Square Enix provides more RPG lovin’ on Game Boy Advance (and Nintendo DS, of course).
If your first Final Fantasy game was FFVII or a later game in the series, this new compilation of remakes may not be for you. The original Final Fantasy and its first sequel (of many to follow) are both old-school RPGs with fairly little story and lots of dungeon crawling. These games go back to a time when we RPG fans took the meager bits of plot and used our imaginations to fill in the rest. These games go back to a time when leveling up and finding new spells and weapons was the meat of the game, and that was enough to addict us for weeks at a time. There are no puzzles, no mini-games, and only a few, exceedingly simple cinema scenes (which have been added for Dawn of Souls).
If I haven’t scared you away yet, you’re either a veteran of this series or an admirably open-minded gamer looking for yet another great RPG (or two!) for Game Boy Advance or your new Nintendo DS. Final Fantasy I&II: Dawn of Souls fits the bill perfectly. Though decidedly old-school and still holding on to a few rough edges, these games are unbelievably addictive and solid RPGs. Thanks to fresh translations, their stubbornly threadbare storylines are at least clean and well-written, and from what I can tell, closer to the original Japanese texts. New cinema scenes, though rare and quite simple, depict major action events with a bit more flash than could be mustered on the old Famicom/NES.
The structure of each game has been updated too. Final Fantasy has a new magic system that works just like the one in all the later games: characters each have a pool of magic points from which to cast all spells. The original game used a system of magic levels with a severely limited number of uses at each level. Now you can cast Life as many times as your maximum MP will allow, and new items like Ethers can make the magic system even more forgiving. Experience levels now span to at least 99 instead of the original limit of 50, and not only do characters gain levels more often, but their stat bonuses at each new level are higher than before. All of these changes serve to make the game a good bit easier than the bruiser original (though it’s still pretty tough at times), and you will probably never need to stop and gain levels just to grow strong enough to advance. In other words, Final Fantasy now plays more like a modern RPG, which will probably annoy purists but help to ease in the many newer fans that have never played the first game.
Final Fantasy II, in its first North American release on any Nintendo platform, has also been tweaked, but I doubt anyone will be complaining about these changes. FFII still uses an intuitive but clunky advancement system in which characters grow based on what they do and what happens to them. If the character attacks often with swords, he will become stronger and more accurate with swords; if he uses magic in battle, his magic ability will increase and his maximum magic points will inch up. For some stats, the system works just fine. For others, it’s infuriating…though many of the old problems have been mitigated in Dawn of Souls. The biggest problem in the original was increasing hit points, because your characters had to finish battles in critical condition to boost this particular stat. Since most enemies are either too weak to beat you down efficiently or too strong to hit and not kill you, the best way to build up hit points was to have your characters attack each other in battle. Yeah, it was stupid. Dawn of Souls fixes the problem by adding an additional way to increase HP: just fight a lot of battles. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the whole stat-building system, but this minor change makes FFII much, much more playable. You can now advance through the game without ever having to beat up your own characters, though you probably will need to spend some time getting stronger between major battles.
Of course, both games also feature vastly improved graphics and sound. The visuals are on par with the Super NES Final Fantasy games. Animations are too simple, but the character art for people and especially monsters looks great. The music has been entirely redone from the original games and is probably based on the Final Fantasy Origins soundtrack on PlayStation. Fans of the series might be surprised to hear the shorter, simpler versions of famous tunes like the Chocobo theme in these early games. As always, headphones are recommended for maximum sound quality.
Both Final Fantasy and FFII have new content, which may be of interest to fans who wore these games out on previous platforms. The first game has four new dungeons; each one opening after the corresponding elemental fiend has been vanquished. The new dungeons are randomly generated and positively huge, filled with enemies and bosses from later games in the series. There is some powerful equipment to be won, but with no story relevance whatsoever and the high difficulty, only FF fanatics need apply. Final Fantasy II goes a bit further, with a new playable epilogue section that actually adds to the story. It’s especially appealing since FFII has a more complex and character-driven plot than its predecessor. Both games also connect to a joint Bestiary which is pretty useless.
Nintendo fans have a right to be excited about any main-series Final Fantasy game coming to their systems, but this excellent two-pack is simply irresistible, a must-have for any handheld RPG fan.