JRPG Journey 2021: Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls (February)
January’s game: Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation
Winter bonus game: Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls is a compilation of remakes of the first two Final Fantasy games, released in 2004 by Square Enix for the Game Boy Advance (GBA). Of course, the original versions of these games were released in 1987 and 1988, respectively, by Square for the Famicom. While I haven’t played the original versions, I have watched footage and examined the differences between them and the GBA remakes.
Let’s start with the first Final Fantasy. Differences from the Famicom/NES release include four bonus dungeons, a reworked magic system that runs on MP instead of a set number of uses for each spell tier, an updated bestiary, and a few other minor changes. The fact that Final Fantasy originally used a system that only allowed you to cast a certain number of spells from each tier surprised me, until I learned that this is a system taken from Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, the game took much of its inspiration from DnD, so much that it could be considered an attempt at making a video game version of that classic pen-and-paper game. Every monster, including the bosses, is from the DnD manual; the game features classic fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves, and mermaids; and the setting is a purely Western medieval style. In general, this doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game, aside from the spell names and use of crystals to drive the plot. However, even the spells, as I understand, had different names in the original release. It’s fascinating that such a unique and beloved series sprung up from such humble beginnings, but the game is still fun enough despite its simplicity and unoriginal theming.
Where the first game shines is its combat and visuals: back in ’87, displaying both your party and the opposing creatures on the battlefield at once was a novel concept, and it’s strong enough that the series has retained this style in every future game. I’ve read that the creators took inspiration from team sports like American football, and depicting this back-and-forth of battle visually is remarkably more effective than the Dragon Quest style of showing a view of the enemy through your characters’ eyes. Even in the original version, combat animations were unique for every weapon type, and the classic victory jingle made prevailing in a tough battles that much more sweet.
From here, I’ll focus on the Dawn of Souls release, although much of what I discuss surely applies to the Famicom/NES version as well. The story is bare bones, but rather than paper thin, like the first two Dragon Quest games (which I can’t help but compare this game to, as they were its immediate predecessors), it’s more like a solid tree with no leaves or flowers. There’s more substance to the worldbuilding, for one. The earth is decaying, and you must visit four shrines to restore power to each of four crystal that your party carries from the beginning. Why the characters have these crystals is never answered, but they do fulfill a prophecy of four “Warriors of Light”, and the shrines they visit each represent one of the four classic elements—earth, wind, water, and fire—not only in name, but also in location. The water crystal is restored by diving deep into the sea, for example, and the fire crystal is restored within a volcano. There’s even a bit of Japanese mythology included in that there’s also a fifth crystal, the black crystal, which represents the ancient Japanese concept of a fifth element, “void”, i.e., emptiness, space, or the lack of other elements. This eventually ties into the plot, which handily explains how the bosses, or fiends, ended up in each shrine, and how the mysterious final boss orchestrated the whole ordeal. All of this is delivered with minimal but effective text, conversations, and even short cutscenes, impressive for a game from this era. Progression from plot point to plot point, on the other hand, is very similar to early Dragon Quest games. Talking to everyone you meet is essential to figuring out where to head next, and delivering key items to particular NPCs drives much of the plot.
What’s not similar to Dragon Quests I and II is the party system. Namely, this game has one. Immediately at the start, you’re asked to choose a party, and you can pick any of six classes, even multiple characters of the same class, to fill your four party slots. Each class plays drastically differently, on top of this. I’ve read that magic was notably ineffective in the original release, but in Dawn of Souls, it’s just as useful as the physical attackers, thankfully. I chose a Warrior (Fighter in the original release), Monk (Black Belt), Red Mage, and White Mage. While Black Mages are usually my favorite class in Final Fantasy, I wanted to change things up this time, and the Red Mage’s mix of White and Black magic sounded interested. As it turns out, this worked rather well, although I figure most any combination of classes would be effective in Dawn of Souls. Red Mages are unique in that, as mentioned, they can learn both schools of magic, but they cannot learn any spells from the highest tier from either school. So, no powerful Black magic spells for me, but their jack-of-all-trades nature more than made up for this. They’re even decent physical attackers, which came in handy in the early to mid game. By the endgame, I found their buffs to my physical attackers the most useful anyway. I was mopping the floor with bosses by casting Haste (which raises the number of attacks per turn) and Temper (which raises attack power and can be stacked) on my Warrior and Monk, while healing and occasionally casting a powerful Holy spell with my White Mage.
The Monk was another pleasant surprise for me. Unlike in many JRPGs, where I tend to shy away from using bare-handed characters due to disappointing defense stats, the Monk in this game is no slouch defensively, and in fact has better defense when not wearing any armor at all. The same is true for attacking—no weapon is the best weapon—which makes for a very cheap character in terms of equipment cost. This let me spend more on my Warrior and Red Mage’s armor, and is a balance based on player choice that’s done better than many RPGs manage today. Further contributing to this balance is that the order of your characters in your party matters. The topmost character will take hits 50% of the time, with that percentage going down the further away from the top a character is. So I put my hearty Warrior in the top position, where he could tank most hits and only take 1 HP of damage, and my comparably fragile Monk and White Mage at the bottom, where they stayed safe most of the time. This, too, is a mechanic I wish more modern JRPGs would implement, as it frees you from having to heal every member of the party on most turns in tougher fights. (I recall this happening a lot in Final Fantasy X-2, for example.) It also made me glad I picked a Warrior, a class I tend to find boring and avoid using in most RPGs—I usually prefer spellcasters. In total, the class and battle system is the strongest part of Final Fantasy, and the main reason I’d recommend the game to any JRPG fan.
The freedom of exploration afforded to the player by the game impressed me, too. After restoring the first crystal, you have access to most of the map, although new players may not realize this at first. The rest of the crystals can be done in any order thanks to the airship, which is a nice one-up on Dragon Quest II’s boat—it’s as if Square saw what Chunsoft did in that game and went, “You thought being able to sail to different parts of the map 1/3 into the game was fun? How about a freaking airship that lets you go anywhere, any time after the first quest?” Of course, new players aren’t likely to figure out how to unlock the airship right away, but it can be done, and once I got it, many more opportunities were now open to me, and I wanted to explore the whole map. Instead of providing linear paths with arbitrary restrictions on progression, the game uses a more natural method: your airship can only land on grassy tiles. You can fly to any part of the map, but often you’ll still need to walk from your landing point to your goal location, and you’d better be able to take on the overworld monsters in your way. It’s a risk vs. reward mechanic that I wish more modern JRPGs would experiment with.
Final Fantasy’s music is another high point. Including the now-famous prelude within churches where characters can be revived from death is an inspired choice, and many other tracks stood out. The overworld and battle themes popped up in my head at several times when I wasn’t playing the game, and the soothing quality of the Game Boy Advance’s sound hardware gave the soundtrack a nostalgic flavor that I haven’t heard in year. Nobuo Uematsu set the tone of Final Fantasy with this game, and his genius is evident right from the start. There’s nothing else to say except that the music is a triumph.
I hope I’ve established Final Fantasy as a classic that any JRPG fan should play. But what about its sequel, a game often found at the very bottom of Final Fantasy game rankings? Spoiler: I liked it more than the first game.
Final Fantasy II makes so many changes from its predecessor that it feels like part of a different series. It feels more like what we now know as Final Fantasy, for one, instead of a relatively generic fantasy romp. Although there are none of the series-famous crystals in the game, it does have a fleshed-out story, named party characters, a novel dialogue system, complex combat and level-up mechanics, even more freedom to explore, and the introduction of a few series staples like Chocobos and Cid, the airship creator and mechanic.
Let’s start with the story—usually the part of JRPGs that I’m least interested in. Far removed from the fantasy tropes of the first, we instead get an epic tale of a world at war with a tyrannical emperor. I was often surprised at twists and turns in the story, and the game holds nothing back in showing the devastation wrought by the empire. Cities are destroyed, leaving you unable to visit them again. Characters you meet and bond with are killed without warning. There’s no black and white in Final Fantasy II, but there is nuance. The emperor is evil, and your party is good, but you play as three refugees from a town recently destroyed by the empire. They didn’t mysteriously show up with the ultimate power in their hands like before; they are normal, everyday people with a will to fight to save their homeland. This immediately appealed to me more than the generic backdrop of the first game, and every NPC you talk to has something to say about the state of the war or their personal or familial struggles caused by it.
Final Fantasy II is about tragedy, and the outlook is grim right up until the final boss. Most characters you interact with either die or lose someone they’re close to, including your temporary party members. You see, instead of choosing classes from the start, you’re given a set of three named characters, with various fourth member joining and leaving your party throughout the game. I can imagine this was unique for a JRPG at the time, and it harkens back to the series’s DnD roots. What’s interesting is that your three main members aren’t, well, interesting. They all have barely any dialogue and serve more as vessels for the player rather than actual characters. It’s the NPCs you interact with, as well as the fourth party members, who do most of the heavy lifting in terms of characterization and plot progression. That’s OK, I think, as it marks a contrast to many modern JRPGs, where your party members tend to get the best character moments and plot-relevant goals, and I enjoy when an RPG offers something different.
I’ve seen much complaint about the game’s dialogue system, consisting of keywords, or pass phrases. When talking with certain NPCs at specific times during the story, you have the opportunity to “learn” an important word that the character mentions, and after learning it, you’ll be able to ask other NPCs about the word in future conversations to learn more info or, occasionally, advance the plot in a key way. If that sounds confusing, it is, a bit, but in general the complains I’ve seen about this system are exaggerated and don’t make sense to me. The common criticism is that you waste time trying every word on every key NPC, but in my experience, it’s fairly obvious when you need to use which word. You’ll always need to use one of the latest words you’ve learned, and the game does a good job of making sure you know what your characters’ goals are and which key words are relevant to those goals. Are you trying to get a ride on Cid’s airship? You’ll need to use the “Airship” key word, and it’s obvious that previous words you learned are no longer needed. This pattern repeats, with little variance, for the whole game, and I found it a neat way to keep me engaged in conversation, even though key words don’t add much to the overall experience. Additionally, only a few notable NPCs have conversations that allow the use of key words in the first place. Most of them instead provide normal dialogue that shows an interesting personality or plot-relevant flavor text. As a whole, key words are a fine system, but I wouldn’t miss them if the were removed from the game, either.
I’ve put it off long enough. Let’s discuss the combat and level up system, which is the most maligned aspect of the game in other reviews I’ve read. To summarize, characters do not have overall levels or gain experience points like in the majority of RPGs. Instead, each weapon class and spell has its own level for each character and increases based on usage. Furthermore, characters improve their stats in various ways over time, such as taking damage to increase max HP, using a lot of MP to increase max MP, and being targeted by attacks to increase evasion. I understand why this system gets criticized, but I don’t think the criticisms I’ve seen are fair. At best, the system is treated as “not what is expected in a JRPG”, which I think is fair enough, although I would note that FFII went on to inspire a thriving subgenre of JRPG where weapons and magic level up based on usage, including the entire SaGa series.
At worst, common criticisms show a lack of understanding or willingness to engage with the system on its own terms. I’ve often read that it’s easy to cheese the game by stalling in a battle against a weak enemy, and attacking your own party to quickly pump up their maximum HP. (Party targeting for all weapons and spells is a feature of this game.) You see, the rules that govern when stats increase are a little unintuitive—a character not only has to take damage to increase their maximum HP; rather, they must end a battle with significantly lower HP than they started with in order to have a chance to raise their maximum. MP works similarly, and this is not at all explained in the game. But once you understand it, attacking your own party is indeed an easy to grow overpowered in a short period of time. My counter-argument is that you don’t have to do this. Never in the game is this mentioned as a viable strategy, nor is it ever needed to advance. Playing the game as if it had a standard leveling system is a fine way to get a reasonably difficult experience but still be able to customize your playstyle as you see fit, and that’s how I’d recommend new players approach the game. What makes the system fun, however, is being able to focus on a few specific spells, weapons, or stats, to “break” the game, albeit in a fun way, according to your favorite way to play. I, for example, made one character a mage and trained up a few Black magic spells, then left the other characters as sword-based Warriors, one with some White magic. By the mid-game, I got the Holy spell and turned my White magic user into a proper Red Mage, slinging spells, using swords, and healing my party all in the same battle. Another player might have chosen to keep two Warriors and instead use items for healing, as money is plentiful. This would have worked just as well, and neither approach requires grinding to specifically “break” the game.
With that said, I have a few complaints of my own. The spell system, in general takes too long to gain levels. However, when you do, your spells become overpowered by the end of the game, at least the way I played, using magic at every opportunity, since I love using magic in JRPGs. What’s bizarre is that there are 16 levels of spells, and by the endgame I was destroying everything with spells around level 8 to 10. What is the point of having 16 possible levels when no enemies in the game can stand up to spells at half that strength? I’d rather the spells gain levels more quickly, but curve up in strength more slowly, so that they only become devastating by level 14 or so. Another solution would be to cut the maximum level to, say, 8, and have spells take longer to level up. Either way, this would fix the problem I find in many JRPGs, where there’s no practical way to attain, or reasons to use, the best spells. A related problem is that Ultima, touted as the best spell in the game and attained during the story, is hopelessly underpowered without a lot of grinding in other spells—its damage is based on your total levels in all spells, and there’s no reason for a character to have very many spells leveled up past level 8 or even 6, and no reason to have more than a few spells in the first place. While the encounter rate in FFII is high, the game isn’t long enough to train up that many spells, and the latter third of the game feels a bit underwhelming due to this. Perhaps a lot of content was cut—this wouldn’t surprise me, given how quickly games were pumped out back in the late 80s and early 90s.
Alright, enough about combat. This is growing into one of my longest reviews yet, but I’ll quickly mention that FFII’s dungeon design is more interesting, both in layout and visuals, than in the first game. However, there are still too many near-identical looking floors within and across dungeons, and the amount of dead ends and empty rooms is taken to an almost comical extreme. I’m not sure when I’ll get to Final Fantasy III, but I hope dungeon design is further improved there, as I know from playing more recent Final Fantasy games that it eventually does get quite good.
The music stood out to me once again, and like most aspects of the game, it’s even better than the first. I always love Final Fantasy’s battle themes, and II’s is particularly great, with a hurried, war-like feel due to its use of marching snare drums, blaring horns, and flute flourishes. The main theme, played on the overworld, is a slower and more melancholic track that fits the desperation of the characters and hopelessness of a world steadily being destroyed by a relentless empire. Based on FFII’s score alone, I can understand why Nobuo Uematsu is considered a genius among JRPG fans. Consider me one of said fans—he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite video game composers.
I don’t know what else to say, except that if you’ve been avoiding Final Fantasy II due to its overwhelming negative reviews from Western publications, give it a try anyway. You might end up enjoying it as much as I did.
Well, I’m having a blast doing these reviews, and have been looking forward to finishing off this next series, at least in terms of its classic games: Trials of Mana, a.k.a. Seiken Densetsu 3, the third game in the Mana series, is up next for March. See you then!