Final Fantasy III Revisited: A Growing World
There are a lot of pieces that make up an RPG, but one thing I keep coming back to how each game’s world and quest are put together, and how this affects your path through it. We’ve already seen that progress in the original Final Fantasy is largely about overcoming obstacles and discovering the world one part at a time, while the second opens its world at the beginning and instead uses its story to direct you through it. Final Fantasy III is more similar to the former than the latter, but it’s also a much bigger and more complex game—so its design borrows some techniques from both of its predecessors, and at the same time invents a few new tricks of its own.
It’s significant that in FF1, nothing you do will ever give you access to less of the world. Each vehicle you acquire and every barrier you break just lets you see and do more, which is part of what makes that game feel empowering. Final Fantasy III, though, doesn’t take such a strict stance. Overall, it does reveal more of its world as the game goes on, but it isn’t afraid to surprise you with twists that may actually limit your mobility for a time—even your airship can be taken away when you reach a new area. This does serve to reduce some of your freedom, but it also allows you to move laterally through the world, reaching new areas before the game is ready to give you the vehicle or ability that would let you visit them freely. The idea of these possibly negative plot twists popping up as you progress derives from FF2, but that game didn’t tie them into gameplay as deeply as its successor does.
Even outside those bits, though, FF3 presents many more gates to your progress than the previous games. In FF1, the airship essentially unlocked the whole world—letting you take on the last half in a more or less arbitrary order—and it didn’t even take that long to get it. FF3, though, is notable for what its airships can’t do. For what I believe is the only time in the series, not one of the vehicles in this game can freely cross mountain ranges, keeping parts of the world cordoned off in ways not possible in the previous games. This means that even with an airship, you’ll have to travel specific paths through some parts of the map, each of which may have obstacles of their own (such as high winds or magic barriers) that can require a special item or an entirely new vehicle to pass. There is no single ultimate ride as in the previous two games—FF3 has four separate airships, each with its own capabilites, and acquiring each one in turn lets you gradually explore new parts of the world.
For these reasons, FF3 can definitely feel more restrictive than its predecessors, but this does have some benefits. The big one is that the game doesn’t have to dump the whole world on you halfway through—although there are more barriers, this means the game is constantly revealing new places to explore, preserving that feeling of discovery until close to the end. And the world is actually a lot more expansive than it first seems; unlike the previous games, it spans multiple maps, which you’ll uncover through the course of your journey. Like peeling the layers of an onion, this game is always showing you something new.
This design doesn’t mean the game is entirely linear, either, as it’s the first in the series to really feature sidequests and optional areas. As you open up more of the world, you’ll sometimes find towns and dungeons that you don’t need to ever visit, but that offer valuable items, magic, or information for the dedicated explorer. This lets the game retain some of the freedom found in the second half of FF1—while there’s always one real objective that will advance the main quest, you’ll often have a few choices of where to go (or not) beforehand. This can actually be quite liberating especially after FF2, whose main journey played out in a very linear fashion despite the open world.
In Final Fantasy III, we see Square building a quest out of both terrain and story. They’re still tweaking the balance, but the flow of the later games is really beginning to take shape here. If the first two games gave us the basic components of quest design, FF3 puts them together into something more complex than either one alone. From here, the rest of the series can build and experiment in all sorts of directions… but that, of course, is a subject for another time.