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Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals (SNES) artwork

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals (SNES) review

"So loaded with brain-teasing puzzles that it could have been endorsed by Mensa."

I'm amazed how good Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals is, especially considering the franchise in which it falls. I played the SNES original, along with the numerous handheld titles that followed this one, and all of them were mediocre at best. How does a person explain this particular installment's excellence?

Of course there are flaws. A lousy localization effort, for instance, led to the Lich becoming a Leech, various Golems turning into Gorems and Treants transforming into Torrents. Furthermore, the American version includes at least one instance of horribly glitched graphics. The game's conclusion also appears to have been rushed, resulting in a final few dungeons that are anticlimactic after the grand journey to reach them.

Maxim is your main character throughout that journey. He and potential love interest Tia live in a small, remote village (this is an RPG after all), where the former hunts monsters for a living. It's a good career, especially since the local slimes aren't particularly threatening, but things get complicated when he investigates a disturbance in a nearby cave. There he meets a strange woman named Iris who warns him of events that threaten the world. Maxim decides there's more to life than just wasting his days in a remote village and sets out to be a hero, with Tia in tow.

After gathering more allies, Maxim comes face to face with the the Sinistral Gades, who is essentially a minor deity with wicked intentions. The game refers to him and his ilk as "super beings" due to Nintendo of America's rules about religious references in games, but it's pretty easy to read between the lines. As the Sinistral of Destruction, the big galoot is having a grand ol' time destroying villages when he runs into the heroes. Only a timely intervention by Iris saves them from obliteration.

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals screenshot Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals screenshot

You could say Lufia II tells a simple "heroes save world from powerful villains" story, since Maxim and company do finally get the best of Gades, only to learn that he was only one of many Sinistrals (and, of course, the weakest of the lot). It's no surprise when they decide to travel the entire planet, searching for a way to end the threat. You also could say it's a typical RPG. Battles follow the standard Dragon Quest format and the majority of the bestiary could have been ripped straight from an AD&D Monster Manual. You immediately fall into a comfortable routine: go to town to buy stuff, go to the nearby dungeon to solve the local problem and then advance to the next town to repeat the cycle. However, the game goes above and beyond the usual, offering much more than what you find on the surface.

For starters, the plot actually tells a story instead of merely serving as a vehicle to set up the dungeon crawling. This becomes particularly apparent once Maxim's party must contend with Gades. In a kingdom that's being threatened, you meet that local warrior of legend, Selan. The king immediately enlists your party to help her ward off the encroaching threat, which leads to her and Maxim gradually gaining respect for each other. The next thing you know, Gades has been thrashed and poor Tia is out in the cold. Another party member consoles her while Maxim and Selan get married and prepare to settle into a peaceful life of raising a family (while brutally thrashing any monsters stupid enough to set foot inside their turf). Naturally, their bliss only lasts until a lackey of the Sinistrals kidnaps their newborn child and thus ensures that they jump back into the fray.

It's neat how you start out controlling a youth on his quest to become a big hero and then watch as he matures and gains a desire to create a safe world for his loved ones. Iris also becomes a more enigmatic figure. She still offers help on occasion, but she also resents Selan. At one point she even lures the heroes into a tower containing a magical mirror that reveals a person's true feelings, an attempt to sow the seeds of dissent between the duo. Some of the dialogue is a bit comical (such as when a major adversary refers to the party as "little hoochees"), but there are some mature and touching moments throughout the campaign. It all culminates in one of the more bittersweet endings I can recall from a J-RPG, an ending that's strong enough to make up for the lackluster dungeons that immediately precede it.

The main problem with those late-game dungeons is their simplicity. After exploring a handful of short and mostly linear locales, you wrap things up with a boss rush. This is a far cry from the experience you'll have with most of the game's caves, towers and shrines up to that point, where battles are secondary to exploration and puzzles.

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals screenshot Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals screenshot

Dungeons typically present you with two goals. First you must find a special key, and then you can use it to open a door and continue on to the boss. The door sometimes is positioned just ahead of that boss, but often you will still have a lot of exploration ahead of you even after you open it. Along the way, there are puzzles aplenty. Lufia II feels like the spiritual precursor to the Wild Arms series, since you'll gradually gain a number of tools (such as arrows, bombs and a grappling hook) that you must then regularly use to flip distant switches, break down weakened walls or hook onto items located across chasms so you can pull yourself across.

Other uses for your equipment are less obvious. What are you expected to do when you enter a room with a collection of brown tiles in the center, with a note on the wall telling you to turn them all white in order to open a door? Bombs are the answer. You must place them in the right locations on those tiles, and the blasts will turn them from brown to white. Proceed carefully, though, as a tile that is caught in a second blast will revert to its initial state. You have to find a way to turn them all at once… or simply reset the puzzle and start from scratch. Often, I felt like I was puzzling my way through a magazine full of brain teasers, but in video game format. That's not something I expect from a RPG. Since the game in some respects feels overly similar to Dragon Quest (though elemental strengths and weaknesses play a larger role here), the addition of a bunch of tricky puzzles throughout the dungeons really does a lot to put this game ahead of the pack.

Although Lufia II isn't loaded with side quests and optional challenges, it does offer one notable exception that could serve as a full game all on its own: the Ancient Cave. Roughly halfway through the game, you'll first access the 100-level, rogue-style dungeon. It boasts tons of treasure and, unfortunately, no save points. You lose all your levels, equipment and items (with the exception of a few potions) whenever you enter it, but repeated attempts place you ahead of the curve because you're allowed to keep items and equipment found in blue treasure chests. You'll be lucky to clear a couple dozen floors on your initial visits, but eventually you'll be able to secure enough goodies to advance much further with little difficulty. Some of the equipment is better than anything you can find elsewhere in the game world, including within the final dungeons. If you decide to focus on the cave at your first opportunity, a few hours of work here can reward you with equipment powerful enough to trash virtually all opposition you'll encounter for most, if not all, of the main game's remainder.

Lufia II is a rewarding experience, and deserves better than to be diluted in that manner. You'll want to savor every second, to admire its storytelling and the craftsmanship of the intricate, puzzle-filled dungeons. Set the Ancient Cave aside as a final reward instead, one last chance to enjoy Maxim's quest to the utmost.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (July 27, 2015)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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