Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Fantasy IV Review

Final Fantasy IV Review By Jeremy Parish

For as many times as Square Enix has remade, rereleased, or otherwise reissued its seminal role-playing hit Final Fantasy IV, you'd think you could easily point to a single version of the game and say, "Yeah, this is the best one. No question." In a perfect world, that single, ultimate edition of the game would, in fact, be this high-end DS re-creation. It really ought to be. All the elements for greatness are in place.
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.

The gameplay's equally removed from that watered-down version of the game, boasting the full challenge level of the Japanese original. And then some, really. Matrix clearly took into account that they'd be selling this game to fans who've played the various versions of FFIV through the years and know the adventure inside and out; in addition to tweaking the overall difficulty level to the point that you're practically guaranteed to die the moment you set foot in new environments, they've also revamped the game's legendary boss encounters to punish those who fall back on old tactics. You'll probably struggle through certain battles with only a single ailing warrior left standing, and you will be proud, because at least you survived. This is the expert version of FFIV, and the demanding gameplay should be a welcome improvement for serious fans.
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.

Unfortunately, Augments also cut right to the heart of what makes this version of FFIV less than definitive; they're a poor substitute for the solution proffered by Square Enix's last remake of this game, Final Fantasy IV Advance on the Game Boy Advance. There, players were given the option to join up again with all but two of their former comrades and tackle the final dungeon (along with several bonus areas) with a completely flexible party. It was, in every way, a better approach than simply carrying over some of those forgotten characters' abilities -- especially since maxing out Augments is a maddeningly counterintuitive process. Want the best possible skill selections, an absolute necessity if you hope to defeat the new ultimate secret monsters? In that case, you'll need to be prepared to squander the best Augments you earn during your first playthrough or two on temporary characters so as to reap the benefits in a subsequent trip through the game. And Augments are permanently set once distributed, so you'd better hope you can parse their vague in-game descriptions and give them to someone who can actually make use of them.
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.

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