This entry in the Games I Beat series is, in a way, kind of a “hipster” entry. Final Fantasy is, of course, a hugely-popular RPG series all around the world. Which specific entries in the series are the most highly regarded, though, depends on the region of the world you ask (The US loves Final Fantasy VI; Japan actually considers it one of the weaker games in the series–which, in this context, just means it ends up on the bottom half of Japan’s “Best RPGs Ever” rather than near the top like it would be for similar lists in the US). In the US, though, despite numerous rereleases, Final Fantasy II remains relatively unloved and obscure.
First released in Japan in 1988 (I’ll be calling this the NES version when referring to it. Yes, I know it’s technically the Famicom version. But ‘MURKA!), Final Fantasy II was a “first” for the series in a number of ways, beginning with the plot. The game begins with the Emperor of Palamecia (I’ll be using the Dawn of Souls version translation for names) attempting to take over the world. To that end, he attacks a kingdom called Fynn, forcing a rebellion to withdraw to the village of Altair, orphaning four youths in the process. The game picks up with you controlling these youths, and promptly getting destroyed by some Black Knights. You come to in Altair, minus one of your friends, and from there, ingratiate yourself with the rebel movement and fight to destroy the empire.
This all sounds cliched nowadays, of course, but at the time, it represented the first time the plot moved beyond “Collect trinkets, destroy bad guy”. It’s also the first time your characters get directly involved in the plot, with their own dialogue. Additionally, the cast of playable characters is much larger this time around, with a number of people coming and going in and out of the fourth slot vacated by your missing friend.
Advancing this plot is done by using an interesting conversation system, along the lines of a mid-period Ultima game, or the SNES version of Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom. While “incidental” characters in towns have pre-scripted lines, more “major” characters have a keyword system where you can learn, and then recite back, various keywords to advance the storyline and figure out where to go next. You can also use items on these characters, which will also advance the plot and let you know what to do and where to go.
Besides the plot, the system of advancing your characters is also new to the series. If you’ve played an Elder Scrolls game, you’ll be familiar with the basic idea–you improve your skill at weapons and spells by using them, and increase your stats by taking certain actions in battle (Casting white magic, for instance, raises your Spirit, a stat relating to the strength of your white magic). It’s a system that makes a lot of sense in concept. The execution, though, breaks down–because the game doesn’t particularly care on whom you perform these actions, it leads to a quirk where the best and quickest way to advance your stats is to repeatedly attack your own party. This is especially true for gaining Hit Points, although the Dawn of Souls version attempts to alleviate this by giving you automatic HP ups every so often. Additionally, what’s governed by which stats isn’t always 100% logical. For instance, how likely you are to run away is governed by your Evasion stat, not Agility like you’d think. This leads to another quirk (At least in the Dawn of Souls version, which I played), where you’ll sometimes fail to run away despite getting a Preemptive Strike on an enemy.
Besides some rebalancing changes to make advancement quicker (Even moreso than in Final Fantasy Origins, the Playstation 1 compilation of FF1 and 2 that marked 2’s official US debut), the Dawn of Souls version adds a bonus post-game dungeon, Soul of Rebirth, that details what some of the characters who didn’t make the final cut to be in your end-game party were up to while your main party was going through the final dungeon. Unlike a lot of post-game content, it’s not cheaply or stupidly difficult for the most part–the beginning is actually the most difficult aspect of it. The boss of the dungeon, while more challenging than the “proper” final boss of the game, is nothing like various optional superbosses in later games in the series, such as Omega or some of the Weapons. It’s a nice way of closing the story up, so to speak, and it adds several hours onto an already substantial game (I put in the neighborhood of 30 hours into the main game and Soul of Rebirth combined).
Dawn of Souls aside, if there is one thing I can praise about this game, it’s that SquareSoft went for it from start to finish. After the first game in the series literally saved SquareSoft as a company, they could have played it safe and created “Final Fantasy 1.1” so to speak. Instead, well, a fun corruption of an inspirational phrase I like to use is “Aim for the stars! That way, even if your math is off, you’ll still smash into the Moon at thousands of miles an hour!” That’s really an accurate description of this game. Everything, from the more-directly-involved-in-the-plot party, to the different advancement system, shows that Square would not be a company to rest on its laurels. I have nothing but praise for the effort, even if the execution, even in the Dawn of Souls version, occasionally slammed into the Moon instead of finding itself among the stars–this was the game that forged the Final Fantasy series’s identity as “the try everything RPG series”, constantly changing with each entry, as opposed to the Dragon Quest series, which figured out what it wanted to be pretty early on and has clung to that identity for better or worse.
So where does the execution go wrong? Ignoring the fact that the best method of advancement is to attack yourself, magic as a whole is somehow even less balanced than in the first game–direct damage spells, in particular, are all but useless outside of a few boss fights. You’re much better off either using Berserk to give huge damage increases, or (Really!) using spells like Toad and Exit on your enemies, which function as insta-death spells, and almost always hit at a high enough level, due to enemies not being immune to them. There are also enemies that have drain attacks, which effectively serve as “HP grinding checks”, as their damage calculations are based at least in part on your maximum (Not current) HP. Combined with the Save Anywhere feature added to Dawn of Souls (The original version only let you save on the Overworld), this led to multiple resets as soon as I saw I was Ambushed by certain formations. Frankly, I’m not sure how anyone played the NES version, without the ability to save anywhere.
Still, overall, I’m glad I played through both the main game and Soul of Rebirth. If there’s one thing I could say, I would say to not go into the game “blind”. In particular, study up on the mechanics, how they work, and what they do–in particular, knowing how to and being able to field a party that can actually run from a battle on occasion would’ve made things a lot easier for me, and probably cut down on my number of resets. If you do that, you’ll enjoy the game more than its reputation in the US would suggest, especially with the pacing improvements of Dawn of Souls.