually the most impressive graphical feat of the game, which is good because you will be looking at them a lot.
The game is controllable either through traditional a D-pad/button combo or the touch screen. Touch screen controls work pretty much as you would expect: you tap a command, then tap the character you want to attack or heal. The touch screen controls do not add much to the game though, and the D-pad is far simpler and more intuitive.
The soundtrack is exactly what you would expect from Final Fantasy. Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack hits all the right notes, and the new versions of these old tunes are perfect. There is even one track where the original 8-bit sound has been kept, and it is without a doubt the best track in the game. However, no new songs were composed for this remake. This results in a handful of excellent tracks being reused for a great number of scenarios. There is the town track, the castle track, the dungeon track, and the melodramatic story turn track, and over the course of the thirty or so hour quest, there are very few surprises. The sound is great but the lack of variety hurts it.
It is only the production values: graphics, music, and pedigree that make this game stand out. At its heart, Final Fantasy III is a dated and mediocre RPG that will only please the most die-hard Final Fantasy fans. With all its problems and the North American release only two months away, with hope that the localization will be an improvement, there is little reason to import Final Fantasy III.