The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy II, part 2
One of the biggest things I noted about Final Fantasy is that its open world is really an illusion. You’re carefully sectioned off into very limited exploration, with the game always forcing you into the right parts simply through a dearth of alternatives. You can see this as a failing, but you can also see it as a notable advantage. It’s possible to be a bit unsure of where to go next, but you can always fall back on exploring for a while with the knowledge that you’ll stumble on your objective eventually, simply because there’s nowhere else new to go.
Final Fantasy II is a bit worse about that. The world is more open, and you have more chances to go off the rails. Which means that you get more opportunities to exercise your freedom, but it also means that you find yourself more likely to be unsure of where to go next in a game that doesn’t even provide you with helpful pointers like levels. And the second major quest in the game kind of leads in that direction, because your destination is sort of hidden way the heck and gone.
When Minwu joins up in his fantastic Arabic costume (and I absolutely love his character design), he gives you a canoe and an objective – get to Salamand and get some Mythril. Unfortunately, to reach Salamand you have to cross a lake, take a ferry, and then head up north through a sort of convoluted pass. It’s easy to get turned around or miss exactly where you’re supposed to go, and you can wind up wandering into some very wrong areas. Not that you’re in much danger after absurd grinding, but the fact of the matter is that most of the world is open enough that getting lost makes you very lost.
Once you get to Salamand, you find Josef, your man on the inside. He refuses to help you. Everyone does point you toward a mine where people have been held hostage, though, and you’d better believe that’s your next objective, along with being the game’s first real dungeon.
The dungeons in Final Fantasy II are far better designed than the ones in its predecessor. The first game enjoyed sprawling rooms with one or two points of interest; Final Fantasy II has tight and winding passages with a few wrong turns. Not all of the turns away from the right destination are all that rewarding, but it moves away from dungeon design that mostly works on graph paper and falls apart in a video game. This would become the game’s dungeon design paradigm up until, oh, pretty much Final Fantasy X.
The downside is that the game still has its predecessor’s high encounter rate, and some of the side turns lead to “monster rooms” with even higher encounter rates. If you gained experience in this game, they’d be wonderful. You don’t.
Even with those minor failings, the dungeons are a lot more fun to explore, and the tighter design helps immensely. About halfway down the first dungeon you run into Paul (one of the jerks from the first town and the first use of “oh, no, I’m a noble thief who only steals from the bad guys” in the series) and a huge group of captured townspeople from Salamand. This neatly explains why Josef was reluctant to help you (his daughter is among them) and reassures you that this is the way to go. A bit further down you run into the Mythril and the Sergeant guarding it, marking your first technical boss fight of the game.
Presumably this is more challenging if you haven’t leveled up. I think he lasted a turn.
However difficult it might be to obtain, victory nets you the Mythril, Josef’s thanks for freeing his daughter, and a trip all the way back to Altair to deliver the Mythril. The game is a bit dicey about sending you back and forth over and over, unfortunately, and this is hardly the worst culprit.
In Altair, Hilda asks you to hand over the single ingot of Mythril that will somehow supply the entire army with weapons and armor. Then she asks you to go destroy the Empire’s superweapon, the Dreadnought, which strikes me as a bit of an upgrade. We’ve gone from an infiltration mission to a resource grab to sending your crack team to demolish a vital part of the Empire’s war machine with no outside support. Firion and the E Street Band agree, naturally, and off you go… back to the port where you previously went to Salamand, but now heading east instead of north. Like I said, it’s a pattern of back and forth.
Eventually, you wind up at Bafsk, where you meet the traitor Borghen and the Dark Knight. I don’t know why someone would actually call themselves that, but…
Oh. Never mind.
Anyhow, as you rush to destroy the Dreadnought armed with precisely nothing, Batman cuts you off and lets you know that the ship is already finished and operational. It then takes off, leaving you to slump back toward Altair again. This is pretty awesome, though, because as you travel back you see the towns on your path ravaged by the ship’s weaponry. It would be even more impressive in 1988 on the NES, the idea that major storyline changes have a permanent effect on the game world as a whole. Nothing lasts forever.
Unfortunately, this starts a pretty obnoxious sequence of backtracking wherein you have to talk to Hilda, then talk to Cid two towns over, then talk to Hilda again. You need to go get the Plot Device to destroy the Dreadnought, and to do that you have to get the MacGuffin.
It’s possible I blanked on the names.
The upshot is traveling all the way back to Salamand again, which is far more annoying than it sounds on principle. There’s literally no reason for all of this back-and-forth travel, and none of the stores or enemies or whatnot add anything to the journey. It’s a slow march through hordes of enemies that aren’t interesting and over land you’ve already seen. Also Minwu leaves, the start of the long series of rotating fourth party members in this game.
At Salamand, Josef apologizes for being a tool and offers to take you to the MacGuffin cave in his snowmobile, which requires a short trip to the first dungeon (very short, I might add) followed by a slow ride across snow. That was… sort of weird, honestly. I imagine the goal was to put some sort of gate in place so that players couldn’t just get the MacGuffin out of sequence, but the snowcraft is a boat on skis that moves slowly and still has enemy encounters. It honestly feels like something out of Phantasy Star IV, a phrase that is in no way meant as a compliment (vehicle sequences in that game were strange sometimes).
The second dungeon is pretty standard fare, complete with a handful of monster rooms and an Adamantoise at the end. Again, the group lit him up quickly and away we go! Except that Borghen is waiting at the entrance, resulting in another hi-then-die boss fight. But Borghen decided that he wouldn’t risk the party escaping, setting off a rolling boulder to crush the party. Josef springs into action, holding the boulder back just long enough for the other three characters to get clear before he’s crushed to death.
The weird thing is that your three permanent party members don’t get much of a personality, but the NPCs and temporary members do. Maria has shown a vague concern for her missing brother and Guy has been functionally illiterate, but Josef, Borghen, Hilda, and so forth have all been given clear motives and personality. You can see the nascent form of the storytelling that the series develops later on even in this early stage; there’s even a bit of extra dialogue if you head back to Salamand after Josef’s death to talk with his daughter.
In Altair, Hilda tells you to walk backward once more and talk to Cid again, because you haven’t backtracked nearly enough. But we’re at least moving forward in terms of plot. It’s time to get the whatever that we can use to destroy the Dreadnought, and probably have several more fights that my party breezes through with no effort.