The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy II, part 7

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

Artwork from a sketch by Yoshitaka Amano

Finally, the endgame.  It’s refreshing, in a way.  There are no more plot holes to nitpick, no more fetch quests to be sent on, nothing but several floors of dungeon between the main characters and the final boss.  Through the Jade Passage, into Pandaemonium, and then up against the Emperor.

Again.  I mean, I killed him once, so it doesn’t seem like he’d be able to get harder this time around based on the fact that he couldn’t stop me while he was alive, but I guess Hell was waiting for him or something?  I suppose we can mark him under the long line of Final Fantasy bosses with plot armor and plot skill absorption.

Of course, the game is going to do its level best to go out like it came in: with thunderously irritating and ill-conceived mechanics.  First, the Jade Passage, which is one of only two things that you actually travel to via the airship.  Once inside, you’re in the endgame for good.  There’s no getting out, so you’d better have everything you need on hand.

The Jade Passage is host to a number of lovely irritations, including the many Malboros unleashing random status ailments with every hit and the worms that do thousands of damage per hit.  I strongly suspect that these have been at least somewhat tuned up, although this may have been the game’s sole attempt at balancing for powerful characters even in its original incarnation.

You can also find several optional bosses guarding powerful bits of equipment.  I rather like this setup, honestly – you can speed through or take it slow, picking up some power boosts if you think you need them but ignoring them otherwise.  It’s better than the usual setup of end dungeon chests containing complete crap or all of the best equipment, I suppose.  Boss fights are among the least irritating things in the dungeon, to boot.

Still, this is just an appertif to the real endgame – Pandaemonium.  Which would be way more intimidating if the plot hadn’t needlessly separated from anything we cared about a while ago.  I mean, why will killing the Emperor now make him any more dead than when we killed him the first time?  What actual threat does he pose?  What are his goals?  What’s Firion accomplishing by doing all of this?  Why does Guy speak like he’s been the victim of severe head trauma?  How the heck does Maria dress herself?  Am I actually in the resistance now?  Am I flying?  Why do my knees feel like they want to tear up?

Damn it, I said I was going to stop nitpicking the plot.  Pandaemonium, then.

Evacuate the dance floor indeed.

Hell is not other people. Hell is, apparently, covered in bright lights with pink walls and blue floors. In summary, Hell is a disco.

This area is very intimidating, which we know because Firion says so within the first few seconds.  Mostly it just looks like the Emperor has a weird fashion sense.  It’s got the usual irritation factor, slightly increased because the damn thing is long, but the side-bosses are still entirely optional.  So it could be worse.  After some warping about and some awkward mazes, I finally reached the Emperor himself, equipped the Blood Sword, and won.

Oh, right, the Blood Sword.  I should probably mention that, because it’s kind of symptomatic of the whole game.  See, the Blood Sword does damage based on a percentage of the target’s max HP, healing the wielder in the process.  For a good portion of the game it’s not terribly useful, as that damage formula produces less damage than a blade with higher attack power.  Against the Emperor, you kill him completely in a couple of attacks before he can even start wearing down your own defenses.  I find it highly ironic that the game’s last breath involves reminding you of how broken it all is.

Yes, you can beat him without the Blood Sword, but that’s something you usually stumble into by mistake.

Killing the Emperor sends him to Superhell (it totally sucks there) and gives you a brief epilogue in which everyone shares what they learned or something.  Gordon learned to not be such a coward, Paul the thief has learned that helping overthrow an empire sucks and now he’s back to stealing from people in Fynn, Nelly (Josef’s daughter) has learned that her father is dead and no one cares, and Leila learned that she is a woman.  Also, Leon learned he’s kind of been a dick and refuses to stay and enjoy the happy ending, which pretty much no one bats an eye over.  There’s a moment with ghosts waving to the party, a few more words are narrated, the game ends, I go to sleep.

Yes, I’m aware that there are extra dungeons I could do.  I am opting not to do those, and I’m quite happy the rules I set forth allow me to do just that.

Kind of a ridiculous personality, but you know, I'll take it.

At least he would go on to have a personality added several years later, so that’s all right, I guess.

It comes as no real surprise when I say that Final Fantasy II is sort of a weird beast.  On the one hand, it’s not a good game.  The mechanics are beyond broken, and the game swings between tedium and unfairness on a regular basis.  Its plot is a jumbled mess, its characters often struggling to be even one-dimensional, and the whole thing goes on far longer than it needs to.  Even in 1988 this was a weak effort.

That’s not just a matter of characterization, either.  At no point do you feel like you’re in the midst of an epic fantasy, as the plot pretty much focuses solely on one big war between two nebulously defined factions.  Half of the problem is that there’s never a sense of adventure, just grim-faced obligation without anything to hook your interest.  It doesn’t feel like a title in the franchise.

And yet at the same time, this is the game that freaking invented the series.  The idea of a storyline-driven game started here.  Half of the elements of the series that we take for granted – Cid, chocobos, half of the enemy types, spells, MP, and so forth – started in this game.  And as much guff as I’ve given it for its story, the fact that it had a story was novel as hell.  It’s the dancing bear problem, wherein the question isn’t about how well the bear dances, just whether or not it can dance.

For that matter, for all that the system is broken, I can’t pretend that it never winds up being fun as heck.  Yes, that “when” starts and stops very early in the game, but it’s a really neat idea and it’s great fun early on to see your characters become more powerful just by doing their own things.  It’s one of those systems that attracts me sort of like Final Fantasy XIV‘s launch, where you see something broken and you see the underlying brilliance despite it.  You want to rescue it like a baby bird, just make the small nudges necessary for it to all be perfect.

So where does it stand?  Is it any good?  I don’t know.  It sure doesn’t hold up as well as its predecessor, but perhaps that’s a sign of how unique it really was.  The things it did well would be done better in the future, and the things it did poorly were discarded.  It’s a product of its point in the overall development of the franchise, and a vital link in the chain that can safely be ignored by anyone not delving backwards through history.

Sadly, the remakes seem to accentuate its flaws rather than alleviate them, which does the game no favors; the two bonus dungeons are a case in point.  The first one, the Soul of Rebirth, is essentially a coda using some of the game’s many corpses to answer a question no one actually asked about why those ghosts are waving at you at the very end.  The second, the Arcane Labyrinth, is a haul through several floors through a poorly explained process to grab some “ultimate” weapons.  Both suffer through the same problem as the rest of the game insofar as there’s no real way to gauge an appropriate challenge and there’s little incentive to chase these carrots.  Neither one has the charm of the Final Fantasy dungeons, at that.

So… ultimately, Final Fantasy II is a forgettable game in the series progression, and yet it’s also really important and vital.  You don’t need to play it to get what the series is on about, but it might help, even if you have to push past a lot of wreckage to get there.

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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