The Final Fantasy series has held a special place in my heart ever since the original Final Fantasy VII opened my eyes to the wonder of RPGs. As a result, I’ve given myself a personal gaming goal to play all of the mainline FF games. The PSP version of Final Fantasy II really challenged that goal of mine. The gameplay mechanics completely threw me off, and it wasn’t long before my first attempt to play the second FF fizzled out. But time marches ever on, and when I found out about the Pixel Remasters of the first six FF games, I figured maybe I should give Final Fantasy II another shot and actually complete it. The experience this time around ended up better than I’d initially expected, though while I warmed up more to this old-school FF, it still has quirks and elements that frustrated me.
If one were to view the Final Fantasy series as a family unit, then FFII would no doubt be the eccentric cousin of the bunch: everyone can tell they’re related, but they’re a bit of a loner on the outskirts of all the gatherings. There are FF series staples that started in FFII: recurring themes such as chocobos (along with their iconic theme music!), a character named Cid, character archetypes like a story prominent healer or a brooding Dragoon, moving party members from the front or back row during fights, a sea creature called Leviathan, etc. But then there are other elements completely unique to this title alone, perhaps the most obvious being that FFII does away with the more traditional leveling system to emphasize individual skill and stat building. Depending on actions taken during battle and equipped weapons, various character statistics and skills will increase.
In theory, you’ve free reign to customize characters to your heart’s content. All party members can equip any type of available weapon, and you can focus on whatever skills you’d like to strengthen. Magic works similarly. Party members learn spells by acquiring Tomes. Using a specific spell will strengthen not only magic-related stats and raise MP, but you also strengthen and level up the spell itself to make it more potent. Want a devastating Blizzard? Use the spell frequently during fights and your proficiency with magic casting and the individual spell itself will improve drastically. Magic spells, when directed towards the enemy or your own characters, can be used in one of two ways: you can divide the spell’s effects up amongst all of your targets for weaker output or hit a single target at full power. The benefit of this is that if you choose to hit multiple targets, it will cost you the same amount of MP as hitting a single target.
The stronger the spell, the more MP is required to cast it, though its effectiveness rises accordingly. You have to raise spells like Esuna to higher levels to cure certain status ailments, and spells in general are just more effective the more you use them. Because of this, you’ll find yourself casting spells you have no need for during fights at the time, such as restorative or status effecting ones, just to keep strengthening them. Shields and weaponry work much the same, with attacking and healing also raising stats. Using specific spells and weapons will strengthen them, but switching to another type later on means repeating the process to further level different stats.
The concept seems simple enough. Just focus on the weapons and spells you want to be adept at, and your characters will grow accordingly. However, FFII’s concept has enough gimmicks to it that you can easily exploit the system if you know what you’re doing. I was happy with Firion dual-wielding weapons at first and Maria being proficient with a bow, but when I later felt that I wanted my party to focus more on survivability, higher defense, and evasion? Well, I found that the most opportune way to level those skills was to equip shields to both hands and send my party out into the wilds to get attacked by monsters.
Along with doing so, attacking myself and healing with Cure when necessary and prolonging the battle by only using low-level spells to damage enemies not only helped increase my defense stats and shield strength, it also increased my HP and MP pools and leveled up my healing and offensive spells to boot. Repeat this for a few hours and you’ll find yourself with souped-up party members who can definitely take a beating and dole one out in most areas of FFII. I doubt that this was how the developers initially planned for people to approach the gameplay, but it is a perfectly viable solution to skill grinding, something that is absolutely vital in old school games, especially in the case of FFII where one wrong step on the world map in the game’s early stages can spell disaster when you come face to face with foes you won’t stand a chance against unless you prepare beforehand.
FFII is full of quirky little shortcuts and tricks that can help speed up what might otherwise be an extremely frustrating gaming experience. For instance, spells that affect status changes are effective when leveled and aren’t quite an afterthought addition to battles as they can be in other RPGs. Maria was my black magic caster early on in my playthrough and I had her focus on leveling up the Toad spell, an ability I usually ignore in other FF games. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that a high-level Toad spell could work on bosses too! When playing FFII, I found no greater joy than having tough fights end early by turning the opponent into an amphibious creature and watching them hightail it from the field. Gaining access to the thief Paul’s secret stash later on gave me the Blood Sword, with an HP draining attack that is incredibly effective against the final boss in particular, if one’s sword skill is high. By the time I finally traversed through the Jade Passage and Pandaemonium dungeons in the last legs of the game, I was quite happy to use both the Toad spell and the Blood Sword as a viable strategy to finish things up quickly. In FFII, players really can stat build or tailor fights as they choose, either shortening or lengthening fights depending on their preferences.
It isn’t just the skill system that is unique in FFII’s gameplay. As you progress through the game, you’ll also learn key words from dialogues or show key items to NPCs. Depending on who they are, they might react to what you’re showing or asking about, revealing the next step on your journey. It is an interesting key word concept that isn’t utilized as deftly as it could’ve been, but it is still a rather unique addition to dialogue.
The dungeons in FFII tend to be nightmarish affairs you have to slog through thanks to random battles virtually every two steps. The designs for them are nonsensical and frustrating, with far too many empty rooms that just unnecessarily prolong exploration. The world map can be just as tedious to traverse even though you can save anywhere on it, especially when under-leveled at the beginning of the game. Certain areas are full of monsters that will decimate your party in a matter of seconds with no real rhyme or reason as to why they suddenly appear. Strengthening your party helps survivability, but it can’t stop the frustrations of poor design.
On the plus side, after a rather harrowing situation on the eighth floor of the final dungeon where a group of dreaded Coeurls made short work of my party, I discovered that this version of FFII has a helpful autosave feature for when you reach a new dungeon floor. It saves so that you start over from the floor’s beginning instead of having to traverse the entire dungeon from the last manual save on the world map. That helped lower some stress at that point in the game since you can’t save in the dungeons! What didn’t help my stress levels was an occasional odd glitch of sorts when casting Cure where the spell didn’t seem to “stick” to its target the first time I tried it during a battle. However, it appeared to be an issue only during the first attempt.
Speaking of dungeons and world maps, towns aren’t always safe havens. At some, trying to initiate conversations with NPCs will even trigger battles. Inns in FFII aren’t given fixed rates either. Rather, you pay an amount based on how depleted your party is when you visit them. The more you have to recover, the more expensive your stay is. When on the world map, you can use the Cottage item to rest and heal. You also have a variety of vehicles at your disposal, including a canoe for lake and river travel, a snowcraft, ships, and even airships. You have to pay for boat travel across the ocean and rides on Cid’s airship until later on in the game when you control the vehicles directly.
The updated sprite work for this pixel remaster is polished to a shiny sheen. I found the character and enemy sprites to be rather colorful and vibrant against the game backgrounds. The additional little notes of detail to cutscenes involving things such as airships taking off or a wyvern flying through the sky are also visually appealing. You can access a gallery of artwork for the title from the Extras menu of the game too, which is quite impressive and gorgeous. The dialogue boxes and the font aren’t exactly aesthetically appealing, but they’re clear and visible nonetheless and serve their purpose well enough. You can also access the rearranged and remastered soundtrack for FFII from the Extras menu, which is quite the bonus for me as the music is one of the title’s highlights! I enjoyed all of the tracks used throughout the game. There’s a strong, sweeping epic feel to them that I love.
Final Fantasy II was initially released in 1988. As far as game storylines from that era go, it was certainly trying to tell an epic fantasy story. In that regard, it is very much an improvement over the plot found in the first Final Fantasy. However, that isn’t saying much by today’s standards. Three orphaned youths join a rebellion against an evil empire. That is pretty much the plot in a nutshell, and one has seen variations of it in several RPGs since. I can’t say it will wow gamers used to the storytelling in more recent FF games, but the bones of a potentially substantial old-school plot exist there, even if they aren’t explored as much as I’d like.
Your three main party members are Firion, Maria, and Guy. Firion is the figurehead of the group, Maria has a missing brother, and Guy? Well, he “speak beaver” (yes, that is actually a rather infamous line from the game itself!). That is about all we really get of the central trio, though side characters have slightly more personality. Minwu is notable for being the only male White Mage of story import in a single-player FF, Gordon is an interesting example of the “cowardly weakling” character who ultimately grows to come into his own, and Leila is the spunky pirate with some fun quips. Your revolving fourth party member slot is where you’ll find some of the more colorful characters in the cast, though story-prominent NPCs such as Princess Hilda, the acting leader of the Wild Rose Rebellion, and the thief with a heart of gold Paul also have some good moments throughout the game. The villains tend to be evil just for the sake of being evil, but there’s nothing wrong with “muahahaha” archetypes in an old-school story such as this.
Overall, I’m glad I gave the Pixel Remaster version of Final Fantasy II a shot. Finding some interesting ways to quickly strengthen my party this time around made traversing the annoying dungeons that much more tolerable, and so I enjoyed finally experiencing this portion of FF history to its completion. FFII is a divisive game, and given my experiences with the title I can see where those who enjoy it and those who dislike it are coming from. I liked my playthrough this time around because I had a stronger strategic sense of what I was doing, but the game is certainly quirky and clearly shows some of the series’ growing pains. As it stands, if you’re a FF series completionist like myself, this is easily the version of FFII I’d recommend given what it offers and the fact that it doesn’t potentially overstay its welcome since it doesn’t have the extra dungeons found in other ports, but I can’t say I’ll be replaying Final Fantasy II either.