Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: NES, GBA
Anyone following this column knows I love retro games from the eight and sixteen bit eras. As such, even though I’d never played it before, I had no problem approaching Final Fantasy II with an open mind. Sure, the game is twenty years old, and I’ve played a good number of the more recent releases in the Final Fantasy franchise, but I wasn’t about to let such details detract from my enjoyment. No, that was taken care of by the mindless and tedious grinding of its new gameplay mechanic.
Indeed, Final Fantasy II introduces a completely original way of powering up your characters, one that makes perfect sense when you think about it. Want to hit harder with your sword? Fight with a sword whenever you get the chance. Want stronger defense against enemy attack? Get hurt so you can learn to absorb more damage. Want to cast more powerful spells? Cast the spells you have until your mana limit increases. In other words, practice makes perfect. The more you do something, the more proficient your characters become at it.
At first, I was excited about the new system, but my enthusiasm soon waned, owing to poor implementation. Within the first few fights of a dungeon, you can tell whether you’ll be able to finish it. Are the enemies missing every swing they take while you slaughter them with just one hit? You’re good to go. Does every fight feels like a struggle for your very survival? Go outside, and practice some more. There’s no middle ground in Final Fantasy II. Either you breeze through an uncharted section of the game, or you get schooled until you’ve no choice but to train in a more familiar area.
Now, one would assume that training would involve fighting enemy hordes left and right throughout Final Fantasy II. However, as I found out after an hour of getting nowhere fast, there’s an easier technique that involves practicing on your own party. Whether physical or magical, attacks aimed at team members instead of foes help build resilience, thus allowing you to kill two birds with one stone. If one of your characters gets close to death, use the opportunity to practice your healing spells!
Even with this counterintuitive workout regime, characters take far too long to power up in Final Fantasy II. Even worse, you can sometimes overdo it, as spells become too powerful for the threats you’re facing. It’s hard to just singe an enemy when you’ve bolstered your fire spell to a ridiculously high level, resulting in overkill and waste of mana. This really made me miss having multiple spells of different intensity, even if it meant dealing with ridiculous names like “Fira” and “Firaga”.
I guess I should at some point discuss that other pesky aspect of Final Fantasy II: the story. You control four youths in their fight to liberate their homeland from the evil empire of Palamecia. However, one member of your party disappears only to resurface toward the end of the game. In the meantime, a variety of replacement characters pop in and out to move the plot forward. This is a cool concept. Unfortunately, every time someone new joins the team, he or she turns out as weak as a baby, and you have to spend a lot of time training the rookie. Are you seeing the pattern yet?
Of course, since your group can only hold four members, every replacement character has to leave the team eventually. Most of the time, the poor bastards get killed off, which makes Final Fantasy II a little bit of a downer. As soon as you get to know someone, he or she has to commit this great sacrifice to save your incompetent ass. This is a recurring thing in the Final Fantasy franchise. I don’t understand how it is people permanently die when there are spells to bring the dead back to life.
If continuous repetition sounds like fun to you, then Final Fantasy II might be the game for you. I use the word “might” because I’m the kind of person who likes powering up my toons, and I found the game insufferable. Fortunately, it comes packaged with a great version of the first Final Fantasy as part of the Dawn of Souls cartridge, so it wasn’t a total waste, sort of like how Neapolitan ice cream is still pretty yummy because you can eat only the chocolate part.