Saturday, July 7, 2012

DS review: Final Fantasy IV

Originally released in 1991 and first known stateside as Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy IV played a key role in setting the popular RPG series on the road to stardom, bringing a number of important gameplay mechanics and story elements into play that would heavily influence future Final Fantasy titles. As part of Square Enix's celebration of the series' twentieth anniversary, Final Fantasy IV saw a complete overhaul for a re-release on the DS. What resulted is a handheld version that feels fresh and up-to-date with current RPGs, but still retains its 1990s roots.

The story of Final Fantasy IV sticks close to the classic medieval fantasy origins of the RPG genre. It follows the story of the dark knight Cecil as he uncovers a plot by Golbez, who plans to steal all the crystals in the land and place both king and country under his influence. Upon witnessing the terror and destruction that Golbez's forces are capable of, Cecil questions his own motives for defending the country he formerly believed to be of pure intent. During his journey of re-discovering who he is and what he stands for, Cecil carries on a friendship/rivalry with his fellow knight Kain Highwind, has romantic ties with Rosa, and even becomes something of an adoptive elder brother to Rydia of the Mist. A host of other characters also join the fight against Golbez, including tough-as-nails engineer Cid, cocky ninja Edge, calm and collected monk warrior Yang, old sage Tellah, brother and sister duo Palom and Porom, and the rather effeminate bard Edward.

During the first half of the game, members of the party will frequently swap in and out due to scripted events. It can be a bit frustrating at times, when you have finally gotten used to the combat style of a certain character, only to have them suddenly whisked away. But the primary reason for this is to familiarize you with the many different approaches to combat. The game takes its time with each one to make certain you are fully confident in your abilities going forth. It may sound like hand-holding, but it is something that should be much appreciated when things heat up during the second half of the game.

Even though there are quite a few characters that accompany Cecil during his travels, Kain, Rosa, Rydia are easily the most important to the main story. That said, the rest of the cast proves genuinely entertaining, with Edward being the only character that falls a bit flat in comparison to the rest. Edward's confrontation with Tellah adds a bit of conflict to the story, but as a whole he seems a less-than-necessary inclusion. There are a number of melodramatic moments that pop up as the story unfolds, and a few lines do seem a tad cheesy. But by and large, the experience is quite enjoyable as a classic fantasy tale.

Each dungeon and cave holds a varying number of treasures and items that can be added to your inventory. These include useable items like potions and phoenix downs, valuables that can be sold, and weapons. While early weapons obviously won't be as strong as those picked up later on, there is a nice amount of customization allowed. While some weapons may have comparable offensive and defensive stats, they may also be ascribed elemental powers. For example, one of Kain's lances may have a strong offense stat, while another might be slightly weaker but capable of dealing out fire attacks. Such weapons can prove invaluable in certain environments that are crawling with element-specific enemies.

The combat system is a combination of sorts between turn-based and real-time. While each character must recharge their ATB gauge before they are allowed to attack, the battle will continue on whether you have instructed your party members to carry out any moves or not. It forces you to stay on your toes with each encounter, making some of the boss fights intense. It's possibly the best combat system in the entire Final Fantasy series, as well as one of the best in any JRPG.

There are times where the trial-and-error method will see successive uses as you come across seemingly impossible boss encounters. Most of these moments do not come into play until the second half of the game, though there are more than just a few of them. But what might seem initially frustrating to the point where you are prepared to toss your DS across the room are actually cleverly designed gameplay elements retained from the original release - from a time when game strategies were not readily available online. In that respect, this version of Final Fantasy IV, just like the original, caters to gamers of the late 1980s/early 1990s.

There is an optional side-quest tied to each dungeon area. If you explore every inch of a floor and complete the map, you will be rewarded with items like potions or phoenix down. Also, most dungeons will include at least one (if not multiple) areas set aside for the party to set up a tent and rest to recharge both their health and magic. A few of the towns will include hidden treasures, but for the most part, these areas serve as pit stops for you to stock up on supplies and rest before the next leg of the journey.

The soundtrack has been beautifully remastered for the DS release. It capture the classic fantasy essence perfectly. Though many of the tunes may not be as boisterous or as complex of compositions as those in later Final Fantasy titles, Final Fantasy IV's soundtrack is still a fantastic accompaniment to the adventure. The artistic approach is divided between two styles. While the introductory cutscene depicts each and every character as gorgeously-rendered and highly-detailed, their in-game counterparts are somewhat cartoony; almost chibi style. It's an odd combination, to be sure, but after a while the distinction wears off and the in-game models become endearing.

Final Fantasy IV isn't terribly long when compared to other games in the series. One playthrough will last roughly twenty to thirty hours, depending on how much time is spent exploring the caves and dungeons. But it is a great experience from start to finish. The characters are charming, the atmosphere sublime, and the combat as close to perfect as any RPG could hope to get. Final Fantasy IV has quickly climbed the ranks to become one of my favorite handheld games of all time.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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