Final Fantasy II – In The Beginning, We Were Stabbed

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h46m40s592It’s pretty much expected once I start a Final Fantasy II article that I’ll start by saying this is the “black sheep” of the series. But as I tried to write it (this journal is the first of the ones carried over from my old blog, but intro is new), I find I just don’t agree. I wrote a few drafts, trying to explore my issue with the “black sheep” label, before coming to talk to Kyle and finding he felt the same. The internet may feel FFII is a black sheep, but seems that, 6 core games and 5 spinoffs later, FFII doesn’t seem all that out-of-line to the two of us. Yes, its level progression is different, but Kyle gave me the same argument I had in my early drafts: that’s true of every Final Fantasy game. Even the Job System games (III, V, 4HoL, Bravely Default, Dimensions) work differently than one another. They just all happen to be rooted in levels, but that doesn’t mean a Black Mage from FFI levels the same way as Vivi of IX. And the same is true with FFII. Yes, FFII’s successors did go on to become spinoffs (the SaGa games), but only after introducing a whole pile of new mechanics.

To the two of us, FFII just seems like the natural extension of FFI, given the mechanics in use in tabletop and PC RPGs of the era.  Maybe that’s the experience with games from that era talking, or maybe it’s… just us!  Or it may a matter of nostalgia: fans of later Final Fantasy games who have cut their teeth on later Final Fantasies coming back to FFII with an idea of what Final Fantasy “is.” to Kyle and I, as outsider, Final Fantasy is just a developing series growing up one entries at a time.

There is also the matter of the “black sheep narrative,” the idea that “every” game developer was creating weird #2s, like Zelda or Castlevania. Unfortunately, anything more than a shallow look at game sequels in the 80s will turn up more Mario 2 JPNs than they will Mario 2 USes. FFII hardly seems as experimental as Zelda II, even if it’s not as similar as Dragon Warrior II.

No, FFII’s real crime isn’t that it’s a black sheep. FFII’s real crime is that it doesn’t work.

If you didn’t catch the title screenshot, screenshots in this Journal come from Ironsharp’s longplay of the Neo Demiforce translation of FFII Famicom, available from World of Longplays (YouTube).

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h53m44s454One other thing to be aware of, and spoilers coming up here: because we were playing the GBA version, we had access to “Soul of Rebirth,” a bonus scenario you can play after saving a clear file. It occurs after the main story and stars some of the guest party members lost over the course of the game, as it’s set in the afterlife. Normally I wouldn’t spoil something like that but it’s not possible thanks to a strategy Kyle and I were using to get through the game. When you get to the bonus chapter, the party members you recruit are the same strength they were when they left your main-party. This means most of them are at a start-of-game stat level, and have to be grinded all the way to the top. Kyle and I weren’t interested in grinding, so used a strategy we called “smuggling stuff into hell” by leaving valuable equipment in the equipment slots of the soon-to-be-deceased. Remember the credo: nothing short of actual cheats is against the Marathon. We will sometimes play it harder for the sake of having fun, but hours and hours of grinding in the bonus mission was never going to be fun for us.

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Ironsharp and the Neo Demiforce localization were so polite as to run with the modern-day localized names!

So what is FFII about – narratively, I mean? Well, unlike FFI, there was no cultural osmosis for Kyle and I when it came to this game. Since it wasn’t translated officially until 2003, we just hadn’t picked up the details. It turns out it’s the typical rebellion storyline everyone’s been lampooning for years but, frankly, I had never quite encountered played straight in a video game until playing FFII! To be honest, it’s sort of refreshing. Just us and a group of awkwardly levelling terrorists. Sounds like fun.

The game starts with some brief backstory I’ll cover in a minute, after which our party promptly run down by four Black Knights – enemies that, according to research, only show up again as a singular boss in the bonus mission, making it seem kind of odd that the only ones in existence found us in the middle of nowhere, eh?

Best I explain the backstory: an Empire, whose name is not often mentioned so I had to look it up (“Palamecia”), is taking over the world because its Emperor has gained the allegiance of an army of devils. Devils from literal hell. This is probably one of the few games to play “Evil Emperor” perfectly straight, folks. He’s almost crushed the entire world, most recently the city of Fynn, the last walled city that resisted him. All that’s left are some hamlets and a magical stronghold we’ll visit considerably later.

Our party was prised off the ground with a spatula by fellow refugees of Fynn, who have formed a Rebellion. Or rather, that’s the logical series of events. 80s gaming will have none of that. The actual backstory is that Fynn was part of the Rebellion and then were taken down. Game… maybe I’m being pedantic, but I’m pretty sure that when two political entities enter a martial conflict, that’s called a “War.” It doesn’t become a rebellion until you’re a smaller entity. You can say “war,” honestly! I’m sure the later games will.

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h55m16s946After being run into the ground by the bad guys, our story continues when our lead character is revived by a White Mage named Minwu. Our lead’s name is Firion, with the rest of the party being his friend Maria, their friend Guy and Maria’s brother. Unfortunately, the party’s been cut down to three in the flight from Fynn: the brother is MIA, but it’s been so long since he was actually mentioned that I don’t remember his name at the time of writing this journal entry. Unfortunately for the journal here, looking it up would be a sure risk of spoilers, so I won’t (Ed. It’s “Leon”). Glad to see our party is so, uh, concerned with his fate that they bring him up so… very often.

With the King of Fynn slowly dying from wounds or just plain exhaustion from the retreat, his daughter Hilda is now in charge. Allied with Hilda is the sole surviving prince of Kashuan, whose kingdom was conquered some time ago. This is the cowardly Gordon, whose brother Scott was Hilda’s beloved/paramour/vague romantic interest, but Scott was presumed dead in the flight from Fynn. Last in our list of names is Paul, a thief who works for the Rebellion. Yes, yes I did have to look half these names up.  Unfortunately, FFII only gives Hilda much screen time in the early hours, leaving everyone else forgotten.

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h54m29s564Hilda tells our party that we can’t be a part of the Rebellion, but as we’d been orphaned, she was willing to harbour us and tells us the password (“Wild Rose”) so that we’ll be able to get around in a Rebellion town. Sure, that doesn’t sound like a security leak waiting to happen. This introduces the game’s system of keywords, where you can use to converse with certain characters on multiple topics beyond just walking up and hitting A. Our party decided that if they can’t be a part of the Rebellion, they would at least sneak back to Fynn to check out the dungeons for Maria’s brother. That’s what they said, but I don’t think we ever searched the dungeons, and it didn’t really seem like we had missed the option to do so. …Huh.

We started out our game by using our starting funds to buy three tomes of Cure (more on that in a moment) and headed out into the woods, where we began our first grind session. Now here’s where I have to start talking about stat progression in FFII. Because of the way stats progress in FFII, Kyle and I were pretty much training constantly. Sounds tedious? Strangely, no, but maybe we were just in a lucky mood at the time.  Nevertheless, we’ll probably remember doing more training in this game than any other.

Stats in FFII power up through use, and every character can level every stat on equal terms. That means if you use your swords, your Sword experience will go up, and your Attack might as well. It might. It’s still very random, to the point of frustration. In earlier versions, training physical stats weakened your odds of getting magic stats and vice versa, but that was reduced or eliminated in this version.

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h56m27s458HP is special. HP levels when you take damage, or end fights on low HP. And sometimes it raises… just because! The random HP boosts were a new feature added to the GBA version because of this game’s most bizarre, popular strategy. SE was trying to dissuade us from using this strategy, but this is the Marathon, so did we stop? No sir! So what is this strategy? Well. thanks to the “levelling through use” system, it’s more efficient to raise your HP by mauling your fellow party members with your own swords and spells in hopes of their stats rising – and boy, will they ever! We spent most of the game with the party looking like ground beef at all times.

Weapon type and spells level up under more consistent rules (that’s why we bought Cure for everyone as soon as possible). You can level up your ability to use types of weapons, or individual spells. Each spell and weapon type can gain levels from 1 to 16, and weirdly enough, the MP it takes to cast a spell is equal to its level, no matter how powerful the spell! Spells and weapons gain experience towards a level up, not unlike characters in other FF games, but there’s a catch: you have to use them a number of times before they’ll gain any experience at all (the enemy’s rank is also a factor in levelling things up, but to keep you from power-levelling on the overworld, a huge portion of enemies are rank 1). To cut down on the math: in an average fight, you have to use weapons as many times as they have levels, and spells half as many (it used to be just as many, but that too was changed in Dawn of Souls). It doesn’t take a veteran RPG player to recognize that most enemies won’t survive 15 sword attacks in a row, so it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

When we were playing, we learned the rough of these mechanics but didn’t have the full grasp on them, so if you see us doing anything weird, that’s why. Back then, we didn’t like to do as much research as we do now, and FFII is particularly arcane. Hell, until I was looking it up right now, I still thought weapons and spells levelled in entirely different ways from one another!

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Note Ironsharp’s use of the rank system, putting missile user Maria in the back rank and melee fighters Firion and Guy in the front.

There are a few other weird factors, like magic resistance and evasion. Magic resistance works like the other stats, but it raises only rarely but in huge chunks. Evasion we’ll talk about later, as we had no idea how to raise it at the start of the playthrough and only got into raising it in earnest later on.

During this early grind, we attempted to iron out our character’s starting weaknesses. Unfortunately or fortunately, the random odds of levelling caused our characters to level rather unevenly.

Firion became our hitting guy. We probably should have considered giving him a shield while he was training (this would have boosted shield level and helped raise evasion), but that occurred to us only at the end of our first play-session. He normally dual-wielded as a result. Maria is… not special at all. We tried, but the game refused to cooperate and only ever upped her stats as a last resort. To compensate, we gave her new stuff before the others when we didn’t have enough cash. In this case, that meant buff spells.

Last up is Guy the Great. Why is Guy so great? Because he does more damage than Firion, though with only one hand, he has the highest HP and Defence in the party, and his Black Magic is tied for best. Sure, the others are better at White Magic, but I should really underline just how high Guy’s Intelligence stat is at the moment when it’s really, really not supposed to be that high at this point. All that matters is that Guy is just… just that Great. Also, Guy can talk to beavers, and that’s pretty Great. More on that as it comes.

Our initial training also didn’t… go very well, such as when we killed Firion, and then again later, when we killed Firion. Yes, uh…. “we.” Not the monsters. And also that time we killed Maria. Attacking your own party members is something of an art. In fact, this is just all more evidence as to why Guy is Great, because he doesn’t end up dead at our own hands! In fact, editing this after clearing FFII, if I’m remembering correctly, Guy did not die at any point in the entire game.

ff2marathon-2015-05-17-19h58m40s685

Enemies also fall under a form of the rank system, in that the back ranks have a defensive advantage against you.

(There were two exceptions to that: Kyle accidentally went too far northwest from Fynn and… it turns out that’s mid-game territory! And nope, it was not divided from the early game by even the slightest geographical landmark. You can actually walk to 90% of the game from the moment you finish this quest! Isn’t that great? Yeah, that’s great. We were slaughtered. The first total party kill in the Marathon! (I wish I had recorded the first fair TPK in the Marathon…) Then, when we reached Fynn, the game warned us not to talk to the guards, so we saved and did so immediately, but I’m not going to count that intentional massacre. That… “accomplished,” we got back to business.)

We didn’t take very accurate notes on all the little hamlets that dot this game, but a rumour from one of them directed us to the tavern just outside Fynn’s walls. There, the imperial army had prevented the bartender from escaping pretty with their constant patronage. Oh, hey, this is as good a time as any to mention that the PSP version of this game tries to pretend that every enemy soldier in the game is a demon, completely ignoring human moments like this binge drinking. In the opening cinematic they were zombies, and now we’re supposed to imagine them kegging and carousing! It’s a change I really don’t like, partially because the original version, where they were humans fighting alongside demons, struck me as much more interesting… but mostly because the PSP version’s designs are so exaggerated it becomes laughable.

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The conversation topic system in use – and a much more helpful translation to boot!

We avoided even looking the guards in the eyes for fear that the game might have them jump us on contact (certainly the NES version would have only triggered fights if you talked to them, and it was probably the case here too, but not really worth the risk). The bartender agreed to show us a secret passage and then hightailed it out of there. We learned why he had waited once we checked out his hidden basement… but that took a while. See, the game doesn’t actually tell you where the passage is and we assumed he was trying to lead us there. One of the drunk guards even wandered in front of the door and kept us inside by accident! It took a walkthrough for us to figure out that the bartender wasn’t trying to lead us to the secret passage: he had been trying to point us to the wall next to the bar. You know: the wall that could have only led outside given the layout of the building. That sequence and dialogue needed some work.

Inside, we found a hidden basement, where we discovered Scott: the Prince of Kashuan everyone thought had died. The reports weren’t far off: he was on death’s door from his wounds, and passed on a series of messages to the Resistance, most importantly that a Count named Borghen had betrayed Fynn during the siege and is now working for the Empire. Scott decided not to pass on a message to Hilda, knowing it would be better not to burden her with it (wow, we just lapped FFI’s storytelling quality in under half an hour), and he promptly dropped dead on the floor. Before he passed, he gave us his ring to confirm his messages. We most definitely did not steal it off his still-warm corpse, along with his Potions. Definitely not.

So wait, the bartender ran without knowing for sure that the man in his care was alive or not? Nice guy!

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Scott seems to have been designed after the Red Mage, a nuance lost in the art of the newer versions, but as we’ll see, not lost entirely…

We left Fynn without even checking for Maria’s missing brother and delivered the strategic messages to Hilda, who took the passing of her almost-fiancé with some real professional tact. Her father was far more emotional about it, but he could afford to be, since he wasn’t the one sitting in the throne with a pack of desperate stragglers looking to them for guidance. Hilda decided we were worth keeping around as part of the resistance, and gave us our first official mission: with the help of Minwu, we would go scout out a source of mythril to help bolster the resistance’s armoury. Wow, this is… incredibly practical and realistic for a Final Fantasy game. It’s certainly not what I expected from Game #2. Hilda told us that she had a man named Josef working on the mythril problem to the north, but had not heard from it and recommended we start with him.

Minwu joined the party for the duration of this mission and was pretty handy to have around. Besides being stocked with Level 8 and 9 spells (probably a higher average spell level than we ever reached), he also came fully equipped with a canoe! Fuck. We know from experience that no matter how hard you try, you only get canoes by slaying Fiends of Earth. This man is terrifying. He’s obviously some sort of dragon slayer disguised as a priest. Don’t look him in the eye.

Prev: Final Fantasy I – The Greatest Foe of All: Boredom
Next: Final Fantasy II – Freelance Adoption Agency

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