Yesterday I finally felt up to using a controller and set about continuing on in my FFII learning run. I leveled my unarmed skill to max and proceeded to actually beat the game without leveling my health very high at all. I did wipe a couple times though. Anyway, here's my current new thoughts...
Most enemies simply couldn't hurt me, but once enemies could hit me they did a ton of damage. Like, in the 200-600 damage range when I had 735 max health. Getting ambushed by 2 of those guys meant I could be dead before taking an action, and that happened once. The final dungeon had some guys who cast level 16 drain or poison spells which were hitting for enough to also kill me in 2 hits if they rolled high. My solution this time was actually to use the 4th character who joins the party with 1053 max health. I was able to get his evasion chance up to 99% and stuck him in the front row to reduce the odds of the enemies killing off Firion in one round. Firion was attacking with a blood sword and healing to full every action so they needed to burst him down in one round, and that got a lot less likely when the enemies could hit Leon instead. Anyway, the way I see it there are 3 solutions to this problem. I can level my max health higher (around 1500 should be safe), or I can level my evasion chances up a little more to make it so the enemies can't hit me at all, though I could still be in trouble against the casters. Or I can make more use of the 4th character. The second to last dungeon was where I started getting killed, but I could easily have stuck Rickard in the front row and used his ~570 health to absorb some of the punishment.
I could run from lots of enemies all the way through the end of the game. For the most part the things I couldn't run from were undead, slimes, wererats, or giants. Undead came in groups of up to 8, and were all immune to toad. So I need to take a lot of time punching them down slowly or I need to level a damage spell. Level 10 fire was actually able to kill all of them but the two highest level ones, and even there they'd come with a bunch of dorks so I still wanted to open with fire. Slimes are also immune to toad and they also have stupid high armour. I couldn't punch them for damage, though I did forget to take my shield off to see if I could hurt them with full on punching. Fire also took care of them. The rats and giants were handled by toad. I think there was only one enemy that wasn't handled by fire or toad, and I could just punch that one.
I timed out how long it took to level punching from 1 to 16. It took 36 minutes, and then 34 minutes, and both times I made big mistakes. I'm pretty sure 30 minutes to max a weapon skill is where I'm going to end up. Spells take longer because there's an extra menu command to move down, and it's 4 buttons instead of 3 per skill, and because of the weirdness where I didn't seem to be able to level all in one fight. Probably more like 40-45 minutes for a spell. So I guess the question is if fire saves 40 minutes of punching in random encounters over the rest of the game. Well, I don't need to send it all the way level 16. 10 did most of what I wanted this time. There's also the question on if I need to level fists and swords. Maybe if I level fire and swords instead I can burn down the bosses before I get a blood sword. Even if it takes two rounds to kill every boss, if it saves 30 minutes that has to be good. Especially since I had to punch a few of them multiple times anyway.
I found a lot of steps in the walkthrough I was using that could be skipped. Lots of 'go talk to this person' when I could just go straight to the dungeon. I have a little more of that to test at the start of the game too.
I definitely need to get the second blood sword, but I think it will be for Leon, not so Firion can dual wield them. I also want two life spells, so they can each bring the other back to life in combat. I don't need osmose at all. I'd rather buy extra elixirs if I need more mana. (In my real play I ran into huge mana problems, but that's because I wasn't running from every fight!)
I'm not sure if I need to grind up the ribbon/aegis shield from the toad spell or not. I did get hit with some instant death attacks in random encounters that ambushed me. They all missed because of the ribbon. Would they have missed from my spell resistance? Not sure. But it's nice when I'm using 2 people to have cheesed up one copy so I can just open the chest in the final dungeon to suit up the second guy. I may even want to just get a second ribbon from the toad puzzle so Leon can use it the whole time I have him... I guess the big thing is I want a way to kill many enemies that aren't weak to fire anyway, and toad hooks me up with both the ribbons and the AE kill spell.
I think for my next run I'm going to try dropping punching again, maxing out fire instead, and just grinding health with Mindu. I'm going to also look up some rank numbers for enemies near the start of the game to see if I can find a better place to grind than right in front of the first town.