Oh boy, another NES game given the HD makeover on the PSP to celebrate Final Fantasy's 20 years of existing! And it's one that wasn't released in English until Final Fantasy Origins was released on the PS1 in 2003! For once, it's not being released in the same CD or cartridge as Final Fantasy 1, but hey, we want to know what the real Final Fantasy 2 was like, so let's sink our teeth into it... I mean, you would hope that the only reason that it never got a domestic release was due to JRPGs not being profitable outside of Japan back in the 80s and early 90s, and maybe the first Final Fantasy's sales weren't good enough to justify even bothering for a domestic release of Final Fantasy 2 (and 3). After playing through this, it's clear that given some of the changes in the formula, it'd be hard to get non-Japanese people into it, and given the lukewarm sales of Final Fantasy 1, well, that just seals the deal.
One such change is the story. Instead of it simply being in the background, it's a serious driving force for the player to connect with, getting them interested in the sequence of events so that they'll be more than willing to keep playing. Final Fantasy 2 is about an emperor who attacks a village while in search of a resistance group. He manages to succeed by killing everyone in that group, except for four who manage to escape. But then the emperor's horsemen take them down and leave them for dead. Thankfully, three of the four are rescued by another group of rebels, this one led by the princess Hilda. From there, you'll need to locate her brother, Leon, while getting out there to kill the emperor.
Really, Final Fantasy 2 is a hell of a lot more involved than Final Fantasy 1's as there's a fair amount of plot development, a lot of dramatic moments involving death and betrayal, and some character development here and there to really capture the player. To add onto this is a keyword feature. During conversations, there will be words that are highlighted which you can select and learn. From there, you can talk to other NPCs and use these keywords to learn more about the world or about other characters. A fair amount of the time, it amounts to superfluous information, but when it doesn't, it gives you important information that can aid in immersion and/or give you neat little hints as to where you ought to go next. Now, you might be thinking that the PSP version enhanced the NES version's story to a large extent, but no, even the NES version was very detailed with its storytelling. This may be part of the reason why it never saw a domestic release – the NES is an arcade-y system and thus a largely story driven game like this would probably confuse westerners – but over twenty years later, it's actually aged fairly well.
Ooh I like where this is going!
The basic gameplay structure is a lot like Final Fantasy 1's. You have your towns where you can rest in inns to restore your health, buy items to heal, buy equipment to enhance your stats a bit and buy magic spells from shops. They're basically your safe havens from the monsters unless there's a boss battle to be found there. There are also townsfolk to talk to and while they didn't tell you much in Final Fantasy 1, they tell you a fair bit in Final Fantasy 2 and are even downright vital at points. But when you're out in the world, you run around to find the next town or dungeon while randomly encountering groups of enemies. In battle, you can either attack with your weapons or use a spell that you've taught whoever you've designated as your mage (more on that later), use items to heal, run away or defend. Most of the battles simply consist of hitting the enemy and then healing when your HP gets low, although enemies and especially bosses tend to be a bit craftier in their assault. The bosses may try to inflict more status conditions and require some serious turn maximizing strategies in order to defeat them. It's not an overly challenging game, per se, but it does have its moments and due to all of this, the game does also have that pick up and play mentality that the first game has. Don't get me wrong, there are some tricky dicky parts, especially found in a bonus dungeon exclusive to this version where you'll need some cunning and wit to dispose of enemies harder than diamonds. Unfortunately, outside of careful strategy, you can remedy a good amount of that through grinding, and it's quite a pain because... well, how do I put this?
Unlike in Final Fantasy 1 where you create characters with clearly defined stats, our main characters start off very balanced, allowing you to level them up any way you see fit. But there aren't any levels, per se. Instead, you level up your stats as you perform actions in battle. As you swing a weapon at your enemies, you'll be able to raise your strength stat up and become more proficient in using that particular sort of weapon, and the more you use healing magic, the better you'll get at healing, the more MP you'll gain and the better the spell will get. The more you get hit, the more your defense will raise. Right, this is something that can work really well if it was executed just right because it can really help you essentially make your own characters. It's actually a lot like real life how if you keep running every day, you could run further and further, and if you keep lifting weights every day, you'll be promoted to lifting heavier weights later along the line. But as you can tell, it isn't quite right. Like I said, increasing your defense and HP requires you to get hit and keep your HP low. If you find yourself lacking in defense and getting your bells whipped by a boss, guess what everybody? You're grinding, and given that it's random who'll get to have their defenses levelled up as enemies attack random party members, you'll be waiting quite a long time before everyone gets a decent amount of defense.
At the same time, this is very easily exploited as you can hit each other... and it contributes to you levelling up!! Want to further exploit it? Heal each other after hitting each other and you'll increase your magic and spell stats! Of course, you have to keep enemies in mind or you'll die, but if you play it smart, you'll have it so that the enemy won't kill all of you. The bad news in all of this is how you actually level up – consider the fact that your characters start off balanced; they will stay balanced, even if this means that they will be proficient in some areas and crap in others. You cannot have your mages using physical attacks, and vice versa. I'm sorry, maybe I want my mage to also be good with physical attacks? You cannot gain extra HP and defense if you want to ram your way through enemies to increase your attack power; it has to be one or the other two, meaning that while you can pummel a boss, they'll hit you like a dump truck. Oh, and your fourth member changes a lot, so you may find yourself having to do this quite a bit when you acquire a new fourth member. To tie things together, you can only level up one stat at a time, which means you either have to play a purely defensive game of standing there and taking it up where the sun don't shine, or playing a purely offensive game where you annihilate your enemies while grinding. Hoorah for even lamer executions!! It's amazing that I'm saying all of this about the PSP version, which has actually scaled down on the grinding and overall difficulty quite a bit. Still, at times, it becomes a necessity to exploit the system and for that reason and many others, this game goes from being a few steps above the first game to being pretty irritating to play.
There are also some rather dickish design choices to play with – one being that your fourth ally goes from being useful to dragging you down. The first one you get is very useful as it knows every healing spell in the book. The second one has decent stats all around and can match with the rest of your party. But from then on, you'll get allies that seem to be a few levels and eventually what feels like hundreds of levels behind you. If you put two and two together, you'll say to yourself “hah, like I'm grinding this weakling because they'll be gone in a second”, but then Murphy's law will come to play, you'll only have that ally left to try and revive your main three, and... fourthy is dead. You can imagine how frustrating this can get. The other is that most dungeons are empty. You'll get into a room, automatically come up a few spaces in front of the door and meet... thin air, followed up by a random encounter. Oh, but on the occasions that you do get something for your trouble, it's either a generic item or a super rare, super powerful piece of equipment! Square – trolling gamers since 1988.
Use exploding circle attack!!
Much like Final Fantasy 1 on the PSP, Final Fantasy 2 Anniversary Edition received the HD treatment, which basically means that all of the sprites, environments and effects have been redrawn in glorious HD... by PSP standards, anyway. But at the same time, the game looks just as delicious as the other. Everything is all neat and sharp with some vibrant colors to pop out of the screen without some gimmicky 3D effect. Once again, there isn't much in the way of animations outside of some simple steps and thwacks. Not a big deal, but it can be disappointing if you expect a bit more. There is a bit of CG in this game, but it's only in the opening of the game. Damn, I wanted a few more key scenes in CG as what we did get looks great – containing some rich and dynamic lighting and detailed textures all topped with fluid animation, it's disappointing that that's all we got but then again, it was lifted from Final Fantasy Origins (which had the first two Final Fantasy games, only on the PS1) and the quality would be inconsistent... then again, I was thinking about this kind of thing back in 2003 so... eh, no use crying over spilt milk, even if the character designs in that scene are nothing like their original designs.
The soundtrack here is fantastic, just like Final Fantasy 1's remixed soundtrack. Instead of the blips and blops of the original NES's soundtrack, there's instead a symphony to make the soundtrack bigger and better. I have nothing against the original NES soundtrack; I simply thought that the remixes were better. Significantly better. The first game's soundtrack worked well on the NES due to its insistence on being simple and catchy, while having some epicness behind it; the second game, while still wanting to be catchy, isn't as simple in composition and required more dynamicism. The NES's sound chip simply didn't have as many tracks as this soundtrack required... thank god for remixes, huh? With big sweeping symphonies, it manages to cater towards the soundtrack's need for more tracks by adding more instruments. On top of having epic themes, it also contains a darker ambience. While the graphics are a bit more happy go lucky, the soundtrack is more serious and even sombre at just the right points, something that is done better with an orchestra than a compressed MIDI song as each arrangement of instruments can better convey emotion than some chiptune song ever could. Look, I think the original NES soundtrack is good too, but this is a game that definitely benefited from a more modern touch.
Much like Final Fantasy 1, it's tricky to give Final Fantasy 2 a fair score based on what's been said and done, but rather than having to consider its pick up and play style alongside a non existent story, it's more about thinking whether the story, ambience and its simple gameplay style is able to make up for the poorly executed levelling style. But after all that's said and done, Final Fantasy 2 receives a 5/10. It's just too hard to overlook the ass backwards levelling system when you're spending a good amount of your time grinding. Even with an increasingly intriguing story to look forward to and a gameplay style that at least works for what it's worth, once you get to grinding, it all goes downhill.