Gameplay, Story and Value:
Disclaimer: For the sake of this review and project, Final Fantasy II and III for the NES do not exist. Final Fantasy IV is being reviewed as the western release of Final Fantasy II on the SNES and will assume that it is the direct sequel to the first Final Fantasy game on the NES.
For the western JRPG fan whose most recent exposure to this series was the first Final Fantasy on the NES, Final Fantasy IV can be seen as something that is both familiar, and also radically different.
From the music, menus, bright colors (title screen…) you’ll immediately recognize this game as the successor to Final Fantasy. This time, however, instead of building a party of rent-a-heroes and being sent of seemingly arbitrary quests, you’re thrown straight into the story of Cecil, Dark Knight and leader of the Red Wings, as he comes to terms with his recent actions in the name of his kingdom. Soon after you’ll begin meeting interesting characters who will join you on your journey. What starts as a fairly simple premise quickly escalates to the point where the fate of worlds lies in your hands. Allies come and go, villains show layers of complexity. and everything unfolds at a brisk at mostly satisfying pace.
It’s weird praising a JRPG simply for “having a story”, but for many people up until now the only exposure to the genre has been the “Take your sword and get out” approach of Final Fantasy I and Dragon Warrior. As a kid, I couldn’t believe the constant twists and turns. To have character joins up with me just long enough to get attached, only be lost was incredibly surprising to me, and I know I was not alone at the time. The moment Cecil renounced the Dark Sword and became a Paladin was, for a long time, the pinnacle of RPG storytelling for me!
Playing the game now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t help but notice some issues with what’s mostly a great story. Specifically, I feel like the way FF4 handles introducing (and writing) off many of its main characters caused some major pacing issues. As a character, Rosa was more or less an afterthought. Kain’s mind-controlling shenanigans were just a bit over the top, or at least could have been handled differently. Palom, Poram, Edward and Yang should have all been pulled back into the fold after their later “reveals”, as the surprise ended up being somewhat lackluster. Tellah served his purpose and Rydia was easily the most interesting and well-realized character of the group. Edge appears far too late in the game and comes off as feeling simply “tacked on” at the end… Even so, it’s very easy to just relax and enjoy the game’s story for what it is. Characters and locations are memorable and it all ends in a satisfying conclusion.
Mechanically speaking, Final Fantasy IV more or less set the baseline for 16-bit JRPG’s. There’s nothing incredibly impressive or unique going on with any of it’s systems; no classes to manage or interesting ways to learn abilities or anything like that. Instead, each character has a special ability unique to them, and characters who are able to learn black or white magic simply do so at predetermined levels. FF4 also introduced a proper MP system to the series, coming off of FF1’s daily use system based on P&P RPG’s.
Final Fantasy 4 is often heralded as the first RPG to use the Active Time Battle (ATB) system for combat. This works great for the most part, but not having ATB gauges can make planning in combat somewhat difficult, leaving a bit too much to chance in some cases. Aside from that combat is pretty fun and the game allows for a decent amount of strategy in various encounters. One very minor complain I had was by the end you’ll end up with a ton of spell bloat, as you’ll find that despite having access to several magics, you’ll generally only use 4-5 spells in total.
The later portions of the game allow for some exploration and sidequests which often result in powerful equipment and abilities. Some of these things are completely missable, but it’s well worth going out of your way for them. I will say that the random encounters can get a little out of control at times, and it didn’t take too long before I’d start running from every encounter once I was appropriately leveled for the area. Also notable in this regard was that no less than half of my encounters were either back attacks or surprise attacks…
Presentation, Music and Sound:
While Final Fantasy IV certainly doesn’t have the best graphics in an SNES RPG, what it does have are perfectly serviceable. Tiles all connect nicely together and there’s still a certain charm early visual styles of JRPG’s. Colors are bright and while sprites don’t have much in the way of detail characters are still unique and easily discernible from each other. My only complaints with the games presentation would fall be with a few UI quirks. I already lamented the lack of an ATB gauge in combat, but the menus could have handled using spells and items outside of combat a little easier. I also hate having a limited inventory space, though have item storage to compensate for that is a nice touch. Also a nice added convenience is the ability to rearrange spells! It was a great time saver being able to move my more powerful abilities to the top of the list for quick access, rather than having to wade through a bunch of now-useless ones to find what I needed.
I almost feel bad for not being able to gush over the music, but for the most part I just find it to be “very good”. Now, very good means very good, and even at its worst the music in Final Fantasy 4 is still very good. I think, for me, it just doesn’t resonate like tracks from other Final Fantasy games do. Sure, every track is almost immediately recognizable, particularly the Baron theme that’s playing at the start of the game, but they don’t really stick with me after the console’s been turned off. The exception here is, of all things, the battle music. I don’t know whether this speaks to the quality of the tune or to the amount of time I spent in combat, but whenever I try to think of Final Fantasy battle music FF4 is the first to pop into my head.
Sounds were perfectly fine, and more or less exactly what you’d expect from this sort of game.
It’s kind of cool to be able to point to this game and say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is THE game responsible for my love of JRPG’s, specifically those of the 16-bit variety. Before I moved to California, my only exposure to video games was by way of Super Mario, Mega Man, Sonic, Castlevania and other platforming and action classics. I remember a friend talking to me about Final Fantasy II and me having no idea what he was going on about. When I told him I’d never played it he practically threw the cartridge at me. I took it home and beat it after a few days… and I needed more. From there I was lent Breath of Fire, then Final Fantasy III, then Chrono Trigger, then anything I could get my hands on! I was hooked on the genre, and it was all thanks to this one game.
Playing through it again so many years later was interesting. Because of my innate love for this game, and all the memories I have attached to it, it’s the smaller issues that really stand out for me. Way-too-high encounter rates, mostly useless treasure chests, questionable character and story developments, problems with the UI… All minor things in the long run, but things I couldn’t help but notice.
All that said, for my first complete playthrough of Final Fantasy IV since I last rented it from Hollywood Video in the 90’s, I had a great time.