Hello, my name is Clockwork Bard and I like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.
They say admitting it is the first step towards recovery.
My last few posts have been uncomfortably bile ridden. I’m not that kind of bard. It’s time for some sunshine and rainbows.
I just recently beat Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. It’s been on my todo list for a while now. Somewhere between unplugging the bathtub drain and finishing unpacking from my move. Those last two still need doing, but FFMQ is officially checked off.
As it turned out, it wasn’t really much of a chore. For starters, it isn’t very long. I finished it in just over 15 hours at a casual, meandering pace. Second, it is actually kind of fun. It did a lot more right than people really give it credit.
A Beginner’s RPG
Prior to releasing FFMQ, Square Soft was four games deep in its flagship Final Fantasy series. Two of those had made it to North America and both were successful, financially. But not near as successful as they were in Japan. It was Square’s hope that they could spread the RPG fever in full force over here.
Well obviously, RPGs were too scary and complicated for our simple minds. Us brutish sorts fear things we don’t understand. So, the goal was to make an RPG on training wheels, essentially.
And here is where I will diverge from the usual critics. I’d dog-ear this page, for future reference.
See, I don’t think Square Soft set out on a fool’s endeavor. I think they sought to make the right kind of game, but maybe for the wrong reason. The desire to trim down the cumbersome RPG beast into a sleek, accessible package is the source of both FFMQ’s virtues and its flaws. Many of the design choices are well thought out, creative and fun. But rather than really expanding on its ideas and setting itself apart as its own game, it clung a little too hard to the genre concepts it aimed to uplift, keeping it from being the game it could have been.
Cut the Fat
So, what does Mystic Quest do to streamline the RPG formula?
- No inventory management to speak of. You have four consumable item types and four weapon types to swap between, one of which has limited ammunition. Armor and weapon upgrades exist (only 3 tiers of each), but there is no need to manage them. Aside from swapping weapon types, which is done with the press of a button, it’s all automatic.
- Only two party members. You play as your main character, while your second slot is filled by whatever NPC the plot dictates. You aren’t even required to control the second character. You can optionally set your partner to Auto, who will then blow through potions like it’s a New Year’s Eve party.
- No free roaming overworld map. You can wander freely in dungeons or towns, but the world map is little more than a web of nodes connected by paths. The question of “where do I go next” is often answered with “the spot on the map that just opened up.”
- No random or roaming encounters. Monsters are represented by stationary characters that may or may not block your path. Touching one enters into a battle. Defeating it will remove it from the dungeon. It will not come back until you leave the dungeon entirely.
- Only 12 magic spells. You’ll gradually find 3 categories of spells: 4 “white” support and healing spells, 4 “black” elemental attack spells, and 4 “wizard” spells which function as your more limited, high damage nukes.
- Simple plot. No winding, obtuse tales of quasi-real dreams or time travel or alien-god-aberrations in clown make-up with mommy issues. Four powerful monsters have taken the magic crystals that make the world not suck and some old guy tells you that you are the prophetic knight who is supposed to set things right. So you happily go out and kill them monsters plus their evil boss with the minimum amount of distractions and jibber-jabber. The story has fun with itself, but does not impose.
- Save anywhere and friendly death system. Anytime you fail in a battle, you are given the option to rewind to the beginning of that fight and try again or reload a previous save. Anytime you aren’t fighting or chatting up an NPC, you can bring up your menu and save. Pick up or put down the game whenever you want and always be moving forward.
Doesn’t Sound Like Much of a RPG
If you had shown me those bullet points 10 years ago, I’d have scoffed. I’d have scoffed so hard. RPGs were, for many of us, an introduction into the complexities of which games were capable. Coming off of Final Fantasy II, I wanted more.
More weapons. More classes. More stats. More options. More plot twists.
It didn’t have to be fun. I just had to be able to get lost in it. (That sound familiar to any of you MMORPG players out there?) I still crave games like that, though not with the same voracious, indiscriminate hunger. Where I once considered Final Fantasy VII‘s story to be deep and intriguing, I now regard it as convoluted and opaque. Yet I still praise the game’s materia system. While it was complex, it had a nice flow with both the narrative and mechanical themes of the game. It encouraged exploration, experimentation, and character diversity, and gave a meaningful sense of party-wide growth beyond simple gear and levels.
When Cloud had an identity crisis, I neither knew what was going on by that point nor did I care. When someone took my materia, shit got real.
We’re talking about Mystic Quest, not VII
Mystic Quest is not one of those games. Without the tangled layers of micromanagement and subplots, its core flaws and virtues are raw, visible and naked to the world. That core needs to be solid.
Unfortunately, as I said before, it doesn’t completely shake off its expectations.
Let’s take the magic and weapon system for a second. This is the core of combat. For each turn-based round of combat, you can attack with one of your four weapons or cast one of your 12 spells. The challenge comes from exploiting situations and enemy weaknesses. Some enemies are weak against certain weapon types or elements, or certain weapons are situationally useful for hitting multiple enemies or dealing status effects.
The problem, at least in the first half of the game, is that the game follows the traditional conventions for spell casting. You get a certain number of each of the three types of spells which can only be replenished by sleeping at an inn or using an initially rare “seed” item.
While it makes sense to limit the powerful “wizard” class spells, the “black” elemental spells are typically weaker than your weapons. Only when the enemy is weak against that spell’s element are they more effective. This makes them, from a mechanical standpoint, very similar to weapons. The limitation on using them feels arbitrary.
But, magic refilling seeds become available for sale halfway through the game. They’re cheap (to the point of putting inns permanently out of business) and you’ve got almost nothing else to spend your money on. You could pretty much just spam wizard nukes the rest of the game if you felt so inclined, turning everything I just dissected on its side.
I could go on, but this is already going long. Basically, it’s that same ongoing theme marbled through out the game. It starts to feel like they’ve got a really good thing going, then something jammed in for the sake of RPG traditions takes it down a notch. The weapon swapping system is great and even plays really well into the game’s puzzles, but then you get an “upgraded” version of one and the others fall out of use until their combat usefulness catches up, killing that diversity and strategy. The first half of the game is also trivialized by companions consistently having significantly better stats and gear than you.
And it goes on like that.
But all of that griping aside, I legitimately enjoyed my 15 hours. If the core mechanics were further polished away from its Final Fantasy obligated lineage and the rest of the game built to emphasize those strengths, I can picture Mystic Quest as a very fun and engaging game to carry around on my phone. Aside from dungeon exploration, the interface is already very touch screen friendly.
It was designed to be an easily accessible adventure that provides bite-sized doses of RPG-style monster slaying and puzzle solving. I think that’s just what my phone needs. I’m already brimming with ideas.
Oh and let’s not forget, the soundtrack is freakin’ sweet.