“Final Fantasy IV” is a faithful remake — perhaps too faithful. The age of the gameplay is really underlined when it’s juxtaposed with the brand-new graphics, new full-motion video and remastered music. The title’s somewhat salvaged by boss tweaks and new abilities that change the dynamics of some of the timeworn dungeons and encounters, but it would be nice to see the development team bend its talents toward a new game instead of a remake.
“Final Fantasy IV” has a special place in my heart. It was the first game I’d played that let players do something other than hop and shoot fireballs — I love hopping, and I love fireballs, but there’s only so much of both a body can do.
It is also the game that, in my opinion, helped push console-based RPG games forward and kept the genre alive in the long term — it’s entirely possible that the RPG market in this country only exists today because of this game. In that sense, it’s a shame that this new version of “Final Fantasy IV” is so incredibly similar to the original release. Rather than looking to the future of RPGs, it rehashes gameplay and mechanics that are very outdated.
The original “Final Fantasy IV” came out at a time of stagnation in the RPG market. ”Final Fantasy” had been released a year earlier, in 1990. (“Final Fantasy IV” was originally released as the second in the series stateside; Square didn’t flood the market with four titles in 12 months.) “Dragon Quest” was released in 1989, and parts II and III quickly followed; “Dragon Quest IV” was released in 1992.
All five of those titles — the first “Final Fantasy” and the “Dragon Quest” games — were on the Nintendo. Each sacrificed graphics and sound to make room for the large worlds, dungeons, and databases of items, creatures and abilities. Each has at least one silent main character who never speaks, never forms relationships and never truly interacts in the story. Most feature thin or essentially nonexistent plots; all have significant pacing issues. All were difficult, lengthy and featured awkward data systems that could be punishing, especially for players new to the genre.
However, “Final Fantasy IV” was totally different. First off, it was released on the Super Nintendo. Not only was this machine light-years more powerful than the Nintendo, it had a vastly improved sound engine. Nobuo Uematsu‘s score is one of the best-known video-game compositions of all time; IGN reported that the game’s ”Theme of Love“ is being taught in Japanese grade-school music classes. The graphics were a huge improvement, as well; while the overhead maps were nothing special, combat featured fully animated sprites and the menu screen was able to produce reasonably faithful interpretations of Yoshitaka Amano‘s lovely concept art.
Second, the story of this game is an actual story. There is a main character, Cecil, who had motivations, emotions and ideas. As he learned more about his situation, his goals changed. He interacted with his party members, many of whom would come and go as events unfolded. He has a love interest, Rosa. His best friend, Kain, betrays him, and he has to grapple with fighting his former brother in arms. The story provided a compelling reason to continue playing the game, and was interwoven with the gameplay to a much higher degree than was seen in previous RPGs.
The gameplay itself was more approachable, too. Players could save almost anywhere, instead of just at a handful of remote locations. In addition, dungeon difficulty was much more even; there were far fewer unpleasantly powerful creatures. Additionally, Square probably sensed that new players needed to be eased into an RPG — the company included a 64-page manual that featured a full walkthrough of the the first half of the game.
The game was a total revolution. While Enix, the producers of “Dragon Quest,” gave up on the North American market in 1992, Square was able to continue to release “Final Fantasy” titles here. While I adore “Dragon Quest” (I’ve got my American copy of “Dragon Quest IV” framed, seriously), Enix was simply refining its existing strategy with every new release. By taking the plunge with “Final Fantasy IV,” Square was able to redefine what an RPG could do and how it could weave a story into its gameplay.
This latest DS version is the first true remake of the game. It’s the first one to get new character designs, updated graphics and a gameplay face lift. In some ways, it finds a handful of major strengths; but in so many others, “Final Fantasy IV” has not aged well. Many of the conventions it debuted have been refined to the point that they’re a little jarring and awkward in this release.
The best example of this is the game’s most groundbreaking element — its plot. This remake is very, very faithful to the original. Even minor triggered events have been copied exactly; I had to smile as I counted the same three separate exchanges between Dwarven cannons and the Tower of Babil in the Underworld.
However, the original was entering into new territory, and its makers were obviously grappling with how long story sequences should be, how often they should show up and how they should be triggered. The result was that the original had very uneven pacing. Some scenes had too much tension; others had nowhere near enough. Later “Final Fantasy” titles are much more refined; the direct U.S. sequel to this game, “Final Fantasy VI,” shows a vast improvement, for example. We’ve had 14 years of more-experienced story telling; this entry definitely feels rocky next to more recent titles.
Similarly, while “Final Fantasy IV” was the first to really let its players decide when and how to save, its dungeon design its primitive. Some areas go far too long without a place to save; others are far too short. Some dungeons have backstories that make no sense (my favorite being the one-way waterfalls that are supposed to be a trade route), and almost all areas have a rare monster that’s nearly indestructible at the level that players first arrive at the area. Some feature the two-boss-in-a-row syndrome; most players who don’t know they’re about to stumble into a second, harder fight will become frustrated as their weakened and unprepared group is smashed by a boss’ second incarnation.
That difficulty is a defining characteristic of this version. Nearly all the monsters have been ratcheted up a few notches; all the bosses have been turbo-charged. Sometimes, that’s a good thing; boring, one-note boss fights, like the Antlion, have been changed to be much more dynamic. Other times, it’s a terrible thing; the Giant of Babil’s CPU is so incredibly strong that players will need a dose of luck to finish the fight. (That particular boss fight is preceded by another difficult and lengthy battle; again, unprepared players will suffer.)
Also, players of the original will notice that the combat system is a little choppy this go-around. The sorta-real-time combat this game features has been a hallmark of the “Final Fantasy” series since this title, but in every remake of the game — this version, the Gameboy Advance title and the PlayStation releases — they haven’t been able to get the feel of it right. There’s lengthy delays as characters attack, and throwing multiple attacks at once really show that the system is really just a more-flexible turn-based system.
However, a nice touch is the addition of newer abilities that characters can learn throughout the game. Some are very good, but what’s interesting is that none are game breaking. Rather, they change the flow of the fights, adding a much-needed new level of tactics. Indeed, obvious combinations — like giving a strong fighter with plenty of hit points the ability to draw attacks to himself and also the ability to counterattack — can prove to be problematic in some fights where a player may want the damage spread around the party. However, the implementation of the abilities is incredibly arcane. Some show up deep in an unrelated dungeon after players beat a certain boss monster; others are only available after players give some abilities to a character who will leave the party.
That kind of arbitrary item awarding is commonplace throughout the entire remake. In order to complete some sidequests, players will be expected to find ridiculously rare items. Other times, items are guarded by high-level monsters that are weak to an instant-death spell; most players are unlikely to get these items soon enough for them to be useful. It’s a holdover from the original game, as are the numerous “trick” boss fights — fights where a boss is incredibly tough until the character finds the trick that makes the fight laughably easy.
For a game that was originally meant to ease players into an ailing genre, the DS “Final Fantasy IV” is incredibly tough and demands far too much knowledge of the game’s battles and plot to really recommend it. Completionists and masochists will probably take to this game in droves; newer players will find it frustrating and occasionally infuriating. Players who enjoyed the original probably don’t need to walk down this particular road again, especially with so many other re-releases just down the road for the DS — the overhauled “Dragon Quest IV” is out next month, and the ported “Chrono Trigger” is coming soon, too.
It would have been nice to see the development team really take a new tack with “Final Fantasy IV,” to see them push it in a new direction and to try to reimagine the material. Instead, while this version is similar to the original by rote, it fails to capture its spirit. Still, if you’re looking for a challenging RPG that requires a little thinking and probably a few playthroughs to fully experience, this may not be a bad title to pick up.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Both comments and pings are currently closed.