Review by Ukonkivi
"The utter Final Fantasy masterpiece of Square in their prime."
Ah, this was quite possibly the most perfect and beautiful Final Fantasy ever created. I have my own biases like everyone, but to be rating it like I am, there must certainly be something to these assertions. A lot of people talk of the "classic Final Fantasy", and how wonderful it was, and I, for the most part, agree with them. As to me, this is the defining Final Fantasy, the best of all Final Fantasy. Perhaps not the best of all Square, but certainly the best Final Fantasy game.
I am an adult now, and I am able to see Final Fantasy IV for it's flaws that I wasn't then. But despite this, I still see it as the greatest Final Fantasy.
So why do I see this game as so great, and the best Final Fantasy, despite it's flaws? Well I, for one, despite being a "jRPG" fan, a term that wasn't coined until I was an adult. Is that it had this perfect blend of Sword and Sorcery under Japanese interpretation. A lot of modern Japanese RPGs take a non-Sword and Sorcery take on RPGs. While the West is still largely creating their games of the Sword and Sorcery variety, taken very closely from Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkein settings. Now, there's nothing wrong with these modern takes on the RPG common in Japanese RPGs, Persona is a fine series of games. But there's something to be said for IV's simplistic, to their Sword and Sorcery roots, RPG game. That is honestly the thing I like most about wRPGs, is their trueness to Sword and Sorcery and interest in building High Fantasy. And there's just something about the Japanese interpretation of High Fantasy, too rare, that really shines and is to me, on the par with many great Western Fantasy works such as Chronicles of Prydain. If only we had more Guin Sagas and Final Fantasy IV's. It's hard to explain other than a softening effect that Japanese or perhaps Buddhist, Confucian, and cultures out of Animism has on creating Fantasy works. There's a strong sense of good humor, warmth, teamwork, and honor, that I like about my favourite Western fantasy works.
Final Fantasy IV, or at it was mis-released in the beginning for the SNES, "Final Fantasy II", is one of those works. Despite any flaws it may have. It is a heavily Sword and Sorcery tale, as I have described a few of times before. With a little bit of notable influence by Sword and Sandal. That is, the Biblical imagery in IV is as strong as in any Final Fantasy, possibly stronger. I am personally a person who prefers Sword and Sorcery to Sword and Sandal. Possibly partially because I seem to like the cultural traits typical of Indo-European cultures better than those of Semitic cultures, and like forested tales far better than desert tales. But a sprinkling of Semitic culture is certainly fine for me, and in fact nigh-inescapable considering how much Semitic culture has influenced and ingrained itself into the West. I think that the balance of various culture, Indo-European, Eastern, and Semitic, should be appealing for most people. There is a proper variety and influence of various cultures for Sword and Sorcery fans.
The game is very Biblical in that there are a lot of sandlands. Especially in the beginning. You start the game feeling like a lot of the places you are exploring are middle eastern due to the sand. I'm not a fan of deserts, I hate them in fact. But it does accurately describe the game. Another fact is that in this game, buildings look very Semitic more than Nordic. And certainly more Mediterranean leaning than Nordic. A great many buildings are dome shaped and reminiscent of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean areas rather than a lot of the a lot of the "Nordic" areas in Sword and Sorcery fantasy. Becoming a Paladin for Cecil is also reminiscent of Moses reaching the 10 Commandments. There's little I can do to explain all this without spoiling, so you'll have to forgive me. But the mission was like a Baptism, and Cecil was turned holy by talking to his holy "father" in a stone, on the top of a mountain. That's quite Biblical, if you ask me. Also, starting from the beginning, the story has references to Kain and Abel. Both with Kain and Cecil, and Cecil and Golbez. Kain becoming a traitor and a rival to holy becoming and "baptized" Cecil. Fitting his place in the story as indeed very similar to Cain or "Kain" in the story of Cain and Abel. Also a common theme in IV is wise men, much like Abraham or Moses. With canes and robes and often holy abilities. And the main antagonist of the game, seems also like a symbol for the devil. Being that the being increases monsters on the planet and tempts and corrupts people into doing evil telepathically. There is also mentionings from the Bible like the Tower of Babel(and it's spinoff not mentioned in the Bible, the Tower of Zot). Also, there exists an underworld, that could, in some way, be a form of reference or symbol for hell. Overall, there is a great wealth of Judeo-Christian culture in this game that I could not even begin to go into in this review. Despite not being a huge fan of Christian mythology, I find it greatly adds to the mythological wealth of this game.
The story starts out, and this may have been especially intriguing for a child like me before the advent of 3D technology. A tragic soldier in servitude to his kingdom. It's a very emotional and intriguing opening. It's really tragic, and sets the stage and a great mood for the beginning of the game. You get what's essentially like a "cutscene" . Let me get this clear, there's a lot of things I don't like about Cecil. He wasn't quick enough to turn against his own Empire, he's a nasty chivalrous sexist and and an utterly idiotic independent type. For the most part he has good intentions, he's just a lovable chivalrous buffoon. He's your stereotypical knight. Except very tragic.
And believe me, I am not one of those people who is tired of androgyny and likes the main character, Cecil, for a perceived "manliness" or lack of androgyny, or being a female. I lament the lack of women in video games and honestly think Final Fantasy VI is superior in that regard. I am also one of the biggest, most vocal fans of androgyny on the entire internet. And I would be very irritated by anyone using this sort of logic trying to claim that older Final Fantasy games are worse than earlier ones such as this.
Cecil is a man, who loves his land and his people. And is stuck with now serving an empire that is doing horrible deeds. Before Final Fantasy VII's Midgar and Final Fantasy VI's Gestalt were being constantly compared to Nazi Germany. Baron was Square's Evil Empire and IV was a game to influence future Final Fantasies time and time again. People often speak of how Final Fantasy VI influenced Final Fantasy VII, but few speak of the fact that IV influenced Final Fantasy VI as vastly as Final Fantasy VI influenced Final Fantasy VII.
Though I believe, at the very least, IV did the introduction to the evil, "fascist", or extremely imperialist Empire, Baron, better than the others did. For you start off as the villain. I know people tire of anti-hero stories, but this is very well done. As the beginning is paved with tragedy and a quick turn from villainy. An internal struggle of honor to country and personal morals. VI started off with "Terra", essentially a part of the enemy, but far more quickly dissolves: as soon as she is given back her will and consciousness. With Terra, it is a struggle to find who she is and relieved of her personal control. With Cecil, it is a personal struggle. The struggle to stand up against his nationality, his ethnicity, his state, his nation, his kingdom. And choose personal morals over his race and his personal standing of class. And over his loyalty and love to people who have betrayed him. I personally find this very moving. You have a tension that's a great way to start off a tale. I would have liked it if Terra was a little less "empty" in motivations, and more torn, like Cecil. Cecil's motivations and psychology also seemed a little more mature and adult, while Terra harkens almost to a coming of age puberty tale of "finding oneself". A sort of wasted opportunity to create and even stronger female main character in VI.
After the beginning of the game, the short and sweet, and honestly in my opinion, very well done "cutscene" of sorts, committing a war crime against innocent people. We are treated to the a bit linear beginning of the game. But worry not, it's exactly as it should be, the game goes from what is like a very short movie, to a small non-linear section of the game, to being able to sprawl the entire overworld in an airship.
You start off the game, exploring outside of the castle. On a mission that sounds less than grand. You head off, and it's a great start, it's you and Kain. With really cool armor. And a general reflection of strength as warriors instead of humble beginnings common of RPGs. It's a nice beginning. And then soon, another tragedy to pull at your heartstrings and make you interested. You end up committing unwilling genocide on another group of people. And in morality, you begin to take care of one of their children. This girl is Rydia, a great and new character for Final Fantasy. Square's first "summoner race" character. And also a blatant and direct influence for Terra in Final Fantasy VI. Indeed Terra feels like a spiritual successor to Rydia. You would not have the beloved Final Fantasy VI without this. Her hair is the same, they are both summoners, and both their personalities are mysterious and reserved. When I play Final Fantasy VI, I feel as if I am playing as Rydia again, with her soul transported into another universe.
I think it makes for an interesting moral event and final turning point for Cecil, the starting "anti-hero" of sorts. To go from being so tragic becoming a knight of justice.
Soon, we come to a place that is honestly one of the most shameful and sexist spots in the game. And one small thing that deters from the quality I think the game has.
Honestly, more than one event was a little troubling, but the former was rather tiny and the latter rather major. First, the latter. When reaching the Eastern Kingdom as this story has, the King find the warriors to be quite capable, and they fight on the front lines. Now, this wouldn't be a problem at all, if they didn't exclude the two women. Rydia is kind of understandable, as she's a child. Wanting to keep a child out danger and not on the front lines is natural. But Rosa was also not present either. Now, this might be excusable, if this was all based on the fact Cecil is a heavily armored knight, and Rosa is but a white mage. But their team of males contains Edward, the lanky and rather effeminate bard. His only weapon is his entrancing music. Rosa is at least proficient in using a bow and arrow. If out of those two people, there's one I would pick as more suited for the front lines of combat, I would pick Rosa with her bow and arrow over a lovely little bard man. The only, only possible non-sexist excuse I can see out of this, is that Rosa was there to heal the citizens in general. As such being a white mage, she would be an asset to healing all troops and injured citizens. I can only hope such was the logic. It is suspicious, though.
Then, earlier, and this is sadly common gender role pushing of nearly all fiction. The little girl Rydia belittles Edward, our androgynous and effeminate character of this game, for crying and heavily mourning because he's a man. The adult thing made sense, but hearing the "and a man" part, as an adult made me cringe a bit. Admittedly, Rydia handled the entire death of her family and race pretty well considering. But calling Edward out on his behavior and adding "and a man" sends bad messages. Overall it was sadly typical of our media. But nonetheless criticism worthy. When you're a kid, you're still just learning gender roles and the depths of society and patriarchy. And as I was a child, it just seemed like a cute kid doing a cute thing. Most bratty instances like didn't seem like a bit deal and just seemed cute behavior of a girl my age. And with the women missing later on, I didn't think much of it. I was playing the game for adventure, not girl power. As I wanted to feel stronger and more capable than I did as a powerless child. And I tended to view people in the media I enjoyed as knowing what they were doing. As they were adults and in a position of authority over me. And all I thought when that battle happened was "awww, no Rydia and Rosa", because I liked having them in my party, but didn't make a big deal out of it because I figured they'd be back in my party soon. But there wasn't a good reason for it. And as an adult it looks dumb and suspicious to me. And a capable adult now, not playing games for a power fantasy to quell the inadequate feelings of a unempowered child, I look for female power and respectability in my games. And that moment rings a lot more terrible. Again, when I became an independent adult, I relinquished my power fantasy. And now, what I largely enjoy in games are good plots, character developments, epic stories, touching romances, interesting interpersonal dialogues, and sometimes just cuteness. A great variety of things and power being a much bigger influence. And losing female characters for a battle like that hits me much harder. As an adult, I like strong female characters. I don't like seeing things like this happen without a very darn good explanation.
In any case, like expected of this tale, more tragedy comes. The story really has a lot of beautiful tragedy. And Cecil winds up, ironically, washing up on the very land he committed war crimes on at the beginning of the game. And soon comes a salvation and biblical baptism. There's so much Biblical imagery in this section of the game it's unreal. And it's largely good. I honestly didn't think I could like Cecil any more than in the beginning of the game as a kid, but his transformation into a Paladin made him radiant and even more mysterious than before. The word I know for it now is "bishounen". But all I thought then was he looked cool. He was kind of like a Jesus.
And the bittersweet return after this part of the game was also a nice touch. You'll get a few parts similar to it with the Returners in Final Fantasy VI. But it catches you off guard and is overall pretty nice.
From then on it's flying the skies in your airship. This part of the game comes quick, and it's nice for semi-non-linearity to come this quickly. There's a lot of the overworld to explore immediately. And it's what I wanted to first do. Too many Final Fantasy games make you wait until much later in the game to explore like this. And I feel that this balance of linearity and non-linearity was done very well. You did start out with a lack of options, but you got them very quickly. And there's still a lot of plot development and change after you get it.
Later in the game, I will say, for the Patriarchal seeming nature of much of the world, they do kind of make up a little for it in a way. By having an matriarchal Amazonian empire that takes in the effeminate Edward. I have to say that seeing a female army to contrast to Baron's male army was rather nice. It's not exactly perfect, but is somehow does make things a little less unfortunate seeming in message. It's true to life in the end sadly that sexism and the like exist. The message at least does not seem to be that "women are weaker than men" buy this game. Though the world itself is imperfect, it makes sense for a world to be imperfect and perhaps have sexism. I don't think it promotes sexism necessarily to portray a world with the flaws of sexism. The game doesn't denounce sexism in any way. But it does portray I suppose a realistic flawed world in terms of gender. You can't criticize that.
There's not much else I felt like sharing and sadly possibly spoiling about the plot to get my point across. After this point in the game, the Kain and Abel problem dissolves and the foe becomes Satan himself. More deaths and tragedies occur, and even a few unexpected events where loved ones live through tragedies and come back happens! It's overall very nice. I would like to comment that I like how the villains in this game are given reasonable motivation all across the board. I know that some people are tired of relatable villains and detestable heroes in fiction. But I'm not. Black and white morality is vapid and immature and something we should avoid. It leaves both heroes and villains awfully flat and is just an unrealistic and unbelievable way to treat characters in a post-Dark Ages society. I like morality to be treated how it is, and villains and heroes given realistic motivations. And there's a surprising amount of that in Final Fantasy IV, despite being such a Biblically inspired tale of good and evil. Kefka and the antagonists in Final Fantasy VI, are sadly lacking in this aspect. There's little realistic motivations given. Kefka is simply portrayed as evil and insane. The only backstory for these actions being Magicite experiments driving him made. But it's not developed upon. And he's more treated as a generic evil which is honestly rather unfulfilling to me. For all the criticisms of Final Fantasy VII that Final Fantasy VI fans make, often claiming that it's superior in every way to VII, Sephiroth was at least given a terrific backstory. Or rather, the Jenova sphere, everyone influenced by Jenova, had somewhat relatable conflicts and psychology. The psychology is at least remotely delved into of Sephiroth, Cloud, and the rest of the relevant people.
With Final Fantasy IV, the motivations of villains are somewhat understandable. They were corrupted. The turmoil of the empire is understood and it's citizens are very humanized overall. Not much insight is given into the motivations of Gestalt Empire as are given to the Baron Empire. The final villain of IV did seem a bit of the overly typical and cliche, "space flea" like Ex-Death and Necron that many understandably complain about. Ex-Death was a horrible main antagonist. And Necron was a horrible final boss, at least in terms of plot. Ultimecia could have been better as well(they didn't explain hardly anything at all about this woman until the very end of the game, and so it seemed to come out of nowhere and it shouldn't have). But overall, it's not terrible. Zeromus is a bit like a more humanized and explained version of Giygas from Earthbound or Mother 2. Gigyas is not given relatable human emotions and desires for the most part, and is a "space flea" much like Ex-Death. Zemus is a being, unlike Giygas, like being who simply wants the best for his kind. A relatable alien of the desires much like the seemingly inspired by Terrans in Final Fantasy IX like Garland. Sure, he was a lone Hitler of sorts much like Gestalt. But it's still pretty understandable overall. His people were stuck in a slumber and of course it would frustrate some. Zemus basically said "we don't need to treat the humans ethically, to heck with this slumber". Again, understandable. Cruel, villainous, but understandable. And the "control" Zemus enacts on earth's inhabitants as an alien, is much like Jenova on those infected with Jenova cells on earth. Except that Zemus' motivations are a little more cerebral, frustration, impatience, and racism instead of simple parasitism.
The graphics are a bit "inferior" to that of Final Fantasy VI. If you play the Adventures of Lolo 3 and this for the SNES back to back, you will notice that the graphics are incredibly simplistic. Incredibly like the NES systems' better graphical games, and much like a midway point graphically between the two systems, the NES and SNES. But graphics don't really mean hardly anything in terms of gameplay, in my opinion. And graphics should be far from the selling point of this type of game. This game did a lot with very little graphics or indeed, computing power for a game.
Also, the actual world, looking back as an adult and having played many RPGs, may not seem that vast, with not that many options available. However, it was amazing for the technology used and a great balance. I think it was the perfect balance. Unparalled for it's age, and for it's technology. Not in terms of graphics, but in terms of being a Swords and Sorcery story based upon the Dungeons and Dragons system. In comparison to an age where most technology is mostly utilized for graphics, and even then doesn't come close to truly utilizing it's hardware well, Final Fantasy IV did an amazing job with it's hardware to create a game I personally find more solid than any other Final Fantasy. This was the game that instilled me with a sense of haunted, tragic wonder and excitement for Final Fantasy for future years that no other Final Fantasy would live up to. Not quite. And furthermore, if you enjoy the feel of games like Final Fantasy IX for the PlayStation, you will surely be more impressed by IV which also shares that same feel. After all, the type of feel of games like Final Fantasy IV were exactly what Square was going for to recreate when they developed Final Fantasy IX. If you like the more medieval or steampunk or "elder" fantasy influenced feel when playing a Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, and of course Final Fantasy IV, are among the best you can play for that feel. I might not recommend this game the most to modern gamers not used to retro games and the conventions of games like Final Fantasy IV. But as for talking of the "best of Final Fantasy", I would honestly put this one at the top. And games of course like Final Fantasy VI, VII, IX, and Tactics right beside it. In a sad, tumulus age where Japanese games aren't getting the respect they deserve and first person shooters and Western games in general are dominating the market and market praise, you can look back on games like these with pride. Pride that Japanese games were good, were unparalleled masterpieces, that Japanese role playing games were good, were gems, were masterpieces, that Final Fantasy was good, was a gem, was a masterpiece.
In conclusion, while I would say the plot isn't perfect. It doesn't compare that unfavorably with other Final Fantasy games. Also, the pacing for the story is terrific. The world was nice, large, and explorable, on SNES capabilities. The story was bittersweet and could easily touch your heart. The music was some of Nobuo Uematsu's absolute best work. The game actually had a pretty good system of battle strategy going for it, that forced you to actually think, especially in a time it wasn't well known that healing magic hurts the undead or the like. And the game is just an all around mystifying, endearing, and great use of the technology and time. I look back on this game with the utmost pride and feeling of gratefulness that I got into the RPG genre early, before it was popularized, before it was popularized by Final Fantasy VII(I'm not talking badly of this game, by the way), and long before many years later, that this genre is becoming sadly shamed, as kids today enjoy a very different kind of gameplay, often incompatible with the type of gameplay in this game. And an age where people associate RPGs with either mindless grinding a la some of the more terrible recent Japanese RPGs, MMORPGs with no content, or lonely sandboxes with mostly exploration and a variety of moral choices going for them. Final Fantasy IV gives one of the best possible experiences where everything is tied together, exploration, fighting, plot. At the end of the day, you feel like your levels actually mean something, your comrades in game feel as dear to you as any fictional character in a story you've read. You've saved a little girl, you've saved a woman from fatal illness, you've overthrown a tyrannical empire, you've been baptized in light and became a better person, you've saved a dear friend from evil, you've preserved harmony between races, you've lived on doing good for many that have sacrificed themselves for you, you've saved two little mage children from a terrible fate, you've saved the world.
And that, my friends, is what I look for in a Final Fantasy. And why I am giving it a 10/10.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 08/24/11
Game Release: Final Fantasy II (US, 11/23/91)
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