JRPG Journey 2022: Final Fantasy Legend II (January)

Welcome to the third year running of JRPG Journey, where I’m playing a new JRPG every month and sharing my thoughts. Let’s get right into January’s game.

Final Fantasy Legend II, despite its name, is not a Final Fantasy game; instead, it’s the second entry in Square’s SaGa series, which started in 1989 on the Game Boy and was released as Final Fantasy Legend in North America to capitalize on the popularity of Square’s best-known RPG series.

The first SaGa eschewed the traditional RPG adventure setup and cohesive worldbuilding to focus on trying new gameplay mechanics, throwing the player into a series of small, puzzle-like worlds in which they can experiment and grow their characters’ skills. SaGa 2 takes all of this one step further, adding another class, the robot, with its own unique way of calculating stats, providing a connected world with one overarching goal, and including real characters.

Don’t get me wrong; the first game had characters, but they mattered for about a single quest and rarely felt like more than generic NPCs. Only the final boss made a memorable impression, and I’d bet most who’ve played the first Final Fantasy Legend would agree.

This time, your main character’s father is an adventurer of sorts, who abruptly abandons your family to go on a quest. After following his trail, he lets you in on his mission to collect each of the world’s 77 Magi, shards of a powerful artifact that must be protected. So begins your journey to discover more about these relics, the gods who created them, and the mysterious world around you. The story is all told through a disappointingly brief translation, which no doubt leaves out much of the original Japanese, but it’s meatier than the first game and a little more coherent.

More importantly, it’s fun. Having a solid overall goal is welcome, and the aforementioned Magi further the immersion by integrating into gameplay. Once collected, you can equip them for boosts such as increased defense or speed, or other benefits like protection from magical attacks. Most useful are Magi with non-combat effects, such as revealing how many other Magi remain in the current world or warping you to towns, and the potential of gaining a new, helpful ability provides motivation to press on.

As in SaGa 1, the gameplay focuses on stat growth above all else. Like before, the monster class only grows by eating meat dropped from other monsters in order to change into a new, hopefully more powerful one. This system is more complex than it seems, and a guide is practically required to consistently get monsters. The apparent randomness is part of the fun, but I’m a min-maxer who took no shame in looking up what meat to eat next to get usable mons.

Mutants work the same as before, but in a change from the first game, humans now grow in the same way. That’s right, no more buying stat buffs! Shelling out for healing items or new weapons is the way to go in SaGa 2. Using weapons in combat gives a chance for both humans and mutants to increase a stat after battle, and the stat depends on the weapon type used. While a human might want to focus on strength and agility, a mutant might favor agility and magic, since they’re the sole class that learns spells naturally. Indeed, after every battle, mutants have a chance to replace the last spell in their inventory with a new one,

Robots, the game’s biggest new feature, are a jack-of-all trades class. Their stats don’t naturally increase — instead, they’re based on equipment. Weapons raise strength or sometimes agility, and armor mostly raises defense. Robots can use as much equipment as they have slots available, so it’s possible to build one into anything from a giant wall, to an agile tank, to an all-out damage machine.

Unlike in SaGa 1, you choose one party for the entire game — in a rarity for the series, there’s no life point system here — so I felt a connection with my characters, as if they were all childhood friends who decided to join together for this quest. You can form any combination of four classes you want: 2 mutants and 2 monsters, all humans, all robots, or one of each, which I chose on my first playthrough. It’s a balanced party that lets you try out everything, and I enjoyed discovering the variety of options it allows.

For example, keen players will quickly learn that robots are great damage sponges, even with just a few pieces of armor, and since enemies favor attacking the first character in your party, putting a robot in that slot is a no-brainer. If you don’t have a robot, however, that’s no problem. You’ll need to play more defensively at first, but you won’t need to buy as much equipment, and more of your characters will be able to grow — unless you chose a party of all monsters, in which case, god help you.

I ended up using my robot as a wall with a few fixed-damage weapons. It wasn’t dishing out much punishment, but it could tank enemy attacks like a champ to protect my party. While that’s not optimal damage-wise, I figured it would give my human and mutant more chances to attack, thus raising their stats faster. This kind of decision is why I love the SaGa series. There’s always tons of options, and although not all of them are good, most range from acceptable to excellent and everywhere in between. You have true freedom to play how you want, and also project your own imagination onto the story, which leaves much unexplained.

And this, really, is all there is to the game. Managing equipment, making sure you have enough healing capability, optimizing builds, and figuring out where to go. As a Game Boy game, SaGa 2 expects you to play in short chunks, so the encounter rate is high, but the level structure makes up for this. It’s similar to SaGa 1’s: small, independent worlds connected by a basic overworld.

This time, though, there’s not as much of a radical difference between worlds — no weird, underwater cities or futuristic dystopias. There’s still a few off-kilter themes, like a giant race track world, or an exploration into another character’s body, but most of the others hew close to familiar fantasy and mythology tropes, giving the game a more grounded feel.

The dreamlike and seemingly drug-infused ideas and locales from the first SaGa aren’t as present here — these worlds feel like real places, only now connected by a bizarre network of doors, which act as dimensional pathways. Compare that to SaGa 1, where the worlds themselves were the crazy parts, but they were connected by a tower in the game’s real world. Instead of a bored god forcing you into realms of madness as part of a sick test, in SaGa 2 you’re using artifacts created by the gods themselves to move between realities and further your quest.

I appreciate how SaGa 2 turns the formula on its head, and both games’ structures fit their respective stories. SaGa 1’s about a bunch of nobodies who eventually become the first ones strong enough to climb God’s tower and pass his test. In SaGa 2’s world, on the other hand, gods are all but legend, and the heroes use knowledge passed down over centuries to unravel the mystery of the gods and better understand their world.

To sum it up, SaGa 2 bests the original in most ways. I do miss being able to buy stats — what a funny mechanic — and the game is much easier overall — honestly, the final boss is the only tough fight — but the addition of robots, more story, and less obtuse puzzles make it one I’ll want to play again. Ito and Uematsu slay it with the music, as always, and, you know, this might be my favorite Game Boy soundtrack. Highly recommended, play it today, and that’s all I’ve got.

Thanks for reading. Next month, join me for a review of Lunar: Silver Star Harmony.

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Playing a new JRPG every month and sharing my thoughts

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