Sunday, May 7, 2017
Final Fantasy II (Dawn of Souls) - Thoughts
My thoughts last week on Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls were not generous to say the least—I concluded the entry by declaring, "your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series." Well, Final Fantasy II is not one of those entries. Despite being notable for its unique "stats level up depending on how much you use them" gameplay, Final Fantasy II is the poster child for "mechanics that work better on paper than in practice". The first time I played through it, it was decisively the worst Final Fantasy game I had ever played, and time has not altered my opinion; upon replay, Final Fantasy II is, to put it bluntly, a busted-ass game.
So let's dive right into the combat system: in Final Fantasy II, your core stats, magic, and weapon proficiency is increased depending on if it's "activated" in battle. So casting ice magic will raise the "Blizzard" meter by some amount, attacking with an axe will raise the "Axe" meter by some amount, and even getting walloped with a mighty blow has the chance to increase your max HP. This sounds like a novel idea that lets you customize your characters in a more nuanced way than even the job system, but you'll slowly come to realize you don't have much control over what gets changed and when (other than the spells, that is). Sometimes your whole party with suffer the same amount of damage but only certain characters' HP will increase, or everyone will cast the same level spell but the MP max raises for one of them, or everyone will attack with their weapons but only some weapons will continue to level while others remain stagnant.
About halfway through the game is when these stats will start to seriously snowball. The token woman of my group tended to avoid damage early on so I gave her agility-based equipment, leading her to eventually have an agility stat of 88—her bulky ally just below her finished the game with 5 agility. Fortunately he was getting punched so frequently that his HP skyrocketed to 8000 by the journey's end. I did grind a bit in the game, but it was only in the first half to boost my spells, since using them at their first few levels means they miss a lot (and are utterly useless in battle). Due to how slow the spells level and how boring combat in general is, it really doesn't make any sense to equip more than two spells per party member, especially since using your best spell will continue to improve it. Therefore you don't even get the excitement in Final Fantasy I of arriving to a new town to learn a new set of spells; once a character becomes adept at casting Thunder and Berserk, they're going to be casting those two spells for the rest of their life.
With your character stats being all over the place, battles run the gamut from pathetically easy to shockingly cruel. A lot of RPGs suffer this problem, but Final Fantasy II dials this up to eleven, constantly throwing you against enemies that do no damage or those that do a third of your health. And I'm not joking either!—I wrote down that in the final dungeon there's a spell-caster that can bombard your whole party for 30 damage, compared to a vampire lady that does 2400 lifesteal damage. Both magic attacks and lifesteal in this game are broken for two different reasons, the former rarely doing more damage than physical attacks (barring a few elementally-weak enemies), while the latter is based off of max HP, meaning the stronger your characters are the more vitality the enemy can sap. Enemies thankfully use more debuffs this time around, though they tend to miss more than they hit (and even something as simple as poison only does single-digit damage per turn, independent of max HP).
To add insult to injury, your fourth party slot is reserved for a rotating cast of characters. All these guests really do is soak up stats that the other members could use (since even suffering damage is a good thing in his game), so I decided on this playthrough to immediately execute them and lug their recumbent corpse around. Perhaps that's part of the reason why my party got so strong, but it didn't mean all that much since lifesteal and the mass confuse spell brought my squad to its knees (a party of imps—imps!—is one of the hardest encounters in the game!) Ironically the bosses are among the easiest foes to fight, constantly dealing pitiful damage and biting the dust in a handful of turns. Even without the Blood Sword, I obliterated the final boss in four turns—four! And guess what the most devastating move he had was? Lifesteal!
Oh and the curing—the curing. Cure is an awful spell in this game because it heals by such a paltry amount at low levels that you'll need to blow through all of your MP to get your party back to tip-top shape. And the more you use it, the more it levels up, so the more MP it requires! But the only way to get more MP is to use magic in battle, so you have to start blowing through your MP in order to increase its max amount, which is dangerous in a dungeon when you need your MP to cast Cure! To make matters worse the dungeons in this game are arduously long, labyrinthine, and full of "trap doors" that send you to an empty rectangular room cursed with a god-awful encounter rate (it's like 2-3 steps). Sometimes it's better to use the Warp or Teleport spells if you get low on MP halfway through an area, but those spells don't even work in all of the dungeons! I'm downright baffled at who was green lighting all of these design choices!
Besides the ludicrously imbalanced gameplay, there's not much to talk about since Final Fantasy II is pretty bland in general. The coolest thing it does is introduce a vocabulary system, where you can learn specific concepts and ask them to the important NPCs. Unfortunately this isn't used a whole lot, and NPCs don't talk about anything other than the words you're supposed to use on them. Besides that, it takes too long to get an airship, there's too much backtracking to Altair to advance the plot, your core party is as boring as a plank of wood, and the story is only marginally better than Final Fantasy I. There's also an epilogue section added to the Dawn of Souls version of the game, but it requires you to play more Final Fantasy II—and I believe I've suffered enough.
Final Fantasy II is absolutely shameless about wasting your time. It squanders the ambitious design it aims for and crumples beneath its own weight, unable to find any solid gameplay mechanics to stand on. It's slow, grindy, and uninteresting; Final Fantasy II isn't just the nadir of the series, it's perhaps the worst RPGs I've played in my entire life. It was an experience I desperately wanted to be over as soon as possible, and one that I will never subject myself to ever again.