There probably isn’t a single gamer among our readership who hasn’t played at least one Final Fantasy title (if it was Final Fantasy XIII then I feel so sorry for you and you probably never touched the franchise again, trust me you’re missing out). With that in mind I wanted to space out reviews for role playing’s flagship brand between other less well known or revered titles. Final Fantasy IV is the starting point for all things Final Fantasy on this site because it holds a special connection to both myself and my younger brother and we played it through together, me invested in the story of Cecil the Dark Knight who had to become a Paladin, whilst he was totally behind Kain, the Dragoon who he felt should have got the girl. Neither of us came away disappointed. Today you can purchase Final Fantasy IV on almost any game device in multiple ports and I’m going to briefly touch on the After Years in this review too since I’m going to review it from a modern standpoint.
Final Fantasy IV had a strange release onto the English speaking world by being re-titled as Final Fantasy II. We’d skipped the Japanese only II and III and so Squaresoft thought it would make more sense to keep the numbers abroad chronological too. As it turned out it caused years of arguments and debates among gamers and roped in Final Fantasy VI and III when we jumped V too. Final Fantasy VII eventually came along and sorted the numbers out across the international borders, letting us all know we’d missed out on 3 titles and giving Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) the opportunity to begin their wave of re-releases that continues to this day.
Graphically Final Fantasy IV was dated even on release, with other more beautiful games taking advantage of the SNES’ hardware and the NES sensibilities of the developer on show. The colours were well balanced and each character had plenty of personality, but until battle started we were hard pressed to see much detail. The towns and environments were expansive and wonderfully designed however, and artistic direction allowed for us to see a small amount of ‘acting’ on the part of the characters with the ‘look down at yourself’ graphic for each character getting plenty of use to cover moments of inner conflict of self doubt while ‘one arm in the air’ was thrown in for levity. In battle the details are more viable because larger sprites are employed and monsters get to show off large well illustrated sprites, though the old palette swapping trick also sees a comeback from the NES days later in the game.
Sound effects were clear and sharp, used for dramatic punctuation to scenes or to add real punch to battle, though some sounds make you cringe to hear them too loud, especially thunder magic which sounds like a system crash in the making. Musically though Final Fantasy IV is a standout title with a wealth of memorable tracks by Nobuo Uematsu. In fact this game uses the genius trio of Uematsu, Amano and Sakaguchi to great effect by offering interesting design, music and story together perfectly. Characters had their own themes for the first time and it was glorious, adding layers of depth that gave the game a cinematic quality not seen at the time.
When it comes to story and plotting, Final Fantasy IV is one of the best. Cecil is a Dark Knight and the captain of a crack team of airships for the kingdom of Baron called the Red Wings. On the orders of his king he leads a raid into the neighboring kingdom of Mysidia and though they offer no resistance people die and their Water Crystal is taken. It seems that the king, who both Cecil and his Dragoon friend Kain are devoted to, has a desire to possess all the crystals that the other kingdoms hold and will stop at nothing to attain them. When Cecil dares question the wisdom of this he is stripped of his rank and joined by Kain in an effort to defend him, sent to the town of Mist to deliver a package. Various translations have worded these events differently over the years, with many having the duo being given an item called a Bomb Ring, but I feel that the original English translation got this right, keeping the nature of your delivery a shock to both the characters and the player. This coupled with many other turns in the narrative sees a dramatic tale populated by colourful characters where people die for what they believe in and the player honestly believes that any of the characters in his party could be next. A stand out character who bares mentioning is Rydia, a child whose mother you kill when her Mist Dragon is slain and whose village you burn down on Banon’s orders. She starts as a child and reacts convincingly to situations, eventually coming under Cecil’s protection and having to be cared for and leveled by the player to keep her alive. By the games end however she is a powerful young woman that is a powerhouse of magic and independent with her own love interest. All the games characters get full story arcs but its rare that such an early game had such a powerful story as a minor subplot, which says a LOT about the quality of the overall narrative.
Gameplay is standard JRPG fare with exploration and combat. Final Fantasy IV introduced the world to the Active Time Battle System, which took turn based combat to a new level. Every character has their own special attacks that are unique to just their character (though some spell types are shared between different mages at various points) and play to the strengths of their narrative. Cecil’s ‘Dark Blade’ attack (originally missing in the English translation but reinstated in later versions) deals him damage to hurt groups of monsters, really laying into your consciousness how nasty the class is and what sacrifices he has made for it. When he becomes a Paladin he gets healing magic and ‘Cover’ which allows him to dive in front of wounded allies to save their lives, keeping his character at the fore. The change also resets his level to 1, making him weak for the first time in the game. Each party member except Cecil is rotated out of and into the party as the plot dictates, which stops the player building a master party and ignoring characters from the word go, a trap other RPGs fall into all too easily. The original SNES version also had a limited inventory for the players but allowed you to store more inside the belly of a fat Chocobo, a problem later removed but wonderfully solved. Later versions of the game added minigames and subquests, especially the DS version which was rendered in 3D with voice acting and added the ability to train some characters in skills lost when characters died. A new game+ feature was also added to further enable this method, though I found giving Cecil Counter at the start of the game made life a little too easy.
With each subsequent re-release of FF4 there have been new additions. The PSOne version added some computer generated scenes and reinstated cut content from the original version with a new translation of the game to boot. The Gameboy Advance port added a new post game dungeon and the ability to choose your own party at the end of the game. The DS rendered in 3D, gave us voices and minigames, an autobattle feature and another new translation to enjoy whilst the PSP rendered back into lush HD 2D Sprites and included the After Years and a bridging adventure as well, making it the currently most ‘finished’ version. The mobile port for iOS and Android appears to have added little being based on the DS port, but it’s running smoothly in HD now, which is great.
The After Years was a belated sequel of sorts that we will cover independently at a later date, but serves to give us a look at the world some time after it was saved by Cecil and his companions. Following first in the footsteps of his son, then a host of new and old characters alike they embark on a new but connected adventure that was produced in installments but can be found on iOS, Android, Virtual Console and the aforementioned PSP port.
By today’s standards this game is still great, in fact reviewing it has made me want to play it all over again (I still have a PSP somewhere!) I’d be a fool not to mark this as one of the best RPGs of all time, even if people still debate which is the best Final Fantasy game. Let the argument rage on, but also let the record show that Final Fantasy IV is a bloody wonderful game!