Monday, 22 September 2014
Final Fantasy II - A Story of Loss and War
It goes without saying that Final Fantasy is one of the biggest and most successful series on the market. Even after being repeatedly marred by the development team's obsession over Final Fantasy XIII and a disastrous initial release of XIV, as a whole the franchise stands strong. While certainly having a fair number of dumb storytelling moments, you'll find plenty of fans willing to defend just about any title in the series and put forwards genuinely good reasons why one in particular is a personal favourite.
Some enjoy how X dealt with the idea of religion, others enjoyed the more straight forwards adventuring tale of XII and how it tackled the subject of loyalty, and VII needs no explanation. This said, one in particular seems to have been constantly overlooked despite offering some surprisingly effective storytelling methods which hold up today: Final Fantasy II.
Still fairly on into series, II still clung to the trappings of the original Final Fantasy. There were few lengthy cutscenes, the characters were ciphers with few scenes made to really flesh them out and little back-story to them. What's more is that little time was actually taken to really establish a world lore or even many basic ideas we take for granted today, such as each town having its own individual histories, or even for the villain to be directly connected with the hero in some way. Despite that however, it actually manages to enhance a few points present in the story and emphasises upon its main themes.
The big background to Final Fantasy II is that a massive war is raging across the land between the Palamecian Empire and the White Rose Rebellion, what little remains of the previous kingdoms. The conflict has been going on for some time now and you're only given a few basic hints as to how it started, where it came from and the enemy in question remains unknown.
Your first real introduction to them is when the party's home town is invaded and occupied, causing them to flee and try to fight their way clear, leaving their identity very much unknown. While there are monsters among their ranks, many are obviously human and we never truly learn that much about them. On the one hand this does leave much of the Empire as a blank slate, but on the other it also helps to present a very ground level viewpoint on the enemy. The only thing you are aware of is that they want your side dead and that, ultimately, any meeting is not going to be amicable. There's no bit where you run into guards and they just let you pass or goof about like in other games, no lengthy cutscenes where they're humanised, you're a part of a war now and they will fight and kill you on sight as you're their enemy.
This lack of identity could be regarded as a flaw, but it helps to reinforce the brutality of their nature and the world itself. When you first visit a city occupied by the Empire, Fynn, the streets are crawling with the Empire's troops and you can't simply grind your way through them. Attempting to fight one will almost certainly result in a single guard steamrolling your entire party in a couple of turns and it sends a very clear message: You're in a very dangerous world which can kill you with one wrong step. You've only just been conscripted, you are not some unstoppable badass who can wade through troops at a moment's notice.
Much of the game is spent reinforcing this message and the very environments themselves can serve as a reminder of this. Unlike the Elder Scrolls games or later Final Fantasy titles, enemies on the overworld do not scale with you and it's easy to accidentally stroll into areas well beyond your ability to fight. Go too far north of Fynn and try to explore, and you'll have creatures spawning in you cannot hope to hurt and will one-shot you immediately. There are no barriers to prevent you trying to do this, no exact borders to help you show where is where, you can just easily run into a high level area by being careless.
This creates a sense of constant danger and encourages caution on the part of the player at every turn, building a sense of real threat in the conflict. When you are sent out on missions or to complete objectives for the White Rose Rebellion, half the time you are having to cautiously test environments to see how threatening they are. A nice bonus which definitely helps to emphasise upon this is that several high level enemies you can accidentally bump into serve as bosses early on. In particular the Land Turtle and Sergeant both show up as big boss fights, but can be easily run into within the first couple of hours by pressing too far ahead or being overconfident.
The obvious added advantage of this is that it also creates a far more palpable sense of gaining strength as you slowly turn the tide of the conflict and become stronger. As you become capable of taking down the Empire's Captains your party's objectives become bolder attacks upon the enemy. While your initial attacks might be infiltration missions and effectively delaying tactics to try and gain some edge against the Empire, taking the fight to them in open battles and overcoming the enemies which once crushed you in any fight.
However, it's not this which assists the war element of Final Fantasy II the most but how it deals with loss and death. In just about every Final Fantasy tale now characters will die in some glorious cutscene or their end be exaggerated somehow, whereas here it's very understated in almost every situation. There's little heroic or artistic about how it handles the deaths of countless people, they just die in needless or often unnecessary ways, some just caught in the crossfire.
An early example of this is in the early towns you visit, the White Rose Rebellion's headquarters in Altair, and small but unremarkable towns like Poft or sprawling metropolises like Paloom. These areas are treated as you would expect for any JRPG, as minor locations which have a few taverns, shops and NPCs who relay the odd bit of information about the world. Then the game twists your expectations in order to punch you in the gut. At a specific point the Empire launches an all out assault to finally take control of the remaining towns, cities and locations they cannot hold. These towns are devastated, their buildings torn asunder by heavy artillery and the townsfolk massacred. However, the difference here is that unlike later works by Square Enix, this is not done in some massive cutscene. You see the Empire beginning its attack, and then when you next enter a town it's in ruins. There's no massive moment to it, no huge monument to how powerful this assault was, just a few traumatised NPCs left of the dozens who once occupied each place.
This becomes even worse at a later point when the Empire uses another secret weapon upon them without you even knowing of it. The first real point you'll learn of it is when you take the airship back to Altair, land and try to enter the town only to just stand there on the overworld. There is nothing left of it or several other major locations, they are just gone, wiped off of the face of the earth along with just about everyone who lived there. It hits far harder than seeing this happen in some massively expensively animated cutscene, primarily because it hinges upon such a basic mechanic. The inability to even basically interact or walk about the ruins just hammers home how truly obliterated each one was and how everything there is now completely gone, lost for good.
The fact half the world's major population centres are wiped out is not the only area where the game really uses loss, and it's evident even among the party members. Final Fantasy II was the first in its series to use temporary additions to the party, and it's used as an excuse to rack up the body count to astoundingly high levels. Several of the major characters who do join you end up dead at various points in the story, often after they have long been established with unique backstories and histories for themselves.
This would normally be almost expected of a title today, but the developers went the additional mile of making their losses felt as keenly as possible. While Firion, Maria and Guy are the main characters you stick with, they're ultimately ciphers with few lines and little in the way of backstory. They serving more as stand-ins for the players than figures in their own right, and it's effectively everyone else who has the notable history. As such, when you start to get to know a character who joins you, a small part of your mind is dreading the idea that they might fall in battle and be lost to you, because you're given more reason to care about them than anyone else in the game.
Many of the characters' deaths are also far from glorious or dignified, and even go the additional mile of hammering in just how terrible their loss is. Several leave families behind you need to bring news of their end to, and the deaths of other characters mark the passing of entire orders of warriors with no one left to train the next generation. This is to say nothing of just how they die.
The first character lost isn't in some massive Duel of the Fates battle against an overwhelming enemy, it's against a traitorous worm who you easily steamroll in open battle, only to activate a trap at the last second which kills someone. Another gives up his life because he has no other choice and it's the only way they can even come close to victory, solemnly accepting his fate. Even the one who does pull a full Gandalf ("You shall not pass!") is never seen fighting, and you don't see him gloriously holding his own against the inevitable to buy time for others. He just manages to buy the party a few moments, and you last see him about to be killed by an overwhelming foe.
Given its fairly basic graphics and very minimalist story, it doesn't feel underplayed or cheap as it might have otherwise done in a later generation. Like many aspects of the tale the limitations of this era , it manages to oddly enhance elements of the story and makes the impact of their deaths hit that much harder because they lack so many of the cues we've come to expect from video game deaths. Subconciously or not, while watching a lot of media humans have come to separate real violence and death with fictional violence. Whether it's a Mortal Kombat fatality or just the hammering thwack of someone's fist connecting with a man's skull, there's points which people pick up on to reassure themselves it's not a true death. While what's here might be eight bit deaths, there's a distinct lack of that element at any real point.
While the deaths of so many characters in this manner hits hard, its actually the ending which assists the most in hammering home this theme. While far more cheerfully done than it might be today, this was still being aimed at younger demographic after all, what's there is amazingly bittersweet for its era. The celebrations made are fleeting, with few people there and there's more talk about rebuilding or pushing on to move past the war than anything else. There's no cheering crowds, no masses of people attending your victory, you've won this war and life needs to move on. Despite it being the end of the game, it's not the end of the characters' lives and simply killing the Emperor has not solved everything.
What's also notable is that, given the sorts of allies the rebellion had to side with in order to claw back its way into power, the game makes it clear many will become problems in the future. Several criminals who assisted in taking down the Empire immediately break away from the White Rose forces and go back to their own lives, pillaging and stealing wherever they can. Leila, a pirate captain, was first encountered trying to rob and murder the party for her own ends, and she's now going back to that lifestyle with the war over. Paul, a thief who sided with the Rebellion, outright says that he will likely be forced to steal from the heroes with the Empire gone now. With the big enemy gone, the unity between these groups has broken down and they'll likely be fighting among themselves for the future.
Even a major plot point which surrounds a party member turning against his friends is never truly resolved. Killing the Emperor has ultimately changed nothing, and he's not truly turned good again. While he was willing to fight a far worse evil, he knows that there is too much bad blood between them and leaves for good, stating "For us, there can be no going back." The heroes have emerged changed from the conflict, and it is not entirely for the better, many will carry scars from the war for the rest of their days, despite wanting to live in peace once again.
The game's closing lines are hopeful, informing the player that the the wounds of the conflict would gradually mend and that peace would allow the world to recover from the harrowing conflict. That said, it's also suggested that this would take a great deal of time, and both for the rubble to be swept away and the memories of such bitter days to fade. The heroes' fight was worth it in the end, and they would be remembered for their efforts, but once again it's not a victory which would instantly solve every problem altogether. Compare that with the endings to many other Final Fantasy stories, especially V and XIII, and it's far more subdued in its own way, showing all the glory they have earned but not shying away from the blood shed in doing so either.
Is Final Fantasy II the best in the series? Definitely not. The title suffered from some exploitable gameplay issues it's become infamous for and many storytelling elements are fairly simplistic. It lacked the ambition of later titles and didn't take the same strides as them to really push complex narratives, but at the same time it manages to retain many key elements which they never fully grasped. It's far more intelligent than a lot of people give it credit for, and going back to look at it now it definitely deserves to be remembered for pushing for more mature storytelling and subjects of its time. This is to say nothing of the soundtrack, which is easily among the best music produced by early Squaresoft with an outstanding ending theme and excellent boss music.
If you are at all curious, the PSP remake did a lot to correct the original game's old problems and added on an additional story known as Soul of Rebirth, further expanding upon the fates of many characters. Given how cheaply it can be picked up these days, it's well worth a look if you're a fan of JRPGs or want to one day study the development of video game narrative in its earliest years. Plus, what else are you going to spend that cash on, the PC port of XIII?