Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 shows that free-to-play never, ever works

final fantasy dimensions 2
(Image credit: Square Enix)

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Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 is a perfect example of what a game sequel shouldn't be. It's a shallow, tedious, repetitive game, which is bad enough on its own. But it's also a complete letdown after the excellent Final Fantasy Dimensions, which is arguably even worse. If the original FFD represents what mobile gaming should have been, then FFD2 represents what it became - and why the current mobile gaming space is such a wasteland.

If you were hoping for some kind of "but" that ultimately finds a saving grace, you'll have to keep hoping. Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 is the kind of game that might make you despair for the entire mobile gaming scene. Even when a company removes the predatory practices from a free-to-play game and charges one flat fee for it, nothing can fix the stilted, trivial game design that F2P necessitates in the first place. FFD2 is the kind of game that makes you wonder whether there's any hope for mobile gaming at all.

Great expectations 

final fantasy dimensions 2

(Image credit: Square Enix)

I wrote about the original Final Fantasy Dimensions a few weeks ago, and discussed how much I had been enjoying the game. For those who haven't played it, it's a classic, old-school JRPG that draws inspiration from the SNES Final Fantasy games. It's a completely original adventure, with complex gameplay, an entertaining story and charming retro graphics. It's also a fully paid game, free of advertisements, microtransactions and extraneous multiplayer challenges.

Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 might share a name and a few stray characters with its predecessor, but that's about all they have in common. While Square Enix designed the original FFD from the ground-up as a paid game, FFD2 started life as a free-to-play adventure for the Japanese market.

The pitch is simple enough. You play as Morrow, a young dreamer who teams up with Wrieg, an experienced adventurer, and Aemo, a mysterious girl with amnesia. The three of you set off on a time-traveling journey to save the world, fighting tons of turn-based battles, earning new equipment and customizing your skills as you go. It sounds like a traditional Final Fantasy setup - but there's a catch.

Without going into extensive detail about the game's complicated development history, it had all the trappings you'd expect from a free-to-play RPG. You'd spend "action points" to enter battles, and those would recharge over time. You had to grind for a bunch of different currencies and resources to upgrade your characters rather than simply leveling them up. You could add friends in a multiplayer mode that let you summon outside help for battles. And, naturally, you could buy a whole lot of in-game resources to speed things up. If you've ever played a game like this, you don't need me to tell you that it can get really tedious, really fast.

However, when FFD2 got a worldwide release, Square Enix took the game offline and put a $14 price tag on it. This sounds like a dream come true: a mobile game without any F2P nonsense whatsoever. You can play FFD2 for as long as you like. There are no artificial grinding roadblocks. You don't have to befriend a bunch of strangers, or remember to log in every day for a bonus, or debate whether you'd rather waste your time or your money to procure in-game currency. You can just boot up the game (even offline!) and enjoy.

Or at least you could, if the game were enjoyable.

The problem with F2P

final fantasy dimensions 2

(Image credit: Square Enix)

The problem with Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 is that once you strip away all the F2P elements, there's almost nothing left. In the first game, you could traverse an extensive world map, explore mazelike dungeons, solve devious puzzles, hunt down treasure chests, fine-tune your skills and undertake interesting side quests in addition to simply fighting monsters.

FFD2, on the other hand, is all monster-fighting, all the time.

The game doesn't have an explorable world map, for starters. You simply tap on a new location, watch a cutscene, fight a series of battles, watch another cutscene, and repeat until the game ends - or until you get bored, which will probably happen first.

To be fair, there are a few Final Fantasy trappings. You can buy new gear in town, but all you do is pick out items from a list. You can't wander around and see the sights. You can discover new summon spells and learn new abilities, but there's almost no customization involved. Just equip new summons until you've learned the relevant spell, which you'll do automatically when you fight enough battles. You can undertake side quests, but every single one is just another series of fights. Combat isn't just the central mechanic in FFD2; it's the only mechanic.

All of this might be tolerable if the combat system were especially deep and detailed, but it's not. As long as you occasionally learn new skills and rotate out your summon spells, most battles are positively trivial. Pressing the "Auto" button once will successfully complete almost anything outside of a boss battle. Bosses, meanwhile, might require a few healing spells, and not much else. My phone would often go to sleep in the middle of battles, simply because the game required so little input from me.

There is a certain kind of mindless satisfaction to FFD2, as you effortlessly trounce enemies and watch your party's numbers go up over time. The story and characters aren't bad, either, so there's a tiny bit of incentive to reach the next plot point. Still, the most interesting thing about FFD2 is, ironically, just how monotonous it is.

I can't stand F2P mobile games, but I always assumed it was because they put so much unnecessary garbage between the player and the good stuff. If F2P mobile games let you pay up front, I reasoned, you could ditch the advertisements, the microtransactions, the daily logins, the limited "action points" and everything else that made the experience such a slog. A F2P game without any F2P mechanics should be a lot of fun.

Instead, FFD2 has unwittingly revealed the underlying vapidity of F2P mobile game design. It's not really about playing a game - it's about rewarding a player just enough to keep them logging in every day, and frustrating them just enough that they consider spending money. The ads, microtransactions and action points are very much features, not bugs.

Final Fantasy Dimensions 2 is an unworthy successor to one of the best mobile games I've ever played. But it also reveals an uncomfortable truth about F2P mobile games: They just might be rotten to the core.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.