In the earlier Final Fantasy titles, we tend to see a setting where magic is the norm while industry and technology is something that develops further into each game; Final Fantasy VI reverses this setup heralding a new beginning for the series and moving in a different thematic direction. In this instalment, the world is in the midst of an industrial revolution while magic has been banished from the world for a thousand years and becoming a thing of legend, thus it is magic that must be encountered later on in the adventure. This simple shift makes Final Fantasy VI stand out beside its earlier brethren, and despite being known as the last of the classic Final Fantasy titles by virtue of console and grapchis, it feels more appropriate to consider it in a new tuning point for the series.
When the game begins, none of our characters have access to magic, aside from the mysterious Terra who is singled out as an exceptional circumstance. This means each character must utilise different and unique skills in battle without the series staple magic to fall back on. Many characters, Locke for example, do indeed fulfil traditional Final Fantasy roles, yet the magic that helped define the series is by and large absent from the party line-up. These characters don’t know true magic, thus once Terra uses Fire in battle outside South Figaro Castle, Edgar is amazed at what he’s witnessing; such abilities are indeed incredible to these people. Thus we have to learn about these characters and the skills they can use in battle without the familiarity of magic to guide us. Terra is indeed the odd one out here and by the time the party has fleshed out with the addition of Celes too, who is infused with Magitek, a manufactured form of magic, we’ve already learnt and gotten to grips with the casts abilities that would have been deemed exceptional in earlier Final Fantasy games. This helps the game feel fresh and markedly different to what preceeded it, helping it feel more in line with its successors thematically.
In fact until the Espers lend the protagonists their power, magic is quite easy to overlook as a factor in the team as at this point the larger cast feel more useful and interesting than the two established magic users. This is only exasperated further when we consider that both Terra and Celes seem to jump in and out of the party as the narrative dictates, the MP stat is hidden within the magic tab and by the end of Sabin’s long narrative during the branching story arcs, we’ve gotten used to getting by without them. Suddenly Sabin’s Blitz and Edgar’s Tools are more effective and attractive options at wiping out the enemy. Thus once our characters start to learn magic for themselves, it feels all too easy to keep overlooking it entirely in favour of the abilities that for a good chunk of the game we’ve gotten by fine without. Within the narrative too, this isn’t a world where magic is the norm. It is one where castles submerge in the desert due to powerful engines, the empire operates with Mecha suits and the capital churns smog and hides a war factory within its walls; Magic may be what everyone desires, but these people have gotten by just fine without it.
This is in stark contrast to previous entries in the series, in which magic is always available during the opening chapters and rarely are we without a Black or White Mage to lend a hand. With these mage characters we almost come to expect a certain type of fantasy world to draw out before us, one where Kings, Knights and Elemental Fiends are the primary concern, and crystals grant power and maintian balance in the world; magic certainly fits in and helps flesh out these types of worlds. Instead here we gain a new perspective on the action because magic is exceptional and in limited supply, both in the narrative and gameplay, it sets the stage for a world in which is thematically different at its ver core. Thus King Edgar and Knight Cyan don’t fall so easily to typecasting because the with magic in its exceptional stance, we’re more prepared to be surprised by these other commonn Final Fantasy themes. This helps Final Fantasy VI stand out over its contemporaries because the world is based on this principle that magic is a thing of legend and is instead the thing that is in need of discovery, not industry and technology which are well established in this world already. Thus Final Fantasy VI that feeling of a new beginning rather than an end of an era is present because the world no longer conforms to what we’ve come to expect of the series, rather it attempts to surprise us, something which later entries (VII, VIII and X for example) take full advantage.
Final Fantasy VI’s use of magic truly usurps our expectations, acting as more than a simple narrative twist but helping each character and setting define itself in a light that sets it apart from previous titles in the series. It feels like a new start despite the number of years between it and next entry, Final Fantasy VII, because no longer can we simply expect certain abilities as a given in the series, and that by making something exceptional that has been so common in every other corner of the franchise, it manages to weave a world and an adventure that truly feels special to behold.