Relive the beginning of the end

User Rating: 8 | Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls GBA
Final FanFinal Fantasy games come with a lot of baggage these days. And with a pedigree as extensive and noteworthy, does it really come as much of a surprise? But new titles in the series have a lot to live up to, and while many full-fledged Final Fantasy titles turn out fine it can be the little spin-offs that suffer. With all the newness of the series and the sometimes weird off-shoots, it can be nice to go back to something more basic. Something that, in it's own right, was original and creative. That's why Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls was released for the GameBoy Advance.

Dawn of Souls is one of those nifty little bundled cartridges that includes slightly updated versions on the NES originals Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II. They're surprisingly different games but they actually work quite well together. If you're looking to get to the bottom of one of the most storied franchises in video game history, this is the way to do it. Say goodbye to confusing numbering, emo characters, and massive swords. This is role-playing at it's most basic and -- some would argue -- finest.

Forget the real-time battle systems, confusing intricacies, and steep learning curves of today's RPGs. Dawn of Souls offers a chance to return to what made role-playing so much fun in the first place. There's no involved story, no dialogue, no characters beyond those you create. And while it may seem dated and boring, it actually feels like a breath of fresh air. Downgrading is not always a bad thing.

With Dawn of Souls, players get to see the RPG formula of old. Collecting items, visiting towns, outfitting your warriors with the most expensive equipment you can afford, exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, and creating characters are what this title is all about. These days, it's nothing out of the ordinary. But in the context of a 20-year old game, these mechanics feel fun and fresh. If you know what you're getting yourself into, Dawn of Souls will not disappoint.

Final Fantasy I is certainly a more traditional RPG than its sequel, and it stands out in its own way. It lacks a storyline but the ability to select classes and names for your characters was the genre's first step toward party customization that we all know and love today. The game then sends players off on a quest to light the four crystals of the world and restore life to a dying land. The meat of this game lies in working your way throughout the continent from crystal to crystal, battling through dungeons, level-grinding, and facing off against bosses. It's a lengthy and somewhat monotonous adventure but the fact that it's the original Final Fantasy essentially makes it immune against all criticisms that face modern RPGs.

Final Fantasy I is hardcore in a different sense that we see hardcore today. There are no tough puzzles or tricky situations. While the game lacks much guidance there's always a helpful townsperson who's willing to tell you where to go next. The "challenge" with Final Fantasy is simply the amount of time you'll be required to put into it. It's not a game that can be beat in a weekend. Even without much content, you're going to have to level-grind. It can sometimes be a frustrating experience. But ultimately it's a really satisfying one and it feels very purely fun.

The second title in the package, Final Fantasy II, takes the series in an entirely different direction. Frankly, it was a really bold, inventive game and I'm just disappointed that it didn't catch on sooner. It completely turns the original Final Fantasy on its head, implementing several new ideas that at the time weren't all that popular (proven by the fact that they returned to a more traditional role-playing experience with Final Fantasy III, but that's a story for another day). It's a story-driven title with predetermined characters, all with their backstories and secrets to hide. It was a really progressive move, but the public didn't like it. What a shame, because in the big scheme of things that set us back about five years.

Final Fantasy II is progressive in terms of story but downright radical in terms of gameplay. Right off the bat of a experience-based, level-grinding experience, we get a level-up mechanic that's surprisingly unique. Characters have no levels (therefore no level-ups), and stat increases are gained by having a certain stat depleted. For example, if you're attacked enough times and your HP is depleted enough, you'll gain an upgrade in HP. Admittedly, this system can be abused somewhat because as your characters grow stronger, you can just have them attack each other. Still, it's really cool and quite creative, and is definitely a twist on the standard role-playing mechanic.

Dawn of Souls is a great example of a compilation title that really works. As a package they work nicely together, just because they each bring something different to the table (I get sick of compilations that give you several "versions" of a near-identical game). Final Fantasy I is obviously more traditional and more hardcore; if you've been playing video games for a while then it's the original that's going to appeal to you most. Final Fantasy II, on the other hand, offers a somewhat more exciting and "modern" experience. Dawn of Souls really does have something for everybody, and it's a surprisingly accessible for a package made up of games released many years ago.

One aspect of that accessibility that the developers had to come to grip with was balancing an ease of play without sacrificing the original titles' challenge and time requirement. For the most part, they successfully balanced these two opposites. Dawn of Souls is an easy game to get into and it's a lot of fun even for newcomers to the genre, while at the same time the core challenge of the originals hasn't been altered much. The game's difficulty has been toned down noticeably, but it's worth it to have a game that so many people can enjoy.

In the end, it's pretty surprising what Dawn of Souls manages to do: stay faithful to the two original Final Fantasy games while at the same time updating them to the point that even non-gamers could play them and have fun without much trouble. It's still a decidedly hard-core game, not in terms of challenge but more as it relates to the overall experience. The dungeon crawling, lack of direction, and wave after wave of battling with little or no plot could be a turn-off for some players. But if you can get over these modern drawbacks, you'll find a pure, exciting, memorable adventure.

If you consider yourself a fan of RPGs, you need to play Dawn of Souls. Everyone should experience the birth of this famous series that drives a genre. And Dawn of Souls makes it really easy. If you're willing to devote plenty of time and go through a bit of frustration and aimless wandering, you'll enjoy this package. It contains two great games, offers something for everybody, and allows you to experience what, at its core, role-playing is all about.