Review by Alecto

"The RPG that changed my life"

Although it never became the blockbuster in North America that subsequent Final Fantasy games did, the game that was released as Final Fantasy II made a powerful impression on many people including myself. Final Fantasy II will always be special to me; playing it turned me from being a somewhat casual gamer into someone who began to take games much more seriously. Although looking back I can now identify a few of the game’s weaknesses, I will never forget that initial impression of wonder and excitement that this RPG was able to evoke within me and so many others.

The story follows Cecil, a soldier of the Red Wings who gets banished from his kingdom for having the courage to speak out against the questionable actions of his king. Cecil is more the classic hero as opposed to the hip, rabble-rousing brats that Square favours as its Final Fantasy protagonists these days. As the plot unfolds, Cecil matures and evolves from a straightforward military man into a knight with a broader purpose and worldview, just as the game’s story becomes more involved and sprawling as well. The cast of supporting characters are small but interesting, and it’s a shame that their personalities are compromised at times by awkwardly translated dialogue. The most sympathetic of the companions has to be Kain, a Dragoon knight and friend of Cecil who struggles throughout the game with guilt over his love for Rosa, Cecil’s girlfriend, and his betrayal of Cecil while under the mind-control spell of the villain Golbez.

The world in which the plot unfolds is quite linear, though decently sized and full of secrets to reward the curious. It is of course overrun by monsters that attack randomly and with enough frequency to be distracting and annoying at times--something that has always lessened my enjoyment of Final Fantasy games. The graphics used to depict the world are blocky and rather primitive, yet it is not the graphics that bring the world to life, but the music.

In a genre where music is so often an afterthought (especially in these earlier games where audio technologies and storage media were far more primitive than they are now), the quality and depth of Final Fantasy II’s soundtrack is truly something worthy of respect. Composer Nobuo Uematsu has since become famous and has garnered critical acclaim for all of his subsequent work, yet I still maintain that the simple, looped melodies in Final Fantasy II are one of the highpoints of his career. From the opening prologue and the stirring “Red Wings” theme, the music is the driving force behind the game. It propels the plot and establishes mood and tone in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity and honesty, and all the more remarkable considering that most of the melodies are loops of no more than a minute in length.

Characters in Final Fantasy II level up by gaining experience points through combat, which is of course nothing new. Upon reaching certain levels, certain characters learn either offensive or defensive spells, including some of the RPG staples such as Cure, Life, Fire/Ice/Lightning, Poison, as well as some more interesting ones like Float, which causes the character to hover in the air. Besides spells, there are an almost overwhelming number of items in the game: armour, shields, weapons and one-time missile projectiles. What makes things really fascinating is that it’s not always advantageous to use the sword with the highest attack power, or the armor with the highest defense rate. Strategy and common sense, as well as experimentation, are necessary to discover the optimum equipment for different situations and monsters. For example, certain weapons are associated with certain magics, as are monsters. If a fire monster is attacked with a fire sword, you will likely actually give the monster back hit points instead of take them away. Obviously an ice or water weapon would be more effective. This applies to armor as well; when fighting that same fire monster, equipping a fire shield means you probably won’t take any damage, whereas equipping an ice shield means you would take heavy damage.

This tactic carries over to spells as well, where the age-old fantasy and RPG stereotypes are in full force, and the more one knows about the “lore,” the better off they will be. Fire and ice are in opposition to each other; undead creatures are susceptible to white magic. All of these things come into play and challenge the gamer to respond with intelligence and strategy as opposed to straight-ahead brute force. Perhaps the most intriguing battle system innovation is that you can acquire the magic of certain monsters by defeating them (or in some cases, fighting them enough times in random battle encounters).

That being said, the battle system is not without its flaws. It’s a rather unpolished engine typical of so many old-school RPGs, where you cannot control the order in which your party members attack. Therefore, battles can often seem scattered and disorganized, as characters seem to attack when they feel like it and can often take several turns before executing a spell. This lack of control can seem frustrating to someone accustomed to more micromanagement options in the battle menu. Final Fantasy II also uses the Active Time system, meaning that monsters will attack according to their own schedule in real time, as opposed to a turn-based alternating form of combat. So in other words, if you aren’t quick issuing orders to your party, they will quickly be annihilated. Final Fantasy II can hardly be faulted for this exclusively however, since more sophisticated battle engines had not yet been developed. One can think of Final Fantasy II’s engine as a work in progress, and something that was to develop naturally into the more gamer-friendly battle systems of subsequent Square RPGs.

Though considered a respectable length for its time, Final Fantasy II would be considered on the medium to short side today in that it can be completed comfortably in under 35 hours. Yet those hours are all quality ones. There are no mini-games and few annoying fetch quests to artificially drive up the gameplay time. Instead, scenarios move quickly from one to the next, complete with several interesting twists and turns.

That Final Fantasy II was released before Square had achieved mainstream success in North America and became the juggernaut it is today is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, less care was taken with the North American port than a game of this quality deserved. Translations are sloppy and plot elements considered too risky for American audiences were removed. Most maddening however is the fact that the game was actually dumbed down for the supposedly unsophisticated American audiences. Monsters were made easier and weapons did more damage. It is truly unfortunate.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy II is a game made when Square(soft) was still “hungry.” I don’t mean to diminish what Square has become today, although many dislike its current direction. The point is that today Square is a huge corporation on top of the videogame world, and they know it, and their games reflect this. Final Fantasy II has a totally different flavour then for example the hugely self-assured and over-reaching Final Fantasy VIII. FFII is more traditional, yet crammed full of innovation, excellent music, epic-sized plot, and those wonderful small details that drive it well above the average.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/29/02, Updated 05/06/03

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