When you have a series as long as Final Fantasy, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have at least a few titles in your roster that people don’t like. Final Fantasy II is definitely one of these games for its parent franchise; if you ask people online to name weaker entries in the series, II will almost certainly come up – but what about this game causes such distaste? As we dive into this game, I want to think about both what this game supposedly does wrong, and whether all that criticism is wholly justified.
Final Fantasy II (Android, GBA [reviewed], iOS, NES, PC, PS1, PSP, WonderSwan)
Released Dec 1988 | Developed / Published: Square
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 25 hours
One of the most common and enduring complaints put against Final Fantasy II concerns its leveling system. Much of II sought to innovate and expand the mechanics used in the first game, and one of the obvious changes made is to its use of experience points, a JRPG staple for measuring progress and upgrading characters – or, more pointedly, how II doesn’t use them. Rather than use what we might now call a traditional JRPG leveling mechanic (i.e. you gain experience points for winning fights, and gaining enough advances your level and stats), Final Fantasy II uses activity-based progression. Basically, this means that your skills improve when you use them; for example, using a sword constantly makes your character more effective at sword attacks, allowing them to dish out more damage. Modern players might recognize this as something broadly similar to the way you level up in some western RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls. With that in mind you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe Final Fantasy II represents a more (or at least differently) accessible type of JRPG where perhaps people who are looking for a way into the genre from that kind of background could jump in.
Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Final Fantasy II’s leveling is infamously broken. It’s possible to completely game the system right from the beginning if you’re dedicated enough, such as creatively manipulating how and when your party members get hit and are healed to maximize your party’s HP stats in such a way as to make them largely untouchable for large portions of the game. Pretty much every stat can be broken in this manner, so a player who knows what they’re doing can utterly neuter any sense of challenge in the game. As a system, it also reduces any notion of individuality between the party members; because the game has a freeform approach to party-building, allowing you to choose how you want to build each character, what ultimately ends up happening out of necessity is that the party winds up being a homogenous mess as it turns out uniformly broken stats are the most effective way of progressing.
The ability-based leveling isn’t the only innovation Final Fantasy II has to offer. It also tries to build a kind of dynamic conversation system into the game to replace the strict exposition-at-the-player form of Final Fantasy. If that sounds a bit too grand and ambitious for an RPG which debuted on the Famicom, well, you’d be right. As you talk to people, occasionally certain words will be flagged up in a different colour, signifying that you can use the “Learn” command to add that word to a bank of topics. Once learned, you can ask any old rando about any of the topics you have stored. Typically, these words are plot-relevant, such as learning the password that the heroes use to coordinate their rebellion against the evil Palamecian empire. It’s a really cool idea, which makes it all the more heart-breaking that it doesn’t quite come together in the execution. Too many topics have to be asked to specific people in order to get any kind of useful response, and more often than not you’ll elicit an answer that recycles unhelpful statements or you just get a “?”, signaling that they have nothing to say at all. Because this is an older game, environmental or organic direction is few and far between, so if you want to have any clue of where to go next to progress the plot, you wind up traipsing back and forth across the world, shoving learned topics in people’s faces until you get something helpful.
Well, I suppose you could just explore instead, making your way across the land until you naturally find the plot. However, yet again Final Fantasy II can let you down as its world map is infamous for not signaling when you’re about to move into an area with stronger random encounters. I think it’s probably a very authentic Final Fantasy II experience to be wandering around, engaging in some harmless grinding, only to take one step in the wrong direction and find yourself staring down an unbeatable monster. There’s no way to describe this except as petulantly unfair; it only serves to amplify the grinding loop as you constantly battle over and over just to raise your stats enough to take on a surprise encounter. Even with stat grinding the end result is a game which you’re more likely to take conservatively, slowly inching across the world rather than feeling like a power fantasy.
You’re probably getting the impression that Final Fantasy II is living up (or down) to its reputation. Indeed, it is hard to argue that its flaws aren’t obvious and potentially quite severe – and yet, there is still something about it which captures my attention and I do honestly think it’s remembered more harshly than it perhaps deserves. For a start, this is very personal but I’m inclined to give a bit of a break to a game that fails because of its ambition, rather than being a game which just badly recycles. To think that a Famicom RPG decided to and was able to push the boundaries of what the system and genre could accomplish at that time is mind-boggling. Sure, the leveling system was busted but it was so far ahead of its time that I find it hard not to at least appreciate it in an academic sense. I guess that doesn’t save it for most people, and fair enough in that case.
The one thing that Final Fantasy II does unequivocally well, in my opinion, is when it comes to character death. Some stories, particularly in this era of fantasy RPGs seemed, to me at least, to be afraid of killing off characters, and especially main leads, but that certainly isn’t the case with Final Fantasy II. Although its story is neither the wildest nor the most imaginative – in fact, it’s basically Star Wars, as a young rag-tag band of rebels take on an all-powerful empire who build a super destructive warship that must be destroyed lest it wipe out every rebellion settlement – it isn’t afraid to try and punctuate the narrative with moments of sincere drama, and it accomplishes this chiefly through character death. It even manages to not overdo it, with the deaths happening sparingly throughout the plot, and always in a suitably dramatic way. It is probably undermine a little by the generally average quality of the majority of the writing, but at least it tried.
So, Final Fantasy II isn’t really a great game. It certainly doesn’t match up to its more venerated predecessor, which manages to outdo it on gameplay terms and just broadly in a mechanical sense. Instead, we got an ambitious sequel that was nevertheless riddled with problems of its own making. I do still think it can be worth playing, and if Square-Enix’s rampant re-releasing is any indication, they’d certainly like you to think II is worth a buy as well, but I suspect its best place is as a curiosity only.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.