When it was released in 1991, Final Fantasy II (or IV for all the continuity enthusiasts) revolutionized the RPG field. Just the simple fact that 21 years later, it is still regarded by many as one of the greatest RPGs ever created is a testament to it‘s impact. It established the Active Time Battle system, which would become a standard for role-playing games for years to come. The graphics took a drastic leap forward from the 8-bit NES to the 16-bit SNES, allowing for amazingly detailed enemies and spell-casting animations. But, most importantly, Final Fantasy II introduced a certain element of surprise; within the first few hours, you come to realize that this game will not be a predictable one. And that, in my opinion, is what makes Final Fantasy II stand out as one of the best entries in the Final Fantasy series.
On a side note, there will obviously be spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played the game, go do so, and then read this. Thank you.
In Final Fantasy II, you play as Cecil, a dark knight and Captain of the Red Wings, a fleet of soldiers who control airships to carry out the bidding of the King of Baron. Their main objective is to steal the powerful elemental crystals from various towns the world over. Unbeknownst to the players is the fact that the King has actually been assassinated and replaced by a henchman of Golbez, the main antagonist of the game, who wants the crystals so he can wipe all life off of the planet and allow his race, the Lunarians, to repopulate the world. Cecil is eventually relieved of his duties, and he makes it his task to stop Golbez at all costs.
Throughout Cecil’s adventures, he gathers a motley crew of warriors, magicians, bards, and summoners. The first sign that this game is not what it seems occurs just a few hours in. While Cecil, Rydia, Yang, and Edward are limping home from an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Golbez, their ship is attacked by Leviathan. The giant sea serpent is not easily deterred, and as a result, all party members are scattered. At the moment, the player is unsure as to whether any characters, aside from Cecil, survived the attack. A moment of panic rises for the player, or at least for me; I had spent so much time leveling these characters up, I genuinely liked all of them (except Edward), and now they were snatched away from me, possibly never to return. While the player is bemoaning the loss of his powerful allies, Cecil, ever the hero, sucks it up and continues on his journey. The player is left with a sense of uncertainty; if Final Fantasy II is willing to wreak havoc on my party, what’s else is it prepared to do?
Cecil soon learns that in order to defeat Golbez, he must give up his dark knighthood and take on the mantle of a Paladin, the white knight. It is at this point that we are introduced to the twin mages, Palom, a black mage, and Porom, a white mage. They make a perfect complement to one another, and are extremely powerful; thus, they quickly become invaluable party members. Along the way, they reunite with Tellah, a mage searching for the legendary “Meteor” spell to destroy Golbez, who had killed Tellah’s daughter. Cecil, with the help of the three mages, is successful in becoming a Paladin, and the quest to stop Golbez proceeds.
Cecil eventually discovers that Yang survived the Leviathan attack as well, and recruits him once more. The five party members journey to Baron to claim a new airship that has been built by Cid, Cecil’s longtime friend. It is here that one of the most surprising and memorable moments of Final Fantasy II occurs. After many grueling battles, Cecil and friends defeat the impostor posing as the King of Baron. The party goes to leave the throne room, confident that all danger has passed. However, when walking through the entryway, the doors on either side become magically sealed, trapping everyone. To make matters even worse, the walls begin to close in on the party. Everyone tries to stop them, but to no avail. It is at this moment that Palom and Porom glance at each other, say a few parting words, lean against the walls, and cast “Petrify” on themselves. The walls grind to a halt, saving the party. Tellah immediately tries to heal them, but his spells have no effect. Palom and Porom are gone just like that. Throughout the rest of the game, you can return to this room and attempt to use items on them, but none will cure the twins. They are dead, and I was devastated. I had formed a bond with them during the Paladin quest, and it only grew as the game progressed. They were two of my favorite characters, and two mainstays of my party, and, yet again, Final Fantasy II ripped them away from me.
After that, the journey continues, the party bolstered by a new spirit of vengeance, the player feeling that nothing else could begin to compare to this loss. After more adventures, and reunions with old companions, they finally reach Golbez. Tellah, the man with the greatest reason to destroy Golbez, and your strongest mage, rushes him, casting spell after spell. However, they have no effect. Finally, Tellah is able to cast “Meteor”, the legendary spell, and severely wounds Golbez. Cecil dashes forward to strike the final blow on him, but it was all for naught. Golbez is down, but not out. He escapes, leaving Tellah collapsed on the ground, dying. I was sure Tellah would recover, and eventually get his revenge, but it was not meant to be. He dies, his last words spent begging the party to destroy Golbez. And that’s another major character taken out. At this point, I was terrified to go any further. How many more of my party had to die?
There were no more actual deaths, but some close calls. Cid was trapped in the Underworld for quite some time. Yang was caught in an explosion and believed dead for the rest of the game, and though you could find him alive but unconscious in a cavern, you couldn’t play as him again. It’s hard to overstate the impact that this has on a player. You spend so much time leveling up a character, and making them an integral part of your team, that when they are suddenly gone, it’s severely startling; you’re forced to change your tactics and build up characters you’d been ignoring. You have to either think on your feet, or put the controller down. The surprising loss of characters improves the game dramatically by making the player try every aspect the leftover party members have to offer, something you might not have done if Final Fantasy II didn’t force you to. In other games, this would come off as heavy-handed and annoying; but Final Fantasy is able to not only pull it off with aplomb, but make it one of the major reasons it’s such a wonderful game.
All of the characters who died or become unplayable during the course of the game make one last appearance during the final battle, but this seems tacked on at best. The player has already dealt with their deaths, and it seemed to me to be a little too much for a game that is laden with such strong emotions. Despite this slight misstep, the meaning behind the deaths during the game are not lessened.
Palom, Porom, and Tellah’s deaths were what made the story of Final Fantasy II great; these characters were so dedicated to defeating Golbez and ending his evil plot that they made the greatest sacrifice a person can; their own lives. Whether it’s the young twins turning themselves to stone so their companions can complete the mission, or the old sage casting a lost spell in an attempt to destroy the person who took what he loved most from him, they speak to us for a multitude of reasons: sacrifice, hope, love, loss. These are all things that each of us must deal with at some point in our lives, and that is what has made Final Fantasy II such a lasting videogame.
Next week, I will be recounting my experience with what, in my opinion, is arguably the greatest videogame ever made: Final Fantasy III. Happy Anniversary, Final Fantasy.