It takes a lot of work to be the black sheep of a series as inconsistent as Final Fantasy, but Final Fantasy II has generally found itself in that position since it first released on the 8-bit Famicom back in 1988. It’s an odd game, in many ways establishing the SaGa series more than it sets up further Final Fantasy games. It went unlocalized for a rather lengthy period of time, which meant when it finally did come it was being judged against games that came ten years or more after it. Memes about the game were established in the West before the game itself ever had a chance. Unfortunately, I feel like the Final Fantasy II ($11.99) Pixel Remaster has once again drawn the short straw. Of all the Pixel Remaster games so far, this is the one that loses the most.
The list of differences with the Pixel Remaster when compared to the previous mobile version is almost identical to that of the first game. We’ve got completely new visuals that you may or may not prefer. There’s a new version of the soundtrack that sounds outstanding. Gameplay rules hew a bit closer to the Famicom version in some ways than they do the previous remakes, though not significantly so. All of the content added in the various remakes has been left out of this game, almost as if this were the first remake of the original game. That latter point is a major blow to this game, in my opinion. It leaves me questioning which of the two versions I would actually recommend to someone if the choice was there, and I don’t think that’s really where Square Enix wants any of these remakes to be.
Unlike the added content in most of the other games, Final Fantasy II‘s extras actually built on the game’s story in a meaningful way. It put you in control of a party of characters who had stepped out of the main story, challenging you to make your way through some tough areas with scarce resources. It served as a wonderful bit of closure for those characters, resonated well with the original story’s themes, and was a lovely ending for the narrative as a whole. Sure, the original game didn’t have any of this and it stood on its own feet just fine, but this is a rare case where I think after-the-fact added content actually made for a far better game.
Assuming you can set that aside more easily than I can, you’ll find this to be a very agreeable version of a somewhat disagreeable game. It certainly looks, sounds, and plays sharper than the now-antiquated 11-year-old original app. This and the first game needed this refresh more than the others just on the basis of their age, and it’s good to see it looking so spiffy on modern devices. The content that is present in this version is certainly looking its finest, though I’m sure tastes on the chosen art style will vary. Would I buy this if I already had the original app and it was still working properly? Not unless I was a big Final Fantasy II fan or a completionist. But if you’re going to play the original Final Fantasy II adventure for the first time, this is an excellent way to do it.
But do you want to play the original Final Fantasy II adventure? It’s a more difficult question than it is for most Final Fantasy games. While the series tends to play things fast and loose with each new installment, it has generally followed the conventions of the JRPG genre in most ways. Final Fantasy II wasn’t a dramatic shift at the time, but the rules weren’t so well-defined then. Things evolved in a very different way after that, and it makes Final Fantasy II feel a bit out-of-step in hindsight. But if you’ve partaken of any of the recent rereleases of the SaGa games, you’ll see a lot of familiar elements here.
Character growth comes not from gathering up experience points and gaining levels, but from using your abilities, casting spells, and taking damage. The more you use things, the stronger they will get. In some ways, this goes as you would hope. Weapons get stronger, spells get more powerful. In other ways, it’s unreliable. Your HP and MP don’t naturally scale up the way they need to at times, which may require you to give them a nudge by doing unnatural things like casting spells repeatedly or even knocking your own party about. I don’t recommend overdoing this, but it’s certainly something people can and do take advantage of even if it’s not very fun.
Indeed, from a mechanical standpoint Final Fantasy II can be terribly unbalanced. It begs to be exploited, and if you play it straight you’re going to find the game quite difficult in places. Especially since a few of the kludges added in the later remakes have been removed in this Pixel Remaster. This is a bit closer to the original game, for better or worse. Other design elements that weren’t addressed in previous remakes remain intact here. Silly monster closets, invisible lines on the overworld map that divide monsters that you can kill and monsters that will tear you to shreds, and a final boss that can be almost impossible to take down if you don’t have precisely the right set-up; these are all hallmarks of a game that doesn’t always expect players to beat it.
Yet as much as Final Fantasy II feels alien to its series mechanically, its narrative is as familiar as it gets. A ragtag group of kids orphaned by an evil empire joins up with a rebellion to take down the evil man at the top and save the world in the process. They meet up with a variety of friends who will come into and exit from their story as the plot demands, travel to a variety of lands, and face seemingly unsurmountable odds. While they can be a bit thin in terms of personality, the characters in this game are indeed characters instead of the blank ciphers of the original game. If you’re looking to see where Final Fantasy got its start as a story-driven franchise, this is it.
My main complaints about this new version largely mirror those I had for the first game’s Pixel Remaster. The cut content is unfortunate, the font’s relatively small size and cramped nature makes it a bit of a chore to read on a phone display, and there is no controller support. The touch controls work well enough, and are easier to use than those of the original app, but options never hurt anyone. I expect to have these complaints with all of the Pixel Remaster games, so I do apologize if they start to become monotonous for regular readers. This is still a very good version of the game, but it could have been a bit better with some small UI and quality of life improvements.
Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster is a lovely remake of a game that people tend to either love or hate. Its strongest element is arguably its story, and that’s why I feel it’s hurt so much by cutting the excellent extra content added in the Game Boy Advance version. With that in mind, I think it’s best to stick with the old version of the game if you already own it and it still works. This new version is more modern in its presentation and UI, and ultimately it will be the one that survives. It’s also the only one you can buy now, so if you want to play Final Fantasy II it’s this or nothing. I enjoy the game, but you will need to be willing to put up with its eccentricities if you seek to do the same.