Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls

November 30, 2004

[floatleft][/floatleft]The [i]Final Fantasy[/i] series has become larger than life over the past 15 years, and few things depict how far the series has come than the facelift given to the original two games in [i]Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls[/i] for the Game Boy Advance. It was with great pride and joy that I popped this cart into my GBA: SP, eager to enjoy the remade games without the annoying load times that the PSX remakes suffered from. A portable [i]Final Fantasy[/i], with new graphics, sound, tweaked storyline, and additional content was too much for this reviewer to take at first glance.

Before diving into the game, I have to preface my review with a confession: [i]Final Fantasy[/i] on the NES was one of my first gaming experiences; thus, this review walks the fine line of a nostalgic bias. Luckily for you, both games contain a few glaring flaws that allowed me to put aside this warm, cozy feeling to speak the truth about this game. I’ll cut to the chase early, and explain myself later-this game is meant for diehard fans of the series and will appeal mostly to those who have played the original, functionally flawed games.

[i]Final Fantasy I[/i] has been given a complete graphical and audio overhaul-the game more closely resembles a polished version of [i]Final Fantasy V[/i], right down to character avatar as you move around the games many locales. From the minute the game opens, you can see that several large problems have been addressed: townspeople provide more intriguing dialogue, quests are explained in more detail, and evidence of efforts to fill in gaping plot holes have been made. This is pure gravy, folks. You’ll immediately feel the difference if you’ve played the original game.

[floatright][/floatright]The battle system has been given a massive facelift as well, with broad implications for how the game is played. Magic, for example, is now powered on the standard mana system; in the original game, you only had a few spells per spell level that you could cast without resting. Since you couldn’t rest in dungeons in the original, spellcasters were of little use, as they would spend most of their time conserving magic and weakly attacking non-boss characters as you waded through dungeons in search of the said boss. Now, you can easily replenish mana, however, with cheaply purchased ethers, making the concept of a four black mage party a potential reality instead of a whimsical pipe dream.

Hand-to-hand combat has also received attention. In the original game, you could “miss” an attack if the creature you had targeted was dead by the time it was your turn. This lead to all sorts of annoying issues in the past, but it’s been addressed, and in combination with the new magic system, battle in [i]FFI[/i] has been completely changed for the better. And thank the maker it has, because you’re going to be dealing with more random battles than you can shake a stick at. In one dungeon, there’s an empty room that has the same encounter on every tile. It serves no purpose outside of annoying you to the point of powering down, which is now much easier to do since you can save anywhere.

On the subject of annoyances, [i]FFI[/i] still has many facets that can drive you completely bonkers. For one, there’s next to no guidance in terms of quests, and the overworld map is both huge in size and sparse in useful locations. Massive forests with nothing in them, huge spans between the four to five towns in the game, dungeons more difficult to find than to complete-this game is sure to test the patience of even the most devoted gamer. You’ll wind up finding your next challenge more by accident than design, armed with cryptic clues from townspeople and extensive time spent scanning the world for new locations. Ironically, the map system has been completely streamlined and updated to give you a fantastic view of where you’ve been and places you could go, but none of these locations are marked or flagged in any way as to give you a hint of where you’re supposed to be. Some might call my objection to this petty, but these people obviously enjoying trekking over a landscape, fighting weak monsters every next step in the vain hope that you’re on the right track. These people have my respect, but I still think they’re crazy.

[floatleft][/floatleft]The plot is as threadbare as the original, though as previously mentioned, it’s been given a shot in the arm by extra dialogue. But above all, the challenge in this game is to figure out where you’re going to next, more so than completing said task when you get there. Since you have no idea where you’re going, you’ll fight a lot more random battles, level up to inappropriate heights, and steamroll through each objective with ease. Money, which was an issue throughout the original game, is now in complete abundance; so while items are still expensive to buy, you’ll have no problems with cash after you complete the Elven section of the game.

Perhaps to address the now dumbed-down difficulty level, Square decided to implement four additional dungeons: one opened after each crystal is restored. I cannot stress how much these need to be avoided-the levels are stuffed with low-level random encounters, repetitive dungeon layouts (the first dungeon requires that you enter, defeat one of four bosses, and repeat this process until all four are dead, after which…nothing happens!), and measly rewards. Never before have I been so disappointed in a gaming experience. It almost made me stop playing the game altogether, but I trudged through the remainder (avoiding the last two optional dungeons) to bring the truth to light.

[i]FFII[/i], at least, provides you with a fresh skill progression system and a bona fide stab at a storyline. Instead of restoring the crystals and defeating Chaos, you’re embroiled in a political battle with an empire and resistance (sound familiar?) and a search for a lost companion. The leveling system in [i]FFII[/i] warrants specific mention, since there isn’t one. Instead, character skills and abilities progress as you use them-swing your sword, gain some strength while you intelligence festers. Cast magic and your intelligence and spirit will rise along with your spell level while your strength remains at the basest of levels. This system is incredibly innovative given the time the game was originally released, and is something that I wish its ancestors would have adopted. Nonetheless, [i]FFII[/i] is no barnburner of a title either, but fans of the original will enjoy it (including the optional hours of play available after the endgame) as long as they approach it with the same grain of salt needed for [i]FFI[/i]. The game suffers from the same lack of guidance issues as the first, except that this time you know the names of places you’re supposed to go, but finding them is just as obtuse a process. From the initial town, you’ll wander in a forest looking for a city. One moment you’ll be fighting creatures you can easily handle, the next you’ve wandered too far (in the same forest, mind you) and are completely wiped out by monsters 10 times your level. Game over. Sure, you wandered too far from the beaten path, but when there is no beaten path in the first place, you can begin to see where this becomes a problem.

[floatright][/floatright]But, I digress-there’s still more optional material to discuss. The cart also comes with a bestiary that you populate as you meet and defeat monsters. It’s a neat little tool that allows you to analyze your opponents, but given that the scope of each game is so small, it never really comes into play. It’s filler, but when compared to some of the other additional content, it’s a welcome addition (until you realize that in order to fill said bestiary, you’ll need to schlep through the optional dungeons!).

To a vintage console RPG fan, [i]Dawn of Souls[/i] is a tribute to the humble beginnings of a game series that has evolved into some of the most popular and controversial titles on the market. You can clearly see some of the innovative threads from which the [i]Final Fantasy[/i] series has been spun in these humble beginnings. The time and effort that was given to restoring these games is akin to that used to rebuild and preserve old colonial houses. Unfortunately for the end user, however, the results are much like taking a tour through such a restored house-you can appreciate the time devoted to rebuilding the archaic foundation, repainting the faded walls, and polishing the former owner’s ugly collection of medieval sculptures, but you’ll tire of its lack of air conditioning, high-speed Internet access, and major appliances quicker than you’ll appreciate the overall nostalgia and aesthetic. Only serious history buffs need apply here.