Turn-based combat returns, with the same conditions as FFI. You input commands for all four characters in the party, then they execute them each in turn, with the enemies chiming in if their speed is better than your characters’. The ‘hit inexistent target’ problem also persists: if two characters target the same enemy, but the first hit kills it, the second character will still take a swing or cast a spell in thin air. However, the combat menu has been streamlined, removing some of the unnecessary boxes from the FFI combat screen. Front and back rows have also been implemented for the first time. This means that you can control your battle formation more freely, arranging your weaker party members in the back to better protect them. Front and back rows also apply to enemy formations, meaning that you can only target enemies beyond the first two rows with spells or arrows. Combat dynamics have also been diversified: the party can now be ambushed at the beginning of a battle, which means that the enemies get the first turn, or it can obtain a first strike, which is the opposite.
The spell charge system from the first game has also been done away with and replaced with the much more functional MP system. There are still two main magic schools (White for beneficial spells and Black for offensive ones), and spells can be learned by purchasing or finding the appropriate tomes. However, each spell now uses up a certain quantity of MP upon being cast, rather than the character being allowed to only cast a certain number of spells per tier. But this and the improved message speed are probably the only good aspects of the combat system.
The NES version of FFI takes a bit of discipline to sit down to, but if it hadn’t been successfully remade, I could still replay it, at a push. The original FFIII, despite being on the NES, is actually pretty enjoyable. I’ve never liked FFV, FFX-2 or FFXIII much, and still, I’d replay them quite willingly. After finishing FFII, I let out a distinguishable sigh of pure relief. Not because it’s old and looks crappy by modern standards, but because any interest the game may spark is irrecoverably destroyed by the single most HORRIBLE levelling system that I’ve ever seen in a game.
There are no levels per se: a character’s stats will not automatically go up by a preset amount once a certain quantity of experience is gained. In fact, battles will grant you no experience at all. Instead, you get to micromanage each character’s stats yourself, depending on what you do during combat. On top of these stats, each weapon type and each spell has its own associated proficiency level. So have a character hit enemies with a sword a couple of times, and their sword level and Strength will go up. Make them cast a few spells, and their MP and spell level will increase. Have them take a few hits, and you’ll raise their HP. Put light armour and shields on them, and their Agility will improve. And you have to repeat this process continuously if you want to see progress. I’m not even talking multiple battles, but artificially protracting each battle to squeeze more actions in.
If the stat increases were more systematic and more significant, it may have been more or less fine. Because, let’s face it, this system is logical: you only learn by doing. But the process is agonisingly slow and involved. Example: you generally have to get half or more of a character’s HP shaved off to get an increase at the end of battle. After a while, enemies get too weak and stop giving any bonuses, so the party needs to traipse around to find something stronger to fight. The game sports a glitch that’s supposed to help you out, which is that a character doesn’t actually have to hit anything to get credit for an action. You can target an enemy, select an action, then cancel it, repeat the process a few times then move on to the next character…
Target, select, cancel, target, select, cancel. The crushing majority of your time will be spent doing this about a dozen times per random battle and per character, mindlessly pressing the same buttons over and over (and OVER) again. What’s worse, the glitch doesn’t work for the last character in the battle formation, which means that your fourth party member (or third, if you have a three-person party) will lag behind the others.
Raising HP (and Strength and weapon levels) is noticeably less painful than raising MP (and Spirit and Intelligence), simply because each character only has one set of HP and one preferred weapon, while there are quite a few different spells. On my one and only playthrough, I ended the game with a maximum MP of 189 on Maria. Needless to say that, since she used both Black and White Magic, and high-level spells (we’re talking 11MP Cures here), mana upkeep was a nightmare. Another headache is Agility: it’s heavily dependent on equipment choices and requires swapping armour if you really want to work on it.
And, as if all the above weren’t enough, with all this self-harming and MP wasting going on, the party will need to pay frequent visits to inns to recover. However, the price of staying at an inn is proportional to how much they need to recover, rather than a fixed rate. Say your characters are badly beaten and have no MP left: they’ll need to pay a significantly heftier fee than if they only had no MP, but their HP was fine. By the end of the game, it doesn’t matter, since money stops being a problem, but the principle in itself is terrible. They’re inns, not private clinics!