Final Fantasy II is notorious in Final Fantasy franchise of having one major make or break flaw in game mechanism. My chosen platform for this was Gameboy Advance and the Dawn of Souls version. Having not played this game for the original platform NES in 1988 I can not compare the differences between that and this Dawn of Souls version. Biggest difference here being the ability to save anywhere. This is actually not major improvement since the dungeons are really well spaced and not too long.
On the story we follow four orphans who all except for one is in your main group during all of game. The group gets attacked in the beginning of the game by evil Emperors army. This would make a shortest epic RPG of all time if there wouldn't be a rescue by a princess and a rebellion fighting the Emperor. No sand-planets or spaceship but dragons and Chocobos which both later on become a Final Fantasy trademark. Story evolves nicely around the main characters and the royals in Kingdom of Fynn. Not really deep and political effort but taking consideration that this is 20+ year old NES game it is still pretty memorable story telling.
Gameplay follows a traditional JPRG style where a group of characters travel in open world visiting dungeons and towns while encountering random battles. The major flaw I mentioned already comes to play here where experience is gained by killing enemies. Not the traditional way though. Here some poor soul decided that it would be more suitable to have the skills and stats broken down depending on how they are used. Meaning if you want to get more hit-points you need to get hit by enemies. If you want to get good at magic you need to use it. This goes to great detail as well. If you want to be good in normal fire attack spell you need to use that particular spell time and time again. The fire spell itself will increase when using it as well as your
magic points, intelligence and spirit stats. Interesting idea but this is very time consuming and will get rather dreary after a while. To have decent set of skills a good amount of leveling up for individual spells and stats is required. You are given ability to attack your own characters as well which helps on the grindage but doesn't make the mechanism really logical. Personally I don't mind the odd grinding and on parts this mechanism adds a lot of depth to the game and even feels very modern with the endless amount of customization.
Graphics are done with bright sprites as the characters. Final Fantasy II has 150 odd monster with occasional same sprite different coloring thing going on. Except for couple of monster the bestiary doesn't really look intimating, but that is probably not a easy task for a simple sprite monster. The towns and buildings are colorful and relatively small but suit the purpose well enough. To say in other means, for a 20+ year old game this still looks good, if you like 2D that is. Music is well composed grand symphonic type which suit such traditional fantasy game perfectly. In times the score is maybe bit simple but again this was composed while ago for a limited hardware
After finishing the main story line there is no incentive to go back for another round except if you got the Dawn of Soul version. With Dawn of Soul you get to continue the game with a cast of the supporting characters you encountered and teamed up during the main game. There is also a bestiary which holds detailed information each monster in the game. You will need to find battle each monster to get entry in the bestiary which adds more hours for completionist. With the awkward experience mechanism the difficulty can be challenging if proper grinding is not done unfortunately.
Having played the first Final Fantasy on PSP earlier this year I can vouch this GBA version to ever so good. The experience mechanism is definitely not for everyone but I still would recommend this to every JPRG fan to experience this. Relatively solid story and presentation, even on today's (2010) standards.