Final Fantasy IV Advance review
Dark to Light, A Wonderful Fantasy Emerges
I've never played a mainstream Final Fantasy game before. Yeah, let's get that out there straight away. I've never touched the older 2D ones and the 3D Playstation ones are just as foreign. The closest I've come are the spinoffs like Crystal Chronicles and Tactics Advance, but for all intents and purposes I had no idea what I was getting into when it came to Final Fantasy IV, other than it was a RPG from a series that has generated more love and hate than any other in the genre (except possibly Pokemon, but let's not go there). So I boldly charged into the fray with the hopes of a game that would sparkle among the other role playing games that I have played before it.
The first thing that struck me was the visuals, or rather the odd design choice made by the developers. The opening of the game before we hit the title screen is a beautifully rendered CG movie that basically depicts almost all the major players with some interesting sequences and a wonderful musical number keeping in time with the events. The style was approaching the level of the likes of PS2 games, although obviously held back by the DS hardware. While impressive, my first question was... why? Merely looking at screenshots or the moment you start playing the sheer difference in styles will hit you hard. As opposed to the realistic style of the opener we are instead greeted with chibi characters with oversized heads. Why give us a realistic opener if the rest of the game won't follow suit?
That gripe aside the graphics do a fairly decent job in bringing the game to life in its own style but there are times where the presentation suffers from poor design or oversights.
When travelling around the game world there are a nice collection of locations to visit. Sandy oasis towns in the middle of a desert, the crumbling ruins of a castle abandoned by its occupants for unknown reasons or water filled caverns with rushing rivers and amazing waterfalls cascading down the walls. Indeed the actual design and apparent quality of the interior locations is fairly impressive and makes exploring such a joy to behold. There's a lot to take in even with the overhead camera angle, as it is zoomed back and angled just right to offer a good view of the surroundings. The towns have a nice community feel to them with the various buildings, townsfolk, wells and other point of interest dotted around. The insertion of extras like rivers running through a town, hilly areas around the place and a general variation of layouts makes for some interesting looking spots. Dungeons often come themed, whether it's dark caverns, elegant temples, fiery passageways or marshy swamps. Sometimes the looks can make judging what is traversible terrain a little tricky but never so much that it hinders anything.
The overworld map used to connect various towns and dungeons is of a much more basic affair. While the world is filled with lakes, rivers, forests, cliffs and other common environmental features you just don't get the same level of detail you do in the interior locations. Towns and dungeons themselves are marked as scaled down icons representing the location. The style is reminiscent of games like Golden Sun, if any of you have played them. There isn't anything wrong with this style but naturally it isn't quite as interesting to explore.
Character models during exploration look quite nice when the camera is overhead. Firstly we have some very nice design choices. The dark path taken by two of the playable characters is reflected in the armour they wear, Rosa's clothing is just what you'd expect from a female healer in a game like this and Cid's appearance is the kind to stick with you once you've seen him. Each character has an appearance befitting their role and piques interest from the player. At the normal camera angle they look fairly nice too if you like the chibi style used for them, which may have to be something of an acquired taste. One issue with these characters though is when the camera comes close, either for a cut scene or a special battle animation, they start to look a little bland and even jaggy in places. The whole "face painted on" look becomes much more noticeable as well. It never becomes a huge eyesore but you will notice it.
During exploration the top screen shows the action and the bottom screen possesses a map. Initially little is shown of the map in most areas (towns and the odd important chamber being the exceptions) but as you explore more parts are revealed. In dungeons completing a map of a floor also offers a bonus reward item, serving as a nice incentive.
Battles can have their looks hit and miss as well. Typically the action occurs on the top screen with your party on one side and the enemy sitting pretty on the other side just asking for a good beating. Statistical information is displayed on the bottom screen showing your party's status, available actions and certain enemy information when one is highlighted. The stat information is pretty clear and while it could have been a little flashier at least you get the stats you need quickly so no complaints.
That's probably going to hurt.
The action on the top screen isn't all perfect as it could have been. To its credit the action is zoomed out enough that the whole battlefield is visible and participants look great. A lot of actions look great, with the spell effects standing out here. Watch as Slow causing whirling lines to encircle the target, Reflect causes a sparkling diamond shield to appear, Fire based spells will engulf the enemy in flames and transformation spells take their effect to turn characters into frogs and pigs. Rydia's summons are also visually impressive as she calls upon towering giants to unleash high elemental damage against her targets. The summon sequences are great but are also thankfully skippable for when they get to the point that you've seen enough of them.
The way the game shows status ailments or buffs is nice too. Hastened characters glow red, those inflicted with poison or sap will be crouched down as if near death and slowed characters will possess a darker shade. Just in case though, any status change is signified on the stats screen below the action.
Therefore my problem comes from the movement of characters. Certainly I can't gripe about the actual quality of the product. Animation itself is quite fluid and the actions properly conveyed, so a run looks like a run and so on. No, the issue is that often characters won't literally move to their intended target to attack them but rather find more value in hitting the empty space in front of the spot they apparently don't want to move off. Now, I can understand why spellcasters or those using ranged weapons wouldn't get up close with the enemy, but when Cecil with a sword or Yang with his fists stay rooted to the spot when using basic attacks it just looks silly. It's not as if it is impossible, as demonstrated when Kain uses his Jump ability to land on his target, so it appears lazy that all physical attack actions do not do this.
Now, I have already mentioned how impressed I was with the music number used for the opening, and unlike the visuals the general style of the audio is maintained for the rest of the game as well. While perhaps not as epic as the opener, the music used ingame follows along the same kind of fantasy themed sweeping scores the series is known for. Peaceful towns will greet you with gentle melodies while royal palaces possess more grandiose music when you walk in. Battles are accompanied by upbeat frantic music that exemplifies the nature of the combat and works surprisingly well. Each piece is generally suited to its own location as it truly gives off the vibe each location should have. However, the game does suffer from unwanted repetition with its track selection. Many tracks are used as the background music in multiple locations and the battle music doesn't really seem to change that often. Sure the music is good but hearing it too much led me to start zoning it out in my mind until it became background noise that I was no longer interested in.
By coming to the DS they have decided to grace us with voice acting, but the whole affair here is so half hearted that I have to wonder what the point of doing so was. Nobody would have expected every single piece of spoken dialogue to be voiced, but out of all the important cut scenes only a small fraction of them are voiced and of those some of them are too forgettable in their delivery with something that is too bland at times to really convey the emotions of the situations.
The story certainly gets the interest going here. While it might have been easy to have a typical spiky haired young boy discover epic hidden battles and work with friends to defeat a world evil while undergoing a coming of age trial, but FFIV moves away from such a cliche to give us a much darker story filled with much more depth than most video game stories could even dream of. Cecil the dark knight and commander of the Red Wings returns from a mission where he and his men ruthlessly attacked a village to gain their crystal. Cecil eventually questions the actions of his king and as punishment is relieved as commander and sent to deliver a ring to a nearby village, along with his friend Kain. The event that occurs there will completely change Cecil's goals and lead him onto the path of atonement.
The story here pulls no punches as it deals with many adult emotions and conflicts. Cecil himself finds himself conflicted over his dark past and his present aims; all the while seeking forgiveness for his blind actions while still holding a vague hope of saving the kingdom of Baron. Each of his allies that join him also possess their own troubles. Rydia's clan is wiped out due to the actions of Cecil but she joins with him for the sake of the world, leading to a trial of pain. Edward and Tellah join to fight the enemy who was responsible for taking away someone they hold dear; an action the leads to despair and blind revenge. It's not a generic save the world from evil plot. Each person has their own problems to overcome as they battle against the forces of evil. The dark side of the story really shows itself when it holds no hesitation to kill off important characters when it feels the need to do so.
Golbez serves as an excellent antagonist to the events. His motives remain a mystery even when he initially confronts the party and he shows himself as a pretty imposing figure as a towering enemy clad in dark armour. He uses his four archfiends to his advantage and manipulates the nations to reach his goals. He thinks nothing of killing people to get what he wants and the sheer ability he demonstrates to accomplish these things makes him a formidable enemy.
The overall tone of the dialogue is more like what you would expect from a game set in the medieval ages and it suits things quite well. You do have some rather colourful phrases banded about too, like "spoony bard" dished out as an insult, but odd humour moments aside the dialogue presents the seriousness of the story in a way that it needed to be.
If anything, the one fault with the story is the pacing. For a genre more often known for dragging out the storyline progression, Final Fantasy IV goes to the opposite extreme by having events occur too rapidly. It can make keeping track of what is going hard a bit hard and you'll find characters join and leave fairly quickly. This in turn makes it hard to care as much about some of the cast as they simply aren't with you long enough to elevate themselves much higher than the average named NPCs you'll find dotted around here and there.
Like any good RPG this game covers three major points for the gameplay - combat, preparation and exploration. Combat in this game uses the Active Time Battle system, which acts something like a compromise between turn based and real time system. Each character on the field has an ATB meter that fills based on their agility. Once full that character can choose a command to activate, at which point the meter starts filling with a new colour based on what command was chosen. A basic attack is almost instant, whereas unleashing a summon or using powerful skills will fill the meter more slowly.
This can't end well...
What this means is that not everyone will have an equal number of turns during the fight and you will still be under attack while selecting options and waiting for commands to activate once chosen (although you can choose to have the action freeze while selecting a precise command for a character and alter the battle speed). This piles extra pressure onto the player who must make critical decisions like when to heal on a more demanding basis. Sometimes you may need to select the heal command in preparation to heal the damage on an attack about to hit someone so that they aren't finished off while your healing technique is charging or you might need to be careful about when you time your attacks in case you need to defend against the enemy's next blow. Don't want to be left standing there when the big one comes to smash you to pieces.
Status effects play a very big role in these battles. Status buffs to your own party is common in the genre, so you can boost someone's speed, physical defence, resistance or cause spells to bounce off them. What is less common is how negative effects are handled. You can still fall victim to status ailments from the enemy, which can range from standard ones like poison and silence to more unique ones like getting turned into a pig. What I like here is that the enemies - including the big bosses - are actually susceptible to these as well. Potentially game breaking ones like pig transformation and the like aren't possible, but it's wonderful to see that I can actually cast Slow against a boss and have it work. Curing ailments early on can be a bit of a pain though as sometimes you won't have access to the cure all Esuna spell and the cure all items are extremely rare, which leaves you with the ailment specific items to try and cycle through during a fight.
The difficulty of these battles is something that can easily catch players off guard. Even early on you can come across generic enemies that can wipe the floor with you if you're unprepared, especially when you spend a good portion of the beginning without even a basic healer. In many locations you will even find a certain generic enemy that virtually screams at you to run if you bump into multiples of them in the same fight, whether it's them possessing instant kill attacks (not my healer!), status abilities that can wreck you or multiple target attacks that hit for high damage. This makes the run feature not so much an option for the cowardly but a necessary command for escaping from battles you would never have a hope of winning. This in itself requires a good judge of the situation, as the moment you realize a fight is a lost cause is when you have to start making a run for it. The escape command is unusual too, as you run by holding R, but the enemy can still charge their ATB meters and attack. Generally it's more reliable than the normal run away mechanics of other games though so I welcome it.
When you do finally make it past all those generics and are ready for the big boss you'll find the challenge stepping up a gear again. Boss battles are the kind of difficult where you have to know what you are doing to get anywhere, as firing off random commands is more likely to have your ass handed to you pretty quickly. Therefore it's not uncommon to lose every boss fight at least once as you try and figure out the patterns and weaknesses, and it's refreshing to see. There's no handholding in this game. You enter the fight, hold your ground as you figure out the best way to approach the fight while trying to counter whatever is thrown at you. If you die then you get right back in there with whatever information you managed to glean from the previous encounter. Needless to say the more casula gamer more accustomed to easier games may find this frustrating but it's the kind of challenge the market needs and a save point is usually nearby as well. A shame that skipping sequences that aren't voiced is not possible which can make it more irritating than it needs to be, so you'll have to make do with mashing A until the talking stops and the beatings begin.
Boss battles usually present some very interesting concepts as well. One boss has a terrifying attack that can be cancelled by hitting it with a certain elemental attack before it activates, another changes his resistances throughout the battle and one uses a technique on everyone on the field that causes healing and damage to go in reverse so attacking actually heals the target. Figuring out these tricks is what makes it so interesting and it also makes the player truly appreciate the elements system. Using an attack of a certain element will cause more damage if the target is weak to it or may heal if the target absorbs that element. Being able to cut battle times down simply by choosing the correct element will be a talent you will learn to master as reducing the time the boss can hit you with devastating techniques is vastly important.
Only the best equipment for our paladin.
Of course, proper preparation is a must too and you may well find yourself tinkering away in the menus setting up the party as effectively as you can. Equipment is important as with any other game of this genre. The game is not quite as heavy with its weapon selection as others, as I would often get an item of equipment and not change it for quite a while, but upgrading and moving about is still important to consider, especially when certain ones bring special effects into play. You'll also find that some characters will be able to use multiple weapon types, like Kain can use spears and swords, which extends the options without being too overbearing. You also have the option of positioning characters on one of two rows in battle, with front row people dealing and taking more damage while the opposite happens for the backliners. Inevitably this means your frail spellcasters take the rear while the tanks go to the front, although don't expect the game to be any less brutal for it. In all this didn't seem to be much of an option as placing your spellcasters on the frontline is just asking for trouble.
Skill setup is probably far more important though. Each character can have seven commands in battle, but three of these are permanently set as item, defend and swap rows. The other four can be chosen by the player from the available skill sets or even rearranging as you see fit, which will become vital as some characters (especially spellcasters) will gain a ridiculously long list of commands for certain abilities and cycling through them all to reach often used commands will be a huge pain for anyone. At first each character will only have enough skills to fill the four slots but later on it's possible to gain more and be forced to make strategic choices on what skills to have.
Mostly this comes from Augments. Each character learns skills based on their respective class, but augments are items that bestow skills outside of those options. They are single use and permanent so careful though is required when using them. Obtaining them is done by getting them off enemies, finding them in dungeons or receiving them from people. Characters that leave your party will usually leave at least one augment of their skills and may leave more if you gave them augments prior to that. This lends a tremendous amount of customization to the system as you can really hand pick talents for use.
However, this does come with its problems. Unlike most games you will find that character join and leave your party on a fairly regular basis and, aside from a handful of people, leaving characters are permanently gone. Anyone who caught wind of my blog entry will already know that this concept frustrates me, and since augments are permanent this means you could lose powerful skills you could have potentially retained had you given them to someone else. Only a few of these skills are overwhelming enough to warrant curses if lost (eg Doublecast) and it's not going to taint the gameplay too badly as you then just have to adjust to an entirely new party setup each time a change occurs but it still must be noted as an irritation. Another issue is that in order to gain specific skills as augments you need to give said characters a set number of other augments but this system simply isn't explained at all and thus making it too easy to miss wanted augments without having the prior knowledge.
Even ensuring you have enough consumable items will be a requirement and this provides its own challenge. While basic healing items are easy to get you'll find that others are a lot more rare. MP storing items can't be purchased at shops, and status items like spider web are equally as rare. Therefore while money is no object, the fact that a lot of goods can't be purchased means that item management is still a difficult task. You have to really consider if using an ether is worth it just in case you need it later on and this helps the game to avoid the pitfall of letting the player stockpile to carrying capacity on high yield support items.
A flying sailboat - a must for any fantasy adventurer.
Then you'll have the exploration side of things, and the dungeons will be the most challenging aspect of this. These places are labyrinth like in their designs, with multiple paths and routes on every floor. Although only one exit exists on each floor to correctly lead you to the next, other routes will lead to treasure so wandering off the beaten path is encouraged. The game's system that reveals the map as you explore and rewards the player with items (often of the difficult to obtain variety) further pushes the player to seek out every corner of the dungeon instead of running for the nearest exit. However, simply making a run for the exit is just as viable an option, as you have access to skills and items that temporarily reveal the full map layout of the current floor and thus potential exits and shortest routes to them.
Dungeon design can be quite sneaky at times though where even getting a glimpse at the full map may not help. Some areas will have floor exits that lead to treasure or save rooms, while others will have passages that are not marked on the map even when you discover them yourself. At times this can be a little confusing but ultimately it's part of what makes the game challenging. Moving away from linear choices, the game's open nature of the dungeons makes for interesting playthroughs.
The high encounter rate for enemies may in itself drag this back down a bit. While getting into fights may be part of the point, there come times when you just want to see what's in that furthest corner of the current floor, but when doing that results in about 4-6 fights you could have avoided then you may start to think it better to leave whatever treasure may have been waiting and simply push on. There doesn't appear to be any means of reducing the encounter rate either, which would have been most welcome and certainly would have kept the dungeon exploration at its peak.
Towns and castles lend a sense of intrigue, though perhaps not as much as the dungeons. Towns usually offer weapon, armour and item shops where you can upgrade and stock up on goods. Buying stuff feels a little mundane due to the excessive money you can build up though as it's rarely a case of wondering if you have enough for the next weapon upgrade. Inns exist for the purpose of healing the party and will see a lot of use. Then you can just wander around and chat to the locals about current events and see if any information gathered will be of use for you during your journey. Sometimes you might even be able to locate hidden treasure in both towns and castles, especially as these places are just as fond of unmarked passageways as dungeons are.
The overworld isn't quite as interesting as it lacks both the labyrinth and community qualities of the other types, but it serves its purpose to connect the various locations and sometimes you might still have to work the mind a little to figure out just exactly how to reach the next destination. One cave isn't accessible by land and your ship can't land in the forest, but the local villagers might have a clue about what to do. Generic battles are on high here as well, although when using vehicles you can avoid such conflicts.
Little sidequests and offshoots are around as well. Once you get a flying ship you can explore an abandoned castle for some treasure and face off against some difficult enemies waiting in ambush. These distractions aren't particularly massive but serve well in breaking up the main story with optional quests with some sweet rewards if you succeed, which is another element of trying to get the player to travel around the place a bit more.
There are a few little extras here and there that give the experience a little special feeling. When you access the menu you get to see the thoughts of the current lead character. This provides a nice insight to each person you get on your party and can even help if you're a little lost on where to go as chances are someone in your team will have a clue. Since you can switch the lead character at the tap of a button I found it interesting seeing just what their thoughts were on any given event.
Saving is handled extremely well too. Permanent saves can be done in the overworld and in set save spots in dungeons only, which gives you access to three save files. You can also make use of a suspend save anywhere outside of battle that deletes itself when loaded, which really is the kind of system any long handheld game like this should have, but even so it was very considerate of the developers to include it.
There is little emphasis on the touch screen in this game as you can easily get away with handling everything with the buttons, but then along comes Whyt. This odd creature is a summon for Rydia who takes her place during battle for a few turns and uses skills of other party members. By finding a fat chocobo you can play minigames based on five of the possible playable characters that use the touchscreen and while some of these are bland (Rosa's meditation is pretty boring really) you can get some entertainment out of them and playing them will boost Whyt's stats for battle. You can also redesign Whyt's face and challenge a friend's Whyt to a battle, although this experience isn't as long lasting as I would have liked.
The Fat Chocobo also presents some other options like the ability to re-see certain cut scenes or to listen to music that has played throughout the game. It's little extras like this presented in such a seamless fashion that adds that little extra sparkle to the game.
Final Fantasy IV is not without its flaws. The constant character switching can be annoying, the difficultly will drive away some gamers, the plot pacing is too fast and some of the visual choices will come off as odd. However, what remains is an excellent RPG possessing challenge for those seeking it, interesting battles, locations that demand exploration and plenty of little extra touches, and it is the likes of which the game markets wants. I don't know how it stacks up against its previous incarnations, but judging it as a DS game it is definitely a worthwhile adventure for any fan of the genre.
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