Final Fantasy IV’s legacy speaks for itself. Since its release in 1991 it has been routinely cited as among one of the best games ever made, and certainly holds a special place in the hearts of many as the point where Final Fantasy began to metamorphosize into the franchise it is today; that this game is where Final Fantasy truly became Final Fantasy. That’s tall praise in a series which quite regularly boasts “greatest of all time” plaudits for several of its entries, but I think it’s hard to argue against the notion that here, Final Fantasy IV, is the point where the series started growing into itself as it emerged from the experimentation of its early games and stepped forward as the world’s dominant JRPG franchise.
Final Fantasy IV (Android, GBA, iOS, NDS, PC, PS1, PSP [reviewed], SNES)
Released Jul 1991 | Developed / Published: Square
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 22 hours (SNES), 31 hours (NDS)
But why was Final Fantasy IV so well-received, and why does that praise still resonate today? One answer is the context into which it was released. In Japan, its audience had experienced 3 Final Fantasy titles so far, each one replete with changes as Squaresoft trial-and-errored their way to a winning formula. It’s hard to imagine being there, just over a year after Final Fantasy III had brought a positively huge JRPG experience to bear on the Famicom, and then seeing this game appear in game stores alongside the still brand-new SNES. It must have looked mind-blowing, with its gorgeous 16-bit full-colour sprites and battle backgrounds, a lush world map which rolled away beneath their feet, and a shiny new combat system, not to mention a story that promised an emotional journey as its cast fought to stop an evil sorcerer.
Still, at least in Japan you’d have had the continuity of seeing all 4 Final Fantasy titles slowly upgrade and refine themselves. In the US this game was only the second main series Final Fantasy game released, after the very first one, and the scale of improvement there between the two must have seemed monumental. It would be a well-deserved sense of advancement; without a doubt Final Fantasy IV represented a huge step forward for the series, and some of the changes it implemented have stuck with the series ever since. If nothing else, it marks the first time that the effort put into crafting both an engaging narrative and the means of interacting with it all paid off simultaneously and incredibly.
However, as is so often the case with the games we cover on this blog, the original context isn’t the only one that matters; we also think about how these games that were great hold up today to a modern audience. Unlike some games we look at, at least in this regard Final Fantasy IV is particularly easy to access; over the years it’s seen releases on a bunch of systems, often receiving updates along the way. I’d originally intended to play the Game Boy Advance release for this review, given that’s the version I grew up with, but there are of course plenty of options to choose from. Eventually I settled on the PSP edition, titled The Complete Collection because it includes both the game’s sequel, The After Years, but also a small interquel, Interlude, and if you want the most full experience, it remains the best choice. For those without access to a PSP, the newer Pixel Remaster seems like a fine remake. The only warning I’d offer to those working out how best to play Final Fantasy IV is simply to avoid the DS remake; this version, which looks similar to the DS edition of Final Fantasy III we looked at on the blog, might boast cute 3D visuals, but it also suffers from a huge and pointless spike in difficulty alongside a generally slower experience as everything winds up over-animated compared to the superior 2D sprite games.
But the question of whether Final Fantasy IV is still worth playing doesn’t come down to which release or remake you wind up playing. It’s a question of the quality of the game, and whether, once devoid of the same sense of awe and newness it once had, it can still offer an enjoyable or satisfying time to players, particularly to a modern audience who are likely to be more jaded and carry with them more extensive expectations as a result of the decades of improvements to the genre kickstarted by this game.
But what improvements are these, then? Well, for a start, Final Fantasy IV attempted to give us a significantly stronger story than the NES games, swinging back to a more narrative-based game after Final Fantasy III tried to downplay it. Our story concerns the “heroically”-named Cecil Harvey, who is a Dark Knight and commander in the kingdom of Baron. Cecil has a problem though; as our story begins he is returning from a mission during which he led his forces in a deadly assault on a peaceful town of mages and stole the elemental crystal they were charged with protecting, and our lad is starting to realize that he and the kingdom he serves might be the baddies of this particular world. When he tries to express this to his king, he’s swiftly demoted and ordered to go deliver a package to a nearby village of summoners; Cecil can’t catch a break though, as it turns out the package was actually a bomb, and he looks on in horror as the village burns and the ground beneath him cracks and splits, sending him and the village’s only survivor, a young girl named Rydia, tumbling away from their homes. Finally understanding his home kingdom’s villainy, Cecil resolves to stop them and discover what forces compelled his once-peaceful king to become so bloodthirsty.
I think it’s probably fair to consider Final Fantasy IV’s story as being a little trite, these days, if one were to be cynical. Its story of elemental crystals and journeying from one fantasy castle to another almost certainly seems cliche to an audience that might perhaps be used to a little more nuance and drama from our stories. Where Final Fantasy IV really pushed the boat out though was that it was the first properly character-driven narrative in the series. Because the first and third games both have created characters, they naturally wind up being more event-oriented stories, as things happen and our heroes are swept along in them, devoid of agency, and even though the second game has a lot more focus on its writing, it’s still largely in service of constructing a world rather than evolving its principal cast. IV, in comparison, is about its cast. They, and the arcs they undergo, are intrinsic to the way the plot moves. Cecil, for example, undergoes one of the most famous character arcs in the entire franchise. His presence as a Dark Knight of Baron paints him as a man steeped in evil, someone who, while not bad themselves, is able and willing to lose themselves in the dark actions they perform because of his sense of duty and patriotism. His journey of self-realization, of coming to terms with his actions and, crucially, accepting his role in them before he is reborn as a paladin is one of the franchise’s most enduring stories. What makes Final Fantasy IV odd though, is how that isn’t the end of the narrative.
Instead, all of Cecil’s character development comes quite early on in Final Fantasy IV. Afterwards, we’re left with a heroic Cecil and, well, that’s that for him. The game moves on and we’re expected to as well. It almost undermines the catharsis of Cecil’s journey and transformation. That’s actually the defining experience of Final Fantasy IV, for me. The game is full of enjoyable characters, all of whom undergo a genuine, often stirring arc, but it’s carried out one at a time, sequentially. Each section of the game might as well be entitled, “Rydia’s chapter” or “Cid’s bit” and once they’ve done their required growth, the game changes focus. It’s a very strange approach, and I think one which belies the writing team’s lack of experience with constructing this kind of narrative. Better writing technique – and indeed, we see this in later Final Fantasy titles – suggests that characters grow to their desired end over the course of an entire story, with each one learning and changing simultaneously, to avoid this very thing. It doesn’t make Final Fantasy IV bad, though. Each story it tells is well-built and enjoyable, and the way it skips through its cast helps create an almost episodic feeling, which in turn makes the game feel more manageable. The series, in all likelihood, needed to go through this style of storytelling in order to evolve into the form we see it today.
Final Fantasy IV didn’t just change things up in the writing department though, oh no. You could actually point to IV and, with all seriousness, say that one thing it did was perhaps the most influential change it wrought upon the franchise, ever, and that is the introduction of Active Time Battle. Previous Final Fantasy titles – not to mention its competitors, such as Dragon Quest – had all used a very traditional turn-based battle system to manage combat in which players input commands to their party and then wait as both their characters and the enemies take a full turn of action. Now, I’m a great fan of turn-based combat in pretty much any form it takes, so I enjoyed these games regardless, but it certainly has its detractors who decry it as a tedious waiting game, and when those kind of complaint arise it’s hardly surprising that some developers out there tried to find a way of revolutionizing it. Enter Final Fantasy IV, and ATB. In this game, while combat is still strictly turn-based, it comes with a new gimmick. Instead of inputting everyone’s commands all at once, characters can only be directed when their individual action gauge fills up; on top of that, time in combat keeps moving regardless, leading to states where enemies can interrupt your decision-making with attacks of their own and even at points bosses can fluidly change form, altering the strategy needed to defeat them. The end result is a turn-based system that feels slightly more frenetic and can keep you on your toes. It is still turn-based combat of course, and in reality it’s hard to spice up that system when real-time action is more exciting by design. But Final Fantasy IV’s implementation of ATB would go on to be iconic and it’s a safe bet to say that if you’ve played any Final Fantasy, you’ve probably played one which uses some variation of ATB as its base.
Final Fantasy IV’s legacy remains intact. It’s still well-remembered and loved by many, and I really do think it deserves the praise it gets. I’d played IV a handful of times before this review, but this was the first time I’d seen it all the way through. Before playing it for the blog, I thought I more or less knew what I thought of it; that it was a good game, but one which has long since been outstripped by the games that followed it, a great example of the excellent foundation upon which better games were made. Having beaten it, finally, after many years and then taking this time to sit and reflect upon my time with it, I find myself thinking much more highly of it than I once did. I enjoy the fact that it built a strong, character-driven fantasy story, even if the way it does is odd, and I found myself really sinking into the combat in a way which I think I hadn’t done in previous playthroughs. I think now I can see IV with a healthy respect; while it is the foundation upon which much better games were built, it’s still a bloody strong foundation, and an excellent game in its own right.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.