Final Fantasy is one of those untouchable series. Score a game too low, and meet the rage of the masses. A 7.8 would be unthinkable. The most acceptable departure from this precept is Final Fantasy II. By reputation alone, I have avoided this game, deciding to spend my time elsewhere; I knew, at some point, I would have to tackle this notorious title, and here I am today to tell my tale.
We have magic, wizards, swords, knights, dragons, and everything mystical you could want all wrapped into one 15-hour adventure. Enter Firion and friends, a team of young adventurers who get absolutely throttled at the start of the game by the Emperor’s forces. Awakened in an encampment, Firion discovers a rebel encampment led by Princess Hilda. From here, our stalwart heroes make moves to chip away at the Emperor’s stranglehold on the world by visiting errant towns, spelunking labyrinthine caves, and walking into a tornado.
While Final Fantasy II is ostensibly a military might tale, we see that the world is ravaged by all sorts of Final Fantasy baddies and high encounter rates. Treacherous, to be sure. The story eventually bleeds into the fantastic, but as far as plots go, everything’s pretty average; remember, this game was initially developed nearly 35 years ago (yes, yes, we are all so old, don’t remind me, etc.) Unfortunately, well-written plot or not, walking into towns in which every inhabitant says the exact same line of dialogue or three is strange, even by old game standards. I’m not sure why they thought this was acceptable back then, but it’s a fascinating historical idiosyncrasy. Not all townspeople behave this way, but enough do to take note.
Right, but what about the gameplay? Randomly encounter monsters, input commands, and take turns slapping each other. Good old-fashioned gaming. So glad we moved on from this. For the uninitiated, our three or four heroes can attack, use magic, use items, defend, or flee. Sometimes enemies will have elemental weaknesses, items can be used to cast spells, and status ailments rear their ugly heads here and there. Stats and magic work quite differently in the second Final Fantasy, for better or worse.
I’ve heard that the grind to raise simple stats was harrowing in previous iterations. A stat must be used several times in order to increase it. Want more hit points? Better get bonked. Magic? Use it! And so on. Leveling in the remaster has been hastened so players don’t have to go into battles and start hitting their own team. It’s mind-boggling that this was ever allowed, but it was a different time. In the pixel remaster, it’s easier to grind stats by default, but a quick trip to the options menu allows players to increase the stat growth rate multiplicatively. I didn’t use this aside from a brief while for review purposes since I wanted to experience the game as au naturel as possible, though I will admit that I turned off random encounters occasionally near end-game.
Losing everything to an unlucky encounter wherein your entire party gets confused is a thing of the past, as Final Fantasy II has autosaves at the start of each floor of a dungeon. Running into enemies that insta-kill or confuse your team can be incredibly annoying. Players may turn off encounters for those sections and then turn them back on later—a nice compromise for what is a needlessly frustrating and unimaginative “feature” of the game.
To make matters worse, the dungeons in Final Fantasy II are abstruse to the point where I wonder if the developers were actually trolling players. It was likely to lengthen the experience, and the idea of what was challenging was different back then, but by today’s standards, this is tiresome. Aside from frequent dead ends and treasures that give starter equipment, doors are littered everywhere, leading to the same sized empty square room; players start off in the center of these rooms upon entry and have to walk backward out of it, often risking an encounter. I understand that not every branching path needs to lead to a shiny goodie or mountain of gold, but at least gussy up the room a bit with furniture or a wounded NPC. The most egregious offender here is when dungeons have four doors right next to each other, basically tasking players with picking the right door to progress. If you’re anything like me, you must check each door to ensure you aren’t passing up an awesome new weapon.
Turning off random encounters and boosting stat growth are excellent features that most people will enjoy in the pixel remaster. What else does it offer? Normal furnishings like a Pokedex–ahem, bestiary–and art gallery exist, but most people will turn an eye toward the visuals and absolutely stunning soundtrack arrangement. Again, if you’re anything like me, the pixel remasters have not looked great; I know most of you are going to balk at this, but when I look at screenshots or even watch gameplay, the visuals are far too bright, the background quality in combat doesn’t suit the black edges of the characters, and the font is gross to look at. I’ve changed my opinion since playing Final Fantasy II. First, you can change the font to a retro look, which makes a huge difference in the overall feel, as the former font has a cheap quality. Second, while I maintain that screenshots don’t do the game justice, actually experiencing and interacting with the game makes the visuals far more palatable. They even look good. Indeed, far better than the original version, though I still prefer the PSP iterations.
Originally composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, multiple individuals completed the music arrangement, overseen by Uematsu. While I haven’t played Final Fantasy II until now, I’ve enjoyed its soundtrack for decades. Quibbles regarding story and gameplay aside, the music is absolutely timeless. Typically in games, we associate the soundtrack with the story beats and gameplay that take place simultaneously, which can enhance our enjoyment of the music. The original composition is so strong here that it stands independently and tells a story without context. Similarly, the arrangement brings the bleeps and bloops into the modern era with an outstanding orchestral sound and even adds to original themes, such as the main theme (overworld).
Historians (my, aren’t we getting lofty) will sing praises for what Final Fantasy II did for RPGs of the era and today; without a doubt, the developers pushed boundaries and tested new ideas. My take is this: respect the game and its developers for the time they were working and the chances they took to innovate on design. However, acknowledge that this isn’t something most people will want to enjoy in today’s gaming landscape for purely narrative or gameplay reasons. Final Fantasy II may be an important game, but not necessarily fun.