Saturday, September 06, 2008

DS Review: "Final Fantasy IV"

The box art for this game is kinda boring, but the box itself is shiny!

As somebody weaned on Square RPGs since the age of 9, it might be surprising for some to know that I have never, on any level, played Final Fantasy IV before picking up the recent DS remake. At all. The closest I got was playing a bit of the beginning of the Advance remake, but that was after my house burned down and I think I've blocked out the memory. Either way, I have often felt somewhat dirty in admitting my ignorance of FFIV - as someone who grew up on Final Fantasy and still loves the series despite its many awkward flaws (and there are many), having not played what some might call the Final Fantasy for so long is just ridiculous. I mean, considering the amount of times I've re-played VI, VII, and - guiltily - VIII, not to mention Chrono Trigger and Mario RPG, why couldn't I reserve just a little more time for the RPG that started it all?

Maybe it was the erratic remakes Square loves to churn out. Maybe it was 'cuz I only had an old crappy GBA without a backlight. Maybe it was 'cuz I thought the early SNES graphics were too primitive. Maybe it was 'cuz the original US translation is universally reviled by hardcore fans, and I'm not too fond of online fan translations. There are many many reasons for me never playing this game, each one more shallow than the last.

But finally I picked up this 3D Nintendo DS remake of the game, with a Best Buy gift card from my uncle. It was an impulse buy (or is that not possible with a gift card?), probably the most rewarding impulse buy I've had in a while. While I was a little worried that FFIV DS's new 3D sheen would diminish the charm of the original game, those worries were dusted away the moment I started guiding Dark Knight Cecil around Baron Castle, with Nobuo Uematsu's Theme of Baron playing in the background. Yes, even with the 3D, this really felt like Final Fantasy - or at least, how Final Fantasy used to feel.

You know what I mean. Silly fantasy-book characters. Giant world map filled with random enemy encounters. Villages burning down. Kingdoms under siege. Summon monsters and human beings just trying to get along. Monstrous boss-fights with that fist-pumpingly-epic Uematsu score making everything sound cooler than it already is. Everybody learning a lesson about life at the end, with just enough time to fight the Sum of All Evil in the Middle of the Universe. Yeah, some could call this nerdy and lame. I get a goddamned hard-on from it.

Lookit that diff'rence!

There's not too much to say about the gameplay here - if you know how most early-90s turn-based RPGs work, you'll know what to do here. Modern Final Fantasy fans should note that this game was the first to employ the Active Time Battle system, removing the usual "wait till your turn"-style gameplay in favor of making the player choose their potions REALLY FUCKING FAST HURRY UP OR THAT PURPLE GUY'S GONNA KILL EVERYBODY. It's a formula that Final Fantasy used up 'till FFX, where turn-based battling miraculously came back for a little while. Nevertheless, it's one of the most widely-imitated battle systems in RPG history, and for me playing another game with it is like going home again. It's such a fun, tried-and-true formula that I can't get enough of it - where pure turn-based combat can feel a little methodical, ATB gives yah a little kick of suspense.

Now let's talk about plot, please, because Final Fantasy IV was probably the first Final Fantasy game (and one of the first console RPGs overall) to have a serious, character-driven storyline that kept developing while the player advanced through the game culminating in one big fat plot twist at the end (hint: there's MOON PEOPLE). Now to modern video gamers, FFIV's plot is probably no great shakes. It's overdramatic, silly, cliche-ridden, and it ends with MOON PEOPLE, so I don't think you're going to catch many people sitting down drinkin' a Corona on the beach and playing FFIV for its plot alone. Having said this, I find the plot nothing but charming - harmlessly charming. Maybe because, deep down, I miss silly plots like these and find them very sweet. There's a lot of characters here that just beg to be endeared - the affable airshipman Cid, the wussy bard Edward, the proud monk Yang, or the befuddled old dotard Tellah will all wiggle their way into your heart (that is, until all these fun characters eventually leave your party and you're stuck with five dully-serious dudes at the end of the game... whoops, more spoilers!!).

If you love crushing moral ambiguity, you will love Cecil.

If you're looking for a Final Fantasy game with a more developed plot, jump on the FFVI train and never look back. Even as an adult, and even with its obvious flaws, I love the plot and characters of FFVI wholeheartedly. But to be fair, in the case of FFIV, I can see why people would love its plot game growing up. It's not gonna win a Peabody anytime soon, but it'll rope you in and make you actually care about what happens next. Maybe it's just the gameplay? Who knows.

So yes, the plot is fun if not a little too dour for my tastes. Maybe the one absolutely indisputable aspect of Final Fantasy IV is its music. Oh God, the music. Do you realize what kind of a roll Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu was on in the early 90's? Motherfucker was on a tear. The moment you boot up FFIV, you hear his gob-fuckingly great Red Wings theme. Then the Baron theme. Then "Theme of Love," now used to teach Japanese schoolkids how to play clarinet or something (no really, Google it). Then the overworld map theme. Seriously - no hyperbole - every single theme here is memorable. If there is ONE aspect of Final Fantasy IV that will suck you into the game RIGHT from the get-go, it is the music. This was Nobuo Uematsu's first Final Fantasy score on the SNES, and right from the bat the guy was the undisputed master of the SNES sound chip (to be utilized to its greatest extent in FFVI). And it all sounds lovely on the DS - I heard the GBA version compromised it a bit, and I hear no problems here.

Hey, if you're just a video game music fan, don't buy the game! Just buy the soundtrack!!

...okay, that's really not fair at all.

Either way, I hope most hardcore FFIV fans enjoy this DS remake as much as I have. Maybe I've been sullied by playing a bastardized 3D remake first before even touching the original pure 2D, I don't know. There's no way for me to know that. What I do know is that Final Fantasy IV on the DS is a very attractive game. Characters are rendered in a cartoony style, more like what you would imagine the original cartoony 2D sprites to look like in 3D - which is why I like it. Whenever I see older FF characters rendered as anatomically-correct human beings, it just takes me right out of it. There's some new high-falootin' Augment system in this remake that probably makes no sense to players that swore on the original; I only understood it 'cuz I used a GameFAQ. You don't have to do that. It's not necessary to beat Zeromus or anything.

But hey, I really like Final Fantasy IV! I should have played it earlier! It took me about 40 hours to get through, plus sidequests, and it felt like a breeze. You'll never get bored, and you'll barely ever have to endure constant level-grinding, something that hampers even the finest entries in the Final Fantasy series. But despite its breeziness, it's also challenging as all hell - especially in the lead-up to the last boss where every random encounter is pretty much a boss fight. But man, it's fun! Wastes a lot of your time in a GOOD way, like all RPGs should! A perfect way to relive your childhood and burn your precious DS lithium battery to the ground all at once. Buy now!

1 comment:

emi said...

Oh my god. But this is the best FF ever. Like EVER. As in, I still dream about it.