Final Fantasy VI Revisted: Transapocalyptic
Something that still gets me about Final Fantasy VI is the sheer audacity of the World of Ruin. This game spends a good twenty hours or so building up a story, pitting you against the Empire in a series of back-and-forth clashes, exploring the mystery of the Espers, and fleshing out the setting bit by bit… and then halfway through, it blows everything up. Kefka triggers the apocalypse almost before anyone realizes what’s happening, and when it’s all over there’s no more Empire, no more Returners, and every part of the world is irrevocably changed—and the game keeps on going.
There are plenty of games that threaten the world with destruction, of course, and plenty more that take place after an apocalypse has already occurred. And a massive change to the world map isn’t without precedent, either—FF5 saw two worlds get jammed together into one, after all. But I can’t think of anything else that spends so much time on both sides of such a cataclysmic event. FF6 doesn’t treat the World of Balance as a mere prologue; it is the game for close to half its duration, and all the time spent developing it makes its fall hit that much harder. The World of Ruin isn’t just some wasteland, it’s a wasteland that you knew—you can see for yourself how much worse things have gotten, because you know exactly how it was before.
The game does a great job of selling the change, too. It isn’t just the new world map or despairing NPC dialogue; the muted color palette ensures nothing ever looks quite as bright as before, and the music really sets the tone of things. (I’ve become a fan of the WoR town theme, which I’d apparently forgotten about since my last playthrough.) Each area you revisit adds its own details into the mix: Narshe, for example, has been abandoned under never-quite-explained circumstances, while wealthy Jidoor seems to be keeping on like nothing really happened… though the grim music suggests the cracks are showing. Put this all together and it almost feels like a different game in a lot of ways, like you’re getting the beloved original and its bleak, controversial sequel all at once.
The setting isn’t the only change, though. Unlike the first part of the game—and unlike any other game in the series up to this point*—most of the last half is completely open. There are a couple hours of linearity after the calamity, as you get a small party back together and find your new airship, the Falcon, but after that you can go essentially anywhere. There are plenty of towns to visit, characters to track down, and new dungeons to scour for treasure, but you can do all this in whatever order you choose. You can even go straight to the final dungeon if you really want, though unless you’re taking on some crazy challenge, this is probably a bad idea.
The freedom this offers in terms of gameplay is pretty great. If you’re new to the game, you can explore and discover the mysteries of the World of Ruin on your own, without being led along a prescribed course. And if you’re already familiar, you can plan your approach strategically, figuring out the path you consider optimal or simply the most interesting. There’s a different sort of engagement that comes when you have to make these decisions yourself, rather than simply wondering what happens next.
The downside, though, is that the story does take a backseat once the world opens up. The heavy mood that established the World of Ruin so well lifts a bit as you gain control of your destiny, and the primary storyline basically sits and waits for you to take on Kefka. You’ll encounter plenty of vignettes and bits of character development as you explore the world, but nothing that affects the plot as a whole. FF6 is a much more character-driven game than most of its predecessors, and in the second half that’s especially true—some of the characters have great scenes, but there aren’t any big events like there were in the World of Balance.
I think the best way to look at the World of Ruin is as a sort of extended endgame. In most of these games, you’ll eventually reach a point where the final dungeon is open, but you can explore and seek out some optional sidequests and bits of narrative before you’re done. In Final Fantasy VI, that point comes about halfway through. The story is almost over by the time you get the Falcon—Kefka has conquered the world, and all you need to do is go fight him—but there’s just a ton of extra stuff to enjoy before you finish things up. It’s kind of a weird approach, especially for a game that’s considered such an RPG standard, but it’s been a ton of fun to play through. It takes some guts to basically change everything halfway through such a high-profile title, but I guess Square was the right kind of crazy when they made this one, and I’m certainly thankful for it.
*The closest comparison is FF1, which also opens up considerably once you can get an airship. In that game, though, there are still several quest lines you need to follow to complete the game; you just get to choose the order you do them. In FF6, literally everything is optional after this point except the final dungeon.