Guest writer ArcticMetal is back with his thoughts on Final Fantasy 2! If you want to read all about his Final Fantasy journey from the beginning, start with The Least Final Final Fantasy.
If you’ve heard anything about Final Fantasy 2, you’ve probably heard that it’s the worst in the series. Fan consensus seems to be that it’s best forgotten, too janky and frustrating to enjoy today. I was very surprised to find this was the case, however, after completing it myself. I had an excellent time, and some of the comments and reviews I was reading made me think we had played totally separate games. I think the disconnect is this: Final Fantasy 2 is a game with a lot of potential pitfalls and hidden information. If you go into it completely blind you’re probably going to have a bad time. But, if you know how the underlying systems work, I think you can have a really fun time with this game – at least, I did. And for such a unique, ambitious entry in the series, it’s worth seeing in the best possible light.
The Growth System: Blessing or Curse?
A quick note first – I played the original Famicom version of FF2, so it’s possible not everything here will apply to other releases. Also, everything I’ll explain in this section was covered in much greater detail in this excellent Game Corner guide, which I highly recommend you use if you wish to try this game for yourself.
Final Fantasy 2’s leveling system (which I will refer to as the growth system) keeps track of each character’s skills based on the specific actions they take throughout the adventure. If Guy swings a sword, his skill with swords goes up, increasing his accuracy and damage with them. If he suffers enough damage during a battle and survives, his HP may increase at the end of the fight. This applies to character stats as well – attacking with physical weapons has a chance to increase Strength, taking damage has a chance to increase Stamina. Where this starts to get really interesting is spells – a character’s magical prowess is tracked not just in how good they are with white magic or black magic as a whole, but rather specific spells. Every single spell can be leveled up by casting it. For some spells this may just increase damage done or chance to activate, but there are some, like Barrier or Esuna, that add additional effects with each level.
With a system like this you might assume that you could mix and match spells and skills and end up with a set of hybrid heroes. Unfortunately, this is not the case, due to the first and probably largest pitfall: equipment magic penalties. In a system taken right out of early editions of D&D, wielding or wearing certain equipment will lower the chance of a spell activating, often by severe amounts. In addition to this, a spell’s chance of triggering is rolled once per level of spell when you cast it, and extra damage or effects are then resolved cumulatively per roll. So, it might not be immediately obvious that this is even happening, since spells might still be cast but at much lower effectiveness than they otherwise would be. Compounding the issue, Maria is the likely choice of black mage for a new player as she has the highest starting Intellect, which determines the strength of black magic, and even starts in the back row. She comes equipped with a bow, however, which has a staggering 70% magic penalty, the highest out of any weapon type in the game. This penalty only applies when she has the bow equipped, and you can swap or remove weapons in battle, so it’s possible for her to use the bow and still be an effective black magic user. But the game does not explain equipment magic penalties anywhere, neither in the game itself, nor in the manual.
Adding onto this, getting an increase in one of three specific stats – Strength, Intellect, or Spirit – will occasionally lower another. Strength can lower Intellect, Intellect can lower Stamina, and Spirit, which determines the strength of white magic, can lower Strength. This would, at least, become clear to a player fairly quickly, as each increase and decrease is announced in game. But it’s yet another way in which the game prevents mixing martial and magical abilities with a single character.
One final pitfall, and the one that disappoints me the most personally, is that dual wielding is completely bugged. If a character wields a weapon in each hand, the game will animate them swinging both during an attack, but only the weapon in their main hand is used for damage. This is compounded by the fact that multiple of the rotating 4th character slot cast join the party with two weapons equipped. They could be perceived to be a lot worse than they actually are if a player didn’t pick up on this and give them a shield instead. If I could change a single thing about FF2, fixing the dual wielding bug would be it.
With all of these pitfalls and restrictions you may be wondering what the benefit of the growth system is. For me, it’s the magic – being able to level up specific spells and see each mage grow over time in such a granular way was an absolute delight. It’s the closest any RPG I’ve played has come to being a full on wizard simulator, up there with the ability to create new spells and having to practice your skills in the Elder Scrolls games.
This is what I adored about the growth system – I even found myself specifically grinding out spell levels in the last quarter of the game to increase my mages’ power, and enjoying it! One of the highlights was the Toad spell, which like every other spell in the game can be cast as an AoE or Single Target. Casting as AoE lowers a spell’s effectiveness, but raising the spell’s level will counter that. Coupled with the fact that fewer enemies have resistance to spell effects in this FF, I was having remarkable success in the final dungeons casting Toad on entire enemy groups. I remember Jane watching me play while doing this; we’d both exclaim “TOAD!” when the spell worked on some high level enemy.
Even spell grinding itself is made more interesting with another bit of hidden information: casting the same spell over and over in a single battle is not the fastest way to increase it. Instead, the first cast of every spell in a battle gives the biggest point increase, with every subsequent casting only giving you a single point. Knowing this, you’re incentivized to create an entire rotation of spells to go through in every battle based on what you currently wish to level. This affects white magic specifically in an interesting way: casting magic outside of battle only gives you the single point increase, so to maximize your wizard gains you’ll want to cast healing during battle as often as possible. Add onto the fact that your HP and Stamina only increase if your current HP is lower than it was at the start of battle, the ideal timing of healing is a lot more nuanced than in other FFs.
By the end of the game my two mages were absolute powerhouses. Both white and black magic have spells that allow you to gain MP from enemies, so they were able to continuously cast throughout entire dungeons. The buff and debuff spells in particular can become so strong in this game that I ended up defeating the final boss in five or six rounds! Because I had spent many hours building up my wizard repertoire slowly throughout the game, I felt like I had really earned it.
So that’s the growth system. Understandably divisive, perhaps, but knowing how it works I think it’s possible to have a lot of fun with it. What about the rest of the game, though?
Final Fantasy Firsts
Final Fantasy 2 was the first game in the series to have a lot of its staples: First Cid, first chocobo, first one with a focus on story, and first one chock full of Star Wars references.
A note: there will be spoilers in this section, but I don’t think this is a game that can be ruined by spoilers.
The game opens with an unwinnable battle – the Palamecian Empire’s soldiers have surrounded the party, and attempt to capture them. They’re rescued at the last moment by the rebels, who are led by princess Hilda in their rebel base. The party eventually joins the rebels and acts on their orders for several missions, one of which includes attempted sabotage of an enormous airship called the Dreadnought, which is eventually blown up in spectacular fashion by throwing a macguffin into its engine. The Empire itself is led by an obviously evil emperor who chews the scenery at roughly equivalent levels to Palpatine’s “UNLIMITED POWER!!!”. At one point late in the game, after he had been killed by the party, he shows up and declares “I’ve returned from hell to destroy the world!” in a move that I can only describe as iconic. There’s even a mysterious second-in-command to the Emperor who is revealed to be related to one of the main cast (but with so many other references, it was hardly a surprise). FF2 is by no means a Star Wars knockoff, though. These references are a small part of the overall story, just a bit more involved than little nods like Biggs and Wedge in other FFs.
In terms of the focus on storytelling, Final Fantasy 2 starts using cutscenes in earnest. While rudimentary compared to later entries, taking control away from the player to have them watch characters do things of their own accord substantially increases their storytelling capability, versus the simple textboxes of the first game. They’re used here to tell a much darker story than the first game too. One of the earlier cutscenes in the game has the 4th slot guest character holding back a boulder that was about to crush the entire party, yelling at them to run away as his strength gave out. This culminated in the rest of the party standing there in horror and sorrow as they watched the boulder roll over him, killing him. To drive the point home further, you can talk to his young daughter in the nearby town afterwards, who is sad and confused about why her dad isn’t coming home. While perhaps a bit melodramatic, this felt like a glimmer of the sort of tragic moments that happen in later FFs.
I’ve mentioned that rotating guest slot a few times now, so let’s go over how the party works. Throughout the entire game your party will contain the same three characters – Firion, Maria, and Guy. You can have up to four characters at a time though, and this is where the guest characters come into play – at certain points in the story, various characters join and then inevitably leave your party. In effect this means you need to plan your party around three characters and use the fourth ones as fighters. This is with the exception of the first one, who is a fantastic white mage that helps you ease into the game for the first dungeon or so. Unfortunately, a couple of other ones can be so useless you might even be happy to see them leave. When these characters leave, though, they usually leave via death.
So many characters die in this game, many of them party members. This is the first game where they really started to do that, and to think of it, I guess we can classify that as another first instance of a Final Fantasy Staple. For real though, the amount and speed of death in this game had a numbing effect on me – none of the fourth slot characters are really around long enough or developed enough for their death to actually matter to the player. It might not be very well executed, but I did appreciate that they went with a very different tone than FF1. Where the first game was a classic save-the-day adventure, this one attempts to deal more with loss and sacrifice.
I’ve just realized I’ve barely described the main cast, and that’s because there isn’t much to describe. They each get very few lines, and the few lines they do get don’t draw much of a picture. Firion is sort of hot headed, sometimes. Maria cares about finding her missing brother and not much else. Guy is uh… a big guy, who also speaks to beavers? The beaver talking happens a single time and is never explained. Can he also talk to other animals or just beavers? We’ll never know. They do, at least, have some semblance of characterization, and canon names. Baby steps from the nameless personalityless party of Final Fantasy 1, but steps all the same.
Also of note is the first Cid and first chocobo. I really like Cid’s first appearance here. Not for his character, which is almost nonexistent, but rather his role. In the first half of the game you can pay him gil and he’ll transport you to a few destinations around the world. Nothing too exciting, but I think it’s a nice touch. The chocobo, on the other hand, is a bit baffling. It’s in a single unmarked forest tile well south of a dungeon in the early game, a dungeon that you approach from the north. There’s no conceivable reason why someone would go wandering around in that specific forest as it’s also nowhere near anything else on the map. But, if you do track it down, it’s an easy way to get back to a town from a dungeon that’s in the middle of nowhere. You can even ride it back to Cid, rest up, and then have Cid fly you to the dungeon again. What baffles me is, why was it so far away from everything else, why was it the only one in the game, and why was it so hard to find? It’s like they had started developing the concept and weren’t sure what to do with it and threw it in at the last second. The chocobo theme also shows up here for the first time, but maddeningly it’s only the first four bars of it repeated.
One aspect which has never returned in any future Final Fantasy (other than the growth system) is the topics system. In this system, you learn certain key phrases that can then be said to NPCs to gain information or advance the plot. One early example is learning a password phrase to prove that you’re with the rebels to gain access to another area. The system honestly seems more like a proof of concept than anything else, though. Most of the time, you will get a non-response when prompting someone with a random topic. The most interesting use of it was a bookcase which gave you little known information about each topic as if it was coming from a book. It makes sense why this was never carried forward to future games.
The Exploration Experience
The world map is one of the most open in the series from the outset. While every early Final Fantasy lets you roam around a large world (or worlds!), the other ones I’ve played restrict where you can go via natural barriers like rivers, oceans, and mountains, which you overcome with various vehicles. Final Fantasy 2 does this too, but the initial explorable playspace is much larger than the other entries. A common complaint I’ve seen is that it’s easy to wander into places you shouldn’t be yet early on and get your ass handed to you, as some early accessible parts of the world map are intended for higher level characters. I think, though, that this gives the world a bit more texture, and it could end up being seriously satisfying if you return to an area that kicked your ass later on and return the favor. In practice, though, I never found myself getting into these unwinnable fights, because you’re given clear instructions on where to go for every one of your missions.
Dungeons are similar to how they were in FF1, with one terrible addition – trap rooms. Very often, there will be a floor in a dungeon with several doors, one of which is the way forward. All of the others place you in the middle of a small empty room with much higher encounter rates. I think the game is better off without these, and I would recommend using a guide (like the previously mentioned Game Corner guide) to avoid them when possible. I don’t think exploring without a guide would ruin your experience, but the trap rooms may become tedious to deal with.
Conceptually, they shook up dungeons a good amount here. Some of them are your classic caves and such, but some others include exploring an enemy airship, fighting through a colosseum only to be pitted against a giant monster in the arena, and working your way up a magical cyclone. I also love the final dungeon – it’s a long gauntlet of two dungeons back to back with no save point or place to rest. But unlike the first Final Fantasy you can return to the entrance and go back to town if you need to. I found it to be just long enough to be exciting and tense without it becoming overbearing or stressful, and it gave me a good excuse to power up my mages as much as possible.
Should You Play Final Fantasy 2?
I’ve criticized the game a lot in this article – more than I initially expected I would from the outset to be honest – but it’s more a reflection of how I think the game could go badly for a player than how it went badly for me. With a guide in hand you will deftly sidestep most of these potential pitfalls, and you can enjoy both seeing the beginnings of a beloved franchise and experiencing the best wizard simulator I’ve ever played. If any of that sounds appealing, I say give it a shot – you might love it as much as I do.
For fun, here’s my personal ranking of the series, to be updated with each successive post:
Final Fantasy 2 > Final Fantasy
Next time I’ll discuss the first Final Fantasy to get a Job – Final Fantasy 3.