Considering what abysmal depths the combat system reaches, don’t be surprised if you find the game a little difficult to handle at times. More often than not, going unprepared into a dungeon will result in painful and ugly death. A good rate of progression would be a levelling session, then one or two dungeons, then another levelling session. This serves to break up the tedium of stat grinding a little bit and actually gives you a chance of not forgetting the damn storyline in the meantime.
The game takes a page from the FFI manual in the superboss department, as the resident representative of that category, the Iron Giant, is a rare random encounter in the final dungeon, just like Warmech/Death Machine. It doesn’t actually have a huge amount of HP and has a notable weakness to lightning, but it hits like a truck, and if your characters aren’t prepared, it can very well kill them before they manage to put a dent in it. On the other hand, if you have been diligently working on their stats, the Iron Giant goes down rather painlessly, which might be a bit disappointing. It can, however, drop some very nifty equipment, even though farming for it isn’t exactly an option, due to how low the odds of encountering it are.
The lacklustre superboss isn’t counterbalanced by a good main villain either. Emperor Paramekia/Palamecia is a guy in scary armour. He wants to conquer and rule the world. That’s it. No presence, no charisma. You can see his face, unlike Garland, so he’s at least identifiable, but Garland had his “I shall knock you all down!” line to make him famous. All the Emperor has is a funky hairdo that would put a viking to shame and a killer manicure, as per the Origins introductory cutscene. Subsequent games have identified him with Mateus (the summon from the Ivalice series of games), but even that doesn’t make him any more interesting.
On the more technical side of things, you have an unusual amount of freedom concerning the characters’ weapons. Anyone can technically use any weapon, if you feel up to the task of levelling a different proficiency than the one they have higher default stats in. You could train Ric(h)ard with spears, for example, if you really wanted to make him more dragoon-ish. Or give Maria a melee weapon so that she can move to the front row and beef up her HP. There’s also a wider selection of spells than in FFI, and again, anyone can learn them. The obvious statistical advantages of some characters notwithstanding (*points at Maria*), it also adds versatility to your team-building possibilities. One small equipment-related detail: this is the first game in the series where characters have a dominant hand. This is only an issue for Layla/Leila and Lionheart/Leon, who are both left-handed and thus need to have their weapons equipped in a different slot than the others, but it’s still worth pointing out.
Ethers and Phoenix Downs make their first appearance, the former being the traditional means of recovering MP in FF games, and the latter, the traditional means of reviving KO’ed characters. As a counterpart, Tents, which allowed your party to recover their HP and MP on the world map in FFI, have inexplicably disappeared. The game also introduces attack items that characters can toss at the enemy. As a humorous aside, one of those items is Garlic. Buffy to the rescue? Or horrendously bad breath? Anyways, as with just about everything in this game, these positive details are counterbalanced by flaws. You see, characters can’t just use items freely in battle. That would be too easy. Instead, each has two battle item slots they need to equip items in. This means that each character can only use two items per fight. This includes spellcasting weapons and armour (pieces of equipment that produce a magic spell when used in combat), which also exist in this game, just like in FFI. Needless to say that this is very handicapping, since you constantly need to reequip your characters’ battle items. Considering this, it’s far better to rely on Cure spells during combat, to at least minimise the annoyance of constantly re-equipping potions.
Another item-related problem is that inventory space is still limited, just like in FFI, but there are more potential items to collect, and it may therefore become an issue. A character’s spell-learning capacity is similarly limited, but that’s usually less of a problem, since there are fewer spells than items. Yet another issue is that negative status protection is distinctly lacking this time around, as there is only ONE Ribbon (the traditional status protection item in the FF series) available, found in the aforementioned chest guarded by Astaroth. Needless to say, you better put this on your designated healer, since, if they go, everyone else goes.
The dialogue system relies on an odd keyword feature. Sometimes NPCs will use a word that the party can learn, to then repeat it in order to get more information on that particular topic. I can see how this was aiming at constructive dialogue, especially considering how limited FFI was in that department, but it just feels awkward.
Some random titbits to round things off:
– The world map is still accessible in the same way as in FFI (B+Select). It’s also just as ‘useful’, and you’ll most likely end up lost in the woods beyond Phin/Fynn or around Mysidia after a while.
– On a more positive note, the game displays an attempt at randomised air traffic. During the first part of the game, you’ll sometimes see Cid’s airship flying around. This won’t be done again until FFVIII, but it’s certainly a commendable attempt at making the game world livelier.