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

Final Fantasy 2 Introduction

Original Final Fantasy 2 box art

Original Release Date: 1988

Playthrough Platform: Playstation

My History with the Game: Despite owning the PS One remake, I have never played all the way through this game. What I remember about the game is that the story was stronger and more dominant than the first game and that the game mechanics are very different. The mechanics are based around what actions you take. At the time, I didn’t care for this, but in the intervening years I have become a fan of The Elder Scrolls. I’m actually looking forward to the mechanics now. I think this is the only Final Fantasy game that uses this type of character progression. And I really like that Square established early on that they would take risks with these games and not just duplicate what came before. But more than anything, I am excited about playing a Final Fantasy game that I have never played before.

I can’t wait!

Final Fantasy 1 – Retrospective

Final Play Time: 15:22

Final Fantasy logo

Overview

Final Fantasy was the game that saved Square and launched the long-running, extremely popular series. It’s hard to recapture the context of this game and recognize how ground-breaking it was at the time. It feels dated, but this game revolutionized the jRPG genre. I’ve played through this game multiple times, and in honor of this year being the 30th anniversary, I have played through the game once more. Again, this was a groundbreaking game at the time, but this review reflects my experience with the game on this play through.

Story:  4

Final Fantasy starts with a “save-the-princess” trope that soon evolves into story that requires you to revive the elemental crystals and defeat the elemental fiends so you can open a time gate to fight an ancient evil, close a time loop, and erase an alternate dimension where chaos rules. It actually sounds cooler than it plays out. Most of the information on the plot is held until an info-dump prior to the final dungeon and a bit more prior to the final boss. The concept is good, but the execution is a bit weak. That said, I’m happy Square was ambitious with the concepts, and high concepts continue throughout the series.

World Building:  5

As world building goes, there’s not a lot to this one. There are your standard elves and dwarves, kings and queens, and so on. This game feels influenced by Dungeons & Dragons but with a bit of Japanese spin. When the game story introduces us to the ancient Sky People and their lost civilization, the world starts to expand a bit. In fact, lost civilizations with advanced technology become a trope in other Final Fantasy and Square games. But its treatment here is small. It’s interesting, but there’s not much to it. I wanted more lore than I got. But, it was a step up at the time. Compared to the lore in games like The Legend of Zelda (most of which was in the manual and not the game.

Characters: 0

Deep characterization was not really a thing when this game was released. While Garland, the ultimate evil in this game, is said to have succumbed to darkness and hatred, this isn’t something that we ever really see. Again, it is told, not shown. None of the main characters area really characters, merely avatars of the player.

Gameplay: 7

As I mentioned before, this game is seems influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. The most noticeable instance of this is the magic system, which is divided into spell levels, and each level only allows a certain number of casts. Once you have used all available castings, you must rest. Instead of short and long rests, you have sleeping bags, tents, and cabins, each of which restores increasingly greater amounts of health and magic. The combat requires a bit of strategy if you want efficient and quick combat, though in the remake there is less need for this strategy as in the original version (which didn’t re-target monsters as they died). The combat can be fun, but it can also be brutal at times. I spent a lot of time early on grinding gold and XP, and I still struggled against some monster later in the game. Combat can be frequent, too. Sometimes it is hard to go more than five steps without a random attack. This can be incredibly frustrating if a character dies, and you have to go back to a chapel to revive them, but you keep getting attacked. Let’s just say that I learned to hate the Marsh Cave at a very young age. I’ve always felt the game got easier after that. Or at the very least, gold was easier to come by after that.

Personal Enjoyment: 5

I’ll confess, I’ve never really cared for Final Fantasy. It was one of the few games I had on the NES, and it was years before I beat it. My love for the series actually started with Final Fantasy IV (2). That game won me over with the story and characters, and it was because of that game that I later went back to Final Fantasy I. I almost never think about it with fondness. Nor do I think of it with dislike. It’s just . . . there. I appreciate it as the starting point for this series, and I smile at the callbacks. But when it comes to craving a Final Fantasy experience, this first game has never been one I revisit with excitement. It kind of pains me to say all this. I appreciate what it did at the time, both as a game and for the RPG genre, but for me, it is a miss. It is an artefact that has many elements that would carry through into later games. And in those later games, they would often be used to greater effect.

Final Rating: 4.2/10

Modular Storytelling

Vincent from Final Fantasy VII. (Source: Wikipedia. Copyright by Square-Enix.)

Anyone with half an eye on the publishing industry can see that people are afraid. Will books cease to exist? Will our canon of literature go digital and never look back? Will e-publishing become the standard? Some of these questions are absurd and pointless. Books are not under threat; business models are under threat. However, technology does bring up the potential for new modes of storytelling. Enter: modular or interactive storytelling.

I first encountered modular storytelling as it was referenced in passing by comic writer Grant Morrison. I did some digging. Modular storytelling developed from analysis of narrative as it applies to video games. Since I love the Final Fantasy series, I’ll start there. The Final Fantasy series is renowned for great plots and compelling characters. However, being video games, these stories have an aspect of interactivity to them. There is a linear plot, but some installments in the series (VI, VII) have optional characters. These characters don’t advance the main plot, but they may add background information; they may add insight. To me, this is the real threat to books: interactive stories.

It is difficult to tell a story with paper and ink while making it interactive. Some forays have been done with the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and its imitators). Video games are probably the best model for what one can do with modular storytelling. A player’s actions can dictate the path (good or evil in Fables, light or dark side in Knights of the Old Republic) or unlock information that explains certain details (Vincent in Final Fantasy VIII). What I find fascinating is the idea of a book, or more specifically, text as interactive. Would it be possible to write a prose story that is fully interactive?

The main difficulty with such a prospect is time. A single writer would have to account for every possible path the story could take (or at the very least, chose pivot points for the story). The amount of writing necessary would be immense. Perhaps it would be best done with a team of writers with a lead writer, much like a television show or video game. The story would definitely need a director, someone to make sure all the pieces are together and accounted for. Due to the complexity, it may be some time before we see this attempted in a way that is compelling and paradigm-shifting.

While we may not see it in prose for some time, modular storytelling is finding its way into film. Thanks to Daniel Knauf (creator of HBO’s Carnivale), modular storytelling has debuted on the web in a big way. Tomorrow I will give my initial thoughts on Haunted.

How I Have Been Annoying My Facebook Friends

No new Doctor Who content yet, but I will tell you how I’ve been annoying my friends on Facebook.

Between work and school, I have felt that my life has been rather mundane and busy, so to inject a bit on adventure and surrealism into my life, I have been altering my Facebook account so it looks more like an entry from one of the Final Fantasy games. I changed my timeline picture to a logo of my name, and have been thinking of RPG-themed versions of normal, everyday events.

I have been having a lot of fun learning photo editing software (which is actually school related, so it isn’t exactly pointless goofing off), and thus far this activity amuses me. It may start annoying my friends soon, but they can always hide my posts.

Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy – St. Louis 2012.03.24

Source: STL Symphony Web Site. Copyright 2012 by Square Enix Co., LTD.)

Living in the Missouri, you learn that it is rare when large acts visit. If a well-known band or performance visits St. Louis or Kansas City, it is advised you try to attend because who knows when the chance will come again. I’m still a bit disappointed I didn’t see Tom Waits during the Glitter and Doom tour, but the tickets were expensive.

This past weekend, the tour for Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy put on two shows in St. Louis. Conductor Arnie Roth (who is also a member of Mannheim Steamroller) and composer Nobuo Uematsu worked with the St. Louis Symphony for the performances. Each night had a different set-list, although many pieces were duplicated between the two. For my birthday, my wife had bought tickets to the Saturday night performance. This was the second time I have been to Powell Hall to see the St. Louis Symphony, the first being a tour of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The show was excellent. The audience was primarily made up of fans of the Final Fantasy series, so anticipation was high and listening was respectful. This wasn’t a performance where the audience paid money to sit and talk the whole time. My wife and I even saw a few costumes: one Sephiroth, a Yuna, and a half-hearted Squall (who only seemed half-hearted because he accompanied Yuna, who had done an excellent costume reproduction).

Each piece was accompanied by a video montage from the corresponding game. Obviously, the games from Final Fantasy VII and later included quite a bit of cut-scene material. The videos for earlier games either utilized gameplay scenes or production artwork by Yoshitaka Amano.

Highlights from the show included Dark World, in which Uematsu-san played synthesizer and Mr. Roth played a wonderfully melancholic melody on violin; Vamo’ alla Flamenco, which had some wonderful Spanish guitar work; and an encore of One Winged-Angel, which included audience participation on the choral parts as the choir only appeared in the Friday performance. Even though these were my personal favorites, there wasn’t a bad piece in the show. Despite being two and a half hours, I could have gladly listened for another hour. If you get a chance to attend a Distant World performance, you should take advantage of it, whether a fan of the Final Fantasy games or not. If you enjoy symphonic music, don’t let the video game origin keep you away.

Program list from 3/24/2012
Final Fantasy VII: Opening – Bombing Mission
Final Fantasy: Victory Theme
Final Fantasy I-III: Medley 2010
Final Fantasy X: To Zanarkand
Final Fantasy VIII: Eyes on Me
Final Fantasy V: Dear Friends
Final Fantasy IX: Vamo’ alla Flamenco
Final Fantasy X: Suteki da ne
Final Fantasy Series: New Chocobo Medley
Final Fantasy VIII: The Man with the Machine Gun
Final Fantasy VI: Dark World
Final Fantasy IX: You’re Not Alone
Final Fantasy XII: Kiss Me Goodbye
Final Fantasy VII: Aerith’s Theme
Final Fantasy VIII: Don’t Be Afraid
Final Fantasy XIII: Blinded By Light
Final Fantasy VI: Opera “Maria and Draco”
Encore: Final Fantasy VII: One-Winged Angel