If I was just judging the first five hours of this game, it'd be an instant 10/10. Seriously, it's such a large jump from the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Warrior games in terms of storytelling that it's amazing how we were able to play them (outside of any that let you make/change classes – that shit's fun) without feeling underwhelmed by a lack of detail in the overarching narrative! The Red Wings lead by Cecil, our main character, raid a village for one of the crystals not to save the world, but because the king of Baron is a greedy piece of shit who wants to use the crystals to increase his power level. But Cecil wonders if he's doing it for the good of Baron or if there's something more sinister afoot. So after essentially defecting from the Red Wings, the king sends him and Kain on a mission that appears to be a simple delivery to the village of Mist. However, shit goes down with Kain being sent elsewhere and Cecil, alongside one of the survivors of the horrible events in the village of Mist, needing to head to a nearby village to recover. Unfortunately, the Red Wings frivolously chase Cecil down as he finds a way to repent for all of the evil things that he'd done during his time as the captain of the Red Wings. Seriously, this is a great way...
...to start the game. However, there's still quite a bit of game ahead of us, and it's clear that the rest of the story just couldn't quite keep up with the first third of the game. That's not to say that it's bad or anything - it's still good, but whether it's due to a nuked translation or Square literally making it up as they go along, Final Fantasy 4 (or Final Fantasy 2 outside of Japan because the real 2 and 3 didn't get released internationally for years) seems to just have you go to these places because Square said so and apparently, it's a part of Cecil's revenge scheme... you know, because. Now, you can say that it is a part of Cecil wanting to right his wrongs; it's just that it seems like he and his comrades are pulled right underneath the world because there just so happen to be some macguffins there. Whatever, I can roll with this. But then comes a near endgame plot twist that makes one think that Square were just trying to pad the game out and went through a list of things that they wrote down after a night of huffing paint fumes. Not that I don't mind when writers decide to bust out some hallucinogenic drugs – after all, would Killer7 be worth anything if it wasn't such a bizarre game – but there's being weird, there's being over the top and ridiculous, and then there's just being stupid.
Maybe it's just me, but any time there's a character that appears out of nowhere that tries to establish itself at a main character at the last minute, all I can think is "are they trying for shock value or is this supposed to be a legitimately good plot twist". Usually, it's the former, and that's just stupid. Despite what shitposters on 4chan and hack writers will tell you, good plot twists not only shock you, but they're also well written and have at least vague hints towards that. That's why Who Shot Mr Burns worked so well! Even on repeated watchings, it's like "aww shit I didn't see that coming" because the writing's so good that I could, for a while, suspend prior knowledge and just sit back and enjoy it. Here, on the other hand, it's like "oh okay" with a deadpan expression, it's that lame. Okay, so we didn't quite foil Golbez on Earth... LET'S GO TO THE MOON-- oh there's more to it than that, that's cool I guess. It's a shame because the rest of the story was actually pretty good.
But shit, maybe this is a character driven experience, right? Well yeah. It is mainly about Cecil realizing the error of his ways and wanting to right his wrongs by saving the world. Another thing to consider is Kain – he's jealous of Cecil's success with the Red Wings and the ladies (well, just Rosa, but still), and given that he feels inferior, he's ripe for dark forces to take over him, especially if it means taking Cecil down. If you've played the Kingdom Hearts series, he's kind of like Riku, only it's original characters and not Disney characters either manipulating or supporting him. Cue Kain becoming Golbez's second in command and becoming something of a foil to Cecil, mainly because Golbez is quite a smart cookie and knows what he's doing. Okay, these two are deceptively simple characters and given what they do in the story, they're pretty good. What about the rest? Well... they're basically one note characters, but they're great one note characters, so there's no problem there. Whether they're quirky, boisterous or innocent, they manage to convey their personalities in ways that make them rather endearing, even if they aren't quite as interesting as Cecil and Kain.
But even with my criticisms in mind, one thing that cannot be denied is how groundbreaking this form of storytelling was – much like how Half Life popularized a method that allowed the developers to tell the story without the need for cutscenes, Final Fantasy 4 sure as shit pushed forward the idea that stories and characters were actually worth a *bleep* in the grand scheme of things by giving them extra care and attention... even if bits and pieces don't age that well. It doesn't end there, folks. Characters can and will leave your party either because they have to or because they sacrifice themselves to save Cecil from impending doom. You know, Cecil's got it made – not only does he have a hot chick to bang, but he also has people willing to die for him! Then again, during battles, he's willing to protect them and even take a blow for them, so I guess they're just paying him his dues. Except in battle, death is temporary... and sometimes outside of battle, death is temporary... *bleep*, I don't know, the writers just did a whole bag of blow each towards the end.
Regardless, THIS is how you do RPGs. This game places emphasis on the G portion of RPG as it plays pretty well, not like a fair amount of RPGs where the game itself is inconsequential compared to the role playing you do and would bore the *bleep* out of the player if there was no role playing (looking at you, Skyrim). It's the first in the series to use the ATB system where it's kind of turn based but it's kind of in real time as well. The best way to put it is that it's based on speed. Turns for your characters pop up throughout the battle and you have to select a command... and be quick, because enemies can attack at any time. Mind you, if you're picking a spell to cast, the fight stops so you can make your decision... I guess time stops while Rydia's trying to figure out the method of which she'll melt your face off – with the Fire spell she was once so afraid of, with acid or with the summoning of mother*bleep*ing Bahamut! Yuna, Lulu and pretty much every other mage in this series have wet dreams of being Rydia, folks – her only flaws are that her HP is kind of low and her more powerful spells can take a fair few seconds to cast, but she'll be performing fiend genocides well before that truly becomes an issue! Besides that, the change of pace keeps you on your toes a bit because enemies can and will wear you down, all so that they can prepare a grand feast for the boss of the dungeon.
Because enemies can chip away at your health, dungeons get a bit trickier to go through than if you were to play with a traditional turn based system. But things get trickier from there, and that continues with an erratic encounter rate. For a bit, it's like every step you take will has enemies guarding them, and for another bit, you'll be relieved to not be running into too many enemies. The further into the game you get though, the more that it's not so much you spotting them and wanting to take them down, as much as it's you blindly walking into monsters and in response, they pimp slap you in the dick. In other words, there'll be times where you'll get a lot of "surprise" encounters where enemies will attack you first. Thankfully, you can get the jump on them and attack them before they get a chance... not that you don't do that more often than not anyway unless you pussy out and run away from every fight and thus don't level up. Regardless, you have enemies chomping away at your hit points and you'll never know where they'll pop out, not to mention that you can only buy so many Cures, Heals and Ethers (potions, remedies and ethers respectively), so at least they give you a moment of reprieve by offering you a save room where you can use a tent that you bought from a shop to restore all your HP and MP.
That's mainly where the challenge comes from – utilizing what you have to beat the dungeon, and adapting to changing strategies. Each of the bosses and eventually enemies will play off of the ATB system by counterattacking you right after you hit them, whether your attack's element was strong against them or just because you hit them with your stick. At times, the bosses will force you to use certain tactics such as quickly switching your formation as you're attacked from behind to using an attack, getting one of the four Elemental Fiends out of its powerful Tazmanian Devil form, and even having to find a way around a dungeon's magnetic field rendering your metal equipment useless to fight a boss at the end that takes advantage of this. Of course, the infamous Magus Sisters with their deadly Delta Attack will be there to stop you, though thankfully, this isn't the trio that use Delta Attack on the first turn and every hit does 99,999 points of damage...
...but ridiculously overpowered superbosses that require 5000 hours of grinding aside, these bosses use real tactics to take you down. Counterattacks, strong attacks, capes that absorb elemental spells (Rubicante is cooler than cool, kids), and just generally making use of the new found fast pace thanks to the ATB system. Hell, the enemies smarten up as you progress, and before you know it, boss monsters become random encounters... ah well, it's the final floor of the final dungeon, might as well have Mystery Antagonist X throw the kitchen sink at you with a relentless assault of Behemoths and... various types of gasses that inflict status ailments to hopefully screw up unprepared players before they fight it. But really, while this game starts off easy enough, it stops *bleep*ing around a bit before the last third of the game. Enemies will be dealing more scratch damage to soften you and your bag of supplies up, and there's little you can do about it. It's a bit shit when you input a command and then the entourage of six attacks you, so you pray to the nine divines that you survive. Best case scenario – a healer is a healer, not an attacker... unless she has good arrows equipped. Don't forget that you can trapped in a certain dungeon after an epic scene and can't leave to repack – well, unless you reload your last save right before that scene. Wait... you did save right before that scene, right?
Speaking of scenes, Final Fantasy 4's graphics are passable, but nothing great or anything. It looks like an NES game but with 16 bit details like more shades and more colors to give off the feeling of depth. The overworld sprites are mainly squished in versions of their battle sprites. In fact, it's amusing to see that Cecil and Kain look like suits of armor with eyes. Even their battle sprites aren't too different from that description, though at least there's a bit more detail in those. The backgrounds are about the same – not too bad on the overworld, but definitely better in battle as there's just more to them. More color, more details; there's just more on offer. Sure, the overworld has a bit of mode 7 when you enter an airship, making it look like you're flying over the world, but that's probably the only possibly good thing about it. There isn't much else that stands out about it; neither positively nor negatively.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is where shit gets intense! While the songs are fairly short and simplistic, they're also pretty well composed and can get emotional when necessary. We're not just talking about ones that are sad during tragic events; we're also talking tense during those moments where it's like "oh shit they're doing what" or "will they really do that"; we're talking about songs that make the player feel like a badass as they either march through the final dungeon or when they set out to foil Golbez before he takes over the world (that Red Wings theme, guys); we're even talking that ominous feeling you get from that moon song as you explore it! Surprisingly, my favorite tunes are the ones played during battle. There's just a lot of excitement in these tunes, especially the one played against non-Elemental Fiend bosses (not that their's is bad – their's is more like an epic battle), and especially the final boss song. While later Final Fantasy games – particularly 6 and 7, as well as Chrono Mother*bleep*ing Trigger - have technically better soundtracks, there's still a high level of admiration to be placed towards this soundtrack.
It's easy to say that this game hasn't aged as gracefully as Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. Very easy. Those games had much more compelling characters with more depth (though Golbez is a much better antagonist than Kefka and Magus), more compelling stories, tighter battle mechanics and other things that enthrall players. But Final Fantasy 4 is special. It not only pushed RPGs more in that direction, but for how long it is, it has just the right amount of substance and then some to keep you playing and enjoying yourself. Granted, I thought the moon arc was *bleep*ing stupid, but that was only because everything before that was well done. In fact, my main issue with this game is that other JRPGs just took their cues from this game and did it better. Maybe they're easier games to play through via not challenging you quite as much, but it's the way that they're constructed versus how this was done that does this game in. On its own terms, this is quite a good game with some niggling issues and a braindead story arc towards the end. But ultimately, this is required playing for anybody who has anything resembling an interest in RPGs.