Story trumps high polygon counts any day.
Revisiting the earlier games in the Final Fantasy series is not always easy. Ever since Cloud hopped off of the train in Midgar, Final Fantasy has been synonymous with jaw-dropping graphics and flawless presentation. As the power of the consoles has increased, the maestros behind this series have consistently surpassed what players though their hardware was capable of. There is no way that Final Fantasy IV, known as Final Fantasy II when it came out on the SNES, stands a chance against these technical masterpieces.
Or is there?
The truth is, the rendered cutscenes, the lifelike polygonal textures, and the full orchestral score are merely window dressing; a simple distraction that dazzles the eye while distracting from the story underneath. At first, all of the missing eye candy is impossible to ignore; it takes time to adjust to the time when your imagination had to fill in all of the joy, sorrow, triumph, and tragedy that the simple 16-bit sprite animations and short dialogue sections couldn't convey. After a couple of hours, though, an amazing thing happens. You realize that even 1080p and 5.1 surround sound cannot compete with the power of your imagination.
FFIV takes a major step back from the increasing complexity of the franchise and focuses its attention on telling a great story. This was a huge risk to take. Gamers demand more, newer, and better elements in a sequel. However, FFIV plays much the same as its predecessors and in some cases simplifies its formula in order to focus on Cecil’s story.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the combat and character advancement systems. FFI allowed you to choose character classes. FFII eschewed XP and levels, instead advancing characters based on the actions you take in battle. FFIII introduced the job system, with dozens of swappable character classes from which to choose. FFIV removes all of those elements. Your characters are all pre-assigned to a class, each having its own special abilities. As the party levels up, they gain more HP, more MP, and maybe a new spell or ability. There's nothing else to it. This feels very primitive and confining, especially after joining materia, junctioning espers, and traversing the sphere grid. But, it keeps you focused on the story.
The trade-off here is that FFIV is very difficult, by the series' standards. Because you can't customize your characters, you're stuck with whatever skills they give you. In some cases this becomes particularly challenging, because characters come and go as the plot unfolds, leaving you with gaps in your party's skillset. Strategy is extremely important in every battle that you face, because acting incorrectly will cost you dearly. FFIV introduced the Active Timer Battle system, which is a twist on turn-based combat. You have to wait for each character’s ATB gauge to fill before you can select an action. However, your enemies don't wait while you select an attack; they'll mercilessly pummel you while you're trying to find the right spell. You’ll need to make quick decisions and have quick reflexes to keep from taking excessive damage. The system works well, and keeps you on your toes.
Though it hasn’t aged well in all respects, FFIV had a solid presentation for its time. As the first FF on the SNES, each character looks unique and is animated well. The art style is close to its 8-bit counterparts, but with more detail. You’ll spend time in many different locales, each of which is varied nicely, with lush and vibrant colors. You’ll fly on airships, ride chocobos, and pilot boats, like you’d expect, and meet plenty of NPC’s scattered throughout the various towns. The sound is also good for the time; you’ll hear quite a few familiar tunes throughout your journey. The dialogue is top-notch, though it had to be in order to tell the story well. A lot of the translation has been changed, for the better, which makes the story a little bit easier to follow in some parts. Fortunately, the infamous “You spoony bard!” line has been left intact.
FFIV will last you between 20 and 30 hours, which is pretty typical of an RPG from the 90s. Additionally, if you play the GBA port, which I did, it includes a couple of new features not present in prior versions. First, you can now swap out your party members late in the game. In the original, you never had this opportunity. The character sway is a very nice addition if you want to reunite with those characters who left you early on and see what they’re like at higher levels. Also, once you complete the main quest, a new dungeon opens up. It contains very difficult enemies, powerful equipment, and much harder boss battles. You might find that you don't have a lot of motivation to complete this area after wrapping up the main story, but it's a nice addition nonetheless.
Modern RPGs could learn a lot from FFIV. The game is relatively simple, even compared to its contemporaries. The graphics and sound, while on par with some of the better games from the SNES, aren't anywhere near the quality that we see today. On the surface, there should be little on which to get a modern gamer hooked. But great storytelling surpasses the technological limits of the medium on which its told. Countless modern technological marvels fail to impress as much as Final Fantasy IV.