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Letting Go of Leveling

Trent Seely

With the previous year now at a close and the resolutions of the year to come still fresh in mind, I look back at all I originally had hoped to accomplish in 2012. The list wasn't a long one. Having spent many years either slacking off or unintentionally avoiding the changes that I initially set my sights upon, I decided to tackle only a few fun resolutions instead — the biggest being to play every single Final Fantasy game in the main series in celebration of the franchise's twenty-fifth anniversary. Most yearlong resolutions have a problem sticking, but this particular one was a success that legitimately changed my perspective on how to play RPGs.

As a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, I had the benefit of previously enjoying almost all of its entries. However, there was one title I had perpetually avoided as many RPGamers denoted it as the "black sheep" of the Final Fantasy franchise: Final Fantasy II. Unlike the original Final Fantasy or those to come after, Final Fantasy II omitted the experience-based leveling system that most players have come to expect from RPGs. Instead, each character in your party developed based on the actions they performed. When characters used a certain type of weapon, they become more adept at wielding it over time — improving their combo-rate, accuracy, and power. The same can be said for magic; the more a spell is used, the more powerful and flashy it becomes. As this character progression is predicated upon use rather than experience, the stats of your party are also augmented depending on how often they enter the fray of battle. I'm not ashamed to admit that this concept originally terrified me.

At the time, I was pretty accustomed to traditional RPGs. A lack of exposure to unconventional titles had led me to assume that every RPG followed essentially the same format: an unfortunate event occurring to your metrosexual protagonist, the formation of a party of misfits, the completion of minor narrative objectives, grind, major plot events, grind, the climax, grind, grind, grind, final battle, and resolution. It wasn't a particularly enlightened view of the diversity of the overall RPG landscape, but that formula also wasn't uncommon.

Because I was in the habit of approaching RPGs like they were twenty pound bags of coffee beans in much need of grinding, levels had always been important to the way I played. After all, how does one know that they are ready to tackle the next boss, let alone the next dungeon, without levels indicative of their strength? They don't, and that's this game's biggest selling point.

As a perpetual grinder, I had grown accustomed to pushing my characters through thousands of battles to ensure that I could not only beat the next boss, but annihilate it. While I occasionally savored the ease to which I could dispatch anything in my path, there was little room for challenge, intelligence, or concern. With Final Fantasy II, I never had any idea whether my characters would be up to snuff, but plowed onward anyway. Each battle brought a certain level of difficulty and doubt, often leading me to use creative problem solving to kill things. I was completely out of my element, and it was liberating.

There were ways I could have exploited the character progression model (attacking my own characters, selecting and deselecting actions, using glitches to dual wield, etc.), but I wanted to play this game in the way it was intended. It was a long slog through many challenging dungeons, but that made the entire experience more rewarding and opened my eyes to a different way of playing RPGs.

Final Fantasy II is more than just a great game that I happened to play in 2012; it's a game that legitimately changed the way I approach RPGs. I've finally pulled away from my bad habit of obsessively leveling and now savor the challenge that each battle brings. By opting to grind only when I really have to, my experience has been enriched and I usually have a stronger grasp on what's happening storywise. To that end, I'll always be thankful towards this game — even if itís not everyone's cup of tea.

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