Telltale’s Game of Thrones Season 1

Total Gameplay Time: 11 hours

Platform: PC

Overview

I got hooked on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels during the first season of the HBO adaptation. I decided that I couldn’t wait for the show, and I tore through the books as fast as I could. (Jokes on me, though, now that the show will finish before the books.) But now that I and many others continue our long wait for The Winds of Winter, I need an occasional Westeros fix. Hence, Telltale’s Game of Thrones Season 1.

Game of Thrones title card
Title card. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Story:  7

The story follows House Forrester, a house that is mentioned in the books. They are banner men for House Stark and sided with the Starks during the War of Five Kings. Unfortunately, the game opens at the Red Wedding.

Following Telltale’s usual model, the story is divided into episodes, six in this case. Each episode follows House Forrester allies as they attempt to hold their House together after the power shifts in the North after the fall of the Starks. The Forresters control a resource known as ironwood, a hard wood that is useful for war craft, but is also difficult to harvest and shape. Ramsay Bolton puts the rival House Whitehill in charge of the Forresters. And the Whitehills are not kind lords. Why would we expect honor or nobility from allies of Ramsay Bolton? Scenes take place at Ironrath, the Forrester stronghold in the North; the Wall; King’s Landing; and Essos as you try to navigate between diplomacy and honor to keep your house intact and to discover the location of the mythical North Grove.

The choice whether or not to stab Ramsay.
This has got to be a trap. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Characters:  8

Throughout the game you play:

  • Ethan, the child lord of House Forrester. A third-born son, he was never groomed for leadership.
  • Mira Forrester, a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell.
  • Asher Forrester, an exiled son who has become a sell sword in Essos.
  • Gerard Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester.

There is another playable character, but I’ll keep that one secret for the sake of those concerned about spoilers. You can shape each playable character slightly through your choices and actions. You can also interact with characters from the show (as this game takes place in the HBO continuity rather than the Martin continuity). For the most part, the characters are interesting, though I feel like the Whitehills sometimes ride the line of “antagonism for the sake of antagonism” much too closely. I wanted to get more into why Ludd and Gryff were so cruel. Even Cersei Lannister gets a few sympathetic scenes in the show and book. I would have liked more for these characters. Thankfully, Gwyn Whitehill is a very interesting character, and I was never quite sure how much I could trust her. I may play through the game again at some point just to see if I can get alternative scenes with her.

Asher listens to Breska tell her story.
Asher listens to Breska’s past. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Presentation: 7

The music by Jared Emerson-Johnson does a good job of feeling distinct while imitating a style that feels reminiscent of the show. I’ve enjoyed Ramin Djwadi’s music for the show, and I think Emerson-Johnson has added to and expanded on the musical landscape of Westeros.

Visually, the game follows the look and feel of the HBO adaptation. However, the graphics have an almost water-color or oil look to them, as if they were trying to create a look of a painting come to life. I applaud their choice to try something different. I often enjoy when games decide to go for stylized instead of realistic, even if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think it largely works here, but I admit that it was occasionally distracting and created strange graphical effects when animated, such as when wine was pouring from a jar in one episode or when a character’s arm moved through a chair. Sure, these types of glitches happen all the time, but they seemed more striking with the contrast between sharp and blurred images created by the visual style.

GoT-KingsLandingGarden
Garden walkway in King’s Landing. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Gameplay: 6

On the one hand, I celebrate Telltale’s story-driven update of the point-and-click genre. On the other hand, it isn’t always fun to play. There are many points during which I wondered why we had interactive elements at all. Sometimes looking at things added to dialogue options, which was great. And then sometimes it felt like I looked at things because it was a video game. I collected objects, but rarely used them. I walked down a hall because, well, it’s a video game, and interactive elements were needed. The quick-time combat was a bit more engaging. And there were a few major choices that I had to make that I know changed how things played out. Those choices alone made me wonder what the other choices would bring. So, if you are familiar with Telltale’s style and enjoy it, you will find more of the same here. If you prefer games that have more gameplay and autonomy, this definitely won’t be your thing.

Personal Enjoyment: 7

If a game makes me wish I was playing another game, I think it fails to resonate. Sometimes this game made me want to play Skyrim because I wanted more interactive elements (of consequence) and more choice and options for combat and movement. And sometimes it made me want to play Dragon Age because I wanted more choices in how to interact with characters. The dialogue options rarely fit with what I wanted to do, ESPECIALLY in King’s Landing. For the majority of the game, the character I enjoyed playing the most was Asher because he had such a strong personality at his introduction. I didn’t feel like I was playing myself in a game. I knew how Asher would respond. With other characters, I was left to determine who they were, and I sometimes defaulted to my ideal version of a character, which wasn’t available in the choices. And sometimes I wanted one of my Skyrim stealth characters. I wanted to take out the entire Whitehall army with my stealth and Dragonborn skills and bring this conflict to an end.

The loss of autonomy in this game was frustrating, and the choices sometimes felt inconsequential. But then, this is Game of Thrones. The first few episodes of the game were difficult because I was trying to make the “right” choice. But in a world of Ramsay Bolton, there is no right choice. I was able to better engage with the game when I adopted a Bushido approach: I’m already dead, so I don’t need to worry about dying. I can’t win, so don’t worry about losing. This worked since it took away the stress. And when I played as Asher, it was easier. Going in to the final episode, I decided the best option was to assume it won’t go well, so take as many of the villains with me as I can. It may not have given me the “best” ending (should such a thing be available in Westeros), but I lived and died on my terms. And in this world, that is the best anyone can hope for. And I think, at the end of it all, that is the choice in Westeros: Do you cling to life or do you cling to honor?

Final Rating: 7/10

Surprisingly, I am more than willing to play season two, whenever Telltale gets around to making it. The Westeros lore was expanded in this game, and it sometimes did a great job of giving me a fix as I wait for The Winds of Winter.

Let’s go ahead and assume the comments will have spoilers and let me know what you thought of the game and what choices you made?

Final Fantasy 4 (Final Fantasy Playthrough)

Final fantasy 4 title screen
Final Fantasy 4 title screen. Copyright Square-Enix.

Original Release Date: 1991

Playthrough Platform: PC (From the Nintendo DS port)

My History with the Game: Final Fantasy IV is the game that made me a fan of the series. While I had played FFI on the NES, it was the SNES version of FFIV (known to me back then as FFII) that captured my imagination. Outside of The Legend of Zelda, no game series had a greater impact on me as a gamer. I couldn’t purchase a copy of the game back then, so I rented Final Fantasy IV from the local video store, while desperately hoping that no one overwrote my save file as I tried to scrounge more money to rent the game again. I think I played it through twice. I have since learned that the version I grew up with was an easier version, though back then, I thought it was plenty hard. In the mid-2000s, I picked up the PS One re-release of the game, which included the original difficulty. I completed that version at least once. This playthrough is my first time to play the DS version.

Play Time for Main Story: 26:11

Story:  9

The Kingdom of Baron has begun to aggressively pursue the elemental crystals of other nations. The Dark Knight Cecil leads Baron’s air force, The Red Wings, against the city of Mysidia. Despite being mages, the Mysidians do not fight back. Many are killed. In light of this unprovoked slaughter, Cecil begins to question his king. He is exiled. Final Fantasy IV follows Cecil’s quest to learn why Baron is stealing the crystals and to stop the evil forces behind it.

Image of Baron Castle
Baron Castle. Copyright Square Enix

Much like Final Fantasy II, narrative takes center stage in this game. However, objectives are much clearer, and character stories drive many plot points. The story is filled with victory, tragedy, betrayal, and revelations. It is the most cohesive game so far in the series, and the one hints at the story-driven progression of future games.

Characters:  8

The characters are diverse and memorable. Cecil is the conflicted knight who questions his king, though it grieves him to do so. Kain is Cecil’s childhood friend and the commander of Baron’s dragoons. Kain harbors a secret love for Rosa, Cecil’s lover. Rosa is a white mage who wants to accompany Cecil in his quest. Rydia is a young girl from the summoner village. Her people are killed when Cecil and Kain unknowingly deliver fire monsters to the village. And there are many more characters (Cid, Tellah, Edward, Yang, Palom, Porom, Edge, Golbez, FoSuYa), each with a distinct personality, backstory, and motivation. I particularly enjoyed that this version of the game included a playable cutscene of Golbez’s past. I think I would have liked to see more added scenes to flesh out additional characters, but the one with Golbez was nice. It humanized him and made him far more sympathetic.

Yang shakes hands with Cecil as Rosa watches.
Yang, Cecil, Rosa. Copyright Square-Enix

I do think that the game cheats a bit with character death. There are many points during which characters make a sacrifice. This is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 2. Unlike that game, however, many characters return near the end of the game. Their death scenes feel empty as a result.

I would have also liked more development for Rosa. She remains a damsel in distress for much of the game. Rydia became a far more compelling and developed female character. But again, the character development in this game is a huge step forward. The SNES cartridges allowed for more text and story content for the games, and I’m glad the developers focused on story and character.

Presentation: 8

Playing the 3D version of this game took some adjustment. I was used to the SNES version. They didn’t change any maps, which was appreciated. And I loved the addition of a cartography quest for each dungeon. It inspired exploration and additional level grinding. The designers attempted to re-create the environments of the original, and I think they largely succeeded. I particularly enjoyed the embers from lava that drifted throughout the underworld.

This version of the game adds voiced cut-scenes. Some of the voices are cheesy, though the animation style almost justifies the lighter, silly anime tone of some scenes. The cut-scenes and 3D presentation allowed the animators to convey emotion better than the 2D sprites could in the original.

Tellah calls Edward a spoony bard.
I’m glad they didn’t change this classic line. Copyright Square-Enix.

Most of the music sounds good in this version. I think I enjoy the remake version of “Welcome to Our Town” better than the original. However, I prefer the original SNES versions of “Troian Beauty,” “Dancing Calbrena,” and “The Final Battle.”

Overall, the remake captures the feel and story of the original. Almost nothing is lost in the translation.

Gameplay: 8

Character progression is far more simplified in this game when compared to Final Fantasy 2 and 3. We return to the XP/Leveling system of Final Fantasy I. Characters are locked into a single class, but there is variety since each character has one or two commands that are unique to their class. Since you are not able to choose who is in your party, each time you gain or lose members, you have to find a new dynamic for battle, which keeps you on your toes. The DS remake adds a bit of customization with augments, which allow you to give a character additional commands or abilities for battle. Augments were not part of the original game, so these serve to make combat a bit easier.

There are a few side-quests (additional eidolons for summoning, unique weapons, and achievements), but most of the game focuses on the main story. Gameplay supplements the story, so if you are looking for a game with a lot of customization or exploration, Final Fantasy IV probably isn’t what you are looking for. I think that is a tension that the series always fights with: openness vs. driving narrative. Some games find a decent balance. Some lean more heavily toward one over the other. And some games jump back and forth, which can really mess with the pacing. Final Fantasy IV is very story/character driven, which is one reason I consistently enjoy it.

Dancing Dwarf
One side quest involves watching dancers in each town. Most are far more risque in this version than Nintendo allowed in the original. Here’s a dancing dwarf. Copyright Square-Enix.

Personal Enjoyment: 9

Again, this is the game that made me a fan of the series. I think it is also the game that made me interested in fantasy as a genre. I enjoy the characters, the twists, and the music. The 3D remake allowed me to rediscover an old favorite with new eyes. If you are looking to experience one of the older Final Fantasy games, but have been turned off by the old 8 or 16-bit graphics, this remake is a great starting point.

Final Rating: 8.4/10

The end screen for the game.
End screen. Copyright Square-Enix

So, I’ve gushed about this game, and I’m glad it held up for me. But I’d like to know what you think. When did you first play Final Fantasy IV (any version)? Do you have a version that you prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Final Fantasy 3 (Final Fantasy Playthrough)

Original Release Date: 1990

Playthrough Platform: PC

My History with the Game: This is the first time I have played this game.

Play Time for Main Story: 26:16

Music link to accompany reading.

20170526155324_1
Title screen. Copyright Square Enix.

Overview

Final Fantasy 3 was the last FF game released for the NES. It did not see a North American release until 2006, at which time it was released on the Nintendo DS (which I do not own), and was a 3D remake. This version was later ported to PC. Based on the research I have done, the story for the remake is largely the same as the original, though some characters have been fleshed out (rather than being generic) and a few mechanics have been tweaked.

Story

After a massive earthquake, four young orphans are chosen by the Crystals to be the Warriors of Light. In their travels they discover a world lurking beneath the Floating Continent that was their home. This world was frozen in time as the fallen wizard Xande works to achieve immortality. What Xande doesn’t realize is that he is a pawn in the struggle between Dark and Light. The balance between Dark and Light has shifted toward Dark, and the Warriors of Light must restore the balance. However, it turns out this quest was set into motion 1000 years earlier when the Warriors of Dark, while attempting to resolve the Light imbalance, encountered a creature they couldn’t destroy: The Cloud of Darkness, a creature whose sole desire is to return all existence to the Void. The Warriors of Dark were only able to contain the Cloud, but the Warriors of Light must now push back the Cloud of Darkness once and for all.

cloud-of-darkness
Cloud of Darkness. Copyright Square Enix.

One thing that continues to change in the Final Fantasy games is that the story becomes stronger and more prominent with each version. This game is no exception. While there are plenty of opportunities for grinding and exploration, the plot drives everything, and the next plot point is usually clear. But of particular interest is that level of Japanese cosmology that is in this game. When I first learned of the Warriors of Light and Dark who are called to preserve the balance between light and dark, I couldn’t help but imagine the Yin/Yang. Rather than the evil tyranny of FF2, you work to restore balance between Light and Dark, neutral forces that are only good or evil depending on their state of balance. The actions of humans affect the balance. And when imbalance occurs, the Void grows stronger. In the end, the Void is the enemy; non-existence is the enemy. Hope is the only way to fight the imbalance.

Characters

The characters were much stronger in this game. The main characters are

  • Arc – a bookish, somewhat timid young man
  • Ingus – a stoic royal guard
  • Refia – an adventurous young woman who doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps as a blacksmith
  • Luneth – the least developed character. I think he may be intended to stand in for the player, and thus left vague on purpose.
Amano_FFIII_Group
Main cast. Copyright Square Enix.

The secondary characters are also memorable. Among them are

  • Sara – the princess who takes is on herself to re-imprison the djinn. (She is also in love with Ingus.)
  • Desch – a womanizer with amnesia
  • Prince Allus of Saronia – who was exiled by his father but now wants to return.

The only criticism I have with character is that, like Final Fantasy 2, the main villain is underdeveloped. We hear about him in a couple of place, but only truly see him at the end of the game. Even then, he is a pawn of a greater evil that we don’t meet until the very end of the game. However, this is a recurring Final Fantasy trope. This wasn’t the first time this happened, and it won’t be the last.

Presentation

I didn’t play the original NES version, so I can’t really judge that one. The PC port of the Nintendo DS version is a good looking game. The visuals fit the tone of the game, being vaguely anime and cartoonish in tone. The 3D battlegrounds are reminiscent of the Playstation One games. The level designs are great and there aren’t as many dead-ends or empty rooms. And this is the first time the Final Fantasy series utilizes multiple world maps, one for the floating continent and one for the lower world (and an underwater map).

dance-number
Dance Break. Copyright Square Enix.

And again . . . great music.

Gameplay

Thankfully, the character leveling system of FF2 is gone. We are back to a more traditional XP system for character leveling. To spice things up, FF3 adds the job system. This system is a different spin on character classes. Rather than selecting a class at the beginning of the game and sticking with it, you collect job crystals that allow you to change classes whenever you want. Each job provides stat bonuses that stick with you as long as the job is equipped. As you level up your jobs, the bonuses increase as well. Each job usually has one or two special abilities, such as magic, stealing, guarding, etc.) Changing jobs lets you vary your play style, and even provides strategic advantages since some jobs are better suited for areas or bosses. The only frustrating thing about jobs in this game is the penalty you suffer when switching jobs. You typically have to fight a few battles before the stat bonuses kick in. Since you can level all jobs to 99, this is a very grind-heavy game if you want to be a completionist, but it isn’t required.

victory
Victory is victory. Copyright Square Enix.

Personal Enjoyment

After the disappointment of Final Fantasy 2, this game was a blast. While I haven’t enjoyed the job system in the past, I enjoyed it here. The humor and cuteness of the game was surprisingly appealing to me.

FF3-Toads
Bad news . . . Copyright Square Enix.

Grinding was actually fun, though at times combat could be frustrating. Early on the difficulty levels seemed to spike heavily if I wasn’t keeping my job levels high. And the complete lack of tents and ethers was incredibly frustrating. I spent a lot of time going between dungeons and towns to keep my MP high. Thankfully, you get a few different types of airships here. So, in all, this was a lot of fun, and I can see myself returning to my saved game to keep building my job levels.

Final Rating: 8/10

The Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us title screen
Copyright Telltale Games.

A One-Page Review Game Review

The Wolf Among Us is the first Telltale game I have played. Their games are a modern form of the old point-and-click variety, a genre that I enjoyed in my younger years. I was a huge fan of LucasArts. But one thing that Telltale brings to the table is choices that affect the story. So, when I interact with characters or choose to investigate certain places over others, the story alters based on my choices.

TWAU is set in the Fables comics universe that was created by Bill Willingham. I was a huge fan of this series. In the game, you take control of Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown. Bigby investigates the murder of a prostitute named Faith. What is particularly interesting in this game is the exploration of the seedy side of Fabletown and learning about Fables that fell between the cracks. Not everyone was a prince or princess. Some Fables were trolls or woodsmen or Grendel. A mysterious man known only as the Crooked Man has started an organization that provides for, and controls, Fables that can’t afford the Fabletown services—in particular, those that can’t afford the glamors that allow them to pass as human so they don’t have to go to the Farm.

Basically, TWAU is a noir exploration of the seedy underbelly of the Fables’s world.

Bigby gives Collin a cigarette.
Copyright Telltale games

For the most part, I enjoyed the game. I liked how Telltale introduced new characters who were based on urban myths, such as Bloody Mary and The Jersey Devil. I loved when Bigby finally tuned into his full, Big Bad Wolf form. And there were plenty of moments when I agonized over decisions I had to make. But at times I didn’t find the game too engaging. I would have enjoyed just watching and not playing, or even reading the story if it was a comic. Sometimes I forgot I was playing a game, and realized I had to answer a question or dodge a punch. (Be warned: don’t ever let your hands drop off the keyboard, just in case.)

Overall, I wanted more gameplay and exploration. The Wolf Among Us, however, is a well-made game, and a well-told story. It just wasn’t quite my thing.

Final Rating: 7/10

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

Assassin's Creed Chronicles China title screen
Title screen. Copyright Ubisoft.

A one-page game review.

So, maybe a game this late in the series wasn’t the best starting point. I’ve played a few minutes of Assassin’s Creed, but I’ve never finished it. I’ve barely started it. I love what I’ve seen so far, especially the visuals, but there are a lot of control combinations, and I wanted to wait for a time when I’m not trying to get through quite a few other games.

Why start ACC:C, then? I wanted something different, and this game was different than anything else I was currently playing. I grew up on the NES and the SNES, so I’m familiar with old-school platforming (back when we called it “side-scrolling”). I cut my teeth on Mega Man 2 and Ninja Gaiden. I thought ACC:C looked like an interesting update to the platforming games of old, and I like learning about Southeast Asian history. If there was an Assassin’s Creed game set in Edo Japan, I’d be dropping everything to play it.

The game takes place in China in 1526 and follows Shao Jun, the remaining assassin of the Chinese brotherhood. Templars wiped out her fellow assassins. The extent of my Assassin’s Creed knowledge is that the Assassins and the Templars are enemies. (And that there’s a sci-fi element with the animus and recovered memories or something that, at a distance, seems unnecessarily complicated. Maybe I’ll like it when I eventually try out the main series.) Anyway, Shao Jun allows herself to be captured so she can get revenge against the Templars. That’s pretty much it for the plot. The story was a bit underwhelming.

Example of a level in Assassin's Creed Chronicles China.
Copyright Ubisoft.

There is some good platforming in this game, and the level design is very interesting. In particular, I love that there are different layers to the levels, which means you can occasionally run toward the camera or away from it to find alternate paths. This gives the game a 3D element that occasionally added alternate paths. I also enjoyed the UX design. The game used splashes of red to show where you could alter your path or interact with objects. Green often designated places you could hide; red showed places you could climb. Avoiding guards was sometimes very difficult, and combat could be excruciating. But I think what I enjoyed the most were the levels where you had to outrun fires that broke out. It was fun trying to navigate the levels as fast as possible, and even more fun when I unlocked the jump/sliding kill moves.  In my first time through these levels, I almost hit the best speed run score, usually missing it by a few seconds. It felt good to get that close on my first try, making me feel that all those old gaming muscles were still there, waiting to be tapped. (It felt annoying to get that close, but miss.)

There are a lot of controls to remember, and I confess that my play style was a combination of impatience and forgetfulness. When I played Dishonored, I did a stealth run, and didn’t kill anyone. In ACC:C, I got impatient and killed as many guards as I could. I got tired of dealing with them. Maybe if I remembered the combos, I would have done better. I probably would have fared better with a controller, but I was using my PC and was feeling too lazy and disinterested to try to figure it out.

So, I guess that is my final verdict. Good visual and level design, but kind of uninteresting and not very engaging from a plot standpoint. But the speed run sections are a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 6/10

Silence

A One-Page Review of the novel by Shusaku Endo

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind.

Cover for Silence.
Silence. Ed. 2016. Published by Picador Modern Classics.

Silence is a Japanese historical novel set in the 17th century. Japan has closed its borders to all but Dutch traders. The country is closed to Christian missionaries. The new magistrate, Inoue, has led a successful campaign of persecution against Christians, causing many to apostatize—including the highly respected Father Ferreira. Two of Ferreira’s formers students, Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe, decide to go to Japan to discover the truth of Ferreira’s fate and to minister to the hidden Christians.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives: Rodrigues’s letters, third-person, journals from a Dutch trader, and government documents. Each section increases the distance between the reader and Rodrigues.

The major theme of this book is the struggle to maintain faith while God is silent. Rodrigues witnesses horrific tortures that are not designed to kill, but to cause apostasy. In particular, if priests apostatize, it shows the inferiority of the Christian faith when compared to Japanese culture. Through his novel, Endo attempts to wrestle with why Christianity has had difficulty taking root in Japan. But he also challenges the missionary perspective of Rodrigues and the concept of what a faithful Christian looks like. He introduces the idea that Rodriguez couldn’t truly hear God in this situation until his understanding of Christianity had been challenged and stripped away.

This is a brilliant work of art that asks hard questions about faith and suffering.

Verdict: Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, Japanese culture, and thoughtful contemplation about faith. The edition I read had an introduction that explained the historical context of the story. The descriptions of the persecutions are very unpleasant, but the novel itself doesn’t go in to as much detail about the specifics.

Final Fantasy 2 – Retrospective

Final Play Time: 25:22

Overview

Final Fantasy 2 is generally disliked by fans. Square took a lot of risks in this game, and while those risks don’t really work, they I’m glad they took them. It shows the developers are willing to not just do the same thing all over again; this game presents a new world, new characters, and new mechanics, something that would be repeated with each game that followed.

Final Fantasy 2 logo
Image Copyright Square-Enix.

Story:  5

The Emperor of Palamecia has been conquering kingdoms and villages. He has led armies of monsters and the undead. Our heroes are exiles from the Kingdom of Flynn, which has recently fallen to the Empire. They are rescued by the rebellion, which is led by Princess Hilde and her father. As the characters join the rebellion, they must prove their skills in battle as they seek plans for the Empire’s secret weapon, the Dreadnaught airship.

Where Final Fantasy told the story of a time-loop involving elemental beings committed to destroy the world, Final Fantasy 2 goes for a less-convoluted and far less interesting story about an evil empire determined to destroy the world. The story is told better, but it is not engaging. I remember being in high school and staying up late to get to the next plot point in Final Fantasy 4 or 6. Playing those games was like reading a book that I just couldn’t put down. And while there are twists and turns, sacrifices, and a journey into the tower of Pandemonium itself, I never felt compelled to find out what happened next. I am glad, however, that there was a greater emphasis on storytelling in this game. And some of the story ideas and themes will return in Final Fantasy 4 and 6, to much greater effect.

The main cast and the Emperor.
Art by Yoshitaka Amano. Image copyright Square-Enix

Characters: 3

We have three main characters throughout the majority of the game: Firion, Maria, and Gus. The team is supplemented by rotating fourth characters: Mindu, Josef, Leila, Gordon, Gareth, and Leon. (The names vary based on the version of the game played. I played the PSX version.) Each character has a distinct personality, which can be fun. But the personalities are fairly broad. Firion is the hero. Maria is strong-willed. Gus is not very intelligent. The rotating characters have more distinct personalities, but just enough to tell them apart. There are no tragic backstories to discover here. The most interesting characterization, however, is Leon. He is Maria’s brother and the friend of Firion ad Gus. He vanishes after the game’s opening, only to reappear later as the Dark Knight of the Empire. He even goes so far as to proclaim himself Emperor after you kill the current Emperor. It is not clear why he betrayed his friends and joined the Empire. I wanted more from this.

Presentation:  5

Music: Nobuo Uematsu composed the music for this game, and as always, it is wonderful. The battle music is some of the best in the series, and the over world theme has a particularly melancholy feel.

Tone: I’m sure it is due to the music, but this game feels darker. The world feels empty. This emptiness escalates after the Empire unleashes its second super-weapon, the Cyclone. Many of the towns you visited before are destroyed. By the game’s end, only two cities remain: Flynn and Mysidia. In the end, there is nothing for the world but to rebuild. Even friendships are left in ruin. The music and the story fit together well. Intriguingly, so do the mechanics (see Gameplay).

Design: The world is smaller than it initially seems, but you spend a lot of time running back and forth between the rebel base and new locations. The missions are clearer in this game than Final Fantasy 1, though the backtracking gets old after a while. The dungeons are designed well, but there is a distinct pattern of treasure being on an opposite path or opposite side of a room than the stairs to the next level. Curiously, there are many doors that lead to empty rooms. This makes the game more frustrating, but I think these rooms may have been designed for extra grinding.

Gameplay: 5

And here is the real reason this game is hated: the levelling system. It is brutal. Gone is the XP-based system of FF1. FF2 uses a system that is based around actions taken in battle, both your actions and the actions enemies take against you. If you want to get better with swords, use swords in battle. If you want stronger magic, use the spells you want to improve. It gets a bit trickier with HP/MP. When you start battle, the game records your current HP/MP stats then compares them to your end-of-battle stats. So, if you want to gain HP/MP, they must decrease in battle. This led me to waiting until after battle to heal. It also meant I used magic far more than I normally do. I tend to conserve magic-replenishing items, but in this game, I spent a lot of time grinding for gold so I could buy more ethers to refill my magic.

In theory, it is an interesting system. I like The Elder Scrolls games, and they also have a level system based around the skills you actively use. It encourages you to find your play style and stick to it, and it even forces a bit of role-playing. But the system in Final Fantasy 2 is almost more difficult to use and figure out. For example, I tried to increase my Evasion stats so my characters would be harder to hit. By game’s end, I only had one character with an Evasion of 6; the others were either 4 or 5. From the research I did online, this is a low number, and Evasion is super important in this game. I think I spent three hours trying various methods to try to increase this stat, and I could never see any progress. Everyone stayed where they were. In the end I made it work, but it was still frustrating trying to figure out how to increase this one stat.

Also of note, the difficulty would spike suddenly when entering new areas. I frequently thought I had the game figured out, only to cross into a new section of the map and get killed in a few hits. And worse are the dungeons early in the game when you have low MP, but encounter Adamanoises (turtles) that have a high physical resistance but low Ice magic resistance. I think it was Kash’ion Castle that I got to the boss, beat it, then realized I didn’t have enough magic to easily get out of the castle. Nor did the game let me use Warp. I had to use the Memo Save (temporary save) after each battle (unless I did I made a few inexcusable mistakes) and slowly make my way back to the world map for a regular, permanent save. I frequently found myself unprepared for these difficulty spikes, and started micromanaging my stats as much as possible. I tried to do as much of this as possible without using the exploits in this version of the game. This meant I didn’t target my own teammates.

But the mechanics are interesting in that they make you feel like the characters. These characters are not warriors. They have to prove themselves to the rebellion. And, with that in mind, the game makes you prove yourself by making you just as unskilled as them. You can develop your characters however you want, but you have to be patient and train for it. However, it really helps if you figure out how the game calculates your stats, so you can try to be strategic both in and out of combat.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I was excited to play this game, but the mechanics really wore me down over time. I probably could have finished the game sooner, but typically waited until I was in the mood to grind before playing it. I didn’t spend too much time grinding for stats. I spent most of my time grinding for gold. And each time I entered a new area, the difficulty spike was very discouraging. But despite this difficulty, I was shocked at how easy the final boss was: Two hits with a Blood Sword, and he was finished. After hours of struggling through the Jade Passage and Pandemonium, I was expecting more of a fight. It was my own fault, though, for using the Blood Swords.

Overall, there were a few times the game was fun. I definitely enjoyed that the storytelling was more dominant and that more effort was given to characterization. As always Uematsu’s music is a joy to listen to. I’m glad to finally cross this game off my list, but I doubt I will ever come back to it.

Final Rating: 4/10

Final Fantasy 2 end screen