Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

In 1993, the Japanese developer Neverland released Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the Super Famicom – or the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) abroad. Although somewhat lost amid the slew of Eastern role-playing games that saw their own releases around the same time, Neverland’s effort received a warm critical reception with the American publication Electronic Games in particular calling it one of the best RPGs of the year.

The game also proved to be a modest hit – enough so that Director Masahide Miyata and his team began working on a sequel shortly thereafter. It was finished and released domestically in February of 1995 under the name Biography of Estpolis II. The game was released in North America in May of 1996 renamed Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which would see its European debut the following year. As its predecessor hadn’t been released in Europe, the game’s title was truncated to Lufia. Like the original game, Lufia II was a success, selling a little over 60,000 copies in Japan. This time, however, the critical reception was significantly more positive with aficionados of the SNES library considering it an underrated gem of a classic. Was Lufia II truly able to improve on the formulaic original?

Playing the Game

The protagonist of this game is Maxim, an extremely adept swordsman from the backwater town of Elcid. He makes a living as a hunter, controlling the local population of monsters for the safety of his fellow townspeople. His companion is a shopkeeper named Tia, who pays Maxim on commission for every monster slain. Lately, monsters have been appearing with greater frequency, devaluing the price of each monster corpse. Little does he know that these increased monster attacks are just a prelude for what is to come.

Despite being a talented monster hunter, the game begins in earnest when a village elder offers to show Maxim techniques for fighting in dungeons. It may seem a bit strange for a sequel to force a tutorial onto players when its predecessor decided to start in media res and let them figure things out from there. However, there is a good reason for this tutorial, and it is before you’re even finished with it that you begin to grasp what a different experience Lufia II is going to provide.

For starters, random encounters have been eschewed – for dungeons, at least. You will still have to be mindful of random encounters when traversing the overworld, but in dungeons, you can actually see the monsters on the map. Monsters in dungeons only move when you do, so you can plan your routes accordingly. Combat is initiated when Maxim and a monster occupy adjacent tiles. If he approaches a monster from the back or side, he is afforded the first strike. Conversely, if a monster approaches him from the back or side, they are granted the first strike instead.

Those returning from Lufia & the Fortress of Doom will recognize the interface used for combat wherein you hold a direction on the control pad to select options. However, the exact manner in which combat pans out is slightly different. In the original game, you would select an action for each character, and it was carried out as soon as possible. Here, combat functions on a round-by-round basis. This is to say, you input a command for each character, and a round of combat is played out with each participant acting at least once.

The first monster is appropriately easy to vanquish, but later ones will naturally provide a more difficult challenge. It’s important to know that while monsters only move when Maxim does, some are capable of outpacing him, covering two tiles for every one of his. In addition, some monsters are large enough to cover four tiles instead of one, making them highly difficult to evade.

It is immediately after the first mandatory monster encounter that I find myself praising the designers for having stepped up their game. Part of what made Lufia & the Fortress of Doom such a frustrating experience was the sheer volume of random encounters you had to fight. It was annoying knowing that simply entering a new room could trigger a random encounter. Combined with the convoluted, labyrinthine dungeon design that game boasted and the slow pace of the battles themselves, it wasn’t uncommon for players to forget what they were doing.

To be completely fair, random encounters were fairly annoying even in good games from around the same time such as Final Fantasy VI. Nonetheless, if those games were beloved, they were beloved in spite of having random encounters, and not because of them. At the end of the day, they were an annoying-but-necessary design choice brought on by the technical limitations of the NES hardware – ones the SNES itself did not possess. I therefore give Mr. Miyata and his team a lot of credit for recognizing that the random encounters needed to go – especially when considering more prestigious design teams such as Square had not yet completely eschewed them by 1995.

If the developers stopped at getting rid of the random encounters, that by itself would have been enough to declare it a superior effort to the original game. However, venturing a few rooms further into the dungeon reveals that it is a significant improvement in terms of design as well. Contemporary RPGs were not typically known for boasting good level design. In a way, this makes a bit of sense, as it was seldom that the dungeons themselves would be the main attraction to these kinds of games. Sure, it was great to see what aesthetical choices the designers would make, particularly for the final dungeons, but any particularly stand-out example amounted to being a nice bonus to the real reason people played these games: the story. Still, it was often disappointing playing big-budget games at the time only for their dungeon design to be only slightly more advanced than something you could draw on graph paper.

Fortunately, Mr. Miyata and his team effectively addressed this problem as well by introducing one element many of these dungeons sorely lacked: actual puzzles. And these aren’t the simplistic, menu-based puzzles you would find in other games either. No, the puzzles that feature in Lufia II are on par, even sometimes surpassing, those one would find in your average installment of The Legend of Zelda.

From the onset, Maxim can swing his sword to cut grass and fire an arrow to activate switches from a distance. The arrows can also be used to stun enemies, which can make sneaking up on or avoiding them easier. As the game progresses, he gains other useful items such as a grappling hook and a supply of bombs. The elder also teaches him the Reset spell, which, true to its name, places all of the props in a room back in their original position. The spell costs zero MP, and is useful if you make a mistake.

This provides an interesting spin on what kind of mindset you need in order to succeed in Lufia II. In a standard, contemporary Eastern RPG, the crux of the challenge hinged nigh-exclusively on the combat system. The normal monsters you faced in dungeons would constantly drain your resources, and it was up to you to exercise good judgement to avoid losing. Should you press on or retreat to the nearest inn upon suffering a major setback? Then, of course, when you reached the end of the dungeon or scenario, you would put your skills to the test by fighting a boss.

While combat is still an important part of Lufia II, the existence of puzzles ensure players can’t simply brute-force their way through the experience. In addition to using the items extensively, there are several unique logic puzzles exclusive to their dungeon that are surprisingly difficult. Although you generally won’t run into an obstacle on par with something out of the expert stages of a dedicated puzzle game, it can still take a surprisingly long time for you to find the solution. What makes them work is that the game never makes any of these puzzles needlessly cryptic. There is a sign on a wall explaining what you need to do when it’s not obvious, and you always have the resources to complete them. Nonetheless, there are at least a few puzzles that ended many a kid’s playthough in 1995 for want of a globalized information network through which they could look up the answers.

As a possible, tangential result of including several rooms with puzzles, the dungeon design itself is significantly more steamlined than that of the original. Dungeons in Lufia & the Fortress of Doom were often needlessly confusing with indistinct corridors and teleporters that led to random places. As the only challenge of the game’s dungeons lied in reaching the end, it made sense to for the developers to design them that way, but it was highly irritating to get through all the same. Because much of any given dungeon in Lufia II is dedicated to these puzzles, the dungeon design is far more economical with very little in the way of dead ends or empty rooms. Later ones are appropriately difficult, but only rarely, if ever, will you find yourself actively getting lost or unsure of where to go.

Not only is the dungeon design significantly improved as a direct result of these puzzles, it even goes as far as bringing something to the table I suspect many role-playing fans never knew the genre needed. For a majority of the experience, dungeons in Lufia II come in the form of five different structures both natural and manmade: caves, castles, towers, shrines, and mountain ranges. In most role-playing games, there may be several different forms the dungeons can take, but for the most part, the variety stopped at aesthetics. Owing to a combination of the random encounters and the lack of puzzles, your only goal in these dungeons was to reach the end – whether by collecting the item you needed to advance the plot, defeating a boss, or both.

What I admire about the dungeons design is that the structures successfully tell players how they should expect to go through them. Caves often have overgrown shrubs on floors and vines covering walls. Shrubs usually conceal important features such as buttons whereas vines can hide secret passageways. Conversely, the manmade dungeons vary in how the player navigates them. Dungeons tend to feature more mundane puzzles and traps while the equivalent challenges in shrines tend to be magical in nature. Towers involve reaching the top floor, but Maxim is often made to navigate its outside. Not only does this give the player a sense of just how tall these towers manage to be, but there are also several points in which you can use a switch to put ladders in place, opening up shortcuts and making other rooms accessible in the process. Finally, around the halfway point, mountain ranges are introduced, which combine the naturalistic design of caves with the complex, outdoor navigation of towers. Mountain ranges also replace cave dungeons around the halfway point, making it a clever way of signposting to the player of the increasing complexity they should expect from the duration of the game.

Once the tutorial is finished, you are free to explore Elcid on your own. When you do, you might stumble upon a shop selling magic spells. Indeed, unlike the cast of Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, Maxim and his future companions do not learn magic by leveling up; spells must instead be purchased. These transactions are not communal, meaning you must purchase a spell for each individual character. Not every character can learn all of the spells. Compared to later characters who join his party, Maxim himself is primarily limited to healing spells and barred from ever using fire magic.

Moreover, offensive and healing spells are no longer divided by their targeting preference. That is to say, you can use these spells on one or multiple targets. Selecting a target for a spell is represented with a cane icon. If the spell can be used on multiple targets, pressing the “A” button will cause a shadow of the icon to appear. You can then move the icon to another target. To cast the spell, you must press the “A” button on a selected target. As a tradeoff to hitting multiple targets, a spell’s potency decreases the more you spread it out.

Disaster strikes Elcid shortly thereafter when monsters steal the key that allows access through the nearby cave system to the other side of the mountains. After clearing the first true dungeon, Maxim finds himself in the neighboring village of Sundeltan. Any role-playing game player worth their salt would want to take advantage of reaching a new settlement by pursuing the weapons and armor shops. There, you will find equipment that increases Maxim’s survivability in combat, although if you decide to examine them more closely, you may notice some of them are tagged with an icon reading “IP”. If you do, congratulations – this piece of equipment has an ability you can use in combat.

Weapons and armor pieces that can be used as items in combat was nothing new by 1995. It was a mechanic popularized by Final Fantasy, although plenty of other Japanese role-playing games featured it as well. In general, these abilities were situational at best, and outright useless at their worst. It all had to do with game balance. They didn’t expend mana and you seldom ran the risk of breaking them because most Japanese role-playing games didn’t feature a durability mechanic. It therefore wouldn’t make any sense to give players the ultimate spell capable of atomizing foes in seconds at the cost of half of the caster’s mana pool only to provide the player an item capable of doing the same thing for free. Consequently, these abilities would mostly be used when you got them only to be rendered obsolete as soon as you got a better piece of equipment.

What Lufia II does with this concept is elevate it from being a mere gimmick to an important game mechanic. As you went through the first dungeon, you may have noticed a third gauge below the two representing Maxim’s HP and MP (Mana) labeled “IP”. The particularly observant will notice it increasing as Maxim takes damage. IP – or Ikari Points (“Ikari” being the Japanese word for “Anger”) – represents the fury a character builds up in combat. The rate at which the IP gauge builds up depends on two factors: the amount of damage taken and a character’s “guts” stat. Naturally, greater amounts of damage taken and a higher “guts” stat will cause it to fill up faster. Once the gauge is sufficiently filled, you can then use a piece of equipment in order to channel this fury, causing its special ability to be used in combat. The amount of IP required to use an item depends on the ability itself with stronger abilities requiring more. IP abilities can take the form of simple magic effects, but they can also confer benefits no spell in the game is capable of replicating. Take caution, though, for the IP gauge will drop to zero if a party member is knocked out.

The impact this has on the gameplay is profound. Usually, upgrading equipment is a sheer numbers game in that larger numbers are objectively better than small ones. Some games, including Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, would try to force players to think carefully by making stronger weapons and armor pieces heavier, thus potentially slowing down whoever equipped them. This idea never worked out as well as design teams hoped because, invariably, it was a better idea to simply tank all of the hits than to land the first strike. Once in a blue moon, this tactic might work against a horde of hard-hitting, yet fragile enemies you could defeat in one round of combat, but it would always fail against bosses, as even the easiest ones weren’t likely to be felled in a single blow. Thanks to the IP system, you will actually find yourself wondering which pieces of equipment are the best for the task at hand. Because each party member can have six different pieces equipped at once, you are effectively assigning them all six different abilities for combat.

The other aspect I like about the IP system is that it gives the power hitters a greater variety of things to do. Eventually, Maxim will have two different characters join his party who serve the same niche Aguro did in the original game. That is, they are physically very formidable, but cannot use magic in any capacity. Aguro did eventually become the second-best character in the game in terms of damage output, but that was at least in part because offensive magic becomes nigh-useless in the third act. Otherwise, you would only ever have him attack or, in desperate moments, use a healing item. Thanks to the IP system, those two characters have much more to do than just attack every single round – particularly in prolonged boss fights.

As the protagonist, Maxim is the only party member you have for the first three dungeons. He plays very similarly to the hero of Lufia & the Fortress of Doom in that he manages to be above average in most fields without any glaring weaknesses to speak of. He is fast, strong, and a reasonably competent spellcaster, making him well-suited for fending off the monsters in the initial dungeons solo.

However, it doesn’t take long for the monsters to become stronger than what he can handle on his own. Fortunately, just like the hero of the original game, Maxim isn’t alone in his quest. After ridding Sundelton of an earthquake-causing monster, he is joined by his childhood friend Tia. Physically, she isn’t especially strong, but she is incredibly fast and a more adept spellcaster than Maxim. From there, various other characters join Maxim’s cause, including Guy, Selan, Dekar, Lexis, and Artea. These characters have a dedicated niche that allows them to play an important role in combat with Guy and Dekar being pure fighters and Selan, Lexis, and Artea acting as spellcasters.

What I like about the roster is that while all of the characters do have a specific use in battle, they need not rigidly adhere to their purpose. That is, while Tia, Selan, Lexis, and Artea are your best spellcasters, the damage they deal with physical weapons isn’t negligible. In many role-playing games, mages are helpless once their mana is drained, or they are rendered silent. One wonders what the point is in upgrading weapons for these characters if they’re only ever going to deal damage in the single digits with them. In Lufia II, while spellcasters do inflict more damage with magic, they can conserve MP with physical weapons. Conversely, Guy and Dekar can do more than hit things really hard thanks to the IP system.

Shortly after the third dungeon, Maxim can happen upon a forest clearing. This clearing is home to a creature known as a capsule monster. Unlike the various monsters Maxim fights on his journey, this monster too will fight for his just cause.

Once you have a capsule monster in your party, it will stand in the rightmost position in battle. You cannot issue commands to capsule monsters in battle, as they are controlled by an AI. You also cannot interact with them in any way, meaning you cannot increase their stats or heal them. Nonetheless, they gain EXP alongside the main party members should they survive to the end of a fight whereupon their HP is automatically restored. Not unlike the IP system, their most significant contribution is that they have abilities no magic spell can replicate. It should be noted that their abilities don’t cost any MP, so if you use them correctly, you can have monsters capable of healing your entire party or burn all of the opposing monsters for free.

There are seven capsule monsters in the game, each of a different alignment: neutral, fire, water, soil, wind, light, and darkness. Each of these monsters can be fed inventory items. Once a monster has been fed enough items, they can transform, ascending to a higher class. Each monster has five classes. Four of them can be reached normally, and the highest Master Class can only be reached once those four have been unlocked. At this point, all you need to do is feed the monster a fruit representing the element opposite its alignment while on a certain class. Once a monster has reached its Master Class, it cannot return to any of the preceding four.

Once you have made significant progress in the game, you can access the Ancient Cave. Upon entering this dungeon, all of your party members’ levels are set to 1 and their inventory is removed aside from ten potions. From there, they are made to navigate a randomly generated dungeon consisting of 99 floors. There are no puzzles in this dungeon, so your only goal is to fight your way past all of the monsters while using whatever resources you can to survive. There are only three ways to exit the dungeon: dying, using the unique spell “Providence”, or reaching the boss on the final floor.

If you’re seeking a purer dungeon crawling experience, this is the place for you. In fact, exploring the Ancient Cave is practically a game unto itself – to the point where if you complete the campaign twice, you unlock a mode entirely decided to exploring it. It helps – or doesn’t, depending on your disposition – that a single run can take nearly ten hours. Even if you’re not a fan of procedural generation, there is a good reason to give the Ancient Cave a shot. Any item obtained from a blue chest in the Ancient Cave is retained upon exiting. If you’re especially lucky, you may find endgame-worthy equipment in the Ancient Cave. You don’t even have to explore it thoroughly to find something you can use.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Lufia II manages to succeed where its predecessor fell short. Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was an entry-level console role-playing game that, with the possible exception of its bantering cast, failed to bring anything new to the table. In fact, in many ways, it was far behind the times in how it forced players to wander aimlessly across the overworld and offered little in the way of boss fights.

Indeed, Lufia II is, to its credit, far more in touch with the direction the genre was heading at the time. The overworld is much more linear with only one place to go in a given scenario. Usually, you will reach a new area, complete a dungeon, and move on. The standard broken bridges are in place to ensure you don’t leave the area until you finish the current scenario. While this does cut down on the amount of exploration one can do, it ensures the player doesn’t waste their time finding the next plot point. On top of that, almost every dungeon in the game is capped off with a boss fight, which is a more logical stopping point for such a scenario than simply finding a treasure. Even the dungeons without boss fights tend to have some alternate form of plot advancement that works as an acceptable substitute. It helps that the dungeons without boss fights at the end are the exception rather than the rule.

It helps that the combat itself is significantly improved, progressing at a much faster pace, and being far easier to predict. The original game’s combat engine had the potential to blindside the player if their party members didn’t act quickly enough. With combat in Lufia II being round-by-round, the “agility” stat now determines when they act. This aspect is set is stone too, so you will never see combatants acting in an unintuitive order like they do in other games.

All in all, the gameplay Lufia II has to offer is absolutely solid, catching up to where the rest of the industry was and even managing to eclipse it in many ways. If it has any real flaw to speak of, it would concern the character roster. With the player only allowed to control four characters at a time, there would have to be some way to ensure the other three cannot be used. Much like Final Fantasy IV, the plot determines your party in a given scenario; you yourself have no say in the matter.

I do think it makes for a more dynamic story to have characters come and go as the hero progresses on his journey, but it does make a blind playthrough somewhat frustrating. Lufia II does have a safeguard in place that allows you to purchase back equipment taken by a former party member from a pawn shop. As a result, there is certainly more foresight here than in, for example, Final Fantasy IV wherein every character with one lone exception in the entire game had the potential to make off with valuable equipment when they inevitably left the party. Still, it doesn’t account for the other resources you may have invested in these characters that you can’t get back by any means such as spells or, more importantly, stat-boosting items.

Other than that, whether you’re drawn in by the fast-paced combat, clever puzzles, dungeons, or the Ancient Cave, chances are great there will be enough to ensure you want to see how the experience unfolds.

Analyzing the Story

WARNING: This section will contain significant unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.

Monsters have been appearing more as of late, and while that is good news for Maxim given his profession, it does seem rather ominous. Anyone suspecting something was wrong would be proven correct when monsters steal the key opening the door that leads through the mountain caves connecting Elcid and Sundeltan. Upon recovering the key, Maxim is approached by a mysterious woman named Iris. She tells him a great evil is coming that only he can fight.

It is when parsing the story of Lufia II that you begin to realize just what an odd beast it really is. It is part of a genre that wears its storytelling prowess as a badge of honor. The actual gameplay in titles such as Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star tended to be comparatively underdeveloped – not bad per se, but certainly not the main attraction. The gameplay of Lufia II, on the other hand, is not only good enough to stand on its own, but it also heavily downplays the most criticized aspects of the genre, requiring very little level grinding and limiting random encounters to the overworld.

The reason this bears mentioning is because when it comes to its actual story, Lufia II is, depending on who you ask, either a product of its time or slightly behind the curve. It’s a game where you reach a new town, perform a fetch quest, and move on to the next. Lather, rinse, repeat until the game is over. The scenarios themselves can be rather creative, but it if you’re looking for anything deep and meaningful in your interactive stories, you likely won’t find it here. It’s a laconic story that really could have fit right in with any given third-generation Japanese role-playing game.

Then again, one could argue that what Lufia II lacks in terms of story it makes up for in character. Indeed, half the fun of the game is watching how the characters interact. Maxim and Tia have a nice dynamic in the early phases of the game while Guy manages to be an argumentative sort who often provides nice comic relief. Shortly after meeting Dekar, he always tries to one-up him, and when Artea joins, he clashes with him about the nature of humanity compared to elves. Still, he’s a fundamentally good person; just a bit brash and impulsive. What I find especially interesting is when Selan enters the picture. Once she is in Maxim’s party for awhile, the two of them fall in love and marry.

This plot point is a bit controversial among fans of the game for jilting Tia in favor of a hastily written romance between characters who just met. I definitely understand where those people are coming from, as there is very little build-up to this romance. Indeed, despite having a roman numeral “II” attached to its title, Lufia II is actually a prequel to Lufia & the Fortress of Doom.

A common mistake authors make when writing prequels is that they know where certain characters will end up when all is said and done. Technically speaking, any author who plans things out in advance is aware of their characters’ fates, but when it comes to prequels, the audience is as well. Consequently, I suspect many authors tend to use a foregone conclusion as a crutch in order to justify certain misbegotten story beats. Those who played the earlier game know that Maxim will end up married to Selan. Therefore, that is exactly what will happen sometime before the credits roll – regardless of how little diegetic sense it makes. It’s the writing equivalent of knowing the correct answer to a math question, but being unable to show your work.

Still, even if the actual setup leaves much to be desired, I find myself admiring this particular story beat at the same time. The only time you would ever see the protagonist of a role-playing game hook up with their love interest was after they defeated the final boss. To have it mark the halfway point of the game was almost unheard of. Even now, it’s not an especially common development, so to see it attempted in 1995 was admirable. For what it’s worth, the game does a reasonably good job allowing the relationship to breathe once the two of them are married, and they eventually develop a nice dynamic as a result. This is punctuated when the second half of the game is effected by a villain who kidnaps Maxim and Selan’s newborn son, Jeros, making the ensuing boss fight far more personal.

However, it is once this scenario is completed that the game begins to take a notable drop in quality. It never becomes bad or even average, but it is noticeably less good after this point. For whatever else could be said about Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, it did follow a natural difficulty curve. The first boss fights were the easiest whereas the final encounter against Daos’s ultimate form was by far the most difficult. This isn’t true of Lufia II; while the dungeon design remains good for the most part, the boss fights suddenly become too easy. It’s as though the toughest bosses in the game are only so because they occur when you’re underequipped and understaffed. Once you do get a full party and have access to greater resources, the challenge fails to keep pace. It really says something that, if for no other reason than because he faces off against Maxim alone at a point where even the weakest healing spell is a luxury, the first boss manages to be more challenging than Daos himself. Yes, a generic, nameless monster is more threatening than a mad god capable of leveling entire cites.

While it is impressive that Mr. Miyata and his team made this game less than two years after the original, it is painfully obvious just how much they rushed the development when you reach the final act. Story beats progress far too fast, and the quests aren’t fleshed out nearly as much as those in the opening or middlegame. This is most obvious when considering the character of Artea, one of the heroes destined to fight with Maxim against the Sinistrals, for he only joins in the last fourth of the game. It would have been more natural to introduce such an important character earlier, but by the time he joins, you’re only a few hours away from the endgame.

Sadly, even the dungeon design itself ultimately suffers in the end. The final scenario begins after Daos, the leader of the Sinistrals, causes Doom Island to rise. Maxim reaches the village of Narvick and enlists the help of their elder. Maxim, Selan, Guy, and Artea must escort three powerful women to the summits of three towers where they will use their power to immobilize Doom Island, allowing the four of them to enter. While the music is great, none of these towers have any puzzles at all. After successfully giving the genre something it had been sorely lacking, the final dungeons rely on the tired standby of making players go through unremarkable mazes. In fact, many endgame scenarios don’t involve exploring dungeons at all – something that would have been unthinkable up until this point.

The biggest reason why this is a shame is because, even if the execution is off, the actual endgame is really well done. To begin with, one thing I like about the Sinistrals in comparison to their appearance in the original game is how they’re shown to be far more ruthless. In the original, the Sinitrals were standard issue, 16-bit video game villains. They were content to remain in the background being evil until the hero proved to be an actual threat whereupon – too late – they finally sprang into action. If it wasn’t for Lufia’s true nature as Erim’s reincarnation, they would have served no purpose in the plot outside of giving the player a victory condition.

Here, not only do the Sinistrals appear far more frequently throughout the game, you actually get to see the destruction they wreak. This was technically true of the original game, which begins with Gades destroying a kingdom, but Lufia II ups the ante. Not only does Gades destroy a town fairly early on in Lufia II, Amon and Daos do as well. Amon manages introduces himself by destroying a village and leaving no survivors – their corpses strewn about by the time Maxim and his party arrive.

Daos manages to one-up that bloodthirsty display by warping Maxim and his party to a town and blowing it up in front of them, killing everyone. The game doesn’t even pretend to hide the fact that, in both rampages, children are among the casualties. Daos was already depicted as an exceptionally cruel god in the original wherein he mocked his own sister, Erim, for wanting to live as Lufia, but this installment reveals players were only scratching the surface. It perfectly motivates the player into wanting to end his reign of terror.

Sadly, though, anyone who played the original game knows exactly how this story ends. Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was notable in how it began in media res, playing out what is typically background information in most games onscreen. Players controlled the four heroes destined to slay the Sinistrals, which both underscored just how powerful the heroes were and signposted that Maxim’s descendant now had big shoes to fill as the new protagonist.

The four heroes use their power to repel the Sinistrals’ attempt to fuse together and destroy reality, but the stream winds up going through Selan, fatally wounding her. Tremors cause the castle floor to give way, separating Guy and Artea from Maxim and Selan. Maxim implores Guy and Artea to escape, which they do after much hesitation. There, Maxim is left to his fate.

In a nice touch, the game expands upon what, exactly, happened after Guy and Artea escape. Daos, in a last-ditch attempt to achieve some kind of victory over his nemesis, attempts to drive Doom Island into Parcelyte where Maxim, Selan, and Jeros live. However, Iris makes a timely appearance. It turns out that she was an alter ego of Erim the whole time. After Maxim persuades her, she opens up a gateway to the island’s power source, which take the form of three crystals. If Maxim breaks all of them, the island will not reach its destination. He is able to do so, but at the cost of his own life. Joining Selan’s spirit, the two of them see their friends and family one last time before departing for the afterlife.

This development is intriguing, as it implies Erim has always had a duality to her – one that would allow to reincarnate as a good person in the form of Lufia. She was always intended to guide Maxim to test humanity and see if they or the gods should rule. However, she ended up directly helping him many times over the course of the game – most notably when she rescues Jeros from Amon’s henchman, Idura. She could have easily rid the world of Maxim’s bloodline right there and then, yet she did not. Considering that she was every bit as sadistic as her brothers in the original game, this greatly fleshes out the overarching conflict.

The ending itself is one of the single most bittersweet conclusions you will ever find in a 16-bit console role-playing game. To say those who played this game blind to its conclusion back in 1995 were shocked is a grand, grand, grand understatement. In those days, killing off the protagonist at the end of a video game was unheard of. After all, the most basic underlying premise of a video game is that you’re supposed to win, isn’t it? Non-interactive mediums killed off protagonists all the time, but if a video-game protagonist dies, it just means the player lost, and they must therefore hit the reset button for another attempt. It’s not a suboptimal ending that indicates you missed something important, either. If anyone thought there was a way to save them, their frantic search for any possible leads for a happier ending would be entirely in vain.

Even a decade or two later in the grittiest games out there, it wasn’t common practice, yet along came Lufia II, which, after letting players get to know Maxim and Selan across several hours of gameplay, getting them through countless puzzles and boss fights, severs that implicit contract at the last minute and gives both of them a beautifully tragic sendoff. As the player, you feel obligated to protect the protagonist from harm if for no other reason than to win the game or get a high score. You feel great to have seen this game through, yet also as though you failed the protagonists by letting them die – even if it was outside of your control. Although potentially dulled by their game’s nature as a prequel, one has to admire the sheer audacity of Mr. Miyata and his team to openly challenge the basic sensibilities upon which this medium operates.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Fast-paced gameplay
  • No random encounters in dungeons
  • Creative dungeon puzzles
  • IP system is highly inventive
  • Likable characters
  • Superb level design
  • Decent story for its time
  • Allows for traditional dungeon crawling with Ancient Cave
  • Comprehensive world design
  • No level grinding required
  • Memorable ending
Cons:

  • Boss difficulty drops significantly around halfway point
  • Disappointing final dungeons
  • Team management can get annoying if you don’t know how the story progresses

Admittedly, it’s not uncommon for design teams to start off with a mediocre or even outright bad effort only to refine their talent and create something truly good somewhere down the line. This seemed to be especially true in the medium’s formative years when the dos and don’ts of game design weren’t fully cemented. For example, Square, which became a respected developer in the 1990s, made their international debut with King’s Knight – one of the worst games of the 1980s. Even then, there was still plenty of ambition to be found in that game, which they then successfully channeled into their flagship franchise Final Fantasy. With the series’ inaugural installment, they popularized the Japanese role-playing game to Western audiences before redefining the rules of the genre with Final Fantasy IV. However, it still took several installments and much experimentation over the course of five years for Square to get there, and while Final Fantasy IV has stood the test of time, it can be a little difficult to appreciate its groundbreaking nature when the tropes and idioms it codified became commonplace.

This isn’t the case with Lufia II. It was released less than two years after the original, and Neverland had only made one game in between these installments – a soccer simulation game named Hat Trick Hero 2. Therefore, what Mr. Miyata and his team accomplished with Lufia II would be like a major-league baseball pitcher giving up several runs in their debut appearance only to fall just one or two pitches short of achieving a perfect game the very next day. They had gone from being behind the standard Final Fantasy IV set only to wind up surpassing it in almost every way.

It is a bit of a shame because had Lufia II successfully followed through with its excellent ideas to the bitter end, I would have considered it one of the absolute best games ever made. As it stands, there is a distinct lack of polish in key areas that ensures it just barely misses the mark. Despite its blemishes, Lufia II manages to be a forward-looking experience that accomplished things very few role-playing games have before or since. Even better, it’s not necessary to have played Lufia & the Fortress of Doom to get anything out of its sequel. In fact, going into this game completely blind without having played its predecessor actually enhances the experience in a way that doesn’t become obvious until you finish it. So, while I wouldn’t quite make the case for Lufia II being one of the greatest games of all time, it absolutely belongs on any list chronicling the highlights of the 1990s and the SNES library. Boasting ideas that are still incredibly fresh today, it’s an essential play any way you slice it.

Final Score: 8.5/10

7 thoughts on “Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

  1. I can’t say I have played it (I am always a bit reluctant to dive into JRPGs), but I had sure heard about it as one of the overlooked gems of the SNES. I guess those reports were correct!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do kind of get why JRPGs fell off in popularity in the 2000s, but I have to say that Lufia II does a really good job downplaying the most tedious elements of that genre while also doing a lot of things very few other games of its ilk have done before or since. In a lot of ways, it’s actually better than what Golden Sun had to offer because dealing with random encounters while completing puzzles didn’t make for a great time, although Lufia II doesn’t quite follow through as well. Nonetheless, Lufia II is an overlooked SNES gem, and is absolutely worthy of your time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lufia II! I rented it once as a kid, and ended up exactly as you described here, getting my progress completely blocked by a puzzle I just couldn’t figure out. Spent the rest of my playtime running through the Ancient Ruins, which were plenty of fun on its own.

    And yeah, it’s amazing how much this game turned around. The first Lufia was kinda bad. Kinda really bad. A very plain JRPG without much unique to it that really wasn’t executed well. Lufia II is as good as the original was bad. The combat system works really well and eschewing the random battles in favor of the more tactical bump-into system, having a lot of good gameplay complications that make for some hard decision points in building and running your characters, and otherwise throwing a lot of ideas in there and getting them going really well, it’s just a great time. And I loved the marriage turn in it, personally. It’s very unique in video games storytelling, and it had a lot of impact on the plot overall. Lufia II is good times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh? Which puzzle blocked your progress? Was it the one I have pictured? I remember taking about thirty minutes trying to get past that one. It’s not often you play a 1990s JRPG only for something outside of an nigh-impossible boss to end your run (especially given that the puzzle I’m talking about actually occurs *after* the game’s toughest boss).

      I would say the original is more mediocre than outright bad, but either way, yeah, the sequel blows it out of the water. The design team was truly struck by a bolt of inspiration for this one, going from trailing far behind the likes of Final Fantasy to showing that series a thing or two about design. Just the fact that they (mostly) got rid of random encounters was enough to bump the game up a point or two on my scale, but the combat itself flows really well and the IP system was another stroke of genius.

      And although I feel the execution was a little off, I like the idea of the protagonist getting married around the halfway point and developing the relationship from there as well. Even now, that’s just not something you see often in video games, which is a shame because there is plenty of untapped storytelling potential to be had from going down that route. Uncharted tried with Nate and Elena, but like most good Naughty Dog story ideas, it was awkwardly implemented and left to fall by the wayside. Then again, many television shows are guilty of teasing relationships only for them to not go anywhere, so it would be notable if non-interactive works attempted it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think it was that one, no. If I’m remembering right, it was in a roundish room in a tower dungeon, and involved switches and pedestals, although I haven’t played the game in well over a decade, and that particular run was like 20 years ago, so I’m not sure how much I’d trust my memory in that.

        And yeah, the first time I tried it was after I’d played Chrono Trigger and other later RPGs, so I didn’t really appreciate quite how much it was ahead of the medium, but coming back to it later, it’s clear as day. Lufia II implemented really early on in the medium’s life a lot of features that later games would make standards, and with good reason. Playing it felt like coming back to something like Shin Megami Tensei, the early glimpses of something that games would take so far as years progressed, yet it does it really competently itself, to the point that it can stand alongside later games and still be great.

        Liked by 1 person

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