Review: Final Fantasy II – Soul of Rebirth (Game Boy Advance)

In this review, we play yet another game in the Final Fantasy series. This time, it’s the chronological Final Fantasy II. We find out how the Soul of Rebirth version (found on the Dawn of Souls collection) plays.

While one of the earliest games in the main series, this version of Final Fantasy II was released in 2004. While this particular game came with the first Final Fantasy game, we simply played the second game because it was one of the first versions to reach North America (Playstation version came earlier). The final Fantasy series is one we are very familiar with, having reviews: Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy – Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, and Final Fantasy VII. We skipped Final Fantasy III for now because, to our knowledge, only a 3D remake made it to North America.

You play the game as a party of four and rarely deviate from this number. Your main characters are Firion, Maria, and Guy. The fourth player is a frequently alternating character, though in the beginning, it is Leon. You start the game entering a battle with members of the empire. The battle outcome is pretty much inevitable: you lose (unless you cheat. In which case, you reportedly get booted back to the intro screen after winning). After the ill-fated battle, you wake up in the care of the rebels without Leon. You must prove your worth as valuable members of the rebels as you ultimately take on the emperor – the main antagonist of the game.

If you’re like me and played numerous Final Fantasy games before this game, you’ll quickly realize that this game deviates from many of the other Final Fantasy games in the area of experience. Unlike many other Final Fantasy games, you don’t collect experience points and gain levels. Instead, you train different attributes of the characters in question. This includes the most prominent stats such as hit points and magic points. The somewhat less important, but definitely important stats you can also train are things like evasion, strength, spirit, and intelligence. It may be less obvious how these are trained, but it is more than possible to train them. Finally, you can train your weapon and magic prowess (typically known as skill level). Hit points cap out at 9999, magic points cap out at 999, stats cap out at 99, and all remaining skill levels cap out at level 16. To train each most of these skills, you simply use that weapon or spell as many times as possible – ideally on the most powerful enemies you can find. While you cannot actually level up multiple times per battle, you can quickly level up weaker skills later in the game. Training up hit points often depends on you taking damage. Reportedly, the difference of hit points you go into battle with and coming back out factors into your odds of gaining more maximum hit points. The same can be said with magic points, though it can be, at times, difficult to train this – especially when you are well into the hundreds of points. If you played The Elder Scrolls 2 – Dagger Fall or The Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind, the training system has similarities to those games only without a set “level up” system.

I thought this system had its strengths and weaknesses. The weakness is that it increases the overall learning curve at the beginning of the game. Simply collecting experience points and getting enough to level up is easy enough to understand. In this game, you need to execute certain actions to trigger certain improvements in the characters stats. What they are can be as obvious as taking damage or as obscure as doing what you need to do to increase your evasion. It won’t necessarily always be clear to the player at first what they are doing right and what they aren’t doing all that well. The strength in this – and it’s something that completely outshines the weakness in my opinion – is that it makes grinding a far more addicting activity. While you really only need to do a bit of grinding at the beginning, required grinding is, at worst, something you may need to do on occasion. I ended up grinding my characters far more than necessary in the end simply because I ended up being curious to see how certain actions perform when at a higher level. For instance, what difference does it make when your sword ability is at level 3 vs level 8? What happens when you level a bunch of stuff up? How high a level can I get the Flare spell up? Sometimes, in a game, grinding can seem like a chore after a while. In this game, the leveling system takes the sting out of grinding because you are almost constantly being awarded something. In fact, if you exit a battle without leveling something up, it ends up being an anomaly (unless you are attacking first level enemies with greatly overpowered characters of course. Even then, you have the opportunity to improve the power of something.

One criticism I do have with this game is the navigation at the beginning. The beginning is almost an open world concept. That sounds great, but you have to travel to a certain destination to continue the advancement of the plot. I wish it was clearer where I needed to go at the beginning of the game because you, as a player, are new on the world map. You are still trying to get used to the controls and how things work. If you go the wrong direction, you suddenly find yourself squaring off against enemies that can probably take you out in two or three rounds. If the whole game was seemingly open world like the beginning, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, there is a lot of linear exploration after a while where you are merely following a coastline for the most part. I think the multiple direction aspect should have first occurred later in the game after the player has gotten a chance to get used to how this game runs. It does go open world later on in the game, but by then, you might have figured out how to pull out the map. I wished the map feature was in the pause menu, though. It would make more sense to have it as an option and then denote the shortcut after to add user friendliness This game also has unfortunate moments where it becomes unclear what to do next. You’ve defeated the monster in a certain cave, everyone congratulates you, then you sit there asking, “Um, OK, now what?” What to do with a certain mask and what to do next is a good example of this. While it happens, it doesn’t happen that often. The second you find the path in the plot again by talking to the right individual, the game picks back up again nicely.

One thing that does definitely aid in the exploration is the fact that the city name appears in the start menu. If you go by a city and you go into the pause menu, the city name will appear. If you go to another city, that city name will change as you approach it. I thought this did help in finding the location you are looking for.

Another interesting element in this game is the keyword system. If you speak to someone and they say a certain word, it’ll show up red and you are able to learn it. What you can do is take that word and use the “ask” function when talking to people. When you ask someone about that keyword, you can get new dialogue related to that keyword which offers hints as to what to do next. In the beginning of the game, this added an interesting aspect to your adventure because you can pull all sorts of information out of people. Unfortunately, I think the developers got a bit carried away with the keywords because the list gradually grew very long. Towards the end of the game, you ended up having a large list of keywords, and a majority would result in the dreaded “?” response. If the keywords were kept to about a half a dozen words or less, I think this would have been a very viable feature in this game. Unfortunately, it grew a bit out of control later on in the game.

The magic system is interesting in this game. Most characters start out with a blank slate (no spells). You have a mere 5MP to start, so you are pretty much at the bare minimum of being a magic user. You learn spells through tomes. Some of these tomes can be bought, while others can be obtained either through dungeons or enemy drops. While, at the beginning, it seems you can get every character to learn every spell out there, you eventually realize that you actually only have a limited number of slots for spells. If you fill up your spell list and want a character to learn something different, that character has to discard a previously learned spell. Any training with that spell will be lost in doing so. So, picking and choosing who holds what spell and what to train gradually becomes more and more crucial as time goes on. The cost of every spell is 1MP at the beginning. If your spell gains a level, then the spell becomes more powerful, but the cost goes up as well. A level spell 2 costs 2MP. A level 5 spell costs 5MP. An interesting way to handle this to say the least, though casting a more powerful spell can help you train your MP as well.

Shops are fairly straight forward in this game. There are item shops (denoted by a potion icon), magic shops (denoted by a wand-like icon?), weapon shops (denoted by a sword), and armor shops (denoted by the shield). If you go around browsing, say, armor while buying, you can get an icon that denotes that the armor is either stronger in defense (green up arrow), weaker in all around defense (red down arrow), or equal (white equals sign). Items you have already equipped is also denoted by the equals sign. The arrow system can be helpful, but doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story as other stats and features can be affected by what you wear regardless of that icon. For instance, you can have an item equipped with 50 defense. You can then come across an item with 45 defense. The icon will say it’s weaker, but it won’t tell you that the armor also protects against lightening attacks. Depending on who you expect to square off against next, it can be strategic to equip the slightly weaker armor for the special defense.

While inns sound pretty straight forward, the price to stay is anything but. Unlike many other RPG games, the price of an inn isn’t fixed by any means. In this game, the price of the inn depends on how much you will recover from staying there. If you are only going to gain about 15 hit points and 3MP for each character, you can expect to pay a two figure amount of gil. Dirt cheap in this game. If, however, you expect to regain thousands of hit points and hundreds of MP for each character, your stay can easily range in the thousands of gil. So, price does depend on how much you can recover by.

One thing I’ve seen noted about this game is that after the empire does their air raids on cities, Mysidia is also a target and is destroyed. After doing some looking into this claim, I was a bit surprised to find out that this claim is false. The city of Mysidia is never attacked by the empire in this game.

One defining feature of this version of the game is the “Soul of Rebirth” aspect. This is one of those games where some added gameplay is thrown in after the credits of the original game. As you play, you’ll notice that some of the characters that join your party die. A couple of these “fourth character” characters are revived in the Soul of Rebirth section. By the time you reach the first city in this part, all four of your characters join in and retain the stats you gave them after they die. If they learned spells or have certain items equipped in the original game, they retain that in the second section. One of these characters is, to my knowledge, not a character you get to play with in the original game, though, so you get whatever default stats the game gives you for that character.

It’s great that the Soul of Rebirth allows you to extend the play, but the bad part is that there’s only a limited number of places you can explore. In fact, you basically get two dungeons, a city, a mid boss and a final boss which is of similar stats to the final boss in the main game. It’s painful because you only have so many places to go to grind before you can take on the final final boss. On a more positive note, the events in the Soul of Rebirth section of the game are well written and weaves well with the events that take place in the original game. So, at least the writing was good.

Generally speaking, there were a few areas where this game wasn’t exactly perfect, but there were a lot more areas where this game worked quite well. The leveling system was addicting despite the slightly steeper learning curve. Some plot points were a bit disconnected and the navigation wasn’t totally well thought out, but I thought this was, nevertheless, an enjoyable game.

The graphics did a pretty good job of representing what a handheld is capable of at the time. The architecture and environments portrayed were nicely varied and well-realized. The effects of weapons and spells as they grew more powerful were nicely done. One criticism I have is that the ultima spell takes too long to animate. It might be fine the first few times, but after a while, you realize that you are training that spell and it takes what seems like an eternity to finish casting. So, the spell animation could have been shortened. Another positive is the fact that character pictures are not only present in dialogue boxes, but also are varied to portray emotion. I thought this was a definite plus here.

Audio was pretty good in this game. You have to bear in mind that the music in this version reflects the capabilities of what is offered in a handheld game in 2004, not necessarily what the quality was like as the second game in the series (which was only released in Japan on the NES). Having said that, the music was fairly well done. While nothing really stuck out to me as particularly memorable, the music did do it’s job well in helping move the game along, though. The sound effects worked fairly well. As your weapons and spells grew more powerful, the sound effects of those attacks definitely change. I thought this helped punctuate the power of the spell or weapon.

Overall, I thought this was definitely an enjoyable game. While you do find yourself grinding from time to time, the way you gain attributes and strength makes the grinding surprisingly enjoyable. I can only imagine how different the game would be if more Final Fantasy games employed this system of character building. There was a few disconnected plot points here and there and the initial experience of the overworld might be confusing, but other times, the game is done well enough that you don’t get lost that often. The city name being mentioned in the pause menu does help with navigation, but the map was a little buried in the button combination required to activate it. The keywords seemed like a good idea at first, but got a little out of control by the end of the game. The inn system also proved to add an interesting layer to the overall gameplay. The sound was overall nicely done, though nothing was particularly memorable in the music. The graphics worked quite well in portraying the increasing power of attacks and the multiple character portraits worked well. The Soul of rebirth also added a fair bit to the gameplay, but could have used some expanding by adding more levels to build up to the final boss. Still, that section was well written to add to the general plot. So, while this game merely shows what the capabilities were for the technology of the time instead of what the game was like on initial release, this game is still getting two thumbs up from me.

Furthest point in game: Beat the original game with two characters capped out in HP and MP. Took a little over 39 hours to complete.

Beat the Soul of Rebirth portion with characters averaging at around 3500HP and 175MP (one character had 999MP thanks to the swap spell). Took almost 10 hours to complete.

General gameplay: 21/25
Replay value: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 80%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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