When it comes to these Final Fantasy games, I’m not sure which of the two I played first. My first real system growing up was the SNES, and while it took me a little while to get into JRPGs, they were one of the first types of games I can remember eagerly seeking out. I could differentiate these games from the others out there, and I knew that I liked how they handled story and combat better than a lot of the platformers, sports games, and fighters that dominated the system.
Originally released as Final Fantasy 2 here in the United States, FFIV is one of those games that established a lot of what we see as standard about the franchise. It was the first to really present various characters, each one with a preassigned job role. The crystals are more present than ever before, with not only a set for each element, but an entirely new set of four Dark Crystals. Those are just called that because they exist in the underground world. This journey would not only take you through the standard world and the underground, but all the way to the Moon and back!
FFIV also set the standard for having character focused narratives. Throughout the entire game, you will play as Cecil. This young man was raised to be a knight, fulfilling the tenants of honor, using his sword to protect the weak. It just happens that his sword happens to be one of darkness, and he is called by his king to wield that darkness in a way that better represents evil than good. Ever loyal Cecil agrees, but he can’t help but question his king’s decision. This results in what the text says above, with Cecil setting forth.
The story becomes as much about Cecil’s path toward redemption as it does the overarching narrative of fighting against the Kingdom of Baron. We see him decide to do what’s right, and how he struggles to fulfill those expectations. Along the way, he’ll be challenged to earn the sword of light in order to fight against not only the darkness inside himself, but the darkness in the world. This actually feels earned, as we watch Cecil continually try to do what’s right. He puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of other people. Life would’ve been easier for him if he had simply obeyed his king and done as commanded.
Along the way Cecil is joined by a motley crew of characters, totally 12 overall (though the two forms of Cecil could be separated as they play slightly differently). Most of these characters have their own narrative journey to accomplish. Cecil’s best friend, Kain, has perhaps the most engaging outside of Cecil himself. Kain is clearly jealous of Cecil, partly for how well Cecil does, but also because Cecil has won the heart of white mage Rosa. The enemy plays on Kain’s jealousy, using dark magic to further sway him onto the side of darkness. This pulls at Kain throughout the game, as he struggles with his own failings as an individual and knight.
The game really does play with the ideas of light and dark, moving to what they can represent. I love that the game’s narrative insists that everyone can be redeemed if they choose to do so. Characters that live in darkness are sometimes helpful beings that want to fight for the side of what’s right and good, sacrificing themselves and others. There’s a nuance to how this game approaches morality that makes it fascinating to look through. It really aims to tell this grand narrative of redemption, loss, light, dark, good and evil, and I’d say it does a pretty good job overall.
A lot of that really does come down to the characters, and the individual stories here are arguably more fleshed out than even Final Fantasy VI, which is known for its diverse characters. Sure, there are a few throwaways (Cid’s almost just here for comic relief; he certainly isn’t all that helpful in combat), but the cast is moderately diverse and well rounded, with even some temporary characters getting halfway decent arcs (one or two completing their arcs after they’ve left the party). Of course, we have another case of there being 12 characters and a whopping 3 of them are female (with two being white mages), but there’s a solid attempt here, and two of those female characters are in your party for the vast majority of the game.
The gameplay mostly plays out like every other game in the series. You move your chosen avatar around on the screen, exploring various towns and dungeons (you can select anyone currently in your party). There are frequently treasures hidden in little nooks and crannies throughout both town and dungeon alike. The Pixel Remaster here starts to show invisible paths whenever you get close to them. I’ve mixed feelings about that, since it takes away some of the thrill of discovery when locating them. On the other hand, it takes some of the frustrating trial and error out of the process.
Whenever you’re exploring a hostile area, you can run into various random encounters. This game started the Final Fantasy system of having each character have their own sort of individual speed, with attacks taking different amounts of time to activate and the enemy acting right alongside the party at times. It’s pretty engaging, and there’s a reason they’ll stick with more or less the same system up through Final Fantasy X.
This Pixel Remaster doesn’t feel quite as amped up in difficulty as the FFVI one did. That’s probably because FFIV is a bit harder of a game overall than FFVI, though it could also just be that by the time I got to this game, I’d already replayed an entire old school Final Fantasy in more or less the same vein.
Spell effects have really been amplified here, standing in even greater contrast than they did for FFVI. It borders on distracting in a few parts, but it is pretty to look at for the most part. The only issue here is the same sort of issue that I found in the other Pixel Remaster: often we’ll get these incredibly fantastic graphical effects for a spell that does little damage. It seems almost randomized, with some more basic attacks racking up higher numbers than these elaborate sequences. If an attack looks impressive and hits, then it should probably have consequences.
There are several other quality of life improvements here. The characters move a bit faster on the map, including diagonal movement (seriously, you do not know how big of a deal that is unless you’ve played the originals). There are experience and gil boosters present as well, though I didn’t find myself needing them. Most of the time my characters felt pretty well equipped for the task ahead. There’s a tricky dungeon just around the midpoint (the Magnetic Cavern), but it’s purposefully meant to be tricky.
No, the issue here is a final boss that is a brick wall.
I swear it’s just been my luck lately, but it feels like I keep running into final bosses that are just incredibly difficult, way more so than the rest of the game. I had been completely skating through the last dungeon, easily and handily defeating all the optional bosses. My party was pretty well tricked out, and I had learned most of the foibles of the combat system thus far. But this guy just deals out so much damage at such a high rate that is was more frustrating than anything.
I also don’t recall him being that much of an obstacle in my previous encounters with the game. The GBA version even allowed you to go in with different characters in all kinds of combinations, and I don’t remember it being this difficult. This just keeps happening with these games (Persona 3 immediately stands out), and it’s frustrating to me. The final boss should be testing your skills and abilities, absolutely, but it shouldn’t feel like a nearly insurmountable obstacle for a player looking to beat the game.
I literally had to tweak gameplay settings to get past this guy.
There are other small quibbles involving this game. Like all the Pixel Remasters, it leaves out some content that was on other releases. I don’t understand why they don’t at least include the extras that were present on the GBA ports; those games are nearly twenty years old themselves. Even those basics would be appreciated.
Characters are also incredibly uneven, though that was present in the initial game. Kain can literally only jump or fight hand to hand, and there’s never a reason not to just send him flying up into the air. Cecil is in your party for most of the game, yet his options aren’t much better. You’ll be spending most of your playthrough telling him to just whack an enemy with his sword.
This isn’t even considering the fact that you get a couple of members of your party who are outright dead weight. As much as I love Prince Edward, he feels even weaker here than he did in the original games (with a little love there, he could at least deal damage on pace with some of the others). Engineer Cid is arguably even worse, as he doesn’t even have Edward’s halfway decent healing abilities to buoy him up.
In other words, some of the seams do show in this particular release. It still feels polished, and honestly the narrative alone is enough to make this worth engaging. If you’ve any interest in JRPGs, this is a pretty good one to start with. It has just enough challenge to push players, an actual character driven narrative that demonstrates depth of thought and reads as adult (moving beyond just “teenagers out to save the world”), and some interesting environments to explore. I don’t know if I’d quite as heartily recommend this particular version, considering what it’s leaving out, but it’s still an excellent way to enjoy a classic game on modern hardware.
8 the game withstands the test of time, but a brick wall final boss and a few issues regarding balance are going to be something of a turn-off