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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Square Enix Final Fantasy + Final Fantasy II

Given the overwhelming international popularity of Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise -- one of the key reasons Enix merged with Square some years ago -- it's not surprising that the Final Fantasy series has debuted on Apple's iPhone and iPod touch; in fact, given that the first two games in the series, Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II were re-released on other platforms, Square's decision to port these titles to the App Store seemed all but inevitable. Often sold as a bundle on other platforms, the iPhone versions of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II are being sold separately on the App Store for $9 each, and are based upon the 2007 PSP releases, titled Final Fantasy + Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition. Both games are very similar in design and gameplay, so we discuss them collectively in one review.
It’s worth mentioning up front that due to a difference in international Final Fantasy naming conventions and release dates, the titles shown here are the actual first and second titles in a series that started in 1987 on the Japanese version of Nintendo’s NES, the Famicom. Square had a very limited presence in North America back then, and waited until 1990 to release the original Final Fantasy with Nintendo’s assistance over here. It then skipped North American releases for Final Fantasy II and III, renaming the 1991 Super NES game—the fourth game in the series—Final Fantasy II. Retroactively, Square adopted the Japanese naming conventions for the entire series, so the Final Fantasy II released for iPhone is the original Final Fantasy II, not Final Fantasy IV.
Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy is a role-playing game (RPG) where you guide a party of four characters—the Warriors of Light—on a quest to save their world from the forces of darkness. To accomplish their quest you must lead your characters through towns, dungeons and the countryside, interacting with townsfolk and other non-player characters,  gaining experience by battling various creatures.
The game begins by letting you name and decide the types of characters that will make up your party, choosing each character’s attributes from among six character classes: Warrior, Thief, Monk, Red Mage, White Mage or Black Mage, with each class providing specific skills in terms of fighting and magical abilities. You must also name each character by either entering a name manually or having the game automatically choose a name for you.
The characters start in the town of Cornelia where you discover that the king’s daughter, Princess Sarah, has been kidnapped by the evil knight Garland. The four Warriors of Light undertake their first quest: to rescue the princess.
Final Fantasy’s game world is divided into two general areas: a large-scale world map that you use to travel the countryside between locations, and smaller scale maps that you use when in towns, castles or dungeons. Controls for moving your character in the game are provided in the form of a four-way virtual touchpad on the left side of the screen. When moving around on the smaller-scale town maps, a button appears on the right side of the screen that you can tap and hold to increase your character’s speed.
Most towns contain non-player characters (NPCs) that you interact with by walking up and tapping anywhere on the screen, initiating a conversation. As is the RPG norm, some characters will provide useful information, and others supply little more than idle chatter.
While the characters you’ll encounter in towns are generally friendly and mostly harmless, wandering around the world map will result in random combat encounters with various creatures. This will initiate a turn-based battle sequence in which you choose actions for each character: attack, defend, cast a spell, use a piece of equipment or try to run away. Each successful skirmish raises your characters’ experience points and thereby increases your ability to fight larger and stronger creatures as you progress through the game.
A blue box displaying character stats appears in the bottom-right corner whenever you’re not moving. Touching this box brings up the in-game options menu which provides more detailed character status, access to inventory items and the game’s save and configuration options. Tapping on a character will bring up even more detailed statistics; each character has a number of different attributes that are initially determined by their character class and increased as the character gains more experience in battle and completes various quests.
Towns have shops where you can buy and sell items such as weapons, armor, potions and magic spells, and the selection of items varies from town to town. Most towns also have an inn where your characters can pay for lodging to rest and recover their health, and a church or clinic where you can revive a member of your party who has been killed in combat.
An in-game help system is hidden away at the Cornelia inn as a group of NPCs who explain various game concepts when you speak with them. Beyond this one area that players are left to discover for themselves, documentation and in-game help is pretty much non-existent. Although the game will be completely familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy genre, new players may take some time to figure things out before they’re completely comfortable with the game. Notably, Square Enix has tweaked the game’s difficulty and pacing from the 1987 original, making it easier for first-timers and angering some old school players in the process.
The game also includes a Bestiary that can be found under the Configuration menu, providing a summary of the different types of creatures that you’ve battled and details on individual creatures.
Your progress within the game is automatically saved so that you can resume from where you left off after returning to the app. You can also manually save your game in one of the three provided save game slots. There appears to be no way to load a saved game or start a new game from within the app itself—you must exit the app and then reload it in order to access the main menu on the opening screen. Note that you cannot save your game during a battle nor is it automatically saved—exiting and reopening the game during a battle will resume in your location prior to the encounter.
For the most part the on-screen control system works quite well, although the ability to tap anywhere on the screen to initiate a conversation with a character and progress though the conversation sometimes caused a bit of frustration—we found ourselves restarting the same conversation by tapping the screen one too many times. Gamers accustomed to full freedom of analog joystick movement will find Final Fantasy’s limited, two-axis character movement to be a little cumbersome, as the on-screen touchpad only lets you move up, down, left, or right when navigating the world map; there’s a tendency to want to slide your finger around the touchpad to change direction, and since characters cannot move diagonally the controls end up feeling a bit unresponsive as your characters make the sharp 90 degree turn. Lifting your finger from one arrow button and tapping the button for another direction works much better but feels less natural.
We encountered a few other minor game play issues such as NPCs frequently blocking our path in narrow corridors, however such issues are not unique to the iPhone release; they’re part of the original game code, which apart from the aforementioned difficulty and pacing tweaks has been largely left intact, preserving an early classic RPG experience. On the flip side, the game’s lack of customization is somewhat annoying: it provides minimal configuration options, and no way to adjust music or sound effects volume. This was particularly a concern as we found some of the sound effects loud relative to the background music, and it was difficult to find an iPhone volume level that achieved a proper balance.
Final Fantasy II
The second game in the Final Fantasy series uses most of the same general UI design and gameplay as its younger sibling with slightly improved graphics and a few notable differences.
The characters that form your party in Final Fantasy II have more well-rounded skills. Rather than assigning character classes that restrict a character to a specific set of abilities, the characters in Final Fantasy II begin with a breadth of basic skills which are refined based on how you use them in battle. For example, characters who regularly cast spells will see their magic abilities increase while a character who regularly wields a sword will improve their sword fighting skills. Weapon-related skills in Final Fantasy II are specific to each weapon.
Final Fantasy II also introduces an extra level of interaction with NPCs in the form of “Key Terms” that you can learn and later ask other characters about to gain additional information. Key terms appear highlighted during conversations and you can memorize them for later use by choosing the “Learn” option from the conversation menu. A list of memorized key terms can also be found within the in-game menu.
Characters in Final Fantasy II are left- or right-handed, and when equipping players you choose which hand will hold a weapon or shield. Further, since every character is capable of using magic in at least a basic way, spells are now purchased as tomes rather than being learned directly in the magic shop. A tome can be used later to teach that spell to specific character.
Final Fantasy II is otherwise very similar to its predecessor, with the same user interface/on-screen control system, and most of the same menu options. The majority of the issues and limitations described for Final Fantasy also apply here: Square Enix provides little to no in-game assistance to get new players started, retains the “fine, not great” graphic style from the 2007 PSP release, and the sound effects and music are not as balanced as they should be. When the company released the Final Fantasy titles for Sony’s PlayStations, it updated the artwork from the original 8-bit sprites and backgrounds into what’s essentially slightly glossed up 16-bit artwork, approximating the looks of Super NES titles Final Fantasy IV and V with enhanced color palettes and faux 3-D movement reminiscent of the SNES’s “Mode 7.” The music has similarly been upgraded to roughly 16-bit SNES chip quality rather than the 8-bit chip music of the original; it’s acceptable, but well short of the orchestral compositions of more recent games in the series, and again drowned out somewhat by the effects. Both titles feel like quick and dirty ports to the iPhone and iPod touch, though admittedly, Square Enix could have just ported the original Japanese Famicom versions of the games and some people would have drooled all over the “retro” 8-bit graphics and sounds, anyway.
So, while the graphics and soundtrack in the iPhone versions of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II are definitely nothing special by comparison to many other iPhone games we’ve seen, these versions of Final Fantasy are faithful adaptations of a game series that has become classic, and it’s fair to accept that the presentation of the games form a part of the classic Final Fantasy experience. Despite the aesthetics, the games both have good storylines, strong RPG elements and provide a good length of gameplay, and Final Fantasy fans will almost certainly enjoy these adaptations. It’s also worth noting that both games also include the bonus dungeons first introduced in the 2004 Dawn of Souls re-release for the GameBoy Advance.
Although the $9 asking price for each of these titles is high compared to similar iPhone games—enough that we’d call the titles a little too expensive for what they offer—fans will note that the 2007 PSP versions still sell for around $20 each as retail packages of the game in UMD disc form, not that the packaged versions are directly comparable in price. Regardless, Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II should definitely be of interest to classic RPG fans, and those who haven’t tried RPGs before will find both of these to be simple and straightforward enough to use as a starting point to whet their appetites for the genre. Should you like what you find here, there are at least 11 more and arguably better direct sequels in the series. Hopefully they too will come to the App Store, in even more impressive versions.

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