Part 2: Chapter 2
Last update: our attempt to sneak into Phin was foiled by a face-rapingly difficult superboss. How can we get around this impossibly difficult opponent?
By strolling casually past, of course. Apparently the Empire has standing "shoot on talk" orders.
: "Sir, a ragtag band of youths has infiltrated the town. They look like they might be embarking on a journey of self-discovery that will test their bonds of friendship, allowing them to come together as unlikely heroes and overthrow our world domination plans. Shall I stop them?"
: "Are they trying to talk to you?"
: "Not as such, no."
: "At ease, soldier."
So, yes, that is how you sneak through Phin. By not talking to the guards. It's like Metal Gear Stupid here.
Although the captains won't attack you unless you talk to them, random encounters continue inside Phin. It's just the same generic weak enemies that you run into outside the town, though.
The weapon shops are undefended, but unfortunately there's no one here to buy stuff from.
Hmm, there's a break in the trees that form the back boundary of the town... ah-hah! This must be a secret rebel hideout. Surely they'll be safe from the Empire here!
Or not. I guess the Empire is smart enough to figure out one of the most basic of JRPG non-puzzles, too.
Hmm. Generic Bartender Guy has a keyword prompt, we have one (1) keyword...
Stealing more loot from the Rebellion (potion x3). It's a good thing our actions have no consequences in this game!
"...although the rebel army of Phin fought bravely from their new base in Altea, their forces would be plagued by a number of problems of supply that would prove to be their downfall, thereby decisively ending the last source of major organized resistance to the Paramekian Empire. The lack in healing supplies in later battles would be particularly critical, the cause of which has always been a source of puzzlement to historians as it is firmly established that the rebellion was well-stocked with Potion when it abandoned Phin."
: "So you're Scott... Gordon told us you were captured by the Empire!"
: "Yes... I won't last much longer. Please, answer a dying man's last request... Cough..."
Tell my brother Gordon he has a splendid talent... and to have more pride in himself."
Tell the King of Phin that the reason Phin was taken was that Duke Borgan betrayed us. He's now a General for the Empire!"
As for Hilda... I love her. Wait, do not tell her that... I'm nearly gone. She should forget about me, she deserves to fall in love again."
: "Excuse me, but do you know about my brother, Lenny?"
: "...No... Cough... Take this Ring... It was to be our engagement... Ring..."
I guess emo runs in the family.
The fan translation is serviceable in most regards (at least compared to a lot of the NES and SNES translations that were circulating on the Internet back in the '90s), but they really overdid the ellipses and capitalization here.
: "...did he just say 'Cough'?"
Suit yourself. Y'know, we've got potions for this, buddy.
And with that, we receive the game's first quest item, which will proceed to hog an unreclaimable spot in the party's inventory for the entire rest of the game. Consumable items do not stack and the inventory is fairly small, so this will get to be a big hassle as we accumulate quest junk. A more manageable inventory system is one of the best features the remakes have to offer.
Still, the ring is not quite entirely useless. Now that we have it, on the world map we can do this:
Just like the first Final Fantasy, pressing B+Select together brings up a world map. Oddly, this function is tied to the Ring item even though there is no indication as to why. Apparently instead of diamond Scott chose to have Hilda's engagement ring set with a miniature globe.
And it is in fact a globe. You can freely rotate it around with a resolution of a couple pixels, and the map will move around and actually distort as if it were printed on a sphere. Not very accurately, but it's still a decent effort.
Here's the globe rotated over to the starting town of Altea, for example. You can see how the landforms get distorted around the edges. It's a pretty neat feature, the kind of thing you don't see very often in NES games.
Of course, there's a very good reason you don't often see it: because the NES sucks balls at this kind of thing. The rotation you see here, following the path from Phin to Altea--one of the shorter trips you take in this game--took about 15 seconds to process. On an emulator set to 2x speed.
With the ring in hand the party makes the short trip back to Altea, now made trivial thanks to Guido's improved MP. Marty has gained several HP increases as well, but she still doesn't have as much HP as I might like. Now I could hang around fighting goblins and hornets and wait for them to knock off enough HP to trigger another increase--but the odds of getting HP increases are based on the damage you take in relation to total HP, so with almost twice as much HP as when she was starting out it will take a lot more damage than before to trigger another increase. I could speed up the process by unequipping her armor to increase the damage she'd take, but there's an even better solution:
Under the gothy influences of The Cure spell, Marty takes to cutting herself.
Having taken out half of her own hitpoints, Marty's now got a very good chance of netting an HP up this fight (which she does.) If you want to, you can hang around having your characters beat each other up to raise your HP as much as you want. It's not necessarily helpful to do so, though, so I'm not going to bother grinding it. Really, it's unlikely that she'll even ever need the little bit of extra HP she got from this, but when you're right outside town it's pretty convenient to grab a quick HP up before you hit the Inn.
Altea's town square seems suspiciously ninja-less. This may have interesting ramifications later.
(This is a lie. Nothing that happens in FFII's storyline will ever be interesting.)
There is an adjunct to the keyword system where you can use items during dialogue to prompt new responses. I'm not sure why Square felt the need to include both this and the keywords.
: "I... I see. That Ring... It was very special. Did he say anything to you?"
: "No... nothing. Please, take the Ring as a keepsake."
: "No... You keep it. You are the only ones brave enough to help us now."
: "Please, lend the rebel army your strength. We need strong warriors like you to retrieve the the legendary ore [Mithril] to make better equipment for our army."
New keyword: Mithril.
: "They say Josef, who lives in Salmando, knows where Mithril may be found. Please travel to Salmando. Talk to Minh, he will accompany you there."
Turban guy joins the party! Depending on the translation, he's variously named Minwu, Minh, Ming-Wu, or Mindu. I'm just going to stick with "turban guy" and sidestep the issue. He'll be accompanying us as our ridiculously overpowered babysitter.
Seriously, this guy's arguably the most useful character you'll ever get beyond your starting three. His list of spells is simply ridiculous, although unfortunately most of these are at best situationally useful. There are some real winners here, though.
He also brings a modest little pile of loot. He'll be in back as well and won't be needing the cane, so that can be sold. The IceScyth, in spite of the awesome name, is useless and can be sold as well--it's a one-shot magic item that casts Shell on the user, raising magic defense. I'm not even sure that you run into any enemies that use actual spells while turban guy is in your party (at least, you don't if you're playing normally.)
That Ether, on the other hand, is crazy valuable. Being able to recover MP is tremendously useful, although most of the time you'd probably be better off selling the Ether for a giant pile of cash.
As it turns out, Ethers are... kind of expensive. Early on you're very strapped for cash compared to all the things you can buy, although you actually run out of things to spend money on fairly quickly. I'm probably going to save it for Guido, magic whore that he is.
The copper armor, meanwhile, is a lightweight armor that's stronger than leather. Marty steals it, leaving turban guy to join Fry and Guido in glorious nudity.
Actually, since turban guy is a mage, there's a very good reason to unequip him. See, Square apparently wanted the classless system of FFII to emulate a traditional class-based RPG where you'd have fighters with heavy armor and weapons and mages wearing bathrobes and wielding wooden sticks, since otherwise there'd be nothing to stop everyone from simply using the best weapon and armor all the time. So whatever equipment you have on imposes penalties on your spellcasting ability--pure damage-dealing spells aren't really affected, nor is Cure, but basically every other spell in the game has a substantial chance of failure if you're wielding anything bigger than a dagger or wearing any real armor. Even spells like Life.
It's not a bad system in theory... but the problem is, as someone just alluded to above, nowhere in the entire game or any of its documentation does it ever hint at the existence of such a mechanic. So a new player trying the game out will probably say "Oh neat, swords and armor for everybody!", then when they start trying out some of the later spells they'll find they have basically a 0% success rate. Since the game never tells you what causes your spells to be so terrible, it's easy to conclude that spells are just that terrible period.
Now, turban guy was just using a staff and a piece of lightweight armor, stuff with very small penalties--when you've got stats like his you can probably get away with using lightweight mage-appropriate equipment like that, except that I have a specific use in mind for turban guy and it has a very low margin of error. Every little bit counts for what he's going to be doing.
See, the one weakness is that turban guy starts with no weapon skills, and wouldn'tcha know it--not one of those spells he has is an attack spell.
Well, actually, no. One of those spells is, although you might not expect it to be. In some of the later FF games you can cast Warp/Exit type spells in battle to get out of battle instantly. In FFII...
...you can cast Warp or Exit to get enemies out of the battle instantly. The problem is, Exit has an absolutely terrible success rate and it's turban guy's lowest level spell. He's got enough Soul that it's not wholly useless, but even against goblins it's worse than a 50/50 success rate for turban guy right now (and that's assuming you target one enemy with it--you can choose to split any spell between one target/all targets, but the success rate plummets if you target everything.) Turban guy's starting equipment might only cause a hit of -5 or -10% on his success rate, but that makes a pretty big difference on Exit's chances right now.
Anyhow, enough sperging about mechanics. With turban guy's handy canoe, the next town is merely a short jaunt across the lake. Unlike FF I, there are no enemy encounters on the canoe, so it's a handy way to avoid random battles while traveling.
This is the town of Palm, inhabited almost entirely by shirtless pirates. Sounds like Marty's kind of place!
Or not. You'd kind of expect someone traveling with a harem of naked dudes behind her to be less prudish.
There's a ferry here to the next town over, which saves quite a bit of time. But it costs money and we are poor, so I'm skipping it. Besides, the battles on the way mean more gold and more practice. (This sounds suspiciously similar to grinding, but taking the ferry costs money that can only be acquired by grinding. A conundrum! But there's stuff to show off around here anyhow, so we're taking the scenic route.)
The magic shop here has some new spells, all defensive white magics. They can actually come in handy for some boss battles, although generally most fights can be cheesed to the point where they're irrelevant. Besides, turban guy already has all of these spells at decent levels, so as long as he's around there's not much point to investing in them.
The bronze stuff in the armor store is really strong and will make you almost invincible to most enemy attacks in this part of the game, but it will also kill your evade%. Pass.
Shields are always good, though. It is literally impossible to have too many shields.
(This isn't quite true, since shields have terrible magic penalties, but Guido doesn't have any spells that would be affected by the magic penalty yet. He will later, so it's important to get all his shielding in early while I still have the chance!)
One neat little touch that I forgot to mention: sometimes as you're walking around on the world map an airship will fly by, meandering drunkenly. It doesn't do anything and is purely decorative, but it's a really sweet effect that really helps create the impression of a living, breathing world.
Too bad this impression is not supported by anything else in the game. FFII tries to have a dynamic story arc, but it is sparsely populated by a cast of flat, static characters that do little more than mumble generic fantasy-RPGish things. As a whole the game has an oppressively empty atmosphere and fundamentally feels very much like a dead world, an impression which is only heightened by the haunting overworld refrain and generally depressing storyline. The effect of seeing the airship flying by on its own is kind of like seeing a half-wilted flower bravely poking out of the middle of a desolate ruin: it's kind of uplifting to see it making the effort, but for the most part it only serves to underscore how flat and lifeless everything around it is in comparison.
On the next leg of the journey the game starts pulling out the palette swaps. The purple one in back is a QueenBee. Also, note that it is in fact in back; enemies have front and back rows similar to the party. Anything in the 3rd or 4th row away from the party is considered to be "in back" and can't attack or be attacked physically until you kill the enemies in front (which is why one of the hornets is currently doing "Nothing": it's in back and has nothing to do because it can't use its regular attack.)
The QueenBee has about triple the hitpoints of the standard hornets, and its attack causes a stronger poison that never wears off (hence why its attack says "Envenomed", where the hornets' attacks just say "Poisoned.") Fortunately turban guy has the Heal spell to cure poison. Guido ends up spending a bit more MP than normal in the process of taking it out, so he nets another MP up.
More new enemies, the Soldier and the Sprinter. They're tough enough that the whole party generally can't kill them in one turn (killing Soldiers in one turn is almost out of the question, barring a really lucky Exit spell from turban guy), but fortunately they only show up one at a time for now.
Soon the party arrives at the port of Poft. There are a ton of convenient stopover towns early on in this game, which is made up for the fact that there are almost no towns to find during the remaining 75% of the game. But Poft does house one person of interest:
It's Cid, hanging around in the pub! (This is probably why the airship staggers around drunkenly as it passes overhead on the world map.)
Not only is it Cid, it's the first Cid ever. And he has an air taxi service. Sweet!
It's pretty much a horrible rip-off, though. It takes about 12 seconds to walk to Salmando for example, plus 1-2 battles. He will drop you off right at the doorstep of the dungeon you're heading to for 300 gold, and that can shave a couple fights off of your trip, but it's probably not worth it.
Whatever you do, do not forget Cid is here. You'll have to come back here later to get a certain keyword in order to progress the game, and it's extremely easy to lose track of what you're supposed to do and get stuck with no idea what you're supposed to do because you forgot to talk to Cid at a certain point in the plot. You can always come back later, but until you look at a guide you probably won't remember to; this typically leads to getting bored, power-leveling your characters to ridiculous heights, and wandering around getting into parts of the world map you're not "supposed" to reach until late in the game before quitting out of boredom.
There are about 20 guys in this town who all say this. Gee, you think they might be trying to tell us something?
Another palette swap rears its gaudy head! I'm pretty sure this is supposed to be a "guard goblin", but I like to pretend we're fighting the Green Goblin. Your days are numbered, Parker! He's not actually much tougher than the standard goblins, but he is one of the first enemies that has a bow attack capable of hitting back-row characters (the Soldier actually has one, too).
A few battles later we run into one of the most reviled features of FFII:
Yes, stats can actually go down sometimes when you get an increase in an "opposed" stat. Since JRPGs are fundamentally games about getting higher and higher numbers, the idea that these numbers sometimes go lower strikes a vital chord deep within the hearts of RPG players everywhere.
In reality, it's not all that big a deal as it doesn't happen too terribly often. It's sort of another forced specialization mechanic, except it doesn't really force you to do much because in the long run the effects are pretty minor--if you have a character that uses both physical and magical attacks they'll be gaining both physical and magical stats, and occasionally a gain in one will cancel out a gain in another but they'll still have appreciable net growth in all the stats they use. I'm kind of min-maxing my characters by keeping them within specialized roles for now, but this isn't really necessary or even a very good idea; the small advantage you get from not having competing stat growths is nothing compared to the advantage of having more well-rounded characters with a wider variety of useful abilities.
Speaking of stats, we're nearing the town of Salmando now and Guido doesn't have nearly enough MP to get through the next dungeon. I could stop and just hang around killing things like I would in any other RPG, but it's kind of difficult to use up enough MP in a single fight to prompt further MP increases. I could have Fry cast Cure on the enemies to keep them alive while Guido cast Bolt repeatedly, but thanks to turban guy, there's a better way to boost MP.
The Anti spell (Sap in the remake) reduces the target to a small fraction of their current MP if they fail to resist. It's a fairly useless spell in combat, since even if it works all it does is reduce an enemy to the point where they will run out of MP in several turns (as opposed to spells that will stop enemies from casting now, viz., spells that kill them.) However, if you remember how I boosted Marty's MP, you can probably see where this is going:
Guido loses almost all of his MP, which triggers an MP up at the end of combat. I'm right outside Salmando, so I can just hop in and recover MP instantly. It does get a bit pricey though--the inns charge 1 gold for every point of MP you need to recover, which can be quite a lot early on if you're racking up lots of MP (which means racking up lots of lost MP.) HP, incidentally, is 1 gold for every 4 HP healed. Of course, you can just cast Cure spell to heal about 30 or so HP for each MP you spend for only 1 gold per MP, so it's usually more economical to heal up before you hit the Inn.
I could stick around and grind, but I'm going to go ahead and call that good for now with just the one MP up for Guido. Really, even if you're a magic whore like me that's way more MP than you'd ever need in the upcoming dungeon if you're being sensible and giving your mage(s) a bow, or just sticking them in front with a real weapon. But Guido's fabulous mage-hands will not be sullied by any weapon!
Quite by coincidence, this also happened at the same time:
Guido levels up Bolt! There is a pop-up for gaining skill/spell levels at the end of the combat when it happens, but I missed it somehow.
Each time you attack with a weapon or cast a spell, that's +1 experience towards the next skill level with that weapon/spell, 100 experience = 1 skill level. This doesn't actually mean I've had Guido cast Bolt 100 times, though; the first time you use a certain weapon or spell for each battle you get a couple of extra points of skill experience (more for spells than for weapons, which is why Guido's leveled his spell before Fry or Marty have leveled their weapons.) Stronger enemies will give you more experience to start, but your existing skill level gets subtracted from the amount you get each combat.
So for example, at level 1 Guido was getting 4 experience for each combat he uses Bolt in, +1 for each additional casting in the same combat. But now that he has Bolt 2, he's only getting 3 experience/+1 for each extra casting. Since most combats only last 1-3 turns, this tends to lead to players reaching a plateau where their skills seem to stop rising altogether--their skills are so high relative to the enemies they're fighting that they are essentially getting negative experience, and although their skill experience won't actually go down it means they have to use their weapons/spells over and over and over again every fight just to see the first point of experience towards the next level.
Most of the time this isn't much of a problem--if your skills have reached this point, you're probably powerful enough that you can just coast for a while anyhow. But of course, it wouldn't be Final Fantasy II if you couldn't brutally subvert this limitation! You can, of course, just sit there healing your enemies so that you can attack them repeatedly without killing them, dragging out the combat in order to get in more swings/casts. Or you could give your characters melee weapons and then stick them in the back row--you can still try to attack and fail since you're in the back row, but you get credit for the attack anyhow. But as it turns out, you don't even need to attack in the first place:
Instead of keeping track of how many times a characters attacks on their turn, it keeps track of how many times a character selects a command. If you're fighting normally, there's not much difference either way... but there's nothing stopping you from selecting a command with one character, canceling it, going back to that character, and selecting the same command again. Just select and cancel the attack command about 100-110 times in a single battle and you're guaranteed a skill increase. Weapon skills can take 50-100+ battles to raise playing normally, so if for some reason you absolutely need higher skills before you proceed then this is the way to go.
(The catch is that really, you probably do not need higher skills right now, so usually this is kind of a waste of time. But there's at least one case of a spell that it is very nearly mandatory to level a few times in this manner unless you have a lot of foresight.)
Enough about that. We now return to your regularly scheduled quest:
Welcome to Salmando! It is snowy.
Wait... the Empire has rounded up the population and is forcing them to work in a Semitic labor camp?
Finally, a woman who knows her place!
Put the axe down, Marty.
: "Mithril still hasn't been recovered from the Semite Cave... All the townsmen are enslaved there. You must help us!"
Sure thing, buddy, but y'know... seeing as we're saving your ass and your town's economy has basically been destroyed anyhow, how about giving us some of this nice stuff for free? Because this is some really nice stuff here.
The spells, you can afford to skip for now: turban guy has Life, Anti, and Exit covered, and Warp is basically a black magic equivalent of Exit. It doesn't get you out of dungeons as quickly (like FFI, Warp only teleports you back floor by floor) but it has a slightly better success rate for zapping enemies away. No one other than turban guy really has the stats to really make Warp or Exit work for combat purposes at this point, though. If you powerleveled them with the select/cancel trick you could get some success with them (as long as you were casting them naked), but you'd have to spend some time working on MP too--the one drawback to leveling spells is that higher level spells actually cost more MP to cast (Guido's newly-leveled Bolt spell costs 2 MP to cast now, for example.) And in the end, there are other spells available that are much, much better at doing the same thing...
Weapons are another story. The Battle Axe is unfortunately out of reach, but if you've got a bow user the Longbow is a must-buy. It's very inexpensive, and it's a much-needed upgrade over the laughably weak basic bow.
With that, we're pretty much set for now. Left to themselves, our original trio would almost certainly still be inadequate for the upcoming dungeon, at least against the bosses if nothing else. But hey, that's what turban guy is for. Breezing through the first dungeon or two with him is nothing compared to some of the stuff you can get away with when you've got this guy in your party.