The definition of the word "classic"
I’ve been playing RPGs for eight years now. Ever since I found a copy of ‘Final Fantasy VII’ in the bargain bin at my local GAME, I’ve been hooked to the series, and I own every instalment of the central series released in the UK to date. As a result of this, you may expect my review to be biased. In all honesty, it’s not. Regardless of your position as a gamer, it’s difficult not to appreciate the fourth episode in this long-running saga, released here in the UK as half of ‘Final Fantasy Anthology: European Edition’. Despite some ageing graphics, a few minor conversion flaws and the notable competition from its more recent siblings such as FFs VII, VIII, IX and X, ‘Final Fantasy IV’ on the PlayStation is not only a testament to the SNES console, but a testament to great RPGs in general. It is still a playable and enjoyable game in its own right and it marks the start of the series’ real high point that sadly ended with FFVII.
‘Final Fantasy IV’ was originally released in 1991 on the Super Nintendo console. Better known as ‘Final Fantasy II’ in the US, the game never hit European shores in cartridge form. However, with the arrival of ‘Final Fantasy Anthology: European Edition’ in 2002 for the PlayStation, British fans finally have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with parts IV and V, and boy, was it worth the wait! ‘Final Fantasy IV’s story focuses primarily on Cecil, a Dark Knight and member of the city of Baron’s airship forces, known as the Red Wings. The game opens with the Red Wings returning from a seek-and-destroy mission in the far-off mages’ town of Mysidia, after having stolen the town’s crystal under King Baron’s orders. Dark Knights, airships, mages, crystals… any fan of the series will instantly feel right as home with the plot, which, while initially simplistic, becomes very complicated and significantly blurs the concepts of right and wrong. In this way, ‘Final Fantasy IV’ was the first FF to deal with the issue of morality, now a fundamental part of the stories of many FF games.
While the introduction (and surprising complexity) of the game’s storyline may be enough to bring nostalgic tears to many fanboys’ eyes, even the most hardened FF veterans will feel a rush of joy once they get into the gameplay of this instalment. It’s a standard FF affair, really. You control a band of adventurers (up to five at any one time in the game), and travel around the gameworld, solving puzzles, dungeon crawling, opening treasure chests, collecting and equipping better weapons and armour and fighting random battles before triggering a strand of plotline. Then you repeat the process until the next plot detail is uncovered, and so on and so forth. While it may sound simplistic and ultimately boring, many (myself included) find FF gameplay to be surprisingly fun, wonderfully addictive and, in the case of random battles, very deep and tactical as well.
Yes, random battles are once again a key part of the game. The very mention of these sends a fair few gamers running to the hills, tearing their hair out and screaming. FF has thrived off random battles, and FFIV is no exception. FFIV features a very sophisticated system whereby each character has a set of actions specific to their class. This system made a welcome reappearance in the more recent FFIX, and it makes for some incredibly tactical battles, and boss battles in particular. By effectively setting your party into front and back rows, you can have your most powerful physical hitters up front with your mages casting offensive and defensive spells from the back. It’s a great system and it’s been implemented into other FFs, although nowhere near as successfully. FFIV is also the first FF to feature the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, a feature in most of the FFs since. Essentially it provides a build up time for attacks, meaning that there are times where you’ll be exposed to enemy attack. It also more beneficial than turn-based battle from a strategic viewpoint, as it allows you to order and structure your attacks carefully. This is especially useful against bosses who follow certain attack patterns.
‘Final Fantasy IV’s gameplay is most certainly its strongest aspect. Unfortunately, being a straight port of one of the oldest SNES games around, its aesthetics leave a lot to be desired. Graphically, the game is sub-par. Everything is 2D and rather simplistic and ugly, although this shouldn’t be too much of an issue to long-term fans of the series who enjoy the top-notch gameplay, which is something FFIV has in spades. The game does have its moments, particularly in-battle with some of the magic spells and summons. However, on the whole the game looks old. Admittedly, it is, but Square Enix could have spruced it up a little for its UK debut, rather than leaving it untouched. The other aspect is the game’s sound. The variety and quality of the music is superb, with Nobuo Uematsu pushing the SNES to its limits. However, the sounds do appear to have a very tinny quality, which could be a result of the game’s conversion to PlayStation. It doesn’t hinder the gameplay at all, but it does rob the game of some of its original aural majesty. This isn’t the only niggle caused through conversion either: the Save function is particularly cumbersome. Rather than using the standard 15-slot approach of all the other PS1 FFs, ‘Final Fantasy IV’ emulates the SNES version’s Save function, using two memory card blocks to create a four-slot cartridge-style save. This results in very long loading times, and can be very annoying. You can’t help but think every time you load your game that with a little more time, this Save function could have been refined.
‘Final Fantasy IV’ has no hope of winning over the anti-RPG movement. The standard FF gameplay will be the dividing point for many gamers. Gamers who feel at home with steadily paced adventuring broken up with random battles and enforced by a strong plot will feel instantly at home with FFIV. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who prefer action-oriented games may not find FFIV to be their cup of gaming tea. It all boils down to this: FFIV plays very much identically to the later instalments in the series that we’ve all come to either love or hate. If you don’t like the other PS1 FFs, then steer clear of this one. But if you’ve enjoyed the series to date, you’d be a fool to pass up on this excellent slice of classic RPG gaming.