Final Fantasy II (iOS) Review
When you talk about an iconic series, one that used to come easily to most people was the Final Fantasy franchise, long before Final Fantasy XII, and Final Fantasy XIII/its sequels nobody asked for, permanently stained its reputation forever. Final Fantasy 6 and 7 usually come to most people’s minds as the defining moments in its history, their stories and characters remaining forever iconic in the gaming community’s respective consciences. But for every success in the series, there are some titles that are easily eclipsed and made more obscure; Final Fantasy 5 usually falls victim to this problem, and the story of Bartz and friends saving the world from the malevolent warlock Exdeath is sadly forgotten. While Final Fantasy 9 used to be defined as one of the more obscure installments, it has risen in popularity over the years, which should have happened sooner since it really is a beautifully-executed game in both graphics and story. However, the one Final Fantasy game you never really hear about is the second title in the franchise that not only helped set a standard for subsequent games, but introduced many of the iconic elements that would later become signature, like airships, Chocobos, and character deaths: Final Fantasy 2. Although this game was originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, Final Fantasy 2 was rereleased along with its predecessor on multiple platforms in subsequent years, such as on the Playstation, Gameboy Advance, and the iOS. This review is going to be about the iOS port of Final Fantasy 2, since it is the most recent edition of this game that was released in 2010. Although it is not as current as CCS would like for it to be, I’d still like to talk about it since it is one of the most ignored games in the franchise. Is this justified? In my opinion, it is not, for it is a really excellent game. Although some elements are somewhat dated, the game has still been updated to the extent where it is still a blast to play!
I feel that it is appropriate to start off with talking about the more ‘primitive’ aspects of Final Fantasy 2 before I get to the finer details like gameplay. Now, when I say primitive, I refer to the parts in the game that have carried over from its very first incarnation on the NES, so the elements that really can’t be polished and refined over time. One of the largest aspects of what I refer to is the Story, as there really isn’t anything terribly special to note af first glance. When the evil Palamecian Empire threatens to take over the land with demons summoned from Hell, four young warriors are orphaned when their hometown is destroyed. Taken in by Princess Hilda in the nearby town of Altair, three of the four orphans, Firion, Maria, and Guy, join the Rebels in taking down the Empire, all the while searching for their lost friend Leon. This is pretty much the plot to Star Wars, complete with the Empire constucting a super weapon, the Dreadnought, that would destroy any Kingdom that stood in its way. Honestly, the basic plot isn’t that complex or great. However, the writers took deviations from this formula later on in the game, and they honestly make for some pretty great moments. As an example, after the Rebels kill the Emperor halfway through the game (I’m not spoiling anything), the celebrations are cut short when he rises from Hell in a new, twisted form, and a gigantic castle constructed of crystal and hellfire rises from the ground, Castle Pandaemonium. Instead of Palamecia, he seeks to conquer everything, and so the heroes must travel through the Jade Passage into Hell to destroy the Hell Emperor, and restore peace to the land. In this portion of the game, it became so interesting and cool because it made you feel like you were fighting Hell itself; ironically, it was kind of the same feeling as playing Doom, but in RPG form. Imagine yourself in Hell, fighting against not only the spawns of evil that reside there, but against the very generals of Hell themselves, Beelzebub and Astaroth (since Satan was overthrown by the Emperor when he dominated Hell, he claimed these two key generals as his own). See, this twist at the end is what made the game for me, and although it may begin with the formulaic Star Wars approach, it takes an excellent turn in events, and really makes it an experience near the end. As a side-note, however, the story has actually seen some improvements with the dialogue throughout the years; in contrast with the dialogue from the very first NES version of Final Fantasy 2, which was very fitting for the primitive system but too simplistic for our modern standards of RPGs, Square-Enix really helped the game translate better with modern audiences by developing the dialogue and characters so that they would be more relateable, and so the story would be better. As an example, the Emperor is much more poetic in his language than in the NES version of the game, so his personality has developed to that of a conceited, cultured, and highly manipulative villain. The rest of the characters in the game have also benefited from this improvement in writing, and even though the primary protagonists are more like archetypes for the types of heroes that would follow later in the series, the supporting cast, such as the White Mage Minwu, the rebel fighter Josef, or the Last Dragoon Ricard, all have their own distinct personalities that you can really get attached to. Granted, while there isn’t THAT much character development, which is another primitive aspect carried over from the NES era, the best characters in the game are the supporting characters. To show this change in writing, here are videos for comparison. Pay close attention to the Hell Emperor’s dialogue before the final fight:
The NES version – notice how the dialogue is very wooden and generic.
The PSP/iOS version – notice how the Emperor is much more eloquent when he speaks.
The next area of discussion is going to focus on the gameplay, since this, by far, is the biggest point of contention amongst those in the gaming community. While some people who have played Final Fantasy 2 find no problem in its leveling mechanics, others state that it is the biggest reason for the game’s unforgiving difficulty, making it more a chore for them to play. The first thing that I should explain is the leveling mechanic, since it differs from the rest of the series to such a degree that longtime Final Fantasy veterans would probably have a hard time adapting to its unorthodox gameplay. Unlike the rest of theFinal Fantasy games, where you basically keep fighting critters until you gain a level, and power up all of your abilities, Final Fantasy 2 does things a little differently; it doesn’t actually have the traditional level-gaining system with the character as a whole, instead opting to make the player level every single stat and ability individually. In this respect, Final Fantasy 2 is harder for those used to the standard RPG system because it forces them to choose which abilities and weapon sets they want the most, and level them up by using them frequently. As a first example, since there are different weapon types in the game (bow and arrow, one-handed sword, spear, battleaxe, etc), you have to choose which one you want to use, and level it up by using it continuously in battle. The more you use a weapon-type, the stronger you become in battle. Alternatively, if you leveled up with a battleaxe (say, rose your skill to level 10), and then decided to have your character use a spear for the first time, you will be significantly weaker since you will have a level 1 skill with the spear.The same applies for magic, and after you equip your spells, you need to use them repeatedly in battle in order to level them up and make them stronger. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, this means that instead of learning Fire –> Fira –> Firaga, you have to continually use Fire in order to level it up and make it a stronger spell. The same applies to Cure, and other White Magic spells. Also depending on what you do in battle, you can level up your different stats (HP, Defense, Speed, Stamina, etc). However, unlike weapons and spells, some of these level up just as you fight, although there is an art to leveling your HP and Defense; you need to get hurt more in battle in order to level these up, although if you allow your character to die, then they will not gain that experience when they are revived before the battle ends. I’ve read in numerous places that this makes the game insufferably hard, but honestly it’s just a different leveling system from the conventional RPG – it takes some getting used to, but it makes the game more strategic and rewarding, in my opinion. Of course, since this is a port to the iOS from the PSP version, some changes have been made to its gameplay for the touch screen, so how is this implemented? To compensate for the fact that there isn’t a controller scheme present, Square-Enix implemented a more simplistic menu system for battles where, to select what you want to do for an action, you press one of the buttons on the bottom of the screen, as shown below. After you make your choice of attack or spell, then you select your target by tapping them. For example, if you wanted to cure a team mate, just select the cure spell from the spell list, and then tap the party member that you want to use it on. Easy! For groupcasting, ie casting a spell on either a group of enemies or the party, you just select the spell, and then glide your finger over all of the characters you want the spell to affect. For example, to cast Fire on the entire group of monsters, you just move your finger over all of the monsters on the screen, and then remove your finger when it is over the last monster. This is a little difficult to explain without demonstrating it in person, but hopefully there are tutorial videos on the net that will explain this mechanic. The controls as implemented for the iOS are responsive, they work very smoothly, and they are very easy to use. Finally, we will talk about the qualities of the game that have been updated the most for the PSP/iOS port, the music and graphics. Although the graphical revamp is absolutely wonderful to look at, I do not really have much to comment on since not much was changed; while other games that were 2D were eventually updated with completely recreated 3D graphics, such as Final Fantasy 3 (DS and iOS) and Final Fantasy 4 (DS), Final Fantasy 2 remains in the 2D realm. The sprites for the characters and monsters are all wonderfully rendered, there are brief cutscenes that help emphasize the intensity of a moment, and the landscapes are all appealing to the eyes. The graphics have been beautifully recreated for the PSP and iOS platforms! In terms of the music, I can say significantly more on the matter since this game’s soundtrack is criminally underrated; while other titles in the Final Fantasy series have instantly-recognizatble songs to their name (hell, 50% of OCRemix.org’s catalogue is nothing but Final Fantasy 6 and 7 remixes), Final Fantasy 2has some fantastic tunes that are sadly not so fondly remembered. Suffering the same fate as the game in general, some legitimately good music has been cast aside and forgotten while other (legitimately good) songs from other games have been cast into the spotlight. As an example, let’s take a look first at the themes of the two factions in the game, the rebels and imperials. The “Rebel Army Theme” is one of the earliest tracks you hear in the game, when Firion, Maria, and Guy are introduced to Princess Hilda and the rebel forces. This song has a ‘noble’ sound to it, if that makes sense, and it has a lighter, majestic tone that emphasizes that the rebels are the guys you want to root for. In contrast, the “Imperial Army Theme” is a whole lot more menacing because it sounds colder, more militaristic, and as a result much more threatening. This is perfect for the Imperial forces because they are meant to be portrayed that way. If the villains’ theme was lighthearted, I doubt that the appropriate tone for their presence would have been established since they are, by nature, coldhearted destroyers of villages, and takers of lives.
Imperial Army Theme (left), Rebel Army Theme (right)
We can also analyze the musical diversity in the game by going over the battle music, as even that has telling signs that different genres and musical influences are at work, and that makes Final Fantasy 2‘s underrated soundtrack stand out. For instance, take “Battle Theme 2,” which is the final boss theme in the game, lets you know right away that some serious shit is about to go down. Bombastic, vitriolic, and hard-hitting, this song is perfectly appropriate for the final battle. A fun piece of trivia about “Battle Theme 2” is that it was actually the original boss theme in the NES version, so every single boss in the game (the Hell Emperor included) shared this tune. It wasn’t until the Playstation/GameBoy Advance ports of Final Fantasy 2 that this song was designated as the final battle theme, while brand new boss battle themes were added to the soundtrack. Acting as a segway, I would like to also talk about “Boss Theme B” because, while it is unimaginative in its titling, it is a great example of just how versatile this game’s soundtrack is. While the other boss battle theme, “Boss Theme A,” is similarly epic and bombastic like “Battle Theme 2,” “Boss Theme B” takes things in a decidedly different direction with its genre and pacing. “Boss Theme B” carries with it a distinctly eastern flair, and, in my opinion, it actually compliments the boss fights very well; something about it just screams imperialistic, and while it may seem like a stretch, this theme almost feels natural when the player fights the agents of the Empire in their bid to take back the land from tyranny. Not only that, but “Boss Theme B” is a really good song that, once again, showcases this game’s fantastic soundtrack.
Boss Theme B (left), Battle Theme 2 (right)
Now of course, while I can prattle on all day about the music, I need to move on to the final stretch of the review, the add-ons, so before we get to that, let me post a few more highlights from the soundtrack:
Castle Pandaemonium (left), Magician’s Tower (right)
Of course, the only anamoly in an otherwise great sound track is… well, this:
… Do I even need to tell you what it really is?
Finally, let’s talk about the add-ons for Final Fantasy 2. Originally introduced in the Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls remake of the first two games, and included in subsequent ports, the add-ons for this game include Arcane Labyrinths, and Soul of Rebirth. I have mixed feelings about the add-on content because while I absolutely loved Soul of Rebirth, I look at Arcane Labyrinths with disdain. To explain my reasoning, let’s first talk about Soul of Rebirth, which is basically an expansion of the original story where you follow the departed souls of the characters who die in the Rebel quest to saving the land from evil. During the main quest, you have a supporting character briefly join you in the fourth slot of your party, so you are constantly journeying with someone new. While all of the supporting characters don’t die, a good portion of them do, and when those moments in the story came, I was really heartbroken, since I had grown attached to the characters. However, their deaths don’t mark the last time you see them; after you beat the main quest, you are given an option on the main menu to play a mode called Soul of Rebirth, which has you join one of the dead characters in what appears to be the Jade Passage, the road to Pandaemonium. Along the way, you meet up with the other three characters who died, and you eventually find out that you are in fact in Heaven, which has been infested with monsters, and taken over by the Emperor (who split into two in order to conquer both Heaven and Hell). See, I found this mode to be really neat because I had grown to love these characters, and so I relished the chance to control them again and continue their stories. They carry over abilities and skills they learned in the main game, and while it took me a lot of leveling up to get them to snuff, I found Soul of Rebirth to be incredibly fun, and a worthwhile addition to Final Fantasy 2! However, Arcane Labyrinths is a different story; I really didn’t like this add-on at all. While it is a totally optional gameplay option, and you can access it at any point from the world map, I feel that it is comparatively weaker than Soul of Rebirth for two reasons: a) it doesn’t really seem to have a story at all, and b) there is no save function, which means you have to beat it all in one go. The lack of a save wouldn’t bother me so much except for that it takes a while to figure out each section of the Labyrinth, and if you get lost on what you have to do, then it may not be worth sitting there for hours on end trying to get to the end in one sitting. I may just be impatient, and other people may have a much better time doing this than I did, but I just didn’t enjoy it. Basically, once you enter the Labyrinth, you need to choose a phrase from all of the key words you learn in your quest, and teleport to a mysterious world. Once you clear the place out, and figure out the puzzle, then you can get to the next portal, insert another keyword, and go somewhere else. This might not have been so bad if there was a story behind it, but there wasn’t, and it was far less enjoyable for me as a result. I have no idea if I was even playing it right, and I haven’t really beaten the Arcane Labyrinths because they were too monotonous for me to handle. There IS a final boss at the end of all of this, Deumion, and although I would have liked to fight him, I just couldn’t go through with finishing this add-on. This is by far my least favorite thing about the Final Fantasy 2 iOS port. Overall, I must end stressing that I have no idea how, or why, Final Fantasy 2 became one of the most ignored series in the Final Fantasy franchise, simply because I love this game to pieces! It has a phenomenal soundtrack, the graphics and gameplay are fantastically adapted to the iOS device, and the gameplay was not just the same old thing found in other Final Fantasy games. Honestly, Final Fantasy 2 was one of the most daring games in the franchise, and although its story or characters may not have been the best developed in the world, its core leveling mechanics were really refreshing, making for a strategic, more intelligent gameplay experience. It’s a shame that the series reverted to the leveling style of Final Fantasy 1 in the next sequel, Final Fantasy 3. Although Final Fantasy 2 is still widely considered the black sheep of its series, that makes it far from a bad game, and it is one of the most underrated games in RPG history.