The game began at Base, a town that was built up around the Tower by a few enterprising young business-people so that the foolhardy could go searching for Paradise. It’s a great bit of worldbuilding. Our party leader was Rei (the party leader gets better stats and starting monster options, and that was the only way to get a Wererat), and we hired the rest of the party members at a Guild. Guilds are present in many towns in the game, as it is possible to change any party member but your lead should they ever die. If you’d rather not lose your party member, you can revive them for 100 gold at a House of Life, but all party members have a set of three Hearts that represent the number of times they can be resurrected (so does the lead, though you seem to be able to revive the lead no matter what). Restoring a lost Heart is prohibitive, so after three deaths, you’re probably going to head back to the Guild instead.
If you should choose to restore a Heart, it costs a hefty 10 000 gold, expensive even in the end game, or you could use a Revive potion to skip the process entirely, even in the field. That’s great and all, but we managed to keep the party alive from bottom to top so it never really came up. Kyle only died once! Sara died only twice. Human armour can be pretty handy. Without proper armour, Liz and Rei died multiple times only for us to hit them with Revives we had found in the field, or to save scum. Save scumming doesn’t really feel so bad in FFLI. Honestly, you seem to save scum almost as often as you hit Start. It’s a rough game at times. Part of the idea behind Guilds is to replace party members that didn’t level up very well with this game’s expensive, random, or incomprehensible systems, so it does make a certain amount of sense to have Guilds every few towns.
At Base and elsewhere, we learned the Tower used to be open to everyone, until it was recently sealed somehow. Coincidentally, the statue of a man known only as Hero was damaged in a nearby town around the same time. An obvious lead. Dialogue is sparse in FFLI. It adds to the sinister atmosphere that builds over the course of the game, but also makes it a little too obvious what you’re supposed to do at any given time. I suppose that’s better than being too obscure! We set out, keeping our eye on a guide that pushed us through Rei’s transformations until he became a Salamand(er) without leaving the first world. This is a fourth-tier monster from the endgame if you’d believe it. Guides are allowed in a Marathon, and this kind of stunt was well within the marathon’s range of approved, even lauded, misbehaviour.
There are more than a few good reasons to jump ahead with our Monster. The first world is actually quite frustrating, since it only really rewards Mutants: Humans don’t have the money to progress and Monsters have to follow picky guides to be of any use at all. This is probably because of the nature of your quest: to restore the pieces of equipment that once belonged to Hero to their statue. Believe it or not, the special pieces of equipment can actually be equipped, and are among the second-strongest tier of items in the game. No wonder the game punishes you for hanging around! It’s trying to get you to leave the items on the statue and to go up the tower as soon as possible! I don’t really feel that justifies slowing the progression of the entire game, but there you are.
(I hear the Wonderswan remake turns the hero items into unequippable plot items. I wonder if they corrected the balance while they were at it? If they did, improvement! If not, it’s the only downside I’ve heard about from the remake.)
Then again, if the game is trying to kick you out as fast as possible, why did they put you in the second-longest section of the game? The situation is this: three Kings have taken the pieces of the Hero statue and have used its equipment to secure their power. Convince the Kings that have founded their entire power-base on the Hero items to give you the Hero items! Oh, yes, that sounds easy as pie.
The nearest King is King Shield, but he doesn’t want to talk to you, and will use his guards to enforce it. Well fair enough. King Armor to the northeast is more amicable. You could also go to King Sword, but that’s what we like to call “tempting fate,” so Armor it is. Armor says he’d do anything if someone could get the woman he loves to marry him. It’s clear they had a prior relationship, but she broke it off. Investigation proves that a local bandit threatened her into marrying him instead. Sheesh. Also, it turns out the woman is a slime monster. Apparently, the Japanese text hiccups when you learn this: everyone’s described her as the most beautiful woman in town, but to the party she just looks like every other slime monster in town. Racism!
We were still trying to turn Rei into our super-monster at this point, but we got impatient and went to the Bandit’s cave part way through the process, since the guide we were using advised we do so while we had a monster with Ice attacks. The bandit was actually a Monster himself: a P-Frog from world 2. I respect the game for treating the P-Frog like any other game would treat a human bandit. It really pulls the universe together… though I should note that it only happens from time to time after this world. There are four worlds in this game, and moments like this make the first world feel emblematic of FFLI, like it belongs here. The others, even the good ones, just feel like unrelated plot ideas stapled on to the product. By the way, using Ice attacks on the P-Frog was a little excessive, since Rei could have killed him by sneezing even at this mid-level.
The slime girl went off to marry the King, and our “heroes,” very mercenary, demanded the Armour with a leading set of demands. This is such an old school, goals oriented game, very OD&D instead of AD&D. I love it.
From there, we gave the King Armour item to Liz in hopes that putting her up front would boost her HP, since we were still operating under the assumption that Mutant stats levelled through use. Liz skyrocketed in Defence during this period, which could be seen as proof that the random system is true. You see, the King Armour item is so good that Liz wasn’t taking any damage at all. If the level-through-use system was true, not taking any damage should have prevented HP and Defence from rising, since they weren’t being used! By the end of the game Liz had near 30 defence without armour, which was pretty handy!
With the Armour in hand, we had no choice but to go west through the mountains to visit King Sword, who will simply try to fight you if you talk to him. We decided not to fight him all at once, when we noticed that the guide we were following to turn Rei into a Salamand required two samples of Wererat meat, and the only Wererats in the world were the NPC guards in King Sword’s castle. We were worried they might vanish if we killed their boss (they didn’t), so we hunkered down to get our super-monster come hell or high water.
Just like I said, King Sword insisted on a fight when we found him, there was no talk or anything. I have a feeling this may have been an engine limitation, since FFLI shows signs of having been developed alongside the plot, as later worlds are more technically complex than earlier ones. Swordy was summarily cooked alive by our new Salamander. We took the Sword: it was nice, but in our puny, untrained hands, it barely stacked up to our super-monster in terms of damage. This is telling, because it’s actually one of the best swords in the game! It was for the best that we killed King Sword so fast, because I believe he actually uses the Sword, which would have been a whole heap of trouble.
That just left the Shield. Returning to King Shield’s throne room, we found him murdered by his Steward, who decided to pin the murder on us. Great back-up plan, my man. Glad you thought this out. Stab him, wait for some shmucks to get past the castle full of guards that have been told to toss them out, and then walk through a secret door so that they can follow you and murder you with their heavy equipment. Fantastic plan.
That wrapped up our official quest. All we had left to do was to return the items to the Statue, which meant replacing Liz’s armour. We returned the pieces with caution, knowing we’d get a boss dropped on our heads for the trouble, because come on. Sure enough, here came Gen-Bu, the Black Tortoise of the North and the fiend of Earth in this universe. Sounds pretty rough. Oh, hey. Remember when I said we had a Monster with us from the endgame?
Gen-Bu actually had some dying words for us, unlike the fiends that would follow, and he taunted us that this wasn’t over. This is very nearly the only world that actually references the larger plot (except a throwaway line in World 3), which I’ve never been very comfortable with, as it makes the game feel very slipshod. We took the Black Sphere he was guarding back to Base and unsealed the tower, earning our way inside.
So while I’ve been bemoaning the way the four worlds don’t reflect the main plot, you’re probably wondering: if the worlds don’t reflect the main plot, what on earth does? Well, in my opinion, the best example is the Tower itself (even though it takes up less screen time). The Tower serves as a magical hub, with several worlds built off of it on the road to paradise. It’s a lot like Peach’s Castle in Mario 64 that way, and I’m sure we can all agree that Peach’s Castle was the focus of that game’s plot. Every few floors of the Tower, you come to a new world, each featuring their own incarnation of the tower that appears to be rooted in that world instead of Base. Hell… is the Tower rooted in Base? Maybe we just can’t find the stairs going further down!
Alongside the four worlds are several false paradises, where former explorers have ended up waylaid, like one like that resembles the Christian Hell, where they wait for their sins to be cleansed before going on to paradise (a day that never comes). There was another that was sunny, bright and utterly vapid. You’re rarely able to help these folks, except for two interconnected false paradises that appear later in the game and have accidentally misdirected one another’s flow of water, but that’s about it. It gives the game an indescribable sense of atmosphere somewhere between grim and mythic, which comes as much from design as the limitations of the platform.
Eventually we found another locked door preventing us from climbing further, and met up with a person we had seen in Base, who suggested we go to World 2 to find the next Sphere. This stranger in black hat and suit showed up in pretty much every world with similar advice, but was always gone when we came back, only to end up ahead of us…