If you were to judge this remake of the Japanese Final Fantasy III solely on its appearance, you'd be right to think it’s a modern-day re-imagining of an 8-bit classic. However, that assessment would only be half right. The visuals, music and platform may all be the latest in handheld tech, but the top-notch recreation can't hide the hard-assed, 1990 gameplay that dwells underneath the shiny surface.
You want character development? None of that here. Final Fantasy III loosely touches on a tale of dying crystals and a world on the brink of ruin, but for the most part your four main characters will react, not interact. Secondary characters that join up with your party offer a chance to bounce dialogue around, but other than lending a helping hand during battles, they're just along for ride. The same goes for one-sentence townsfolk and narrow-minded bosses that cause trouble for no other reason than "I'm a bad guy, grrr!"
But once you look past how hopelessly old-school the game is, there's one area where RPG fans will go totally nuts - the job system. Pioneered in FFIII, the job system lets you alter your party's makeup outside of battle. You can prune your group for each dungeon, every boss encounter you come across, creating a multipurpose assortment of warriors, ninja, archers or 19 other job types. But unlike Final Fantasy V, which also uses this customizable method, traits from one class don't translate to another. In other words, you can't have a badass black mage that's simultaneously a dragon-slaying tank - you have to switch back and forth to get access to each class's goods.
This constant swapping of class types has obvious benefits (everyone could have totally different parties saving the world), but it also contributes to the overall annoyance you'll feel while playing. Anytime you switch classes, there's a gap of "x" number of battles where that character isn't fully integrated into the role and is weakened. Like-themed classes transfer faster (two to three battles) while drastically different or untouched classes can take up to 10 slow-paced random battles to change. Every time. Ugh.
The process can take so long that the game's approximate length (we're calling it at right around 30 hours) is bloated with leveling up and strengthening your various jobs. Then you realize you're never sure which jobs are absolutely crucial for success in a given cave (one fight demands dragoons, another a dark knight) so you could have easily spent 30 minutes leveling up a class you'll never need. It all boils down to hours upon hours of fighting the same monsters over and over.
Think it can't get more obnoxious? Oh, it can. Caves, dungeons and the like have no save points or way to restore your health and magic points. You've either got to nail the whole area in one run (not likely with the frequent battles) or head in a few floors, warp out and heal, head back in and repeat. One section near the end even has you fighting two bosses back-to-back after a tremendously long haul, with no opportunity for healing in between the fights. It's accurate to the original version, sure, but we'd be lying if we said we didn't want to take a bite outta the damn DS after dying repeatedly.
Final Fantasy III's battle system, arguably the most important part of any RPG, has more in common with the first game than its followers. Here, you input commands for all four characters at once, they all execute those attacks and then you input the next set - any Fantasy you've played past number four unfolds quite a bit differently. With the active time battle system (introduced in IV), commands are constantly being entered and enemies continue to attack even while you're choosing your next move. Since FFIII battles lack the ATB, there's no way to layer attacks or perform complicated assaults - it's an NES-era RPG , after all.
You'd think things like agility and strength would dictate who lives and dies in a battle, but the conventions of modern RPGs don't seem to apply. After one random battle, our thief and white mage stood tall while the knight and dragoon were dead. Why is that? And why would the thief, with speed that outclasses everything else, not always move first? Such discrepancies make it doubly hard to construct a solid battle plan for the nail-biting boss fights.
Fantasy fans will get a kick out of the series staples (chocobos, Cid, Bahamut and moogles), and a huge list of side quests and hidden items add even more to the journey, but damn, this is one unforgiving, unflinching RPG. If it seems like this has been one long bitch session about the game, it is. That's the deal with these types of RPGs - tons of uphill struggles and unaccommodating features that make the experience borderline miserable at times. But for some of us, the Fantasy followers and old-style gamers, it's nice to sneak in such a guilty pleasure in between all the over-produced RPGs that hold your hand every step of the way. It's hard, it's not fair, but we like the ol' boy anyway.