Dragon Warrior II was designed to correct its predecessor’s many flaws, and in that it does an excellent job. Unfortunately, it introduces a whole bunch of new problems as well.
Let’s start with the good. The vast majority of DW2 is fantastic, way ahead of its time upon its original 1987 release and frankly not bad for 1990 when it came here. Graphically and particularly with respect to artwork, this game looks quite nice and pushes the NES hardware pretty well. It does suffer from a very obviously tile-based overworld map, but makes up for it with huge and colorful monsters and lots of NPCs.
The biggest change in DW2 is that battles are no longer 1-on-1. You can recruit two other party members, giving you a fighter, a mage, and a hybrid character, and can fight against multiple monsters at once. Combat is far more strategic than it was in the original Dragon Warrior as a result, and the addition of some basic defense buffs and debuffs to the standard spell set from the original is a nice touch. For most of the game, you have a well-balanced party and the monsters offer a difficult but fair challenge.
The problem is, none of that is at all true during the end game. Like a Red Mage from the first Final Fantasy, your hybrid character becomes essentially worthless at the end of the game. He stops getting weapon upgrades and his mediocre spells will be resisted by monsters more often than not in the last few areas. Your full-time mage is a bit better, but her spells are also fairly likely to fail. In effect, your party becomes one fighter hitting single targets and two characters keeping him (and themselves) alive. And that could even work, but tons of monsters can disable characters with Sleep or even instant death spells later on. (There’s even a monster that casts an unresistable instant party wipe late in the game, because apparently the programmers hate gamers.) This is extremely frustrating, and it’s not hard in a fair way.
To add insult to injury, some of the later bosses (including the actual final bosses!) can heal themselves to full at will. I’ve been screwed by random numbers with one boss healing himself up a dozen times (I stopped counting at that point). The game is as forgiving about death as the first was, and the gold penalty is no big deal at that late juncture, but you will waste a lot of time to death. Beating the game basically requires you to avoid a series of potentially lethal die rolls.
On the other hand, this game’s grind is far more enjoyable than the first game’s. Good strategy can often get you past one or two really tough encounters if you run home and rest instead of pushing your luck, and the final area has a ton of ultra-hard encounters that give crazy experience along with a save point that fully restores your party from any state for free. You’ll probably die in half of these fights when you first get there, but you’ll progress shockingly fast nonetheless.
Up until the final series of dungeons, this game is a solid B+, peeking into A territory. But the endgame is brutal, unfair, unforgiving, and unfun. Enix would eventually figure out how to balance parties and monster groups, but even they’ve admitted they failed to do that in Dragon Warrior II. It’s too bad because this is otherwise a sprawling, open game that feels more like an old-school PC RPG than a modern JRPG, and that’s pretty great in my book.