So, during my most recent FFVIII post, I was discussing my least favourite dungeon in the entire Final Fantasy Marathon, D-District Prison. For point of reference, I also threw some shade on my previous least-favourite dungeon, the Ronka Ruins from FFV. But as I added in an edit after the fact, I actually replayed FFV not long after FFVIII, and realized I didn’t dislike the Ronka Ruins as much as I remembered. If you want to see my comments on those two dungeons, check out that post. In this post, I’m going to follow up those thoughts by trying to work out my new #2 least-favourite dungeon!
Now, some quick standards. Because not every FF game has “dungeons,” we’re going to be weighing whatever each game considers to be a distinct “unit of play.” That means dungeons in the traditional RPGs, any chapter/stage in the stage-based games, and any battle or fixed series of battles in FFT (spoiler: there are no FFT battles on this list, not even the duel with Wiegraf. But I thought it would be nice to have that rule in case we revisit this list after playing FFTA!). Also, this is only for games we’ve covered in the Final Fantasy Marathon at the time of writing (in the middle of FFVIII), and for Final Fantasy alone. If I had allowed Persona 1 dungeons, there’d be nothing else on the fucking list, so I am happy to dismiss it. No TV episodes or films either, both because they’re so different and because, like Persona 1, LotC and FFU would just dominate the list. With that out of the way, let’s take the the dungeons in Marathon order.
My first shitty semifinalist is Raqia, the opening dungeon of FFII: Soul of Rebirth. At first glance, Raqia seems like it should be simple. It’s a dungeon you’ve already been through, mirrored left to right. The only non-combat challenge is to locate the midbosses that you have to fight so that Josef and Ricard will join your party of zombies, and neither midboss is all that difficult (the former because it’s not meant to be, the latter because Ricard is probably a fully trained, FFII demigod at this point). True, you have to account for the fact that your starting characters aren’t that well-trainted, and that Ricard isn’t recruited until near the end of the dungeon, but it should have been workable… should have been. Unfortunately, the dungeon’s difficulty is shot to shit by the developer’s bizarre decision to arrange the difficulty of the wandering monsters not by dungeon level, but purely at random. Encounters that feel level-appropriate for your two/three starting mortals are mixed in with encounters that would put even Ricard to pause, and they can all jump you the moment you clear the intro battle until the end of the cave! To make matters worse, you have no access to an inn or shop with restoratives until you finish the cave, either! What’s strangest with this decision is that this isn’t even a moment of 80s spite, like some of the other entries on this list – Soul of Rebirth comes from the 2004 remake!
My least-favourite Final Fantasy game so far, FFIII’s 3D remake, manages to get onto my dungeon shit-list twice. Dungeon 1 is the Nepto Temple rat-tunnel, the first full dungeon where you have to shrink down to Mini status and spend the entire dungeon with microscopic physical defence and attack. Your only option is to use spells, and maybe leave someone in a defence job as the least effective meat shield in history. What makes this dungeon worse than the second FFIII dungeon where you have to use Mini is the fact that you’re at the start of the game and have no godforsaken spell slots. Just to rub it in, you have to walk back the way you came after you’re done, because you don’t have Teleport yet! Final Fantasy has always been about attrition, but there’s nothing like start-of-game spell slot limitations to remind you’re at the brink of death. The entire dungeon is you watching your spell count, knowing that in … oh… ten fights, you will be literally guaranteed a game over. Nine fights. Eight fights now!
Now point of order: I’m still talking about the DS remake, whose gameplay changes and rebalancing efforts I despise, and only exasperate the dungeon’s problems. I’m currently playing the Famicom original and I’m liking it a lot better. I’ve played Nepto Temple and, while it was still tense, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the remake. It was also prettier, since it’s not set in a cave. Then again… maybe the remake did the right thing when it made the dungeon a cave. Why would anyone jewel-encrust a rat nest?
Our next stinker was inevitable: the multi-part Final Dungeon combo from the end of FFIII: the Crystal Tower, Eureka, and the World of Darkness (you could also include the Ancient’s Maze, which is incredibly dull and only makes things worse, but since you hit the overworld for a single square after the Maze, I say it doesn’t count). This time I haven’t played the Famicom version yet. There’s an off-chance that the Famicom version’s Final Dungeons might actually be worse than the remake’s, because the original has far more complicated dungeons. It will come down to whether needless 80s complexity or 00’s gameplay mistakes ends up winning out over the other. For now, let’s talk about the remake’s version.
FFIII’s final dungeon has a lot of neat ideas. Titan and the Earth Crystal? A nice endgame surprise! Eureka? Nothing but bonus points! Both versions of the Crystal Tower and World of Darkness are also especially attractive as FFIII dungeons go, a real aesthetic high-mark (Eureka, unfortunately, is just a cave). The problem is that almost all these pros are at the front of the dungeon, and you’re encouraged to leave after getting those first impressions, dividing them from the “final dungeon experience.” The average player will wisely kill Titan, go back outside to save and heal, then visit Eureka, and then go back outside again… Suffice to say, all the dungeons’ high points feel like they aren’t a part of the final run! And the gameplay they have left is ruined by one massive problem that’s impossible to overlook.
It all comes down to the spiteful developer’s decision to remove the save point they had planned between the Tower and the World of Darkness. You have to complete this double-length final dungeon, with a boss, four-to-eight midbosses (depending on whether or not you go for the Ribbons), random encounter dragons that are above the level curve because they hold secret ur-equipment, and the final boss, all on one. Save! Even if there had been a save point, the remaining parts of these dungeons are so boring! The World of Darkness tries out a few gimmicks, especially with the Crystal guardians, but it’s so thin. You can just tell the Famicom hardware and Square’s game engine were at their limits, and the remake did nothing to improve on it. Only the final boss is mechanically interesting, and you’ll be too busy gnawing your nails to stubs to actually appreciate it. Furthermore, the dungeons’ narrative is wrapped up in a weird fatalism that doesn’t seem to have translated all that well to English.
If you insisted on my picking only one of FFIII’s final dungeons to shame as the “worst” of the trio, I’d probably take the Crystal Tower, which is the one that suffers the most from the “get the good stuff and then replay it with all the good stuff exhausted” problem. Also, you grow to resent all the Crystal Tower’s exposition sequences if you die in the World of Darkness.
The next dungeon on the shit list is another final dungeon, the Celestial Shrine from FFLII. I’ve already credited FFLII’s eleventh-hour difficulty spike as one of the worst “moments” in the franchise, so you might think the game’s final dungeon would take all that scorn and ride it to the top of the list, but the Crystal Shrine is only a part of the difficulty spike and can’t take all the credit. What about Apollo – quite possibly the worst boss in the franchise to date? Welllllll… true, he’s inside the bounds of the Celestial Shrine, but he feels more like a stand-alone event rather than the opening event of the final dungeon. Isis heals you to full after the battle, so it’s not like the franchise’s other front-loaded dungeons, where the opening boss does heavy damage that you have to nurse on your through the rest of the gauntlet. The dungeon feels like it starts only after you kill Apollo, not before!
But even if the Celestial Shrine shirks blame for those tire fires, it’s still a mess! The difficulty spike may not be the fault of this dungeon alone, but this is when it goes rocket-powered. There’s the annoyance at finally getting the last two tiers of playable Monsters, only to realize the devs were holding off on the semifinal tier for no good reason, and for god knows how long. You won’t even use them, because the final tier comes a whole five minutes later! Is the Haniwa bonus boss a cool secret or another sign of the difficulty spiralling out of control? Who can say? And let’s not forget that the dungeon has negatives in common with both Ronka Ruins and D-District Prison: its final room is a traditional paper maze (albeit short), and its opening rooms are photocopied to make a boring narrative point, just like D-District, but without D-District’s backtracking (also, FFLII speeds you through them… kind of). On the flip side, you get to play with Isis until you reach the final boss, and she’s a lot of fun, as are the actual final tier of monsters that were rightly restricted to this dungeon. I think this dungeon’s highlights keep it from languishing at the absolute bottom with D-District Prison, but god, what an upsetting endgame taken in total. Still not over it.
I feel like I should have an entry on this list scorning Final Fantasy Adventure, but one of the game’s level design problems is that none of the dungeons feel mechanically distinct, so I can’t pick out one that’s worse than the others! My memory of the game’s dungeons is just mush, and it’s the game’s own fault. FFA’s lowest points are shitty dungeon elements rather than shitty dungeons as a whole. Consider the puzzles where you have to freeze a monster and put it on a switch, put you can’t pull the frozen monster back if they run up against a wall. This forces you to freeze another monster, or to retreat several rooms away for them to respawn. In our case, this nearly led to a game over when we almost ran out of keys during the final dungeon! If I could help it, I’d probably want to include a treadmill dungeon too, since that mechanic was a mess in its own right, and don’t even get me started on the lava damage. But no dungeon has all these elements at once (he says, having gone over the Journal entries to double-check). I think I’m comfortable giving FFA a special prize for Worst Overall Dungeon Design, but that’s about the worst I can do. Play one of the remakes instead.
(Out of hand, the winner of Best Overall Dungeon Design is probably FFVI, as I had legitimate trouble thinking of any of its dungeons as even “poor.” Its worst dungeon is arguably the Cultist’s Tower, which is more of a ranking “worst boss” than a worst dungeon. Maybe, if there’s interest, I’ll investigate a Best Dungeons list in some other post!)
Next up, a dungeon that got lost between my first draft and my initial post of this Journal, now edited back into existence for your reading pleasure: the Underground Waterway from both FFIV and TAY. We’re going to focus on the original appearance, but I’ll get back to TAY in a second (and in the spirit of my FFIII commentary, above, we’ll be restricting discussion to the Complete Collection versions that we played during the Marathon). Bearing in mind that this is only the second dungeon in the game, the Underground Waterway is bloated, larger than most dungeons in the entire Famicom trilogy, something that still feels like the devs trying to show off the increased capacity of the SNES compared to the NES without any regard for the player, ala Phantasy Star 2. This is also the source of the problem, since you run the dungeon with a fighter and two mages, and this is FFIV, the game with only super-rare Ethers the lowest spell-cost to MP ratio in the entire franchise – and just like FFIII, we’re at the start of the game, when your casting potential is at its worst! And then the Tiny Mage enemies show up and start draining your MP! I’m not sure the original developers realized what they had unleashed, considering the boss is easy as pie and has no mechanical complexity whatsoever, as though this really was a traditional, second dungeon.
But one of the dungeon’s real faults is that after you finally wrap it up in FFIV, you’re still not really “done,” because TAY decided the dungeon was so great that it had to revisit it three more times, and usually with a uniquely hampered party to emulate the original challenge (now that it’s over a decade later and TAY’s devs understand what the original did, even if it was accidentally). I’m still a little sore at the Palom and Porom version, simply because Palom’s reason for being there reads like a developer’s last-minute excuses. “Tellah defeated the monster at the end of the cave”? Tellah? Kid, Tellah was out of MP half the dungeon ago. Either start treating Rydia as your new idol or transition to Dark Knight. At least TAY had the decency to complicate the boss fight in the way you’d have expected FFIV to do in the first place! But seriously: three repeats?
Loitering on the fringes is another obvious choice – the True Moon from FFIV: The After Years (and a reminder that we’re talking about the Complete Collection version, as the dungeons are very different between revisions this time). Here’s problem #1: the True Moon is the game’s final dungeon, but I just linked you to the TAY Journal’s second-last post! The True Moon is the largest preset dungeon in the franchise (discounting dungeons that take up the entire game world, like FFLI’s Tower, or hypothetically some of the Chocobo games), even though it does so little to prop up that weight. True, I can’t help but feel a little fanboyish about all the FF cameos, and the mixes of strategies and party swapping they demand. Even the FFIV refights are fairly solid. Unfortunately, all that goodwill is pulled down by the sheer length, and when you finally reach the end, a difficulty spike impales you when you encounter the Maenad with Bahamut, who doesn’t feel like she was ever balanced. And after you finally clear that fight, the dungeon is nothing but Meteor-casting Maenads until the final boss, which is a child’s idea of difficulty. My overall impression of the dungeon is middling to low, but I want to give it another go one of these days, just to see how I feel on a replay. I also want to play the 3D remake, which shaves off a lot of the dungeon, but some of the lost content is good stuff, and it uses uninspired recolour bosses as spackle. It don’t like the sound of it, but will I know for sure until I’ve played it?
Special Prize #2 goes to Crisis Core, which doesn’t have any stand-out “bad” story chapters – dungeons or otherwise – but decided to anchor what’s sure to be 70-90% of your gameplay experience in a mere handful of empty, boring sidequest maps. Crisis Core, the fact that you reused each snorer of a sidequest map dozens of times may have gotten you off on a technicality (since none of them can be treated as an individual dungeon), but that doesn’t mean the you should feel proud about it!
FFVII makes its way onto the list on an old principle: oftentimes, having “nothing” is worse than having a low-quality “something.” Enter the Mt. Nibel flashback dungeon, where Sephiroth does literally everything and the player is superfluous. There’s nothing more to say, because there’s nothing more to the dungeon!
I actually tried to just leave it at that, but I felt like I wasn’t doing my job. Between me and FFVII, one of us ought to do our jobs here, so I’ll go into it briefly. The fight against the dragon did its job great. It already showed you that Sephiroth was king of the hill (not to forget that giant mess “he” made in Shinra HQ in the present, and the Midgar Zolom we’ll see not long after the flashback!), so why did we have to sit through this extended, lesser copy of that iconic battle? Even walking three steps forward and slap-bang into Garland at the start of FFI had some agency in it (and the Metroid-like elements to the rest of that dungeon actually make it a nice one), but the Mt. Nibel flashback has none of that. Crisis Core retconned the entire affair out of existence, and wisely too. If only FFVII had done it at the root.
We wouldn’t be able to wrap up this list without at least one entry from Dirge of Cerberus. I’m going to pick Chapter 10, the neverending, purgatorial slog of the Midgar undercity. This includes the Aesop-undermining arcade sequence where you mow down 100 grown-up child soldiers in a wave of hypocrisy. Let’s not forget that the entire level is doused in brown-and-black paint, despite the fact that the game can barely be seen without adjusting your TV settings even in its brightest chapters. Chapter 10 barely even has the dignity to end with a boss fight – you only get the first and least remarkable form of Nero the Sable, who basically gets bored and trots off to do the real fighting in Chapter 11!
Dishonourable Mention to Dirge of Cerberus Chapter 8-2, a chapter I found barely anything to say about in the original Journal until the fight against Rosso. Her difficulty spike helped wake us up after Chapter 8-2 sent is straight the fuck to sleep, and helped save the chapter from the scorn I’m giving to Chapter 10, instead.
So, we come back to the original question: which of these is the #2, the Silver Medal to D-District Prison’s Gold? Heck, did going into all this detail make me reconsider D-District Prison as the Worst of the Worst? Oh hell no. D-District is a pit. But as for #2, I think I have three leaders, and if you saw my intermediary edit to the D-District prison Journal post, you already know which ones they are: Raqia, for being a Russian Roulette scam of a dungeon; the Nepto Shrine rat tunnel from the FFIII 3D, for being an all-around bad idea magnified by remake’s horrendous rebalancing; and the FFVII flashback dungeon for being a non-entity. To that, I’ll add the Celestial Shrine from FFLII, since its flaws are like a “D-District Prison Jr.”
I feel comfortable putting the Celestial Shrine at #5, but since each of these four runners-up represent a different flavour of “bad,” it’s hard to compare them one to another. Normally, I call a zero a zero, and so Mt. Nibel – the dungeon with zero meaningful gameplay – would get the bottom slot, but the rest of the Kalm flashback is okay, and that’s staying my hand. Does the dungeon deserve credit for those scenes? The town sequences before the dungeon shouldn’t count, but the reactor is kind of like the payoff to the dungeon, so I can’t decide. Ultimately, I’m going to stick to my gut and put Mt. Nibel in #4.
That leaves us with two survivors: Raqia’s randomnes, and the Nepto Temple’s remake balance issues. My gut instinct says the answer is FFIII. I don’t think I’ve had strong, negative feelings about Raqia since we played it at the fucking dawn of the Final Fantasy Marathon, whereas Nepto Temple is from my archnemesis! Yet, by all my critical standards, I think I have to judge Raqia the worst of the two, a sort of Kingdom Hearts 2-style reappraisal, where looking at the game again helps me realize just what a shit storm we sidestepped by finishing Raqia in “only” six (seven?) retries! The heart of the problem is that at least you can grind out your problems in FFIII, but the only place to grind for Raqia after you start Soul of Rebirth is… Raqia! I still like the Soul of Rebirth scenario conceptually and narratively, and the second half comes closer to the intended execution (it has the same random enemy distribution, but you’re able to go back to town to heal), but the entrance challenge may very well be the second-worst dungeon in the FF Marathon to date!
And that’s it for the stinkers! What about you? What do you think of the list? What are your worst Final Fantasy dungeons? If it’s from a game I haven’t played, feel free to mention it, but please, mind your spoilers. I want to be disappointed in real time!