Video Game Review: Final Fantasy II

As I mentioned recently in The Greatest Video Game That Never Was, I have long been a fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games. Of course, my dirty little secret about that is that I’ve played fewer than half of them. I played I, IV, and VI as a kid, and VII in my teenage years, but as they’re up to XIII these days, I’d missed far more than I’d played. So last year I set out to rectify that, playing them close to in order and all the way through the series, generally on the oldest versions I could get my hands on. To that end, I’ve recently finished playing a fan translation of the Famicom version of Final Fantasy II.

Unlike other early FF games, FFII has a usage-based advancement system. There are no classes or levels, but your character’s attributes (stats, skills, and even spells) are individually trained through practice. Those you use regularly will steadily advance, while those you neglect will remain untrained. You’ll even occasionally see a stat drop if your actions haven’t been conducive to their improvement. This system has pros and cons — it makes more sense than a class-and-level system because it allows characters to learn new abilities gradually over time in proportion to how much they practice, rather than giving them periodic quantum leaps in all their abilities simultaneously (and totally excluding them from abilities that don’t happen to match their class). On the other hand, I don’t like the fact that having your characters beat on each other in the midst of a supposedly-life-and-death battle with enemies is an effective method of advancement. Improving through sparring with your friends makes sense, but permitting it as part of the combat system (and thereby using lethal damage in your sparring match) is inappropriate. Also, a powerful, skilled spell-caster who learns a new spell late in the game is exactly as bad at it as an unpracticed noob who picks it up at the beginning of the game. Surely the ability to apply related knowledge from casting similar spells should count for SOMETHING, allowing the experienced caster to use it more effectively than the beginner, though not as well as their practiced spells. Neither extreme makes sense here, there should be a happy medium.

Advancement system aside, the story of FFII follows four youths who get caught up in a battle for the fate of the world. One of them disappears early on, and the other three proceed onward, frequently joined by one of various allies who fills the fourth slot in the party until they have reason to part ways. The youths join the rebel alliance, a group opposing the draconian rule of the power-hungry Emperor (sound familiar?). Their quest leads them all over the world as they seek to undermine the Emperor’s plans of world domination and find the artifacts and magic required to overthrow him and restore peace to the world. Not the most original plot, but it suits the game and is well-implemented.

One disappointment for me was the music — having just finished FFI when I began FFII, I noticed a distinctive drop in the quality and complexity of the music in FFII. I’m a big fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the FF series, but I really think he phoned in the soundtrack for this game. On the other hand, he may have had stricter technical limitations placed upon him if the game engine was larger than in the previous game — either way, the music took a step back from FFI.

Gameplay is mostly fun, but the advancement system can lead to some difficulties — FFII seems harder than FFI. I often found that I wasn’t powerful enough to take on boss monsters, and had to grind for skills before I could proceed. There’s a new system for hearing about things and getting information out of people by mentioning keywords that they might know something about, but it seems pretty crude and awkward — of course, given that it was a pretty new idea back then, that makes sense. The world layout is kind of odd, with most of the world appearing as a northwest-to-southeast strip of land that sort of wraps around the world like the thread of a screw, so that if you head south or head east, you’ll wind up in the same place. Interesting, but I prefer the more traditional worldmaps of other games in the series.

Overall, I give FFII two and a half stars out of five. I liked FFI better in many ways. Where FFII shines is in concept, not in execution. I probably won’t re-play the Famicom version, but I may check out the Dawn of Souls remake for the Nintendo DS. Play this version only if you’re a hard-core FF fan and a purist looking to recreate the retro-gaming experience like I am.

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