Well, Terra's turned pink and flown off toward Zozo, leaving me to consider the first five or so hours of FF6. In an era where episodic games are now common, it's striking that the game's first act would have made an excellent Episode 1. It doesn't just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and (cliffhanger) ending, it doesn't just introduce the premise and most of the major cast while still leaving the biggest stuff for later -- it also plays significantly differently from the rest of the game, and its plot and play beats form a brilliant mirror where the end of the act recalls its beginning.

The Empire invades Narshe, with Terra as a puppet. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results. Terra regains consciousness and the ability to think for herself. Locke has to protect her in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra and Locke flee the Empire, gaining comrades along the way -- and then the party is abruptly separated. For the first time, you see events unfold through characters other than Terra -- and then everyone makes their way back to Narshe. The Empire invades, with Terra and friends defending the city; they have to defend Bannon in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results -- and even as she comes closer than ever to discovering who and what she really is, she loses her willpower again and becomes an unthinking beast.

Aside from that, there's the gameplay -- and, notably, a couple of things happen during this portion that don't happen again later.

First, there are the two tower defense-style battles. They're the only two in the game, which is just the right amount. The first one is easy and lets you get the hang of it; the second one's a more legitimate challenge.

There's also the "Choose a scenario" portion. While there are other parts of the game where the party is split up, there are no other occasions where you experience story developments from multiple perspectives.

And it's mostly great! Terra's scenario is pretty bland, but at least it's short. Locke's scenario is another unique piece of game; it's a puzzle that plays to his strengths as a th -- treasure hunter, and it's funny besides. Sabin's scenario is the longest and broadest of the bunch, introduces three new playable characters with tragic origin stories, and takes you through a tour of the game's various locations -- the Imperial Camp, Doma, the Haunted Forest, the Phantom Train, Barren Falls, the Veldt, and the Serpent Trench. Some of it feels half-baked -- the Forest is over in minutes, and the Serpent Trench is just a showcase for then-impressive Mode 7 animation where very little actually happens (and then you have to come back later if you want to get Mog's water dance) -- but a lot of it, like the camp sequence and the Phantom Train, is excellent.

And then there's the character balance -- this is a game that's famous for not having very much of that, but it's hard to tell in the opening act.

Each character has a unique ability -- at least, up until you get Celes and then you've got two magic-users and Terra hasn't learned Morph yet. And most of them are pretty well-thought-out.

Terra and Celes both play like Red Mages in previous FF games -- they can equip the best weapons and armor and cast both black and white magic spells, but they're not very strong as attackers yet at this point in the game, their offensive spells are middling, and their low max MP means they don't get much use out of them at any rate. Celes's Runic is pretty damned useful early in the game when she's the only magic-user in the party and it effectively nullifies bosses' magic; it's not until later in the game that it becomes basically worthless.

Edgar gets decent, but not crazy-high, damage against all enemies with the Autocrossbow. It's a pity the Bioblaster and Noiseblaster aren't much use.

Shadow gets solid-to-high damage depending on equipment, and occasionally will counter with Interceptor, which is the most damaging attack you've got at this point in the game but happens rarely enough that it's not spammy. And Shadow is squishy and dies easily. (And may randomly ditch out on you and make you restore from a save so he doesn't take that Genji Glove you put on him when he goes. That part I'm not so crazy about, but the unpredictable mercenary angle is a neat idea in theory, at least.)

Cyan is nominally a samurai but plays more like the previous games' Knight class: he does solid damage but excels at defense. Early on he's kinda like Edgar in that he's got one very good special attack and two others that aren't really much use most of the time.

Gau has immediate access to more powerful attacks and spells than anyone else in the party, but you can't control him and even if you pick a Rage like Templar that drastically boosts his defense and evade (in versions where the evade stat actually works), he's still pretty squishy.

And then there's Sabin and Locke. Who I guess, if nothing else, at least balance each other, since one is ridiculously overpowered and the other is, at this point in the game, not that damn good.

Sabin is the most overpowered character in the game. You can see where they were trying to make him something of a glass cannon like the Monks in the previous games -- he's got the high attack, high HP, can't equip good armor thing going on -- but even with weak armor he still does a pretty good job of soaking up damage, and he dishes it out like crazy. Aura Cannon is one of very few Holy-elemental attacks you get access to in the game, and it deals high damage to most enemies. And while, like Edgar and Cyan, his other two specials are inferior, they're still fairly useful -- Pummel/Raging Fist ignores defense, and he can suplex a fucking train.

Locke, by contrast -- well, he's decent enough later in the game, but early on he deals low damage, has low defense and HP, and his Steal command isn't worth using. It seems to fail about 75% of the time and, when it succeds, it's usually just a damn Potion that won't even heal the damage the party took while Locke was trying to steal from the monsters instead of killing them.

His scenario's fun as hell -- right up until the part where you start actually having to fight dudes, at which point it turns into Locke mostly being a liability while Celes does all the work.

But, Locke and Sabin aside, the characters' balance is really well-thought-out in the early going.

Course, by the time you leave Zozo you've got Espers and a chainsaw -- but that's a story for another day...