"Surviving" Final Fantasy II - Part 1: The Kall Of Kawazu & Is This The Worst Final Fantasy Game Ever Made?

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Part 1: In The Beginning, There Was A Man Named Akitoshi Kawazu

The mad man himself, Akitoshi Kawazu.
The mad man himself, Akitoshi Kawazu.

Before I tackle Final Fantasy II, I first need to throw things back to the beginning of Square's history. In the annals of the company's perilous start as a video game developer, a few prominent names come to mind. Hironobu Sakaguchi is the most notable of these figureheads, but others deserve credit for saving the company during its unsteady inception. Nobuo Uematsu provided the series' now-iconic soundtracks; Yoshitaka Amano drafted a slew of whispy but colorful character art; Masafumi Miyamoto shored up the company's finances. Finally, Hiromichi Tanaka worked around the clock as a level-headed producer for some of Square's more ambitious projects.

Then there was a man by the name of Akitoshi Kawazu. Kawazu has been working at Square since 1985, but even the most ardent of Square-Enix fans are unlikely to know the man's name by heart. And that's with good reason, as Kawazu's gaming credits are "checkered," to say the least. On a positive note, he was the driving force behind the Romancing SaGa franchise and oversaw Final Fantasy XII's development after its previous lead designer burnt out. On the other hand, the man wrote The Last Remnant's script and conceived Unlimited SaGa. As my friend jeffrud once joked, Akitoshi Kawazu is less a "person" and more a brain in a jar that some higher-up at Square-Enix owes money. His ideas are admittedly ambitious but rarely, if ever, pan out in execution. Nonetheless, Square continues to approve his pet projects, and unlike the rest of its "old guard," he has survived each of the company's "corporate purges." In the event of nuclear Armageddon, Kawazu would likely outlive the cockroaches.

An evil empire on a quest to rule the world? SAY IT AIN'T SO!
An evil empire on a quest to rule the world? SAY IT AIN'T SO!

Even so, you need to understand Akitoshi Kawazu is OFF HIS FUCKING ROCKER! First, the man LOVES Dungeons & Dragons and uses every game he works on to test a different D&D mechanic. For instance, in Unlimited Saga, you navigate the game's world as if you are playing a board game. Furthermore, the combat system in Unlimited Saga is a roulette wheel in an attempt to mimic D&D's critical hit system. This point is worth mentioning as while making Final Fantasy II, Kawazu became OBSESSED with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition. As a result, Final Fantasy II desperately wants to have the progressive leveling mechanic of D&D but fails miserably. And his attitude regarding game design isn't the only "unorthodox" part of Kawazu's line of thinking. Anyone who knows a thing or two about The Last Remnant understands his writing style is downright bizarre. Very often, characters die without proper forewarning, and unnecessary plot twists litter everything he touches.

Therefore, if you are used to Sakaguchi-san's Final Fantasy games, then you are up for a rude awakening in Final Fantasy II. Final Fantasy II is less a follow-up to a wildly popular game and more an aberration. At some point during Final Fantasy II's development, Kawazu's maddening approach to game design overtook the project and infected the game's DNA. Moreover, if you have even a moderate level of nostalgia for Final Fantasy I, you should avoid this game like the plague. From top to bottom, this game is an insult to everything you know and love about the Final Fantasy franchise and role-playing games in general. Worse, while it brazenly borrows familiar iconography from Final Fantasy I, it operates NOTHING LIKE IT and actively penalizes you for playing it like a traditional JRPG!

Let's just say I had
Let's just say I had "fun" naming my characters.

Final Fantasy II is, without a doubt, one of the worst games I have ever played. Its mechanics are ambitious but hilariously busted and no fun to play. Yes, it is commendable Square endeavored to create something never seen before in role-playing games, but that doesn't mean it "works." Its nigh dozen mechanics are downright inscrutable and are in constant conflict with each other. The story features some weirdly compelling character moments, but it fails to build upon these self-contained scenes in any significant way. And it's hard. It is REALLY FUCKING HARD! Final Fantasy II is a challenging game that is virtually impossible to play without a guide. I, for example, initially attempted to play the game "blind" and quickly found my party unplayable by the game's midpoint. And let me tell you something, that was no fucking fun to experience!

Part 2: Let's Talk About My Quest To Play The Version NES Of This Game

When I covered Final Fantasy I, I briefly mentioned my frustration with Square-Enix from the perspective of a video game preservationist. The studio is always willing to publish remasters of games when they can make a quick buck. However, they also make it impossibly difficult to play their games as they were at the time of their release. In the case of the 8-bit era, Square's remasters don't simply retouch the graphics, and instead, often tinker around with the original games' engineering. Case and point, the original Final Fantasy I had an impressive Vancian magic system that forgoes the traditional MP system. Unfortunately, EVERY re-release of Final Fantasy I, outside of the PS1 Origins port, removes this system and replaces it with your typical MP pool.

This might sound
This might sound "weird," but this game is more enjoyable with glitches and exploits.

Final Fantasy II faces the same dilemma posed by Final Fantasy I, III, and now V. The mobile port of Final Fantasy II completely changes the game's mechanics and art for the worse. Furthermore, one of the recurring critiques of my Final Fantasy I blog series was my insistence on playing the Dawn of Souls version, which is objectively easier than the original release. With that in mind, I made an effort to play the original Famicom/NES version of Final Fantasy II. Now, I can hear several of you chime in that Final Fantasy II on the NES was NEVER released in the West. And yes, you are correct. This point inevitably leads us to a brief conversation about fan translations.

It is worth noting I was not able to run the most recent community translation of Final Fantasy II. For reasons which are beyond my comprehension, I was unable to unzip the most up to date "patch" of the Famicon version of Final Fantasy II. As such, there was an awkward two hour period, where I was frantically attempting to play the Japanese version without the ability to read Hiragana. In many Final Fantasy games, this is not entirely untenable, but because Final Fantasy II features an oddly novel dialogue system, I quickly encountered roadblocks. Therefore, I was forced to turn to the 1998 Demiforce translation.

I'll admit it, mistakes were made on my part.
I'll admit it, mistakes were made on my part.

To be clear, I'm not your daddy. However, I'm also not a liar. I'm not going to lie to you and say I did not play an emulated version of Final Fantasy II using RetroArch. Instead, I'm going to imply as much using the words coming out of my mouth. However, I do want to say if Square-Enix ever publishes a legal port of the Famicom version of Final Fantasy II, I will happily purchase a copy. If I had to do things over again, I'd probably play Final Fantasy Origins. That version avoids the translation awkwardness I faced and even rectified some of the game-breaking glitches in the Famicom version. Nonetheless, I was looking to maximize my pain and was committed to playing the worst possible version of Final Fantasy II.

For those unaware, I'm as much a consumer of anime as I am of video games. As someone who has interacted with fan-translations before, the 1998 Demiforce translation did not surprise me. It is worth mentioning during the late 1990s to mid-2000s, the video game and anime fansubbing community was at an all-time high. Nonetheless, the makers of fansubs operated with virtually no accountability, and you often had to contend with a usual assortment of "cringe." Some fan-subs would have built-in off-topic rants in the margins, and others would unnecessarily insert random internet "memery." In the case of Final Fantasy II, the first notable attempt to translate the game happened in 1998, the same year Half-Life, StarCraft, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released in North America.

This translation made some
This translation made some "choices," and not all of them were correct.

I cannot preface this point enough; the Demiforce translation is TRASH! For one thing, some spells are straight-up incorrectly translated. For example, the Teleport spell displays as "EXIT," and Scourge displays as "AERO." Second, this fansub injects inappropriate humor into dramatic scenes more often than it should. For example, there are moments when the characters engage in scatological humor when they shouldn't. As if that weren't enough, there are times when the translation blatantly references other Final Fantasy games. In this case, there's a scene where a character calls someone a "spoony bard" and another time when a pirate says "son of a submariner."

I wish I were joking about that last point....
I wish I were joking about that last point....

Part 3: Hey, Isn't This The Game Where You Punch Yourself In The Face?

Admittedly, I plan to spend the vast majority of my blog nailing my ninety-five theses against this game. However, Kawazu's design team endeavored to make a new gameplay system from the ground up, and part of me cannot help but respect that. Undoubtedly, the system they created does not work, but the ambition of it is undeniable. Likewise, there's a bit of a tradition in Japan to use the second entry in a franchise to try out new gameplay mechanics or ideas. Even when compared to its contemporaries, Final Fantasy II isn't exactly in a class in and of itself. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Dragon Quest II, and Fire Emblem Gaiden all tried to graft novel systems to popular games and went back on those experiments in their following entry. What does set Final Fantasy II apart is how spectacularly it fails at everything it tries to accomplish.

It is on that note we reach the issue of Final Fantasy II's "reputation." While few Final Fantasy fans have actually played this game, most know of it as the game "where you punch yourself in the face." And you know what? For the most part, you are correct. For the first FOUR HOURS, I was indeed doing nothing but punching myself in the face. However, if that is all you know about Final Fantasy II, then you do not know half of what makes this game such a goddamned miserable fucking experience! YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT I WENT THROUGH TO MAKE THIS BLOG SERIES!YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW!

Yup, it sure is fun punching yourself in the face for FOUR HOURS!
Yup, it sure is fun punching yourself in the face for FOUR HOURS!

Which reminds me, we need to discuss how this game is a thirty-hour math problem. Every practical aspect of your characters has an associated stat you can level up. As you utilize items, weapons, or spells, your characters become more proficient with their related commands. To illustrate, if you have one of your characters equip a sword, the damage they inflict with that sword will grow over time, the more you use it. Conversely, spells level up individually in and out of combat as you use them throughout the game. What makes Final Fantasy II "interesting," at least on paper, is that various attributes have a negative relationship with one another. For example, if you spend the entire game using Firion as a knight, his "Strength" attribute will grow, while his "Intelligence" stat drops.

What makes this system oddly compelling is how it prevents you from immediately breaking the game, and instead seek out useful compromises. As Final Fantasy II lacks a traditional class system, the game forces you to specialize your characters how you see fit. In any event, this design decision also means Final Fantasy II lacks a traditional leveling system. There are no levels in Final Fantasy II, and killing enemies does not reward experience points. Instead, each of your attributes levels separately by performing specific actions during combat. To return to the point about punching yourself in the face, you do so because lowering your character's health provides an "opportunity" to increase their default health. And before you ask, I will eventually disclose why I used the word "opportunity" in the previous sentence.

If you're looking at this screencap and saying,
If you're looking at this screencap and saying, "Hey! That sure reminds me of Final Fantasy I," then you are up for a rude awakening!

All things considered, a lot is running in the background of Final Fantasy II. And, as I suggested earlier, it's simply too much for this little game to handle. Final Fantasy II's approach to making a progressive RPG experience is ROUGH! First, and foremost, the game fails to surface a lot of its underlying math. Attributes like Strength, Magic, or HP are easy enough to discern. Unfortunately, other stats like Accuracy or Evasion are total mysteries even if you have the game's manual. It wasn't until AFTER I consulted a guide I discovered your proficiency at using shields determines your Evasion stat. Why is that the case? I HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE!

Likewise, forgoing tradition classes leads to several compounding issues. For one thing, the game does not clue you enough on how to create the character archetypes you need or want. Sure, casting magic over and over again is the obvious way to make a traditional Black Mage. However, it's a total mystery how one makes practical hybrid classes as the magic-based stats atrophy the physically-focused ones, and vice versa. To add insult to injury, Final Fantasy II borrows the annoying merchant system from Final Fantasy I. That is to say, merchants throughout the world sell a random assortment of spells and equipment. Thus, many of the jobs you endeavor to create do not pan out until the game's final two acts because that's when the best weapons and spells become available.

Part 4: The Leveling System Is THE WORST!

THE. WORST. FUCKING. THING. EVER.
THE. WORST. FUCKING. THING. EVER.

In the previous section, I briefly discussed how Final Fantasy II should play in a perfect world. In this ideal universe envisioned by the mad man himself, Akitoshi Kawazu, you perform specific tasks and watch as the appropriate attributes grow. Lamentably, even in this "perfect world," this system SUCKS SHIT! To begin with, your combat-oriented proficiencies, such as your experience with specific weapon types or magic, are graded on a one-hundred point scale. With this system, every use of a weapon or spell provides a point on that scale, and once you have one hundred points, your proficiency levels up. Admittedly, these feats level up more quickly at lower levels than higher ones. However, mark my words, there will come a time when you will need to swing a weapon or use a spell, one hundred times to gain a single proficiency point. Need I remind you, THIS GAME USES A TURN-BASED COMBAT SYSTEM!

The game also provides no in-game tutorial on how any of these stats impact your characters. With the amount of math in play with every action you take, this oversight is downright game design malfeasance. To illustrate, you have TWO separate magic attributes, Intelligence and Spirit, and they determine the potency of your black and white magic, respectively. Being able to figure out this difference without a guide necessitates HOURS of monitoring your character's stat growth. Then there are base stats like Agility or Evasion, which even the game's manual manages to bungle. Agility only increases if your characters successfully dodge attacks and because this act is reliant on RNG, it is a total pain in the ass to level up. But luckily, your Agility and Evasion scores jump when you equip shields, but the game in no way tells you about that in a coherent manner!

Also, this game gives you a shit load of nothing from the onset. Your dedicated mage spends the first FIVE HOURS with less than 50 HP!
Also, this game gives you a shit load of nothing from the onset. Your dedicated mage spends the first FIVE HOURS with less than 50 HP!

Unavoidably, we return to the issue of punching yourself in the face. As I mentioned earlier, you level HP and MP differently than the rest of the game's character stats. In the case of both, you need to drop a party member's total health or magic points to less than half to gain a lottery ticket. In the case of HP, the more hit points a character loses in a single battle, the higher the chance their maximum hit points will increase. Notice how I emphasized the word "chance." That is because, after completing a fight, the game runs a random number generator, and if the number is even, then your character's HP increases. If the number is odd, you get JACK SHIT! This RNG system also applies to your magic points, but as we will talk about shortly, the RNG there is even worse! As you might predict, this system is FUCKING DREADFUL!

Imagine if you will, you are playing Final Fantasy II and are at the halfway point in a dungeon. After beating a literal army of ghouls, your characters reach critical health and need to punch out. This scenario is a common occurrence in Final Fantasy II as it was in Final Fantasy I, but in the latter's case, you always had something to show for your hard work so long as you didn't die. Because increasing your fundamental attributes is CONTINGENT on RNG, you can spend HOURS playing Final Fantasy II and have NOTHING to show for it! That is why calling this a "silly game where you punch yourself in the face" is wrong. You don't get it; you don't stop punching yourself in the face! You keep doing it because there's no other efficient way to increase your max health! And even with exploits, you have to repeat the same commands twenty or thirty goddamned times because the entire system is based on luck!

Aw, cool! I dropped everyone's HP and MP to half, and all I got was one Intelligence bonus! What a wonderful video game!
Aw, cool! I dropped everyone's HP and MP to half, and all I got was one Intelligence bonus! What a wonderful video game!

Then there are the bugs. When I mention Final Fantasy II has "bugs," I don't mean the game has your usual assortment of random video game-based "quirks." The major game-breaking flaws in Final Fantasy II are shocking. So much so, I doubt the game was ever properly playtested. First, there's a nasty overflow bug impacting the HP, MP, and Evasion stats. If you are not careful about your power-leveling on the NES and PS1 versions, those three attributes will overflow from level 99 back to zero. Second, there are entire abilities and items which do not behave as intended. To illustrate, the "Protect" spell does not affect any character other than the caster. Thus, if you use the AOE version of the spell, you are wasting your MP. Furthermore, debuffing does not work because the "Dispel" command is BROKEN! Finally, you have the "Target-Cancel Bug," which furthers my argument no one playtested this game! Here, I'll paste the explanation of the glitch from the Final Fantasy wiki:

"The target-cancel bug is a bug found in the Famicom, WonderSwan Color, and Origins versions of Final Fantasy II. The bug allows for a player to level up weapons and magic without any real effort by either selecting the Attack or Magic commands, then immediately canceling that character's actions and repeating it ad infinitum."

Part 5: The Inventory System Make Me Want To Jump Into A Vat Of Acid

Are any of you still unconvinced this is the most CURSED VIDEO GAME EVER MADE? Well, buckle up, we still need to talk about the game's inventory system. If the leveling system makes me question the state of playtesting in 1987, then the inventory system makes me question if actual human beings made this game. From beginning to end, you only have thirty-two inventory slots in Final Fantasy II. The grid for the inventory system has thirty-three slots, but that last spot is for the "Delete Item" command. You know, because the programmers couldn't be bothered to place that elsewhere!

What the fuck do you mean I don't have any usable items? Oh wait... FUCK THIS GAME!
What the fuck do you mean I don't have any usable items? Oh wait... FUCK THIS GAME!

Admittedly, thirty-two may seem like a reasonable number, and spending an entire chapter bemoaning this point might appear to be overkill. And as you mutter those words to your computer screen, I emerge from the ether to place my index finger on your lips while shushing you like a baby. You don't understand. THE ITEMS IN THIS GAME DO NOT STACK! Consequently, if you attempt to hoard potions or Phoenix Downs, you are going to have to make room for each item. To illustrate, buying five Phoenix Downs translates to five used inventory slots!

Mercifully, each of your characters can carry up to two items. However, this feature quickly becomes frustrating when you realize the "Item" command does not behave the way you think it does during combat. In "normal" role-playing games, using an item involves selecting the proper menu command and opening up your entire inventory. That's not how things work in Final Fantasy II. In this game, when in combat, your characters can only use the two items you equipped to them before the battle. So, let's say you buy five elixirs from a merchant. Unless you find a way to share those elixirs between your four characters, you will not be able to use all of them during a battle.

Here, my character would only be able to use two potions in combat even though I have an X-Potion in my general inventory. FUCK THIS GAME!
Here, my character would only be able to use two potions in combat even though I have an X-Potion in my general inventory. FUCK THIS GAME!

Worse, Final Fantasy II repeats my least favorite mechanic from Final Fantasy I. In Final Fantasy II, some of your equipment can be used to cast spells. These items can allow characters to use moves they otherwise cannot perform under normal circumstances. For instance, there are a handful of things that can enable traditional strength-focused characters to cast restorative magic. However, as was the case in Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy II does a piss poor job of explaining which items do what, and how to even perform these abilities in real-time. Not to mention, Final Fantasy II does an even WORSE JOB at teaching the player its mechanics than its predecessor! Unlike Final Fantasy I, this game doesn't have a group of wise sages explaining the game's mechanics at the first hub-world. The minute you boot up this game, it is trial by fire!

Nonetheless, we are dancing around what I consider to be Final Fantasy II's greatest sin besides being a bad video game. Down below, I'm going to include a screen capture of my inventory before the final boss. In that picture, you'll find your usual assortment of items and equipment. However, you'll also notice random oddities like "W. Mask," "Ice Sled," and "Canoe." Those are essential story items, and once you get them, THEY NEVER LEAVE YOUR INVENTORY! By the end of the game, there are a total of THIRTEEN STORY CRITICAL ITEMS, which brings your total number of inventory slots down to NINETEEN! And it's not like these items continue to be useful in the game. For instance, you use the "Ice Sled" twice in the story. Once to get to a far-off ice dungeon, and a second time to return to the nearest town. Once you are done with that ice dungeon, you have no use for the Ice Sled ever again! Yet, it stays in your inventory like a venereal disease!

It's at this point when I start to wonder if Akitoshi Kawazu enjoys torturing people.
It's at this point when I start to wonder if Akitoshi Kawazu enjoys torturing people.

Part 6: The Story Has Its Moments, But Overall, It's A Nothing Burger

It's a shame this game is unfun to play because what it attempts narratively is more than commendable. Unlike Final Fantasy I, this game tries to frame your party members as real characters with backgrounds and storylines. When you first boot up the game, it starts with your party on the run following the sacking of their hometown. As they are fleeing, a swarm of black knights surrounds and defeats them. Miraculously, you even watch this defeat play out in real-time with your attacks failing and your party members dying turn after turn. In this single moment, Final Fantasy II manages to pack in more storytelling than the entirety of its predecessor.

Admittedly, the story here is simple, as Final Fantasy II is more interested in doubling down on its Byzantine mechanics than conveying a compelling narrative. But again, it's a massive improvement over Final Fantasy I, and that's worth celebrating. By and large, Final Fantasy II is a notable improvement over its predecessor in terms of pure creativity. The game looks markedly better, and the music is beyond solid. One of my major issues with Final Fantasy I was how brazenly it plagiarized Dungeons & Dragons. While that's still partly the case here, the game also boasts plenty of original art assets and sprite work that stand the test of time.

The the flans sure look stupid, but I love them nonetheless.
The the flans sure look stupid, but I love them nonetheless.

However, the most notable aspect of Final Fantasy II in terms of storytelling is its character system. While it allows for parties of four, only three characters stick with you throughout the game. A rotating cast, depending on your place in the story, occupies the fourth character slot. Furthermore, there's character-based storytelling attempted with each of these rotating party members. Minwu is the first of these and arrives with an impressive suite of spells which leans into him being a wizened man and teacher of things. Then you have someone like Gordon, who is introduced as a coward but has the fastest stat growth of any playable character.

Even so, much like the rest of Final Fantasy II, I like the idea of a rotating fourth party member more on paper than in execution. From a fundamental standpoint, it SUCKS whenever you get one of these new characters, and need to stop and level them up. Otherwise, they are total liabilities in combat. The game even plops characters like Gordon and Ricard in the middle of dungeons! Worse, these rotating party members force the player to decouple a lot of their traditional role-playing game prior-knowledge. For example, Minwu is the ONLY dedicated White Mage you have in the game, and he's only around for the first three hours. If you don't quickly figure out how to make optimized hybrid-classes in Final Fantasy II, then you're screwed!

Aw, thanks for giving a Level 0 character in the middle of a fucking dungeon!
Aw, thanks for giving a Level 0 character in the middle of a fucking dungeon!

In any case, let's return to the matter of Final Fantasy II's overall story. The premise is quaint enough from its inception. An evil emperor from a far-off land is invading neighboring kingdoms in a quest to rule the world. This Emperor has found a way to employ the surrounding monsters alongside their knights and soldiers. Following the defeat of our party at the beginning of the game, we find ourselves in the city of Altair, one of the last remnants of the "Resistance." There, the city's queen, Hilda, introduces herself and her lead mage, Minwu. Initially, Hilda rebuffs Firion, our main character, after he offers to join the rebellion. However, when Maria, our black mage, notes her brother Leon is missing, Hilda directs us to the town of Fynn.

Part 7: The Dungeons In This Game Are CURSED!

There's something quaint about Final Fantasy II's structure. At the beginning of the game, we perform a series of menial tasks while exploring the surrounding environment. Then, as the story begins to unfold, the stakes ratchet up exponentially. I enjoy the characters needing to prove their worth before they are allowed to join the rebellion. Likewise, much like the gameplay, a sense of slow but deliberate progression defines the surrounding world. The initial levels pit us up against wasps and goblins, and things take a dramatic jump when we sleuth through dungeons.

This game has a dialogue system the Final Fantasy franchise immediately forgot about for thirty years!
This game has a dialogue system the Final Fantasy franchise immediately forgot about for thirty years!

Speaking of which, Final Fantasy II borrows the dungeon crawl format of Final Fantasy I. The story whisks us away to several towns, and next to each is inevitably a dungeon. In these dungeons, you will need to find a critical story item before moving to the next set-piece. The only difference is Final Fantasy II has a dialogue system as an extra step. Whenever you encounter a new environment or set-piece, there's usually a "key term" you'll need to learn before continuing. Very often, there'll be an NPC who knows a word, and you'll need to repeat that term to the appropriate quest giver. Unfortunately, unless you use a guide, it's easy to lose track of which words you need to learn and who you'll need to repeat them to, for the sake of progressing the story.

Furthermore, it's a novel concept that loses momentum the further you progress the game. In the first hours of Final Fantasy II, you can repeat the rebellion's secret code word to several NPCs and learn more about the events surrounding the game. Characters who initially would not talk to you finally share their stories about fighting against the empire. Unfortunately, first impressions aren't everything, and the mechanic quickly gives way to being the lamentable first step to each of the game's fetch quests. On top of that, the majority of the critical terms are only useful to a handful of characters. For instance, when you learn the word "dragoon," there's one place in the world where it can be used. Everywhere else, the NPCs know fuck all about dragoons even though the game reveals them to be an ancient society that has existed for centuries.

And then we have these goddamned CURSED dungeons!
And then we have these goddamned CURSED dungeons!

To Final Fantasy II's defense, Final Fantasy I had some pretty shitty dungeons. But what makes Final Fantasy II's dungeons ESPECIALLY HEINOUS, is their malicious design. Right off the bat, dungeons often range anywhere between five to ten levels. As was the case in Final Fantasy I, if you reach a critical mass and need to punch out, you will have to redo your progress. With your inventory system as constrained as it is, that is a highly common occurrence in Final Fantasy II. During the first few dungeons, you rely on magic for healing more than you'd like, and if you haven't been power-leveling, doing so quickly expends your MP pool. On top of that, the level design in Final Fantasy II is atrocious. To be more specific, it's FUCKING AWFUL! Every level stretches your playtime to a breaking point as the critical paths snake around the environment and maximizes your possible vector. Worse, every level is LITTERED with dead ends and red-herrings.

But the worst part about Final Fantasy II's dungeons, by far, has to be its "Hell Rooms." In virtually every dungeon, most doors lead to nothing. Should you enter these doors, you'll be teleported into an empty room where the random encounter rate jumps to 80%. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. If the doors serve no purpose other than to screw the player over, why would you ever enter them? Well, you see, because crazy people designed this game, you'll eventually need to probe some of these doors to progress to the next level. However, the game never informs you when that is the case; therefore, if you play this game "blind," you are in for a soul-crushing amount of trial and error.

Seriously, this game was designed by assholes.
Seriously, this game was designed by assholes.

Another point you might be wondering is why entering these rooms is such an issue. Under normal circumstances, entering a "Hell Room" should be rectified by immediately turning around and exiting the room. However, because this is Final Fantasy II, and Jesus HATES YOU, upon opening one of these doors, you are immediately transported to its center. As such, you are FORCED to take seven to eight steps before being able to exit the room. Each step you take forces you into a battle with a monster that is anywhere between five to ten levels higher than your characters. As such, entering one of these rooms is almost always a total-party-kill!

Part 8: The Magic System Is Fucking BROKEN!

As if there aren't enough busted-ass mechanics in this game, we now need to talk about how magic works in Final Fantasy II. Admittedly, the game wants you to assume a pretty basic strategy with your characters. Firion is a balanced red-mage but primarily serves a strength-focused role. Maria is caught between acting as a ranger and wizard as she mainly doles out damage using bows and magic. Guy, on the other hand, is a pseudo-Paladin as he starts with a specialty in axes and curative magic. As it stands, I have already addressed how gaining weapon proficiencies is a long and arduous process. Regrettably, this process is ten times worse when it comes to magic.

Just looking at this screen makes my fucking skin crawl. You SERIOUSLY have to level up each and every spell one at a time!
Just looking at this screen makes my fucking skin crawl. You SERIOUSLY have to level up each and every spell one at a time!

In Final Fantasy II, your MP stat functions precisely like your HP stat. That is to say, if you wish to have a chance at increasing your MP pool, you'll need to drop each of your character's default MP to less than 50%. However, as is the case with your HP, MP stat increases are at the will of RNG. In the case of your HP, this flaw is moderately annoying, however in the case of your MP, this issue is a massive problem. The point here is spells gain levels like weapons, BUT with every new level, a spell becomes more expensive to cast. To demonstrate, a level one ice spell costs one magic point to cast, and a level six ice spell costs six magic points. The fundamental issue is that spells level linearly while your overall MP is held hostage by a roulette wheel.

To underscore how fucking FUCKED this fucking problem can be, I'm going to detail what happened to me by the game's second goddamned dungeon. On this dungeon, I punched out of it SEVEN TIMES to restore my HP and MP at a nearby inn. I made an effort to do this whenever my characters reached less than 50% on each stat. Of the seven times when the MP for all of my characters dropped below 50%, only TWICE did they increase their total magic points! To be specific, once with Firion, and a second time with Guy. Neither of those times did my Black Mage, the character I NEEDED to improve their MP the MOST, increase their total magic points! HOWEVER, this same Black Mage continued to grow their initial "Fire" spell all the way to level seven! As they only had fifty-seven magic points, this character was limited to approximately eight casts of a basic elemental spell by the SECOND DUNGEON!

I forgot to mention, at several points in the game you need to find unmarked invisible walls to complete the dungeons! THIS GAME IS CURSED!
I forgot to mention, at several points in the game you need to find unmarked invisible walls to complete the dungeons! THIS GAME IS CURSED!

Then you have the buffing and debuffing spells which behave, unlike anything I have ever seen. Here, as you level these abilities, they become more accurate and gain more specializations. For example, Esuna at level one only cures Poison and Darkness, and as you level it up, it cures more statuses. That's a real bummer when you NEED to cure a condition like Petrify, and the game doesn't introduce items that can cure it until the second act! Also, and I have no idea who thought this was a good idea, but curative spells CAN MISS! From level one to eight, all healing magic has a percentage chance of missing its intended target. Worse, that percentage doubles when you decide to use the area-of-effect version! To illustrate this flaw in action, let's imagine you are in a boss fight, and two of your characters are KO-ed. If you use a level one Revive spell, there's a 50% chance it will miss on an individual target, and a 100% chance it will whiff on multiple targets!IT'S A FUCKING REVIVE SPELL!

Regardless, let's imagine a world where power-leveling each of these spells individually appeals to you in some masochistic way. The issue here is Final Fantasy II does not respect your time. Only a handful of enemies are willing to use magic against you, which means you are severely limited in how you can level magic in the game. If you want to have a usable version of "Esuna," you need to have your black mage negatively afflict a party member and cure it on your own. It's not a complicated process in and of itself, but it is one that requires hours of repetition before you begin to see the fruits of your labor. Moreover, it's not worth the effort due to the physical attacks in the game being hilariously BROKEN!

Just like Final Fantasy I, you have no idea what any of these spells do until AFTER you buy them!
Just like Final Fantasy I, you have no idea what any of these spells do until AFTER you buy them!

Part 9: There Has To Be Something "Good" About This Game, Right?

At this point in this blog, you might think my impressions of Final Fantasy II are overwhelmingly negative. You would be correct, but it would be presumptive on my part, not to mention some of what this game does "right." As I mentioned earlier, the art and music are a vast improvement from Final Fantasy I. Likewise, the programming team fixed the glitch in the original game where attacks queued up on recently defeated enemies would go into nothingness. Mercifully, in Final Fantasy II, attacks roll over to the nearest enemy. Moreover, the story has some exciting moments here and there. And after that, I don't know.... Did I mention the music is good?

Everything I want to say as a positive about Final Fantasy II has an associated detriment. The most prominent example by far is the game's guest character system. Here, I understand the intent of the game but deplore its execution vociferously. On the one hand, because these characters are temporary, the story feels free to use them with complete creative freedom. Just as you get accustomed to some of these characters, the story flings your party into no-win scenarios where guests end up paying the ultimate price. On the other hand, dropping everything you are doing to get these characters functioning at a reasonable clip sucks. It fucking takes forever, and it often slows the game to a literal crawl.

Being on the brink of death describes a lot of my experience with Final Fantasy II.
Being on the brink of death describes a lot of my experience with Final Fantasy II.

Speaking of the characters, let's set the scene of Final Fantasy II before I go on another gameplay oriented rant. As you explore the world, a gimmick predictably defines each environment. For example, when your party makes its way to the town of Fynn, you'll find it under occupation. Once there, the majority of the NPCs are Black Knights, and all of the shops appear closed. Your only viable option is to find a hidden bar where you can meet-up with Josef, an undercover member of the rebellion. Joseph only responds to your inquiries after you use the rebellion's code word, "Wild Rose." I know all of this information doesn't sound like much, but the game makes a decent effort in trying to scaffold world and character-building into the story. If anything, it's a significant improvement over Final Fantasy I's blank slate environments one year prior.

It's worth mentioning; these one-off characters don't just have names. They also have recurring storylines, and the narrative spends a decent amount of time developing them. To illustrate, Josef is a grizzled war veteran who deeply regrets being a former soldier of the Palamecian Empire. After you rescue his daughter from slavery, he joins your party and endeavors to "atone" for his past. Additionally, these party members have interesting gameplay hooks to develop their character arcs further. Minwu, for example, is introduced as Hilda's head wizard, and in the game, has the highest starting intelligence stat.

And this game is WAY DARKER than Final Fantasy I! You have genocide, human enslavement, and war all wrapped into one game.
And this game is WAY DARKER than Final Fantasy I! You have genocide, human enslavement, and war all wrapped into one game.

Oddly enough, the pacing of the story is tight. During the initial phases of the narrative, your characters follow leads about possible advantages over the Emperor. Unlike what is so often the case in this franchise, your characters are not immediately the leading players of the resistance. They are not instantly promoted to become generals of armies, and instead, have to earn more substantial responsibilities and titles through hard work. In fact, the game makes the case the rebellion does not trust your party and views their fledgling age as a burden. It's an impressive effort to try and meld gameplay and storytelling in an early RPG.

To further highlight my point, when your investigation about Maria's brother proves to be a wild goose chase, princess Hilda tasks you with finding a source of "Mythril." The cool thing here is after you collect this Mythril, the blacksmith at Altair makes a new suite of weapons and armor purchasable in the marketplace. I was pleasantly surprised to see a fetch quest result in an actual in-game impact. Furthermore, Final Fantasy II's story packs a handful of surprising punches. When you return to Josef after saving his daughter, he joins your party to assist in acquiring a new essential item. Upon collecting the item and defeating a boss, a trap is sprung, and Josef sacrifices himself to save the party. When you return to his wife to report on his demise, she promises to whip up the local community to resist the Emperor. Likewise, when you encounter Josef's daughter, she vows to grow stronger so she can one day honor her father's sacrifice.

I sure was not expecting a character to sacrifice themselves in this 1987 JRPG!
I sure was not expecting a character to sacrifice themselves in this 1987 JRPG!

Part 10: I Played This Game Like An RPG, And It Rewarded Me With Misery

We now need to return to why Final Fantasy II does not work as a video game. Let's assume you are a bold JRPG fan who enjoyed their time with Final Fantasy I and decided to give this game a shot. The first town looks incredibly similar to the cities in Final Fantasy I. There's a separate weapon, item, magic, and armor merchant, as well as a church that can revive dead characters. It's safe to assume you'll see this and view the lack of tutorials as an endorsement to play the game as you would any RPG made in the late 1980s. So, you take your starting income and spend it on weapons, armor, and elemental spells and jump into your first battle brimming with enthusiasm. It is at this point Final Fantasy II punches you in the gut and laughs in your face as you writhe in pain.

In this scenario, your characters will miss their attacks even though they are using shiny new weapons with impressive stats. Your Black Mage can land their offensive magic spells, but they quickly outstrip their MP. As your characters drop to critical health, you attempt to use restorative magic, but it too misses. Eventually, these attacks prove to be too much, and a swarm of wasps dispatches your trio of heroes. If you want to know, that is EXACTLY how my very first battle in Final Fantasy II played out. All my prior knowledge about RPGs from this era did nothing to help me. I kept at it, but all the while, I struggled with even the most basic encounters. Even after sinking in more money and time into my party, the game still offed me with relative ease. It was the emotional equivalent of standing at a beach and watching my family dog get swept away by a rogue wave. And if you must know, that is how Final Fantasy II rolls.

Similar to Final Fantasy I, the trash mobs are a bigger threat than the actual boss encounters.
Similar to Final Fantasy I, the trash mobs are a bigger threat than the actual boss encounters.

As I have hopefully communicated in this blog, Final Fantasy II has more than a dozen mechanics, and few, if any, work. The result is the game provides a miserable playing experience from beginning to end. Even its more admirable design choices have horrible consequences in the long-run. The lack of job classes means you spend hours looking at your character's default stats and trying to discern what the game wants you to make of them. Eventually, you'll discover the "canonical" way to build the playable characters, but that's after HOURS of trial and error! Yes, the game has a progressive leveling system, but because traits can atrophy, you can easily make your characters nonviable in a matter of minutes.

Simply put, you cannot treat Final Fantasy II like any typical RPG. For example, if you are in a battle against a random trash mob, you don't want to burn through that trash mob immediately. Instead, you want those enemies to deal damage to your characters; otherwise, they won't gain more HP. If you don't cast spells, your characters will not be able to land even the most basic healing magic. If a character gets a new weapon, they will not know how to use it until AFTER they have missed with that weapon one hundred times. All things considered, once you have funneled your characters down a job path, there's no reason to go back unless you've done something wrong. It's a slog to deal with, and it negatively impacts your ability to role-play.

Did I mention this game's story is FUCKING DARK?!
Did I mention this game's story is FUCKING DARK?!

To enumerate, let's return to Final Fantasy II's rotating fourth party member. Some weapons and armor classes only have one temporary character as the "specialist" for that weapon or class. Therefore, once that character leaves your party, there's no reason for you to continue carrying that weapon or armor type. For example, at one point, you gain a character named Leila, and she's the ONLY character with a default specialization with daggers and medium armor. However, the game continues to give you fancier knives and thieves armor well into the final level! Unless you want to re-teach your starting characters to use these items, which can take HOURS, these items are WORTHLESS!

This point inevitably leads me to my final scenario before I close this blog. At around the game's midpoint, I was struggling to complete even the most basic tasks. Any physical attack I queued up would miss, and magic-based attacks were my only option. The issue here was I frequently had to punch out of dungeons halfway because my MP levels would reach a critical point. Additionally, whenever I did land a physical attack, it would inflict negligible damage. Desperate to find out what had gone horribly, I examined my characters more closely and discovered something truly shocking. Due to my reliance on magic-based attacks, I had inadvertently spec'd two out of my three characters to be white mages. Both had incredibly high "spirit" scores, but pitifully low strength scores. At no point did the game warn me about this, but it was plenty happy to rub it in my face.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6
And need I remind you, the dungeons in this game ARE CURSED!

I should mention the game fails to surface some critically important information to you. For example, let's address why everyone's accuracy dropped like a rock in the first place. At some point, I gave Firion an "Ancient Sword," which the game told me would increase his strength and attack score. What I was not aware of was the Ancient Sword has an overall hit rate of 10%. Nowhere in the game was this percentage visible, and I was doubly surprised to discover this number overrode Firion's accuracy stat of 99%. So, with all of this in mind, I spent the better part of FOUR HOURS power-grinding and fixing a mistake I made by the third dungeon!

It always
It always "nice" when a single decision in a game can undo literal HOURS worth of hard work!

Now, credit where credit is due. Once I recognized my mistake, I was able to re-tool my characters and get back on track. Unlike a game such as Final Fantasy XII, where you have to live with your mistakes forever, Final Fantasy II is incredibly responsive to corrective actions. I do need to point out, it took me twenty hours to make my party wholly nonviable, but only four hours to "fix" everything. That is because stats level up faster when they are at lower levels. The consequence is that a single errant magic spell can always fuck up your strength-based characters, and vice-versa. Also, there's something about a game happily allowing the player to re-spec their characters with virtually no consequence that rubs me the wrong way. Regardless, I'm going to throw in the towel for now on this blog. If I return to Final Fantasy II again, I will detail my experiences with Final Fantasy II's end-game.

Podcast Link

Author's Note: If you enjoyed this blog, here's a link to a podcast I recorded with fellow moderator thatpinguino and Giant Bomb user jeffrud! In it, you'll find a more "balanced" examination of Final Fantasy II and its mechanics while also still enjoying my usual tomfoolery!

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Efesell

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#1  Edited By Efesell

There's only one thing I like about Final Fantasy II and it's an anecdote about the Ultima spell. Usually the most powerful ability in any given entry of the franchise.

It's very hard to get and due to a bug...completely worthless. Sakaguchi notices this and demands that the programmer responsible for it go back and fix it and said programmer refuses and basically gives a lore excuse of "well if you think about it old legendary magic would obviously be terrible compared to modern stuff so I'm leaving it the way it is."

He had also apparently programmed it in such a way as to prevent anyone else from actually being able to fix it themselves.

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imhungry

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This blog delivered on everything I hoped it would be. You really did the game a disservice by playing the original Famicom version but honestly, I applaud your choice. Choosing your suffering is a brave thing.

I agree that the story is overall pretty much a nothing burger but personally I rate the highs, like everything around Josef, as incredibly special in the context of what video games were like when this game came out. Hell, they still felt special even though I experienced them a few years after the first release.

Everything else though, yeah this game is hilariously broken. I'm not a purist so I will totally advocate for the Dawn of Souls or PSP versions of this game to be played instead. It completely changes the experience, most significantly removing stat atrophy and inventory weirdness, but personally I feel that those aren't key mechanics to the experience of this game, as hilarious as they are to look back upon, so I will always argue for people to play through without them unless they desire to inflict pain upon themselves like you. Plus Dawn of Souls adds a neat parallel story with all the dead characters that has some pretty fun writing, although it is basically a nightmare of grinding.

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ZombiePie

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#3 ZombiePie  Moderator

@efesell said:

There's only one thing I like about Final Fantasy II and it's an anecdote about the Ultima spell. Usually the most powerful ability in any given entry of the franchise.

It's very hard to get and due to a bug...completely worthless. Sakaguchi notices this and demands that the programmer responsible for it go back and fix it and said programmer refuses and basically gives a lore excuse of "well if you think about it old legendary magic would obviously be terrible compared to modern stuff so I'm leaving it the way it is."

He had also apparently programmed it in such a way as to prevent anyone else from actually being able to fix it themselves.

OH I'VE GOT SOME THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THE ULTIMA SPELL! Trust me, I spend an entire section lambasting the spell on my next blog. Why, you might ask? Because I spent a whole FIVE HOURS leveling up my magic thinking I was making the Ultima spell the strongest attack in the game. When I noticed it barely would inflict sub-100 points of damage, I looked up how the spell behaved on the internet. LO AND BEHOLD, the spell is totally broken in the version I'm playing and my five hours were WASTED!

This game is cursed, and I refuse to hear any arguments to the contrary.

@imhungry said:

This blog delivered on everything I hoped it would be. You really did the game a disservice by playing the original Famicom version but honestly, I applaud your choice. Choosing your suffering is a brave thing.

I agree that the story is overall pretty much a nothing burger but personally I rate the highs, like everything around Josef, as incredibly special in the context of what video games were like when this game came out. Hell, they still felt special even though I experienced them a few years after the first release.

Everything else though, yeah this game is hilariously broken. I'm not a purist so I will totally advocate for the Dawn of Souls or PSP versions of this game to be played instead. It completely changes the experience, most significantly removing stat atrophy and inventory weirdness, but personally I feel that those aren't key mechanics to the experience of this game, as hilarious as they are to look back upon, so I will always argue for people to play through without them unless they desire to inflict pain upon themselves like you. Plus Dawn of Souls adds a neat parallel story with all the dead characters that has some pretty fun writing, although it is basically a nightmare of grinding.

It is a testament to how good the stuff with Josef is that they "re-tell" that story in Final Fantasy IX. In fact, there are a LOT of references to Final Fantasy II in Final Fantasy IX. Both games have a level named "Pandemonium" and each level has the same theme. Cid's wife is named "Hilda," who is the leader of the resistance in Final Fantasy II. There are more, but my point is someone working on Final Fantasy IX LOVED Final Fantasy II and that sure is a weird thing.

On the matter of which version of Final Fantasy II to play, I could go either way. On one hand, I think the original game's mechanics and sub-systems are a sight to behold. On the other hand, the game barely works as intended and at times is so hard it's honestly painful to play. I will say, the NES/Famicom version becomes HILARIOUSLY BROKEN by the end-game because several of the named-weapons (i.e., The Blood Sword) are murder machines.

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Onemanarmyy

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Never heard of anyone playing this game and now i know why. This sounds terrible.

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theuprightman

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Very interesting read, this game sounds crazy

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This game and its lineage still fascinate me. I've played most of the SaGa games to some extent and never managed to finish a single one. Recently I attempted to get through SaGa Frontier, which was its own buggy mess full of weird exploits. I like that these games exist, but I can't bring myself to actually like playing them, hahahaha.

Although, Legend of Legacy was actually pretty enjoyable. I got to the final dungeon before I got distracted by something else. It certainly has its own problems, but I found the mechanics mostly enjoyable to play with. It is far from transparent with how everything works, but experimenting to figure things out didn't feel too painful.

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