Review: Square Enix Final Fantasy III
Following last year's successful release of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II for the iPhone and iPod touch, Square Enix has introduced the iOS version of the next title in the popular role-playing game (RPG) series. Unlike the original Final Fantasy, which was originally released on Nintendo's 8-bit consoles in Japan and North America, then re-released on portable devices ranging from the Game Boy Advance to the PSP, Final Fantasy III is somewhat more obscure; it debuted in Japan in 1990 and never came to North America until Square remade it for the Nintendo DS in 2006. The iPhone and iPod touch game is an upgraded port of the DS title.
To address one point of possible confusion up front, the Final Fantasy series has become somewhat confused outside of Japan due to Square’s decision in 1991 to renumber certain games for international release. Final Fantasy II, III and V were not initially released outside of Japan, so Square renumbered the Japanese Final Fantasy IV to become Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy VI became Final Fantasy III. The version of Final Fantasy III that Square Enix has released for the iPhone and iPod touch is based upon the original 8-bit Famicom game Final Fantasy III. Square Enix has made aesthetic improvements for improved portable game hardware, and deepened the story a little, but otherwise retained the original game’s plot and gameplay elements.
As with the prior two installments in the series, Final Fantasy III is a classic RPG where the player guides a party of four characters on a quest to save their world. The four characters are given unique appearances, as well as background stories that were first introduced in the Nintendo DS remake rather than present in the original release of the game. An opening storyline and initial quests introduce the main character Luneth, after which the player must explore nearby towns and villages to locate the other characters that will eventually form the party.
As each player character is encountered, a brief background story is displayed and the player is given the opportunity to either accept the default character’s name or enter their own name for the character. Data entry screens such as this now call up the standard iOS keyboard rather than trying to create their own text entry screen.
Final Fantasy III returns to the class and experience system of the original game rather than the more open-ended skill-building system that was introduced in Final Fantasy II. Specifically, Final Fantasy III introduces the “job” system that eventually became standard in the series, with characters being assigned to changeable “jobs” rather than permanent character classes, and the ability to advance job-specific skill points and change jobs. The iOS version follows the Nintendo DS remake in balancing the job classes and eliminating the capacity point system that was used for switching jobs in the original version. All characters begin as “Freelancers”—well-rounded jobs with broad but limited skills—and are eventually given the chance to choose more specific jobs.
The character classes Warrior, Thief, Monk, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage make a return here from Final Fantasy I as initial choices, with a whole new set of more specialized jobs becoming available later in the game: Geomancer, Dragoon, Scholar, Ranger, Viking, and Evoker, amongst others. Many jobs in Final Fantasy III also provide unique skills; a thief can pick locks and steal during combat, an evoker can summon monsters into battle and a viking can wield large offensive weapons. Upon choosing jobs for your characters, they will don attire appropriate to each job and after that will be more limited than a Freelancer in the types of items they can equip or magic spells they can learn, but will be able to advance to much higher skill levels in their respective areas. The addition of the job system provides for a lot more flexibility and experimentation, allowing characters to change jobs when another role may seem more appropriate, and also promoting replay value whereby players can try parties of differing compositions. Although many players will still be tempted to simply build their parties using the classic warrior-monk-mage combinations, there’s a lot more to explore by trying out some of the new job classes, and although there are penalties to discourage you from switching jobs too often, you’re not required to commit to only one set of job classes.
Unlike the first two games in the series, the 2006 remake of Final Fantasy III represented a complete redesign of the flat 2-D pixel graphics to take advantage of the 3-D polygonal capabilities of the Nintendo DS. This graphical redesign is carried over to the iOS version with even higher-resolution 3-D-rendered environments and characters that represent a dramatic improvement over the faux 3-D 16-bit artwork of the earlier remade games, and the lower resolution of the DS version. Not everything has been suitably updated, however; many low-resolution background textures are still apparent throughout the game, particularly when zooming in—a stark contrast to the Retina Display-quality graphics used for the character introduction screens. Square Enix’s approach feels like patchwork rather than completely new tapestry, however the lower-resolution textures are generally subtle and in our opinion don’t detract significantly from the overall game experience; fans of the series will likely be perfectly comfortable with the classic feel of the graphics.
The control system also sees a significant improvement in this version, with a multidirectional virtual joypad replacing the former four-directional button controls. This joypad is accessed by touching anywhere on the screen and moving your finger in the desired direction of movement, with sixteen-directional character control. Small finger movements will make your character walk in that direction while larger movement is used to run instead of walking. A small thought bubble appears over the character when near an actionable NPC or item, and a single tap is used to interact with characters and items. Here the game does a good job of distinguishing between a tap-hold-and-drag for movement and a quick tap to initiate an action.
Final Fantasy III also introduces a pinch-to-zoom feature that can be used to zoom in to look for hidden objects such as treasure and secret doors that can only be discovered in the close-up view, an improvement on the hunt-and-peck interface of the Nintendo DS game. The control system used here is quite intuitive and allows the user to touch the screen anywhere so as to not get their fingers in the way of what they should be looking at; the only relatively minor issue is that switching from one hand to the other requires that you lift your fingers completely off the screen for a moment before placing your other hand down, lest the second touch be interpreted as a movement command from the original on-screen joypad position.
As with the previous games in the series, a large-scale world map is used for travelling the countryside between locations such as towns, castles, caves and dungeons. Entering a location switches to a more detailed map where the player searches for treasure and other items, and interacts with non-player characters in the game. Battles occur randomly as you travel through the countryside and in more dangerous areas such as dungeons and caves, while encounters with monsters will occur much less frequently in most towns and castles. Within the more peaceful areas you will commonly encounter NPCs that you can chat with—some will provide information relevant to your quest while others will simply engage you in idle conversation. Most towns provide an inn and several shops for purchasing weapons, armor, potions, and magic spells, as well as the option to rest to recover hit points and magic points.
Final Fantasy III adopts the same turn-based combat system as its predecessors but also adds several special options for characters with specific jobs. Thieves, for example, can steal during battles, and evokers and summoners can call up monsters to join the battle on your side. At times during the game, additional non-player characters will temporarily join your party and travel with you, and in battle these characters may sometimes randomly jump in to either attack enemies or cast healing spells on your characters. The addition of these new special attacks can provide for much more interesting battles, although Final Fantasy III does lean a bit toward the side of physical combat rather than magical attacks in most cases. Even mages can be equipped with weapons and in the early stages the use of weapons can often be just as effective, if not more so, than most spells.
Three save game slots are available, however it is only possible to save the game when you are on the main world map as opposed to in a town or dungeon. A Quicksave feature is present but cannot be used to restore the game after your party dies; its only purpose seems to be for resuming the game after quitting—a feature provided natively by the application and iOS 4. Dying while in a dungeon or similar area will necessitate starting over from the last saved game on the world map, in other words prior to entering that area.
The iOS version of Final Fantasy III also implements a variation on the Mognet system first introduced in the DS version. On the Nintendo DS, players would encounter various “moogles” in the game that acted as messengers for delivering mail between characters in the game and other players. The iOS version provides the basic Mognet for receiving communications from NPCs but does not provide any means of sending messages or communicating with other players. Moogles also appear in cut-scenes at certain points in the game to provide additional instructions or guidance.
Final Fantasy III on iOS also retains the immersive orchestral soundtrack from the original, music popular enough to be released as its own soundtrack album. The music is synthesized orchestral and has the expected slightly mechanical, chiptune style as a result, but it retains the classic “epic 8-bit game” feel of Final Fantasy, and adds nice background audio to the game without being overbearing. Unlike the prior two iOS titles, configuration options in Final Fantasy III allow the music and sound effects volumes to be adjusted, although to be fair Square Enix appears to have already done a better job of balancing the sound right out of the gate in this version. Additional configuration options provide control over text speed, cursor style, default movement speed and some quick hints for getting new players started.
Final Fantasy III for the iPhone and iPod touch is a reasonably impressive remake of a classic RPG. Although the iOS version follows the same basic game design and theme from the earlier DS remake, the improved graphics, performance and controls make it a worthwhile addition to the family. The game retains the epic feel of the Final Fantasy series and can easily provide dozens of hours of gameplay for the dedicated RPG enthusiast, with a large game world to explore and numerous quests to complete. The plot of the game is relatively linear compared to other Final Fantasy titles, however not every step is spelled out, leaving players to explore on their own to find the next quest or goal. However, even players following a step-by-step walkthrough will find enough here to occupy them for days, all justifying at least a general recommendation. In the end, our only major concern that detracts from an otherwise great title is the price: classic game or not, $16 makes this one of the most expensive game titles on the App Store. The packaged Nintendo DS version retails for $20, but can be found for about the same price by shopping around, and while the iOS version offers some improvements in graphics and UI for the iPhone and iPod touch platforms, it also doesn’t require traditional packaging and distribution costs, and can’t be resold.
By cutting out these additional cost factors and limiting game transferability, the App Store has set a lower bar for pricing, and we’re generally not impressed with companies that try to hold fast to their older pricing models. Back in the Famicom days, and even on the Nintendo DS, Square Enix might have been able to demand a large premium for a title of this sort, but there are numerous other RPGs that provide comparable or even arguably better gameplay elements at half the price. Final Fantasy fans will likely jump on this regardless, particularly those who never experienced the DS version, and it is a bona-fide good game. More casual RPG fans will have to ask themselves if whether paying for the “Final Fantasy” name is worth the premium when there are numerous other options available.