(*hideous laughter* *wheezing* *gross cackling*)
Leon started off stronger in Attack than everyone but Firion, and was weaker than everyone in every. single. other. stat. Oh dearie. We have a problem.
We started the day by trying to grind a few of Maria’s weapon stats, and also Leon in general. Leon got a bit out of it but actually proved somewhat uncooperative. It wasn’t (quite) like Josef strangling himself to death with his own hands: Leon just didn’t gain HP, the only stat we were truly monitoring, until we were well past the Jade Passage. But Ultima was the real disappointment, looking at this in hindsight. We never used Ultima, not seriously. While it proved better than Maria’s Level 6 Flare (and itself only costing 4MP for most of the time we had it), Maria was simply too preoccupied with casting Berzerk 6, which was the real game-breaker. Ultimate magic my ass.
For the first time, we equipped a full set of proper, up-to-date equipment, like a Dragon Ball Z character dropping their training weights, and we headed into the Jade Passage. Kyle had a real mess of a time thanks to the local Malboros. These tentacled Lovecraftian horrors are infamous in FF. They normally know the technique “Bad Breath,” which causes multiple status effects at the same time! More than enough to carve their way into Final Fantasy legend. But here in Final Fantasy II they don’t yet have that infamous technique, and instead cause a single, random status effect with their normal attacks. I feel it’s actually worse, because it means it’s happening every turn! Oh, and did I mention they’re absurdly durable? Despite the rest of the game proving that we were beyond over-levelled, nothing we could do could kill the Malboros fast enough. We had exhausted half our supply of Ethers and all of our Potions by the time we had healed our way through the Jade Passage (though the Potions was a bit of a joke, the early FF games just don’t have good potions). We never bothered to cast Basuna, since the Malboros kept pounding status effect on us – grinding Basuna after the Lahmia Queen was a waste.
(Ed. It really goes to show how little these early drafts of the Marathon Journals talked about game design that I skipped mentioning the cool hidden shop in the Jade Passage hidden behind a waterfall. It sold the best spellbooks in the game!)
Pandaemonium ran flush with the Jade Passage, making them effectively one dungeon. Inside, we encountered a group of Death Riders that proved our worst nightmare. I checked the FFWiki entry for an explanation (Ed. presumably when I was writing the original journal entry, it wasn’t while playing), and this is what it said back in the day: “When a party member is attacked, Death Rider drains their HP. Therefore, many players have misunderstood about the function of the evasion in the game and were drained 4-digits by these fearsome knights.” What does it mean about “the function of the evasion in the game”? We were certainly drained 4 digits by the knights, and our evasion was high, but what does that have to do with anything? The current FFWiki entry doesn’t talk about this at all, instead talking about the danger posed by other monsters, which frankly didn’t bother us!
The best I can conclude is that the Death Riders have an attack alike to the Blood Sword, and they hurt us more because we were stronger. Luckily, we never encountered Death Riders en masse after the first encounter we had with them, and dogpiled any future one we saw.
As you go through Pandaemonium, we eventually came to a series of doors. Behind those doors, are a number of chests guarded by bosses, technically optional but guarding the Genji armour-set, in its first appearance. And yes, I did mean “bosses,” not “mid-bosses.” Later Final Fantasy games would sometimes hide superbosses in late-game chests, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t know that at the time. Inside the boxes, we found an alternate incarnation of Tiamat (always depicted in later games as being distinct from FFI’s Tiamat, weirdly enough); a giant fly boss, Beelzebub; the demoness Astaroth; and… zombie Borghen? The guy who killed Josef? Did the necromancer pry him off the ground with a spatula? Zombie Borghen was almost as much of a joke as the original, but besides him, the walkthroughs went on and on about these being the most powerful enemies of the game, with spells to be feared and specific counterattacks all laid out for us.
Yeah, we killed all of them in one turn. One. All of them.
Part of this was luck, but not much (without the luck, we’d have killed them at the start of Turn 2 instead of Turn 1). At this point in the game, Maria was consistently faster than Leon, who was faster than Guy, who was faster than Firion. We’d have Maria cast Berserk 6 (later 7) on Leon, who would attack in the thousands, Guy would cast Berserk 5 Firion, and Firion would attack even harder. So when I say we won in one turn, I really mean we won in two attacks. Berserk is OP. And beating those guys gave us even better weapons and armour. Oh, this is going to end well.
This led us to the final boss. We walked up, dramatic speeches, Berserk 7, Berserk 5… Kyle had Maria cast Ultima instead of Berserking herself the next turn, just so she could say she did. It didn’t really help. Ultima was like a thumb tack next to Berserked Leon and Firion. The Emperor died after three turns of combat… possibly 4. Kyle and I both resonate with “3” but we’re not sure if we’re counting the initial round of buffs. After that final round, Kyle and I sat there waiting for a second form that never came. Unbelievable. I wish I could be more dramatic about the whole “end of the game” thing, but I can’t! It was just over in a blink!
Now, back when we were first doing these journals, I kept careful track of the number of grind sessions and TPKs that took place. In the end, we grinded just as many times in FFII as in FFI, plus our constant but casual training. But the gap between the results is… staggering. The fight against Chaos took somewhere 20+ turns. But 3? It’s stupid. We never thought we were THAT strong. Not after the Malboros. And yet, there we stood.
My coverage of the ending is going to be a little sparse due to a deficiency in the original draft. Suffice to say, everything went back to normal (despite the utter destruction of all but one of the world’s governments and most of the world’s cities) and Leon tromped off into the distance despite Maria’s protests, never to be seen again. I wish I could be more detailed than that, but for all I liked this game, it wasn’t for its… narrative depth. It was a good game’s story, overall, if somewhat typical for a fantasy. Hell, it was a fantasy that’s vaguely aware of politics, which was more than we’ll see in most of the games to come.
But that’s not the whole story.
Soul of Rebirth
Soul or Rebirth started with Minwu waking up dead in the Jade Passage, except the whole thing was inverted E->W. I’d be more dramatic about all this, but I did open the discussion of this entire game by spoiling this scenario. I’m not even sorry!
After a few attempts to get him to go back to the real world (because why not try?) we sent him in, and he ran straight into Prince Scott of Kashuan, being attacked by a pack of bosses. You know, Gordon’s brother? We left him to die? I-I mean he tragically died in front of us? Scott was an entirely new character to this scenario, and the Wiki notes that he seems to have been designed in the style of a Red Mage (Ed. Looking bad at this after FFMQ, I think it’s funny how all the Red Mages in this series that aren’t explicitly Red Mages seem to be depicted in heavy armour, as though they were warriors instead?).
We scraped through the battle, which pitted us against several early-game bosses, including the Black Knights from the intro sequence. After the fight, our characters picked up on the fact that they were all dead. Died like heroes, of course! And not at all because Minwu died for no benefit whatsoever, and Scott because we took his medicine and ran. Nope.
We quickly found out we were in a hot pot of trouble after the talking was done. I had a good run at it, but died without saving, and we couldn’t duplicate that original run! Poor Kyle didn’t get further than the second floor for almost five mulligans. The monsters on these floors were very uneven in terms of difficulty. Monsters as early as the first floor could be early-game blow-overs or mid-game steel walls on the flip of a coin. There was no inn to fall back on to help us grind, either, we had to rely on luck and the training we had done on these characters during the main game to make it through alive. If we got unlucky, we’d get a high-level enemy party and it would be over. Lucky, and we’d fight level 1 enemies instead. It was a design disaster. To make matters worse, when we were in the original game, we had stripped Minwu of his equipment, believing he would survive the entire game and that someone else would be in this chapter. Whoops. In our defence, it still would have been crap equipment.
A bit down the road to Hell, we found Josef being terrorized by Zombie Borghen, whose stats were unmodified from his end-game joke appearance in Pandaemonium. This made him challenging but not near as dangerous as the absurd wandering monsters. Finally, Kyle got his lucky break and cleared floor after floor. Deep in the caves, he found the Roundworm, the creature that had guarded the way out of the Leviathan. Ricard showed up when we fought it, and that was all we needed to make it through alive. You might recall that Ricard had the Blood Sword. The Blood Sword worked wonders on bosses, sure, but we soon found it was an acceptable normal-strength sword against wandering monsters. That’s just what you need when you can’t find any equipment at all. Better yet, Ricard had actually been with our main party long enough to have what we considered “good stats” (astronomic stats). We made our way to the end easily with his help.
At the far end of the passage, we found ourselves in a town! It seems Cid (who had been Kyle’s guess for the fourth party member that would join us, not Scott) had set up this town and was fighting off the rampant demons to keep his people safe. Besides the way back to the tunnel, there were two exits: one to an inverted Pandaemonium, and one leading to the Tower of Mysidia’s top floor. You know, where Minwu died.
The door to Ultima was being guarded this time. Making his first appearance in the Marathon: it’s Final Fantasy VI’s recurring boss, Ultima Weapon! Ultima Weapon was a superboss, and he was in for a bad day, because we had no compunction to hold back against him. We abused the rules of the Marathon (and I have to tell you, those are the BEST moments) to juice Ultima Weapon with the Blood Sword. Ultima Weapon’s one of the series’ infamous superbosses, so I have to say that that felt good. In exchange, we got the Ultima spell and the four stat-up crystals, which probably helped quite a bit.
Washing our hands of pureed superboss, we finally headed into backwards Pandaemonium to test the waters, and received some very bad news: we were, for the first time since the start of Final Fantasy II, under-levelled.
Kyle managed to make it to the second floor once, only for us to be trapped without a chance to use Warp by some of the strongest monsters we’ve ever seen. It took almost fifteen minutes of slow combat and reloading to get back to the exit – that’s how low our attack was. But we did make it alive, which was an achievement. I can honestly say that this is one of the ranking low points of our Marathon series, worse than the Marsh Cave debacle and just a little better than, uh… the entirety of Mega Man X7, though we only played that nightmare later on.
With that danger at the forefront of our minds, we spent our cash on consumables and promised that we’d set to grinding when we got back for our next session. We don’t need to be strong enough to win traditionally… just strong enough to reach the final boss and stick the Blood Sword in them. That’ll be enough.