Not only is the game not over once the mystery creature locked in ice explodes ??????’s Magitek device, we’re not even done with the prologue.
The girl awakens in a cozy bed with a guy described in the dialogue as “old man” watching over her. He doesn’t look that old, but I realize that most JRPG protagonists are young enough that they’re still waiting for their first tufts of body hair to sprout. By that standard, this guy has a foot and a half in the grave. (?????? herself is a bit of a doddering old-timer, too; according to her official bio, she’s an elderly 18 years old… though, to be fair, FFVI‘s extensive cast of characters has a much higher median age than most games of its ilk.)
?????? tumbles out of bed, but before she can stumble to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of ambition, she gets dizzy (with a neat technical touch: The Super NES’s Mode 7 mosaic effect renders the world a blur, as if her eyesight were failing) and falls to her knees. But it’s fine. It’s not like this house has a kitchen anyway.
At this point, the old man reveals he has removed the Slave Crown that rendered ?????? a mindless puppet, and she finds enough clarity of mind to recall her own name. Her default moniker is Terra (full name: Terra Branford), and we’ll go with that for convenience. The first time I ever played through FFVI, I gave everyone Star Wars-related names that worked surprisingly well, but that’s neither here nor there.
The plot must go on, though, and some very angry Narshe guardsmen bang on the door to the house of the old man who’s taken in Terra, demanding she be turned over them. Understandably, given that she just ripped through the center of the city, either poisoning or banishing to some alternate dimension all who stood in her way. Obviously, the “old” man can’t simply turn her over to be executed or tortured or both — Final Fantasy VI will go dark, but not that dark —so he tells her to sneak out through the back door.
So, finally, you’re given proper control of Terra. Just Terra; no soldiers giving her irresistible orders, no giant clumsy armor suit to steer around town. Just the girl. It’s time to get the heck out of Dodge.
But not, of course, before poking around the guy’s house looking for treasure. It’s an RPG. Looting is what you do. For some reason every clock in FFVI contains an Elixir, a super-valuable restorative item that restores a character’s entire hit and magic points in one shot. At no point is this fact advertised in the game, but previous Final Fantasy titles have included interactive bits of scenery (wells, fireplaces, etc.) so veterans are conditioned to go poking around unlikely places.
Still, even for the curious, there’s not much to be done at this point; you can’t go out through the front door, since it’s surrounded by guards and dogs, and the old man’s house is pretty small. So it’s out the back way, where Terra is barely visible behind the house. You can only walk to the left, which leads you across a linear bridge to a cave. Despite having been liberated, Terra is still advancing along a fixed route at this point in the game.
It’s not a very discreet route, either. Exposed on the bridge, she’s spotted by a gaggle of guards, who freak out and disperse to lend a sense of urgency to the scenario.
There’s nowhere to advance but into the caves behind the city, though you enter them from a different point than during your initial approach into the city. The caves here look familiar, but they’re much more constrictive — this is an area the Magitek armors wouldn’t have been able to explore. Even so, despite the appearance of branching paths here, there’s really only one way through the caves.
Eventually, Terra will be drawn into more random battles. This time around they work a bit differently. Because there’s only one of her, and she’s not clomping around in a death machine, battles have somewhat higher stakes. You’d still have to make an utter mess of things to lose here. The fights do take longer, though; Terra is the only party member you have on hand, so you can only attack when her turn comes up. She’s not initially strong enough to take out a Wererat with a single hit, so it takes a couple of turns to wipe out an enemy formation.
Alternately, though, you can make use of Terra’s Fire spell, which can easily take out a Wererat in one hit. However, you only have a finite amount of magic points with which to cast spells, and unless you took the Elixir from the clock there’s no way to replenish them. Different games have different ways of handling level-ups; some replenish all your attributes when you ding a new level, others don’t. FFVI is the latter type.
As for the possibility of losing, I suppose if you tried to grind for levels, you’d eventually run out of MP for casting Cure… but even so, Wererats and all the other enemies that appear here have a good chance of dropping Potions when defeated, so it would be a while before Terra ran out of healing items. In short, this is a somewhat more stressful and urgent-seeming scenario than the Magitek-powered fights, but you still aren’t in terrible danger.
Speaking of leveling up and item drops, it’s worth mentioning the information that flashes at the end of a battle. By this point in the game, Terra has probably leveled up a couple of times; Wedge and Biggs leveled up during the mandatory fights as well, given that they were working from Level 1. The game doesn’t explain this element (at least not yet), but battles end by giving you a brief report on what you’ve earned for your victory. At this point in the game, you receive one perk —EXP — and possibly another — item drops — after vanquishing an enemy formation.
EXP, or experience, is an invisible statistic that characters accumulate as they complete battles. Different enemies are worth different degrees of EXP, and the EXP you earn at the end of a battle is divided by the number of characters conscious at the end of the fight. Terra here, fighting solo, is keeping all the EXP earned from those Wererats all her own. When she fought alongside those two soldiers, though, each character only earned 14 EXP from a battle like this (42 divided by three). After accumulating sufficient EXP, a character jumps up to a new level, which brings with it the possibility of statistical increases. A mechanic introduced about a quarter of a way into the game will add a great deal of nuance to this rule, but for now the important thing is kill enemies, get EXP, become stronger.
The other thing that sometimes happens at the end of a battle is the acquisition of item drops. Here in the caves of Narshe, the only drops you’ll acquire are Potions, which restore 50 HP to a single character. Most enemies carry items and have a random chance of dropping them upon defeat, and those items go into the party’s collective inventory for use by anyone.
Even if the only loot you can score here is Potions, the variety of enemies you get them from expands in this zone. Whereas I’ve only ever seen Wererats in the Magitek portions, here you can also encounter Bandits and Spritzers. While fairly simple to take down, these enemies have their own odd traits. They don’t absorb Poison like Wererats do, but Bandits inexplicably smack themselves with the wrenches they carry if you damage them (creating the possibility that they’ll commit suicide in the process). If you deal the final blow, they’ll toss a wrench at you instead. It’s a strange enemy, and an introduction to some of the oddball enemy logic in FFVI.
Spritzers, on the other hand, are only annoying if you let them attack for a while. Their first few actions in a battle may be either a light physical attack or the decision to do nothing at all, but on their third ATB turn they’ll use an ability on Terra that inflicts the Slow status effect. This causes her outline to glow white, and, more annoyingly, for her ATB recharge speed to slow way down. In these battles, where Terra is the only party member, that means Slow status causes battles to take much longer (and for enemies to have more opportunities to attack) as you get fewer turns. Fortunately, most status effects clear up after battle; Slow is one of them. As long as you see a fight through to the end, Terra will return to normal for the next fight.
A treasure chest located very slightly off the main path beckons you. You really can’t miss it; it’s sitting right there. While the bridge to the left is the obvious path forward, this little raised alcove with the chest on it serves to clue you in to the fact that it’s worth diverging from the path ahead to explore.
Of course, a Phoenix Down — which you use in battle to revive a fallen comrade — doesn’t do much good when your party consists entirely of one person (you can’t use Phoenix Downs on yourself, because they only work on the dead, and you can’t use items when you’re dead). But it’s a valuable find, costing far more than a Potion, and at this early portion of the game seems like a legitimate treasure.
Once over the bridge and into the next room, however, your path forward comes to a dead stop: The four guardsmen who spotted you before hem Terra in, backing her into a corner. The floor conveniently falls away beneath Terra, and she plummets to a lower level of the caves — falling to advance the plot being one of the Final Fantasy team’s favorite narrative tricks in the mid-’90s — before blacking out.
It’s also a convenient excuse for a flashback; as Terra fades from consciousness, her stolen memories return. In a nice touch, we see the battle Wedge and Biggs referred to before the credit crawl: Terra wiping out an entire regiment of Imperial Soldiers in her Magitek armor. A man in Magitek joins the battle and eggs her on, laughing at the carnage.
Said man appears in another flashback, along with a man and woman we don’t yet know, as a legion of soldiers salutes the emperor, Gestahl, while Terra stands mutely in the background next to a Magitek suit. The amnesia gag has become all too common in Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, but here it’s a element used only briefly as an excuse to introduce Terra as a point-of-view character for the player while feeding us a bit of the game’s backstory. For each new factor we see elucidated — Terra’s robotic slaughter of the soldiers, the Empire’s plans for world domination through Magitek — new questions arise. Who was the man in the Magitek, and who are the people standing next to him? What’s the deal with Terra? And will she recover from her blunt trauma so soon after having the Slave Crown removed? FFVI does a great job of introducing both its play mechanics and its driving narrative in unison.