Friday, June 9, 2017

Final Fantasy 2: Dungeons, Combat and Music

Last time we contested the logic of a cat hair moustache, discussed the perils of fearsome Clown Dragons, and explained why you can’t stop hitting yourself. This time we’re jumping right into the fray by discussing who’s in the fray. Let’s talk about how Final Fantasy 2 handles enemy design.

Old School Eeeehnemies

There’s a simple question to ask any time you’re evaluating the usefulness of a new enemy, attack, or feature in general: Does this change player behavior? Ultimately, this is the entire point of adding new content beyond aesthetic appeal. Different foes provide different challenges, which you strategize and respond to appropriately. To speak bluntly, most old RPGs were bad at this, and Final Fantasy 2 is a prime example.

There are a large number of different enemies in FF2, technically speaking. But a significant number are only separated by stats, their vast web of techniques summed up in a word: Attack. They hit you and you hit them, then one of you falls over. Sometimes even bosses do nothing but attack, and not just the “bosses” that are literally groups of enemies with different theme music. Stat differences are usually too slight to noticeably separate monsters*. The vast majority all blend together as things to hold the A button against. To the game’s credit, it does have several enemies that utilize different tactics than just attacking. The problem is most of these are terrible.

*I wonder if this is due to how varied the encounter tables are. The number of foes you fight can range from two to eight in just about any configuration. Perhaps monsters are mostly the same power level because that way they can be mixed and matched in differing quantities without worry. I prefer the approach of later games: lower encounter rates and fewer foes per fight but higher HP and longer battles to compensate. At least then you’re likely to see everything an enemy has to offer before giving it the ax.

"Big Horn A, I've just come up with another magnificent strategy!"
"Fantastic Big Horn B! We can always count on your keen intellectual mind!"
"So first: You attack them. And then, and this is a work in progress, try to keep up: I attack them."
"Brilliant! Big Horn B, you've done it again!"
"What do I do?"
"Sorry Big Horn C, I haven't gotten that far ahead."

Foes’ damaging spells are about as deadly as regular attacks or, in the case of multi-target spells, weak to the point of uselessness. Status spells are rarely cast and usually miss. More often status comes as a chance-on-hit, further lowering the odds of it being an issue. Even when they work, the most common status is poison and poison is useless. It deals 2 or 3 points of damage a turn, in a game where each party member ends up with thousands of HP. Enemies buffing themselves is only mildly effective, limited to a few monsters, and the ones that can do it die quickly. That’s a problem with foes in general: Interesting effects have such a low chance of happening and everyone has such low HP that you never get to see any of it.

There are a couple types of enemies that do actually rise above this never-ending sea of tedium. Enemies weak to a certain element will take drastically more damage from it, enough that it’s worth moving your cursor before pounding away at the A button like usual. On rare occasions there are enemies with high defense, forcing you to use spells. A few enemies have life drain attacks, and since these deal a percentage of your max HP they’re an actual threat to over-leveled parties*.

*Not more of a threat, mind. I’ve seen it suggested that these will wreck over-leveled parties, but not in my experience**. Sure they deal a lot of damage to over-leveled parties, but those can also kill faster. The only challenge they present is that I sometimes had to actually select targets in battle. As a bonus, the life steal weapon you get also deals a percentage, including to bosses. So it completely sucks all challenge from those. It’s a neutral mechanic at best.
**Bear in mind I’m playing the GBA version, which I hear is easier.

There’s a little strategy here and there, but it’s spread too thin. The result is that fights would be bog-standard and uninteresting even without the problems of the leveling system. And since you don’t earn experience and gold is easily obtained, why fight enemies at all?

I’ll tell you why: Because the run command doesn’t work!

Speaking of running, this is the first game with chocobos! This was their original concept art. Yes, really. No, I don't know why either.

For whatever reason, the run action has a ridiculously low chance of success. With cursory searching I’ve found several threads complaining about how hard it is to run, but the answers why are vague. Flee chance is based on either Agility or Evasion depending on who you ask, and the difference is significant since armor and shields drastically alter Evasion. I assume enemy stats factor in somehow as well, but can’t find a formula on how it’s calculated. I’d guess ambushes* either reduce chance to flee or make it impossible, but am unsure which. And apparently it’s been confirmed that certain random encounters simply can’t be escaped, but I can’t find a list of which ones.

*A relatively frequent occurrence ALSO determined by either Agility or Evasion

About the only thing that sees widespread agreement is that fleeing is annoyingly difficult. And that’s unfortunate, because this leveling system means there’s less incentive than ever to fight every random schmuck you come across. So encounters aren’t very engaging, worthwhile or easy to escape. What about the places you find them?

Dungeons that Drag-on

The dungeons in Final Fantasy 2 suck.

This is some of the worst level design I’ve seen in an RPG. It does its damndest to minimize all the fun parts of exploring dungeons while maximizing annoyances. First up, these places are labyrinthine as hell, and not just the actual palace of hell you visit. They twist and turn up and down through multiple floors laden with pointless dead-ends, with little scenery or signposting to help determine the correct path. These mazes contain zero puzzles or interesting events. They barely contain events to begin with! The only things that come close are damaging floors. They recycle the crap outta those, but whether its poison/lava/waterfalls/jagged ice/electrified tiles/stomach acid it all does the exact same thing: Deal 1 damage per step. Funnily enough, these actually come as a relief in later dungeons, where their damage is trivial and prevents you from running into battles.

Oh thank goodness, this floor is covered in molten lava. Time for a breather.

Though still primitive, I feel even Final Fantasy 1 has more interesting dungeons. It contains less twisting corridors and more recognizable landmarks*. It contains more interesting events and puzzle mechanics**. It also contains respectable amounts of interesting and unique treasure. Meanwhile, until the last third of FF2 it seemed most chests contained near-worthless items or equipment I could’ve purchased*** the town before.

*Like the 8-way crossroads at the volcano or the long bridge in the floating castle
**Like holes that drop to areas below or hallways that continue forever without the right pattern
***And probably did

And we still haven’t hit the two biggest problems! Rounding out second place at the race to the bottom is dead-end rooms. You see, someone over at Squaresoft had a just…just swell idea. I can only imagine their eureka moment was as follows:

Square Employee #1: “Whoa dude! I just had the gnarliest, bodacious and most hellaciously badical idea!”

Square Employee #2: “Why are you talking like that?”

SE1: “It’s the 80s, bro!”

SE2: “But…we’re Japanese.”

SE1: “Psshh, whatEVer. Just sit back and take in this totally tubular idea, chyeah?”

SE2: “Alright, I’m listening.”

SE1: “So like, y’know how making all these dungeons an’ junk takes like mad time to do?”

SE2: “Well yes, they would. They’re about 80% of the game.”

SE1: “But I used my wicked genius to figure out how to make em HELLA quick! Hope your brains got a bunker bro, because I’m about to blow. Your. Mind:

SE1: “Dead-end rooms.”

SE2: “Dead-end rooms?”

SE1: “Dead-end rooms! Think about it, dude: We get these doors, right? Then we spread em out ALL up in the dungeon place. Behind one of em we put like, some wicket sweet loot for players to snag and junk? And then another one has the path ya gotta walk to get to the end. But the rest? Dead-end rooms, brah! Dozens of em! Ya step inside and its like straight nothing, bro!”

SE2: “…”

SE1: “This idea is the BOMB, chyeah? So whaddaya think?”

SE2: “I think I shouldn’t have watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure before bed last night.”

SE1: “C’mon dude, don’t be a buzzkill! Don’tcha think this would be some hella tight game design?”

SE2: “Absolutely not! This just seems like a huge waste of the player’s time! What’s the point? What would they DO in the dead-end rooms if there’s nothing in them?”

SE1: “Nothing except a posse of gnarly ass monsters gettin up in your grill! We can pump up that encounter rate like crazy high! Mondo cool, huh bro?”

SE2: “…did you just say ‘Mondo cool’?”


SE2: “No! Not…that thing you said! That would make it even more frustrating for the player! This whole feature would just be making the game worse in order to pad the run time!”

SE1: "Sigh…fine, try this: We want to make this game as big or larger than the last, we're changing all the underlying systems, the entire team is 10 people and we have less than a year to make it."

SE2: “Wow, dead-end rooms?! What a marvelous idea!”

I don’t hold anything against developers personally, not just here but anywhere. I can also understand how these earlier days of game dev could lead to pushing ways to artificially extend the game. But I’m not in the business of evaluating products based on the period they were made or how long the creators went without seeing their families. I’m not in a business at all, I’m a blogger, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that even though I can understand why these doors were added, they shouldn’t have been.

There's nothing quite so "fun" as going from this…

…to this.

There is only one purpose I can think of for these doors beyond wasting time: Forcing more encounters so the player will be the proper power level. It’s a sledgehammer to game balancing if ever I saw one, but even it could count for something. It could, but it doesn’t. FF2 doesn’t need extra battles, and the reason for that is, well…it’s time. In a roiling sea of archaic systems, questionable design and shaky execution, this is what I believe to be the worst flaw in Final Fantasy 2. Simply put:

Encounter rate.

There are too many fights in FF2. There are an unreasonable number of fights in FF2. If a cramped city apartment was an FF2 dungeon, you’d slay forty Ghouls every trip to the fridge. If these enemies occupied physical space, every room would be as packed as the first five minutes of Black Friday. If every fight represented a single character of dialogue, it’d form a speech longer than the entire in-game script. If you asked me what percentage of FF2 I spent in fights I didn’t care about, I’d ask how many decimals I could use.

And to appease the nitpickers: Yes, this is an exaggeration. Yes, there are plenty of other RPGs with high encounter rates, particularly in the olden days. In any given game world, NPCs are a clear and definite minority in a nation of monsters. This is always going to be the case to accommodate the combat-centric gameplay we find so entertaining. But even compared to other RPGs, the amount of battles per steps in FF2 feels really, really high.

How much higher is up for debate. It’s possible that it’s only a slight uptick from later RPGs, and completely in line with the games of the era*. But the real problem isn’t just the encounter rate, but the game it’s in. The reason I call it the worst is not because it causes other problems, but because it enhances them. Every other major problem in Final Fantasy 2 ties into encounter rate. The common feedback loop is:

*Apart from dead-end rooms, which average an encounter every couple steps.

You’re wandering through a labyrinthine maze of dead ends…
…because you got a vague dialogue hint that you think leads here…
…and every five steps you have another slug-fest…
…that plays like all the others due to mediocre enemy design…
…and doesn’t feel like it matters due to the lack of experience…
…and is often too easy or hard due to the leveling structure…
…which you can’t run from because that command barely works.

Actually Emperor, this final dungeon contained no dead-end rooms and the normal dead-ends were filled with unique boss fights and awesome loot. You sure this isn't the other place?

It’s a dozen car pile-up of gameplay irritations, and this malicious mixture of monotony is what killed the game for me. They’re all flaws, but encounter rate is strongest bit of connective tissue between them, while frustratingly being easiest to sever. The problems with the story require a more experienced writer and also struggle against the limitations of cartridge space and the dialogue system. The problems with leveling are complex and interconnected issues that similar games struggle to deal with to this very day. The problems with enemy and dungeon design, though a little simpler, require not just clever implementation but man hours they may not have had. The problems with encounter rate? Change a number.

A little frustrating in retrospect.

The takeaway is that I simply didn't enjoy most of my time with Final Fantasy 2. Though some may disagree, for me the game felt like a chore to slog through. It’s not just future games I found more enjoyable, either. The remake of Final Fantasy 1 on the same cartridge feels better in just about every way. Leveling, customization, loot, dungeons, even little things like the overworld seem better designed. And as long as we’re talking about these remakes specifically, there’s one last complaint I’d like to make before we move on to greener pastures.

Soul of Rebirth

For this review, I played the GBA remake Final Fantasy 1 and 2: Dawn of Souls. Both games received bonus content in this remake. Final Fantasy 1 got four major bonus dungeons with a total of 75 floors between them. They featured well over a dozen new bosses, floors with unique puzzles or events, and on multiple occasions even towns with NPCs inside the dungeon. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy 2 got a bonus mode called Soul of Rebirth, which added additional story content after the normal game. Soul of Rebirth is…not good.

And it’s a shame, because the premise is actually awesome! Four major characters who died over the course of FF2, three of whom were once in your party, meet up in hell and have to journey through it to help save the world behind the scenes. I don’t think I’ve emphasized enough what a fantastically cool idea that is, so here: That is a fantastically cool idea. It’s add-on content that develops less used characters and expands the central narrative without interrupting it. Not to mention, journeying through the depths of hell offers an absolute goldmine of cool things you could do for enemies, dungeons, and story beats.

And because I know people will take issue with this, allow me to state: I understand that this is bonus content. I realize the developers likely had very little time to complete it. I also realize that there’s probably an explanation for why FF1 had better optional content. Maybe the team was split up by game and one had less time left for bonus stuff. None of this is to be taken personally against the developers. However, this is content released in a professionally produced product. It is part of the incentive for people to buy the remake and optional or not is grounds for the same criticism as any other part of the game. That being said…

Here’s what Soul of Rebirth actually is: You go through one of the game’s previous dungeons only palette swapped, horizontally flipped, and filled with palette swapped enemies. Then there’s a small town copied and horizontally flipped (not even palette swapped) from the main game. Then there’s the final dungeon of the main game, palette swapped, horizontally flipped and filled with palette swapped enemies. If you’d like, you can go into another copied room to fight a palette swapped bonus boss.

Here's a picture of Poft, a town in the original game.

And here's a picture of "Machanon", apparently the city of the dead. I really dig their otherworldly architecture.

There’s basically zero story in all this. The NPCs in town realize they’re in some sort of afterlife, that there are monsters nearby and that this is bad. That's the entirety of their knowledge and insight. In the end you fight another half of the Emperor that split from him, who tries to trick you into thinking he’s good. Beyond that, nothing. So much potential squandered. You have an entire realm of the afterlife, which apparently exists. You have characters that died for their cause, all of whom left comrades and loved ones behind. You have a city of lost souls whose future existence is uncertain, besieged by monsters at all sides. All this, and you write nothing. No drama, no character development, nothing scary or funny or strange or thought provoking*. It is transparently a vehicle for recycled dungeons.

*Three off the top of my head: Each of the four party members must confront a memory of what they left behind and need to move on for the greater good. We explore what this afterlife really is and how these people came here, since apparently they can double die. The path to hell is a twisted reflection of scenes from the party’s lives where they have to fight shadows of past friends and determine what is and isn’t real. SOMETHING.

Once again the population is mostly monsters, and once again I wonder what they do when you're not around. Do you think the people of Machanon and Beast Devil could get along?

And speaking of recycled dungeons, those are phenomenally lazy. I know end-game bonus dungeons like to re-use previous assets, but to straight-up repeat the whole thing without alteration in what is supposedly new story content is pretty disappointing. But even if we were to accept that copy-paste level design, the least they could do is provide enough of it. The final dungeon doesn’t just look like the one from the main game. It’s just as hard, if not harder. And yet, your party is full of people stuck halfway through the game in power level. You only have six floors of one dungeon before being kicked into the end-game and there’s no possible way you’ll be prepared in time.

The result is that this bonus content is at least 50% grinding. And I don’t mean softer definitions of the term like repetitious content or fetch quests. We’re talking walking back and forth, in the same room, fighting the same enemies, in the same way. For hours. Would it have killed them to mirror some more dungeons? Even if it were recycled, anything with a goal would’ve been better. And if they couldn’t do that, why did they make the final dungeon so hard in the first place? This is bonus content by a well-off publisher for a game released in 2004. They have no excuse for stretching things out like this.

If you search for Final Fantasy 2 Soul of Rebirth, 90% of the images are of the final boss. Probably because it's the only actually original content.

So Soul of Rebirth, like many aspects of FF2, is a train wreck. But before we say goodbye for good, why not focus on something in this game I actually like?


Final Fantasy 2 is one of my least favorite soundtracks in the series. Wow, I am just awful at positivity today, aren’t I? But fortunately, those with memories one rank up from goldfish will recall that I liked this part of the game. To which I say: well, duh. This is a Final Fantasy soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu. The man is a contender for my favorite composer, and that’s coming from someone whose music library is nothing but thousands of game tracks. Even the low points in such a career are still pretty enjoyable to listen to.

As with everything else, I’m covering the GBA remake of the game. I’ve listened to the NES version, and it’s certainly…rougher in places, but the essential melodies are still there. Besides, this is supposed to be the positive section. So let’s line up and listen to some soothingly sonorous songs.

We'll start, much like the game itself, with a battle. The main battle theme of FF2 certainly isn't the series' best, but nonetheless gets you pumped for conflict with some good percussion. As nice as the trilling flute in the middle is, my favorite part of the piece is definitely the rising notes that transition to a new loop.

The map theme for FF2 strikes a notable contrast to the first game. Whereas that theme is a boisterous march of enthusiastic adventure, this is a subdued, even melancholy tune. The entire first half of the song seems to be a build-up to when the strings and guitar come in, which is definitely my favorite part. Interesting, then, to note that this latter half wasn't in the original version at all.

The original game only had two battle themes, one of which was exclusive to the final boss. The remake added a couple for normal bosses, and the more common of the two is…odd. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan. I think the constant warbly noise (I can't identify the instrument) and the bass straight from a Sega genesis don't fit well here. However, the other new battle theme I quite like! It's got a little more of the pomp and circumstance expected of an important fight, and much like the main battle theme has great percussion.  My favorite part of the song is probably the last bit before the loop, at about 0:44 onwards. The escalating strings and clashing cymbals build to a fun climax.

Revivification is short and simple, but for whatever reason I really like it. The tinkling intro, the slow whines, the way the melody ebbs and flows up and down, those lonely bass notes, the later chimes that echo back and forth, I like it all! It's a simple song that's simply pleasant to listen to.

"Wow Beast Devil, you're quite impressive on the piano!"

Dungeons are where you'll spend the most of your time in FF2. So it's a shame that their themes are rather hit-and-miss. The most common dungeon themes in the game, Imperial Army Theme and Dungeon 2, are distinctly average. It definitely wasn't long before I tuned them out. Had Magician's Tower been in every other dungeon, I may have tired of it as well. But not only is it restricted to a single dungeon, it's my favorite of the bunch. The harpsichord intro strikes a different tone than other dungeon songs, and I love the way the melody and harmony mix at 0:16. It's also worth noting that though almost every song got some extra content for the remake, Magician's Tower remains fairly faithful to the original. Hey, don't fix what isn't broken.

If we go any longer you'll have the entire soundtrack, so just one more: My favorite song in Final Fantasy 2 is the rebel army theme. It focuses on strings and acoustic guitar, both instruments I love. Despite the remake additions being repeats of the main melody, it mixes things up enough that it feels fresh the whole loop through. But the biggest reason I like this song is quite simple: It's got an excellent melody. As the years go by and the game fades in my memory, amidst the mush of bland dungeon mazes and button-mash brawls, this song will stand as a testament to everything good about Final Fantasy 2. Because there is good. Just not as much as I'd prefer.

In a series as varied as Final Fantasy, not every game will be a winner. Final Fantasy 2 is a contender for the biggest loser of all, but in a way, that’s encouraging. Because even in the series' darkest hour, when the best parts are boring and the worst frustrating failures, their game is still interesting. It still tried new things, broke new ground, and was worth examining critically. I wouldn’t recommend FF2 to others. I didn’t enjoy it much myself. But it can teach us a lot about what does and doesn’t work in RPGs, and it clearly taught the people who made it. Because Final Fantasy 2 was not the final Final Fantasy, and it would not be long before the series became, finally, fantastic.

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