Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals Review (SNES, 1995)

When people are asked about their favorite 16 bit RPG they usually answer with a Squaresoft title like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana. Or at least that's the impression I have concerning the popular opinion on the matter. It's a shame Lufia II (just Lufia in europe) isn't rated higher by RPG fans because it's an excellent game.

Uncommon for a second entry in a game series this one is actually a prequel to the first game. No need to hold back on this gem even if you didn't play the first one (which I hear pales in comparison). Visually the game is not super impressive, but it doesn't look bad either. The soundtrack is pretty good, it fits the game very well and features a couple of fantastic themes. It also helps that the music direction is truely unique - I don't know a game with an OST even slightly similar to that of Lufia II.

Compared to other contemporary RPGs this one is filled to the brim with puzzles. Throughout the many dungeons you find items that are usable on the field to manipulate the environment, for example much like in a Zelda game you can shoot arrows, put down bombs and use a hookshot. The puzzles are very varied and never get old. Futhermore there are no random encounters and the field items can be used on enemies to stun them. If you decide against using some wit to avoid battles you only end up overleveled, trivializing most parts of the game. Lufia II was designed around avoiding combat. The battle system is classic turn-based. Next to normal attacks and magic your characters can use weapon skills using a resource that fills when they take damage. Clever use of these special skills is key in playing the game as intended, it's an interesting game system that I haven't seen in any other RPG to date.

Instead of narrative side quests there's only 3 big, gameplay driven optional "quests" to accomplish. One of them is somewhat of a monster raising sim: there's a bit more than a handful of so called "Capsule Monsters" you can recruit to aid in battle as a fifth party member. They're found all over the game, some less well hidden than others. Unlike your regular party members you can't control their actions and they may run from battle at any time, but they're a nice addition nonetheless and one of them can be really useful in the ancient cave. Said cave is an optional dungeon that plays much like a rogue-like: it's a highly randomized dungeon consisting of 99 floors where your party starts at level one and can only use the resources they find within the cave itself. If you're unlucky and don't find much to heal your party with, a capsule monster with a restoration role can save your life. The ancient cave is probably my favorite dungeon in any RPG. Each time you give it a go you have to develop stragies on the fly depending on the items you find inside of it. With some luck you might find special items that can be carried into the main game, potentially giving your characters significant stat boosts.
The third quest is barely worth mentioning. The gist is that you can replay various dungeons over and over until you unlock a super boss. It's super tedious, to be honest I've never bothered with this one.

Remember when video game artworks had soul?

As good and varied as the gameplay is, Lufia II is an RPG so the narration is important too. Its writing is a great as the gameplay. Characters feel very much alive with their own distinct personalities and yet the game doesn't waste too much time on events. They are rather sparse and don't take very long so you never feel like you're reading a book instead of playing a game. Sometimes the developers just know they're making a game and not a movie. The plot is a big mystery and the game doesn't flat out tells you what it's about. The problem is that the localized scripts, or at least the one's I've seen, censor parts of the original text making things even more vague. In japanese one dialogue near the end makes it especially clear what this game is about - and it's one of my favorite subtexts in all of fiction. Definitely play this if you're a fan of SNES RPGs and haven't done so yet.