Low-Level Challenge

One of the most difficult variants for traditional RPGs is the low-level challenge: an attempt to complete the game at the lowest level possible. Obviously playing the game at a lower level means less of everything: fewer hit points, fewer spells, lower stats, and one hell of a tough time when fighting most bosses. A lot of my other variants involved restricting the gameplay to some ridiculous extent and then taking my party to a high level to try and overcome that restriction. Well, this variant would be the exact opposite of that: completely unlimited gameplay, done at the lowest levels possible. I had to try it!

Final Fantasy is interesting in the sense that you can skip nearly all of the battles by running, so it may be possible to complete the game at a very low level indeed. How low? We're going to find out! However, even before playing I knew for a fact that I was unlikely to see anything beyond level 15 or so. That meant a highly front-loaded group of four, with no black belts or white/black mages. Sorry. Since I'm trying to play the most effective game possible here, I went with the uberparty of two fighters and two red mages:

This group has enough weapons, armor, and magic to complete the game even at extremely low levels. The biggest question in the early game? Acquiring enough gold from treasure chests to properly outfit them!

Every party starts with 400g - how best to spend the initial funds? The single most important thing I could do early on to increase survivability was buy the ridiculously good Chain Armor (15 Absorb!) for all four characters. That burned through 320g in a hurry. Four more Rapiers at 10g each ate up most of the remainder, with just enough for an emergency inn trip if necessary.

Normally, you'd fight Imps until at least level 2, if only to get the hit point boost from the first level up. My characters had a larger challenge: they had to loot the three chests in the Temple of Fiends (Cap, Heal Potion, and Cabin) plus kill Garland, all in one trip - and without killing anything BUT Garland along the way! Oh boy. To increase survivability, I stuck the two red mages in the front two ranks to take the hits from random encounters. Then, when I was ready to face Garland, I moved the fighters back in front. Anything to try and stretch out the limited hp of my poor level 1 characters!

I'd forgotten how weak Garland is against non-variant characters, and he fell in three rounds to my group without doing much of anything:

The 32 experience from Garland was not enough to take this group to the next level! You actually need 40 to reach level 2. The 250g was highly appreciated, however. I now had 290g, which I used to buy CURE for each of my two Red Mages. This was like getting four renewable Heal potions for free - a great deal! The new curative power of For and You meant that I had no need to stay at the inn, and so I sent my party right back into the field again. 30 gold for an inn visit - I'm not made of money, people!

Next, a visit to Matoya's cave to loot the two Heal potions and Pure potion. Again, this might seem like minor stuff, but that's effectively 195 gold saved there, and I would need as many potions as possible for the upcoming Marsh Cave. Then it was directly on to Pravoka, taking a few hits along the way without anything particularly dire arising. Once again, my low-level team went into combat immediately with the Pirates, still at level 1, not having used the inn even a single time!

Of course they shredded the Pirates with ease. This game is almost too easy when every character sports a massive 15 Absorb, even if they don't have more than 30 total hit points. I received 90 XP and 360g from this fight, both very much desired. The low-level team now reached Level Two. I now burned the four Cure charges (two from each Red Mage) saved from the start of the game, using one on each character to take them up close to their new hit point max (roughly 50). Freshly restored, we could now head to the next objective... looting the two treasure chests in the Dwarf Cave. The two chests (450g + 575g) added to my previous total of 450g left me with 1475 total - enough to make a serious run at the Marsh Cave. Finally, I could return to Coneria and use the inn for the first time. I made it back there with 19/8/5/1 hit points remaining on the four characters! (No, I am not making that up! It helps when most enemy attacks do 1 point of damage.)

At this point, I now had 1445 gold to play around with, and four lvl 2 characters with all sorts of pressing needs. How best to spend that hard-earned gold? Let's consider some of the possibilites, and the assets I had available. The only weapon upgrade available was to Short Swords - pricey at 550g, and not much better than the Rapier. That would have been a waste of money, especially given that you can also find a Short Sword for free in the Marsh Cave! Similarly, much as I would have liked to buy the Iron Armor for someone, it was way too expensive at 800g, and again there was a free one down in the Marsh Cave - plus a second one in the treasure room in Coneria! All the other armors weren't strong enough to bother with.

The best place to spend money, therefore, was on things that couldn't be found in treasure chests: namely on spells. I went ahead and spent 1000g on purchasing LIT and ICE for both Red Mages, intended to use both of them in the near future (against the Wizards and against Astos). As far as the rest, I bought 3 Heal potions and 3 Pure potions. I could heal some damage with CUREs from the Red Mages, but I couldn't do anything about poison... as my "Living off the Land" team knew all too well! Based on what I had found already, I now had 6 Heals and 4 Pures, along with a Cottage that would heal all damage taken up to the Marsh Cave entrance. That was as well prepared as I could be with this team.

There were two treasures in the Marsh Cave that I wanted to pick up (aside from the CROWN, heh). These were the Short Sword and the Iron Armor, both of which I discussed in great detail with my previous variant team. Both were easy to grab en route to the chest and the battle with the Wizards. Despite some bad luck with undead encounters, I made it to the Wizards with everyone alive and unpoisoned, with only 4 of the 6 Heal potions used:

Only two Wizards! Excellent. Now, I had to make sure I didn't waste this great chance. I had both fighters attack the lead Wizard, while the two red mages cast LIT. This worked well enough, except that both Wizards hit XP with their attacks and killed him instantly! Man, sucks to only have 60 hit points... Then they each did "2 Hits! 70 Damage!" to the rest of my team and put them on the ground immediately. Uh... game over.

Anyway, nothing to do but try again. I had actually been pretty unlucky - my first two charges of LIT only did about 15 damage each, and so instead of killing one of the Wizards immediately, they both got to attack twice in the first two rounds of battle - and they rolled pretty high on their damage too! I was confident that with a little more luck (and maybe a critical hit from one of my fighters) I could get the battle done with my current group.

So... a lot of attempts followed. (I won't even talk about the encounters with more than two Wizards, which were instant losses.) On one attempt, I killed the first Wizard on the first round, only to see a ton of misses on the second one resulting in three of my four characters dying. I did win the fight with only You remaining, who got so much experience that he landed two levels at once - which the game is apparently not programmed to handle:

Um, what? Even though I had won, I couldn't play on from this point - You would never gain another level, ever! Not on this quest, at least. Anyway, on the very next try against two Wizards, I did get it done perfectly - with a major assist coming from XP landing a 68 Damage critical hit!

The three surviving warriors were now Level Three. Next up - getting out. First fight was a bad one, against three Scorpions. Uh oh. They ignored XP (with the Iron Armor) and beat up on the red mages, killing For. Not good. Second was against Scum and Spiders, requiring one Pure potion but doing little damage. Next up, three Gargoyles - easy, except one of them did a 25 Damage critical hit. (Sigh.) Fourth battle: five Bones, two Crawls. Really bad news here, but XP managed to run successfully on the second round, after both Crawls paralyzed You. Last fight came against five Bones. Easy! And the team was out of the Cave! For characters with good armor, the walk back to Elfland was uneventful (even a five GrWolves "monsters strike first" didn't cause much damage).

I came out of the Marsh Cave with 0 Heal potions and 1 Pure potion intact. I think the planning was spot-on there! After selling off my excess Chain Armor and Rapier, reviving the two downed characters, and staying at the Coneria inn, I now had 575g remaining. Before facing Astos, I had one more thing to do: I had to gain 74 experience for No, otherwise the Astos fight would put him up two levels and cause the same bug I mentioned above. In this situation, I wanted to get the maximum gold value possible while gaining those experience points. In other words - hello, Ogres! A two Ogre fight (97 XP, 390 gold) provided the perfect encounter, and took No to lvl 3 like the rest of the party. I bought one TENT, walked to the Northwest Castle, saved the game, and prepared for a whole lot of battles against Astos.

How was I going to beat Astos? Cast ICE four times (two per red mage) and hope for good damage rolls. It was as simple as that, because my two fighters couldn't do enough damage to get through his high Absorb - aside from critical hits, obviously. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a cakewalk; Astos' low hit points (168) and lack of resistance to Ice had my mages doing some pretty good damage. I actually won the battle on the first try, but wanted to survive with all four warriors intact, which meant a number of re-rolls until RUB missed. But I did it successfully soon enough, in about five minutes of trying:

This is actually the LIT spell that killed Astos, I just didn't hit the image capture button fast enough. Anyway, my team gained 562 experience and 2000 gold from the Astos fight - wow! Everyone went up to Level Four, and I had to sit and think about how to spend my huge new gold total. I had to use two more Pure potions just walking back from the castle though (remember, no extra TENTs, so I couldn't hit reset to reroll the battles - probably shortsighted on my part there).

OK, now for the fun part of the game: looting all the treasures opened up by the Mystic Key. Before deciding what to buy, I needed to find out exactly how much gold I had to play around with. Technically I could have done this with an online FAQ, but what fun would that have been? All told, I ended up with 12,777 gold - almost half of that coming from the lovely Power Staff of Uselessness. I used a couple thousand gold to fill in holes in my equipment setup: Iron Shields/Helmets/Gauntlets for the fighters, Caps and Gloves for the mages. Then the long-overdue FIRE spell for both red mages. This left me with a little over 11k gold total, so I could indulge and purchase the thing most likely to contribute to my success in the Earth Cave: 99 Heal potions and a dozen Pure potions. Along with a couple TENTs for saving in odd places, I was now ready to go.

I made one trip into the Earth Cave to clean out the treasure chests on the first two floors. I had to step around the trapped squares with Earths, to avoid picking up more unwanted experience. I couldn't even go into one of the rooms on the second floor for that very reason. Still picked up about 4000g and the Coral Sword though. The next venture into the cave was directed at the Vampire. Usually he's a pushover, but keep in mind my group was still only level 4 - no uses of FIR2! (Much less FIR3, heh.) My red mages had to cast FIRE instead:

Once again, the two red mages did the heavy lifting in this battle. Each cast of FIRE did around 40 Damage, and the fourth casting put the Vampire away for good. On his one and only round of attack, the villain did 64 damage to my top fighter and paralyzed him - yikes! Good thing I didn't let him get a second attack. This battle added another 300 experience and 2000 gold, putting everyone up to Level Five.

With the Vampire's gold and loot from the Earth Cave, I now had over 12k gold again, even after replenishing Heal and Pure potions. But what to spend it on? I would have liked to use some of that cash on FIR2 charges for use against Lich, but nope, the red mages didn't have any 3rd level magic as yet. That would have to wait until level 6. Now, there didn't seem to be any way that I could kill Lich with this group normally at only level 5; his ICE2 and other related spells would shred my warriors to pieces in no time. I guessed that my best hope would be to MUTE him at low odds, and then rack up the damage once the boss was safely shielded. Meanwhile, I needed to do everything possible to up the damage output from my fighters, so I opted to spend 8000g to buy two Silver Swords. The money raised by selling the Rune and Were Swords mostly covered this expense, fortunately.

Against Lich, I tried numerous times to try and get MUTE to work, without success. After failing at that, eventually I said "screw it!" and decided to attack with my current group as-is. Having the two red mages cast FIRE really made a difference - the spell was doing about 40 damage per casting, and that added up fast with two characters pumping the magic! Definitely a surprise there. On the other side of things, Lich's ICE2 would usually wipe out most of the party, but occasionally I would get some low rolls and individual characters would survive for a while longer. (You really notice the low magic defense stats when playing a group like this one! Virtually every enemy spell "doubled" the damage, so ICE2 was around 140 damage more often than 40. Magic defense increases solely by leveling up, can't be increased with items.) Lich's physical attack was not a great danger, and I always hoped he would do that instead of going with his spells. Well, I actually managed to kill Lich on about the third attempt, with XP as the only survivor:

But he gained so much experience, he ran into the "two levels at once" bug and would never level up again. Argh! I had to win with at least two characters alive in order to prevent that from occuring. Fortunately I got Lich on the next try, with XP and You surviving:

They each pulled in 1100 experience points and went up to Level Six, so I was going to be living with a rather unbalanced party for the forseeable future. C'est la vie - it was bound to happen sooner or later. Regardless, this was an extremely positive development: Lich and the Earth Cave cleared, with a group of level 5 warriors! Now I could finally stop doing these darned runs, hehe.

Level six meant that You gained his first charge of 3rd level magic. I now had a lot of gold on hand (21,000!) so I went ahead and filled out the slots of both red mages while I was still in the Elfland area. I gave them both the standard CUR2 and FIR2, but I opted to purchase AFIR for You rather than LIT2. While this might seem like an odd choice, I expected that I would want protection from fire in at least one or two fights, most notably the one against Kary. Besides, I would be grabbing the Zeus Gauntlet in very short order, after which I could have You cast LIT2 as many times as I wanted. (Getting Zeus before LIT2 spell charges - bet you won't see THAT happen too often!)

After getting the CANOE, replenishing potions (including several pricey Soft potions), and staying once more at the inn to save, I was down to just over 10,000 gold. Time to do the Castle of Ordeals, the easiest of the midgame troika. I sailed due south from Elfland, saved the game with a tent, and got started. My first encounter was with two ZomBulls, who apparently are one of the enemies whom you cannot run from. Didn't know that - since they are usually free experience walking, I always fought them with past groups. My group got wiped out and started over again from the beginning. Ironically, the next fight on my second attempt was also against a solo ZomBull! I had to take the unavoidable 262 experience. Not going to hit reset every time I face an unrunnable monster. Of course, this was all for null because the next fight was against four Sorcerors, "monsters strike first". Heh.

On my third run through the castle, I faced two Zombulls and unavoidably picked up 525 experience for each party member. This raised my two lvl 5 characters up to lvl 6, so everyone was back at the same point again. Other than that, the castle was virtually deserted. I ran from mummies, medusas, and the one trapped encounter with Nitemares. Only three true random encounters in the whole place! Then it was time for the Zombie Dragons:

You cast my single charge of FIR2, which did 77 damage to the one dragon and 120-something to the other. I had For keep using the Zeus Gauntlet, while the two fighters naturally continued attacking. I won without anyone getting into the true critical range, although You could have been killed with a good hit. This battle yielded 1165 experience to everyone, taking XP and You up to Level Seven, and once again my group was split between two levels. Now You had the ability to cast two 3rd level spell charges! As far as my fighters, they were more impressed by the Ice Sword I picked up in the castle. And the Gold Bracelet was a nice find for one of my red mages.

I had my pick next of either Gurgu Volcano or the Ice Cave. Either one would give me unavoidable experience, so it made the most sense to do the easier of the two next. That made for a pretty easy decision - Volcano, here we come! As usual, I made one trip to clear out the treasures on the second dungeon floor. XP was Squinted out of existence by a Perilisk, but everything else was fairly routine. I wrote down all the trapped squares with FIREs on them ahead of time to make sure I wouldn't step on them! My group was still able to open all but one treasure chest. Other chests were trapped with Grey Worms, which was a non-issue because you can run away from them. Heh. Anyway, upon returning to Crescent Lake I picked up a few odd Silver pieces of armor that hadn't been in chests, then got ready for the upcoming battle with Kary.

I spent most of my time on this final trip into the Volcano walking on the lava squares. No enemy encounters there, and all it cost me was a couple Heal potions every floor. That was a nice tradeoff. My fear was running into a group of Red Gargoyles, who would instantly kill me with their FIR2s. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I had to skip the Flame Armor on the bottom floor; it's always guarded by the Red Dragon, and that's experience that I could avoid by skipping the battle. Besides, my fighters would end the game wearing the Opal and Dragon Armors, both of which can be grabbed without fighting trapped battles. I did face one FIRE in a random encounter on the bottom floor, which meant 405 experience. This put my lagging warriors (No and For) up to level 7 as well.

Without For's casting of AFIR, my team would have been dead meat against Kary's frequent FIR2s. The fighters went ahead and attacked, but they needed critical hits to get good damage. A typical non-critical attack would read something like "2 Hits! 30 Damage", while a critical usually did more than 100 damage. You cast CUR2 until he ran out of charges, while For kept using the Heal Staff in a desperate attempt to keep hit points up. Kary's attacks were pretty brutal, taking 80-100 hp off of each fighter with each swing. Eventually, Kary did "5 Hits! 178 Damage" to For and killed him instantly. But by then, it was already too late for her:

Kary died on a "2 Hits! 6 Damage" attack from XP. Wish I'd been fast enough to get the screen capture, heh. You'll have to settle for seeing the experience and gold printouts. XP and You jumped ahead again, up to Level Eight, while No remained about a thousand behind, and poor For was almost 2000 experience behind the leaders. Two fiends down, two to go!