Review by Suprak the Stud

Reviewed: 08/11/08

An Anniversary to Forget

While it might be hard to believe, there was a time when attaching the name “Final Fantasy” to a title did not immediately guarantee its success, and when protagonists spent more time brandishing their sword on whatever was foolish enough to cross their path than worrying about little things like character development. Firion, the hero of Final Fantasy II, and the game itself are both relics of this era, and FF II was one of the few entries in the long running series that did not get translated upon its original release. However, in keeping in touch of the time honored tradition of re-releasing updated versions of games on newer systems in an attempt to reinvigorate the fanbase and expose a new generation of gamers to the title (if you’re an optimist) or to compensate for a lack of originality and milk the franchise for more money without actually having to go through the hassle of making a new game (if you’re a pessimist), Square-Enix has released numerous classic Final Fantasy titles on handheld systems sporting new features and the same familiar gameplay. Although it failed to reach North American shores during its original release, Final Fantasy II has found itself ported to the Playstation and the Gameboy Advance (packaged with the original Final Fantasy), and more recently to the PSP, where it is now packaged solo and attempting to stand without the coattails of the original game to support it. FF II actually boasts a very unique battle system that might pique the interest of those tired with the more traditional, well established systems found in numerous RPG titles, and is bound to play well with fans of old school RPGs and aficionados of the Final Fantasy series. Unfortunately, while FF II boasts a unique battle system that appears fresh despite the time that has transpired since the title’s original release, other aspects of the game, most notably the story and the characters (and nearly everything else in the game outside the battle system), more clearly demonstrate the age and hold the title back from being anything else than an average RPG.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the title is the unique leveling system that does away with the familiar experience points that are found in almost every other RPG out on the market. In fact, the concept of character levels is removed entirely and the focus is instead shifted to the leveling of certain aspects of the characters. The leveling system here is extremely open ended, as characters are not forced on some linear path toward higher stats, nor are they confined to the limits of whatever their job class is. Each character can equip any weapon of your choice, ranging from spears to axes to bare fists (for the especially hardcore bruiser), and the armor and magic that the characters in your party utilize are entirely customizable. Individual traits level up depending on your choices in battle, including basic stats such as strength and stamina, and specific skills, such as magic and weapon levels. These stats power up depending on how frequently they are implemented in battle, with magic improving by using magic, attack improving by attacking, and weapon levels increasing depending on which weapons you decide to saddle your characters with. Want Guy to become a powerful magician? Have him use attack spells in battle, which not only level up whatever spell he was using, but also his magic and MP as well. Want to see Maria wield two axes (and, honestly, who doesn’t?) and become the brute force of your operation? Just have her equip axes to both hands and release a relentless assault of monster slaying, which will not only boost her attack and axe stats, but also certifies her as a pretty efficient lumberjack. There is no path which is better than the others (although perhaps a group of characters that are all incapable of using magic might be a bad idea), and you can customize your party as you wish. Because of the amount of freedom given to your individual play style, leveling up is actually fairly enjoyable. Unlike most games, how you play dictates how the characters grow, rather than the way the characters grow dictating how you play. The game does away with forcing certain characters into being healers or fighters because of the way their stats increase, because your play will determine how the stats will increase. While some hardcore RPG fans might not like this sort of system as it does away with more traditional mechanics, I found it refreshing and would like to see this sort of system implemented in more RPGs.

While a broken battle system is typically the most common critique of FF II, I found it to be one of the strongest features of the game. With the exception of the way experience is accrued in this game, everything else is standard RPG mechanics. You can attack, use magic, defend, or run away (if you’re a coward), and anyone who has played an RPG ever will quickly pick up the battle system. The combination of this well established battle system and unique leveling system is actually done fairly well. This is not to say that it is by any means perfect, as there are some notable shortcomings to the battle system that have been bemoaned with each subsequent release of the game. After a certain point, it becomes nearly impossible to level up skills on the enemies provided in the game. Even the most powerful of monsters won’t be enough, and the level on your weapons and magic will have already surpassed that of any of the free roaming monsters. Thus, in order for leveling to proceed past this point, you must turn your weapons and spells against your traveling companions for the greater good. While I can’t imagine this going over very well in most traveling adventurers (“No, don’t get mad. I had to slash you with my axe because the monsters are too weak. This wasn’t anything personal. Now stop moving around so much…”), it also seems kind of silly that the randomly encountered monsters become so weak so fast. This also allows for the easy exploitation of the leveling system, and your characters can power up by smacking themselves around very early in the game. Additionally, a lot of the negative status effect spells are somewhat useless, because by the time you have leveled them up to a point that they actually can affect the monsters in the area, all of the other stats are leveled up so highly that you won’t need them. However, this should not be a serious gripe unless you are a aficionado of grinding, because honestly spells do not need to be leveled up past this point for any sort of legitimate reasons. Overall, the battle system itself works rather well, and has a nice interface that is easy to learn. The greater amount of customization possible is nice, and powering up is never so cumbersome that it interferes with enjoyment of the game. The fact that this is fairly unique in the genre also helps, and provides some enjoyment due to its novelty.

The main problem with the battle system is not that grinding is difficult, but rather that the game itself is far too easy. The game has been significantly watered down from its original version in terms of difficulty, which sort of precludes the complaint that it is difficult to level up past a certain point, as this sort of leveling is entirely superfluous. Most bosses can be defeated within a couple of rounds of battle, and as long as you have characters leveling up basic magic spells (cure and elemental magic), there is nothing outside of the final boss or some of the hidden bosses that require powering up beyond what occurs through the normal progression of the game. Most of the early bosses can be done away in a single round, and not just because the leveling system is easy to exploit (it is), but because of the general wussiness of most of the bosses. While toning down the difficulty somewhat does offset possible inconveniences that might be encountered in the unique manner of leveling up in FF II is understandable, it has been done to the point that most battles just aren’t fun and approach the point of banality. There are some battles that actually provide somewhat of a challenge, but most of these are grouped towards the end (and almost all of them aren’t mandatory), and the lack of any legitimate challenges eliminates any sense of accomplishment throughout most of the game. Of course, the final boss puts up a little more of a fight, but still isn’t on par with most of the final boss battles throughout the series. If the difficulty had been increased by only a little bit, the overall experience would have been more enjoyable, but as it stands the game provides little impediment to your progress. This is by far one of the easiest RPGs you will encounter, and the absence of difficulty sort of makes the battle system a waste. The concept of open ending leveling is one that I’m sure some RPG fans would appreciate, but it is completely negated by the lack of any sort of necessity to put even the smallest modicum of thought into how characters should be developed. Basic attacks can take out most of the bosses in a couple of turns, even without the assistance of any sort of support magic. Thus, any enjoyment that might have been gleaned if you happen to enjoy the leveling system is almost surely to be invalidated by the fact that any sort of thought you put into leveling up characters is superfluous and as long as characters have cure or potions there is unlikely to be any time that Firion and friends are in danger of dying.

The other unique aspect to gameplay in FF II is the inclusion of key words to progress the story. The concept is a fairly simple one, but one that few games ever implement. Throughout your quest, Firion and crew will learn special words that can be used to further the story. Asking certain characters about certain words might either reveal more to the story or suggest where to go to continue the story. This really doesn’t do much to improve the game in any way, as essentially all that ever happens is that you learn a keyword, ask the same character about the keyword immediately after, and then progress again through your quest. It would be nice if more characters responded to keywords in some special way, but it tends to be the same two or three characters that you talk to that teach you the keywords in the first place. If it had been implemented well, this could really be a nice little feature, providing the opportunity for greater immersion into the game. However, as it stands, keywords are at best a forgettable feature, and at worst a minor nuisance.

Like the battle system, the graphics and sound are both fairly true to their old school roots. The graphics are done in the traditional top-down 2D view that are customary of NES and SNES RPGs. However, the graphics from the original game received a major overhaul and FF II for the PSP looks far better than anything ever featured on the NES. While the graphics certainly are not up to the standard of most modern RPGs, the 2D style suits this game very well, and considering the limitations involved using this style, the game looks very nice. The locations are all very bright and the color scheme used throughout the game is done quite well. Better than most faithful old school RPGs, the artistic scheme for each dungeon is actually unique, and many are quite memorable. The same cave/castle motifs that plague many RPGs from this era are still featured, but not every dungeon is actually limited to these two styles. And, even though both reappear multiple times, enough is done to distinguish between the previous dungeons that it doesn’t feel like you are always plodding though the same area throughout the game. In battle magic effects are nicely implemented, and the animation scheme actually levels up as the spells themselves do. Some of the bosses look great, and especially those featured later in the game are imposing and illustrated nicely. Unfortunately, the game does suffer from laziness in some of the enemy design, and the game is mostly populated by the same six or seven bad guys just sporting new color schemes. Good to know that if I ever need to buff up quickly, a quick change of clothes is enough to get the job done. Even most of the bosses aren’t unique enemies, and are instead simply monsters used in later dungeons at earlier points in the game. It is disappointing that there wasn’t enough creative talent to at least feature unique boss battles that aren’t simply random enemy encounters later in the game, and the enemy design just comes off as extremely lazy. There are some portraits that accompany the major character’s speech, but these are actually fairly small and not much detail can be observed. Overall, while the graphics certainly aren’t bad, they aren’t really good enough to impress anyone that has played anything past the SNES. There is a great opening CG sequence, but more than anything this just shows the age of the rest of the game. The sound in the game is similar, as it really does not add nor take away from the experience. For the most part, the music is forgettable and really does not contribute much to the overall atmosphere, although the boss theme is enjoyable enough.

More than the graphics and the sound, what really holds the game back and gives it an antiquated rather than old school feel are the story and characters of the game. It should be noted that FF II does represent a great jump forward both in terms of depth of characters and story quality from the original title. While the original Final Fantasy (and most other NES RPGs) focused almost entirely on battle and included a disposable story and interchangeable characters, FF II does attempt to improve both of these aspects and actually represents a drastic step forward for the evolution of the series. There is a legitimate attempt to give characters a unique personality rather than just have them embody the role of a warrior or mage, and there is a discernable, coherent story throughout the game. There is a gradual build up, and the storytelling in this game is actually far better than most titles that were released at the time. However, this still isn’t much of a compliment, and FF II really offers very little in terms of story. For undisclosed reasons, the emperor of Palamecia decides to call forth monsters from the underworld (probably not a good idea to get on this guy’s bad side) and start his quest for world conquest. Firion and his companions Maria, Guy, and Leon all have their town destroyed, friends and family slaughtered, sock shelves disorganized, hair mussed, and lives just thrown into general disarray. They’re even killed…temporarily. Luckily, they are revived just in the knick of time (fortunately, it wasn’t a cut scene death; you know, the kind you don’t come back from). Leon is somehow separated from the other three, and Firion and pals decide at this point not only to fight the empire with the rebellion, but also attempt to reunite themselves with the estranged Leon.

The story is by no means awful (although, it is pretty bad), and for its era it is admirable that there was even an attempt at a legitimate story. However, the quest here is the most basic “bad guy with anger issues and a propensity to burn things wants to conquer the world” story, which happens to progress in a very predictable and unexciting manner. Little things like motives and justification for actions are left out entirely. The Emperor’s motives for world conquest are never fleshed out; he just likes other people’s stuff, apparently. Major betrayals occur and are never explained in any detail, and at several times during the course of the game the behavior of some of the main characters is entirely inexplicable and totally incongruous with the plot, with the most notable example being that one impediment to your progress is solved by the fact that one of your characters speaks fluent beaver (which, strangely enough doesn’t prompt nearly enough questions from everyone else in the party; they’re just sort of “Oh, so you can talk beaver. That’s cool. My cousin knows some zebra, but only really basic phrases like “where is the bathroom” and “I think that lion is eating your family”). No thought is ever put into the character’s actions, and the plot just seems to be happening around these people as there is extremely limited reactions and subsequent development. Major characters die, are given a one sentence “shame about that, eh?” memorial, the other characters bow their heads out of respect, and then the characters are never mentioned again. Good thing bodies disappear in this game, as it seems unlikely anybody would care enough to bury them. While there is a story here, it is developed so poorly that it will bore even the most hardcore of RPG fans. The story just isn’t good enough to provide incentive for you to reach the ending, so if you happen to be one of the people that cannot stand the battle system, this is unlikely to be a game you will complete.

The characters in the game are slightly better than the story of FF II itself, but not by very much. There is an effort here to imbue each character with a unique personality, but so little time is spent developing the characters that these never take any clear form. The main cast get brief little character builders every hour or so in the game, and after a completion of a dungeon there is an obligatory story sequence where there is some effort to flesh out your traveling party. However, while this is done much better than in FF I, it still isn’t done well enough to really add anything to the main cast of the game that would allow you to feel empathy for their situation. Typically, most of the conversation are happening at them, rather than with them, and thus the development of the characters is very stilted and unsatisfying. The points at which they speak are so few and so far spread out that it becomes difficult to glean anything but the most basic facets of their personality. The villains are just plain boring, and despite the fact that they are bad dudes, we never really learn much about them. Sure, the emperor likes setting house on fire, but why? Pyromania? Non-pyro phobia? Literally, no information is divulged other than the fact that they are destroying the lands around them, and the major and minor villains never become anything more than a story device. The supporting cast, however, is developed in a much more satisfactory manner, and typically end up upstaging those that they were supposed to support. A lot of these characters are actually developed through the course of the story, and we typically learn more about them than Firion, Maria, and Guy. Also somewhat unsatisfying is the revolving door that is your forth party member. These characters join you for a very brief part of the quest, are fleshed out much better than the rest of the characters, and then leave almost immediately. While traveling with people that speak fluent beaver probably would provide enough incentive to keep around most people, this fourth party member always finds some reason to up and leave your party, leaving you with a gaping whole in your group. Not only does this marginalize these characters, it is also frustrating because whenever a new character joins, they start out at their base stats and thus are extremely weak, meaning that the fourth character is going to spend the majority of his or her time with you as being completely useless.

This game is sporting some nice bonus features that were left out of the original title. There is a whole new additional dungeon, which not only adds some more challenge, but it also allows you to collect the characters’ ultimate weapons as some extra incentive to complete the complex dungeon. Now, it is somewhat unlikely that this will be accomplished without some sort of additional help, because what you have to do isn’t exactly spelled out and it is so bloody long that it is most likely not something most people will want to be experimenting with. However, it is definitely a worthwhile experience, as there are some new bosses to be fought and a lot of these level designs are actually fairly cool. There is some goal to be accomplished on each floor, varying from killing a very specific enemy to manipulating a clone of Firion, who must be controlled by Firion’s movements, to step to a red block. By doing so, you unlock more key words (!), and inch your way closer to finding one character’s final weapon. The bosses here are actually some of the most difficult you’ll encounter in this fairly easy game, and it is entirely advisable to go through the whole dungeon at least once just to claim victory on these “hidden bosses.” Even better than that is a whole supplemental quest featuring four of the minor characters in the game. This is an absolute great ending sequence to the game, as it allows you to not only play as the better characters, it also wraps up the story quiet nicely as well. These are features that were already included in the GBA version, so there really aren’t any “new” features to speak of, but it is nice to see that at least these make a return.

Overall, FF II delivers a very average role playing experience. This is by no means a terrible game, but there really isn’t enough here to satisfy most RPG fans, and those not interested in the genre will be driven away completely. Old school RPG buffs will most likely not be too keen on the unique battle system and lack of any sort of difficulty, while newer fans of the genre will be bored with its unoriginal story and the dated bells and whistles. The game is a good length, taking around 40 hours or so to complete (if you want to do the bonus fun stuff), and there are a couple of other things to play around with (including a pretty good art gallery that fills up as the game progresses), but it seems unlikely that you’ll be going back to this game for a replay. The battle system is kind of cool to play around with once just to look at another way to implement a successful leveling scheme, but it looses its novelty quickly and isn’t as interesting as you become familiar with it. Primarily because of the lack of difficulty, the battle system isn’t strong enough to carry the entire game and most of the game will be spent just holding down the attack button. The story and characters are both forgettable and of little redeeming value, and the sound and graphics, while not bad, aren’t really great either. There are much better RPGs out there, both in the FF series and on the PSP in general. This is most likely one adventure you’ll want to embark on only if you’ve run out of viable alternative RPGs to play or if you’re a big fan of the FF series (and, to a lesser extent, old school RPGs in general). While it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to put this reworked game out for a 20th anniversary edition, this most likely isn’t the anniversary gift fans of the series were looking for.

Happy Anniversary! (THE GOOD):
+Unique leveling system allows for greater freedom in customization than most RPGs
+Game includes some very nice extra features, including a great art gallery containing some character and enemy sketches
+Additional dungeon and supplemental quest at the end of the game are good bonus content and provide most of the game’s enjoyability
+Graphics are nice, and a lot of the game looks quite good

Let’s See Other People (THE BAD):
-Story was bad when it was originally released, and hasn’t gotten any better in the past twenty years
-All of the main characters are developed very poorly and are forgettable
-Both story and characters lack any sort of depth
-There are some notable defects with the leveling system, and while interesting for a while, it isn’t really that much fun
-Game is far too easy, which really takes away from the battle system
-The boss and enemy design comes off as lazy

I Think I Might Be Pregnant… (THE UGLY):
The DS is sporting the first translation of FFIII to reach stateside, and one of the best of the 2D Final Fantasy games in FFIV, both of which were completely redone and have a newer, more modern graphics engine. Yet, all the PSP gets are FF I and FF II, released separately and including nothing noteworthy from their last release, other than we now get to pay for two separate games rather than one comprehensive set. Looks like we know who Square-Enix’s new favorite is…

THE VERDICT: 5.00/10.00

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Product Release: Final Fantasy II (US, 07/24/07)

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