Final Fantasy IV – A Retrospective Review

(This review is based on the North American Final Fantasy II on the SNES.)

As I have stated before in my review of Final Fantasy VI, the SNES is renowned for being a strong platform for JRPG games. Of particular note is the volume of JRPG games released or published by Squaresoft during this period, including Secret of Mana, several entries in the SaGa series – although none of these were released outside of Japan on the SNES – Chrono Trigger and of course several entries in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IV was the first game that Squaresoft released on the SNES and was also the first game in the Final Fantasy series proper released in North America since the original Final Fantasy in 1987.

The game focuses on the travails of Cecil Harvey, who begins the game as a Dark Knight in the service of the kingdom of Baron and as leader of the Red Wings, the airship air force of the Baronian kingdom. However, as the game begins, Cecil is beginning to have concerns, shared by his crew, about the aggression displayed by Baron in their aim to collect Crystals that are scattered around the world. After a vicious attack on a largely defenceless town named Mysidia, Cecil decides to air his concerns to the King of Baron. In response, the King strips Cecil of his captaincy and sends him on an errand to deliver an object to the nearby village of Mist, a location renowned for its Callers, who tap the magical powers of monsters in the form of summons. When he arrives, though, accompanied by his friend and leader of the Dragoons of Baron, Kain, the object that Cecil has delivered ends up spawning monsters who set Mist ablaze.

Finding a young girl, Rydia, whose mother has been killed as an unforeseen side-effect of Cecil and Kain’s slaying of the summoned guardian of Mist, Cecil and Kain attempt to make restitution with the girl. However, Rydia ends up being a Caller in her own right, summoning a powerful force which ends up changing the face of the land around them. Waking up in a forest, Cecil finds himself cut off from Baron, separated from Kain and trying to find medical assistance for a girl who hates him. Meanwhile, he has made an enemy of Baron, is also separated from his romantic partner, Rosa, a powerful healer and archer also serving Baron and faced with the goal of finding allies to discover exactly what is going on with the kingdom of Baron.

The setting of Final Fantasy IV is by and large typical quasi-medieval swords-and-sorcery fantasy, complete with the focus on the Crystals which was then common in Final Fantasy games, although there are enough plot twists to keep the setting from becoming completely generic. Nevertheless, this game is very much rooted in its setting and from this aspect, will provide no real shocks to those familiar with either European fantasy or with other JRPGs.

A more impressive aspect of the game is the number of playable characters involved in the plot. Being the first Final Fantasy game to introduce characters with distinct, non-generic personalities, the game involves the adventures of twelve separate characters, of which five or fewer can be present in the party at one time. The game maintains the restriction on party characters by shuffling characters out as the plot proceeds, although some of the events which change characters happen in somewhat contrived circumstances. Regardless, the game does do well to give each character their own motivations, characterisation and personality – and to give each character disparate character skills and abilities, something which hasn’t always been present in the Final Fantasy series – Final Fantasy VI and VII come to mind.

Gameplay should also be familiar to JRPG fans, particularly players of later Final Fantasy games. The game uses a prototypical form of the Active Time Battle system also used in many later Final Fantasy games, although without the bars indicating which character is to be ready next and how long it will take for them to be ready. In the world map, there is the usual “not too linear” approach where players have some degree of free rein over where they are to travel to next, although there is a relative dearth of sidequests to make some of the additional locations worthwhile to visit.

The game is reasonably challenging, especially in the early game where healing comes at a price and losing any part of your party can be catastrophic. Even at the end of the game, a bit of level grinding will ease your way through the final dungeons, giving you a better chance against some of the tougher enemies. The bosses don’t have the most advanced artificial intelligence, but have enough potential to smack the characters around to make them dangerous.

Unfortunately, the game’s translation doesn’t meet the standards of the gameplay, with sloppy mistakes and strange turns of phrase scattered throughout the game. While the translation is not the poorest of any SNES-era JRPG – the train-wreck that is the English translation in Breath of Fire II comes to mind – and is at least legible, it is neither good, nor even endearing in the way that some poor translations can be – well, apart from one famous line (“You spoony bard!”) which is oddly translated yet proper, if archaic English. Given the excellent, endearing and amusing translations in Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger by Ted Woolsey later on in the SNES era, it’s a pity that Square didn’t get a good translator earlier on. (Re-releases of Final Fantasy IV have retranslated the game to a far higher standard – but they have kept the famous line described above.)

Thankfully, the graphics and sound in this game are quite a bit better than the translation. Similarly to the later Final Fantasy VI, the graphics are not the best on the SNES or even in the genre – the fabulous Chrono Trigger comes to mind again – yet they are serviceable and use the vivid palette of the SNES rather well. The sound effects are also serviceable; there may be no stand-out sounds like Kefka’s infamous cackling laugh in Final Fantasy VI or the unearthly scream of Lavos in Chrono Trigger – but then again, there isn’t really a place in the game for such impressive effects to be appropriate.

The music, as befits a Final Fantasy game, is very good, though not as distinctive or memorable as I would like. Nevertheless, there are some very good tracks scattered throughout the soundtrack, including right from the very start with the theme of the Red Wings. Other exceptional tracks include the theme of Golbez, one of the main villains in the game, along with the music accompanying two of the final dungeons.

Final Fantasy IV has all the components for a strong JRPG, including a fairly strong plot, good characterisation, solid gameplay fundamentals and very good music. From the perspective of the genre, it is a good game. Yet, comparing it to other JRPGs later in the same console generation, it comes across as being slightly underwhelming. It may be that the many successors to Final Fantasy IV have overshadowed the game somewhat, but there weren’t any particular moments that I considered outstanding in the same way as some moments in Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger were. However, it was clearly a good enough game for me to see it to the end and from a historical perspective, Final Fantasy IV is clearly very important for its pioneering work in gameplay mechanics and character development.

Bottom Line:Final Fantasy IV is a good game with solid gameplay fundamentals and a reasonably good plot, along with being historically important, but sometimes comes across as slightly underwhelming compared to later JRPGs.

Recommendation: If you’re going to play Final Fantasy IV, do yourself a favour and give the original SNES version a miss. Unlike Final Fantasy VI, you don’t lose an interesting, funny yet proficient translation by going to the newer versions. Other than that, this is a good game for entrenched JRPG fans and not a terrible starting point for new JRPG fans, but it won’t convert anybody who has already made their mind up about the genre.

Final Fantasy VI – A Retrospective Review

If you’re in the market for a good Japanese role-playing game, the SNES is a good place to start. From Square’s exceptional Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars to the first two instalments of the Breath of Fire series and EarthBound, many of the most well-known and popular games in the sub-genre come from Nintendo’s second home console. Before Square moved their focus to Sony’s PlayStation, the Final Fantasy series also found a residence on Nintendo’s consoles. The last of the Final Fantasy games to be released on Nintendo’s home consoles until 2003, Final Fantasy VI brought a change of setting from the standard fantasy setting with some anachronisms found in the previous games to an amalgamation of fantasy and industry which persists to this day.

Final Fantasy VI is set one thousand years after a devastating war of magic which threatened to destroy the world. Two belligerent sides fought for control of magic and the potential it could bring before both sides were annihilated and nearly brought to extinction. In the years proceeding, humankind rebuilt, developing steam engines, gunpowder and industry. However, the power of magic wasn’t forgotten about, and one particular group, having become an industrial powerhouse, wished for more than their machines could bring them.

The game follows the story of Terra Branford, a peculiar young woman who has been discovered to have magical powers. These powers brought attention to her from the Empire, who have managed to create their own sort of magic with the amalgamation of the power of the magical beasts known as Espers with machinery. At the start of the game, Terra is under the control of the Empire using mind control, and is sent to the industrial mining town of Narshe with two Imperial soldiers to investigate the appearance of a frozen Esper in the mines.

The guards of Narshe resist the Imperial attack with valour, but ultimately pointlessly. Before long, the Imperial party reach the Esper, but the overwhelming power of the magical beast destroys the two Imperial soldiers before they can act, while leaving Terra alive and free of the mind control. Woken up later by a sympathetiser who saved Terra before the citizens of Narshe could capture her and try her for her ostensible Imperial activities, she finds that the mind control has caused amnesia. She is led out of the town by an anti-Imperial treasure hunter named Locke Cole, and before long, the pair are on a journey to find other anti-Imperial sympathisers to fight.

While the story in Final Fantasy VI may seem over-familiar to long-time players of JRPG games, it was distinctive in its time for taking the series away from the Crystals which had been an important element until then. The in-battle gameplay seems similiarly familiar to begin with, using the standard ATB (Active Time Battle) found in the other SNES games in the series, with turns being determined by the filling of an action bar which progresses over time. A bit more sophistication comes into the battles with the characters’ special skills, ranging from Locke’s Steal ability, to Edgar Figaro’s Tools command which gives him more battle flexibility, to Sabin Figaro’s Blitz command which depends on button sequences to unleash powerful martial arts attacks. Battles progress quickly, without the extended fighting animations of later games in the series, and even though random encounters are frequent, they don’t hold up the rest of the gameplay significantly.

Out of battle, the game begins as boilerplate linear JRPG plot-driven action, but Final Fantasy VI is notable for being a game of two distinct parts in this regard, with a complete shift of gameplay from linear progression to an open-world sandbox which owes more to the Western tradition of role-playing games than the series’ native Japan. Whether you will enjoy this element of the game depends on your motivations in a role-playing game, but it is a bold step and really does allow for character motivations to be explored in greater detail.

In any case, the game’s progression is aided by a fluent translation from Ted Woolsey, which despite some technical limits and limitations imposed by Nintendo regarding death and some of the more adult elements of the game, manages to create an excellent ambience on its own. His work is particularly significant when regarding the demented, cackling Kefka, a villainous madman who is presented as an ambassador to Emperor Gestahl early on in the game, and becomes a significant force against the characters of the game. Woolsey’s work manages to grant additional malevolence to Kefka, all to the favour of the game.

From a graphical standpoint, Final Fantasy VI is not the most impressive game on the SNES, nor is it even the most impressive game in its genre – the later Chrono Trigger presenting higher resolution and clarity to the graphics. However, with a vivid palette and a distinctive graphical style, the graphics do manage to go beyond functional, and despite the prevalence of palette-swapped monsters from the random encounters, the game cannot be faulted in this regard.

As with previous games in the series, the musical soundtrack was created by the veteran Nobuo Uematsu, and with Final Fantasy VI, he created a masterpiece. I can think of individual pieces of game music which transcend this game’s pieces; Chrono Trigger‘s “Magus Confronted” and Half-Life 2: Episode 2‘s “Vortal Combat” come to mind. Yet, I can’t readily think of a soundtrack which I would regard as consistently good as the one in Final Fantasy VI. A full set of leitmotifs for the game’s characters, an outstanding world map theme and a rousing set of battle themes for random encounters and boss battles combine with a multi-part, seventeen-minute long final boss theme which rates among the greats. Music even plays a small part in the gameplay beyond simple ambience in one of the game’s most well-known parts.

All in all, players of Final Fantasy VI can expect about forty hours of gameplay, which may fall short of the hundred-plus hours found in later games in the series, but which is devoid of the extended battle animations found in Final Fantasy VII and such. In any circumstance, forty hours feels right for the game; it is long enough to sate one’s hunger for the gameplay and plot without dragging on. The scale of the game also feels appropriate considering the length; it is sweeping and grandiose without reaching the heights of pretension.

As with all games, Final Fantasy VI does contain some flaws. Clearly, the battle system wasn’t playtested as much as it should have been, as it proves remarkably easy to break the game’s difficulty by exploiting glitches. Apart from some legitimate strategies near the end of the game involving certain items and magical attacks, there are several ways to unfairly win difficult battles. The Evade/Magic Block system was broken, with all attacks checking versus Magic Block rather than Evade, making it remarkably easy to create a character with the ability to avoid nearly every attack. The blindness characteristic is completely broken, not doing anything at all to all but one of the characters, and even then only affecting some skill learning. More egregiously, it is possible with the application of certain magical attacks to kill nearly every enemy in the game including bosses with two attacks flat. Even considering that the game is not terribly difficult to complete anyway, this is just a clear case of a broken battle system.

A frustrating element comes later in the game, where eight or twelve of the fourteen-character list are required to progress in some of the dungeons. While I acknowledge that this was designed to encourage the player to use all of the characters evenly, it isn’t aided by the fact that some of the characters are useless unless trained, and that training these characters takes a lot of grinding. Other characters are just useless in general, not living up to the potential of others.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed playing this game. Despite its age, it still stands up well to present-day RPGs, with a sweeping story which leaves few characters without resolution, well-crafted gameplay which works along traditional JRPG mechanics, but feels more involving than the standard turn-based system, and a beautiful soundtrack which helps create a sense of ambience throughout the game. The change of style served the game well compared to its predecessors, making something that felt distinct from the boilerplate fantasy which is common among RPGs, and the two-part gameplay was a bold move which may not entertain everybody, but which brings two types of RPG gameplay into one game.

Bottom Line: Final Fantasy VI is one of the pinnacles of the SNES-era JRPG, with grand scale, relatively sophisticated gameplay and a barnstormer of a soundtrack.

Recommendation: If you consider yourself a JRPG fan, you owe it to yourself to play this game. People trying out the genre for the first time would be recommended to start elsewhere, but to return to the game when they have the mechanics of a JRPG down.