Final Fantasy II – Playing the Series’ ‘Black Sheep’ Today

When I wrote about my thoughts on Final Fantasy I, it was with a sense of awe and whimsy. I was coming from a place of inexperience and naivety; I had absolutely no prior knowledge of the franchise at all before playing the debut game in the series. Oh sure, I knew that the 1987 debut wasn’t the right place to start by anybody’s estimation, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. And in hindsight, I came off relatively unscathed. Thanks to the wise decision to pick up the Origins port, I actually had a pretty good time despite some of that game’s shortcomings and the telltale signs of aging. Final Fantasy II was always going to be a different ballgame.

Those same friends that urged me into the series speak of Final Fantasy II in hushed whispers, giving dark warnings against the black sheep of the franchise. “Ssssh, we don’t speak of that one”, they (almost) say, “That one is not like the others.” But hey, I’ve only got one game to compare it to, so “not like the others” is hardly going to be a dark mark against it by my estimation.


The Elephant in the Room

There are other things working against Final Fantasy II that any hardcore fan will tell you about. Its difficulty curve is legendary amongst the fanbase, and its levelling system punishes to the point that it makes you literally punch yourself in the face (more on that later). Fortunately for me, there are ways around both of those problems these days in the form of the PSP Dawn of Souls ports, which means not only do I get a slightly more balanced version of the game, but I get shinier visuals too!

The PSOne Origins game actually started to look good after 25 hours of staring at it, but there’s no denying the upgrade that Dawn of Souls adds. I made the active choice to go with Origins for the first game because Dawn of Souls locks you into playing both games on Easy Mode, and that’s just not the best way to play FF1. However, thanks to the sheer brutality of its levelling system, my research suggests that it is absolutely the way to go for FF2. So yay, pretty horses!

A graphics comparison of Final Fantasy II (NES/Famicom original vs. PS One Origins remake) vs. PSP (Dawn of Souls) remake

I’ll go right ahead and address the elephant in the room when it comes to Final Fantasy II. If you’re one of those 80s kids, you’re scratching your head right now wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Final Fantasy II didn’t release on NES, right? Wrong.

For many Western players, another game called Final Fantasy II that released on SNES in 1991 is actually an entirely different game now known more commonly as Final Fantasy IV. It released as FFII because the previous two games in the series were completely skipped in the West. The actual true Final Fantasy II did not receive a release outside of Japan when it came out in 1987 on the Famicom (NES) system or its re-release on the Wonderswan Color in 2001. For Western players like myself, true Final Fantasy II has always been a bolt-on to Final Fantasy I, whether it’s as part of Origins or Dawn of Souls and has only recently been available separately on mobile devices. Like FF1, it’s still yet to get any kind of release on PC, making them the only two Final Fantasy games not officially on the system. It’s appropriate that the two games are so heavily linked though as from a pure gameplay perspective, there are some heavy similarities.


Big Blue Bars

Oh sure, it’s early Final Fantasy, right? There are going to be big blue bars and turn-based battles. You’re going to have enemies on your left and a team of four on your right, with a menu consisting of options including ‘attack’, ‘items’, ‘magic’, and ‘flee’. The newly added ‘defend’ is hardly an epiphany (I think I used it twice), and it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the game consists of traversing an overworld map where you are interrupted by random encounters in which victory rewards the growth of your party. These core mechanics are all a staple of the series, and after 40 hours on the first game, travelling through dungeons felt very familiar to me after just a few hours into FF2. Many of the spells I’d learnt to love and hate in Final Fantasy I made an immediate return and a number of the enemies too, so I could rely on some muscle memory I’d gained from my hours on the first game. Final Fantasy II definitely eschews the D&D trappings of the first game, but still my beloved band of goblins were again the first spawn of enemies I encountered after leaving town.

Despite such similarities, Final Fantasy II is defined by its differences, which become obvious right out of the gate. When you talk to any fans about this game, the first thing they’re going to mention is the levelling system. FF1 didn’t blow any minds when it offered a system of classes that levelled up based on experience points, where becoming stronger was directly proportional to how many things you killed.

In Final Fantasy II, that system is replaced wholesale with a really weird alternative. And not in an interesting branching-trees kind of way like most MMOs employ these days, nor even in the sphere grid thing that Final Fantasy X did. No, in Final Fantasy II, the levelling system feels like its actively working against you.


Punch Yourself in the Face

You see, in FF2 your stats level up independently through individual use; attacking raises Attack, casting magic raises MP, using a sword raises Sword Proficiency, casting a Fire spell levels up that Fire spell, and so on. That probably sounds fairly egregious, and at the time it was even considered pretty innovative. Hell, if you’ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game, it probably even sounds familiar.

However, the implementation of the system in Final Fantasy II is such that levelling something up is usually at the absolute detriment of levelling something else. I’ll quote the infamous example here of how gaining HP is linked to taking damage, and how in the Famicom version of the game, it was almost essential to attack your own party to gain enough HP to progress. As I said earlier, “punching yourself in the face.” Thankfully, I didn’t quite need to go that far in Dawn of Souls, though I did have to resort to ignoring the new Formation status that allows you to have ranged attackers in the backline. Sure, it’s great that my archer doesn’t get hit, but the result is that she also doesn’t gain any HP and, therefore, dies instantly when she does get hit. See, working against you.

Let me provide another example of how levelling something under FF2’s system becomes detrimental; if you are casting your offensive Thunder spell often to grind up its level, it means you’re not casting your defensive Blink spell. Therefore, by the time I’d got my Thunder to a nice, zappy lvl 5, my Blink was still a measly lvl 1. Multiply that problem by a couple hundred fights, and it becomes a real balancing act of which spells are you casting, or more specifically, which ones are you not casting. The upshot is you wind up picking a handful of favorite spells and weapons that you specialize in, level those up so they are actually powerful enough for the late-game enemies and rely on them to carry you. For a first-time player, you’d best hope you picked wisely (or luckily) because some of those enemies— specifically certain bosses— may have immunities that don’t play well with the handful of things you chose to specialize in.

I had the misfortune of making my spellcaster a little too reliant on elemental damage magic. A certain endgame boss was completely immune to that kind of magic, and a quick look at a guide online recommended a handful of spells including Berserk and Haste, which I hadn’t levelled up to anywhere near the appropriate level for this particular badass. I had to cheese my way through that fight using a lot of Phoenix Downs and the life-draining Blood Sword (making its Final Fantasy debut).

The combat in Final Fantasy II is never overly difficult (I didn’t die anywhere near as often in FF2 as I did in FF1, and in-dungeon saves mean mistakes aren’t nearly as penalizing), but needless to say, it will punish you if you haven’t been putting levels into the right things, and it’s on you to somehow know which things those right things are.


Phoenix Downed

This would be a lot easier if not for the fourth party member. Oh, this little wrinkle is both one of FF2’s greatest innovations and worst blights. From a story-telling perspective, FF2 is head and shoulders above its predecessor, and that fourth party slot is a big part of that. Unlike the four generic gaps you’re given to fill in the first game, in Final Fantasy II you’re given three named canon roles (which you can change if you wish) and a fourth slot in the party, which rotates between different named companions throughout the game. Through this slot you’re introduced to some of the game’s best characters— the bald record keeper rebel Josef, the soft-spoken white mage Minwu, the swashbuckling pirate Leila, the cowardly champion Gordon, and the dragoon Ricard. These characters are integral to the game’s plot, each with their own heroic game-making moments, and it’s this innovation that begins to flesh out the world of Palamecia far above anything that happened in the first game.

The additional characters also let you play with the inventory items that would have otherwise just been scrap to sell for extra Gil (gold) – because of the levelling system, once you’ve begun levelling a character in one weapon, you’re unlikely to want to ditch all that hard-earned experience in that specific weapon to switch to another. Thankfully, through the fourth slot characters, you’ll likely get to cycle through the majority of the weapon types, depending on what you chose for your three main characters.

Here comes the but. The downside to this is, once again, the levelling system. The fourth slot characters don’t join your party with any kind of auto-levelled system in place, so they’re never xp-matched to your current party. In fact, save for a couple of generic weapons and a spell or two, if you’re lucky, you’re expected to fully outfit them with new weapons, equipment, and spells which, yes, means levelling their spells from the ground up too. The result is that towards the latter half of the game, the fourth slot characters just felt like a liability to me. Oh sure, Ricard the dragoon looked cool with his dragon helmet and his lance attacks, but he had sub-1,000 hit points and was being knocked down in a single hit from most everything I encountered. Even equipped with the best armors I could find, nothing I could do would combat the sheer lack of combat experience he had in comparison to the rest of my party. Attacks that my other three party members would evade with ease sent Ricard face down in the dirt. Charm spells that washed over everybody else had Ricard literally tripping over his own boots to stab his friends in the kneecaps with his lance. It reached a point where it became better to just leave him KOed than to waste the MP on resurrecting and Curing him up to health again. Two dungeons later, he would be replaced by another different NPC anyway. Thankfully, the combat itself was never actually all that challenging.


Behemoth of My Own Making

From around at least the mid-way point of the game, nothing in the game bar a few endgame bosses had me overly concerned. I don’t know if that was a beast of my own making, though. Whether through the difficulty of the PSP port’s “Easy Mode” or through my own over-grinding, I came to find the majority of the battles in Final Fantasy II easy. The nuances of its combat system punished me for all the reasons I mentioned, frustrating me to no end at times, but never in such a way that the game became challenging. By contrast, in FF1 I found myself literally ‘limping’ out of dungeons and back to my inn for a revive before diving back in for another attempt. I never had to do that in FF2, not even once. I didn’t struggle with this one at all, but I did spend a decent amount of time in the early areas taking my time to get to grips with the ability system. That’s not necessarily a criticism – I’m no great lover of grinding, so it was a welcome change to be able to move through dungeons at pace and to focus on the story instead of the combat.

That’s Final Fantasy II’s greatest strength. It’s the one thing I can hold up over its predecessor despite all of the misgivings with its weird levelling system. Oh, sure, it’s the first game to feature Chocobos, in a fleeting moment where you find and ride just one of the iconic canary-chickens across a desert. And yeah, it’s the first game to feature Cid, a name that would appear in every Final Fantasy hereafter, associated loosely in one way or another to airships and engineering. And it’s the game that introduced Blood Swords, Leviathan, Ultima, and those goddamn Malboro!

But those are small things, they belong on a trivia page, not in any great discussion comparing the two Final Fantasy Origins games. The main reason to play Final Fantasy II over its predecessor, if you’re going to, is for its much-improved story. FF1 told a cliché yarn about four generic warriors of light rescuing a princess and then gathering crystals of light to save the kingdom from a demon of chaos. There were some elves and dwarves and wizards thrown in for good measure because it was the 80s, and this was a fantasy game. Just one year later, FF2 swapped almost all of that stuff out for a dark tale about an empire imposing its will on its people, poisoning an ancient race of wyverns amidst a rebel uprising forming to overthrow its rule. The story deals with betrayal, death, romance, violence and… well, wizards. There are still wizards, it was still the 80s, and this was still a fantasy game.


Long Struggle

Somehow FF1 still has the more memorable areas and boss fights, and FF2 has a lot of backtracking and to-ing and fro-ing across its overworld, using a bizarre new “Keyword” system to learn information from certain NPCs that you can then share with others to further your quests (it was an odd attempt at innovation that doesn’t quite land and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t resurface in any future Final Fantasy games). Despite all this, the tale FF2 tells feels worth it all the same and sets the scene for some of the deeper themes that later games would explore.

This story is what carried me through Final Fantasy II. In my article about Final Fantasy I, I lamented the classic RPG format of the final area marathon through enemies and boss fights I’d previously encountered. Final Fantasy II resists that temptation, and though the Jade Passage and Pandaemonium are lengthy dungeons, there was no boss grind to contend with. I was done with the game by that point though as the easier combat was offering no challenge outside of the occasional tough boss and the constantly dying fourth companion.

I don’t know if I can honestly say I recommend Final Fantasy II. I had fun with it, but it was probably no more fun than I had with Final Fantasy I, and that game has a much less frustrating levelling system and a lot more iconic boss fights. If you come to your Final Fantasy games for story, short of saying “neither”, then Final Fantasy II is easily the better pick, and it’s certainly interesting for its eccentricities and series touch points. But overall, I’d say: “Ssssh, we don’t speak of that one, that one is not like the others,” and then skip merrily along to Final Fantasy III

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