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Review: Final Fantasy II
Note: This is the second of a multi-part series featuring reviews of Final Fantasy games.
A New Narrative for Final Fantasy
The success of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy allowed the company and the game's planner, Hironobu Sakaguchi, to begin work on a sequel. Opting to go a different route with the second game, Sakaguchi and his team decided to make the second game in the series more focused on narrative and story, actually completing the scenarios for the game before most anything else.
Unlike most other Fantasy RPG games of its time, which focused mainly on slaying dragons and defeating dark lords or demons, Final Fantasy II offered a different if not still simple premise of a group of youths joining a rebellion against a corrupted yet powerful empire. The party's characters would have dialogue, the party could have guest members rotate in and out of the party (and they rotate out often in tragic ways), and there was even a system in place where the player could use key words or phrases to acquire information!
If Final Fantasy set plot aside to focus on gameplay, Final Fantasy II turned that around and completely shifted the focus onto its story - a story that received its own novelization, even - but if the gameplay is lacking, the game won't be able to survive on narrative alone. This is a lesson Final Fantasy II gave to its makers, as the gameplay suffered in a few different areas that prevents the game's strengths (the narrative) from shining through.
Developers of Final Fantasy II wanted a more sophisticated, realistic approach to battles in terms of growing stronger. Leveling up definitely isn't realistic, you know! As such, the team came up with a system which rewards players who focus on a specific weapon or spell by leveling up one's ability with that weapon or spell if that character uses it a specific number of times. In the original game I believe it was 100 times for each level up for a maximum of 16 levels, though the remake drastically lowers this into a weighted-by-level system.
Similarly, a character's stats are raised if that stat is taxed in any way during battle. If a character attacks with a weapon, Strength goes up. If a character uses Black Magic, Intelligence goes up. Conversely, if a specific action is left unused for some time, say a character never using magic, then that corresponding stat can go down by one (only in the original version, I believe).
The most troubling example of this is that a character's maximum HP will rise if that character suffers a notable amount of HP damage during battle. So, the quickest way a player can boost their HP is to continuously damage themselves with their own weapons and magic in battles against the foes outside the first town (who are incredibly weak even at the game's start), and gain perhaps way more HP than you would need for most of the game. A common defense of this is that, hey, you don't have to do this and that this method of "grinding" wasn't intended by the developers. However, it still exists in the remakes, albeit in a slightly (slightly) restricted form, so its still very ripe for abuse.
Final Fantasy II (PSP) on Amazon
As easy as it is to boost HP (and MP, as it grows in a similar fashion), the original game and, to a lesser extent, the remake, make it difficult to level up your weapons and magic. As noted, the original game requires 100 uses of a weapon or spell to level it up, but this takes an incredible amount of time, and there aren't any means of increasing weapon or spell experience per use either. The game really forces you into determine a set role for your three permanent characters in Firion, Maria and Guy. If you decide to have Firion wield a sword, it would be a very unwise decision to switch to a different weapon at some point later.
To make matters worse, offensive magic in Final Fantasy II is mostly worthless. One supposed plus is that nearly every offensive magic is capable of attacking all enemies, but at Level 1, these spells deal hardly any damage, especially when targeting all enemies. Worse yet, if you take the time to develop these spells to high levels, their damage output to a single target still lacks compared to, say, dealing damage with a strong weapon with a high level for that weapon, and the pitiful damage dealt to all targets just isn't worth the time to develop this magic. Not even Ultima, the spell which is describe in-game as the most powerful magic, barely makes a dent. Although, it might be because one needs a high Intelligence stat to get the most out of black magic, but I've noticed that is a difficult stat to raise, more so than Strength at the least.
The game also does a poor job separating areas on the overworld. Its very easy to go west from the starting town and go into an area you're not supposed to be in until much later and be completely annihilated by the enemies that frequent those areas. Random encounters are somewhat frequent, especially in dungeons. There are many "empty" rooms in these dungeons where once you enter you, you're put in the middle of the room and you're basically guaranteed to get into a random encounter before you are able to exit the room.
Battles can also seem like a chore as well as the feeling of accomplishment is lessened by the lack of experience (you still earn the game's currency, Gil), and the uncertainty of earning stat boosts following battles, which holds true for the few boss fights the game presents as well.
This last one is a bit nit-picky, but the game does reuse several assets from the first Final Fantasy. Firion is basically a slightly modified Fighter in battle and in the overworld, while Guy is basically a palette-swapped Thief. Thanks to the game's narrative-driven style, the game doesn't "feel" like Final Fantasy I at all, but it still shares many visual similarities. However, these concerns are basically remedied in the remakes, as Final Fantasy II's characters and style becomes its own.
The Strengths of Final Fantasy II
As tough as it is to "play" Final Fantasy II, its still fun to "experience" Final Fantasy II. Final Fantasy II, again, was the first game in the series to feature a strong narrative, and even by today's standards it holds it's own in many places. Not to spoil anything, but the Final Fantasy series is known for mid-game character deaths, which can be traced to the several heroic deaths featured here in Final Fantasy II.
Final Fantasy II was the first game to feature many of the series' beloved staples. Chocobos, the bird steed that allows players to traverse the world map quickly without fear of random battles, first appear in this game albeit limited to a single chocobo forest. This was also the first Final Fantasy to feature the airship-loving Cid, who in this game aids the players by giving them airship rides to various locales. Various other spells and monsters make their debut in this game as well.
Final Fantasy II's soundtrack is a step up from the first game as well, from its ambient overworld theme to its big boss theme, to its spooky theme for dungeons. As a whole, II's soundtrack holds up even today as the score is remade and remastered.
The keyword system the game uses - where the party can pick up on and learn specific keywords, then relay them to other NPCs to earn items or information - was an excellent addition and it's a shame no other Final Fantasy in the series uses a system similar to this. With some polish, it might've been a wonderful mechanic, but I fear it was scrapped along with the game's other mechanics when criticisms of said mechanics started flowing in.
Where to Play Final Fantasy II (Outside of Japan)
Final Fantasy Origins
Includes Final Fantasy, the PSX remake is the first release of Final Fantasy II overseas nearly 15 years later. Also on PSN
Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls
Game Boy Advance
Includes Soul of Rebirth, an additional scenario set during the events of Final Fantasy II
Final Fantasy II
Includes Soul of Rebirth and additional new content
Final Fantasy II
Similar to PSP version
Graphics (by NES standards)
5/5 (NES version), 3/5 (Remake version)
For those "story over gameplay" types of RPG players, I still hesitate to say whether Final Fantasy II is worth a play for those players because the gameplay can be frustrating for those who aren't going to invest time into learning (and/or abusing) Final Fantasy II's battle system. Even so, Final Fantasy II's strongest point is its story and narrative, one that's still among the better narratives in the Final Fantasy series (that's perhaps saying more of some of the later games, though).
The remake version of Final Fantasy II, the only version available overseas, attempts to address those concerns and as a result the game is much more playable than the original game, but the issues are still there. Regardless, fans of the series still should give this game a try as its still a very decent Final Fantasy, albeit for unique reasons.