The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy II, part 1

I don't expect it to last, but it'll be nice while it does.

Artwork from a sketch by Yoshitaka Amano

Final Fantasy II is not nearly as well-known as its predecessor. Which is not surprising, considering that it took fifteen years to reach US shores and is also horribly broken. We’re talking about a table that comes with a leg on fire levels of broken here.  It’s the origin of large parts of the franchise, but it wound up being kind of forgettable in the overall progression.

But you can’t blame all of that on the game itself. The lack of a US localization is mostly Square’s fault as a company, since the folks in charger were certain that the first game in the series wouldn’t sell and didn’t bother to localize Final Fantasy I until three years after it was released in Japan. It did sell quite well, naturally, at which point a hasty localization project began for FFII… which fell apart when someone had the bright idea of just translating the then-contemporary Final Fantasy IV. And quite frankly, translating all of the text in the game was a pretty big chore anyway.

See, while FFI had only the barest of excuse plots, FFII was all about the story. Oh, you got to name the characters, but you sure as heck weren’t determining jobs or anything like that. This would be a game about specific characters, a game with a narrative, a game that had a story to tell and a way to tell it. You know, the principle that’s been at the heart of the entire franchise except for FFI and possibly FFIII. (All right, definitely for FFIII and then definitely not.  More on that with the next part.)  That means lots of text, an entirely different advancement system, and a story about a large-scale war between two kingdoms.

The story also has some… well… let’s say familiar markers. You take control of four young people whose nation, Fynn, is overrun by the Palamecian Empire. The game opens off with you running, losing one of your members, and nearly dying before the Resistance recovers your bodies. In other words, it’s a scrappy team of underdogs against a huge enemy force wielding monsters as footsoldiers. It’s old hat if you’ve played a lot of the series, but pretty novel in 1988.

The advancement system, on the other hand, is novel even today compared to pretty much every other installment of the franchise. No levels, no fixed progression, none of that; your characters improve based on the actions they take. Get hit a lot? You gain HP. Use a sword and shield? You get better with them. Cast a lot of spells, get better at magic. The entire point was to have a system of completely organic progression.

Unfortunately, that’s where the problem starts.

Stupid empires.  Always being evil.

Here I go, playing star again.

There are no two ways to put this – that system I just mentioned falls apart completely when you realize that it’s more concerned with what happened than why. A small distinction at a glance, but very relevant, as the first few hours of the game are spent grinding until you’re at absurd levels of power.

How so? Well, consider how you gain HP. The more you lose in a fight, the greater your odds of getting an increase at the end. But there’s no check to see if you lost that HP for a good reason or not. So if you have your party members attack each other until everyone’s in critical health and then end the fight, the game thinks you barely survived the encounter and showers you with increases to HP. Also increases to your weapon skills and strength, since you were swinging away with those weapons.

At each other.

It goes on like that. The game checks how many MP you spent in a fight and how many times you cast Cure, but not whether or not those casts actually healed anyone. It checks how many times you took damage but not whether the source of that damage was an enemy or the player. And while every game allows you to grind at the beginning, this is different because there’s no ceiling on how far you can grind. You can keep gaining HP and skill and MP right in front of the first town for hours, long after the enemies have lost even the most remote sense of threat, resulting in a party that can more or less breeze through the rest of the game.

Hence why my first five hours in the game were spent simply beating up my own teammates for more health, then healing unnecessarily for better magic.

Numerous attempts have been made to un-break this system, but none of them have really worked. This particular remake tries to help by offering regular HP increases every so often anyway to discourage this sort of grinding, but that just means you can grind and then advance even further with less effort. It’s telling that this particular advancement system has never been tried again, nor anything close to it. Ironically, this is the first game that used MP instead of spell slots, which would later become the series standard.

“Well, you could always not grind” is the obvious response, which runs into two major problems.  First of all, after being told backwards and forwards that you can’t do this sort of thing, not taking the opportunity to become unto a deity without leaving the starting area seems kind of wrong.  Second, the game doesn’t really offer any way for you to gauge your progress otherwise.  The indication that you’re underpowered is that you’re being torn apart by enemies.  Either you grind or you just hope.

So what happened other than some grinding? Well, after the three main characters (Firion, Maria, and Guy) recovered from their injuries, they asked to be allowed to join the Resistance proper. Princess Hilda, the lady in charge, replied by saying no while also telling them to go infiltrate the occupied town to the north. You know, the one that they were fleeing from when they nearly died.

Never mind why you’d listen to her in the first place when she just turned down your entry into the Resistance. For some stupid reason, the group thinks that her plan to go back to the town they nearly died running from is an excellent idea, and after five hours or so of beating themselves up in front of the first town they make it up to Fynn.  Perhaps that’s why she wouldn’t let them join at first, that they hadn’t beaten themselves up enough?

There are several Imperial soldiers stationed here, all of them with high defense, strong physical attacks, and a bad attitude. They’re easily avoided… or engaged, if you’re grotesquely overpowered and have some attack spells. Not only do they drop a weapon and some armor you aren’t supposed to get until much later, they also drop plenty of money and some spell tomes that can be sold. Oh, and they don’t despawn when you kill one of them, because apparently the programmers didn’t think anyone could be strong enough to fight them at this point in the game.

After farming those for a while and decking out my already overpowered team in Golden Armor, I snuck into the nearest pub and whispered the Resistance password to the bartender. FFII had a pretty nifty mechanic of learning and using keywords in conversations, allowing you to both advance the plot and learn a bit more about elements you might otherwise miss.  Oddly, the system crops up in other games, but not in other Final Fantasy titles.

The password allowed me to find the missing Scott, who tossed off a few words regarding who helped the Empire attack (hint: no one you met before this point and no one who will provoke an emotional response) and gave me his ring. Then he died.

People were sad when I got back, because a man just died, but Hilda decided that infiltrating the town meant Firion & the Firionettes had enough spunk to be part of the Resistance. Their first mission? Escort the conspicuously Arabic mage Minwu to find out what’s going on with Mythril, so that the Resistance might have a fighting chance against the Empire. That also unlocks the river-crossing canoe and sets me out to explore the world and all the dangers therein.

Well, they would be dangers if I weren’t rocking a couple thousand HP and suits of Golden Armor. Humor me.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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