Review by Combat Crustacean
"The TRUE beginning of a legacy."
Gaming has made huge evolutions since the NES's release over 20 years ago. We have borne witness to the rise of videogaming: it transformed from a simple, carnal, thoughtless pleasure, where the only thing we had to worry about was stomping on a Goomba or getting the next sword. Now videogaming has been changed into an interactive media communicating powerful visuals, hyper-innovative gameplay, and most importantly, developed and thoughtful storylines. What do we have to thank for the prioritization of plot in a video game? There's no real one answer, but if you know what you're talking about one of your options should certainly be Final Fantasy II/IV (referred to as IV from here on out).
As the title quite obviously suggests, Final Fantasy IV is not the first game in the series. It was preceded by three games for the NES, only one of which actually saw American shores (though II has since been rereleased on Playstation and Game Boy Advance). Despite the generation hop in systems, what set these games apart is the advent of characters we actually feel sympathy for, a plot we can get lost in, and an enchanting and powerful atmosphere. Final Fantasy I deserves its credit for popularizing the console RPG, but Final Fantasy IV deserves still more for perfecting it. Perfecting may be the wrong word to choose, because I feel that for all its strengths this installment does have a fair share of flaws -- the series did not reach perfection, in my opinion, until the sixth title. The game, however, does enough things so well that many of the quibbles I have with it seem insignificant or merely obnoxious at best.
In retrospect, when you look at the plot, it does seem kind of contrived at first. Let's face it: it starts out with a highly predictable beginning. We watch as our troubled Dark Knight Cecil flies his airship in an unprecedented display of graphical prowess, ruminating on his merciless capture of the Water Crystal of Mysidia. His master, the King of imperialistic Baron, demands possession of these crystals for reason unknown, and Cecil begins to wonder if his appropriation of them is wrong or unjustified. Suddenly, his reverie is shattered! The airship is under attack! We watch as Cecil guns down the foes and, without further interruption, lands in Baron. The King notices Cecil's thoughts of insubordination, relieves him of his post and sends him off with his friend Kain to deliver a package to the village of Mist. Ho-hum, you think, a tedious delivery quest. And yes, that's what it seems like at first. After mucking through a misty cave and arriving at the village, you wonder if your efforts were worth it at all. And then...the package explodes, taking out Mist and killing nearly everyone.
This plot twist was integral in setting one of the main motifs of Final Fantasy IV: betrayal. Consider this a sort of warning of what's to come. The scene is powerful in and of itself, but the chain reaction of characterization and plot development that it sets off really makes it worth it. We discover that we accidentally killed the mother of a little girl during a combat in the caves, and this brings Cecil to wonder if Baron is really doing the right things at all. And with that, he turns his back on the kingdom and walks his own path, determined to rectify the wrongdoings that the kingdom put forth. Now see, something that may have started slightly routine turned into a storyline that is damn cool. For its time, this was an absolutely amazing plot...many would consider it contrived if you superimposed it on a game in this day and age, but for SNES standards you didn't see much like this around. Unfortunately, a mediocre translation and removal of a lot of content upon localization brought the game down to some extent, but never flagrantly.
The story rarely slows down; the viewer is railroaded on a winding path of intrigue, suspense, excitement and sadness, with rarely a chance to catch a breath in between. This game is so incredibly easy to get lost in, even more so than VI, because there is no diversion from the main plotline and no chance to reflect on what you've seen. Final Fantasy IV is lined with an undertone of urgency and discomfort that prompts you to keep playing, keep playing, make things better. I don't know how Squaresoft manages to do it, but this formula really did wonders for the game. It even reflects in the gameplay as well; FFIV has some of the fastest-paced battles in the Final Fantasy series, somewhere tied with FFVIII. You'd practically get whiplash playing this after FFVII, for instance.
The characters are very easy to connect with, though like the plot, they're a little more shallow when you look back on them by today's standards. There's a surprisingly low amount of development for everyone, limited to just a few key scenes -- the game really puts its gameplay and storyline first. Cecil is easily the most developed character, but that's because everything happens around him. Compare him to Kain, however, who is smacked between side to side. The only development he gets is the characters' reactions to his constant acts of betrayal. He doesn't even have a backstory (one was kindly provided for him in the GBA remake, though). Rydia has no more instances of characterization after her episode on Mt. Hobs; Rosa's only dimension seems to be "Cecil! I must help Cecil!" Cid is kinda cool, but similarly worthless. The twins are pathetic, even though they depart the team in a rather cool way. Tellah isn't bad either. Yang and Edge just feel like they're along for the ride. And Edward...wow, don't even get me started on him. Regardless, these characters seemed like the coolest people ever when you were playing it back in 1991, so you kinda have to let nostalgia take a step in.
In addition to the characters, the graphics and sound blazed amazing new frontiers, showing off the power of this nifty SNES gadget. The airship scene at the very beginning of the game piqued the interest of any player weaned off the NES graphics; rich monster designs, excellent animations, and meticulous and beautiful environments helped prove that the game wasn't a one-trick pony. In essence, the game looks fantastic for its time. The colors are deep and vivid, everything looks powerful and mature, and overall Final Fantasy IV captures a previously-unknown majesty in its graphical appearance. The sound is highly memorable as well, with Nobuo Uematsu providing one of many amazing scores for the series. Songs like the boss theme, Rydia's theme and many others still ring familiarly in our ears. Like the graphics, the music was such a radical and welcomed departure from the blippy nonsense of NES-dom that it sounded like a full orchestra, scaling every inch of the adventure.
With that, we move on to a facet of the game that changed so little and yet so much: the gameplay. It may sound strange, but with the arrival of this game, the customization and controllability of the player's party got ever tighter. In fact, it no longer existed. In the first three Final Fantasies, you were either allowed to pick the classes of all four of your characters, or in the case of II you could specialize your character in certain weapons or spells. Not here. Your characters are all given extremely explicit roles, be they knight, full-out berserker or white mage, and that is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it gives every member of the party a sense of extreme belonging. It sounds a little odd to say, but it actually helps you connect with the characters still more, knowing that each of your warriors has their own little niche in the grand scheme of battle. To flip the coin, however, it also makes the sense of your role in the game extremely limited. Characters learn their spells at specific levels, receive very rigid statistical increases and rarely learn any new or surprising tricks. To compound this, your choices in equipment are always very narrow as well, with basically whatever the local shop offers you in addition to maybe one or two deviant weapons if you're lucky enough to find them.
For all it's worth, the gameplay didn't transform much at all. Battle plays out very much the same: your characters stand around helplessly until their turn comes, whereupon you input their command and they execute it. No frills attached. Most also have a special technique in addition to their attacks as well, such as Kain's ability to Jump and avoid damage, Edward's singing power, or Rosa adding precision to her attacks with Aim. That's basically it as far as the dimensions of combat go, and there is little change throughout the rest of the game. It manages to keep battling fresh, however, by having enough neat-looking and formidable foes and plenty of challenge. Despite many decrying this 'Easy-type' of the game, significantly watered down from its Japanese release, I still find FFIV surprisingly difficult for its time. Some fights will really give you a run for your money if you're not prepared for them. The last boss in particular is perhaps one of the hardest in the FF series. Most of FFIV's gameplay is in its combat, since the game lacks any sidequests and overworld exploration is merely a matter of moving from one point to the next. There's not a whole lot to the game, and it is kept blissfully simple so that the player can concentrate on all the good stuff.
Final Fantasy IV's rapid-fire approach to the gameplay and plot delivery are what set it apart from the crowd and made it one of the strongest games of all time. With its innovative and powerful narration, effective characters, and outright fun gameplay, it deserves its esteem and title as one of the best FF games ever for good reason. It may lack depth, especially in contrast to some of today's ultra-complex RPGs, but for what it's worth the game effuses charm that no modern day next-gen interactive experience could ever hope to emulate. The power of reminiscence is on its side, and that is the sweetest thing ever.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 12/16/05
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