Levelling up - the cornerstone of most RPGs - is a curious thing. Before you can fight one worthy adversary, you have to battle 100 puny foes so weak, the action amounts to little more than skipping through 100 menu screens.
Somebody ought to come up with an alternative. It's not as if kicking the faces off 100 weasels in real life would qualify you for anything other than a small fine and a six-month ban from the local Weasel Breeders' Association. Quite how pummelling 100 unarmed goblins, few of whom stood up long enough to take a second blow, made us clear favourites in a fight against a 10ft tall magical demon is anybody's guess.
Regardless of this shocking lack of plausibility, Final Fantasy III is a thoroughly absorbing adventure that will eat weeks of your spare time. Yes, half of it will be spent fighting the low-level creatures dumb enough to assault you every time you take a couple of steps, but that's the nature of these beasts. They're only trying to help.
Because Final Fantasy III is a real throwback. As the third instalment in the series, and a game deemed - presumably - too hardcore for Western tastes, it's much more basic than any of the later efforts that became worldwide hits. For example, you can only save your game on the relatively harmless world map. Take a wrong turn anywhere else and there's every chance you'll run into something that will take you out in the blink of an eye, erasing all the progress since your last save. If that something happens to be a dungeon boss, you could easily lose a couple of hours' play.
In a way, the difficulty level is part of the joy if it. With a skimpy plot involving evil monsters, and characters who, while fleshed out since the NES original, are nowhere near as well-developed as the heroes in later FF titles, it really boils down to exploring and fighting for the fun of it.
You have a party of four adventurers, which you can arrange in simple formations to make best use of their abilities - magicians at the back, swordsmen at the front. Each party member can be given one of 20 types of job, which can be changed at any time if you're not averse to serving repeated apprenticeships in goblin-slaying. As you refine the formula that works best for you, and collect suitable weapons, shields and other items, you'll find the composition of your team evolves to suit your particular tactics, which may be significantly different from anybody else's. It's the depth of customisation rather than the story that draws you into the game world.
The 3D graphics are excellent, and the battle scenes really do look great. Unfortunately the snazzy presentation slows things down an awful lot, with a pre-fight camera-swoop and post-battle stats that make random encounters outstay their welcome. The perfunctory clobbering of yet another random goblin is given the kind of visual treatment more befitting a boss battle, and it takes ages.
For some reason, the upper screen is hardly ever used. You can't even put a dungeon map up there, although the overworld map does appear briefly when moving between towns. Also, the stylus controls are so ill-thought-out, we swiftly abandoned them in favour of buttons. Considering most other parts of the game have been lovingly overhauled and translated since its 1990 debut, these strange oversights make us suspect that perhaps the DS wasn't the original target platform for this update.
No matter, because we're glad it's here. You'll get an absolutely ridiculous amount of value out of this if you're an old-school Final Fantasy enthusiast, and while more recent efforts have superseded it in terms of emotional power, the raw quality of the concept shines through in a way that's not always obvious in the latest titles.
An epic battle adventure that could serve as an intro to FF for the curious or a retro gem for long-term fans. Turn-based fighting of the highest order on Nintendo DS.