In December 1987, Square (now Square Enix) released a game that would have a lasting impact on the company. Hironobu Sakaguchi convinced his employers to finally let him make a role-playing game inspired by Ultima and Wizardry after rival Enix had struck gold with Dragon Quest. This JRPG had the player control four “Warriors of Light” as they set out to break a time loop that had encased their world. The player could create a character from several classes: Fighter, Thief, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage and Red Mage. The player would engage in random battles, earning experience points to level up their characters. They could also purchase spells that certain classes could use. Eventually, the player could upgrade these classes to stronger versions. There was a massive world to explore, filled with different creatures such as dwarves, elves and evil Fiends. The game was a hit success and eventually made its way West. In later years it would see ports to the PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Gameboy Advance and mobile devices. Final Fantasy had been born.
After the success of Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi and his team set out to make something much bigger than before. They wanted to create a new world to explore, with a much more detailed story, driven by strong characters. They also wanted to change how characters levelled up, doing away with the traditional experience points system in place of something much more intricate and detailed. In 1988, they released Final Fantasy II in Japan. While the game once again proved to be a success in Japan, it sadly would not see a Western release until much later. Instead, Final Fantasy IV would be renamed Final Fantasy II when it hit American shores in 1991. This would not be corrected until Final Fantasy II finally went Westward.
Final Fantasy II introduced several new features to the series, some would become mainstays, others would be forgotten. Its plot was much more involved than the original Final Fantasy, sucking you right in from the start. You originally control four teenagers, Firion, Maria, Guy and Leon, as they are attacked by the Empire while fleeing their hometown. Three are rescued by rebels led by Princess Hilda (Leon’s fate is unknown until much later) and they set out to help the rebellion in their efforts against the Empire. Already the story was a lot more engaging than Final Fantasy but it would become much darker. Other party members will come and go along your adventure, many with their own tales and tragedies, while non-playable characters became more central to the overall plot than in the previous game. One of these characters would become a feature in all future Final Fantasy titles: Cid. The game handles death, destruction, loss and hope eloquently as your journey unfolds but it also introduces one of the most memorable characters in the entire series: Emperor Mateus.
For many, he would be simply known as the Emperor, but Mateus is a cold, calculating man who will do anything to achieve absolute power. His condescending tone, dominant personality and callous attitude towards life all make him one of the strongest villains of the series. His tale is touched on in the main game, from poisoning the Wyverns, burning towns and villages, and summoning a cyclone that wreaks havoc on the world, but it is in a Japanese only novelization where we would examine his background. I would recommend reading the wiki here. Of course, none of this is touching on his most memorable moment as the player actually kills him part-way through the game. Instead of staying dead, his soul conquers Hell (and later Heaven in the Dawn of Souls remake) and drags Pandemonium up to the world. There the party must finally confront him, putting him down for good.
Final Fantasy II also changed how characters interacted with each other. When talking to someone, you could learn a key phrase. Repeating this phrase to someone else later on could move forward the story or give you a bit of knowledge about the world around you. It was an interesting concept that had potential but never appeared again. The other element they changed was party progression. You were no longer stuck with the same four characters. Instead, you had three main protagonists with a fourth joining at different points. The characters were no longer tied to a particular class and this leads us to the major departure from the first game. While some characters leaned more towards certain weapons, spells or stats, you could build a unique party for yourself. This was done through the games unique level up system. Want a character to be a better spell-caster? Cast more magic. Stronger with swords? Attack with a sword. Have more HP? Eh… get attacked more… It gave the player so much to play around with but it was a system that would never be seen again.
Final Fantasy II is a bit of an outcast among the series. For some, it is the weakest entry, for others it is a game with so much potential that stretched itself a bit too far. I tend to fall within the latter camp. The game does have flaws and they do upset the rhythm of the game. In terms of plot, the game presents some of it upfront (the destruction, some of the Emperor’s actions, character arcs) but other bits are contained within the Japanese novel. I did read the Wiki on the game in order to fully immerse myself in the world when I originally played it a few years ago. The dungeon layout is undoubtedly the worst in the series. The dungeon’s look great in Final Fantasy Origins and Dawn of Souls (the two versions I’ve played) but they are full of dead-end rooms with horrible encounter rates. The levelling system is probably its biggest flaw. While full of potential (games such as Grandia have shown it can work in a way), it is easily exploited. Many players would inflict damage on themselves in order to raise their HP. Magic on the Origins version can be cancelled over and over again to level up your spells. I’m not sure if this is the case in the other versions.
I do love Final Fantasy II (and much of the series to be fair) but I feel it is flawed. There are times I feel it was ahead of its time in story, combat and characters but others where it was just a step too far. I will eventually revisit its wonderful world and I hope that you do too. If you’ve never had the chance to experience it, I would recommend trying it, just to say you’ve played it. You may love it or find it grinding but you’ll never know until you boot it up to experience Firion, Maria and Guy’s tale of love, loss and redemption for yourself.