The JRPG Canon #3 - Lufia II: Rise of the Sinestrals

Welcome to the JRPG Canon, the blog series where I play the first vertical slice of a JRPG and talk about why it is fun, and why it's an important entry in the JRPG Pantheon.

This week, the game I'll be analyzing is

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals for the SNES.

It was an ordeal deciding what game to do after The Big Two. Do I go chronologically, and do another NES RPG, such as Faria or Crystalis (no, but those games are definitely coming). Is there another game that's as important as The Big Two? Should I do something incredibly modern to show I mean business and can do whatever I want? Should it just be Dragon Quest V because it owns??

Then, I played Lufia 2 on a whim to test if my RetroPie setup was working, and within 20 minutes, I knew I needed to play this game. We'll get into the why soon enough. But first:

The History

As an aside, there is not a lot of info about the creation of either Lufia 2 or its predecessor on the internet. I expanded my search to include secondary sources, and all of the reviews and deep dives I could find all used the same primary sources. So this section isn't as deep as I'd like. Apparently there is a Lufia mini-con every year or so and the developers answer Q&A from fans, so there are probably more tidbits available, so if you know something cool about Lufia, definitely leave me a comment below.

As you could probably guess by the title, Lufia 2 is not the first rodeo for developers Neverland. There was a previous game in the series, released in america as Lufia and the Fortress of Doom. This game was developed by Masahide Miyata, who both directed the game, and wrote the scenario. 

Miyata-sensei also is the brains behind Rune Factory


It was a well-received, but kinda by the book RPG on the SNES. It was gorgeous, and worked well, and was [this] close to getting a Genesis port, before the publisher, Taito, went out of business.

The game was set around the titular Fortress of Doom, a castle that rose into the sky and from which emerged four Evil (some might say, sinister) Sinistrals, who wreaked havoc on the world. The game was well received in America, due to the west's hunger for JRPGs after Final Fantasy 4 blew our collective minds. (I mean, I was 3 months old when FF4 came out, so I'm using the editorial "our" here).

I love the spritework here, but the presentation of Lufia 1 puts some people off.


The game did well enough that it got a Sequel (well actually prequel) green-lit, and it is in Lufia 2 that the series started to come into its own and define what it means to be a Lufia game.

We're gonna talk about that game now.

The Game

God I love a good SNES pixel landscape.

When you first boot Lufia 2, you're greeted with an intro cinematic, which is gorgeous. As I was playing this my wife actually stopped and said the game was really pretty during the intro.

After the intro, you select your save file, name your character (Default is Maxim), and get right to it.

Right away, the game is gorgeous. The sprite work is very well done, and the characters are large and readable, and the text boxes are huge legible speech bubbles, which is so refreshing in a world where all the text is not readable from across the room.

This opening scene alone puts this game in the top 5 SNES RPGs, fite me irl if you disagree.

Our hero, Maxim, has a chat with his childhood friend, Tia, and the writing is GOOD. And not only good-for-being-a-localized-game-from-the-nineties good, but like, well written in English, too. Tia is pining after Maxim, and you can tell by the way she acts, more than what she says outright. It's not subtle but it isn't blatant. It rules.

Maxim hurts her feelings, so she runs off, and you are free to explore the town (or chase her and use her as an item shop, if you want).

This game does a thing that a lot of older RPGs do not (but I can't say if this game revolutionized that or not because I haven't played a lot of these older games) is let you equip items right as you buy them. FF1 and DQ famously do not have this, so it's at least a first for JRPG Canon games. 

I waste my money on some items I think are spells but are actually idfk what, because I never found a use for them in my playthrough, and I only found out about the "Hold X to see item descriptions" thing after I sold them.

By the way, holding a button to get item descriptions is a cool way to get around small SNES screen space, but sucks as UX. 

After you've done what you can: buy spells, weapons, armor, items, or save at the church--I MEAN SHRINE--you try and leave town, and an old guy stops you and says he'll teach you how to dungeon, just meet him there. 

So you make your way to the overworld, which has random battles, and make it to the dungeon, which doesn't.

I wonder which grass has the switch under it???
Don't let this fool you. The puzzles are much harder, very soon.

The dungeons are SO FUCKIN COOL, and I realized immediately that Wild Arms is a Lufia clone. I always loved Wild Arms, because you had items like in Zelda, so you had Zelda-ish puzzles to solve while dungeoneering. This was taken from Lufia whole cloth. You start the game with just Arrow, which shoots one of infinite arrows straight in front of you. It teaches you about a hot-swapping menu, so while I didn't get to use more, I'm sure there are more in the game.

Instead of just solving puzzles, though, this arrow can stun enemies. Enemies, that, like a rogue like, only move when you do. (It's worth noting that this game has a legitimate rogue-like for the endgame, and it's a hotly contested speedrun category, and it's why I started playing this game on a whim, because that speedrun looked good).

So you have a dungeon to explore and mentally map, enemies on screen to dodge (some comments said this game pioneered that, but I don't think that's true. At the very least, Zelda 2 had it a little bit), and puzzles to solve. It's really cool.

Let's talk about the battle system.

Bioshock AU but it's JRPGs: There's always a hero. There's always a slime. 

The battle system is turn based, with a Dragon Quest style turn system, where each side gets to put in commands that are then unleashed in order, instead of something like a mid-life Final Fantasy, where you pick your next move when its your turn. (FF1 actually had a DQ style system, so I'm not sure when it changed. Maybe with the ATB in 4. I'll have to do more canon entries on the series)

Another thing that Wild Arms stole, that I like more than one would think, is the cross-shaped battle menu. It makes the menuing of each turn go by so quickly, and way less of the "bleep bleep bleep" of moving your cursor than say a FF game of the era. You just hold the direction of the action you'd like to take, and you do so. 

On your turn, you have your basic commands you see in most RPGs: Magic, Item, Attack, Defend. But one new one that is unique to Lufia 2 (Wild arms kinda apes this too, but they work different. It's a complete rip-off and that rules so hard).

If you hold Down, you can use your Ikari powers. These are powers inherent to the items you have equipped, that you unleash if you have enough IP. You get IP by taking damage. So it's kind of a cross between a limit break, and using an item in battle. I didn't realize until the end of my playtime that it doesn't cost ALL of your IP to use the moves, so basically use them as often as possible to get your most value per damage.

This was especially cool because I spent all my gold on those items I didn't know what they were, so I couldn't buy any spells. But my sword did have a lightning Ikari Power, so I could still take out the high defense characters I came across. 

Not many JRPGs have you starting out spending time laughing with your best friend, and that's a shame.


After you make it through the tutorial dungeon, you head back to town, and Tia invites you to dinner. She bought a really exotic fish to eat for dinner to impress you, but it's nasty, and you have a sweet, believable exchange with her about it. 

On your way out, people run into the town to say that monsters have invaded the tunnel they use to get to Sundletan, the town just north of you. You, being an adventurer by trade (literally), decide to go take care of it.

So it's off to dungeon number 2!

This time, it's longer, and has more actual puzzles than the tutorial dungeon does, but nothing too challenging. There's a cool (easy) implied tutorial that there will be secret passages in walls, which will come up later today, and a cool room that funnels you through the HP, MP, and Save squares, so you can see what each one does. 

When you get to the end of the dungeon, there's a lizardman guarding a chest. When you go up to him, he talks.

Which is weird, because monsters are dumb in this game! So Maxim is freaking out! So you decide to murder the poor lad in your first boss battle.

The boss isn't hard, just basically teaches you to heal when you're low on health.

Pictured: My utter loss of JRPG Street Cred. Wiping on a random mob in the first dungeon.

It's worth noting that I, uh, was bad at that part a little earlier, and wiped in the middle of this dungeon to an Eagle (they hit hard at this level) and had to go back to my save from before the tutorial dungeon and do it over. I'm qualified to talk about RPGs, man, I swear.

After the Lizardman is dispatched, a lady comes in, and tells you of your destiny. She mentions the spooky balls of light from the intro, and says that you are one of the ones destined to stop them. Before you can ask a question, she leaves all mysteriously.

It's so crazy that I'm so in love with the writing in this game already when all that's happened is you did a dungeon and met a magical girl. But it's not the What, it's the How that really makes it.

Maxim's dialogue is so dang good, man. Everything is so well written, ESPECIALLY when you take into account the space limitations of a SNES game. He doesn't want this power, doesn't know anything about the power, and doesn't put up with weird magicky girls being all coy and spooky.

I also love that the game hung a lantern on talking monsters. Talking to certain monsters happens in almost every old RPG, and this game made it a plot point. There's another thing coming up they lampshade, and it feels like something an RPG Maker 2003 game would do, more than a game contemporary to, and not parody of, classic RPGs would do.

On the other side of this dungeon, you make it to Sundletan, a town ravaged by earthquakes. This town highlighted how good this game is at telling you what to do. Much like in Dragon Quest, your progression is tied heavily to how well you talk to NPCs. But Lufia 2 kicks it up a notch by having some cutscenes, but also several different states for each NPC. 

When you first get to town, they all complain about the earthquakes. Even the Innkeeper, who warns you that you won't sleep well because there's a whole lot of shakin' goin' on. The NPCs all have unique personality, while still managing to bring up the "here's what to do" topic.

You find out that the earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish in the Lake Cave just to the north, so you go to slay the beast.

We did it! Problem solved, we win the game, time to stop right?

If you're playing along, you'll realize this is two dungeons, and two towns, which is my normal cutoff for the JRPG Canon. But if you're also playing along, save your game. You'll see this has only been 45 minutes so far, without even speeding through it. This game moves at a clip, so I decided to dive a little farther, and try out a few more things.

I went and bought some spells from Sundletan, and tried them out in the Lake cave. Spells are versatile in this game. A single spell can be single or multi-target, with just a button press to switch between the two. They are pretty powerful, and really cheap. Maxim isn't even a caster, and his Droplet spell was doing about 40 damage to the Lake Cave mobs, which his sword was doing about 25 to. If I made it AoE, it was doing about 15 per monster.

This gave me a few options each turn, but Maxim is mainly a swordfighter, so I did swords most turns. 

The lake cave adds some new mechanics, like water levels and building your own bridges, and had a few brain teasers in it.

This puzzle almost made me break and look up the answer. I knew there was a passage, but where?

One particularly head-scratching puzzle was a narrow passageway with a gauntlet of enemies in it. When you get through the gauntlet, there are two chests, but you can only reach one. The one you reach has an okay reward in it, but you really want that other chest. So you search all over for a secret passageway, and it turns out, it's on the outside of the room, in a dead end corner left unused. I almost looked up the solution to see if I was stupid before it clicked. I loved that.

There's another one, however, that I did have to look up. It's an opaque puzzle, with a lot of "Well, that could easily be the answer" rationalizations.

I forgot to get my own screenshot, so this one is from Blackbelt Bobman's LP, here.


You enter a room, and there are three monsters, a frog, a beetle, and an eagle. When you kill them, a piece of wall disappears revealing three more monsters, and the plaque on the wall says "Shoot them in the correct order, and you will make your way forward". I reset the room to try and figure out the order. (you have to reset the room because if you choose wrong, the wall disappears, and you have to start over).

The first thing I tried was alphabetical: nope. Then, I noticed something interesting. The Beetle mob was one beetle, one mosquito. The Frog mob was two frogs, one mosquito. The Eagle mob was three eagles. Surely it's as easy as one, two, three?

Nope. Turns out, it's just shoot them in the order you killed them in the room. Womp.

I actually loved that I got stumped this early. This wasn't for a progression item, just a cool sword, so it wasn't required, and they knew that, so they ratcheted up the puzzle difficulty early on, safe from soft-locking someone who's bad at puzzles.

After completing the dungeon, you head back into Sundletan to heal/refresh (or in my case, save the game and write a blog post) and the gueard is like "Oh, your lady friend went to the cave to meet you" so you head back, and sure enough, Tia is there, and she's gotten trapped by some monsters you gotta take out for her.

A baby with a sword would be a good game. I'd pay 15 bucks for it.

More awesome Tia/Maxim dialogue ensues, in which she nervously asks if you have to go, and you say that you have never been taught swords. You were born knowing how to swords, and that's fuckin weird (another lampshade to JRPG protagonists just knowing swords when they start the game, if they are warriors or not). So if the lady says you have a destiny, you gotta see what's up with that, because you don't have any answers.

Tia decides that she's gonna come with you, and she uses whips and magic, and is better than you are. 

She joins your party, and back in town everyone is talking about a Coronation in the neighboring city, and you save your game, with about 2 hours of play under your belt, and a good knowledge of what it means to play Lufia 2.

Now for the part where I talk about all my favorite bits.

The Good

The runaway best thing about this game is the pacing. I played less than 2 hours, and did 3 dungeons, 2 towns, 2 boss fights, and developed feelings around Maxim and Tia. In a genre filled with bloated out fetch quests and "You have to do 10 dungeons to get the 10 items to stop the bad guy" plots, having an emotional story tied around quickly paced intro dungeons was a breath of fresh air.

This room rules. More games should have puzzles in their dungeons.

I really really really love the puzzles here. They are like a good GBC Zelda game's puzzles. Often times the answer is a single thing, but figuring out the thing might not be obvious. The dungeons all felt like things for me to conquer, instead of just dangerous places to try and survive. I especially loved the box/bridge puzzles in the Lake Dungeon. There's one where you have to build a bridge to nowhere, so that when you lower the water, you can have a box available to build a bridge across the shallow water, as opposed to the deep water from before. It really felt like I was figuring out new cool ways to interact with the game, instead of just flipping obvious switches for obvious doors.

I also really really like the presentation. The speech bubbles, the huge sprites, the detailed tilesets, the menus, the battle menu especially, the huge dorky look for all the enemies, all of it. It really is a pleasure to look at and navigate.

Every NPC is a treasure. No text box is wasted.

The writing is also a standout. Each scene is meticulously crafted, and the dialogue just flows in a way that's hard to describe without just blockquoting whole passages. And not just for the cutscenes, but the NPCs all have life and smart dialogue, and this is definitely a game where I want to talk to every single person multiple times.

I also really enjoy the battles. The depth isn't there yet, but I know that I'm just scratching the surface. There are a lot of interesting things going on, and I can't wait until I have a full party to minmax.

The Interesting

Another screen courtesy of Blackbelt Bobman

This game having rogue-like dungeons is really cool, and not a lot of other games have something like that. Especially not at the time. It gives you a bit of that turn-based breathing room that RPGs are known for, at the exploration level, too. You don't have to worry about being ambushed if you aren't pressing any buttons.

It's also cool that this game has you buying your spells, which lets you customize your loadout without complicated skill trees or job systems, even if I prefer the more complicated systems.

I really like the Ikari powers, but I'm not sure of their utility currently, or if I'm just bad at RPGs (probably this one). It adds a level to picking what items to get from the store, but I'm not sure if it will make me ever  buy something that's not just stronger in Attack power.

The Learning Opportunities

See Tia, if every town looks the same, it's like I never left Elcid at all!

I don't know if this keeps up for the whole game or not, but so far, I have seen two tilesets: a town, and a dungeon. The lake dungeon, tutorial dungeon, and underground path have all had the same look, and if you took a screenshot of Sundletan or Elcid, I wouldn't be able to tell you which was which, provided the cathedral (different between the towns for some reason) or Tia's house (on an island, which Sundletan doesn't have) weren't in it.

I know that's probably a limitation of the SNES, but this game came out after FF6, who got around that limitation somehow. Even if they use the same tileset, you could have had more pools of water in the lake, vines in the path, lots of clutter in one, less in the other, etc. Done some sort of thing that makes it feel like a different place. As it stands, all 3 have water, grass, tile, rocks, and statues. Any door in one could lead to any room in the other, and not stand out.

Conclusion

I'm going to play the fuck out of this game. I mean, Wild Arms is one of my favorite series, and this is a proto-Wild Arms. The battles are fun, the pacing is fucking phenomenal, and I already want to know more about Maxim and why he's like this. I want to see him either end up with Tia, or break her heart, or both. I know that everyone loses because Lufia 1 takes place in the future, where Maxim's party all died 100 years ago, failing at their quest. I wanna see how that happens.

I wanna see how they escalate the puzzles, especially because there were some stumpers already.

I really wanna play the endgame roguelike Ancient Cave. More games should have it. Just a randomly generated way to play the game from scratch without investing 40+ hours again. 

I also, one day, wanna play the Action RPG re-imagining of this game for the DS, and compare the two. It's supposedly way different, but exactly the same. 

This game feels like a revelation, and a long lost forgotten gem, and I definitely want to see if it holds up all the way through.

It, unfortunately, hasn't been re-released on anything. So if you want a copy of it, you'll have to shell out for an original SNES version, which can be pricey, but I promise it's worth it.

If you've played Lufia 2 and I've missed the best part (capsule monsters??) or described something horribly, or even if, god forbid, you think my analysis was good and useful, sound off in the comments. If you have games you think I should give the 'Canon treatment to, let me know in the comments.

If you wanna read these analyses before everyone else, you can donate on our ko-fi to get them one week early. And if you wanna hear me talk about the Stories of RPGs, you can listen every week, as we play a little bit of a videogame and talk about how it makes us feel.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment