OK, after plowing through Final Fantasy 5 rather easily with a solo Mystic Knight, it's time to up the challenge level. Time to do this thing with one of the game's weaker classes. Time to embrace the quest of the (gulp) solo Thief.
What makes it so difficult to complete this game with a solo Thief? After all, Thieves have all sorts of cool abilities in FF5. Their default skill allows them to Steal from enemies, letting you find unusual and sometimes extremely powerful items in battle. The game's best armor set, the Genji gear, can only be obtained by stealing it from Gilgamesh. Later on, gaining enough Ability points will unlock the Capture skill for the Thief, which lets him or her both attack and steal at the same time! Much better than having to waste a turn of action trying to steal. The Thief also has lots of useful innate abilities: the Thief can see hidden passages, can Dash by holding down the B button, and will never be attacked from behind. Much like the Bard (Hide) and Ninja (Smoke), the Thief also learns an Escape ability that guarantees a successful run from random encounters. And the Thief has the highest Agility stat in the game, meaning they are the fastest class when it comes to battle. So with all of these useful things in play, what makes the Thief a tough solo job?
Well, because none of those abilities are much use at killing things! Yes, it's awesome to be able to steal things, but most of the really good weapons and armor that the Thief can pilfer can't even be equipped by the class. That kickass Genji Armor? Useless to the poor Thief who goes through the effort to steal it. While you can steal good items like Elixirs, it's also possible for non-Thieves to stockpile those same items through random drops after defeating monsters. (Believe me, I've done it with my other solo characters!) The other Thief abilities don't help in battle either. You don't need to See Passages once you've played the game to death, since you know them all by heart anyway. Dashing is rendered pointless by an emulator's Fast Forward key (which I admit I use liberally, to power through tedious random encounters). The Caution innate ability that prevents back attacks is nice, but does little to help the Thief progress through the game; ditto for the Escape move. Finally, while it is indeed great to have the Thief's speed, that only does so much when the class has absolutely no skills that boost damage. None. Even a pathetic class like the Bard can at least Sing to boost stats!
Throw in the Thief's limited selection of weapons - mostly just the default knives - and light armor, and you've got one hell of a challenge making it past all of the bosses in this game. Defeating many of them would involve copious amounts of luck and planning. I knew that I would need to use all of the little tricks I had worked out through so many prior solo runs!
I thought about some famous Thieves from history and mythology, and ultimately settled on infamous 19th century American outlaw Jesse James. He achieved notoriety in the years after the American Civil War for a series of armed bank robberies... before ultimately being shot and killed in the back of the head in 1882. Let's hope that our Jesse can be a little more fortunate in this game! I created a new game and proceeded up to the Wind Shrine, where I didn't even need to use a cheat code to open up all of the jobs, since Thief is one of the starting six:
The stats on the right side of the screen tell the story of the Thief class. The 41 Agility is outstandingly high, better than anyone else in the game. Even the mighty Ninja and Mystic Knight only reach 39. However, the 29 Vitality is subpar for a melee class that has to remain in the front row most of the time, and the 29 Strength is downright terrible. While the Thief does have much better Strength than some of the mages, all of those classes eventually gain spells that can carry their offense. The Thief never gets any magic or abilities that increase damage; everything has to come from pure melee attacks. That low Strength meant that Jesse's offense would be severely limited for a very long time.
Much as I was ragging on it above, the See Passages ability is actually kind of neat in practice. It was already on display in the Beginner's House at Tule village:
No other job would see the gray pathway on the left. Throughout this variant run, I did discover a few new shortcuts that I hadn't know about earlier thanks to Jesse. Of course, that just means that I don't need another Thief again in the future, now that I know all the hidden passageways!
Since I've taken mages with much lower Strength and Vitality past the early parts of the game, I wasn't too concerned about Karlabos and Siren. The formula for beating the red lobster involves farming some Elixirs in the Wind Tower while raising your solo character's level to the point where he/she can do about 80 damage per attack reliably. I took Jesse up to Level 14, and accumulated 5 Elixirs in the process. Sometimes you can get unlucky with Karlabos, and spend lots of time getting wasted by the Tentacle/Tailscrew combination. Fortunately Jesse had better luck, and I actually won on the third attempt. That was a mixture of Fortune smiling on Jesse James, and me having done this enough times before to know the optimal drill.
Siren involved attacking against her human form and defending (literally selecting the "Defend" command) against her undead form. The most dangerous spell here was Siren's occasional casting of Slow, which Jesse managed to avoid on his successful victory over the boss. I had to use one Elixir, but otherwise Jesse didn't have too much trouble. I did notice that Jesse was unquestionably faster than most solo characters, and that allowed him to get in an extra attack against Siren before she switched over to her undead form. Too bad he couldn't use any weapon better than the Dagger!
Up to this point, I hadn't tried to steal anything with Jesse James yet. The monsters in the first couple of areas just had Potions up for grabs, and Jesse could buy them in stores at very cheap prices. There was finally something decent available for theft in North Mountain:
The Blocks enemies had two good items: the Common Steal was the "Glasses" accessory, which provided a very minor defensive boost and protected against Darkness status, while the Rare Steal was the Hi Potion you see above. Jesse actually landed the Rare Steal on my very first attempt, which was pretty incredible! Let me give you the formula for how stealing works, because there is a lot of misinformation about this floating around the Internet. (It has nothing to do with Agility, as some people seem to think.)
ATTACK TYPE (HEX: 43) (Steal)
1) Hit% = 40
2) Apply modifier to Steal success.
If the Attacker is wearing a Thief Glove, Hit% = Hit% * 2
3) Let N1 = (0..99)
4) If N1 >= Hit%, the attack misses; do not follow any more steps.
5) If an item has already been stolen from the target, the attack misses;
do not follow any more steps.
6) Let N2 = (0..255)
7) If N2 < 10, Steal a Rare Item
8) If N2 >= 10, Steal a Common Item
Let's break this down in a little more detail. Steps 1-5 determine whether or not the steal succeeds; this is actually just a straight dice rolls, with a 40% chance out of 100. The only modifier that affects steal success/failure is the presence of the Thief Glove accessory, which doubles the chance to 80%. That's it - nothing else goes into this calculation. Just a straight dice roll, either 40% or 80% with the right equipment. It should be obvious that you'd better grab that Thief Glove if you really want to steal something!
The last three steps determine whether a successful steal will receive the Common or Rare item. This is another dice roll, only this time the roll is in hexadecimal and goes from 0 to 255 (technically 00 to FF for you codesters). Landing the Rare Steal requires a toss of less than 10, which a simple calculation shows to be a little under 4%. Not very good odds! You will almost always (96%) land the Common Steal, which is why getting a Hi Potion on Jesse's very first Steal attempt was so remarkable. I almost fell out of my chair in surprise!
With the stolen Hi Potion, and two remaining Elixirs from the earlier battles in the Wind Shrine and Ship Graveyard, Jesse was able to slug his way through the Magisa and Forza fight. There was no finesse here, just attacking until he was nearly dead and then using a healing item. Jesse won with less than 50 health left, barely managing to pull this one out. He was Level 18 at the time.
Jesse was able to upgrade his equipment a little bit in Worus. There was a slightly better armor on sale, and more importantly Jesse could use his Escape ability to sneak past the Garkimasra super-enemies in the castle basement. This allowed him to loot the Elf Cape down there without being horribly, horribly killed. (In fact, Jesse's innate ability to avoid rear attacks and insane speed meant that he could actually run away before Garkimasra got a chance to attack. That's literally impossible for any class other than the Thief!) Then in Worus Tower Jesse could steal a weapons upgrade, because these Wyverns were carring Mythril Daggers. Yeah, don't ask me what a flying lizard was doing with mythril weapons! I tested and found that the new dagger appeared immediately in Jesse's inventory, so he could switch over to the Mythril Dagger in the very same battle and kill these Wyverns with it.
That was by far the coolest thing that Jesse had done so far. If only it was something that I could do more often! Sadly, most of the weapons that it's possible to steal can't be used by the Thief class. And Jesse could have bought the Mythril Dagger in Karnak anyway, so the advantage was gained here for precisely one boss battle, against Galura. Now having the better weapon was nice when fighting Galura (Jesse employed the same Potion-chugging tactic I figured out with Spoony the Bard), but the advantage was pretty short-lived. That's the life of a Thief, it seems...
Karnak and the Steamship were the locations where this solo run began in earnest. Jesse James was first able to find the Full Moon, an improved weapon that did full damage from the back row! Only equippable by Thieves and Ninjas, so it was perfect for Jesse. Then he picked up one of his most important pieces of gear:
The Thief Glove accessory is a unique item, found only inside the Steamship, and not duplicated anywhere else in the whole game. It can only be equipped by the Thief, and it doubles the chance of a successful Steal from 40% to 80%. With the Thief Glove, Jesse actually had pretty good odds to pilfer stuff from his opponents. And in the Steamship, I finally came across something that was worth the effort of stealing: the Poltergeist enemies had Hi Potions available as a Common Steal. Hi Potions are vastly better than the normal Potions, healing back 500 health instead of 50. Since Jesse only had about 600 life total at this point, they were almost as good as Elixirs! Normally Hi Potions cannot be bought until entering the second world, however Jesse's thieving ways allowed him to build up a stock here at a much earlier point in time.
Naturally, I sat down and devoted Jesse to the task of stealing 99 Hi Potions, the maximum allowed in his inventory. Remember that the Thief is a very weak solo class, and I was going to need every advantage possible to cover the forthcoming boss battles in the days ahead. This was a very tedious process, as 20% of all Steal attempts still failed, and it takes a very long time to steal 99 items one... battle... at... a... time. I wasn't totally crazy though, as this long process also served to build up Jesse's level and grind out Ability points. I wanted enough Ability points to unlock the Capture skill, so that Jesse could attack and steal at the same time in the escape from Karnak Castle sequence; the Gigas enemies in there have Elixirs as a Common Steal!
Eventually it was done:
Jesse James had successfully made off with the motherload, a full set of 99 Hi Potions. He had reached Level 27 in the process, and gained just enough Ability points to open up the Capture skill as well. This was definitely a higher level than most of my other solo characters, but then again, this WAS a solo Thief! (In case you're asking yourself, "Is this all that a Thief's stealing does? Let him get Hi Potions that can be bought later on with vastly less effort?" the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes"!)
Because he was at a fairly high level, Jesse had no problems taking care of Liquid Flame. I attacked during the Human and Hand phases, then healed up during the Tornado form; Jesse only had to use a single Hi Potion and no Elixirs. Pretty easy stuff once you know the drill. During the escape sequence from the burning Karnak Castle, Jesse made use of his new Capture skill to pilfer 11 Elixirs and this handy weapon:
Normally you can't get the Mage Masher until later in the game, but Jesse was able to swipe it from the Sorcerers. Unfortunately its attack power is lower than the Guardian dagger and the Full Moon, and Byblos is immune to Mute status, so there was little advantage gained from stealing the weapon ahead of time. Nice having it around anyway.
Now Jesse was faced with the boss duo in the Ancient Library, Ifrit and Byblos. I wasn't worried about Ifrit, but I knew that Byblos was going to be a major pain in the rear. Jesse needed two things before he could take on that pairing: a higher level (so that he would have more max HP to work with) and more healing items. Since Hi Potions were already maxed out, that meant grinding out more Elixirs. Fortunately the Zuu enemies on the plains outside Karnak provided both:
Here you see Jesse using his Full Moon weapon in a Capture move (Attack + Steal) against one of the innumerable Zuus. The black birds have Elixirs available as a Rare steal, and no Common Steal at all; thus any successful Steal will yield an Elixir. Zuus also have Elixirs as a rare drop upon defeating them in battle, granting two different chances to obtain an Elixir. Of course, neither one came at high odds: each Capture attempt had 8/10 * 10/256 = 3% odds to succeed, while the odds for a rare drop were 1/16 = 6.25%. Since it took Jesse three attacks on average to kill one of the Zuus, and Jesse still had the slight chance of the Elixir drop, he actually had roughly 15% odds to get an Elixir in each battle against a Zuu. Not too shabby! And these battles also allowed Jesse to raise his level by slowly building up experience points, which I knew would also be necessary to defeat Byblos.
After several hours of slow grinding, Jesse went out and defeated Ifrit, which was very easy and required all of eight Hi Potions. That still left another 90 for use against Byblos! I had pegged 30 Elixirs as my goal for the Byblos fight; eventually I decided to give it a try with Jesse at Level 34. He had 90 Hi Potions and 34 Elixirs in inventory. Time to get the fight started!
What makes the Byblos battle so difficult for a solo Thief? It's a combination of the buffing spells Byblos has at his disposal and the weak offensive powers of the Thief class. Because the Thief cannot attack for high damage, Byblos will eventually hit on all of his various nasty moves: Thread (Slow), Armor, and Sonic Wave. You can't avoid these over the course of a long battle - it's inevitable, they will succeed in time. That drops the Thief's offense into the "pathetic" range, as seen in the above screenshot.
Now if it was just a matter of doing ~25 damage per attack against Byblos' 3600 health, that wouldn't be so bad. With enough healing items, grinding out that kind of slow victory is entirely possible. The problem comes when Byblos nears death, as he will cast the Drain spell any time he falls under 800 HP, sucking the life out of your character and restoring his own. Since each Drain will heal about 200 health, and your attacks will be doing a mere 25-30 damage, it's impossible to make any further progress. The only way to win is to run Byblos out of magic points. And he starts with 1000 MP. Good luck with that, chump!
Of course I knew all of that coming in, which is why I'd gone to all the trouble of laboriously stockpiling all those Hi Potions and Elixirs. Breaking down Byblos' move list, he only has four different spells that consume magic points: Armor (3 MP), Magic Hammer (3 MP), Charm (4 MP), and Drain (13 MP). Charm was the most dangerous spell there, taking away control from the player for a short period of time and leaving Jesse vulnerable. Armor and Magic Hammer were both useless, especially the later spell. And Drain consumed a lot of magic points, so if Jesse could keep attacking and forcing Byblos to use Drain for self-healing, eventually Jesse would run him dry of MP and could finish off the boss. It was just going to take a very long time to execute all that in practice...
Once the battle began, I kept Jesse in the back row to minimize damage and started attacking with the Full Moon. Armor and Sonic Wave quickly reduced Jesse to a single attack multiplier, at which time I swapped over to the Guardian dagger; the weapon block property helped a lot, and the back row penalty literally didn't matter anymore, as Jesse would be doing the same paltry damage regardless. The battle actually wasn't all that tough because I had accumulated all of those healing items, just very very long. I was tracking both Byblos' health and magic points together, watching the former oscillate up and down as he used Drain while the latter slowly decreased. It was going great and I had Byblos down under 50 MP remaining... and then he pulled off the ultimate BS combo: Charm (1/3 odds), Attack (1/3), Wind Slash (1/3), Attack (1/3) which went through Jesse's Evade (1/2). The last attack did 147 damage, killing Jesse's remaining 130 life just before I could use an Elixir.
I stared at the screen in disbelief. Jesse's life had never gone under 25% of max at any point in time in the whole battle. I had been hit with the absolute worst possible combination of Byblos moves, at one-half of one percent odds (.0062). Change any one of those moves to something else and Jesse survives easily. You might think that this would make me frustrated, but it had the opposite effect. I got angry! I went back outside to round up a few more Elixirs, then went after Byblos a second time. That bastard had gotten lucky the first time around, but he wasn't going to be delivered by a miracle again. After a second very long battle, Jesse successfully ran Byblos out of magic points, and that was all she wrote for the big bad book:
According to my notes here, Byblos cast Drain 21 times, Charm 46 times, Armor 67 times, and the winner was Magic Hammer at a staggering 113 castings. (I'd like to thank Byblos for wasting a third of his magic points on a totally pointless spell!) The Drain spells give you an idea of how long the battle lasted; while a couple of them missed, 20 castings at an average of 200 life drained equates out to 4000 health. Jesse had to inflict almost 8000 total points of damage at under 30 damage per attack! Of course, that required drinking 10 Elixirs and 87 Hi Potions on Jesse's part, which equates to over 50,000 health restored!!! Not an exaggeration. What a whale of battle it had been. But it was the kind of boss fight that I liked, one where planning and skillful execution made the difference, not the toss of a dice roll. I should have won on my first try, and I did win on the second. Nothing like the Dancer's "toss the dice and hope for Sword Dances" philosophy!
Where did Jesse James go next? Back to the Steamship, to steal 96 Hi Potions and replenish his stock. (You can still enter the Steamship dungeon if you go immediately back to the ship, without talking to Cid and triggering the cutscene that advances the plot.) Finished with that yet? Pretty boring stuff, albeit necessary for the lowly Thief.
Jesse's long buildup for the Byblos fight meant that he had over 150k gold accumulated already, which is about triple what any other character of mine has had at this point in time. That gave him the distinction of purchasing all three of Istory village's accessories (Flame Ring, Coral Ring, Angel Ring) on his first visit there in the Steamship. Of course, none of them would actually be useful until the Sol Cannon fight, but hey, Jesse had money burning a hole in his pocket! If there's one thing that the Thief excels at, it's making some cash by stealing and selling items.
With his extremely high level of 37, Jesse didn't even need to use any healing items in the Sandworm battle. Just kept on attacking, made sure not to hit the two Holes, and the Sandworm ran out of life before Jesse did. Somewhat surprisingly, the Crayclaw battle was a lot tougher:
Usually this guy is roadkill, especially if you have any way of inflicting lightning damage. Even those classes that can't target Crayclaw's elemental weakness can usually get past this spot by lowering their head and bulldozing through, taking advantage of the boss' low amount of hit points (only 2000). The problem here, as always, was the low damage output of the Thief class. Crayclaw had a Defense of 25, which meant that Jesse wasn't doing much damage after that was subtracted out of the Guardian's attack power (36). With an attack multiplier of 10, the average damage was (36 - 25) * 10 = 110, which required 18 rounds of combat to complete the battle. As for Crayclaw, his AI routine looked like this:
Tailscrew was the same attack used by Karlabos, dropping health to less than 10 HP, where any following "Fight" command would result in death. Now that alone wouldn't have posed a problem - Jesse could use Hi Potions to cancel out the Tailscrews - however the last "Mucus" action was a major barrier. Mucus simultaneously inflicted Slow status (and you should know from my Time Mage report how bad that was) along with "HP Leak", causing health to decrease slowly over time. The big problem there was the combination of Mucus' HP Leak along with Tailscrew's Weak status: Jesse would get hit by Tailscrew, dropping him to roughly 5 HP, then that would be followed up with Mucus, and those 5 HP would drain away in mere seconds, killing him instantly. Or the reverse would happen, Mucus followed by Tailscrew, which proved equally deadly. In short, any use of Mucus would result in death for Jesse in this battle. I had to somehow avoid that move and also still manage to kill the boss, while dodging all those Tailscrews!
The solution here was to play the odds of the AI routine. If I had Jesse use a Hi Potion after every Tailscrew, he would rarely get a chance to attack, and the battle would prolong to a point where Mucus' appearance would become a near certainty. Furthermore, those first two rounds of the AI routine were actually not as dangerous as they appeared: Tailscrew might drop Jesse down to the critical range, but it would never kill him, and even the normal Fight command only had 50% odds to hit Jesse, thanks to the Elf Cape and Guardian dagger. So the odds of Jesse being killed in each of the first two rounds were actually only 1/6! The tactic I worked out involved attacking the first two rounds, then healing with a Hi Potion before the third round (the one with Mucus). That allowed Jesse to play the odds and get in many more attacks than he otherwise would have had. Now this backfired quite a lot of the time - getting hit with Tailscrew and standing around doing nothing to be killed by the next attack - but it worked successfully after a fairly modest number of overall attempts, about ten in total. When in doubt, look at the AI code and try to play the percentages!
Adamantium was a lot easier. Jesse sat in the back row and used the Elf Cape to cut down on the damage he was taking. Sure, he was only doing ~50 damage with each attack of the Full Moon, but Adamantium couldn't do nearly enough damage back to Jesse to pose any real danger. Compared to Byblos this was a cakewalk. Jesse drank a little over dozen Hi Potions and wore down the turtle through about 35 rounds of combat. With patience, this was an easy encounter.
Now bereft of the Steamship dungeon, Jesse went elsewhere to replenish the Hi Potion stock:
Yep, you can steal them from Ramuh; he has a Hi Potion as a Common Steal and is a very frequent encounter near Istory. Just make sure not to kill the poor guy, after which he disappears! Jesse made off with one Hi Potion, ran away, then returned to plunder the old man again. I would keep doing this over and over again until the end of the first world.
Jesse had no way to deal with the Rockets, but fortunately you have a random chance of getting a battle against either Rockets or Flameguns, and I kept redoing these fights until Jesse was matched up against the easy Flameguns. With them out of the way, he could move on and face Sol Cannon itself. Two attacks each did in the Launchers, leaving Jesse with just enough time to drink an Elixir before the first Surge Beam fired. This signature attack of Sol Cannon always does 50% of max hit points in damage, plus inflicts an HP Leak status that drains away a little additional health. Jesse had no choice but to drink an Elixir after each firing of the cannon, wasting away a large portion of the stock that I had built up so laboriously over time. Although now that I think of it, I could have alternated Elixir/Hi Potion, Elixir/Hi Potion and that would have sufficed, so that wasn't the best gameplan there... Jesse could get in either 2 or 3 attacks between each Surge Beam, and with his attacks doing about 300 damage on average, it took quite a while to wear down Sol Cannon's 12,500 HP. In the end, Jesse needed to consume 15 Elixirs to win; kind of an ugly battle, but a victory was a victory.
Where to go next? If you guessed "steal back those missing Elixirs in random battles", give yourself a cookie.
OK, that grinding took a couple of hours to complete, but it brought Jesse back to 25 Elixirs in stock. I would end up skipping most of the fights inside the Lonka Ruins, as they were tough to complete and weren't worth the time invested. (Jesse was crazy overleveled already, even for a solo character.) I followed the standard pattern for weak classes against ArchaeoAvis, moving into the front row and relying on the Elf Cape + Guardian Dagger for 50% Evade. Because Jesse's offense was so sad, this was a rather long battle to play out, although fortunately not very dangerous until reaching the last two forms. My big fear was the "Fang" attack of the final undead form, which inflicts Charm status and left Jesse in a very precarious state. On at least one occasion, Fang was followed up with Maelstrom (dropping health to critical) and a rapid death followed. ArchaeoAvis' Entangle move (paralyzation) was pretty bad as well. Anything that takes control out of the player's hand is to be feared in this game!
Fortunately the final undead form of ArchaeoAvis also has the lowest Defense, and Jesse only needed seven successful attacks to win out. I achieved that goal on the third or fourth attempt at the battle overall:
Once again, I opted not to heal Jesse because I knew that one more successful attack would finish off the boss. My solo characters often seem to find themselves in this position against ArchaeoAvis for some reason... Anyway, I gulped down Hi Potions at every opportunity to minimize Elixir consumption, and Jesse wound up drinking something like 2 Elixirs and 30 Hi Potions total. That necessitated - you guessed it - another period of returning to Istory to loot Hi Potions from old man Ramuh. Poor dude was robbed blind by Jesse James!
The last obstacle before moving on to the third world was the meteor miniboss trio: Chimera Brain, Titan, and Puroboros. Those first two are always a joke, so let's focus on the Puroboros "explode-o-rama" threat:
Jesse's damage output was very, very sad - still only about 400 per attack - and he had absolutely no spells or abilities to assist him in this battle. The only thing that Jesse had going for him was his massively over-leveled status, which provided him with extra hit points. Jesse could actually survive a full-damage strike from Exploder (1500 damage), meaning that the battle was not instantly over should the wrong Puroboros go up in smoke. I stuck Jesse in the back row and gave him the Full Moon and the Elf Cape, which together minimized the physical attacks from the Puroboros. By attacking the same Puroboros three times in a row, Jesse would take them down to about 200 HP remaining, and essentially remove that particular opponent as a threat. (Exploder always does damage equal to remaining life.) Where the luck part of the battle came in was that I needed no more than ONE of the other five Puroboros to explode; the odds of 1 or 0 of them using Exploder was 46%, so this was fairly reasonable. After that, things were relatively straightforward, so long as once again no more than one of the Puroboros exploded at a time. Jesse had some bad luck with the wrong enemies going off at the wrong times, but all in all this went off pretty well, and it took about ten tries to execute the battle successfully and win out. For a solo Thief, I consider that a nice success rate.
Jesse James managed to make it through the first world without too much trouble, albeit with a lot of planning ahead of time... and much tedious grinding of stealable items. Next up was the second world, which would have its own dangers ahead: Gilgamesh, Atmos, and eventually Exdeath.