The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy II, part 4
At roughly the halfway point of the game, Final Fantasy II has kind of worn out its welcome. This would not be as big of a deal if there was less game left to go.
Part of the problem here is that it doesn’t take many cues from Final Fantasy where perhaps it should. There are parts of the original that I accused of being a slog, and they certainly were, but at least every part of the game made a genuine effort to reward you in some way. Yes, the dungeons could turn into slogs, but at least the enemies rewarded you with experience instead of tedium.
The encounter rate is absurdly high, but the ambush rate is also absurd, leading to a multitude of turns spent watching enemies act and then act again. This includes several enemies with annoying but not actively dangerous special abilities that bog combat down even further, making themselves priority targets just so I won’t have to wait through their animations again. It’s the worst kind of battle where it would take a seriously bad day for you to lose, but you still have to wait to win, like playing against someone in Magic: the Gathering who keeps adding more life without any way to hurt you. Sure, it takes you longer to eat through the wall of health, but who cares?
But I think there’s an even more important element here, and that’s the simple fact that my tactical options are pretty much zero.
The only difference between, say, Guy and Maria is that Guy starts with an axe and Maria starts with a bow. (And they have slightly different ultimate weapons in the re-release, but that wasn’t the case in the original game and you can bet I’m not slogging through most of the extras.) There’s nothing one can accomplish that the other cannot, nor is there any point where you have to choose one strength or another. Cast more spells and you’re better at that, attack more and you’re better at that, but you don’t lose one in favor of building the other. Why make a dedicated healer when the game is entirely happy for you to make a team of attack monsters who all have equally effective healing spells?
Without any tradeoffs, the characters become carbon copies with no weaknesses. All that defines these characters is which weapon they’re using, and even that is just a distinction of flavor. Pop a cure when you need one, attack otherwise, spam an attack spell if someone’s weak to it, don’t bother caring. Wake me up later.
This was exacerbated by the entire dragoon quest, because it’s pretty irritating start to finish. You get to the little island you need, and you search the castle only to learn that the dragoons are all dead and the two remaining residents can’t speak with the lone drake remaining. Which, at the risk of sounding particularly callous, is not even remotely my problem or concern.
I recognize that at the time this game came out, everything being done with it was amazingly original. But the game can’t seem to decide if your characters are the heroic blank slates of the previous game or a bunch of people fighting for an understaffed resistance in a pitched battle for the survival of a nation. You have your answer about receiving support from the dragoons (you won’t). Your mission’s done. Sorry about your loss, lady, but the game gives you no actual reason to care about the plight of the drake.
All right, you could argue that not being a total jerk is a reason. Even so.
Anyhow, this is when you head up to the Deist Cave, which makes me want to take back all the nice things I’ve said about the game’s dungeon design. Oh, sure, it’s better than the first Final Fantasy in this regard, but instead of broad areas where you’re searching for the way down, this dungeon happily send you up, down, and all around repeatedly. The whole thing is set up so that you’ll go up and down floors several times before realizing that you took the wrong path and have to backtrack; this is not improved by the fact that it’s swarming with enemies who seem designed solely to irritate you. They can inflict pointless status effects, they’ve got long casting animations which produce minimal damage, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to just freaking die any time this month.
Oh, and you have to go back here twice. You might have noticed that’s a pet peeve of mine.
The first trip isn’t so bad if you find the right stairwell, but then you have to head back down to the castle, talk to the wind drake, and then go right back to drop the last drake egg in the magical soup at the bottom of the cave. Sigh. It’s capped off by a boss-fight-that-isn’t once again, which makes the whole section reek of padding the game’s runtime. Then you’re… well… done, apparently. Back to Altair to report your mission as an enormous failure.
Despite the fact that your party accomplished absolutely nothing, Gordon seems completely unconcerned and just notes that Hilda has been acting weirdly. At this point Firion goes to talk to her, and she tries to get him into bed. Also it turns out that she was secretly a snake monster on the Dreadnought. Firion (eventually) agrees with the rest of the party that said snake monster should be killed. This is followed shortly thereafter by news that a tournament will be held with Princess Hilda as the prize.
Guess who needs to go rescue her? Of course. So off you head to the Coliseum.
If you thought this was the origin of that particular series cliché, surprise! You’re just pitted against a Behemoth, the first one ever. I’d like to note that the remake did a wonderful job with the Behemoth’s sprite, making it look appropriately huge and savage. The actual fight is kind of a game of inches, as it has a lot of HP but can’t rip apart an overleveled team fast enough to actually force a victory; it also hits hard enough that even my group couldn’t completely ignore it and bum-rush the dang thing.
Once you’ve ground it down, the Dark Knight reveals that this was a very elaborate trap and throws the team in a jail cell. Naturally, Paul the thief shows up two seconds later to break you out, and you quickly head up to rescue Princess Hilda, who was here for…
Wait a second. This plot makes literally no sense. Everything the Empire is doing with Hilda is totally ridiculous; having her in the same prison is just the latest dose, like the stupid cherry on top of an idiot cake.
First of all, the Empire capture her on the Dreadnought. At this point they have the hostage that could force an end to the fighting in a second, which is the chief reason why resistance leaders generally sit somewhere safe and relay orders rather than riding around on easily-captured ships. All they need to do is let the people of Altair know that Hilda is in their possession and will be executed unless everyone surrenders; rebellion over, we can all go home early today.
But fine, for some reason, they replace her with a duplicate and keep the real Hilda around. That’s at least a plot, and you could argue that the goal was to crush the rebellion rather than force a surrender. Okay. But then, based on absolutely nothing, Bruce Wayne announces a tournament in which she is the prize. Mind you, there’s no word of any other kingdoms being party to this tournament, nor is Batman even aware that the fake Hilda has been exposed. He’d better hope she has been, though, since otherwise she’s sure exposed now.
The fake Hilda, meanwhile, has been sitting in Hilda’s room laughing the whole time, not sabotaging the rebels or anything. Her whole purpose seems to be assassinating Firion… which could just as easily be accomplished by just announcing that the Empire has her! Fake Hilda accomplishes literally nothing except serving as a surprise twist that’s not even all that surprising, since it’s obvious that some shit is going down as soon as she spends time sitting her room and laughing like an ultracreep.
Heck, you could go full Joker. “We have your princess; kill Firion and we’ll give her back.” Will the resistance turn? What happens next? Manipulation!
And after all of this stupidity, when this intensely pointless and internally contradicted plan has come to fruition, the Dark Knight tosses Firion in prison instead of killing him (which, mind you, was the goal of the fake), and it turns out the Princess is in the exact same prison for no reason. This was a trap, I get it, but you never actually saw Hilda before the tournament. You can obviously make fake Hildas, make another one! Hell, if she absolutely needs to be there as bait, move her elsewhere afterwards! No matter how small the chance, it’s better not to have an extremely valuable prisoner housed with another valuable prisoner who might escape. Which, you know, is exactly what happened.
The Empire seems to be shooting blindly in the dark and hoping something will work rather than actually accomplishing anything. It’s like a whole nation run by M. Night Shyamalan.
The conclusion of this dumb plot means it’s time to move on to another dumb plot. A return to Altair after rescuing the princess who shouldn’t have been there in the first place reveals that Hilda and Gordon have moved the army north in preparation for the march on Fynn, and Firion is wanted at the front lines. After, you know, totally failing to secure the allies that were needed for this operation. Well, whatever, north I go.