First off, I know this is overdue! So I apologize, and hopefully things should be getting back to normal from here on out.
Final Fantasy IV is a very special Final Fantasy to me. Because back in the glory days of their titles being changed to hide the fact we didn’t get several of them, this game was called Final Fantasy II in the states. It was also my first Final Fantasy game, and while I had enjoyed the Dragon Quest games on the NES, this was the game that showed me just what a JRPG could be at the time.
GET IT HERE: Final Fantasy IV on Steam
GENRE: JRPG that defined the genre…Again!
Since Final Fantasy IV was being developed on new hardware, Square wanted to take the opportunity to re-invent certain aspects of Final Fantasy while still staying true to what made the NES trilogy a success. And frankly, I think they succeeded big time. There’s a LOT to cover here, but I’ll try to avoid going on for too long about anything. Key word here, try, this is, again my first FF. It’s a very special one, and one I will rave about because of that. You have been warned!
First off, we have to talk about the story: It’s a MUCH bigger thing in Final Fantasy IV compared to previous entries. You might recall that Final Fantasy II tried to give an individual personality and story role to each character, though it wasn’t very significant at the end of the day. Final Fantasy IV takes that ideal and realizes it fully. Throughout your journey, you will meet new characters with their own stories and goals that drive them, each with their own unique skill sets that further defines them as characters beyond just their backstory. Characters are the driving force behind Final Fantasy IV, and they’re one of the reasons I consider it one of the best entries in the series due to how it defined this for future JRPGs, not just Final Fantasy.
Story is also a much bigger element, and one I’ll be discussing a bit of, but only to a point so as to avoid spoiling the entire experience. In Final Fantasy IV, the world is in a period of strife due to the actions of the militaristic nation of Baron, which is attempting to seize the Crystals of the world from other nations by force. The twist? The story begins with its protagonist Cecil Harvey, a Dark Knight, leading a raid to take one of those crystals by force. He and his men kill several innocent mages in the process before stealing the crystal. As commander of Baron’s airforce, the Red Wings, Cecil feels guilt in the elite of Baron acting like common criminals, a concern shared among the crew of his fleet, but he lacks the courage to defy Baron’s king who raised Cecil after he was orphaned at a young age.
This moral dilemma weighs heavy on him as he confides in his lover Rosa Farrell, a White Mage in training who hopes to use her powers to aid Cecil. Rosa is convinced Cecil needs to stand up for what’s right, yet Cecil continues to struggle between being loyal to the King, and doing what he knows is right. This moral dilemma becomes a problem though as the discontent among him and his crew convinces the King that Cecil is no longer fit to command the Red Wings, his leadership stripped away in a demotion. Cecil is then tasked to deliver a strange ring to the town of Mist. In his haste to defend Cecil, the Dragoon Kain Highwind is ordered to accompany Cecil on the task. We learn Kain too was raised by the King after his father died. We learn that Cecil and Kain are long friends, and that Kain feels no resentment towards this mission being forced on him, and is convinced Cecil will be commanding the Red Wings again after its completion.
Unfortunately, things are not what they seem, as Cecil and Kain encounter a Mist Dragon guarding the village and attempting to bar them entry. Upon slaying it to force their way into the village of Mist, Cecil and Kain immediately learn the horrifying purpose of the Ring: It releases a horde of Bomb monsters who proceed to burn the village and kill nearly everyone in it, with only a young girl surviving the flames and mourning her mother. But the horror of what Cecil and Kain have done continues: The mother died before the flames even erupted. She was a Summoner, as were all in the village, and summoned the Mist Dragon to protect it. But because her summoned creature, an Eidolon perished, the mother perished with it. Learning Cecil and Kain were responsible, the young girl in her anger summons Titan and causes an Earthquake that brings down the mountains around mist, cutting off access to the village from its east where Cecil and the young girl wind up after the collapse ends, Kain nowhere in sight.
Cecil’s guilt hits a breaking point here: He declares all ties with Baron severed, and that he will no longer obey the orders of a King who is clearly not the same man who raised Cecil all those years ago. Now, he seeks to stop Baron from seizing the other Crystals to prevent whatever nefarious purpose it might have in store for them, save Rosa from a kingdom he no longer trusts, and protect the last Summoner child knowing that Baron wants her dead. And in the process, he’ll also seek redemption for his past sins, and leave behind the dark powers he has come to rely on before they consume him. Redemption is a major driving story factor in the first act of Final Fantasy IV, and Cecil will meet countless people, many of whom are not quick to trust a Dark Knight of Baron for good reason, but will set aside their differences for the greater good. It’s a powerful story for the time, playing a person who isn’t inherently a chosen hero from the getgo, and is actually a man who has done horrible things and now seeks to right those wrongs.
The story goes much deeper than this, as Cecil will learn the truth behind the Crystals and the secret they hide while he also tries to escape the dark powers he relies on before they consume him, all while unknown evils plot the redemption seeker’s demise…
But it’s not just the story that has taken a bold new direction in Final Fantasy IV, as its gameplay and the combat at its core have also been reinvented, and would define Final Fantasy’s combat as a whole for years onward through what was called the Active Time Battle system, ATB for short.
ATB’s unique aspect is that it’s not entirely turn based, nor is it entirely real time. The concept is that every unit, player and enemy, must wait for their turn to come up as a turn gauge fills (Though you won’t see this for enemies, only your characters). Once that turn gauge is filled, the character may act, or delay their action without losing their turn in order to allow you to command someone else whose turn gauge is filled up. Most actions are immediate, but some like certain magic spells may take additional time to cast, adding a bit of tactical weight to your decisions. This also means that if you’re too slow to act, enemies can attack before you even decide what to do. Thankfully, an option for ATB exists called Wait Mode where time stops in battle any time you are in an item or spell menu, allowing you more time to make your decisions after choosing magic or items as what you’re going to have a character use.
But ATB isn’t the only new gameplay change to Final Fantasy IV. It brings back the class based system of the original Final Fantasy, except this time around, everyone’s class is a predetermined aspect of their character. This means rather than getting to make the party you want, you have to learn the party you’re given and discover how each character can contribute to your victories. You’ll have plenty of Final Fantasy staples show up, such as a Monk, White Mage, a Summoner that also excels in Black Magic, as well as entirely new roles like an Engineer, a Bard (who is kinda meh…) and honestly, the variety is great. The downside of course is that many characters are not permanent allies and thus you will eventually have to part ways with them and then worry about outfitting new allies as you meet them. The good news is that the Pixel Remaster offers a bit of QoL in that it automatically unequips anyone that leaves your party, so you don’t lose their equipment at least. I do particularly love the way your party is changed up though, if only because it means you get to try and experiment with a large number of party configurations and learn how they work as they come at you, with almost every character being good in their own way except that Bard I mentioned.
Formation plays another major role, with your party size being expanded to a maximum of 5 slots, and a rule of the formation being either 3 in the front row, 2 in the back, or 2 in the front and 3 in the back. Front/Back row is very important in Final Fantasy IV, as being in the backrow halves the physical damage someone both takes and dishes out, while the front row can dish out full physical damage but also takes full physical damage from foes. This usually means you want your squishy mages in the back, while your fighters take the front line.
One particular aspect of combat that improves greatly over the NES trilogy though? Boss fights. Many bosses now have mechanics beyond ‘Hit them with their weakness until they die.’ Some have phases where they are immune to damage, some have counter-attacks under specific criteria, some may focus on specific attack types like immobilizing your party. It means that every boss fight has its own identity, requiring its own tactics to overcome.
The world of Final Fantasy IV is also very expansive, with a second world lying below its surface, and more beyond its skies. Compared to the NES games, the world in Final Fantasy IV is just massive, and none of it feels wasted. Towns and dungeons litter it, some purely there fort the purpose of exploration and not even part of the main plot. There’s a significant number of side quests in Final Fantasy IV, such as finding the means to create a legendary blade, and earning new Eidolons for your Summoner that go outside of the main storyline and give you more to do.
The music is a gem, as is always the case with anything Nobou Uematsu does. Though this is one case where I do think it’s a shame the Pixel Remaster lacks the option to hear the original music, as in my opinion the SNES version of the soundtrack absolutely holds up to modern standards. That’s not to say the remaster soundtrack is bad though: Far from it. The remaster soundtrack is absolutely amazing and is spot on in terms of nailing the feel of each track while giving it a modern touch, and some I would say easily surpass the originals such as my favorite track: Within the Giant.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy IV is probably one of the greatest steps forward for the franchise as a whole, introducing a new story focused on individual characters as well as the world itself, overhauling the combat, and just creating an amazing all around JRPG experience. This is one of my favorites for a reason, and it’s not just because it’s the first one I played.
Next time, we touch on my favorite Final Fantasy of all time, V.