I hadn’t played Final Fantasy IV since 1991 when it was called Final Fantasy II on the SNES. Western audiences didn’t get the true Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III until much later in the form of PSP and DS games. As much as I love a good RPG, I rarely ever replay them once I’m finished. The time commitment is probably the main reason for this, along with my desire to experience something new.
When the time came to write about IV I came to a realization: I didn’t have any way of replaying the game. I still have my copy of II for the SNES, but a working SNES is the one retro Nintendo console I don’t have.
So I went down to my basement, re-enabled wifi on my PS3, lit a torch, and scoured the cobwebby Playstation 3 Store until I located Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection. Turns out, I had bought all the Final Fantasy PSX games except IV. So I plunked down the $15 and got to work on my replay.
A Driven, Albeit Familiar, Story
I was surprised how much of the story I remembered during my first few hours into the game. I seemed to recall the story beats from thirty years ago quite well. It all begins with Cecil, captain of the Red Wings of Baron, ominously returning from a mission (on an airship!) where he and his crew have clearly done things they are not comfortable with. War is hell.
This was jarring for me as a kid, and instantly captivating. First off—again—I was coming off the original Final Fantasy, as this entry was called Final Fantasy II in America. So I was going from the first game where I literally forgot the plot (Deborah Cliff Notes: Get 4 Crystals. Kill Guy), to a game that not only properly introduced the main character, but set him up as a conflicted anti-hero in his very first scene.
It was the first game where the story mattered to me. There were NES games I didn’t even know had opening cut scenes until many years later due to my mashing the start button in order to begin playing the game as soon as humanly possible.
And those cut scenes, done only with in-game sprites, managed to tell a complicated story of revenge, redemption, and love. We see a conflicted Cecil walking away from his King in one of the first scenes in the game, suddenly hanging his head. We know what he’s feeling without a text box, and that effective subtlety goes for all the characters in the game.
After being reprimanded by the strange-acting King, Cecil is sent to the town of Mist with his friend, Kain, to deliver a ring. To the horror of this one-man-job-being-done-by-two, the ring unleashes massive firebombs that destroy the entire town save for a young girl named Rydia. Fearing for her life, she summons a monster named Titan, who in turn causes an earthquake that manages to separate Cecil and Rydia from Kain as organically as The Force Awakens did with Kylo and Rey.
From there, the story only gets more complicated, adding new characters seemingly by the minute very early on in the game’s runtime. I remember saving the game for the first time after being introduced to roughly half the cast, and I hadn’t even logged a full hour of gameplay time. Part of the reason why this game became so well known and beloved is because it told a long, complicated story filled with a dozen characters, that ultimately boils down to these two plot points: Find Crystals. Kill Guy.
We’ve come so far.
Active Time Battles Are Go!
So maybe the story—at it’s core—didn’t evolve much. The same can not be said about combat. For the first time in the series we were introduced to Active Time Battles, which meant characters could take their turn once their Battle Meter was fully charged. Quicker characters would charge their gauges faster, resulting in more turns. This meant the slower characters would need to strategize what their play would be, often having to think ahead, factoring in whether they might need to heal up, or cast a defensive spell, or simply duck and cover. Personally, I love Final Fantasy at this stage in its combat evolution. Of course, my favorite game in the series features combat of the retro variety, so it’s simply a matter of taste.
Your party also features some characters with eclectic moves, such as Kain’s Jump, which causes him to launch in the air (and disappear for a few turns) eventually landing on his target, to deal higher damage. Then there’s Edward, the spoony bard, who can play a harp like the giant albatross that he is.
Is It Still a Sacrifice If You Don’t Actually Die?
The funny thing about Final Fantasy IV is that it’s notoriously somewhat of an easy game. I managed to beat it on the SNES as a kid. The random encounters seemed toned down on my replay, and it was definitely better than the Final Fantasy I remake, where you couldn’t take three steps without—* annoying battle sound *.
Sometimes it’s almost like the story in FFIV was getting in the way of the game, and this game was where story clearly started to rise in priority for the series. And just like modern Final Fantasy adventures, there is plenty of story to wade through such as character sacrifices, heel turns, double turns, double-reverse heel turns, retconned sacrifices, miracle recoveries, and many, many more crystals than ever before.
Strangely, most of the characters who sacrifice themselves for the greater good turn up alive and well later on in the story, lessening the impact those plot points had. Sure, Square would eventually learn how to kill off characters (and make their deaths “stick”), but for this entry most of the time characters can withstand any “death” through the sheer magic of soap opera-level plot contrivances.
Still, I think this is one of those cases where Final Fantasy IV was my very first experience with narrative in a video game, and I loved it. I was 14 when the game was released, and I had not yet learned about tropes, and cliches, and other terms people use to describe standard storytelling devices. To me, it was an evolution in gaming, a step forward. Having battle sequences that were predetermined, and used as an extension of the plot, was still new. A person playing this game today would most likely find it to be a standard RPG, when in fact it was highly influential, and inspired later games to go on to perfect the technique.
This is merely an objective observation, and in no way should be seen as a harsh criticism of the game. Final Fantasy IV is one of my favorite entries in the series, and I enjoyed playing it as much today as I did way back in the early ’90s.
A Forgettable Interlude and After Years
Remakes of the original version of the game have included extra dungeons, options, and additional gameplay. Clocking in at roughly 2 or 3 hours, Interlude serves as a bridge between IV and the follow up/add-on The After Years. I didn’t bother with Interlude, but I did play The After Years when it was released on the Wii Shop Channel. Sadly, the gameplay and combat were significantly dumbed-down, and the plot seemed inessential. If you’re a completionist, obviously you’re going to play these additions, but you will feel like you are simply going through the motions (which is what the people behind the content itself seemed to be doing).
I didn’t go into the plot of Final Fantasy IV too much because that would’ve caused this article to fall into the TL;DR category. What matters is that it’s a fun RPG to play. You can get engaged in the story (even if it seems silly at times), and at an average playthrough time of 23 – 26 hours, you easily get through it in a few days, or perhaps a week (depending on how much gaming you do on any given day).
It was the precursor to some of the best games in the series and paved the way for all JRPGs to change with the times. Gone were the days of NES boxes touting “Over 100 hours of [grinding] gameplay!” Getting your money’s worth no longer meant padding a game with busy work. That was a necessary evil in the 8 bit days, but with the 16-bit era you could do so much more while remaining engaged with the game.
Final Fantasy IV is one of those old classic games that—unlike the original Final Fantasy—is still fun to play today. With a bit of luck the game will be re-released on an active console so more people can experience its old school charm and style.