Living Off the Land

T-Hawk's recent Final Fantasy exploits inspired me to start thinking about some variant paths as yet unexplored in this grand old game. The spark for this particular effort came from one of my housemates, who was going through the Playstation remake of Final Fantasy on our shared TV. We were talking about whether you could save at the inn without staying there (you can), leading to the comment of "could you play through the whole game without ever staying at the inn?" Given the easy availability of tents, that variant would be relatively simple to do, but it did get me thinking along related lines.

An old Diablo variant was the one known as "living off the land". It was similar to the more famous Ironman challenge, asking players never to go to town or use any town resources, but more forgiving in that players would have more than one life and could repeat easier areas to gain experience and gear. The more I started to think about this concept, the more it looked like it could be adapted into something entertaining for the Final Fantasy universe.

The basic variant rule? No buying or selling ANYTHING from the merchants in town. That immediately means no weapons or armor, but also no magic as well. (Spells are purchased in magic stores in this game, for those who aren't aware.) It would also mean no Heal potions, Pure potions, or Soft potions beyond the small number that lie waiting in dungeon treasure chests. The early portion of the game would thus become a desperate struggle for equipment, running for long stretches of time with extremely suboptimal gear. And even the late game, where most equipment is found in chests anyway, would remain an interesting challenge given the lack of heal potions and magic on hand.

Now, there are two important exceptions to the overall rules. In Diablo, it's possible to avoid going back to town by recovering health through using potions and shrines. No such luxuries exist in Final Fantasy (enemies do not drop items in this old game), and the paltry number of health-restoring items in chests would never be enough to get by. Therefore, I'm making an exception for inns: free use of them as much as desired. Of course, that won't be much help during dungeon runs... Secondly, using inns in Final Fantasy does not restore death or status ailments. Since I don't plan on going through the entire game poisoned, I will allow the purchase of pures/softs and use of the clinic as part of town visits, as necessary to restore status to normal. ONLY as part of town visitations though! I'll only allow the use of potions in the field that I have actually turned up in chests.

For this no-magic variant, the three magely classes are all out as too underpowered. The black belt is similarly out, as he doesn't need weapons or armor to fight and would therefore defeat the purpose of the variant. And when it comes down to fighters versus thieves, it's really no contest. Now ordinarily four fighters would be boring in the extreme; however, in a game where I will constantly be swapping weak, underpowered gear around it had the potential to be a lot of fun! Keep in mind too that the early parts of the game were going to have to be done with characters that had no weapons, no armor, no magic, and no potions!

Taking another cue from T-Hawk, I plan to do as little sandbagging as possible and get down to business right away. (This is a good party for that too, as gold will be almost worthless and increases in party power will mostly come from plundering treasure chests.) With that in mind, let's get started!

Starting out was a bit odd, in that I bought nothing in Coneria for the first time ever. I stuck around the castle for the minimal number of fights necessary to reach level 2. I didn't care about most of the stat increases, except for the fact that at lvl 2 all of my fighters would gain another ~25 hit points, nearly doubling their starting totals. With that out of the way, I could now venture into the Temple of Fiends for the first time. My first target was the three treasure chests that could be opened without the KEY:

It might not look impressive, but this was the only weapon or armor available before the Marsh Cave! Even getting here wasn't a total cakewalk either, as a party of two Creeps wiped out my first attempt, slaughtering all four fighters. Oops. Good thing this isn't a Hardcore variant! I gave the Cap to whomever happened to be in the lead slot, which changed frequently depending on how many hit points each character possessed. I'm sure the monsters were intimidated by the 1 Absorb provided by the Cap...

OK, (meagre) treasure looted, back to the Temple of Fiends. I managed to get all the way to Garlard without taking any hits. Fought one battle against three Imps, killing them before they landed a hit. Not much strategy here, as everyone attacks every single round until all of the fighters died or Garland did. Each attack was doing 5 damage with each hit (not including misses), for roughly 10-15 damage per round. Garland was doing double that amount with each hit, but there were four fighters on my team and only one of him. Towards the end of the battle, my fighters started missing over and over again, while Garland kept concentrating on Live. Long story stort, poor Live was killed and the rest of the team was victorious.

I decided to drop Live into the fourth spot for a while to let him recover some XP, even if it meant screwing up the nice little naming convention I had going. And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of having a character named "Live" who wouldn't stop dying.

Next up was a trip to... Matoya's Cave. That was difficult enough for this crippled variant team! The first trip had to turn back halfway when a group of Madponies inflicted brutal damage. The second trip did make it to the Cave (looting the 2 Heal potions and 1 Pure potion, woohoo!), although Live was again critically injured in the process. He made it all the way back from the Cave with 2 hit points, only to be slain yet again just outside Coneria! That trip leveled everyone except poor Live to lvl 3, boosting total life into a much safer zone.

Now I could finally head to Pravoka. The journey there was interesting; after fighting some Imps, my group had a devil of a time killing an Iguana (which they did manage after about ten rounds of combat), then faced 4 Madponies, only to get a "Close Call" immediately with no damage taken! Sweet. Against the Pirates, the only question was whether they would manage to kill one of my four fighters. Land (in the first spot) just barely survived, with 8 out of 86 hit points left. The fight now put Live up to lvl 3 as well, and I walked away with the SHIP.

I said that I wasn't going to sandbag around and build levels in this game unless absolutely necessary, and I meant that. Still, at some points there simply isn't much choice. Four lvl 3 fighters with no weapons and no armor and no potions cannot even make it to the Marsh Cave, much less make it down there and return safely with looted treasure! I had enough trouble winning even a single battle at Elfland until the group reached lvl 4 (with many deaths to individual characters along the way shuffling experience around). After that, I could at least fight once before needing to go back to the inn. I was determined to try a run at the Marsh Cave upon reaching lvl 5. On the first trip, I was indeed successful at reaching the second floor and securing this goody:

Unfortunately, everyone was poisoned by this time, and that was a walking death sentence for my group. They made it into the cave, but they didn't make it out... After that, I kept "trying" to make it to the Marsh Cave, but one or two victories would cripple my party enough that they had to return back to the inn. Anything other than immediately running from foes meant losing tons of hit points, sadly.

I soon got tired of that and decided to make a real effort again. On my second try (still at lvl 5), I made it halfway through the Marsh Cave before my fighters started getting poisoned. Off and Da both were cursed with venom from arachnids, giving them slow death sentences. I still had all four fighters left when I grabbed the Large Dagger, but the clock was ticking. Since they were dead men anyway, I stuck them in the front rows in battle (a single combat round would see them expire once they fell to 1 hit point anyway). First Da collapsed, then Off was taken down by a group of Bones near the Marsh Cave entrance. Now I was down to just two badly injured warriors, with no TENT to heal them or save the game, even though I had made it out of the Cave. The first battle trekking back was against a Werewolf/GrImp pair, which poisoned Land as well. Damnation! At least I did get out of there intact, but now Land was on death's door as well. He fell in the following battle, against an Ogre and two Creeps.

Now Live was the only one left. I'm marching back to Elfland, thinking "oh please let me make it!" He faces two Ogres next, which pummel him down to 15 hit points before I can get away. Still, just a little further... Disaster! ONE tile away from Elfland I face an Ogre and two Creeps. The Ogre goes first and... misses!!! Live goes next and runs away successfully. And that is how I looted the first weapon in the game.

Whew! It doesn't get much closer than that. Now I had a weapon to play around with, and even the measly Large Dagger made a huge difference compared to having nothing at all. It increased damage by seven (12 -> 19) and hit percentage by ten (22 -> 32). This was really important as it boosted the fighter using it to the magic 32 hit percentage, giving them a second hit! It was almost painful to watch everyone else attack and do 5-10 damage, then the one fighter would attack and bang out "2 hits! 40 damage." I fought a few battles to get used to the new situation, by which time everyone had reached level 6. Time for another try at the Marsh Cave, to loot the Short Sword on the same dungeon floor.

My first attempt was going great; I made it to the Short Sword with all four fighters alive, grabbed the loot, and was almost back out of the Marsh Cave with reasonably good hit points. Then I hit a random battle against 2 Crawls and 5 Bones, with "monsters strike first." They paralyzed half the party and I was completely unable to run away with the remaining characters, leading to a slow death at the hands of the undead. Argh! Second try started off much worse, with my lead character taking critical hits three different times on the way out. In the actual Marsh Cave, I kept hitting the Zombie/Ghoul pairings - a bad random encounter to draw. Off got poisoned and was dead before I even reached the Short Sword. Yet I kept plugging away, and made progress even as more and more fighters kept dropping to the ground.

I limped out of the Cave with two fighters left: Live at ~80 hit points and Land at about 40. Same two again - a good omen? First battle was against two Ogres, who pounded Land to death's door before I could get out of there. Second battle was against a GrImp/Werewolf grouping, which I got out of with little damage. Next up was a Wolf/GrWolf pack, which killed off Land and damaged Live further. Something like 50 hp left now. Fourth was a solo Ogre, who managed to hit him twice before I could run. Live had a grand total of 5 hit points left... and that was it! He made it back to town by the skin of his teeth.

You can't make this stuff up. 15hp and then 5hp, on a single fighter out of the starting four. Been playing this variant for less than two hours, and it's already proved incredibly exciting! Guess naming him "Live" wasn't a bad choice after all.

Well now I had two actual weapons to play around with. The Short Sword was even better than the Large Dagger, adding FIFTEEN damage (12 -> 27!) and also taking the fighter wielding it to the double-hit threshhold. Now I was in business, and could actually start doing some real fighting rather than just running away from 90% of the monsters. I went ahead and plundered the Dwarf Cave for kicks, taking the two treasure chests and ~1000 gold in there. This was really an excuse to raise levels a little more, but it felt like I was accomplishing something. Actually did pick up a goodly amount of XP in the process, while kicking some major ass for the first time!

Back again to the Marsh Cave. The upper staircase in there led to the two weapons, and now I set a goal of reaching the armors on the bottom floor. Since armor clearly was more helpful to me from a survivability standpoint, why wait longer to get it? Simple: because it was deeper in the Marsh Cave. As you read above, I made it back to Elfland with virtually nothing left on the initial two tries. To go down to the bottom dungeon level, I needed more hit points and striking power for battles where running wasn't an option.

I definitely had to fight additional battles to reach the third basement floor. The worst was one against a collection of undead; a Red Bone did something like 50 damage with each attack! Bad news for my group. Still, with more hit points on hand now, we successfully reached the target:

Real armor for a change - 24 Absorb! That's a lot! Talk about a difference. I gave it to the fighter with the most hit points, which happened to be Off. After a long and uneventful trek out, my fighters exited the Marsh Cave with one dead body, and two others sporting hit points of 21 and 3. Off was the tough man in the group, with 74 hit points. On the walk back, Off took a total of five damage, while the other two fighters both died - do you think the absorb made a difference?

With the full team together again, I had a pick of weapon and armor distribution. Obviously I chose to give the weapons to the last two fighters in order (the ones getting hit the least), and the armor to the first one in line. Piling all of the gear on a single character would have been asking for trouble, giving the paralyze and death attacks in this game. I made a trip to the Northwest Castle and back, which technically served no point (you don't have to meet Astos before fighting him) but felt good from a story perspective. More importantly, it gave me enough experience to put everyone up to lvl 7, when I could begin a run at the Wizards.

The first such try was going well, until Off and Land were poisoned in a battle against Scorpions. I settled for grabbing the Copper Bracelet from the Cave on that trip, and limped back to Elfland for another go. With the bracelet and Cap equipped on the second fighter (behind the first one using the Iron Armor), I could reach 5 Absorb and notably better defense. Second try at the Wizards ran afoul of a group of Geists before even making it to the Cave, forcing a retreat. Got some good experience on the way back, fortunately. The third time, I made it to the Wizards - drawing the maximum of four opponents! Damn. That ended in a grisly slaughter. Three would already be pushing it, four was completely out of the question. The fourth try fared better:

Not only did I have many more hit points, and only one fighter poisoned, I got the minimal draw of two Wizards! Now I just had to avoid blowing the opportunity. Live (using the Short Sword) did 40 damage with his first hit, while Da (who had no weapon at all) got a critical and did 35 more - killing the first Wizard immediately! Wow, more good fortune. From there, I cleaned up the final opponent without issue - although he did do "2 Hits! 101 Damage" against the unprotected Live, ouch!

Now I had to get out. Everything was going peachy, until a Muck did an 80 damage critical hit and wiped out Land - gah! At least he was the poisoned one that was doomed anyway. Then Da and Live both got poisoned, and I hit a Zombie/Ghoul encounter with "monsters strike first". Crap.

Sometimes I hate this game...