Final Fantasy VI marked the end of an era as the last mainline Final Fantasy to be developed for the SNES and exclusively for a Nintendo console. In many ways, VI feels like the natural endpoint for Final Fantasy on an 8- and 16-bit console. Final Fantasy IV and V set necessary precedents that allowed VI to push its story, themes, and mechanics in an even bolder direction. The pace is nothing short of excellent, the story is dense, themes & characters are richly developed, and a high variety of customization options mean that no two playthroughs ever have to play out the same way. Final Fantasy VI is built on a strong foundation, but there’s a lot that distinguishes it from its predecessors.
Featuring an ensemble cast of over a dozen playable characters, VI never settles on a definitive protagonist. The perspective keeps shifting to let everyone be the hero of their own story, and help the audience connect with the cast on a more personal level. VI is an RPG that uses its large cast and diverse customization options to offer players a deeper sense of agency. At its core, Final Fantasy VI is a game about identity — about finding your place in the world and discovering who you’re meant to be, an idea that’s expressed narratively, thematically, and mechanically. Final Fantasy always dared to be bold, but VI was the franchise at its most inventive and inspired at the time. In many ways, it still is.
Final Fantasy VI wastes no time setting the mood, diving into the core gameplay loop, introducing new mechanics, and letting you organically build your party as you traverse the world. In less than an hour, you’ve been introduced to Terra as a slave of the Empire, rescued by Locke, met Kefka & teamed up with Edgar, and are likely on your way to recruit Sabin before the story splits up your newly formed party for a few hours. You’re never in the same palace for long or stuck with the same characters. The cast is a revolving door of over a dozen players. Relationships are fleshed out quickly, but feel dynamic nonetheless. Less is more as almost every line in the script serves to move the plot forward, develop the main characters, flesh out themes, and organically build the world. Everyone feels distinct in personality & motivation and through their own abilities.
VI’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic is in part inspired by the industrial revolution. The emphasis on iron, gunpowder, and steam engines help ground an otherwise fantastical setting and breed natural conflict. Instead of machines left behind by ancient races, mankind made their own tools of destruction to oppress and enslave Espers — magical beings based on Summons from previous games. Technology is front and center in the form of trains, mechs, and modern tools. Fashion is a mix of medieval-chic and more contemporary accessories, clashing different styles together depending on what works best for each character. Nothing’s out of place with the greater fantasy, though. Mining towns and realistically designed airships feel right at home with phantom trains, Espers, and castles that sink under the sand.
VI’s backstory is much richer than in previous games, building off 1,000 years of in-game history. The Warring Triad are essentially creator Gods who made the Espers and magic itself before turning themselves to stone. The War of the Magi between mankind and the Espers resulted in magic’s expulsion from the world after numerous bloody conflicts, turning it into little more than a modern day myth while setting the stage for the Gestahlian Empire’s rule. Major characters have detailed backstories that help define who they are and explain their motivations, which when put together paints a living tapestry that highlights how well thought out Final Fantasy VI’s world is. Structurally, Final Fantasy VI almost feels like two RPGs in one. The story is split into two key sections: the World of Balance and the World of Ruin. Each world has its own distinct game-feel and aesthetic owing to both half’s unique narrative and pacing priorities.
The World of Balance is a primarily linear and plot-driven experience that develops the core cast while progressing like a traditional Final Fantasy. You’re tasked with visiting towns and dungeons in a fixed order as the stakes rise and the status quo changes along the way. Most side quests are locked away until the home stretch where the world is fully open. The World of Balance’s pace is reminiscent of Final Fantasy IV in particular. Cast members shuffle in and out of the plot regularly, while dungeons and bosses are typically designed with specific parties in mind. The key difference is that Final Fantasy VI doesn’t have a single anchor like Cecil was in IV. Terra, Locke, Sabin, and Celes all act as linchpins during different parts of the story, with special attention given to the rest of the cast so just about every party has at least one sequence where they feel like the “main character.”
The fact the World of Balance plays like your average Final Fantasy game distilled to a single overworld ultimately makes the World of Ruin’s script-flip hit all the harder. A little over halfway through the story, the main characters lose and the whole world is radically terraformed under Kefka’s rule. With your party completely separated, you have to search an unrecognizable world in search of your friends. The World of Ruin is unlike anything else in Final Fantasy. Progression is almost entirely non-linear and player-driven. Plot is less concerned with building momentum and more on fleshing out the cast via their own side stories. You’re tasked with rebuilding your party with no direction except what few hints NPCs give you and your own sense of adventure.
With no set protagonist to dictate the plot’s flow, you end up telling your own story as you play through the World of Ruin. The vast majority of towns, dungeons, and quests in the World of Ruin are actually entirely optional. The final dungeon opens up as soon as you get the Airship, which will be long before you reunite your whole party. This means you’re free to recruit the rest of your team in just about any imaginable order and that the game itself ends whenever you’re ready. It’s even possible to beat the game with no party members recruited except the mandatory and certain parts of the ending cutscene actually change to reflect your incomplete team. The World of Ruin is what elevates Final Fantasy VI into a masterpiece. This is no longer your typical Final Fantasy adventure, but a post-apocalyptic epilogue that embraces freedom above all else.
A Decisive Battle
Final Fantasy VI was the third entry to use the ATB (Active Time Battle) system introduced in IV. Each party member has a time bar that gradually fills over the course of the battle and they only get to take their turn once it’s full. The same concept applies for enemies, but you do not see their bars on-screen. You can still swap between Wait and Active — which determines whether or not time stops inside of menus — but there’s one major tweak that affects the flow of battle significantly: time no longer stops during spell or attack animations. Since the ATB Bar is always refilling, battles move at a quick pace and feature less downtime. It’s not uncommon to input commands as actions are being carried out. Battles can feel a bit more chaotic as a result, but it lends combat a more active and fluid rhythm.
Parties are still restricted to four characters and row positioning functions as usual. Characters in the front row inflict and take full damage from any attacks, while back row characters deal and take less. Magic remains unaffected by rows, but VI on a whole heavily favors the back row. Several unique character abilities always deal full damage and there are plenty of ranged weapons & spells to get around the front row’s damage advantages. There’s little reason not to have everyone in the back row most of the time. In that sense, positioning is less important than ever.
Battles are frequent on account of FFVI’s high encounter rate, but just-as-high enemy variety helps soften the blow. There are over 300 enemies in the bestiary fought across nearly 600 different possible formations. Enemies are always themed to their environment and new ones are introduced often enough where you’ll never be stuck fighting the same encounters for long. Pre-emptive strikes, ambushes, and newly introduced pincer attacks also help keep things fresh. Enemies can now surround you from both sides and certain battles will actually put your party in the pincer position so you’re surrounding the boss instead.
In the event that a party member is near-death, they have the chance to trigger their Desperation Attack. Characters must be at critical health and the trigger won’t work until at least 25 seconds have passed within the battle. Desperation Attacks are designed to save the day in a pinch, but their conditions are so obscure that it’s not unusual to go through the entire game without seeing them in action. The difficulty curve is also low enough where naturally landing on all the conditions for a Desperation Attack simply won’t happen for the vast majority of players.
A wide variety of customization options help mitigate VI’s difficulty considerably, to the point where you can wipe all challenge out of the game with the right set-up. Party members even keep earned EXP after a Game Over, more or less removing any risk of entering dungeons unprepared. To its credit, FFVI is still fun even when you’ve broken combat in two and character customization is a large reason why. Accessories have been replaced with Relics, which are assigned to characters independent of the rest of their equipment. Two Relic slots for every party member offers flexibility in how you build your team. Each Relic comes with a special effect that ranges from staff buffs, to new commands, or game-breaking augments that make you borderline unstoppable.
Magic is no longer purchased at stores or learned naturally (for most characters), but is instead taught through the Magicite system. Each piece of Magicite corresponds to a different Esper. When equipped, Magicite teach spells themed around their associated Espers and some offer stat bonuses upon level ups. Ifrit teaches fire-based spells like Fire and Fira, and increases a character’s Strength by 1 point. Unicorn offers no stat buffs, but teaches Cura and Esuna at a quick rate. Odin has always been known for his speed in Final Fantasy, so his Esper naturally raises the Speed stat.
Each party member can only equip one Esper at a time and spell learning is tied to individual acquisition rates. Every spell has its own acquisition rate that’s conveyed via a percentage which determines how much Magic AP (Ability Points) you can from battle. Thunder has a x10 acquisition rate on Ramuh, so it’ll receive 20 AP from a battle that drops 2 AP. Not every enemy drops AP, in particular early enemies before you unlock Magicite, but most do and AP output generally increases the deeper into the game you get.
Esper grinding isn’t as arduous as Job grinding in V, but it still adds up if you try to teach everyone everything. Its main advantage is that you’re given more control on a micro level over what magic your party learns and how their stats develop. Pieces of equipment like elemental shields, the Paladin Shield, and Cursed Ring are also capable of teaching magic independant of Espers when equipped. Magic is broken down into three tiers and arguably easier to immediately understand than in previous titles. White Magic are curative spells that heal the party, Black Magic are offensive spells that deal damage, and Gray Magic are utility spells that inflict & reverse status effects. Equipped Espers can also be used as Summons once per battle, replacing Summon Magic entirely.
Since Espers are the sole way of permanently increasing a party member’s stats, it’s important to keep an eye on who has which Magicite and how much experience they have until their next level. Leveling up without Espers equipped only increases a character’s HP, MP, and base damage. Strength, Stamina, Magic, and Speed can only be leveled through the Esper system. It’s entirely possible to beat the game just by leveling naturally without Espers, but part of the fun is figuring out how to make everyone as powerful as possible with the levels you have allotted.
Relics and Magicite offer a respectable middle ground between IV’s fixed classes and V’s completely freeform character progression. You can play to a party member’s strengths, cover their weaknesses, or baby them into a one-man killing machine. Relics like the Genji Glove let you equip two weapons on one character, and the Soul of Thamasa replaces the Magic command with Dualcast. Relm is the strongest spellcaster in the game once you’ve taught her some Black Magic and leveled her Magic stat. Everyone benefits from learning spells like Haste and Cura early on. You can give Sabin a Black Belt so he can counter attacks like Monks in previous titles, or two Earrings to buff his magically-charged Blitz attacks.
Even though character progression is so freeform, you are nudged towards building party members in a specific direction based on their Jobs and base stats. (Almost) anyone can learn magic via Magicite, but character equipment is restricted by Job and everyone has at least one unique ability to distinguish them. This helps party members from feeling like blank slates. The nature of Magicite does result in a fairly homogeneous endgame, but the journey there is anything but and characters are already designed with specific gameplay roles in mind. It’s up to you whether you follow them or experiment.
“There’s no central main character in FF6—(all of them) are equally the ‘main character.’”
– Final Fantasy VI Staff
Terra is a Magitek Elite and functionally a Red Mage gameplay-wise. She’s one of two characters who inherently learns Magic by leveling up and has one of the best equipment spreads in the game. Terra’s special ability Trance lets her transform into an Esper mid-battle and doubles her stats. Her ATB bar is replaced with a Trance bar that slowly drains as she’s transformed. Terra is actually half-Esper and was enslaved by the Gestahlian Empire her entire life. Much of her arc revolves around finding her place in the world and discovering what it means to both live and love. As the first playable character along with the plot’s catalyst, Terra is the closest thing Final Fantasy VI has to a protagonist, but even she leaves the party for large chunks of the story.
Locke is an Adventurer, which is to say he’s a Thief in everything but name. He’s fast, deals decent damage, and can steal items off enemies. The Brigand’s Glove Relic augments Steal into Mug and the Thief’s Bracer Relic improves Locke’s success rate when stealing. He also has a solid equipment spread with access to some of the best weapons come the endgame. Locke drives a lot of the initial story, even more so than Terra, and has the most dialogue of any party member in the World of Balance. The two almost share a co-lead role early on, which is perhaps why FFVI pushes Locke to the side in the World of Ruin.
Edgar is a Machinist, not unlike Cid’s Engineer class from FFIV. He can use an assortment of tools that have a wide variety of effects. Like Magic in previous games, Tools must be purchased at shops. The Auto-Crossbow damages all enemies on-screen, the Noiseblaster turns enemies against each other, and the Chainsaw has a chance of insta-killing most foes. Edgar’s ability to deal consistently high damage to all enemies makes him a valuable party member from start to finish, but he’s especially overpowered in the early game. Edgar is also the King of Figaro and his penchant for tools speaks to the kingdom’s technological prowess.
Sabin is a Monk and Edgar’s twin brother. Where Edgar is a suave and calculated ladies man, Sabin wears his heart on his sleeve in complete sincerity. He’s a heavy-hitter whose light armor pairs well with his high speed. Sabin’s unique ability is the Blitz command, which is based on fighting game combos. Selecting Blitz in battle allows you to string combos together with the D-Pad, face buttons, or shoulder buttons depending on the version. If you’ve input your technique correctly, Sabin will trigger the move once you press A. Needing to manually input combos helps add a deeper level of engagement to the combat loop and reflects Sabin’s status as a martial artist. You’d think he’d benefit most from Strength Espers, but his strongest Blitz are magic-oriented, so he can honestly go either way. Focusing on Strength gives Sabin an advantage in the early-game while Magic helps him keep up in the endgame.
Celes is a Rune Knight and effectively another Red Mage, which is fitting since the story positions her as Terra’s foil. Celes also learns magic inherently and can equip some of the best gear in the game. Her ability Runic allows her to redirect and absorb any offensive magic to herself, restoring MP in the process. Where Terra was a slave to the Empire, Celes was a loyal general who turned traitor when she could no longer bear the Empire’s atrocities. Celes is also the focal character for the first stretch of the World of Ruin and develops an intimate, if at times strained, relationship with Locke over the course of the story.
Shadow is a mysterious Assassin and plays like a traditional Ninja. He’s fast, has high evasion, uses Kunai and light armor, hits hard with the right gear, and can use the Throw command to toss weapons and unique items. Shurikens deal damage based on Shadow’s Strength while Scrolls are based on his Magic. His dog Interceptor will periodically block enemy attacks and counter physical attacks on Shadow’s behalf. Shadow isn’t particularly important in the grand scheme of the overarching narrative, but his backstory and hidden connections to other party members (notably Relm) helps flesh out FFVI’s world and hints at a complicated and deeply depressed man under the mask.
Cyan is a Samurai who lost his family to the empire. His primary gameplay role is dealing damage and his special skill is the Bushido command. Selecting Bushido brings up a Bushido Bar which slowly fills from 1 to 8. Each number corresponds to a different ability and the later numbers are locked until Cyan learns them. The higher the number, the better the technique. 1 is a simple attack that ignores enemy defense, 4 deals four random attacks, and 8 kills any enemies who aren’t immune to the Death status effect. You have to stop the bar yourself as the number you want to use. There are two problems with the Bushido technique: it’s slow and you can’t command your other characters while it’s charging. It’s an interesting idea that works well enough in the early game, but quickly loses its usability outside the Pixel Remaster release.
Gau is a Feral Youth, a young boy raised in the wild and cut off from civilization. He’s almost like a mix between a Blue Mage and a Berserker gameplay-wise. Gau has two main commands: Rage and Leap. Rage allows him to use abilities he’s learned from enemies at the expense of auto-attacking for the rest of the battle. Leap can only be used on the Veldt and makes Gau briefly leave the party. Battles do not award experience on the Veldt, as its main purpose is to teach Gau Rages in a setting where he won’t overlevel. When he rejoins, he’ll have learned attacks from the monsters he leapt from and the monsters you’re currently fighting. Rages can be a pain to learn everything, but just a few abilities are more than enough to take you through the game. Gau has fantastic attack variety that lets him fill multiple different roles in battle. He’s a completionist’s dream and nightmare.
Setzer is a Gambler and the party’s Airship pilot. He’s a man who keeps his cards close to his chest and comes off as an anti-hero of sorts. His Slots command triggers a three-reel slot machine that has 1 of 8 random effects, ranging from a group heal to insta-killing all enemies regardless of any potential immunities. Setzer is a great example of a character fully embodying their Job and even his weapons play into his Gambler aesthetic. Along with knives, he can equip Dice, Cards, and Darts. His best weapon is outright a pair of Fixed Dice. Setzer is also one of few characters players must recruit in the World of Ruin and he even gets the last line in the script.
Mog is a talking Moogle who was taught to speak by Ramuh. Mog has no major story relevance besides helping Locke save Terra at the start of the game. He’s treated like a secret character in both the World of Balance and Ruin. Gameplay-wise, Mog is a Dancer who learns new Dances by fighting in different environments. The Wind Rhapsody is learned by fighting in grass-themed areas and the Water Rondo is learned by fighting underwater. Each Dance has a potential four effects, with a 50% chance of Mog stumbling and the Dance failing if you use a Dance that doesn’t correspond to the terrain you’re fighting in. Mog’s character-specific Molulu’s Charm Relic eliminates all random encounters, making him a valuable party member for players who want to explore late-game dungeons in peace.
Strago is an old Blue Mage who uses enemy magic by studying them in battle. The Lore command is Blue Magic under a new name. Strago learns new Lore by surviving battles where enemies use their own Blue Magic, but he doesn’t need to be hit by the attack like in V. Strago’s Blue Magic is nowhere near as overpowered as the Blue Magic Job from V, but his high magic stat makes him worth investing some Espers into. Unfortunately, he’s quite slow and Lore casting tends to take longer than it should to be handy. Like Gau, completionists will either love Strago or hate him.
Relm is Strago’s adoptive granddaughter and a Pictomancer who has shades of the Beastmaster Job from V. Like Setzer, she lives up to her Job title and can equip different paint brushes as weapons. Her Sketch command allows her to paint enemies mid-battle and turn their attacks against them. Each enemy has two potential Sketch outcomes that’s determined randomly. The Fake Mustache Relic turns Sketch into Control, letting Relm take control of enemies during battle. Relm benefits the most from learning new spells and raising her Magic stat. She’s introduced fairly late in the story so her role is minimal, but secret cutscenes hint that Relm is actually Shadow’s daughter, adding an interesting layer to their few on-screen interactions.
Umaro is a Yeti living in the Narshe Mountains and a secret character who cannot be recruited until the World of Ruin. Umaro is functionally a Berserker. He is uncontrollable during battle and will always auto-attack, either dealing regular damage or throwing himself as enemies via Body Blow. The Berserker Ring Relic changes Body Blow to Throw Ally, where Umaro tosses party members at enemies instead of himself , and The Blizzard Orb Relic gives Umaro a chance to use Snowstorm, which targets all enemies and deals ice-based damage. Umaro cannot equip Magicite, learn Magic, use Spells, or change his equipment. To compensate, however, he has the highest base stats of any party member.
Gogo is another secret party member who can only be recruited in the World of Ruin and is specifically based on Final Fantasy V’s secret boss of the same name. Gogo is a Mime whose Mimic ability allows them to copy the last move made by a party member without draining MP or expending any Items. With the exception of Mimic, Gogo’s Command Menu has three free slots that you can customize in the party screen. They have access to basic commands like Attack, Magic, and Items, as well as every party member’s unique Command (Blitz, Bushido, Rage, Steal, etc.) Gogo can equip character-specific Relics to augment their abilities and can use any spell so long as one other party member has learned it despite not being able to equip Espers themselves. Gogo’s equipment is magic-based, which pigeon-holes them into a Mage role, and their low base stats means they rely solely on their Level and command set-up to pull their weight.
With such a large cast, there’s not a lot of screen time to go around for individual characters, but less is more in Final Fantasy VI. Even if some characters end up more important than others, the whole cast is well developed and defined, with strong motivations dictating why they join the party and the growth that follows. Final Fantasy VI does a great job at making characters feel distinct both mechanically and narratively. The core 11 all feel like relatable and rootable characters, and the World of Balance lets everyone have their moment in the spotlight at least once. Even Mog! Umaro and Gogo get the least amount of focus and that’s only because they’re recruited so late.
FFVI says a lot for each party member in the few scenes you get. Locke’s obsession with protecting Terra and Celes speaks to his guilt over letting his girlfriend Rachel die. Edgar and Sabin are portrayed as two sides of the same coin, two brothers hungry for freedom but torn apart by duty and fate. The party’s short scenes with Celes before the defense of Narshe highlight their different reactions to the party recruiting an imperial general to fight alongside them. Terra sees herself in Celes and Cyan resents her for what happened in Doma. Her interactions with Edgar and response to Terra also offer some insight into her backstory and feelings for Locke.
Some party members only ever interact a few times, but it works given how large the story’s scope is. While it’s easy to want more, what this means is that the script makes sure each scene carries weight or says something new about the story and cast. Celes and Terra never directly speak to each other again, but their one scene is enough to position them as clear foils and move their arcs to the next beat. One-off interactions make characters feel more important to each other. Sabin ends up offering Celes hope in the World of Ruin. Shadow warns Terra not to cut off her emotions like he has. Sabin, Cyan, and Gau develop their own little dynamic while they’re briefly together that’s never really acknowledged again, but serves up a strong first impression to the trio.
While they’re not the series’ most developed in terms of arcs, Final Fantasy VI has one of the best casts in the franchise. What everyone lacks in screen time, they make up for in subtext, hidden depth, and pure charm. The main characters have a theatrical quality to them, almost like players in a Shakespearean play. Every role is essential and everyone has a clear voice. Even on a mechanical level, FFVI stands out against later entries like FFVII for arguably doing a better job of balancing Job-based slates with freeform customization & character growth. Final Fantasy VI’s story, characters, and gameplay keep the experience compelling from the World of Balance’s beginning to the World of Ruin’s end.
A World in Balance
As far as overworld progression goes, the World of Balance wears its linearity well, taking all the right cues from Final Fantasy IV. A new on-screen mini-map prevents you from getting lost while moving about the overworld. The overworld itself is easy to traverse and you’re usually locked to just one continent at a time to keep you focused. Side quests only open up once you unlock the airship and there aren’t many, which keeps the focus on the story. Strong level design and excellent pacing move you through exciting set pieces and memorable dungeons with little downtime. Everything has just enough time to breathe without outstaying its welcome, and the perspective shifts between party members help organically structure the World of Balance into clear acts.
It’s admirable just how lived in the World of Balance feels. Towns are densely populated with NPCs who actually react to story events and dwell on the world’s political happenings. Hidden items encourage you to check every pot, crate, and clock you come across. Each town has a distinct personality with their own quirks that help flesh out the world. Narshe is a snowy mining town on the edge of dangerous mountains that feigns neutrality while secretly plotting against the Empire. Zozo is a seedy town full of criminals where it’s always raining and random encounters don’t stop. Jidoor is outright divided by class. The poor live in the southern, lower part of town and rich live in the northern, higher part of town. Albrook, Tzen, and Maranda are all occupied by the Empire, with soldiers on patrol, conscripting villagers, chasing women, and engaging in dogfighting.
The World of Balance is far more set piece heavy than the World of Ruin and regularly paces out dungeons with cinematic set pieces. The game begins with an pening march in Magitek Armor through Narshe, before transitioning into a scenario where you have to control three teams of Moogles and Locke to protect Terra. Within a little over an hour, you’ll be traveling through Lethe River on a Raft and tasked with choosing between three scenarios to play through, which all lead up to the Siege of Narsh where you once again control three parties against an onslaught of enemies.
The Opera is the standout set piece in both the World of Balance and Ruin. When Setzer threatens to kidnap the actress Maria, Celes impersonates her and has to perform in her stead. You need to read the opera’s libretto yourself and remember the lyrics for Celes’ performance. Nailing the opera just right isn’t actually necessary, but it’s a fun touch that you need to play along and at least try. Once Celes is done singing, the set piece focuses on Locke protecting her from Ultros as the opera carries on. Locke even gets himself involved in the theatrics, much to the Impresario’s dismay. The Opera is an extremely fun sequence that teases Celes & Locke’s feelings for each other and lets the game flex its flair for presentation. An animated live orchestra, impressive blocking for 16-bit sprites, and beautiful music help the opera resemble a real play in action.
Dungeons in the World of Balance are well designed, but they’re merely the surface of what FFVI has to offer. It feels like the training wheels stay on for a while, especially compared to the World of Ruin’s dungeons. There’s not much in the way of puzzles or traps, either. The focus is on straight dungeon-crawling — exploring and navigating unknown spaces, often with a new team. For what it’s worth, the World of Balance’s dungeons all have strong layouts and are set in memorable environments. Narshe Cave is a moody first dungeon that uses its linearity to introduce the core gameplay loop and set the tone for the rest of the game. The Phantom Forest and Train are early standouts that quickly establish how creative FFVI’s dungeon design can be. Out of place signs in the Phantom Forest guide you to a train that brings the souls of the dead to the afterlife.
The World of Balance’s dungeons become more involved once you get to the Sealed Cave. Light puzzles and maze-like structures are now commonplace. You need to press different switches in the Sealed Cave to unlock the path forward and open all the chests. The Magitek Factory forces you to ride around the dungeon on conveyor belts and travel through pipes to find the right way forward. All the same, you’re rewarded with chests for going out of your way to explore the factory. The Floating Continent outright feels like a final dungeon. Pathways open & close automatically as you navigate the dungeon, warp tiles teleport you all around the map, and random encounters are packed with the hardest enemies found in the World of Balance.
Final Fantasy VI’s high quality presentation make even the simplest dungeons and towns compelling to explore. Narshe is covered in fresh snow and the town is covered in steam. The Phantom Forest is foggy and dark, with a sea of trees often obscuring your view. The sky, clouds, and Earth moving below the Floating Continent offer the area an impressive amount of scale. Weather effects like the opening snowstorm and rain in Zozo help each major setting retain a distinct atmosphere. The World of Balance on a whole is rich with color, utilizing a darker and deeper color palette that lends FFVI’s aesthetic a mature feel.
Character sprites are now much larger than in the previous 16-bit titles and shared between battles, cutscenes, and exploration. This allows the story to transition smoothly from conversations and the battle screen without missing a beat. Larger sprites lead to more expressive cutscenes where characters interact on a level beyond just miming gestures at each other. Battles are also the best they’ve ever looked. Party members and enemy sprites are packed with detail. Characters have unique animations for their personal commands, and magic in particular looks incredible.
Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack goes hand in hand with its art direction to immerse players. In-universe songs even get softer or louder depending on how close you are to the musicians. The score itself is one of Nobuo Uematsu’s best, featuring a wide range of musical variety that grants FFVI a deeper layer of emotion. “Terra’s Theme” is a somber march that captures the feeling of going on a journey of discovery. “The Mines of Narshe” has a surreal, off-putting beat that lends the impression you’re somewhere you don’t belong. “Kefka” is a disarming track that obscures how dangerous Kefka is on a first playthrough and highlights his sheer mania once you know his character. “Esper World” is a haunting song that leans into the Espers’ inherent danger and mystery. “Celes’ Theme” starts off as an original melody before sampling “Aria de Mezzo Carattere,” which she sang in the Opera. How FFVI uses music is nothing short of genius.
Despite the traditional Final Fantasy vibe, the World of Balance is still much darker than previous games and regularly tackles mature subject matter. Doma is mass poisoned and several NPCs die on-screen, including Cyan’s wife and young son. Celes is shown being physically beaten in by Empire guards in the SNES and PSX versions. The Empire’s genocide of the Espers and Terra being kidnapped while her mother watches are actually shown in detail. The story’s tone never gets too grim (in the World of Balance, at least), but the narrative’s tendency to go dark ensure that the stakes always feel real.
Although Final Fantasy VI has no single protagonist, Terra and Locke are the clear “leads” as far as progressing the plot goes. Locke has the most screen time while the story’s main arc heavily centers on Terra’s relationship with the Espers and Empire. Celes also starts getting a fair bit of focus after her introduction, setting her up to take over the focus once the shift to the World of Ruin happens. The rest of the main cast have their characterization rounded out by optional, secret scenes that shed some extra context into their past. Edgar and Sabin reminisce about their father and the coin toss that changed their lives if you spend the night at Figaro Castle with both brothers in your party. Setzer opens up about his former partner Darrill if you think to visit him when Locke & Terra are stranded in Vector. Shadow will occasionally flash back to his past if he sleeps at an Inn, offering extra insight into his character through dreams.
Square doesn’t hide that Kefka is Final Fantasy VI’s main villain these days, but his role as the antagonist was one of the game’s biggest twists at the time. The story deceptively frames Emperor Gestahl as the real main villain, building him up slowly throughout the World of Balance. Kefka’s design and dialogue suggest he’s merely a henchman early on, albeit a highly threatening one. Likewise, Kefka’s intentional lack of motivation means audiences won’t be conditioned to suspect he’s anything more. It makes Kefka’s betrayal at the Floating Continent all the more shocking.
The Emperor you were fighting all game is killed like nothing. The clown the party dismissed as a thorn in their side turned out to be the single most dangerous man alive. In a lesser RPG, the World of Balance would end with the party defeating Kefka and Gestahl at the Floating Continent. Final Fantasy VI is not a lesser RPG, however. The Returners do not stop Kefka. The party is separated as the Blackship is torn in two. A world in balance is razed to ruin and the last shot is of the Earth’s silent, solemn destruction. When all is said and done, you lose.
A World in Ruin
The World of Ruin signals a wiping of the slate of sorts for Final Fantasy VI. You get to keep all your equipment, items, and Espers, but the Returners are fully disbanded following Kefka’s victory. You are essentially back to square one with Celes as your sole party member, lost in a vast, changed world that is no longer recognizable. You’re forced to use party members and compositions you wouldn’t ordinarily think of, based entirely on the order you find character. It all depends on who you find and in what order, the end goal being reuniting as much of the party as possible to defeat Kefka once & for all.
It’s fitting that the World of Ruin lives up to its title, the world quite literally in ruin. Continents have shattered and splintered apart, land no longer coherently connected. Water levels have fallen as the once flooded Serpent Trench now serves as a land-bridge. Towns have been rearranged all over the map, some abandoned like Narshe, others in shambles like Mobliz, and the likes of Vector simply erased from the face of the planet. NPCs huddle for warmth around fires, children lament they have nowhere to play, depressed older folk flash back to life before Kefka. Most buildings are in poor condition, surrounded by dead grass and an air of hopelessness.
Careful art direction helps present the World of Ruin as a genuine hellhole where life itself is just barely clinging on. Blood orange skies cast against dark water set the world in perpetual twilight. Lush greenery has been replaced with brown earth and animals waste away as vicious fauna now roam the land. The sky, the ground, and everything in-between are a living testament to your failure. Even the music sounds darker. “Dark World” is the perfect song to welcome Celes to the end of the world, its use of air instilling an empty ambience as the percussion resembles a funeral march. “From That Day On…”’s somber strings convey that Celes may not be as alone as she thought, but she is still traversing a lonely, sad world. Humanity tries to live like normal, but they live under intense fear and subjugation.
FFVI already touched on mature subject matter in the World of Balance, but the World of Ruin feels emotionally oppressive at times. Cid gives Celes the hope that others may have survived only to die himself mere days later. Celes tries to kill herself in a moment that’s fully interactive where you march her to her towards would-be-death. The children of Mobliz were buried under their parents’ corpses in their effort to protect them from Kefka’s magic, orphaning an entire town in the process and demoralizing Terra completely. Strago loses all hope without Relm and becomes one of Kefka’s cultists while Cyan’s survivor’s guilt manifests into a soul-eating monster that represents his deep-seated trauma. The main characters react to their loss in uncomfortable yet human ways that make them just a bit more three dimensional.
What ultimately distinguishes the World of Ruin from the World of Balance and other Final Fantasy games is that the last act is almost entirely optional. Progression is only linear from the Solitary Island to Darrill’s Tomb. From there, the game is completely open. You only need to do four things once you get to the World of Ruin to beat the game: get Celes off the solitary island, find Edgar so you can find Setzer, find Setzer so you can get the Airship, and fly to Kefka’s Tower. Everyone else’s arcs, recruiting the rest of your party, and exploring the remaining towns & dungeons are all technically side quests. The game can end whenever you want once you have the Falcon airship. The rest of the journey is entirely player-driven.
Finding your party requires exploring every inch of the world, hopping from town to town in search of allies with NPCs as your only form of direction. Recruitment order is flexible, but generally prioritizes characters who didn’t get as much focus as Terra or Locke in the World of Balance. Some characters like Sabin and Gau will be found organically by exploring the world. Others like Shadow and Strago require prerequisites to get them to rejoin. The two most used characters during the World of Balance are the most complex party members to recruit. Terra’s recruitment is tied to a multi-step quest that you can start before knowing how to complete, and Locke is locked behind one of the hardest dungeons in the game.
Everyone except Gogo and Umaro get their own personal questline to help develop their character or put a bow on their arc. Celes, Edgar, and Setzer’s arcs are all part of the main story, but the rest are optional. Sabin can reunite with his former master and learn the ultimate Blitz technique. Gau can meet his father and get closure on his past. Strago hunts and defeat Hidon in an effort to reclaim his youth, and Cyan finally manages to overcome his survivor’s guilt. Locke finally learns to move on from Rachel and actually starts living his life. The end of the world inspires growth for its heroes.
Even without considering party member quests, the World of Ruin is brimming with side content. Deathgaze stalks the skies and randomly picks one spot on the overworld to hide every time you get in the Falcon. Deathgaze will always flee after a few turns of combat, but his health doesn’t restore between battles. You’re meant to defeat him over the course of multiple fights. Deathgaze is a real risk early on, especially if your party is underdeveloped, but finally chipping him down and unlocking the Bahamut Magicite is immensely rewarding. Eight Legendary Dragons are also hidden across different dungeons in the World of Ruin, each corresponding to a different element. Finding and defeating all eight unlocks the Crusader Magicite.
You can bet different items and equipment at the Dragon’s Neck Coliseum for new gear. One character fights at a time in the Coliseum and you have no control over them. Winning your wages requires a different level of strategy and preparation from regular battles. The Coliseum is a fun way of getting some of the best weapons and Relics in the game. Narshe can be looted once you recruit Locke, giving you access to either the Ragnarok Sword or Esper, and the Cursed Shield which becomes the Paladin’s Quest and teaches Ultima after you fight with it equipped 256 times. The Cultists’ Tower is a nearly 40-story dungeon where characters can only use magic. Enemies progressively become much harder and use better magic the higher you get, but your reward for reaching the top is the incredibly useful Soul of Thamasa Relic.
Secret dungeons like the Yeti’s Cave and Zone Eater’s Belly allow you to recruit Umaro and Gogo respectively, and the Ancient Castle offers extra context on the War of the Magi while unlocking the Odin Esper — who can be turned into Raiden in that very same dungeon. The overworld itself features optional locations full of unique enemy encounters. Cactuar Desert south of Maranda is one of the best spots to grind for Gil and AP. Dinosaur Forest to the west of Triangle Island is full of powerful dinosaurs and by far the best spot to level-grind. Triangle Island never needs to be visited, but letting a Zone Eater swallow in battle gives you a chance to recruit Gogo. It’s easy to spend a lot of time in the World of Ruin compared to the World of Balance. Some players might even feel that FFVI doesn’t begin in earnest until the World of Ruin.
Dungeons in the World of Ruin are even more creative and eclectic than the World of Balance. They’re also a welcome step up in terms of difficulty and complexity. Since most are optional, dungeons can afford to be longer, denser, and feature more traps & harder puzzles. Enemy encounters are harder, and foes use powerful magic and try to inflict status ailments more often. Parties are no longer built for you in advance, so it’s up to you to strategize around each dungeon’s dangers and prepare accordingly. Early dungeons like the Figaro Basement and Darril’s Tomb are the only exceptions to this rule, and even they stand to pose a real challenge.
Distinct dungeon gimmicks help each one stand out while also making for some fun set pieces. Doors open and close all on their own inside of Owzer’s Mansion. Paintings are filled with traps and getting too close triggers a battle. The mansion itself is cast in darkness, hiding treasure chests and doors in plain sight. Ebot’s Rock is one big teleporter maze designed around feeding a hungry chest. You need to go around collecting chestfuls of Coral while warping around randomly. Feeding too little at once forces you to redo the entire dungeon, so you need to collect as much as possible before trying to proceed. The Zone Eater’s Belly feels like a Final Fantasy V dungeon as far as gimmicks go. The ceiling threatens to crush you, strange men rush back and forth across bridges to knock you off, and the only way to get to Gogo is to jump across already opened chests.
The Phoenix Cave requires you to build and alternate between two parties to solve puzzles and traverse deeper into the dungeon. One team will often need to step on switches to open doors, lower spikes, or create bridges for the other party to proceed, and you’ll need to keep swapping back and forth the deeper you go. Pit traps, damage tiles, and difficult enemy encounters keep you on your toes. Most of the treasure in the dungeon has already been looted by Locke, which is a nice touch that counters the disappointment of an empty chest by building towards his inevitable return.
Kefka’s Tower is one of the best dungeons in the series and an outstanding setting for the finale. 12 party members split across three parties make their way through a non-stop gauntlet all the way to Kefka. All three teams start at the top of the tower and need to work together as they make their way deeper. Like in the Phoenix’s Cave, you need to regularly swap between parties to unlock new switches and solve puzzles that help open pathways. Every route has its own set of rooms, treasure, and bosses to contend with. Two of the Eight Legendary Dragons roam the Tower, and every party has to fight one-third of the Warring Triad on the way to Kefka. Multiple save points let you take a break in-between major sections, which is for the best as the dungeon can last anywhere from two to three hours including the final boss.
The final boss fight against Kefka is one of the best in the genre, not just the franchise. Once all three teams have made it to the last room, you’re given a chance to reassemble everybody into a 12-person party to fight Kefka. The order you place everybody determines the order they replace dead party members in the final battle. Knocked out party members cannot be revived with Phoenix Downs as the character you slotted next immediately jumps in to take their place. It’s a smart way of getting you to use your whole party during the last boss and an appropriate way of acknowledging the game’s ensemble cast. Everyone has a legitimate reason to oppose Kefka, so why shouldn’t they all participate in the final battle?
12 party members also means Kefka can be more aggressive. Going in unprepared means watching party members drop like flies. The fight moves through four phases that’ll likely claim a few characters before all is said and done. At the same time, 12 characters is quite the safety net and gives you plenty of room to make mistakes. As mechanically inspired as the final boss fight is, it’s the presentation that elevates it all. “Dancing Mad” is a masterpiece of a composition that samples other tracks and uses a full symphony to convey Kefka’s perversion of divinity. The religious idols Kefka towers above, the golden glow basking the battleground, and Kefka’s own appearance as a beautiful god make it all the more impactful when he finally crumbles before you into nothing — a mad God slain.
The End Comes Beyond Chaos
Narratively, The World of Ruin is less story-driven than the World of Balance. There’s still a reasonable amount of plot, but it’s mainly told through side content that flesh out characters and backstory rather than progressing the story. By the time you can start side questing for party members, your only major goal left is to defeat Kefka. The narrative at this stage is mainly that of your gameplay, who you find, in what order, and what you choose to do before the credits roll. Most dialogue is composed of generic lines that anyone can say to account for different party compositions. That said, select party members still have unique lines for specific events, and Celes, Setzer, & Edgar get a lot of dialogue in the final cutscenes since they always need to be recruited.
Some characters naturally wind up more developed than others. Celes, Terra, Locke, and Setzer all have dynamic arcs that are resolved by their quests in the World of Ruin and feel complete despite scattered screen time. Other party members like Shadow and Relm get no real resolutions to their stories, but we instead get more insight into who they are. Characters like Sabin and Edgar don’t really need resolutions for their arcs, so they instead double down on their best qualities in the face of defeat and come out the other side as beacons of hope for the party — more so inspiring growth than growing themselves.
Kefka, disappointingly, has little to no screen time in the World of Ruin. While his presence can be felt all over and NPCs actively fear him, Kefka goes from regularly stealing the show in the World of Balance to watching you from a distance. This works, though. Kefka doesn’t need more development. What’s important is seeing how the main characters react to their loss and regain the will to fight. Kefka goes from being a fairly active antagonist to more of an idea, playing a primarily thematic role. Depicted as God, Kefka’s nihilism becomes the law of the land. So long as he is in control, nothing matters because he wills it so. Parents are killed in front of their children, towns are leveled just to instill fear. Hope does not exist when people are absolutely powerless.
The party’s arcs are a collective rejection of nihilism, and tie into the World of Ruin’s overarching theme that life is worth living. Even in the face of finality, we can find a reason to live, no matter how trivial or small it may seem. Terra learns to live for others. Celes asserts her will to live period. Locke and Cyan finally begin to live after letting death weigh them down for so long. Final Fantasy VI’s ultimate message is that life is worth living. It’s why Celes survives her suicide attempt, why Terra always shows up to fight Kefka even if you don’t recruit her, and why Locke is able to carry on in a world without the woman he loves most. We have to make and find our own meaning, and what matters to you is enough to make life worth living. Final Fantasy VI is a game about a dozen people from different walks of life banding together to reject the idea that life is meaningless.
Final Fantasy VI ends with magic leaving the world as balance returns once more. Flowers bloom and color comes back to a dead earth where humanity feels free to live for the first time in over a year. So long as people hope onto hope and the will to carve their own meaning, even the end of all things cannot mark the end of the world. Few RPGs can boast such a profound and poignant narrative, let alone as much freedom as FFVI does, but Final Fantasy VI was built on a foundation five masterpieces-strong. Square closed out one of the most inspiring eras of RPG history by leaving behind a Super Nintendo swan song that embodies the best of the 8- and 16-bit era. Mechanically, narratively, thematically, and aesthetically, Final Fantasy VI is simply brilliant.