Final Fantasy II (PSP) review
"You plan in most games to survive, and that's interesting. In Final Fantasy II, you do it because you want to beef up your weak ice spell instead of your ax. There's no sense of urgency and that gets tedious. You'll dread running into enemies not because you can't beat them quickly—you can—but because doing so locks you into undesired character progression."
In recent years, the RPG genre has really come into its own. Games once aimed squarely at male nerds without driver's licenses have grown into something more as sword-wielding heroes learned how to snowboard and conquered their inner demons and anxieties. Suddenly, you can admit that you liked such games without dooming yourself to the Star Trek table at the school cafeteria. Game appreciation has edged closer to social acceptance and the result is an expanded gamer population that lacks a proper feel for just how much things have changed. Some individuals, aware of that fact, are ready to spend a little money to gain perspective. For them, there are games such as Final Fantasy II on the PSP.
Though it didn't actually become available in the United States until several years ago when Square-Enix released it as part of a reworked compilation on the PlayStation (which was again tweaked for this PSP edition), Final Fantasy II was developed during the years when the JRPG was in its infancy. While other titles were localized and released here in North America, though, Final Fantasy II remained in Japan. For years, the few American gamers aware of its existence championed its release on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, but with no success. For that reason and others, it's exactly the sort of game a curious newcomer might choose to research, particularly given its fresh coat of paint. Was it ever any good, though?
It's difficult to arrive at an answer to that question that feels precisely right. Final Fantasy II is an interesting game for any number of reasons, but mostly because it takes a unique approach to character customization that you'll either love or hate. The progression system has such an impact on how the game plays that it affects the whole experience. For some, it's a deal breaker. For others, it's one more reason Final Fantasy II shouldn't be missed.
In most RPGs, you strengthen using experience points gleaned from combat to increase your character's level. Final Fantasy II tries something new by removing that rule and instead granting each attack and spell a level of its own. As a result, your character improves in more specific ways. Now you can turn any character into a warrior just by making sure that he or she always attacks with a sword, staff or ax and ignores magical spells. Favorite methods of dispatching enemies will grow stronger as the game progresses as the ones you ignore remain stagnant. If you find yourself in an area where you need to strike more powerful blows, simply fight a few random battles with the ax equipped and make merry!
Some people will love that system. Unfortunately, there are some complications. One is the frequency of random enemy encounters. They all require careful consideration. You plan in most games to survive, and that's interesting. In Final Fantasy II, you do it because you want to beef up your weak ice spell instead of your ax. There's no sense of urgency and that gets tedious. You'll dread running into enemies not because you can't beat them quickly—you can—but because doing so locks you into undesired character progression. You'll worry more about whether you're putting your energy behind the right skills than you will about whether or not the nasty soldier can cut you. After all, what happens if you completely ignore a skill, then find that it is nearly indispensable at the game's end? Level grinding, ahoy!
Final Fantasy II's other innovates are similarly questionable. It also happens to be one of the first games of its kind to implement guest party members. That means that as the plot—which is more substantial than the one in its predecessor—advances, you'll have different companions. Like anyone else, they must be carefully monitored. That means you buy expensive weapons and armor for them and it means you pay attention to which skills they use each round. Then, just when they're most useful, they're gone. It's more realistic, but it's frustrating to lose that time you invested just because the story demands it.
As for said story, much of it is revealed through dialog. Again, Square's developers chose to innovate. When you talk to key characters, you'll notice that certain phrases have been highlighted. You can then 'learn' this phrase and use it when talking to other non-playable characters later in the game. You'll build up a whole list of terms you can query people on, but only a few of them are ever useful at any one time. In this manner, the game makes you work for the plot. You can learn a lot if you're willing to wander around and talk to people, but you might also miss an important clue if you don't realize you were supposed to talk to someone again, or if you didn't think to check the appropriate phrase.
The conversation system can lead to other issues. Early in the game, I neglected to use a certain key phrase when talking to an important character. She didn't say anything useful as a result, so I decided to further explore the world map. I headed northwest through the adjacent forest. As I reached its edge, I ran into a group of monsters that ambushed me and wiped out my party before I could do a thing. One blow from one monster was an instant kill. They weren't just slightly tougher than the ones a few steps south; it was like they had been beamed in from a different planet for the express purpose of kicking my ass. The same thing happened in other directions. The game essentially left me to wander, yet punished me for doing so. Another innovation?
Perhaps predictably, the game works best when it's not striving to be different. It's easy to admire the changes it made to the formula, but then you have to play through them and you realize that they don't work, at least not as executed here (perhaps that's why they were scrapped for later entries in the franchise). Everything else—from the beautiful soundtrack to the crisp sprites—is presented with charm and flair that is a joy to experience. When you're not grappling with an unclear objective (a pain that FAQs or a printed strategy guide can certainly alleviate) or obsessing over character development, Final Fantasy is a beautiful example of retro role-playing greatness. Educate yourself.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 11, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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