Once again, the siren song of Ni No Kuni has meant that my story progress through Final Fantasy II has been a bit more limited this week than it might otherwise have been. Instead of talking about the plot, then, I’d like to discuss a mechanic that the Final Fantasy series makes fairly frequent use of, and that originated in II: “guest” party members.
For the purposes of this column, when I talk about guest members, what I mean is a character who doesn’t stick with you for the entire game, but instead joins up for only a smaller segment before dying, revealing him/herself as an agent of the “other side,” running off on some other very important errand, or otherwise leaving your merry band. In looking around for some specific examples, I discovered this page, which is….exhaustive, if you’re interested, but I’ll mostly be focusing on the Final Fantasy-related examples (even though it’s extremely tempting to mention Shinjiro from Persona 3, I will, of course, refrain from straying off-topic….of course).
In most of the games I’ve played, guest characters tend to fall into one of three categories. The first group is composed of what may be thought of as “tutorial characters.” These are, as the name suggests, characters who join you for a short amount of time in the beginning of the game to help you get your bearings or simply to make sure you’re not setting out alone before you have a story-related reason to encounter your real party members. Biggs and Wedge from FFIV, Seifer from VIII, and Gadot and Lebreau from XIII fall into this category.
Then, there are those who are ridiculously overpowered, serving as a temporary level-booster for the rest of your normal party. This usually means that they won’t be with you for very long, as it would totally wreck the balance of the game and make your other characters essentially obsolete. Some examples of this category may be found in FFIV (Fusoya), VII (Sephiroth), and X (Seymour). I think Beatrix from IX also falls into this category, although IX and I have never really gotten along all that well, so I don’t have the best memory of how powerful she turns out to be.
Finally, there are the characters that serve almost as guideposts, joining your party to actually be useful and properly balanced, and (for me, at least) to give the player a fair idea of where he or she should be, level-wise, at this point in the story. These are the least likely to show up as “real” guests, but also the most likely to show up later and permanently join as a regular party member. IV and XII are the most notable here, with Amalia/Ashe and Basch showing up in the latter and Kain and Rosa (amongst others) in the former.
With all of those examples showing up later in the series, one might expect for the game that originated the practice to be crawling with examples of all three types. Well…it isn’t, really. It definitely has its share of guest characters, but what I find frustrating is that nearly all of them are basically useless in battle, serving only as one more body to have to equip, level, and heal. Mindu, the first temporary party member you encounter, sticks around for quite some time—long enough, in fact, that I had begun to think he was going to be with us permanently. My perception may have been skewed a little by the fact that this was during the time when I was undertaking my obsessive leveling mission (Mindu was actually the one I had assigned to smack everyone else in the face with a big stick to toughen them up); because of that, I probably spent more game time with him than I normally would have. He eventually does leave to pursue other duties, though, and the next temporary member you get, Josef, is neither as powerful nor as long-lived as your last. Josef joins you for only one dungeon, and his primary function seems to be simply to die in a heroic and noble manner, leaving behind the daughter that you just saved for him. After this, you pick up the woefully under-equipped Gordon, followed by the more-interesting-but-still-not-particularly-useful Leila, both of whom joined up at a considerably lower power level than the rest of my party, meaning that I would have needed to spend quite a lot of time on them in order to get them up to speed, had I wanted to do so.
The thing was, I didn’t want to. And I didn’t need to. My core three were, by that point, strong enough to face most things, if not completely by themselves, then with minimal assistance from whoever filled that fourth slot. Every once in a while the temp could throw a healing spell or perhaps get some extra damage in during a fight, but leaving them lagging behind my party ability-wise hasn’t seemed to affect my combat prowess much, if at all. In the three categories I outlined above, the party members the player is given serve some sort of purpose, but here, they seem almost token, and I question why they’re there at all. Then again, I suppose since it’s the first time this particular mechanic was explored within the series, it had to start somewhere.
Currently, I’m without a fourth party member; Leila left, and I very briefly reunited with Gordon, but he’s now gone too. Perhaps whoever I gain next will be a bit more useful, but I’m not really holding my breath.
WEEK 7 PROGRESS: 21 hours 5 minutes into Final Fantasy II