Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection review
That's one small step for man... and one giant leap for mankind
This is when Final Fantasy started getting really good. Let's recap before we begin to emphasize that fact - the first game was good for its time but was more about level grinding than anything as the story hardly existed until the last dungeon, the second game was overly ambitious with some dickish design choices amongst a good story, and the third game had some great ideas compounded by harsh difficulty. Where does Final Fantasy 4 get it right? By being a more character driven experience while introducing the ATB system that relies on quickness to add legitimate challenge to a game that otherwise relies on simplistic strategies. Through everything that it does, it opens up a new level of Final Fantasy, taking everything from the first games, irons out the flaws and plays to the strengths. It's not a perfect game, but it comes pretty damn close to the mark at the best of times and even at its worst, it's still a reasonably good game.
Oh and there's the direct sequel somewhere that I'll also cover in this review.
Final Fantasy 4 begins with our protagonist, Cecil... forcibly taking a crystal from a nearby kingdom and delivering it to the king of Baron. He questions why he has to lead the squadron of Red Wings to attack kingdoms carrying the four elemental crystals, which doesn't sit well with the king as he's stripped of his rank and sent on a seemingly menial task to deliver a package to a nearby village shrouded in mist. With fellow knight and best friend, Kain, in tow, Cecil heads off to deliver the package, and at that point, let's just say that shit hits the fan. From there, Cecil has to atone for his dark deeds by shedding his dark knight powers in favor of light paladin powers in an effort to slay the dark beings. Along the way, he'll meet with characters who will have their own reasons to fight alongside him, whether it's to help him outl (either under orders of a leader or because they want to be with him) or for their own personal revenge and/or atonement.
But it's not as simple as you'd think it is – enter Golbez, an antagonist who seems to be at least two steps ahead of you. He beats Cecil to the crystals, uses blackmailing techniques to get Cecil to do what he says, and he keeps his motivation a secret until the time is right. The best part is that he's such an imposing figure that, until he finally reveals his motivation for acquiring the crystals, you just want to kill him because you know he's going to do something bad with them, and he's already done bad things to get the crystals like destroy kingdoms. You've experienced an acqusition of a crystal; you know what lengths he'll go to in order to get the crystals. Not to mention that he's always got an ace in the hole in case somebody gets in his way, and he makes for a great antagonist. Yes, we all enjoy the antics of crazy Kefka and serious Sephiroth, but Golbez is pretty much my kind of antagonist. That's not even mentioning the late game plot twist...
I just love this game's story, and one thing that keeps the story compelling is its mostly tight pacing. Unlike the PS1/PS2 Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy 4 keeps the plot moving at a consistent rate. Dialogue exchanges are never tediously long - they essentially tell you what you need to know and play out the situations necessary to drive the story forward. There are also some entertaining exchanges here and there, especially from the twin mages (think serious sister and silly brother), and there's the famous “spoony bard” remark that was actually a stand in for a... ruder remark when it was originally translated, but if you're coming into this game expecting a lot of bantering, you're barking up the wrong tree. This is a serious story about conquering the darkness both from within and the outside with themes of atonement, revenge, self sacrifice and even friendship (without it getting cheesy) laced to provide a strong character driven experience – the humor is just there to keep things from getting too serious. This is especially when you start to feel for certain characters when beneath their personalities lies a tragic past, and then there's when a tragic event happens during the game that involves the deaths of characters. Yeah, you'll be grateful for some comic relief at that point.
Not even the women and children.
After the original game, you'll have the Interlude and The After Years to play with. The Interlude, which is exclusive to the PSP version, simply serves as a bridge between the original game and The After Years. It's quite a long bridge, though – roughly two hours long, if I'm not mistaken. It starts with Cecil having a strange dream about one of the crystal chambers involving Rydia and voices saying that it has a new form, and then the rest of the story just involves seeing everyone again while trying to figure out what this dream is all about. The only worthwhile thing about it is that it does set up the stage for The After Years, because otherwise, it's kind of a waste of time. It doesn't exactly develop the characters any more than any amount of time spent playing The After Years does, and overall, it just feels like an afterthought. It doesn't make much sense, either.
Then there's The After Years. It originally began life as a mobile phone game, made its way onto Wiiware and is a part of this collection, so like Final Fantasy 4 itself, it's been around the block. It's a series of tales about the return of the presence of evil and how our protagonists – whether they're from the first game or happen to be the kids of said protagonists – will stop them from destroying the world. It feels like a retread of the original, only you play as Ceodore instead of his father, Cecil, and everyone is older. This is as good of a time as any to mention that Final Fantasy 4 has a very likable cast of chartacters not just because of tragic pasts and believable motivations, but also because of personalities that work very well with this kind of adventure. Whether they're brooding, caring, honorable, serious or even a little immature to keep the player's spirits high, there's just a lot to like about these characters.
The After Years doesn't quite reach the mark – the new characters feel like wannabes of their parents or whatever character they happen to replace on the roster as they don't have quite as much personality in their dialogue. While people take issue with it being a rehash, I see no harm in doing that as long as it's done well... which it isn't exactly because the characters just aren't as compelling, nor as deep as their parents or younger selves, nor is the story all that big. It's not shallow, but it's not deep either. It's more in the middle somewhere, and being that inferior to the original does it a great disservice. I also take issue with it referencing the old game as often as a Seltzerberg movie references other movies – we get it, it takes place after Final Fantasy 4, now get a move on! Speaking of getting a move on, The After Years' pacing is nowhere near as good. It definitely feels like an episodic game as its pacing feels more sporadic than consistent. It's mainly a collection of character stories that tie together into an overarching narrative, but with some stop-start pacing that just wasn't present in the original game, and for good reason. I know that I'm sounding a little unfair, constantly comparing it to the original game, but all the nods it makes... just makes me think of the original game and how much better it was. On its own terms, it's serviceable, even good at times, but it's nothing that'll take permanent residence within your memory banks.
Oh, it's nice to meet you too, Rydia ;D
Final Fantasy 4 was the first game to make use of the ATB system where... well, back on the SNES, a menu popped up when it was a character's turn and then they use a command either straight after you input it or some time after, depending on how strong the attack is. The enemies seemingly attacked whenever they wanted.. within cycles of time. There were no bars to speak of so strategising ahead of time was out of the question. Thankfully, remakes since the Game Boy Advance one actually let you see the bars right by the characters' names so you'll know who's turn is coming up as they fill up. But anyway, the game operates at a faster pace while still keeping the menu driven battle system, trying to appeal to the crowds who like turn based systems and fast paced games. It isn't the fastest in the world, especially since the bars stop during attacks, while selecting spells or items, performing said spells or using said items. It can lead to some long-ish battles when enemies attack in packs and/or lots of spells are being used, particularly if the spells have long animations, but at the same time, it at least tries to the up the pace, which is something that I can admire. While it's to show that JRPGs can eventually operate in real time, a part of it was due to a lack of customization for your party.
It's funny when people complain about Final Fantasy 13 being linear and say “remember the good old days when it wasn't linear”, because Final Fantasy 4, despite the seemingly open world map and some sidequests towards the end of the game, is pretty damn linear. Throughout the game, you'll be given a set of party members who will come and go, all of which will learn specific abilities and increase specific stats when they level up. Given that this version is based off of the Game Boy Advance version, you can't play around with the Augment system from the DS version, so if you don't like what you're given, tough luck. Really though, the thing is that you're given a sort of rotation of characters, which - when given the ATB system – forces you to adapt to new things. New techniques, new set of stats, new strategies, and other things that are necessary in vanquishing your foes; yeah, it doesn't offer anything in terms of customization, but in going with the story, it manages to work out quite well. To further mitigate it, you don't really need to grind. As long as you fight most of the battles that you encounter – and the encounter rate tends to fluctuate between every two steps and rarer than a unicorn's left testicle – you'll find yourself at the right level to survive against bosses. Still, said bosses can be tricky dicky unless you're grinding like you would in the earlier games as they tend to unleash some fast and furious attacks that can deal quite a bit of damage.
The further into the game you get, the more you'll have to balance out attacking with healing and perhaps some defensive spells. Bosses and even enemies incorporate more damaging moves, add some status inflictions like poison, confusion and even toad (you turn into a toad, can only use items or attack with a piddly sort of lunge attack), and wind up walking all over you if you don't keep your wits about you. There are also counter attacks to keep in mind as some bosses and enemies will automatically hit you back if you hit them either with certain attacks or any attacks, forcing you to think a bit more about your method of attack and covering your ass. Still, it's far from a challenging game unless you intentionally keep yourself underlevelled, but at the same time, it's challenging enough to keep you engaged on a gameplay standpoint as item management and survival against barrages of random enemy encounters is tantamount to success, all the while fighting a boss that can still hit hard and will require some quick thinking in order to remedy any given situation. If you want to see why people find Final Fantasy 4 so challenging, I'd highly recommend playing either the original Famicom version or the DS version.
I've often wondered how Yang's kicks bounces him off of the heads of Gargoyles... until I remember that it's just Nintendo logic at work.
The After Years adds a few things – one such thing is known as Age Of The Moon. Depending on the moon phase, certain things will be more effective while certain other things won't be. For instance, a full moon would make your regular attacks stronger while weakening your Skills (or your characters' signature moves like Jump or Ninjitsu commands). Oh... and it affects your enemies and bosses, too. Yep, they can get stronger or weaker depending on what kind of attacks they use. After either 30 minutes of game time, sleep in an inn or you use a tent/cottage, it'll go from one moon phase to the other. It's also somewhat interesting how certain enemies only appear during certain phases in the moon. The thing is, it's easy to exploit if you have some cash to stay in inns or to buy and use tents. It's a potentially interesting way to try and keep you on your toes as you play through the game, but unless we're dealing with specific characters, the difference isn't really significant enough to change the game and force you to adopt completely new strategies.
Another cool new feature is the Band Attack – one where two or more fighters can use an attack together to deal a good amount of damage. Just search for Bands and then input the right commands between the two (ie. One character inputs attack and the other inputs White Magic), and there you go, a powerful attack that costs the users a bit of MP... although when it's at the cost of a dedicated healer's turn at a pivotal point in a fight, it's probably better to either Band with whoever isn't a dedicated healer or just have the other fighter use regular attacks. If there are any other differences worth noting, it's that the bosses seem to be a bit harder with higher stats than expected, possibly to placate towards the Band Attack. At the same time, there are maybe a few instances where it's useful, like when your two bruisers can combine their attacks as a sort of desperation move or whatever, and beyond that, like the original game, The After Years tends to challenge you more in the sense of knowing when to attack and when to heal rather than with raw stats. Still, it, like the original game, really only challenges you via some item management against sets of random encounters while forcing you to think on your feet.
Use the power of DUAL STATIC MOVEMENT!!
There isn't much to be said about this version's graphics that I haven't already said about the first two games' graphics. The sprites, the environments and the FMVs are in as high of a resolution as it gets on the PSP, and they look brilliant. Granted, it doesn't use 3D models like the DS version uses and I'm sure they were considered great back in 2008, but in 2013, eh, they look very low res, even by DS standards, while the PSP version looks clean, slick and very colorful. Whatever animations there are are fairly smooth, but then there's the thing about there not being many animations. Ah well, that's an old school JRPG for you. There are some FMVs present and while they they're usually brief, they're pretty good with some solid texture work and smooth animations.
The soundtrack is fantastic. Instead of the compressed MIDI stylings of the Famicom/Super Nintendo version, we have a live orchestra playing out the soundtrack... at least, if you so desire. See, the game lets you choose between the rerecorded music (courtesy of the DS version, actually) and the MIDI music, so it's basically bigger and modern versus small and nostalgic. It's your call, although it's really sound quality that differs between the two because they're both fantastic soundtracks. Whether it's the calm overworld, the curiosity inspiring yet somewhat haunting cave theme or the exciting battle themes – and this game has, hands down, the best boss theme in the series due to how fast paced and bombastic the composition is – it has no shortage of tracks that'll draw you in, but what'll grab you by the testies is the more emotionally driven songs. These songs manage to pump in just the right amount of emotion during any given scene, whether it's a dramatic song or a sad song that involves death and/or a major plot twist, or a happy go lucky song usually involving airship fixing and some comic relief. Really, Nobuo Uematsu knew exactly what he was doing while composing the original soundtrack. Even the 16 bit original version draws out emotions; the big orchestra, without getting compressed, just makes the impact that much bigger.
The short and narrow of it all is that Final Fantasy 4 is the step that the series needed to take. It streamlines the difficulty enough so that while there is a challenge, it's more from enemy and boss strategies and item resourcefulness than grinding as you don't need to grind much if at all to be strong enough – just don't run away all the time! It places more emphasis on the story and the characters that you'll spend your time with, allowing you to get more invested into the game. It's with these bold steps forward that Final Fantasy evolves from a basic dungeons and dragons-like game to an experience that you sit back and feel a little something for. You explore whatever villages, towns and castles you happen to drop into in order to interact with people, either to talk about the quest or learn more about where you are. Sure, towns are really just areas where you buy supplies like items, weapons, armor and accessories to buff up your stats a fair bit, but the way that this game is set up allows you to invest yourself into the world. Because of this, your journey to defeat Golbez is one that's full of emotional highs and emotional lows while you take down the various monsters that get in your way.
In retrospect, Final Fantasy 4 deserves a 9/10, and it's not an honor I like to bestow upon any game. At the same time, having The After Years on the same UMD disk or download drags it down a bit. On one hand, it's great that English speaking PSP/Vita owners lacking a Wii can experience a direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game – whether it's a game like X2 or a movie like Advent Children - that isn't complete crap. On the other hand, it just doesn't compare to its predecessor and is only remotely successful because Final Fantasy 4 is a successful game. I like the additions that are made like the moon phases and Band Attacks, but they're not huge game changers if you know what you're doing and on the whole, it feels like a lesser product due to the scaled down story with less interesting characters and just some other things, really. Again, I know I'm being unfair to what amounts to a reasonably decent sequel, but it had a pretty tall order to follow up on and it only stands at about 5'6. Constantly rehashing areas and enemies is one thing; rehashing bosses just shows a lack of creativity and like I said with The After Years' story, when I'm constantly reminded of a better game by a game that's only really decent at best, you can logically assume that it's not exactly gearing up to be a classic.
Bugger it, I'm giving it a 9/10. Just play Final Fantasy 4 and pretend that the Interlude and The After Years don't exist.
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