Farewell, NES. Hello, SNES! Oh, dear friend, I’m so glad to see you again!
The first three Final Fantasy games definitely suffered from growing pains. It was the same story we saw countless times on the NES: the first game was revolutionary, the second was a disaster that experimented too much and lost what worked about the first, and the third was a return to form. But even still, the series hadn’t reached its full potential.
Final Fantasy IV marked a major turning point for these games. Before, it was either all about the story or all about the gameplay. Here? The two are blended together in a near-perfect blend. Like peanut butter and chocolate!
Keyword being ‘near’. As good as Final Fantasy IV is, it still doesn’t quite reach the heights that later games in the series, like VI, VII, VIX, or XIV would reach. It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not there just yet.
The kingdom of Baron has begun waging war on the world in a bid to see the Four Crystals. Cecil, a Dark Knight and leader of the Red Wings, leads this charge, but he has doubts about the cause. After returning home from a mission, he and his friend, Kain, the captain of the Dragoons, are sent to deliver a ring to the Village of Mist. Once they arrive, however, the ring explodes, burning the village to the ground and killing all but a small child, a girl named Rydia. Now Cecil must go on a journey across the world to protect the crystals from his homeland and find redemption.
This is the first Final Fantasy story that I would consider truly good. It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s good. Most importantly, everything in this game, from the graphics to the gameplay, contributes to this story, making it a tale you could only experience through a video game.
The characters are the highlight here. Each member of the party is memorable or likable in their own unique way. Cecil has a pretty compelling redemption arc, at least by SNES standards. Rydia grows from a helpless girl to a powerful and bold young woman. Edward overcomes his cowardice and becomes the prince his people need. Palom and Parom have a fun sibling rivalry. Edge is a flamboyant playboy with a heart of gold. This game has a genuinely good cast!
Alas, the same praise can’t be said for the villains. Of all the bad guys in the FF series, IV has some of the worst. Golbez is alright; a bit mustache-twirly and completely inept, but he gets the job done. Unfortunately, he ends up being replaced by Zemus, a generic force of evil with no personality or motivations. It’s really disappointing that our protagonists don’t have interesting antagonists to push them to even greater heights.
I do love Rubicante, though. An evil but honorable lord of fire that loves a decent fight? That’s awesome! Why wasn’t he the main bad guy?
The plot itself devolves into a complete mess by the time you reach the final levels. The writers cram in so many twists and turns and sudden reveals that it basically becomes a different story. In the final act alone, they introduced aliens, giant robots, and an another, even eviller antagonist. Oh, and the previous antagonist was actually Cecil’s brother! Dun-dun-dun!
They literally punctuated some of these reveals with a dun-dun-dun music cue. Was I supposed to laugh at that? I don’t think I was.
Going back to the positives: the presentation helps the story out a lot. Now that we’re in the SNES era, we’re starting to get more cinematic story experiences. We get actual cutscenes in this game instead of boring dialogue dumps! Sure, they’re primitive, but by SNES standards, these were pretty crazy!
It certainly helps that the graphics overall are better. Even in the Pixel Remasters, you can feel how much better they are. Environments are more richly detailed. Characters are given unique animations inside and outside of battle to give them personality. Combat animations have improved dramatically. It all looks fantastic, even by today’s standards!
And of course, the music slaps. It’s a Final Fantasy game. Has there ever been a game in this series with a bad score?
Even the gameplay is built to service the story. No longer do you just go to places and fight things. Now, the battles serve a purpose. You’ve got battles you can’t win. You’ve got battles you aren’t even a part of that play out themselves like a cutscene. Characters enter and leave the party as the plot demands. Gameplay and narrative are perfectly blended together here!
Speaking of: the gameplay. Gone is the class system of Final Fantasy I and III. Dead is the normal turn-based combat. In many ways, the gameplay for this game would become the blueprint for the whole series going forward.
As stated before, turn-based combat is gone. Now, we have the active-time system! Combat now flows onwards regardless of your input; while you’re deciding what to do, the enemy might just take a swing at you. Your party doesn’t always move all at once; some members move faster than others. This simple change makes combat fare more dynamic and adds several interesting layers of strategy.
The class system may be gone, but its shades still live on through the characters. Every party member in this game plays differently. As a Dark Knight, Cecil can shoot dark energy that depletes his own health. Then, as a Paladin, he can cover his allies and cast some healing magic. Meanwhile, Kain is all about jumping attacks, Rydia summons the gods and casts Black Magic, Palom and Parom have a powerful tag-team spell, Yang is a monk who strikes hard and fast, Edward can sing support songs or run away, and Edge spends all his time dead on the floor!
Magic has also been revamped to fit the new active-time system. You’ve still got your basic spells, your cures and your curas, your fires and your firas. But now you have spells that accelerate your party members, allowing them to make more actions faster, or slow down your enemies. On top of that, more powerful spells take longer to cast, so you need to make sure your casters will survive long enough to drop that nuke that they’re preparing.
Unfortunately, a good chunk of the spells you learn in this game are flat-out useless. Stat buff spells are so weak that you may as well not use them. There are even some that you can simply never use! Status effect spells never once worked on a single enemy in my entire playthrough. Spells like Warp or Teleport were simply grayed out, never to be used when I actually needed them.
While we’re complaining, let’s talk about grinding. Throughout my playthrough, I only ever needed to grind twice. The first time wasn’t so bad; I just needed a few extra levels. The second time, however, I ran into a massive wall! Right at the final boss, I had to grind for twenty levels just to survive long enough to actually fight him!
Am I just bad at the game? Maybe. But RPGs are all about numbers, so I feel that my point is valid. If you disagree, that’s fine. I can live with you being wrong.
Now, I don’t want the final point in this review to be a negative one. So let’s talk about one thing I really liked: this game’s clarity. It’s pretty hard to get lost in Final Fantasy IV. The game always makes it pretty clear where you need to go and where you can go if you feel like doing a side quest. Even when it isn’t, it’s never hard to find the clues you need. The game guides you through it smoothly without ever necessarily holding your hand.
That may seem like a small point, but after how often I got lost in Final Fantasy I and III, and more recently in V, I’d say it’s a strong one.
It’s pretty clear why Final Fantasy IV is still held in decently high regard. This is where the series really started to get good, even if it isn’t perfect. The story is good, despite its many problems with its pacing and its villains. The gameplay isn’t flawless, but it’s the most engaging and challenging it has been so far. Plus, it all looks and sounds fantastic!
And you know what’s really great? We’ve got nowhere to go but up. All three of the SNES Final Fantasy games are fantastic and they only get better as they go.
That is, if you can survive all the class grinding in V. I’ll get back to you all if I do.