Review by NT220

"I see the FANTASY, but FINAL is still nowhere in sight..."

Depending on who you ask, the Final Fantasy series may or may not be one of the best RPG series around. But there is no doubt that (in America, anyway) it is the most well known. In the U.S., Final Fantasy 7 is the game that really made the games (and hence RPGs in general) one of the masses; but it is Final Fantasy 2, released more than five years before, that really established what Final Fantasy was about. FF2 was the first of the series to feature a dramatic, epic plot, and the battle system it used had been pretty much unchanged until FF10 came along and introduced another one.

But then, our Final Fantasy 2 was not even the true FF2. In Japan, the series has already progressed to its third installment, and this is its fourth. In an attempt to cover up this fact, the game's developers renamed it to Final Fantasy 2 when it was released in the U.S. Besides that, they deemed Americans too unskilled to behold the game in its true form; they thus took FF4 ''Easytype'' (a version released in Japan for beginners and children, with easier bosses and less moves), did a (rather sloppy) translation, censored out some ''unsuitable'' material, and declared it the second Final Fantasy game.

Perhaps it is due to the lackluster translation, then, that I never saw exactly what the fuss about FF2's story is. You play as Cecil the Dark Knight, captain of the Red Wings, the airship fleet of the Kingdom of Baron. In a (quite impressive) opening scene, you see Cecil carrying out his latest assignment: to rob the Crystal of Water from Mysdia, a peaceful country of mages. Cecil succeeds, but starts to question the motives of taking the Crystal. Enraged, the King of Baron sacked Cecil and gave him a decideingly less glorious task: to bring a Package to the nearby Village of Mist.

Accompanied by his best friend Kain, Cecil arrived at Mist with the Package. He thus unwittingly detonated a bomb contained in the Package that destroyed the entire village. An inhabitant, a young girl named Rydia, angrily confronts them; she summoned a beast that cast the Quake spell, swallowing up Kain and rendering Cecil unconscious. The typical (by today's standards) RPG fare of power-hungry villains, hidden pasts, and heroes sacrificing themselves for the greater good then ensues. Our heroes embark upon a quest that will eventually traverse three worlds (the regular world, the Underworld, and the Moon) and involve an ancient race of people from another planet.

Now, the plot itself is quite well done. Not only does it move along at a very enjoyable pace, but it consists of very few ''fetch'' quests. No ''I go to Person A to get Item X, but he'd only trade it for Item Y, and Person B will only give me Item Y if I do Task N'' rubbish here; your reasons for visiting dungeons are always well-presented and sufficient. The plot, initially a mess of tangles, slowly unravels in a thoroughly convincing and entertaining manner. On paper it sounds highly far-fetched and improbable; in the game it seems a matter of course.

The magnificent plot, however, only makes the character and dialogue seem shallower than ever. They give the impression of first-graders trying to act Shakespeare: you can just barely see the brilliance under all the tripping up. The characters are one-dimensional; most can be summed up in one sentence. For instance, Edge's personality consists of one word: brash. Rosa has no discernible personality. And the things they say are so devoid of emotion and so cliched and cheesy that a rather serious plot is laughable at times.

But despite all the attention around its story, Final Fantasy 2 is still a role-playing game. And it brought quite a major innovation in gameplay also: the Active Time Battle system. No longer do you have all the time in the world to decide what to do and input your attacks. Battles now proceed in semi-real-time manner: when a character's turn comes up, his or her command window will pop up. After you enter your command, the character will carry it out. You will then wait for your second character's turn to come up, etc. Meanwhile, your enemies are doing the same thing, and when they get their turn, they will also attack.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the battle system that has been used in countless games since. Though still featured in a rather primitive form (you can't change the orders your characters attack, for instance, and there is no clue whatsoever of when your characters' turn will come up), all the basics are still there, and the battles seem far more exciting than your typical turn-based affair.

However, despite its strong points, the battle system in FF2 still has quite a few wrinkles to iron out. In theory, your characters will preform a command right after you input it; in practice, the character will often take an eternity to preform the action, because (for some reason) the enemy will suddenly enter attack mode and only after surviving seven enemy attacks will your character preform the (often obsolete) action. For instance: say I have my main healer attack, since no one is low on HP. But then, a split-second after I input the command, chances are the enemy will suddenly cast some Mega-powerful Spell of Doom and knock my party down to the single digits, and THEN my healer will preform her pathetic attack!

Besides that, the battles take far too long. And the battles are not too long because you have to use endless strategy and planning, either; it is simply by dint of (a) your enemies having far too much HP, and (b) your party members having wildly lopsided physical attack power. Now, I'm not expecting my mages to become physical powerhouses, but can't I at least expect them to actually break the triple-digit mark consistently?

And the somewhat flawed battle system is really a shame, because there is very little in the way of gameplay outside of battles. Puzzles don't get much harder than ''Ooh, the floor tiles hurt me, I guess I'll cast Float.'' Leveling up is the only method of salvation if you can't get by bosses, as this is the only Final Fantasy game where you have no say whatsoever on what abilities your characters learn. The characters' abilities are completely fixed, and the game guides you with an iron fist on what characters you must use. If you resent the party you're stuck with, tough luck; you'll just have to gain a few levels to make it bearable.

In the overworld scenes, the game's graphics are, simply put, terrible. Final Fantasy 2 was originally meant to be an NES game, and it shows; the sprites are miniscule, and they have the tinted, washed-out look typical of NES games. backgrounds are slightly better, thanks to the enhanced palette of the SNES, but still retain a very basic look.

Enter battle, however, and the graphics look very much better! The enemies are poorly animated, often simply standing there, but they look big, threatening, and colorful. The party also looks far better in battle, although it results in three versions of how a character looks (overworld, battle, menu screen portrait).

The musical score in FF2, mercifully, is only partially butchered by the poor sound technology. Though the brilliant and symphonic soundtrack is somewhat dulled due to being presented through bleeps and bloops, each piece still manages to convey the feeling of the area perfectly. The battle themes remain some of the best ever. And not all of the music is melancholy and sappy, either; the more light-hearted tunes are as well done as the more emotional ones.

So - flawed story, flawed gameplay, mediocre graphics, decent music - what makes me give Final Fantasy 2 a semi-respectable score of 6? I must say that, despite all its imperfections, FF2 provides a halfway-decent gaming experience. The battles may be mindless and frustrating, yet the action is never bogged down and the flaws don't block the flow of the game. The characters and dialogue are laughable, but the plot remains solid, and it is as captivating and drawing as a video-game story can get.

Thus, I don't dislike Final Fantasy 2. I am entertained (somewhat) by it, and, though I'm not exactly glued to my TV screen playing it, I don't recoil at the thought of going through it. It's a mildly interesting quest - not one that I'm that anxious to do again, but not one that I regret wasting time on.

Truth be told, I'm not exactly thrilled at the thought of playing FF2, but it was a game worth my time. When I analyze it, I find a severely flawed game; when I play it I find a mildly entertaining one. This score is a bit of a compromise between the two radically different opinions. The flaws of FF2 are easily noticeable, but somehow I feel that, through playing, they can somewhat be redeemed.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 02/02/02, Updated 02/02/02

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