The original Final Fantasy was largely a translation of the D&D rules into video game form. Some iconic parts of the game were ripoffs (the most obvious being the ochu, which was just a mistranslation of “otyugh”). Final Fantasy II, on the other hand, was an experimental game. Not all experiments succeed, and Final Fantasy II reinforces this. Many items and monsters in FFII have since become a major part of series lore, while the strange leveling system was tossed aside, never to be seen again. But perhaps FFII’s most important contribution to the series was its full-fledged storyline.
Final Fantasy II is certainly a flawed game, but the story holds up quite well, at least structurally. This may be because it is extremely reminiscent of Star Wars. In fact, the rebellion vs. evil empire theme would be repeated many times in later games (to varying degrees of Star Wars-ness). FFII’s story begins with four orphans falling in battle while fleeing their hometown of Fynn, which has been destroyed by the evil Palamecian Empire. Three of the orphans survive, with the fate of the fourth unknown, and join a rebellion headed by the princess of Fynn. For the first half of the game, the party carries out a series of missions for the rebellion.
Between missions, you usually return to the rebellion’s home base. As a result, the layout of the world is far less linear than most contemporary JRPGs, though its odd wrapping landmasses make for quite a strange world map. The civilized towns are mostly clustered near the starting area of the game, with the Palamecian Empire far to the northwest (…or southeast). You can actually walk almost anywhere right at the beginning of the game, if you manage to survive. As a result of the story’s structure, the world of Final Fantasy II feels like a real world to a greater extent than almost any game in the series. Sadly, it’s not a very interesting world, as you can safely ignore most of the towns aside from Fynn and the rebel base in Altair after visiting them once or twice. The sole exception is the town of Mysidia, a series mainstay that makes its debut here.
However, Final Fantasy II is not known for its world or its story, but rather its much-maligned leveling system. The idea is that you get better at whatever you do, but in practice this usually ends up being far from balanced. The system is capable of working quite well, but it doesn’t provide nearly enough information to the player for them to actually do so. It doesn’t so much as hint at major components of the system that you must understand in order to succeed. While the game presents its characters as blank canvases, the truth is that customization is strongly discouraged. You’re all but forced to make direct analogs of the classes from the original Final Fantasy if you want to succeed.
Aside from its problematic leveling system, Final Fantasy II has a few other major flaws that really kill the enjoyment of the game. In the original game, there were a few encounters here and there that could potentially kill the party without the player having any recourse. FFII takes this aspect of the game to a ridiculous extreme. In basically every dungeon in the latter half of the game, there are several encounters that can just screw the player over through no fault of their own. In most cases, going out of your way to level the correct defensive or curing spells ahead of time can help, but even so, some enemies are simply not fair. In my playthrough, I lost at least six hours of gameplay to battles late in dungeons that killed my party before I even got a chance to act. This is not acceptable.
While I’ve actually grown to like FFII over the years, the simple truth is that it’s frustrating and filled with systems that are openly antagonistic to players. However, it does deserve some respect as being the game that really set the tone of future Final Fantasy games. While jobs and summoned monsters don’t make an appearance, many other aspects of the combat system are codified here for the first time. It is historically important… but at the same time it’s the least enjoyable game in the main series. It’s not bad per se, it’s just – and I say this without irony – misunderstood.