Friday, October 3, 2008
Harmony is realized in this alternate tale of Final Fantasy, developed by Square Enix. Not a sequel nor a prequel to the popular series, Final Fantasy Versus XIII unfolds a wholly independent story in another part of the universe with different characters. Set in a futuristic fantasy world resembling elements of modern day Japanese cities, Final Fantasy Versus XIII revolves around a prince, the last remaining member of a royal family, which controls the last crystal in existence. With two warring nations battling each other for dominance and the last crystal held by the kingdom, you must ensure it remains in the right hands.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
People have been whispering it since Final Fantasy VI. They've been discussing it since FFVII. And with FFVIII, they shouted it from the hilltops.
"Final Fantasy is no longer a legitimate RPG."
See, there's that little problem of the "G" in "RPG." Which, if you don't already know, stands for game. Yes, the series offers a cinematic experience unrivaled by anything on any system, with astounding visuals, epic stories, memorable characters and stirring music—but as a game, Final Fantasy, well...it's not much of a game at all. It's, gasp, an interactive movie. Yech!
Or so they say. I, of course, wholeheartedly disagree. But here's the thing: These nattering naysayers are actually partly right. Final Fantasy has indeed become a Hollywood-level extravaganza, an event game, a big-time blockbuster that pushes far beyond the borders of its medium. And FFX is no exception. In fact, the latest in this series may represent the ultimate evolution of the role-playing game to what can only be called a role-playing experience.
And that's just fine with me, because when it comes down to it, FFX is among the most entertaining overall experiences that I've ever had with a video game. Which is all that really counts.
At the heart of this incredible experience is FFX's fantastic story. Now, Final Fantasy has always been known for its deep, twisty, thought-provoking plots—but FFX tops its predecessors by having the tightest story yet. Deftly steering clear of the problems of past Final Fantasies, FFX avoids the abrupt turns, the heavy-handed melodrama and the meandering nature of older titles. Don't get me wrong—FFX is still full of sentimentality, with plenty of heart-wrenching scenes that'll have you furtively reaching for a hanky. But this time the story is told with a laser precision. There's an economy to FFX that mirrors the best movie scripts: Things always happen for a reason—even if they're far from apparent at the moment. Every detail adds to the big picture, and the key moments are much more poignant for having been built up so well.
FFX also has a remarkable cast that rivals even the fine ensemble of FFIX. Foremost is Tidus. Yes, he's a jock—and therefore the bane of most gamers' high-school lives. But he's the "good kind of jock"—you know, the guy who sticks up for the hapless nerd who gets stuffed into too many gym lockers. He may be more athletically and charismatically endowed than you'll ever be—but don't hold that against him, because he really, really wants to do the right thing. Yet Tidus isn't just a stereotypical boy scout, as his youthful eagerness is tempered by a barely subdued anger bubbling just below the surface. Like all the major characters, Tidus is well-drawn and well-rounded, going far beyond the typical RPG archetypes. Tidus also continues to grow and change throughout the game—as do his friends—which further drew me in to his struggles, his world and the quest he's on.
All of this gets an extra breath of life thanks to the excellent voice-acting. Leading off the pack is James Arnold Taylor's spot-on portrayal of Tidus. Taylor finds that tricky balance between bright-eyed exuberance and existential fatigue, and he ably expresses this difficult mix throughout the game. His performance is matched by other top-quality portrayals that extend from the stars (my favorite being Tara Strong's utterly adorable Rikku) all the way down to the bit parts. It's just too bad that Yuna's voice doesn't live up to the others—especially since she's the game's co-star. Voiced by actress Hedy Burress, Yuna speaks with a forced breathiness that never rings true. Even worse, her obnoxious overusage of the pregnant pause had me thinking that she graduated from the William Shatner School of Voice Acting—and has since gone on to be a tenured professor there. The other problem? At times it's too obvious that the U.S. voice-actors had to match their performances to the already-rendered on-screen action, creating scenes where the dramatic timing can be a bit off.
But these flaws stand out only because the game is such a dramatic masterpiece. As I said before, the story is the tightest one yet, with a clear focus and a well-constructed narrative arc. Along the way, you're treated to numerous stirring scenes, some rich with celebration, others fraught with peril, still others imbued with breathtaking beauty. Many scenes stand out, but one in particular comes to mind. It starts off early in the game, right after the major blitzball tourney, with an embarrassingly melodramatic sequence. Much later, though, the story returns to that moment via a flashback, and in the context of all the startling revelations, this once-cheesy moment is suddenly suffused with poignancy, dripping with nostalgic wistfulness. Wow. Now, that's an achievement. I mean, how many games have the sheer audacity to reach back into their own depths, pull out a wince-inducing scene, and then pull off the amazing feat of changing the very tone and relevance of that moment? That takes courage.
Which, of course, all adds up to one fine role-playing experience. But what of the gameplay? Well, despite being an "RPE," FFX still packs in more quality gameplay than most RPGs could ever hope for, with the finest battle system yet for the series. The all-new Conditional Turn-based Battle system injects a much-needed dose of strategy into the combat, forcing you to really think your way through some of the tough boss fights later in the game. Even better, you can now switch in any of your seven allies whenever you want—which you'll need to do in order to get through the game. These upgrades fix two of my biggest gripes with the series. First, you no longer have a cast of unused characters; you really do need to use everyone at all times. Second, the pacing of the battles is much better. The artificially induced panic of the constantly ticking clock from the old Active-Time Battle system is gone, replaced with the more relaxed but also more challenging CTB system. Routine fights go by quicker if you choose the right characters to square off against the right monsters. The boss battles are more complex. And combat is much more dramatic.
This CTB setup is perfectly complemented by FFX's innovative new Sphere Grid. Turning the notion of experience points on its ear, FFX offers a purely visual interface that you navigate using items gained primarily through battle. What's so brilliant about the Grid is that it offers an enticing illusion of free will. Each character starts off at a different point on the Grid, and as such is limited in his or her choices early on. Wakka, for example, is a heavyweight brawler, while Lulu is your black mage. But as you go on, you start to open up the Grid, unlocking all kinds of possibilities. Yet even during those early stages, the visual setup and the appeal of simply fiddling around on the Grid made it feel like I was building up my characters from scratch in the manner of my choosing—even though that's far from what was going on. As a longtime FF fan, I found the Grid to be the perfect balance between the free-form job system of FFV and the more regimented class systems of games like FFVI and FFIX.
As you'd expect, all of this can get quite complicated later in the game, but FFX eases you into the action with a gentle but extended learning curve. In fact, it wasn't until 18 hours in that I finally was able to customize my weapons—and that still wasn't the last new thing I learned. By the end of the game, hardcore players will be happily plumbing the depths of FFX, while more casual gamers will be ready and able to handle whatever's thrown at them.
The best Final Fantasy yet? Undoubtedly. I might have liked the cast of FFIX better. Other "more hardcore" types may still prefer FFV's battle system or FFVI's story. But as a whole, this one can't be beat. From the plot to the graphics to the unparalleled gameplay, FFX is light-years beyond anything else. Whether you see it as a role-playing game or a role-playing experience, FFX is one of the best overall experiences out there.
Each installment of the Final Fantasy series has featured strong storytelling, characterization, and strategic combat, fun minigames, and hours upon hours of captivating gameplay. The 10th title in the series is no exception. This is the first time a Final Fantasy game has appeared on the PlayStation2, and it takes full advantage of the increased technical capabilities.
The story this time concerns Tidus, a blond-haired star of a sport called Blitzball. While he is playing in a match, Tidus's city is attacked by an evil force called Sin, and everything is destroyed save Tidus and his guardian Auran. The adventure begins as the pair are somehow transported to another world. From here on, it's standard Final Fantasy gameplay: fight battles, manage experience points, learn new powers, and recruit a motley crew of nonplayer characters to join your quest.
The graphics, however, take things to a new level. They are amazing not only for their realism, but also for their imaginative art design. The world these heroes inhabit is breathtakingly beautiful, flowing, and full of inventive surprises. You haven't lived until you've surfed cables high in the air, or ridden a graceful airship through the clouds. The stunning effects are on display when you use magic in combat, summon gigantic monsters, and use fire columns to devastate your foes.
One new element is voice acting. The innovation yields predictably mixed results: it's wonderful to hear spoken dialogue rather than read subtitles, but as with most games translated from Japanese, the acting is mediocre and sometimes unintentionally hilarious.Still, the game's new graphics engine and solid gameplay are sure to please fans of the series waiting to see what Square has in store for them. While Final Fantasy X doesn't offer much innovation, it also doesn't disappoint. And fortunately, with Final Fantasy XI already in development, the title is still a misnomer.
As with the other games in the series, Final Fantasy IX has the ability to grab your attention from the time you fire it up until the last boss is put down. Previous entries into the game's lineage took a more dramatic, cinematic route to do what a role-playing game does best--tell a story. That style led to some complaints from headstrong fans and role-playing gamers alike. In response to this, while not sacrificing what new technology they've built into the series, SquareSoft has backtracked a bit. To put it simply, they've gone back to their roots while forging ahead.
When we last left the Final Fantasy characters, Princess Garnet was starting to break out of her shell and put to rest the notion that she was a snob. The kidnapping attempt by Zidane, oddly enough, started a few new friendships. Story elements continuously roll on, never leaving you to wonder for too long. Vivi, you may remember, started out as a Black Mage, and the Queen of Alexandria's story was left far from finished as well.
But even players with no experience in this series can pick this up as a new game. Final Fantasy IX's story follows a group trying to stop Brahne, the evil Queen of Alexandria, in her quest to rule the world. Zidane, a skilled thief, teams with a young mage, a royal knight, and a princess, who all soon discover that the queen's threats are fronting an even more sinister plot involving a powerful sorcerer named Kuja. It's your job to control the eight playable characters--each of whom begin the game with one weapon, one piece of armor, and one special power--and to uncover Kuja's motives before he carries out his deadly plan.
The game's opening sequence sets the stage for what's to follow and, as we've come to expect from the CG wizards at SquareSoft, what is an utterly amazing visual scene. Long-time fans should go ga-ga over SquareSoft's decision to return to the disproportional-character look of the past. While the change in the last game was interesting, realistic characters didn't quite work well within the established Final Fantasy universe. With the beloved wizards returned, the entire look is now much more medieval. Did anyone say "Chocobo"?
Like VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX uses the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. Each character learns the abilities and commands appropriate to his or her job class. There are two major ability types: support and action. Action abilities use Magic Points (MP) and include commands such as Black Magic, Steal, White Magic, and Summon. Characters can go into trances after repeated physical attacks from enemies. When the trance gauge, located below the ATB gauge, reaches maximum capacity, the character goes into a trance, the commands change, and the character's attacks become more powerful. Up to four characters can be in the active party, but players can summon Guardian Forces, called Eidolons, into battle in Final Fantasy IX. Many of the Eidolons from Final Fantasy VIII return in this game, including Carbuncle, Bahamut, Odin, Ifrit, Shiva, and (naturally) Leviathan.
An Active Time Event (ATE) lets you see events that are happening elsewhere. For example, while you are controlling the main character in a town, you can view what the other characters are doing in another part of the same town. This function provides additional information and behind-the-scenes details about the story and the characters. You can only view ATEs when the ATE option appears onscreen, however.
The game's visual splendor touches even the most ordinary scenes, such as shadows in the street alleys and the mazes of cobblestones. Final Fantasy IX's color palette does a remarkable job in creating interest on every single object, location, and person.
SquareSoft claims their intention in Final Fantasy IX, as the last single-digit game in the series, was to assert the idea of progress. Not satisfied with looking back at previous accomplishments, they simply explain that this is just the beginning. But to that end, this will truly be the final Fantasy on the PlayStation as the series heads to greener pastures of the next-generation consoles.
With its awesome graphics, a good story, and random battles that reveal curious bits about each character, Final Fantasy IX is an epic adventure that'll have long-time fans of the acclaimed series beaming with pride and joy. As for everyone else who has yet to experience the Fantasy, now is the time!
Thursday, August 28, 2008
People expect more from Final Fantasy. The name alone has built up such a reputation that it isn't enough for a new game in the series just to be good -- it's got to be incredible or it will be considered a disappointment. Luckily Final Fantasy VIII surpasses even these incredibly high expectations and stands far above the pack as the best PlayStation RPG so far.
The long and intricate story line in FFVIII centers around love -- that's right, love. Before you run away screaming, let me assure you it's nothing that will make you cringe. FFVIII's overall plot is still appropriately exciting and action-packed; it's only later in the game, once you are really attached to all the distinct and complex characters, that the more emotional themes are gradually introduced. It's actually a refreshing change, and helps FFVIII avoid most common RPG cliches.
Graphically Square has outdone themselves again. Everything from the mind-blowing FMV (wait until you see the infamous dance scene) to the improved character graphics and animations, to the so-good-you-won't-believe-they-are-real-time spell effects are among the best visuals you will find on the PlayStation.
But, as we've said a million times (yet still get letters about), a 5/5 rating doesn't mean the game is perfect. The few gripes I have with FFVIII mostly have to do with parts of the battle system. Drawing spells from monsters over and over as well as watching the long Guardian Force attacks play out are necessary parts of combat that can get tedious, especially later in the game. Overall I still enjoyed the battles, and the new junction system is genius, but a few minor adjustments could have kept up the steady pace of the rest of the game.
Even with its quirks, Final Fantasy VIII is one of the few games I would categorize as a masterpiece. Forget that it's an RPG-- this is one of the most polished, vast and totally addictive games of any kind I have played in years. Square has somehow done it again.
SquareSoft has always had a sure-fire hit when releasing any of their Final Fantasy titles, and Final Fantasy VIII should be no exception. The basis of a good RPG (role-playing game) has always been the story; spectacular graphics are secondary. Final Fantasy VIII's involved and interesting story line is filled with great twists, well-developed characters, suspense, and romance. As an added bonus, the graphics are beautiful. Everything--from the low-lit jazz club to the steam-filled railroad tunnels--is gorgeous and perfectly sets the mood and tone of a scene.
The game mechanics are standard fare for an RPG: acquisition of items and spells, turn-based combat, experience points earned in combat allowing advances in levels. From exploration to battles to dialogue, Final Fantasy VIII has it all. However, Final Fantasy VIII falls to that great weakness of RPGs: random battles. While necessary for advancing in levels, the battles occur with such frequency that they can grow annoying, making for a tedious game experience.
The epic storyline spans four discs--over 40 hours of gameplay--and is based around a mercenary cadet who finds himself caught up with an underground rebel faction. He winds up in a plot to assassinate the sorceress who has just seized power from the president.
You could complain of limited replay value, but this gripe is of no consequence: the game is such a satisfying experience, it doesn't require replay. Final Fantasy VIII is easily worth both the hype and the wait. You can't buy a much better game.
Well, Final Fantasy VII is absolutely epic in scope. With a sweeping story line that spans three discs, the game makes the 40-hour completion time suggested by Square seem like an underestimation. A large map, with a wide selection of towns and cities, offers plenty of areas to explore for the intrepid adventurer. Cinematic sequences (including, but not limited to, fully rendered full-motion animation cinemas) advance the complex -- and sometimes surprising -- story. And several mini-games (like arcade fighting, motorcycle racing and snowboarding) offer light-hearted respite from the serious story line. But does it live up to the hype?
Well, as reported, the graphics are nothing short of stunning. The prerendered backgrounds provide some of the richest environments ever seen in a console title. The cinematic sequences segu&ACUTE; almost seamlessly into actual gameplay, ridding the game of the unpleasant graphic dichotomy found in most cinema-laden CD-based games. And clever graphical tricks, like decreasing the size of the characters as they move from foreground to background, add to the game's visual depth. And the powerful summoning spells acquired as the game progresses are absolutely awe-inspiring, combining polygonal graphics with what appear to be beautifully hand-drawn special effects. But does it live up to the hype?
Well, the combat interface is cleverly done, with a "realtime" engine that is nevertheless turn-based. By turn-based, I mean that characters must wait for a Time meter to fill before choosing their attack, and attacks always occur in the order they are chosen, with no two characters (either friend or foe) attacking at the same time. This adds a level of urgency and excitement not found in most other RPGs.
But does it live up to the hype? Well, that really depends. I have to say that, now that I've been able to put some serious time into the game, I'm a bit disappointed. The most frustrating thing about the game is the surprisingly linear story line. Until gaining access to the game's vehicles (at least 15 hours into the game), players are basically forced to follow a strictly set path. Oh, you'll have the appearance of choices, in conversation and in travel, but explore the alternatives and you'll discover that there is really only one feasible path to take. This is doubtless the case because of the focus on the fully developed story, but it may bother gamers used to more wide-open gameplay. The inclusion of some truly challenging puzzles would have helped a bit, but these are scarce. To make things worse, at some points the translation from the Japanese appears a bit muddy, causing unnecessary confusion and clouding the fine story.
Don't get me wrong, this is a great game -- and I don't mean great like "Hey, great!" but great like Alexander the Great. I guess I was just expecting it to be a lot closer to perfect than it is. It's still a must-buy for any PlayStation owner; just keep in mind that you'll have to check a good deal of your freedom at the door.
There's merit to both arguments, actually, and you can be certain that the release of Final Fantasy VI Advance is bound to bring the whole brouhaha bubbling to the surface again.
Even the GBA version of the game is bound to irritate as many people as it pleases. As with Tose's previous Final Fantasy Advance remakes, FFVIA offers a number of improvements balanced by a ledger full of flaws. The game treats fans to new content -- several new Espers to teach you new magic spells, new dungeons full of new monsters, and new gear to use while exploring (but no new playable characters). Bugs and glitches have been tidied up. There's quite a bit of fan service in play, with appearances by both familiar faces and a monster infamously cut from the original version of the game. And the localization has been heavily revised, restoring the depth and nuance lost by necessity due to the space constraints of SNES cartridges.
But the sound quality has been severely compromised -- a real tragedy, considering that FFVI's score was among the best on SNES. Now it's staticky at times, slightly slow and out of tune at others. There's a touch of slowdown in places. A tiny hint of censorship has been imposed where it wasn't seen before. And the localization has been heavily revised, robbing the game of charm and quirkiness added by translators who had to make the most of limited space.
Still, even with these issues, FFVIA is the best GBA Final Fantasy conversion yet. The added content and revised script don't add as much as they did to FFIV, but that's mainly because it was considerably more polished on SNES than its predecessor. Meanwhile, the technical details come off much better. The Active Time Battle glitches have been ironed out, and the slowdown is mild. It's too bad about what happened to the music, but the fault there lies with Nintendo's cost-cutting hardware design.
As for the underlying game -- well, most gamers' minds are probably already made up as to whether they like it or not, and it's unlikely this new rendition will change that. As a masterpiece of a game with significant flaws, it has an impressive ability to polarize opinions.
FFVI has the distinction of being a transitional game, the keystone between the series' old-school roots and the stylized, cinematic style that became its trademark with FFVII. Its in-between nature is evident in the development staff; it was the first chapter headed up by FFVII/VIII/X/XIII director/producer Yoshinori Kitase rather than by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. It's evident in the story, a complex narrative told from multiple perspectives riddled with epic disaster and high drama. It's evident in the presentation, with graphics far beyond the primitive sprites and tiles that were typical of the genre. And it's evident in the gameplay mechanics -- especially in the way it's possible to turn everyone in your party into godlike bruisers without resorting to cheats or exploits.
These highs and lows are the result of the game's greatest strength: Its sheer ambition. FFVI was hardly perfect, but it aspired to be bigger, more epic, more involving, yet more accessible than anything that had come before. For all its flaws, it was precisely that. Console RPGs didn't catch on in the U.S. until FFVII came along three years later, but aside from the eye-popping graphics made possible by PlayStation, everything that would ultimately make Final Fantasy an international blockbuster is right here. And even the simpler graphics work to the game's advantage -- they're a fine example of the 2D art form, and they lack the excessive flashiness that bogs down 3D Final Fantasys.
FFVIA is a mostly great port of a mostly great game, and that makes it entirely worth having. If this has to be the end of the GBA's lifespan, we can't think of a better way to go.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
FFIII is no mere pile of throwaway shovelware; it's a total re-creation of an 8-bit game, largely faithful to the source material but thoughtfully retooled in places to play better. And look better, too -- this is easily the best-looking 3D you've ever seen on the DS. It probably helps that the director of the original game, who clearly wanted the new version to be the definitive version of his baby, supervised the DS remake. And for the most part, his efforts have paid off.
FFIII, of course, has never made it to the U.S. before. (The game most Americans know as "Final Fantasy III" was actually Final Fantasy VI, which will be making its way to the Game Boy Advance in due time.) Aside from brave importers and certain emulation aficionados, American gamers will find this remake to be, in effect, a brand-new Final Fantasy title.
It is, however, a decidedly early Final Fantasy title, even with its pretty 3D graphics and soaring remixed soundtrack. Back in the day, the even-numbered FF installments were daring experiments in storytelling and character development, while the odd-numbered chapters emphasized combat and skill-building. FFIII falls very much into that mold, which means that certain elements may seem somewhat dated for those weaned on the post-FFVII games. Combat is turn-based, the plot is almost an afterthought, there are no extravagant FMVs during the course of the game, magic skills are strictly regimented. And mid-dungeon save points? Not a chance.
This is an RPG for dedicated RPG enthusiasts. Many gamers will give up after being annihilated by random encounters in an out-of-the-way corner of the second village; others will despair at being wiped out by powerful bosses after 30 minutes of dungeon exploration and no opportunity to save. Even those who make it to the end may be put off by the enormity (and difficulty) of the final dungeon, where more than a dozen insanely powerful bosses highlight constant encounters with random enemies that are nearly as tough. There's not much story to reveal; the four party members have been given names, backgrounds, and inklings of personality, but there's not much more to the whole thing than a steady march to the final boss.
FFIII's real carrot-and-stick device is the Job system, which players may recognize from such games as Final Fantasy V and Tactics. In effect, characters can be freely reassigned a different character class at any time; these range from the basics (Warrior, Monk, White Mage) to more esoteric roles (Geomancer, Scholar, Evoker). This is the Job system's primordial form, lacking the mix-and-match options of the later games and rewarding consistency rather than experimentation. The more you use a job, the more powerful it becomes -- but even by the end of the game, you probably won't have maxed out a single one. Additionally, there's a penalty for swapping jobs; moving into a new job halves most of your stats for a few battles. The system has been tweaked and improved over the version that appeared in the original game, but it still feels limiting at times.
Maybe FFIII's greatest disadvantage is really just a matter of timing: It's bringing up the tail end of this fall's Final Fantasy blitz, which means it arrives within two weeks of FFXII and FFV Advance -- both of which, unfortunately for FFIII, are better games, with far more depth in story and gameplay alike. It feel particularly limp coming so soon after FFV, which essentially perfected the Job system while sporting a significantly more developed plot.
But it's important to appreciate FFIII for what it is -- a slice of history and a missing piece of a blockbuster series. Hardcore RPG players may enjoy it more than modern Final Fantasy titles, thanks to its emphasis on skill development and combat. Casual players may find themselves surprised by how addictive simple level-grinding and monster-slaying can be. There's a certain satisfaction in seeing your juiced-up Monk land 28 hits in a single round, and FFIII delivers that thrill in spades -- and there's enough challenge to make it a necessity rather than overkill. The result is one of the best portable RPGs to date, and a fine example of how to remake a classic.
True, "level-up marathon" is probably a harsh description for Final Fantasy I and II, but there's no denying that they hail from the days when you didn't have a great deal of control over how your party developed, a trend that you can just see beginning to happen here. At a time when most console RPGs provided you with preestablished characters with a linear stat and skill progression, FFI did give you the unusual freedom of allowing you to populate your party of four with whatever combination of the six classes you want; nothing will stop you from stocking up with four black mages, if you're feeling masochistic.
If you are foolhardy enough to select that kind of party, this version of FFI is more accommodating than the original. A subtle rebalancing of the magic system makes magic-users much more useful than the original game, but not as ridiculously overpowered as the recent Final Fantasy Origins for PSone. Those games used the "X number of uses for Y level of magic" system, borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, which is easy to unbalance: the original game gave you too few, and the PSone remake was overly generous. The Dawn of Souls edition replaces this with a proper MP system, so that you can't use Cure 1 40 times and Cure 3 20 more.
The MP issue is the biggest change to FFI's battle system, but it's not the only overhaul the game received. There are four new elemental dungeons to try your hand at, each of which is unlocked after beating one of the four fiends. For those who've memorized every in and out of the main game, these will be the big draw: each one is populated with new enemies (which are just palette-swapped versions of regular ones, but still neat) and guest-star bosses from Final Fantasy III, IV, V, and VI. Even better, the structure of the new dungeons seems drawn from the old Final Fantasy Legend Game Boy titles: they break up the action every few floors with a crazy rooms filled with scholars and libraries, or a flooded village where you have to get around by canoe, or even areas based on the world map where you need to raise the airship in order to find the exit.
There's also new content in Final Fantasy II, but since it's new story sequences instead of new gameplay scenes, it won't mean as much to you if you didn't already play the FF Origins version of the game. And if you didn't, we don't blame you, since it's probably the most irritating and vaguely-defined title in the series.
The good news is that, like FFI, the Dawn of Souls version of FFII has been rebalanced to make it more playable. The game features a "common sense" but ultimately strange experience system thanks to Akitoshi Kawazu, who remains at large in the development community. The way your party members develop is based on what happens in battle; if they use swords a lot, they'll get better with swords. If they take a lot of damage, their HP will go up accordingly. Using spells will cause the spell levels to rise, and so on for most of the statistics in the game.
Previously, the problem was that each statistic required so much in-battle use to improve that the only way to get anywhere was to exploit a glitch in the game or attack your own party members. With Dawn of Souls, the "experience" for each stat has been reduced to sane levels, so that you can more or less stay au courant with the enemy's levels by proceeding normally through the game. That's not to say the vagueness is entirely eliminated, though -- my problem is that without any feedback as to how close you are toward leveling up a statistic, it can feel like treading water a lot of the time. Since leveling up is best done in short bursts during transit, it's not a good sign when you can stop playing and have no idea what you've just accomplished, if anything.
FFII lets down the side a little, and even with the bonus content, these aren't really the best RPGs on the system. But they've historic games, and they've been buffed up to the best they'll ever be, so if you're a fan of the genre, it's a nice little package you'd do well to check out.
To wit, the development team at Matrix has reworked the tech from the 2006 remake of Final Fantasy III to add a 3D coating of freshness to the 17-year-old RPG, almost certainly pushing Nintendo's handheld to its limits. Despite the fact that FFIV features more characters onscreen at a given time -- the standard party size is five to FFIII's four, and enemy ranks tend to be much fuller -- the graphics are more detailed and colorful. The brief, noninteractive cut-scenes sprinkled throughout the game look even better than that, and they include full voice acting, too -- no small feat for a DS title. The English script has been overhauled yet again, taking the dialogue one step further away from the awful, incomprehensible mess that American fans had to wade through in the Super NES days, back when we called the game Final Fantasy II.
Balancing the odds somewhat is a new bonus character-tweaking option called Augments. An Augment is effectively a secret skill that, once earned, can be given permanently to a single party member. Essentially, Matrix is compensating for the fact that FFIV is the single most linear game in the Final Fantasy series, with no room whatsoever for customization: Your party makeup is prescribed at every step, and character skills are predetermined by each member's fixed class and experience level. Rosa's always going to be a White Mage, and she'll always learn the Curaga spell at level 45, no matter what. But give her the Bardsong Augment, for instance, and she'll have the ability to buff the entire party with stat or health boosts at no magic cost. It's a nice way to expand the skills of the preset party members while retaining certain tactical options once temporary allies vanish forever.
What's that, you say? Why, yes, Square Enix did license an official strategy guide! Funny you should ask.
So do these failings in FFIV DS make FFIV Advance the definitive edition of the game? Ultimately, no -- despite sporting some minor visual tweaks over its 16-bit predecessor and offering a wealth of great late- and post-game bonus content, the GBA release was poorly programmed and suffered from some maddening glitches that screwed up the timing of the active-time battle system. The DS remake not only cleans up those problems, it even goes an extra step by offering info on how quickly a character will execute a command. Even so, battles still don't feel quite as snappy as they did on the Super NES. The change to 3D visuals brings with it a slight touch of sluggishness; more significantly, the DS is constantly struggling to keep up with the sparkly visuals, so menu navigation feels ever so slightly off. It doesn't spoil the game or anything, but it's never satisfying to lose a tough battle just because the game couldn't keep up with your input.
It probably bears mentioning that the GBA version of the game is less than three years old, which leaves one with the sensation that Square Enix has headed back to the well a bit prematurely. If they'd waited a couple of years until the DS' inevitable successor arrived, they could've given the GBA edition a bit more breathing room and put together an even more impressive-looking version of the game that doesn't feel like it's about to burn out the system's processors. Take into account the fact that the DS is fully capable of playing GBA carts anyway, and this new remake feels, well, unnecessary. (Of course, there's no reason to assume we won't see yet another remake of the game on the next DS anyway.)
So what's to be done with this version? It's not a bad little game -- it is, after all, an upgraded version of a 16-bit masterpiece -- but it's needlessly redundant for anyone who picked up FFIV Advance. Of course, die-hard Final Fantasy fans will want to test their mettle against the crazy-hard new difficulty level while checking out the new voices for old favorites: Cecil is appropriately wussy, Kain sounds as tough as you'd expect, and Golbez now sounds like Darth Vader instead of just looking like him. But everyone else might want to wait it out a few years for that inevitable, definitive next-gen remake. When it comes to Square Enix, what goes around comes around. And around. And around.