I have always loved Final Fantasy II since I played it for the first time back in 2014. While I wouldn't claim it to be the best game in the series, it is truly up there as one of my favorite RPGs I have played. While I do agree that the NES version is an abysmal mess of a game, the PSP and Pixel Remaster versions have transformed this game into something incredible featuring a highly replayable and customizable gameplay loop, compelling characters, and what I consider to be some of the best dungeons in the series. It is incredibly disheartening to typically see Final Fantasy II proclaimed as the worst in the series, or for some people, one of the worst RPGs of all time. Today, I'm excited to champion the greatness of this remarkable, ahead-of-its-time game, in today's RPG Ranked article... a Final Fantasy II Review: A flawed, yet fantastic fantasy.
Battle System - 8
Yes, I just awarded an 8 to what is likely the least revered battle system in the Final Fantasy series... what can I say, I love the refined simplicity of this battle system. There are tons of enemies on screen at a time, with back and front rows having much more weight and importance than the majority of RPGs. This game incentivizes strategic magic use—should I use my low-level MP-saving spell to level it up, or should I use the strongest spell in my arsenal? That was always intriguing and fun to manage! I actually have always found it ingenious and hilarious that hitting yourself can actually benefit you in this game... I've never had a problem with that idea, I personally think its a highlight of this battle system. It makes for a more fun way to grind than most other Final Fantasy games! Even though the encounter rate is very high, I could deal with it because I really had a blast fighting pretty much every single encounter in this game—something I can't really say for the original Final Fantasy. I will not deny that I am one of the biggest Final Fantasy II sympathizers, and this fact carries over to this battle system—love me or hate me for it, but I really enjoyed the combat in this game.
Story - 7.5
Okay, let's get the bad out of the way here: the overarching plot is rather simple. There's a corrupt empire trying to destroy the world, and you are a band of rebels trying to stop said empire (don't worry, it copies Star Wars a lot less than you'd think... still looking at you, Final Fantasy XII). However, even though the game is simple, the strength of Final Fantasy II's storytelling lies in its individual moments. Heck, these moments elevate what might otherwise be a story deserving of a 3-5 rating to a rating of 7.5! The game delves into profound themes of grief, loss, and death with remarkable depth and power, particularly when considering the additional storyline told in the Soul of Rebirth portion of the game. In fact, it could be argued that, aside from Final Fantasy XVI, this is one of the darkest entries in the series. Amid these deeper themes, the game offers unforgettable sequences at various points, such as the Cyclone, Fynn, The Dreadnought, Pandemonium, the Unknown Palace, Castle Palamecia, the Leviathan, and more. These moments nearly pushed my rating above 7.5! However, as always, it's also essential to address the game's shortcomings. The middle section of the second act struggles with pacing, feeling notably slow despite its intriguing open-ended structure. Locations like Deist Cave, Mysidia Cave, the Tropical Island, and the basement of Fynn prove to be rather uninspiring. I would've loved to see the party get the Crystal Rod in a much more epic and unorthodox way that didn't comprise of any fetch quests... but I guess it was serviceable enough as it was. In summary, Final Fantasy II's narrative is fundamentally basic and uneven, but even still, it manages to shine brightly through its exceptional moments, as well the commendable pacing it achieves in the first and third acts of the game.
Music - 9
Final Fantasy II has one of the best soundtracks in the whole series for me. From the phenomenal Rebel Army track that sets the game's tone and hits right in the feels, to the somber and melancholy world map theme; the banger battle theme that is my favorite of the 2D era, to the peaceful respite of the town theme; the menacing and powerful Imperial Army song, to the phenomenal boss themes; the amazing castle and tower themes, and even the less memorable tracks like the sanctuary theme and "The Princess's Seduction" that perfectly set the mood; and my favorite of all, Pandemonium, so far my favorite final dungeon theme in any RPG. Overall, this scores a 9 only because the soundtrack is a little too short for me, but otherwise, Final Fantasy II's music would likely get a 10 in my book.
Art & Graphics - 8.5
The pixel artwork in both the Pixel Remaster and PSP versions of this game is impeccable. While the PSP version is my favorite in every aspect, including graphics, the Pixel Remaster shines in this category compared to the others. The remarkable graphical upgrades over the older versions breathe life into each character's artwork, making them truly stand out! My personal favorite is Firion, who has a very inspired design that has never quite been replicated by any other RPG character. While Final Fantasy II may not reach the visual beauty of games like Octopath Traveler II or Paper Mario: The Origami King, it still boasts stunning 2D graphics.
Characters - 7.5
As I said in my article ranking the characters of Final Fantasy II, I love the characters in this game as a whole. So why is this score not higher? While the temporary party members are fantastic, the main characters suck. The three main protagonists are basically just along for the ride, listening to orders and stumbling upon people who actually make a difference in the plot. These three characters are only marginally more interesting than the Warriors of Light, which is saying something since the Warriors of Light were silent protagonists. While I loved the idea of the main characters being nobodies who were personally attacked by the empire, that didn't mean they couldn't have personalities. All we get from Firion? He looks cool. All we get from Maria? She occasionally has a bit of emotion on her face, and wait for it... she has a brother. Wow, that's some phenomenal characterization there, Square Soft. All we get from Guy? Guy speak beaver. With awesome characters like Minwu, Gordon, and Ricard, who all have distinct personalities and their own character arcs, I really wish I could score this game higher in this category... but that simply would make no sense.
Sidequests - 10
The sidequests in the GBA and PSP versions of this game are nothing short of phenomenal. It's genuinely disappointing that these sidequests were omitted from the Pixel Remaster version, and I must admit, I'll harbor a bit of bitterness about that forever. Two standout sidequests, the Arcane Labyrinth and Soul of Rebirth, rank among the most creative and enjoyable sidequests I've encountered in any RPG. The concept of a dynamic dungeon where your choices influence the experience, guiding you through unique floors to obtain ultimate weapons for each character, is simply brilliant. After conquering this labyrinth, a battle with Deumion offers a choice between two hidden spells, Revive or Destroy, adding an extra layer of excitement. The Soul of Rebirth quest is equally captivating, allowing you to control your deceased companions as you confront the heavenly version of the Emperor, ensuring his ultimate demise. While there aren't many other noteworthy sidequests beyond these two and the Toad card minigame, the sheer ingenuity and execution of these quests earn a solid 10/10 in my book.
Dungeons - 8
Let's start with the game's less-than-stellar dungeons before diving into the highlights. The Cave of Mysidia is a dismal filler dungeon plagued by dead ends and infuriating enemies. Deist Cave follows suit with its recycled mini-bosses and brutal difficulty spikes. Navigating the Tropical Island is a perplexing ordeal that constantly leaves you questioning your path. While these three dungeons are undoubtedly frustrating, they don't single-handedly drag down the game's score because Final Fantasy II boasts a plethora of exceptional dungeons. Among the standout dungeons are Kashuan Keep, a visually striking and perilous location housing the Soulfire needed to vanquish the Dreadnought. The Coliseum offers a chance to reunite with Gordon, save Hilda, and face off against a formidable Behemoth. The Snow Cavern, set in a captivating location, features two bosses and delivers emotionally charged moments. The Leviathan dungeon introduces the compelling character Ricard through a captivating plot twist. The Dreadnought, a massive and engaging dungeon, provides memorable moments and an epic scale. The Mysidian Tower serves as a brilliant conclusion to the somewhat lackluster second act, offering unique floors, three challenging bosses, and substantial plot development. The Cyclone stands out for its inherent coolness factor. Pandemonium and the Unknown Palace, abodes of the Dark and Light Emperors respectively, promise epic encounters. Last but not least, we have the previously mentioned Arcane Labyrinth, a personal favorite among RPG dungeons. With this rich variety of dungeons, Final Fantasy II easily earns an 8 out of 10.
Customization System - 9
The customization system in the NES version of Final Fantasy II? Awful. 1/10. Buffing one stat should never lower another. However, in the newest versions of this game? This system is very fun and refined in my eyes. If you attack with a sword? You get better at using a sword. If you get hit by a physical attack? Your HP and stamina will go up. Equip a shield and light armor (or no armor if you are feeling pervy)? You'll get tons of evasion. Get hit by status magic enough? Your magic defense will go up! Cast a Black Magic spell? Magic, intelligence, and the spell's level will go up. Cast a White magic spell? Magic, spirit, and the spell's level will go up. While there are some flaws of this system I'll later talk about, I still love this system. It makes leveling up your abilities and stats so fluid and tweakable. The only things holding this awesome (albeit highly controversial system) back are 1) its simplicity in its abilities hold it back from a 10 and 2) the QoL issues really ruin this otherwise awesome system...
Quality of Life - 5
Oh boy. The reasons everyone hates this amazing game. First, the wacky enemy tile mapping on the world map. If you take too many steps in one direction, you might run into some enemies so many times harder than the enemies you are supposed to be fighting at the time. Second of all, there are some wacky difficulty spikes that cause the game to be unnecessarily grindy—I love this game's customization system, but this grinding ruined it for so many people. Third of all, sometimes you might not have the right keyword to progress in the game and you'll have to backtrack, an egregious sin often used in Final Fantasy II. Even though I loved the keyword system and how it lets the player talk to different characters and see their perspectives on different things (something most RPGs don't allow you to do over 30 years later), having there be "missable" keywords was a bad design choice. And fourth and finally is the trap rooms that have tons of enemy encounters and act as dead ends to piss off the player. I don't hate these all that much since, well, you saw that I liked the battle system, but I understand the immense hate for these rooms. All of these above issues are some objectively bad quality of life issues, so I felt I had to give this a low score, but in the end, while this game is rough around the edges, these few QoL issues did not sour my experience with this underrated and overly-hated game.
Fun Factor - 8
Overall Score - 81%
There have been a lot of timeless classics in the RPG genre, but few games have made an impact as great as Final Fantasy II did. Final Fantasy II introduced the chocobo. It introduced Cid. It introduced the Dragoons. It introduced, well, actual characters. It introduced a progression system that would branch off into a whole new series, SaGa! It has sparked one of the biggest debates in the Final Fantasy community: is it the worst Final Fantasy, or is it a hidden gem, timeless as the original? Well, I'm more aligned with the second category, as this is one of my favorite entries in the series. With a narrative that tugs at the heartstrings, a world teeming with intrigue, and revolutionary gameplay mechanics? Final Fantasy II is an unforgettable and enduring adventure, as flawed as it may be. I will never forget the impact this game had on me when I played it for the first time back when I was six years old in 2014. This is one of the foundational games that made me fall in love with RPGs, and I will always stand by the fact that it is a truly great game. It isn't the best game in the series by any means, but it certainly isn't the worst. I highly recommend this game to anyone, even if they have been previously told not to play it, because Final Fantasy II might give you a classic JRPG experience that you will never forget.
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