Dungeon Crawl

December 2nd, 2006  |  Published in etc

For all my complaining about World of Warcraft being sort of boring and repetitive, you’d think my patience for a retooled RPG from 1990 would be minimal … RPGs in the 80s and early 90s were all about wandering around and killing stuff over and over and over. In fact, it’s kind of weird to me that these games were ever called “RPGs,” to the extent you aren’t so much “playing a role” as “manipulating a character” whose personality and motivations are generally out of your hands.

But there’s something very soothing about Final Fantasy III for the DS. I was withholding comment until my first big dungeon, but now that I’ve crossed one of those lines in the game where the characters have to show more than incremental improvement to progress, I feel more like admitting that I like the game and want to finish it.

I’m not going to claim to be some old skool Final Fantasy aficionado, and the history of Final Fantasy III as The Missing North American Installment didn’t mean much to me. My one and only previous experience with the FF series was on a Nintendo NES my little brother gave me to play with while I was stationed at Fort Bragg. I had it hooked up to a tiny color t.v. and played three games on it: Final Fantasy some-installment-or-another and Super Mario Bros. most of the time, with the occasional game of Duck Hunt.

The hallmark of whichever Final Fantasy I had back then was brute determination: If at first you don’t succeed, go into the woods and slaughter monsters until you level up enough to find the boss who kicked your ass the first time and clean his clock. Playing the game was more of a meditative diversion than an entertainment. It gave my hands something to do while I was thinking, and it rewarded the occasional look back over the figurative shoulder for hidden goodies. I was pretty well conditioned for that sort of experience by old Commodore 64 games like Bard’s Tale III and Legacy of the Ancients (which had an awesome bug in the blackjack game you could play in villages that allowed for virtually limitless winning).


Like the North American RPGs, that early Final Fantasy game wasn’t weighed down with the endless speechifying that’s become de rigeur in the post-cartridge RPG era. You’d get a few minutes total of characters explaining this issue or that, but it was mostly “walk, fight, level up/walk, fight, level up” until the game had given up all the goodies.

I understand that the cinematification of gaming has required an attendant focus on narrative, but the tragic part of that turn has been the way in which even some of the most highly praised game developers haven’t worked out how to tell the story with in-game play instead of animated cut-scene explication. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and its predecessor were horrific that way. I found myself getting queasy as I’d read reviews in gaming magazines praising the genius of MG “director” Hideo Kojima for periodically stopping the fun part of the game to force players to sit through a speech designed to paper over the narrative deficits of the action portion of the game. The same rules that apply to movies and writing will perhaps, someday, be applied to video games, too: show it, don’t tell it.

I guess that’s one thing I’ll give to World of Warcraft: You get a scroll or a brief explanation of why you need to harvest a dozen duskbat wings in that field out yonder, then you’re free to go kill duskbats before trotting back to the village to collect a pair of boots or some copper pieces. You don’t get shunted into an animation that might or might not have crucial information and that will last for five minutes, running down your precious gaming time. If you want real interactive narrative, you have to go join a guild, and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll get anything besides “ru going to the dwarf mine coz i need to go theyer 2 lol!”

Anyhow … back to FFIII. Like earlier, pre-FFVII installments, the narrative elements are kept to a minimum. There’s a plot framework that explains why your characters are wandering the land killing things and leveling up, and it sort of motivates why some parts of the game must come before others. I’d argue that even that modicum of plot motivation is more than is required, but it’s harmless because no one’s speech and attendant cut scene lasts more than maybe 15 seconds. I was about to overstep and offer that a RPG needs no more motivation than life, but with the majority of the population preferring sacred texts to simple acceptance of their existence, I guess it makes sense gamers will be uncomfortable with merely being inside the game world, too.


Unlike later RPGs, which have adopted an absurd attachment to allowing gamers to save every ten seconds, FFIII only allows players to save while they’re outside dungeons or villages. So you can’t poke along incrementally saving your progress every three feet then jumping back to the exact last point you got your characters wiped out at. If you crawl through 90 percent of a dungeon and make a stupid mistake, you lose that progress. Yes … it has caused me to want to snap my DS in half, and I’ve given the machine the double-barrelled bird a few times … but it also makes the combat seem like the stakes are higher, and more suspenseful.

A profession system allows you to fiddle around with your party a little, which is also kind of fun. I tend to balance mine in the traditional D&D mode of one dedicated fighter, one dedicated offensive spellcaster, one dedicated “medic,” and one blended figher/magic user type who can step in and shore up the party’s health if the medic goes down. There are a lot of options to play with though, with character classes ranging from monk to viking.

In terms of basic visual and aural appeal, it’s a pleasant game to look at, and the music is well done. The controls can be handled with a stylus, but it’s just as easy to stick to the d-pad and buttons.

I give it a solid A.

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