Disclaimer: This post will be littered with spoilers of the story throughout. You’ve been warned!
Originally released in Japan in 1988, Final Fantasy II never saw the light of day in the States until 2002 with the release of Final Fantasy Origins for the Playstation. Since that time, it has been re-released on the Gameboy Advanced and PSP systems. Even though I consider this the “worst” out of all Final Fantasy games, it is by no means an awful game; in fact, Final Fantasy II introduced unique mechanics never seen before in a Final Fantasy game (or any RPG at the time) and also saw the debut of a story that featured unique characters controlled by the player. Despite such innovations though, there are several reasons why this game lands at the bottom of my countdown.
The game starts as the evil Palamecian Empire attacks the town of Fynn, in which the game’s main characters, Firion, Maria, Guy, and Leon live. In the attack, their parents are killed and as they attempt to flee the town to save their own lives, they are attacked as well and left for dead. Following the attack, only three of the main characters, Firion, Maria, and Guy are find themselves in the rebel stronghold of Altair, with Leon missing.
What follows next is a series of linear quests in which the three heroes attempt to prove their worth to the rebel resistance. Along the way the main party of three is joined by a fourth character throughout the game (and that character might as well have been a red-shirted Star Trek ensign, as that role was practically a death wish in this game). Eventually, the our heroes become a part of a three-pronged attack plan against the Emperor. One of the rebel mages, Minwu, was to retrieve the ultimate magic tome of Ultima, another rebel, Gordon, would lead a direct attack on the Empire at Fynn, and the player-controlled heroes would enlist the help of the Dragoons to join the rebel cause. However, the player’s quest turns up rather empty as they only find a single poisoned Wyvren remained and no Dragoons were to be found. The lone Wyvren gives the players the last Wyvren egg in which the heroes place into a healing spring for incubation.
As the heroes return, the story starts to get a bit crazy. The supposed princess helping leading the rebellion, Hilda, is then revealed to be a monster in disguise. The heroes then learn that the Emperor is keeping the real Hilda as a prize in a tournament in his Coliseum. Of course, for some reason our heroes think going directly into the lion’s den is a bright idea and they win the tournament only to be thrown into jail by the Emperor upon their victory.
As only a Final Fantasy game can, our heroes happen to be in the right place at the right time as a traveling thief frees them and allows the party and Hilda to escape. The party then sets out to find Minwu and the Ultima tome in order to defeat the Emperor. After a bit side-tracking that involves, among other things being swallowed whole by a sea monster, Leviathan, the heroes eventually obtain Ultima, however, at the cost of Minwu’s life.
Upon obtaining Ultima, the heroes learn of a destructive force known as the Cyclone. By hatching the last Wyvren egg, the party is able to enter the Cyclone and stop it by defeating the Emperor himself. After the Emperor’s death, the party encounters a villain known only as the “Dark Knight”, the Emperor’s right-hand man, that had appeared throughout the game. That same “Dark Knight” is none other than the heroes long-lost friend, Leon, whom for some reason or another decides that he will crown himself the new emperor.
That plan is cut ever so short as the Emperor manages to resurrect himself from Hell (dead serious here), and pulls an Obi-Wan-Kenobi move of “you struck me down now I’m more powerful than ever”. The party, now with Leon back in tow (seems pissed off, Hell-resurrected emperors are great for mending friendships), escapes and the Emperor raises Castle Pandemonium, the fortress of Hell and the game’s final dungeon.
Of course, our brave heroes and quickly reformed Dark Knight brave Castle Pandemonium and defeat the Emperor once again, sending him back to Hell for good. The party returns to Fynn where they reunite with Hilda (and the handful of other characters that managed to not die by joining the party throughout the game) and well…live happily ever after. Except for Leon, whom isn’t quite happy with himself and decides to leave the town, but of course, like any good Final Fantasy hero, Firion lets him know that he is always welcome back as Leon “belongs” in Fynn.
The story itself isn’t overly spectacular, but it did contain a handful of twist that one would be hard pressed to see coming. The twist of Leon being the Dark Knight in particular was probably the single biggest shock as the game had no problem killing of other characters that joined the heroes on their quest. In retrospect, the story might seem quite highly predictable and, well…lame by today’s standards, but it truly was something that hadn’t been seen in RPGs at the time.
The characters themselves aren’t all too memorable. Firion, Maria, and Guy don’t receive too much of a backstory or anything that resembles any real character development (especially by Final Fantasy standards today). Even Leon’s character fails reveal any real motivation behind joining the Emperor, joining back up with the party, or his feelings behind leaving Fynn at the end of the game.
To be fair, this was the first real attempt at even attempting to have the player play as characters whose stories where already written, as the previous game, Final Fantasy, was basically just a blank slate of four generic heroes. It was the first attempt to try something different in the series, and later having unique characters and solid development has become a staple of the series.
One thing that did not deviate from the previous formula, was that of the bad guy. The Emperor was just that, a generic bastard that wanted world domination. Well, he was also one that somehow managed to control the powers of Hell while he was alive and then somehow was able to gain even more powers after he died the first time. And that pretty much about sums him up. All things considered, this Hell-raising Emperor is rather forgettable in the series.
This area is probably Final Fantasy II‘s greatest strength and weakness. The battle system was very much ahead of it’s time and was borderline genius. However, I believe attempting this system in what was still the Final Fantasy series’ infancy, ultimately doomed it.
On paper is sounds like an amazing idea: no experience points or levels in a RPG! Instead, your skills simply increase as you use them. So if you swing a sword a bunch, you become quite deadly with it. Cast a lot of magic, and you are able to nuke your enemies into kingdom-come. Take a bunch of damage, and that character becomes increasingly resistant to it.
While this system now currently sounds like a dream system for a MMORPG (and I do believe, Square Enix’s next attempt, Final Fantasy XIV will implement a similar system of sorts) it did not translate very well at all into a first-generation console RPG. Skills, especially those of a magical nature, increased at a horribly slow rate. Of course, when things go slow, players always look for a way to make them go faster, and many different workarounds were found to circumvent the system.
In the original versions of the game, the player could cancel actions right before they happened; however, the game would calculate the skill increases as if they actually did, leading to battles in which the player does nothing but grind out skills via constant canceled actions. Another popular shortcut was to equip characters with two shields and have them constantly attack. Of course, nothing would happen; however, if you did several rounds of “shield attacks” and then switched back to a weapon you wanted to skill, the game would treat every attack as if you attacked with said weapon upon the battles end. Finally, you could drastically increase your party’s hit points by doing what really should be quite unthinkable in a RPG: attacking yourself. Since the only way to increase the hit points was directly taking damage, players would pick fights against weak monsters and do nothing but attack themselves in order to obtain massive hit point gains.
Like I said, a great idea on paper and very much ahead of its time, but executing them at this time in the series monumentally backfired in my opinion. There were just simply too many ways to cheat the system and cheating the system seemed to be the only way to make any real progress as the grinding element of “doing it the right way” was borderline absurd.
Why This Game Ended Up Here
So why did Final Fantasy II end up at the bottom of my countdown?
Well, the short answer is the battle system. While I do believe it was definitely ahead of its time, it severely hurt the game. Not only in the aforementioned “cheats”, but perhaps the biggest sin of the game is how it treated the spell Ultima and the final boss battle against the Emperor.
The Ultima spell was touted as the ultimate of all magic and the only spell that could destroy the Emperor. And the game was actually designed very much in that manner; however, when you first get the spell, it will likely be the weakest piece of crap your characters can cast as opposed to the much stronger spells that you have leveled up all game long. Of course though, this just means you have to level up the spell through the system right? After all, during the last boss battle, the Ultima spell is really the only thing that can do any real damage to the Hell-risen form of the Emperor…well except for one other thing…
The Blood Sword.
This rather easily obtainable sword basically breaks the game (and you can get two of them in all but the 20th anniversary editions of the game). It’s damage increases drastically against opponents with high HP, and the Emperor has the highest HP of them all. Even better, this sword has an added effect of “Drain”, meaning the damage you cause, gets given right back to the character that uses it, giving them a constant source of damage as well as healing at the cost of no MP (something else you likely wasted time leveling).
As soon as you open the Blood Sword chest(s), all of the work you did leveling Ultima, or well, anything else for that matter can become completely worthless. Not only will your wasted time drive you mad, but also consider that in the story, one of the characters, Minwu, sacrifices his own life because, supposedly, Ultima is the only thing that can stop the Emperor.
Apparently, someone should’ve let him know they were hiding a Blood Sword in a chest.
This rather sizable kick in the nuts to your own hard work and the story (seriously Minwu got screwed!), combined with lackluster character development and a simplistic story lands Final Fantasy II at the bottom of my list. I’m not even joking about the sizable kick to the nuts either. As soon as I found the Blood Sword, I was seriously pissed at how much time I wasted leveling Ultima for absolutely no reason as I felt like I was playing the rest of the game on easy mode.
Final Fantasy II is definitely the most unique of the series and is by no means awful; however, if you do decide to give it a try, do yourself a favor: learn the ways around the leveling system, don’t worry about leveling Ultima, and just decimate the game after you find the Blood Sword.
Those are seriously hours of my life I want back right now…