Review by JRoa

Reviewed: 12/20/05

An Imperfect but Fairly Enjoyable Port of a Classic

As one of those that fondly remembers spending hours, days and even months of my younger life controlling the Dark Knight Cecil in his classic adventure, both in the original US release (as a slightly dumbed-down FF2) and in a later PS1 adaptation (as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles, which was based on the Japanese FF4, unofficially called "hardtype" by some), I simply couldn't avoid checking out Final Fantasy IV Advance (FF4A) for the Gameboy Advance.

It is not, however, a direct port of the SNES classic. In particular, many (but far from all) of the changes have been inherited from the rare WonderSwan Color port, as well as a couple of the unfortunate glitches that hardcore fans may eventually notice. Still, this newest GBA version, with all its quirks, has plenty of extras and enjoyable content that, in one fan's opinion, may potentially contribute to making it a worthwhile acquisition for others.

It's not going to be a must-have for everyone, of course, but overall it can be an acceptable ride down memory lane for most nostalgic gamers, and an entertaining one for some of those that may simply want to play a classic RPG on the go.

Gameplay: 6/10

The game plays almost like it always has, at first sight, but that's not the whole story. The game uses an early version of Square's Active Time Battle (ATB) system (with both Wait and Active modes and several speed settings), where enemies can attack the player's party in a sort of fake "real-time" battle, for lack of a better way to describe it. Very "old school" and repetitive compared to more modern RPGs, but fans of the FF series are likely already acquainted with it.

There are bugs worth noticing, however, which Square-Enix should have fixed before the U.S. release (let's hope they are fixed in later copies of the game, or maybe by the time that Europe gets its release). First is the presence of a small amount of lag, not in the original game, between the battle animations of each character, in particular when more than three party members are available.

Sometimes, especially in Active mode and at high speeds, this lag carries on to the control scheme, making the input of some commands slightly slower than one would prefer. It's not a huge problem, as one can adapt to it, but it's noticeable enough to catch distracted gamers off guard from time to time. Strangely, there is also a so-called "double-turn bug", which irregularly causes a character to have two turns in a row, though it's not a gamebreaker in itself.

Another issue is the game's difficulty. Plenty of people online are claiming that the game, especially in its early hours, has been made easier than the Japanese Final Fantasy IV, though there has been no noticeable dumbing down of the stats. Yes, some enemies do seem to attack less often (the once dreaded Evil/Demon Wall, for one, clearly shows this), but other times they actually get the drop on your party instead and can maul you to near-death.

More than anything else known thus far, it appears to be partially related to the ATB lag and to the "double-turn" bug, in addition to the simple fact that this is an old game that many people have already mastered countless times and which was never horribly difficult in the first place.

These points are clearly open to debate, but the fact that the debate exists cannot be ignored. I recognize that many of the complaints are at least partially valid, and they must be addressed by each individual player (and, luck-willing, by Square-Enix, but I'm not too hopeful about that). Still, it's fair to say that I am not too significantly bothered by the existing flaws.

Graphics: 7/10

The game has experienced a small to moderate graphical revamp, but it's still 16-bit at heart. The world map is pretty much the same one we've always known, though the external representation of the upper Tower of Babel (or Bab-il, if you prefer) has been given a primitive 3-D (or such is the apparent effect) makeover.

A much more significant change is evident inside towns, castles and dungeons, where a number of the graphical tiles have been altered or replaced with new ones, resulting in a refreshing but still familiar visual feeling. New character portraits have been included, for the firs being time visible along side most of the playable character's dialogue boxes, which certainly makes for easier identification on the tiny screen of a handheld.

The portraits themselves are radically different (somewhat closer to the character designs by Y. Amano), to the point that some fans prefer a few of the old ones (in the cases of Yang, Rosa and adult Rydia, for example), but others are usually seen as perfectly fine (Cecil, Kain, Edge and young Rydia, IMO).

The overworld sprites were slightly modified as well, mostly for the better too. Some, like Edge's sprite, have improved, while Cecil's Dark Knight sprite is slightly off-color if you examine it carefully. Some might continue to cringe at the ESRB's/Nintendo's/Square-Enix's surprising decision to change the traditional dancer's leotard for a more conservative dress, but it's not exactly something earthshaking, either way.

Despite a small decrease in their resolution, most of the monster's battle sprites have been recolored, to the point that many look considerably clearer than one could remember them back on the SNES, and likewise each battlefield has a newly detailed background image.

Sound: 9/10

FF4A's soundtrack is excellent, clearly superior to the WonderSwan FF4's, and often quite close to the one once heard on the SNES despite changes in its instrumentation (the only track that bothers me somewhat is the victory fanfare). This is especially true when headphones are used, btw. When all is said and done, it's both touching, mysterious and epic when it needs to be.

The same cannot be said about the sound effects, which are noticeably inferior when compared to the classic ones (What have they done to Virus/Bio?!). Apparently they were simply dumped straight from the WonderSwan incarnation, and therefore are far from a fair example of what the GBA's underestimated sound chip can do.

Story: 8/10

The story of the Dark Knight Cecil and his quest to find redemption has become a fairly linear and cliched one these days, but there are enough twists and surprises to keep unsuspecting newcomers on their toes, if they manage to avoid spoilers that is (not much of chance, I know).

It's safe to say that it's not an entirely original plot, nor is it as long as it seemed back in the SNES era, even if many agree that it can usually be remembered as a
great one nevertheless. The new translation of the script, heavily based on the one from the PS1 port but definitely improved for a more pleasant read, is sure to delight fans which know the whole thing by heart but just want to recall a traditional adventure at its best.

Even so, honestly speaking and in retrospective, most of the characters don't have much lasting in-game depth, beyond a couple of relevant scenes. Admittedly, the short stories of the main five or six individuals are sufficiently attractive to create enough of a semblance of depth for the cast's traits to outshine the story's shallow sides (and a degree of inevitable repetition). Especially so once the player has been immersed into the plot and tries to connect the dots.

A few implicit, unanswered questions remain in the sidelines though, for the hardcore fans that might want to ponder about them, even if the main plot is pretty much resolved. One could say, all in all, that it's almost a matter of style over substance here, or of execution over concept. Heck, even the presence of a certain "Spoony line" is partial evidence of that. It's not a bad story, by all means it isn't, but it's not a literary masterpiece either.

Extras: 8/10

The extras are few in number, but fairly entertaining in quality. A new opening sequence introduces a couple of the main characters. There's a useful quicksave
feature, which allows players to save everywhere and a run option (turned on by default).

There's also a bestiary that can be used to check out the stats of all the enemies
defeated in the game thus far, and a soundtrack test which will become available after the game's over. Another new feature is the ability to select between all the available (active and former) party members after a certain point in the late game, giving players a chance to take on the final dungeon with a larger set of chess pieces.

More significant are two new dungeons, one of which is a small area were the returning characters can obtain better weapons and armor. The other one, as advertised elsewhere, is a fifty floor dungeon, semi-randomly generated, with a series of tough monsters (many of them using pre-existing sprites but with different stats), bosses and specialized trials that each character can choose to face.

Some consider these new dungeons as anti-climatic and relatively short once you master them, since they do not add too much to the plot, but neither do they unnaturally interfere with it. I personally found them quite fun, to the point that the trials in the second dungeon can be genuinely challenging at times.

Overall: 7/10

Could Square-Enix have spent more time fixing a couple of evident glitches in FF4A? Definitely. Are those enough to reduce the quality of the game? Yes and no. I see myself, admittedly, as one of those that considers FF4A as a worthwhile ride, one in which its virtues are superior to its nagging flaws. I liked this game before, and I still like it right now, even if I'm not blind to the fact that it has aged a bit.

Yet I can understand that others, perhaps some of those that are of a more perfectionist or demanding nature, might have enough reasons to complain and take their money and/or time elsewhere. The choice is up to the consumer, as always.

Gameplay: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 9/10
Story: 8/10
Extras: 8/10
Overall (not an average): 7/10

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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