Hey zzonkmiles, great hack! I'd like to add a review to the project page, but since this is still a recent and active project, I figured I'd post it here first for fact checking/additional interest generating.
As advertised, Final Fantasy Zz will indeed spice up an old favourite and keep you on the edge of your seat. Unlike some challenge hacks, this one has actually been well thought out, well balanced, and is able to maintain both fun and interest through the entire game. As you might expect, the most extensive changes made relate to the battle system. Most battles now involve a significant risk factor: you'll need to (re-)learn when to fight, when to defend, when to go all-out with your most damaging spells, when to use status attacks, when to conserve your strength, and when to run away in abject terror. As the readme says, it's not about Gas Dragons in the Marsh Cave*, but there are many enemies who can cause quite a lot of trouble if not properly dealt with. Fortunately, this hack also provides you with many new and improved tools for dealing with the vast array of creatures who would like nothing more than to remind you what the "game over" music sounds like.
The original FF1 was a pretty good game for its era, but one of the objections people raise against it is that it can be a grindfest at times. It's not as bad as, say, the original Dragon Warrior, but gaining a level when you need one can still be a pretty tedious affair. In addition to increasing the difficulty of killing monsters, this hack significantly increases the rewards for doing so, which in turn decreases the need to grind. Experience points are in plentiful supply, especially late in the game. I've played this hack through once from start to finish using a Fi/Th/WM/BM party; with no grinding and judicious use of the Run command, I reached class change around level 27 and the Temple of Fiends Revisited around level 47. That said, I did have to explore areas rather than just run straight for my goal (be it treasure, a boss, or an exit), so perhaps you'd have to grind a bit on a replay. For comparison, a replay run in the original version usually gives me enough experience to reach class change around level 15 and the Temple of Fiends Revisited around level 25. Gold is also abundant in this hack; I certainly couldn't afford to buy everything in Elfland when I first arrived there, but I did have enough cash to buy a couple of goodies, and by the time I left for Melmond I had gold to spare.
I found this to be a very enjoyable hack. The map modifications were subtle enough that locations still felt familiar yet were varied enough to force me to rethink my approach to treasure acquisition; the added conveniences in town and dungeon were appreciated (though using the dungeon shortcuts was a risk I wasn't always prepared to take, since they were often guarded), and the increased length of previously short areas generally felt appropriate, though I did have some unkind words to say while slogging through the updated Titan's Tunnel
. There are a couple of improvements not listed in the readme (although not included in the patch download, you'll want to have a copy for reference when deciding what equipment and spells to use, though it contains at least one error**) which should come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who finds them, and a few Easter eggs in the game which may be cause for distress or joy, depending on which egg you find and the shape you're in when you find it. On that note, I strongly recommend saving before exploring any of the suspicious-looking new islands...
Magic is much more useful in this version than the original. I actually used every spell in both of my mage's arsenals repeatedly over the course of the game, something I can't say has ever happened with the original. The WM has healing spells on every level now, which means every spell charge counts, unlike the original version, where spell charges for certain levels were generally useless during the end-game. Also, having mid-level attack magic for your WM comes in pretty handy, let me tell you. While the BM's low level FIRE/ICE/LIT spells still become useless by the mid-game, their new target-all behaviour keeps them relevant for much longer than their single-target original versions, and the improved status attack spells can swing the tide of battle throughout most of the game. Oh, and SABR. SABR is how I won the game. Get SABR.
Choosing which equipment to carry around is also trickier in this version. Equipping armour is more important than in the original, both because enemies can hit harder and because many pieces offer some form of elemental resistance. You probably won't be able to carry all of the pieces which can be activated in battle and still maintain adequate defences, so you'll need to choose what to keep and what to drop. The same goes for weapons: there are more magical weapons in the game than you can possibly carry. With this in mind, the new ability to see the contents of a treasure chest when your inventory is full without having to drop an item is a very valuable addition to the game.
I can't speak definitively about the class re-balancing on the basis of just one playthrough, but my Fi/Th/WM/BM party worked out fairly well. The Fighter/Knight was a more delicate flower in this version, with much lower HP reserves (max HP at level 50: 853) and not quite able to one-hit-kill enemies which I felt the original version's Fighter would have been able to. The biggest change was to the Thief/Ninja: instead of being 8 inventory slots on legs, the Thief is actually quite a strong character in this version, and he gets even better as a Ninja. He can take hits almost as well as the Fighter and, depending on their current equipment, alternated with the Fighter as primary melee damage dealer throughout the game due to his higher number of hits. Both the White and Black Mages (and their Wizard upgrades) were essential during 90% of the game (the other 10% was when they were out of magic or when the people with blades could handle things without any backup).
I think the biggest downside to this hack is that there are far too many enemies who can turn you to stone throughout the entire game. This is a challenge hack, so expecting everybody to remain functional through every fight is perhaps a bit unreasonable, and being stoned is certainly preferable to being dead, but I went through around 40 Soft potions in the Earth Cave alone, which seems a little extreme. This version would be absolutely brutal for anyone doing a one-character game or who is obsessive about having all their party members level up at the same time. Of course, since they'll all reach the experience cap long before the final boss anyway, there's really no need to be that obsessive.
On the topic of stoning, if you try hard enough, it is possible to be turned to stone before fighting the pirates (by hanging out around the famous peninsula north-east of Pravoka), which is a pretty serious problem if it happens since you don't appear to have any way to cure stoning by that point in the game***. However, Frost Wolves are in short supply on the peninsula anyway, and with the increased experience and gold you receive from regular battles, there's no need to try to power level there any more.Bottom Line:
this hack is definitely worth playing through at least
* ... though I was once ambushed by a Watcher in the Aldi Sea, which used INK to neutralize my entire party, hit my Fighter for over triple his max HP, then used BOLT to finish everybody else off at once. This seems like an unusually cheap encounter, enough so that I suspect it may be a bug.
** Contrary to the readme, Ninjas are unable to equip the Opal Armour.
*** This sounds like an unintended situation/bug.