This Final Fantasy is, by far, the worst game in the series. What
SquareSoft set out to do was admirable: make an RPG with characters you can identify with, a dramatic story, and finally scrap the experience point system. What they ended up with was a monstrosity in terms of balance.
The gameplay system is most directly analogous to the system used by
Chrono Cross and the Saga games. When your characters take damage, their defense and HP goes up. When they cast spells, their magic power and MP goes up, and so on and so forth. Now, unlike in Chrono Chross, these don't increase automatically whenever you face a boss. Imagine going through the entirety of Chrono Chross without getting the statistic boost from bosses. This wouldn't be so bad if Square wasn't so stingy with the bonuses. It's really a crapshoot whether you get a certain stat or not, and the only good way of getting stats reliably is very reminiscent of a certain strategy that made FF8 too easy.
Final Fantasy II debuted a new status system. Characters progress in ways reflecting their actions in battle, as opposed to leveling up.
If Frionel attacks 100 times with a specific weapon, he'll gain a weapon skill level for that weapon, allowing him to hit 1 more time in battle. If he casts a spell 100 times, he'll gain a magic skill level for that spell, making it stronger. If he loses over half his HP, he'll gain more HP; the same goes with MP. This also debuted the front/back row system as opposed to the "top of the list gets hit the most often" system that Final Fantasy 1 showed us.
However, there is a major flaw in this system. Square forgot to make it so that when you damage your characters on purpose, you don't get bonuses. So, what you do is have your characters get into battle with imps, and kill all of the enemies except for one. Then you would have your characters flail away at each other, bringing their HP down to critical levels, and then end the battle. Then, next battle, you would do the same thing, except you heal all of your characters up to full health with magic, boosting your magic stats.
Now, you may wonder, "Why does one need to do this?" The answer is that Square made the game so unbalanced that all of the enemies are either really, really, pathetically easy, or mind-numbingly insanely difficult. You can be fighting imps on one side of the bridge and
hell-spawned dark knights on the other!
The change spell makes it even worse. Cast a level 5 change on a goblin and your stats will soar, because change switches stats with enemies and with your hp and stuff so amazingly low, the game makes them go really, really high.
Inns are also a problem; they are priced based on damage earned and magic spent, so if you have strong characters that get beaten up, you can kiss your money goodbye.
Yet another Chrono Chross-like feature is the keyword system. There are certain highlighted words in text that you can choose to learn, and you can use them like passwords to advance the plot. It's a lot more of a hassle than just having people tell you about stuff when you talk to them, don't you think?
There are a few good points though. This game was the first to feature standardized MP. You still have to buy spells from shops, but that goes a long way, as opposed to the "Spell Level" system in FF1. This game also debuted Cid. That's right, this is the first Final Fantasy ever to have Cid in it. This is also the first game in the series with the Ultima spell, Genji equipment, and a heck of a lot of Final Fantasy lore that gets recycled later.
Graphically, other than the fact that the characters now are in the same window as the enemies and combat is better organized, there's NO IMPROVEMENT AT ALL. Nada. One can spot many graphics that were simply thrown in from FF1, and it doesn't look like Square was paying much attention to how this game looked. Although it's cleaner than most NES games, I dislike the graphical reuse enormously.
Story-wise, this game shines. You start out with your characters getting utterly destroyed by dark knights, and you wake up with your fourth character missing and get recruited by Hilda to go forth and aid the resistance. During your quest, NPC's join your party and die off at an alarming rate, with possibly the most character deaths in an FF game ever.
Unlike most Final Fantasies, by the time you reach the end boss, you know he really deserves what he's about to get, (the ending's not that good though, although hard-earned.)
The sound and music are resoundingly o.k. Not great, not bad for an
NES, it could have been better, but it wasn't that bad.
Overall, this game was a great disappointment. Although it sets up the rest of the Final Fantasy series and was a great experimental RPG, the poor balancing did it in.