Thursday, September 18, 2008

Final Fantasy VI: MP Damage

As my brother mentioned in an earlier post, I have been spending a lot of time lately playing through Final Fantasy VI again (using the Final Fantasy Anthology version). Amazingly enough, I really don't have a lot to say about the game. I have played it so much that I pretty much hold it as the archetypical console RPG, so I find it difficult to actually look at the game critically. However, one element of the game that I don't think I really payed much attention to before has been bugging me.

In Final Fantasy VI, one strategy that is available to the player is to use attacks that damage the enemies' MP, rather than their HP. In many ways this is usually a poor choice, since enemies tend to have very large MP totals and MP damage tends to be very low, so even using unreliable status conditions like Mute, Imp, or Stop would be a better option. However, the designers built into the game a few places where using MP damaging spells like Rasp is just as effective, if not better, than using a more straightforward form of attack, and he most important of these are the enemies who die if their MP total falls to zero.

The most famous enemy in Final Fantasy VI who is vulnerable to MP Damage is probably Atma Weapon, since using Rasp on him is listed as the best strategy in both an old Nintendo Power article and in the Final Fantasy Anthology Bestiary. Of course, why this is the best strategy is never explained, but from my own observations it is related to the fact that he has reasonably low MP and tends to use more powerful attacks as his HP decreases, and does not have an overly large MP total. As such, using the Rasp spell to lower Atma Weapon's MP will result in a battle of reasonable length in which Atma Weapon never uses his strongest attacks. This is actually a great example of building complexities and hidden strategies into a game, so battles don't end up all playing out the same way, but there is one big problem: it is almost impossible to figure out this strategy simply by playing the game. This is partly because the battle AI that controls Atma Weapon is hidden to the player (which is not really a problem, though sometimes making this more transparent helps), but this is largely due to the fact that the player has no way at all of knowing that Atma Weapon will die when his MP falls to zero. Certainly, Atma Weapon mentions at the start of the battle that he is "made of pure energy", but that is about it.

The Atma Weapon example is pretty typical of the strengths and flaws of MP damage in Final Fantasy VI. It is a great strategy for the player to use, but only if you know which enemies to use it on beforehand. This is due to the fact that the "dies when MP = 0" property is limited to only a fraction of the enemies and can not be detected with the games Scan spell. What is more, unlike the way all monsters with the "undead" property (essentially, the "HP restoration becomes damage" property) all tend to have a bony look, ghastly color scheme, or use "Zombie" attacks, monsters with the "dies when MP = 0" property don't have a clear unifying theme. The only real way to tell if an enemy will die when hit by a Rasp attack is to experiment, which means this strategy simply won't come up very often (why experiment to see if Rasp will kill it when a good physical or elemental attack will work just fine?). On the plus side, it was a very good idea to make Rasp such a cheap spell to use, since it means that every time you encounter an enemy vulnerable to MP damage Rasp becomes an inherently better choice than more expensive elemental attack spells.

A lot of problems with this element of the game could have been cleared up simply by adding the "dies when MP = 0" property to the list of things mentioned by the Scan spell, but other solutions exist. For example, in the game Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, every enemy has the "dies when MP = 0" property, and the game has a much wider array of attacks that deal MP damage, so using this particular strategy comes up much more often, is more interesting than casting the same spell over and over, and will work to some extent or another on every enemy. Actually, because MP damage is such an important strategy in Till the End of Time, the issue in that game is more built around imbalances between those characters who have MP damaging moves and those who do not. While that particular solution may not be a perfect fit for Final fantasy VI, it is nonetheless an improvement.

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