Berserkers: The Armorless Variant Renaissance

I spent a lot of time playing the original Final Fantasy in the first decade of the 2000s and some of my favorite variants were teams known as the Iron Fists and the Berserkers. The Iron Fists was a challenge to complete the whole game by having all of the non-Black Belt classes play like Black Belts, refusing to equip any weapons or use anything that directly targeted the enemies. Instead the Iron Fists had to defeat everything by shaking their unarmed hands at them, leading to a group with hilariously low offensive output who had to rely on defense and healing to carry the day. The Berserkers were a team that refused to equip any armor items at all, the exact opposite of the Iron Fists, instead winning through overwhelming offensive before they could be slain themselves. Unfortunately there were problems with both variants; the Iron Fists had to equip weapons temporarily to get the party past certain bosses and that had always rubbed me the wrong way, even writing this now almost two decades later. The Zerks were instead an unfinished project, a team that completed nearly the whole game but which I never got around to finishing or writing up for the website beyond an initial teaser. I always wished that there was some way to go back and fix these issues with some of my all-time favorite variants even as they faded further and further back into the past.

These variants and the original Final Fantasy game itself weren't even on my radar for years and years. Then one day SirSystemError posted on the Sullla Discord about a fan project named Final Fantasy Renaissance which had been created as a labor of love by an individual named Ozmo. He had recreated the entire coding for Final Fantasy from scratch in the Unity engine as a tribute to the old-school RPGs that many of us had grown up playing. Ozmo added a whole bunch of interesting new features in the form of new classes and new abilities, and I might spend some time investigating them in the future because they look pretty cool. However, what I really cared about was Ozmo fixing all of the various bugs present in the original Final Fantasy, allowing the game to function as it was intended to work. For those who don't know, Final Fantasy has an INCREDIBLE number of bugs and features that work incorrectly or don't work at all. I was hoping that removal of these bugs would allow the Iron Fists to make use of the TMPR spell (which doesn't function at all in the original game) and theoretically defeat every boss without ever equipping a single weapon. I even started up a fresh game with a new party only to discover that TMPR doesn't work on characters unless they have a weapon equipped, leaving me in the same position as before with this variant. Maybe someday I'll find a workaround for this and be able to return to the Iron Fists to finish their journey.

The Zerks though, they would work perfectly fine under the fixed ruleset and that sounded like an awesome way to explore the content that had previously been broken. I would be playing Final Fantasy under the Classic ruleset which keeps everything the same aside from fixing the many bugs in the base game. This report is going to be spending a lot of time talking about what was broken in the original game and how things are different here with the bug fixes in place. Ozmo also added a whole bunch of qualify-of-life improvements to the gameplay that don't affect the actual mechanics, things like having six spaces for names rather than the default four spaces and menus that actually explain what the spells and items do. I would be taking the same party once again, a Fighter and two Black Belts along with a Black Mage, largely as a tribute to the original Iron Fists. This is definitely not the optimal setup for this variant which would benefit enormously from having a Red Mage in place of the Black Mage to add the LIFE spell for revival along with some additional healing and utility spells. T-Hawk played out this same variant after I left it unfinished and correctly intuited that I had chosen the Black Mage for flavor purposes, intentionally not wanting any defensive spellcasting present on the Berserkers team. The names were all shout-outs to the original group of Zerk, Beat, Smak, and Nuke while making use of the extra spaces for the fun of it.

The game began in exactly the same fashion as the original Bersekers, by purchasing the best weapons available for everyone: a Rapier for Zerk, Wooden Nunchuks for the two Black Belts, and a Small Knife for Nuke. This was a cheap party to equip since they could skip out on ever buying armor which tends to have the highest pricetags in the original Final Fantasy. There was enough money left over to fill out Nuke's first-level spell slots with FIRE, LIT, and SLEP which I preferred over the LOCK spell. Before getting into the action, here's a quick overview of the stats on each character:

This is another screen revamped with additional information from the original game; click here to see what the same status screen looked like originally. Going through the list in order, the Strength stat was extremely important for this variant as it leads directly to damage: 1 additional point of Attack for every 2 points of Strength. Typically each character will take Strength / 2 and then add this number to the Attack value on their weapon to get the total Attack value; for example, the starting Rapier would add 9 Attack once equipped and bring Zerk up to a total of 19. Fighters start the game with 20 Strength and therefore have an Attack value of 10 + weapon Attack at the outset of their journey. (The game uses "Damage" here but that's a confusing term and I'm going to be consistent with "Attack" instead for clarity's sake.) All other classes use the same formula except unequipped Black Belts which I'll talk more about when Beat and Smack dropped their nunchuks in a bit. The other really important base stat is Vitality as it leads directly to more health: characters gain Vitality / 4 health on each level up. They also gain an additional 20-25 HP on certain "Strong" level ups which are predetermined for each class. Fighters and Black Belts get tons of Strength and Vitality which is what you'd expect for their character archetypes.

The other three base stats aren't as important as you might thing. Agility increases the Evade stat and makes it harder to be hit, that's all. It has zero effect on turn order in battle (which is completely random) as the name might suggest. Intelligence is a spellcasting stat that increases the odds for offensive spells to double their damage - or at least it would if the Intelligence stat wasn't bugged in the original Final Fantasy where it does literally nothing at all. That should be fixed here in Final Fantasy Renassiance and I plan to explore how this functions with Nuke over the course of this report. Luck makes it easier to run away in battle... but again the stat is bugged in the original game and does nothing because running works off an entirely different formula. Get used to hearing that in this report! Luck does nothing else and doesn't improve crit rate or anything that other games often attribute to this stat. I'll be interested to see how running feels different now that the mechanic should finally be fixed as well. Finally, the Magic Defense stat was present in the original game and even functioned correctly but was never displayed to the player. Final Fantasy Renassiance adds this to the status screen which is another helpful quality-of-life improvement.

The other numbers here are mostly derived stats of some kind. Attack / Damage is extremely important since it's used for all physical attacks in Final Fantasy. The attacking character rolls a number between Attack and Attack * 2, then subtracts out the Absorb of the defender, and that's how much damage they do. (This same formula is applied for each hit when characters start getting additional hits later in the game.) Here's an example in practice from the start of the game:

Zerk's aforementioned Attack was 19 with the Rapier which meant that he could roll anywhere from 19-38 base damage. Imps have an Absorb rating of 4 which meant the total potential damage output was 15-34 when hitting them, always enough to one-shot the Imps with their 8 HP by a hefty margin. The math on Attack versus Absorb is absolutely central to Final Fantasy's gameplay and it can get very brutal very quickly (in either direction) when the attacker or the defender starts to outpace their counterpart. For example, the Chain Armor available for purchase in Coneria grants an Absorb rating of 15; Imps only have an Attack of 4 which meant rand(4-8) - 15 = 1 damage maximum per attack. Imps cannot deal more than a single point of damage to anyone wearing Chain Armor unless they happen to get a critical hit, and that has very low odds now that the formula for crits has been fixed in Final Fantasy Renaissance. (More on crits later.) However, the math works in the opposite direction as well: Nuke had a starting Strength of 1 for an Attack of only 6 even with his Small Knife equipped and therefore only 2-8 damage against Imps; if he removed his weapon for some reason, he could never deal more than 1 damage against them, ever! And of course the whole party was completely vulnerable to all incoming attacks with zero Absorb of their own, making even trivial opponents like Imps and Wolves into potentially deadly opponents.

The other stats worth mentioning here are how Accuracy (Hit Percentage) and Evasion interact together. The base value in the to-hit calculation is 168 which gets added together with the character's innate Accuracy rating plus the Accuracy rating on the equipped weapon. For Zerk, his to-hit value would be 168 + 15 + 5 (from the Rapier) = 188. The defender's Evasion rating is then subtracted from this and a number from 1 to 200 is rolled, with numbers under the to-hit value counting as hits and those above it counting as misses. Sticking with our Imp example, the critters have 6 Evasion so Zerk had 188 - 6 = 182 / 200 = 91% odds to hit. Most armor carries an equipment penalty in Final Fantasy so if there was one benefit to not wearing anything it was higher evade than normal. There's yet another bug in the original game here: the 168 base value plus Accuracy calculation is capped at a value of 255 even though it can go significantly higher, which essentially causes lategame monsters to be easier to hit than they should be, plus creates the infamous "use RUSE three times to make a character impossible to hit" phenomenon. It should take four or five uses of RUSE (and double that of INV2) to set up this situation against endgame monsters; I doubt I'll be doing too much of that with this party but you never know.

Anyway, I'm discussing the mechanics here because there wasn't much going on for the revamped Berserkers at the start of the game. They hacked Imps to death around Coneria until reaching Level 2, accumulating enough gold in the process to pick up a Tent for safety. Then it was off to face Garland to initiate the plot:

Garland was an easy boss even for a variant group like the Berserkers. He had an Attack value of 15 which translated into 15-30 damage against my completely unprotected variant team, with the roll of 18 damage above actually being a lower-than-average result. Garland also had 10 Absorb which was the highest this group had seen thus far. Still, he could only attack once per round and that wasn't going to be anywhere near good enough into the 1 vs 4 odds that he was facing. Nuke landed a nice FIRE spell for 38 damage while the rest of the party pounded away until the boss fell at the start of the third round of combat. Nice and easy stuff.

The party had lost enough health that I took the free teleport back to Coneria castle by talking to Princess Sarah. Then it was back to the Temple of Fiends again to loot the minimal treasure chests inside, with this group obtaining even less than usual since the Cap was useless to them. Along the way I had occasion to make use of a spell that was bugged in the original game and has been fixed here in Final Fantasy Renaissance:

The SLEP (Sleep) spell is one of the very rare low-ranking spells that hits all enemies present instead of a single target. It deals no damage and instead has a chance to put the monsters to sleep, with the to-hit rate working out to approximately 80-85% against early monsters. SLEP is bugged in the original game because monsters always wake up on the very first round after falling asleep, making the spell virtually useless in practice. The corrected formula rolls a number between 0 and 80 for asleep targets and if the result is lower than the enemy's max HP then they wake up. This makes SLEP an excellent tool against early game foes (e.g. Imps and their 8 HP have 90% odds to remain asleep!) before falling off into uselessness again once monster HP begins scaling up around Elfland and Melmond. Here at the outset of the game I was making frequent use of the spell with Nuke, especially against dangerous targets like the paralyze-inflicting Zombies or big packs of wolves. Sleeping enemies even took 5/4 more damage than normal and it was fun to play around with a spell that had been completely pointless in the base version of the game.

Once the bridge opened up north of Coneria, I had the party pick up the three potions in Matoya's Cave before heading east to Pravoka. As usual for this group, monsters died quickly to the all-offensive setup while disaster was never more than a few successful enemy attacks away. The Bersekers were able to take down Mad Ponies, GrWolves, Creeps, and even the rare Ogre that popped up in fighting outside Pravoka... at the cost of Smack suffering the first character death of the run to a pack of Wolves and GrWolves. I made it to Pravoka with no additional issues and purchased a Short Sword upgrade for Zerk, then initiated the preset battle against the Pirates with everyone at Level 3:

The Pirates are a total joke battle in any situation with a full party, even one that had no Absorb at all like this one. The Pirates have zero Absorb themselves and a base Attack value of only 8 which translates into 8-16 base damage, enough that things could have been a bit dicey if they combined all of their blows together onto one target. (Monster targeting works off a very basic dice roll in this game: 50% odds to hit the first character, 25% odds to hit the second character, and 12.5% apiece for the last two slots.) It could get really bad for the Berserkers when facing a large group of enemies who all rolled the 50% chance to hit the first person in order. However, the Pirates were sitting ducks for Nuke's SLEP spell which had better than 80% odds to put them to sleep followed by only 8% odds to wake up each round afterwards. The Pirates only had 6 HP apiece which meant that everyone was one-shotting them on the attack, even Nuke with his Small Dagger was able to claim a melee kill. Like I said, this shouldn't even count as a boss encounter for any kind of normal party.

The ship opened up access to the inner sea and I made my first voyage over to the Dwarf Cave to loot the two pre-KEY treasure chests for their 1000 gold reward. The Bersekers ran into some juicy random encounters on this trip, slaying a pair of Ogres in separate battles for additional income. The one annoyance was a Sahag dealing 11 damage to Zerk when he had 11 HP remaining in the final battle before returning to Coneria to deny the Fighter a reward of 100 XP. I spent most of the gold payout from this trip purchasing 15 Heal potions, 10 Pure potions, and 5 Tents to have a basic stock on hand for traveling around the world. There was also enough left over to pick up the TMPR spell for Nuke over in Pravoka which I'd have occasion to mess around with down the road.

Now I finally headed down to Elfland for the first time and did some fighting in the forests surrounding the castle town. The monsters there quickly tipped the party up to Level 5 which was a hugely significant level for Zerk:

The Fighter's Accuracy rating reached 32% which was enough to grant Zerk his second hit. That's the rule in this game, every 32% of Accuracy grants the character in question another attack in melee combat. Why such an arbitrary number like 32%? Who knows what the handful of developers at Square were thinking in 1987 but regardless this was a very significant milestone. A second hit is exactly what it sounds like, a second attack rolled against the same target in exactly the same fashion as the first one, quite literally doubling the damage output of the character in question. Fighters start at an Accuracy rating of 10% and gain an additional 3% per level, plus Zerk was getting 10% more from his Short Sword to take him to the exact value of the magical 32%. Note that 31% Accuracy does nothing aside from increasing the to-hit odds in combat, only reaching 32% then 64% and so on matters for the purpose of getting more hits. Zerk's damage output simply exploded as a result of getting the extra hit, dealing 27-54 damage before Absorb was factored in followed by another 27-54 damage on his second hit. Long story short, he was vastly stronger than anyone else in the party for the moment, yet another example of how the Fighter class is overpowered in this game.

The number of hits mechanic works the same way for every other class in Final Fantasy as well. Nuke's melee attacks were of course pathetic and not worth mentioning but I did closely follow the progress of the two Black Belts as they developed over time. Black Belts start at 5% Accuracy and also gain 3% more per level which delays them hitting the hallowed 32% until reaching Level 10. Black Belts also have the unique property of having an Attack value equal to their level so long as they don't equip any weapons; they also double their normal number of hits when fighting in this fashion (punching with both fists I suppose). It's clearly worthwhile to equip the Wooden Nunchuks at the start of the game and have one attack dealing 12-24 damage rather than two attacks each dealing 2-4 damage. When is the proper time to switch over to fists though? T-Hawk ran the numbers and thought Level 5 was the correct answer which sounds right to me as well. Two hits at 10-20 damage each is better than one hit at 12-24 damage from the Wooden Nunchuks, and it's not worth spending 400 gold for a pair of Iron Nunchuks at 16-32 damage which would almost immediately be obsoleted as well.

So I unequipped Beat and Smack of their weapons when they reached Level 5 (actually shortly afterwards because I had forgotten at first), only to have this happen:

Whoa, THREE hits?! That's not supposed to happen; nowhere in the literature for Final Fantasy have I ever seen anything indicating that Black Belts are supposed to get an extra hit beyond their basic two-handed nature. Did Ozmo make some kind of mistake of his own while cleaning up all of the various other bugs present in the original game? In any case, Beat and Smack were definitely getting a third attack once they unequipped their weaponry which helped them out a fair bit, especially against monsters with low Absorb. They still trailed Zerk by a wide margin at the moment but they were starting to become more than an afterthought as they continued to gain more experience.

The party hung out around Elfland long enough to reach Level 6, largely because I wanted to have enough gold for a purchase of FIR2 and enough supplies to have a realistic chance of reaching the Marsh Cave and making it back in one piece. (I wasn't trying to sandbag here but also wasn't going to the lengths of T-Hawk's strict anti-grinding policy which resulted in somewhat wasteful ventures into the Marsh Cave before the party was ready.) The first trip into the Marsh Cave had the goal of clearing out the dead end top floor which contains a fair amount of gold. The Berserkers made it there without running into trouble, and they had opened most of the chests when a group of three Scorpions killed Beat from full health. Scorpions are an uncommon enemy in the Marsh Cave, more typically appearing in the Earth Cave, and their ability to get multiple hits on the party decimated the poor Black Belts; I would have used one of Nuke's FIR2 charges if I had known how dangerous they would be. The rest of the party managed to finish looting the room and ran from monster encounters all the way back to Coneria, saving their progress with Tents along the way once they were outside. The group had about 3000 gold on hand after selling the unneeded extra Short Sword and restocking supplies so I fought long enough to reach 4000 gold and pick up the infamous Silver Sword for Zerk. This was conveniently also just enough time to get the group up to Level 7 for some much-needed additional max HP.

The return trip to the Marsh Cave had a surprisingly easy time making it down to the bottom basement floor. The Berserkers ran into a group of Shadows followed by Mucks and then a pack of Arachnids, none of which did too much in the way of damage. The poison-inflicting monsters tended to have lower Attack values which made them better targets for this party. The number of Wizards guarding the CROWN is random in Final Fantasy (with 2-4 being the possible range) and this time the Berserkers rolled the medium result of three opponents. The Wizards are quite nasty for this stage of the gameplay with two attacks dealing 30-60 damage apiece, 12 Absorb, high evasion and high magic defense, plus resistance to fire and ice elements. I was a bit unlucky as they focused their attacks on Smack with one of the Wizards getting in two hits for 76 damage to kill the Black Belt almost immediately - yikes!

The Berserkers countered by making use of a spell which is bugged in the base game: TMPR. This is a second-level Black magic spell that adds 14 to the Attack value of the targeted ally... or at least it would if the spell wasn't bugged, as TMPR literally does nothing in the unmodified game. Now that TMPR was fixed here in Final Fantasy Renaissance, I could have Nuke deploy it on Zerk to increase his Attack from 36 to 50, translating into 38-88 damage per hit after subtracting out the enemy absorb for both of Zerk's two attacks. This was basically guaranteed to kill a Wizard on each round of combat and it was much more effective than having Nuke cast FIR2 into that fire resistance since I hadn't saved up enough money to purchase LIT2 yet. This was a tense fight with Smack falling quickly and Nuke getting knocked down to a single hit point (literally 1/100 HP remaining!) but it did result in victory soon enough. Making it back out of the Marsh Cave was fairly easy with three surviving characters and the whole quest was completed at the cost of 17 Heal potions, 5 Pure potions, and 4 Tents.

After reviving poor Smack at the Coneria clinic, the Berserkers made the hike to Astos' Castle to pick up the next item in this extended fetch quest sequence. Astos is basically a souped-up version of the Wizards, with a staggering 40 Absorb and a Magic Defense value of 170 (!) which makes it nearly impossible to hit him with status-affecting magic or get the doubled value from damaging spells. He also likes to open each battle by casting the RUB instant death spell which has about 80% odds to land the one-shot kill on a party member at this stage of the game. I was confident that the Berserkers could defeat Astos due to their offensive firepower but was hoping to dodge the RUB spell to get the victory experience payout on all four characters. My tactics were the same as before, cast TMPR on Zerk as an early game version of FAST and otherwise swing away while hoping for the best. I saved outside the castle with a Tent and reset the boss fight three or four times as the RUB spell kept inevitably hitting someone on the team. Then this happened on the fifth version of the battle:

Whoa, 260 damage from Zerk!!! Astos only has 168 HP so that was a one-shot kill. I was so surprised that I barely managed to capture the screenshot in time. Zerk's buffed Attack value was enough to cut through that heavy Absorb on Astos plus he must have had one or even both of his two attacks go critical. That's much rarer here in Final Fantasy Renaissance where the famous crit bug has been fixed. For those who aren't familiar with this, each weapon is supposed to have its own critical value in Final Fantasy and most of these are quite low, with the Silver Sword having an intended crit rate of 5 percent. Crits are bugged in the base game, however, using the weapon's INDEX number (i.e. its numerical listing) rather than the actual crit value. This causes virtually every weapon in the game to crit at a much higher rate than intended, with the Silver Sword having an index number of 17 for an effective 17% crit chance, and it's even worse for the endgame stuff like Xcalber (intended crit rate 5%, actual crit rate 39%). This is yet another bug that works in favor of the Fighter class and undercuts the Thief which is supposed to be the endgame crit character with the Ninja's Katana. The fixed crit rate was already quite noticeable here in Final Fantasy Renaissance with crits occurring much less often than I was used to seeing.

Anyway, with Astos dead the party laid claim to the CRYSTAL and eventually traded it in for the HERB and the mystic KEY, then began unlocking the various sealed doors all over the inner sea. I started by looting Elfland and Coneria Castles, then headed back to Astos' own domain to grab the treasures locked therein. There are two trapped tiles in the treasure room there (spaces on the map that always initiate a preset battle), one of which contains Mummies while the other has Images. Both of these monster types are weak against fire making this a good opportunity to discuss how spell damage functions:

The mechanics for spellcasting turn out to be very similar to the to-hit calculation for physical attacks. Status spells like SLEP or RUB have a chance to hit or miss their target and inflict their effects, but even direct damage spells also make a similar roll to see if their damage is resisted, in which case the doubling component of the damage calculation does not occur and the spell does only half of its potential damage. The base chance for a spell to hit is 148 (lowered to 0 if the target resists that elemental type and increased to 188 if they are weak against it). This number is added to the spell accuracy rating unique to each spell and then the magic defense of the target is subtracted out. This is followed by the now-familiar dice roll from 1 to 200 with a number lower than the result being a hit and a number higher than the result counting as a miss. For direct damage spells, damage is rolled twice if the spell "hits" and only once if it misses. Finally, targets resistant to a spell's elemental type take half damage while targets weak against that element take 50% increased damage. This is why Astos takes so little damage from spells despite lacking any innate elemental resistances: his 170 Magic Defense means that the party's spells will almost never "hit" and double their damage, limiting a spell like ICE to 20-40 damage instead of its potential 40-80 damage.

Using the example of the Images above, FIR2 has a base spell power of 30 along with a spell accuracy rating of 24 while the Images have a Magic Defense of 52. If the undead creatures were not weak to fire, the FIR2 spell would always deal 30-60 damage to each target and then have 148 + 24 - 52 = 120 / 200 = 60% odds to deal an additional 30-60 damage on top of that initial output. Since they are weak to fire element though, the calculation shifts to an innate 45-90 damage plus 188 + 24 - 52 = 160 / 200 = 80% odds to deal that second 45-90 damage. Conversely, if they resisted fire then the damage would only be 15-30 base plus 0 + 24 - 52 = 0 / 200 = 0.5% odds to deal the doubled 15-30 damage (since there's always a 1 in 200 chance to roll a hit). Average damage goes from 72 in the normal case to 121 in the weak case to 23 damage in the resistant case - kind of a big deal! Note that the Intelligence stat does not factor into any of these calculations at any point in time as it appears to be completely unused in the base game. I think that Ozmo has added Intelligence into these mechanics somewhere because I saw FIR2 deal 190 damage to some foes which isn't possible under the existing formula as the spell caps out at a maximum possible 180 damage against weak opponents. Perhaps he's adding Intelligence / 4 to the base damage of spells or maybe adding Intelligence as flat extra damage after the rest of the calculation is finished (?) The Minor Changes spreadsheet states: "Gave INT stat a purpose by implementing a new system where the damage and accuracy of offensive magic spells is boosted slightly based on the current INT and level of the character casting the spell." I'll have to ask on the Final Fantasy Renassiance Discord and see if I can get a more specific answer as to what's taking place.

After grabbing the locked chests in the Dwarf Cave and opening the passage west, the one remaining area with more KEY treasures was the bottom floor of the Marsh Cave. The Berserkers had enough gold by this point that I could maintain 99 Heal potions indefinitely which made things significantly easier. I found that the group didn't have much trouble with the random encounters in the cave by now, with Zerk able to kill anything in one hit and the two Black Belts combining their attacks to eliminate a second target on each round of combat. If there were more than three or four enemies present, Nuke could use one of the area-of-effect spells that Black Mages excel at. The only stumbling block came from the trapped squares at the bottom of the cave where more Wizards were lurking. The first such battle had the maximum four Wizards present and I had foolishly left Zerk in the first position where he would be tanking most of the incoming hits. I was lucky that the enemies spread out their damage across the whole party and "only" killed Smack. The second Wizards battle had three of the creatures present and this time they did finish off Zerk at the tail end of the fracas. I was left with only two characters remaining, could they make it out? Oh no, they ran into one of those infamous Zombie/Ghoul monster groups with their paralyzing attacks and...

Nuke was super clutch, spending his last remaining third-level spell charge on the winning FIR2 cast. Whew, that was the last dangerous fight before the surviving pair made it out after a total expenditure of 40 Heal potions. This is a worthwhile place to mention how the in-battle turn order works in Final Fantasy which has nothing to do with Agility or the speed of the attacks. Instead it's completely random: the game lists all of the monsters in the initial turn positions, then the four party members in the last four positions, then randomly swaps the order of two of those positions 17 times in a row. The resulting list is the turn order for that round of combat. This is obviously advantageous to the monsters (who always start in the beginning positions before any swaps take place) so it's not just perception that they tend to go earlier than the party, they really do get to act first a disproportionate amount of the time. Ozmo apparently made some very small tweaks to this mechanic for Final Fantasy Renassiance but the system still works in nearly-identical fashion.

The Earth Cave was up next, one of the easier dungeons to complete in Final Fantasy as there's more than enough gold available for max Heal potions by this point. My first trip into the cave cleared out the treasure chests on the initial floor followed by a second trip to grab everything on the second basement level. I fought everything in the process - it was basically equally fast/safe for the Berserkers to kill everything as it was to try running away - and the party gained excellent experience in the process, enough to boost everyone to Level 10:

This is a big level for the Black Belts as they hit 32% Accuracy rating which is enough to get them an extra attack. Well, two extra attacks since they always punch with both fists. I noted above that Beat and Smack had inexplicably been getting a third attack as soon as they dropped their Nunchuks; this did not continue as they returned to the "correct" four hits, making this less of a drastic leap (3 hits to 4 hits) as opposed to how it had been in the original game (2 hits to 4 hits). The Black Belts were now dealing 20-40 base damage on each attack which was roughly comparable to Zerk's damage output against enemies with no Absorb and quite a bit less against high-defense opponents like the pictured Earth. This was offset by the Black Belts having a much higher crit rate than Zerk now that the crit mechanic has been fixed. Black Belts have a crit chance equal to double their level (20% at the moment) while Zerk's Silver Sword only had a crit chance of 5%. Typically Zerk would do more damage unless the Black Belts rolled crits in which case they could dish out huge overkill damage. Beat and Smack also had innate Absorb equal to their level and would eventually have more health than Zerk as well. The Black Belts were clearly much better than normal relative to the Fighter, and if Zerk was stronger at the moment, in time they would outscale him in almost every way.

Most of the random encounters in the Earth Cave were readily handled by the Berserkers as they simply won quickly enough that their lack of armor wasn't an issue. Some of the worst foes were the Gargoyles who could show up in packs of seven or eight at a time and would always get multiple hits for big damage. But any situation could end up being deadly if the monsters ganged up on one target; for example, an Earth on a trapped tile killed Smack in two blows from full health on the party's second trip into the Earth Cave. Then after the initial treasures had all been looted, the Berserkers made it to the third floor where they hit a group of three Wizards. The party wiped them in a single round but three concentrated attacks against Beat dropped the Black Belt too and prompted a retreat from the cave. Annoyingly each fallen comrade forced a return to Coneria since there's no clinic for revival at Melmond.

The return trip to the third floor made it to the Vampire without issues. The three melee characters all attacked as usual (what else could they have done?) while Nuke broke out the first FAST spell of the game to boost Zerk's offense. The turn order played out in my favor with Nuke going first followed by Zerk landing five hits and slaying the Vampire before it even had a chance to act. Thus this boss fight was substantially easier than many random encounters, zero damage taken! I noted here that the FAST spell took Zerk up to five attacks (not doubling his normal two attacks) which means that it was actually doubling his Accuracy rating. Zerk was getting close to unlocking his third hit which would then careen him past the Black Belts again for a while. Nuke died from some unlucky RNG on the walk out of the Earth Cave but otherwise the trip out was pretty smooth. One RUBY for ROD exchange later, the party was back to the Earth Cave again, with all of the experience from these various spelunking adventures having taken them up to Level 12.

Trekking down to the bottom floor of the Earth Cave was more perilous than I'd been expecting. The Berserkers repeatedly kept finding themselves one step away from disaster after they started hitting the more dangerous monster types on the third and fourth basements. The group was pounded by a trio of mummies that did way more damage than I was expecting, then kept hitting Geist/Spectre mobs that forced Nuke to burn some of his limited FIR2 charges. There was a flock of Cockatrices on the fourth basement floor that petrified Smack and Nuke on the first turn of combat and could have led to a party wipe with some slightly worse luck for the other two characters. (The odds for status effects to hit are (100 - Magic Defense) / 200 which worked out to roughly 25% at this stage of the game.) I also only had 3 Soft potions and this took me down to a mere one remaining. Then a pair of Sphinxes guarding a treasure chest could have easily knocked out half the party, fortunately dividing their attacks across all four characters and leaving three of them below 75 HP, followed by a random Troll encounter reducing Smack down to a mere 8 HP! It was a minor miracle that everyone was still standing by the time that the Berserkers reached the final altar.

The plan for Lich was straightforward: everyone attack while Nuke added FAST spells on the first two rounds of combat. I'd been forced to use all of his FIR2 charges and his sole casting of FIR3 which meant there was little else for the Black Mage to do. The randomness of turn order worked in the party's favor again as Nuke got off the FAST spell on Zerk followed by Lich unloading with ICE2. The party had absolutely no protection against this, no AICE or elemental shielding to cut the damage, and their Magic Defense wasn't high enough to prevent the spell from doubling its damage against everyone for a truly horrendous pounding. I think Nuke took around 140 damage and fell to death's door as a result. But that didn't matter because Zerk attacked next and did "5 Hits! 462 damage" to one-shot Lich into the grave. This was absolutely classic Berseker gameplay, insane damage totals flying around everywhere and the battle over in a single round. Don't blink or you'll miss all the action.

The Earth Cave effectively ends what I think of as the early potions of the gameplay. Next up would be the midgame troika which promised to have its own deadly perils in store for this wild group - stay tuned!