JRPG Journey 2022: Final Fantasy IV (Winter Bonus Game)
February’s game: Lunar: Silver Star Harmony
March’s game: Various Daylife
Even though I’m still behind on these reviews (let’s pretend it’s the start of March and not a warm day in April right now), I figure I’ll ring in the end of winter (shhh!) with another stone-cold classic, Final Fantasy IV.
What can I say about Final Fantasy IV? It’s one of the best known games of its era and is otherwise known as Final Fantasy II if you played it when it came out for the SNES back in 1991, since the West never got the real FFII or III until much later. It’s since been renamed, thankfully, to match its original Japanese title, and mixing them up is pretty rare now that it’s been over thirty years. Regardless of name, Final Fantasy IV is one of the “big daddies” of the series, one of the games frequently listed as a favorite or in the top 3 by a large subset of fans. While the passionate fans of IV may be growing smaller in number and less relevant as years pass, it’s still a must-play title for Final Fantasy fans and an icon of the SNES.
So, goddammit, it’s finally time I check it out. For some history, I’ve played most of the main Final Fantasy games by now, with only V, VI, and XV left, so I’ve got plenty of experience with the series, but I’d always wanted to see what all the fuss is about with this one. I managed to go in unspoiled, except for knowing the main character is named Cecil, and I’m glad I did. Like no other Final Fantasy I’ve played, FFIV feels designed to give you the full experience on a single playthrough. There’s no jobs, no confusing side quests, no open world, no branching paths, and no real reason to replay it except to experience the story again. That should be great for me—I usually only play games once anyway—but Final Fantasy IV ventures too far in this direction. It’s as if the directors wanted to emulate a Hollywood action movie, with fast, snappy cutscenes and plenty of them. That sounds like something I’d be into, and well, it is. I’m a fan of the Uncharted trilogy, for example, and Final Fantasy IV is sort of like the old school JRPG version of that—compared to its contemporaries, at any rate. It thrusts you into the action right away and rarely lets up, but that’s the problem. I want to be able to take my time and explore, even if there’s nothing to find, or just get my bearings in the world. This all helps me get immersed in the adventure. The first Final Fantasy gave me this feeling, and do did II and III. Those were all linear like this one, but there’s something about FFIV that makes its world feel smaller than its predecessors. With the short time it to takes to get between locations, especially in the early game, and the amount of plot that occurs within the first several hours, it’s all too much, too fast.
I wish the game were longer—and I don’t say that often about JRPGs—to allow some breathing room. My playthrough took only 24 hours, and given how much plot happens, that’s not enough for Cecil’s journey to be the epic quest it deserves to be. I never grinded, not because I didn’t want to, but because I never felt I had a chance to. It’s not even like FFII, where early on you can explore the continent you’re on and even travel to a good portion of the world, with the caveat that there’s nothing to do besides find a chocobo. No, in FFIV, most of the time you’re locked to one small area or land mass, the plot is urging you to continue, and mandatory battles are easy enough that you never need to grind in the first place. I get why that’s appealing to people, probably a lot of people, but I like having plenty to do between story quests in my JRPGs. The early FF games accomplished this by forcing you to grind in order to get past enemy level spikes in the next dungeon. That worked in the early days of the genre, but eventually players wanted more content, and Final Fantasy IV suffers from being stuck in a transition period to plentiful side quests being the norm for JRPGs. At the time, I’m sure both Square Enix and players alike thought this was enough for a full game, but it doesn’t work as well in the 2020s as most of the other Final Fantasy games I’ve played.
The story and characters are—and don’t slaughter me for this—fine. They’re fine. None of them stood out to me, and I didn’t care about any of them enough to play the sequel, The After Years, but they did the job while my playthrough lasted. Watching Cecil’s transformation from hardened soldier to literal white knight was satisfying as hell, but it only lasted for a few hours. After that you’ve got a whole game of meandering, dungeon crawling, characters joining your party before sacrificing themselves to save everyone, only to come back in the end and cheapen the whole experience, and… I dunno. There’s no underlying thread or story hook that gets my attention, no character that sticks with me, nothing that I could point to that would make this one of my favorite Final Fantasy game. At the same time, while I don’t agree with the praise it gets for either its storytelling or characters, I do get why. Compared to its competition in the early 90s, it makes sense—again, this is basically the Uncharted 2 of its time. It’s just not what I’m looking for today.
I regret I don’t have better things to say about the combat. Once again I’ve got to go against the grain here—the Active Time Battle system doesn’t add anything valuable to the gameplay. I play turn-based RPGs so I can take my time, not because I’m bad at action games, but because I don’t always want to have to focus on timing or action when chilling out with a game. A good JRPG is my favorite way to relax, and I miss being able to scroll through a menu without having to hurry, or not having to pause to take a drink. I know, I know, it’s not that bad, and I’ve played enough Final Fantasy games to get used to it quickly, but for a review it’s worth thinking closer about mechanics that become second nature. Having to rush doesn’t make the combat more fun—it’s never better than a minor annoyance, and I haven’t warmed up to it much in later games, either.
Final Fantasy IV’s got another quirk where characters frequently shuffle into and out of your party. Cecil is the only core party member for most of the journey, so it’s less like you have a party and more like you’re playing as Cecil, sometimes with company. To be blunt, I don’t like when traditional-style JRPGs do this, and I’m glad this trend has all but died. Again, it goes against a core appeal of RPGs: watching your characters grow stronger over time. Since you never know if a new party member will stick around for a while or leave after the next dungeon, it’s hard to care about them as much as you would in a traditional setup, and you don’t get that bond of raising them from weak to overpowered as you progress. Instead, a powerful mage might join you for a while, but leave before you’ve gotten to know them, aside from relying on their prowess in battle. The power balance shift that occurs at these points is the only time the combat becomes fun, since it’s actually a challenge when you’re stuck with just Cecil and maybe one other unit. Like everything in the game though, it’s unfortunate that none of these sections lasts long enough to satisfy. Other Final Fantasies do some roster shuffling as well, by the way, but it’s toned down compared to what you get here. FFIV is the only time where I’ve been outright annoyed by how often it happens. By the very end, you can customize your party from the entire roster, which is fun, but there’s not much to do before the final boss, and the adventure is over soon after this freedom arrives.
Earlier I said there’s no open world, which isn’t strictly true. By the end of the game you can go anywhere freely, yet up to that point you get little ability to explore. While many Final Fantasy games follow this formula, it’s especially noticeable in IV, given its short run time, breakneck pace, and total lack of optional content or exploration until the endgame. If you’re looking for a fast-paced RPG, this might be your thing, but it didn’t work for me.
Since I fear I’ve been too negative so far compared to my actual thoughts, I’ll stress that the combat itself—ATB aside—is great. It’s innovative, even, which is notable if not expected, given this was Square’s first chance to work with the SNES. Each character gets a unique ability or skill to use in battle, but otherwise the available spells and other actions are similar to previous games. What’s new is how bosses and even regular enemies often require unusual thinking for players in 1991, such as having to switch rows, avoid status, or not attack at all. Plot events and even directives for the player appear in text boxes during battle, merging gameplay with presentation in a new way. This innovation spills over into cutscenes, as well, which are a giant leap over the NES’s piddly visuals in how they, too, seamless integrate with gameplay, often on an impressive scale. Square is the master of pushing the traditional JRPG model forward, trying wacky experiments to see what works, and while they still do it on occasion today, the 90s were the peak of their ability to turn all their zany ideas into magic.
Another part I wasn’t let down by was the music. It’s one of the best soundtracks in the series, and it’s not close, although it’s kinda funny—I’d rank this game’s battle theme as one of the lowest. But everything else is fantastic and worth a listen even if you don’t plan to play this game. The Red Wings and Baron Castle themes come to mind first, but FFIV is filled with catchy jams, and it’s an OST I’ll throw on every once in a while when I’m working. Nobuo Uematsu’s reaching the peak of his composing might with this one, and it’s been fun hearing his style evolve since the first game.
Final Fantasy IV is as standard of a Final Fantasy game as you can get. The story’s fine, but nothing stands out aside from maybe the events in Mist and Cecil’s early turn to the light side. The characters were fine but mostly one-dimensional, often even more so than in Final Fantasy II, a step back for the series. The music’s great, as expected, the combat’s fun and, for once, challenging, and the breakneck pace has its charm. However, the game shows evidence of a development team unsure of how best to evolve a fledgling genre. While some of their attempts to break genre tradition succeeded, Final Fantasy IV’s flaws are evidence they had more growing to do before they could knock one out of the park in the SNES era.
Next time, it’s back to the regular schedule (ahem, ahem) with March’s game, Various Daylife, and this one’s gonna be wild. See you then.