Review by jagthebeetle
A Fourth Final Fantasy, Improved but Flawed
Final Fantasy III, by all means a truly amazing game, achieved the quintessence of RPG on several levels. However, if Square Enix is said to have improved on what was missing or flawed in FFIII and thusly to have remade FFIV, I'm afraid their idea of improvement is somewhat flawed: Final Fantasy IV is in all respects a good game. The storyline is about as intricate as any you'd expect from the earlier Final Fantasy games, and better than a great deal of the games available for the DS, including Final Fantasy III. Furthermore, unlike some who are concerned with the artistic style being too much like that of the "tellatubes" [sic], I found the stylization to be enjoyable, if at times a little lazy. Of course, there is still the matter of the flaws that Square seems to have overlooked, or purposely (and might I say erroneously) included in this DS installment. The ultimate problem boils down to the difficulty level in this game. If you thought Final Fantasy III was challenging, Final Fantasy IV becomes a task that Zeus himself would have struggled with--his only advantage over us being his ability to angrily destroy his DS and zap a new one into existence. The game is not kind--it is difficult, a flaw that seems to have been magnified from the previous installment, and vexes the player, ultimately staying him (or her) away. Lest you read the following and preceding with dismay, I warn you that my review is harsh, and the reviewer has no room for clemency. The game IS good.
The graphics, which supposedly improve from Final Fantasy III's, are certainly more realistic. Can you expect a better opening video? No. Can you expect better sprites? Well, yes, but only marginally so: the gargantuan party leader that floatingly walks about a rather undetailed world map looks more photo-realistic. But you know what? I liked the tinier, at least slightly more realistically proportioned Luneth of FFIII lore! The new Cecil is a big-headed, almost faceless being whose body seems to taper curiously as it goes down. No matter. Graphics are not the DS's strong point, right? Well, having a curiously gigantic sprite with a nondescript face walk about is almost a step down from even Final Fantasy I, where the determined eyes of the nameless hero, and the large head--which had at least noticeable eyes, again--were encouraging, graphical limitations and all. To be honest, however, battle is really the only time apart from cutscenes where the graphics matter. This is really the only time in the game when the characters are zoomed in. However, will the player be looking at them? Chances are no (more on that later). The characters are at least better defined in battle, and seem to react to the hits. They look at least somewhat better, and I have no real gripes. The weapons that they use are clearly visible, and varied. That is, there are actually different sprites for the different weapons/shields. No spectacular designs for them, of course, but still a nice touch.
The sound is a little problem, though. The opening cutscene's background music is the classic Final Fantasy we all know, nicely orchestrated... But then there's the game's music. It's much less vibrant than Final Fantasy III's and seems to have been written in minor scales, using almost off-key sounding music. It's, frankly, not memorable. The battle music is great. Why? It's not new. It's old hash. There are some background musics which are annoying and sound like the mandolin on a 99-cent keyboard that I received from a particularly cheap aunt once. The sound effects in battles are okay, but there is little to expect in that area. Beside the sound of your sword or punch, there is not much else. The magic spells all sound like reverse cymbals and little crackles in the speaker. They're not bad, but lack the pizazz of what I think the spell would actually sound like. Overall, the music-sound department is somewhat lacking, unfortunately. But, the cutscenes in the game often have sound, which frankly left me flabbergasted. I did not expect the game to contain as much speaking as it did. It was a beautiful achievement, albeit I wasn't partial to much of the voice acting. In addition, even in battles, the backgrounds are pretty, and do not have hideous blurs that distract the player. I appreciate and laud Squeenix's achievements with regards to all the data they were able to include in the game!
The gameplay is the meat of this review, and unfortunately one of my biggest gripes with the game. The flaws here are few but really large. For starters, the game has you wander a world map in search of castles and towns where you get sent off to dungeons. This is an accepted method and does not bother. Crawling the dungeons, finding treasure chests is not at all unexciting: the tenseness can be felt. Bosses are engaged with small cutscenes which add a nice touch to the game. The controls are as slick (or clunky) as you'd expect for a D-pad, except for the fact that the B-button-D-pad dashing method seems a little jumpy. The game, which is displayed in an isometric projection (meaning at a sort of 45-degree angle) has some unconvincing 3d, which arises when running behind a wall, but the issue is entirely minor. Unfortunately, the largest issues are the fights. The game starts easily, as any game should. But once the game is near the end, and even during the middle, the difficulty level rises so incredibly, that the player is left wondering why the game didn't take the time to force him or her to level earlier. Not only is the story interrupted by necessary grinding, but the all-powerful new enemies are introduced as unceremoniously as an old acquaintance, until you realize that they can kill your entire party with their special attacks. Even the enemies roaming the overworld near the end are suddenly powerful creatures which swarm unfairly and can reduce a healthy party to a sniveling, half-dead mess. The game does not forgive the under-leveled player: perhaps I ran into a small bit of misfortune, but the amount of Back-Attacks and Surprise attacks was unfairly and frustratingly high when I was floundering. Just fighting in the overworld near the end of the game is a task that will leave you healing and nervously looking at your HP-levels after and even during battles. Ridiculously overpowered enemies will bombard your party with the highest-level magic spells out there, and as if not enough, will come in threes and fours! The game does not remind you to save cautiously--say, as Final Fantasy XII does. It tells you "the party has fallen, try again from the last time you saved"? After the tenseness of crawling through a dungeon, relief at finding the end, and the sudden announcement of your party's demise, you will feel a little disappointed, no doubt. The game becomes a quest wherein the player is only staring at the map, hunting for the next savepoint and tremulously defeating the enemies. After happily defeating the dungeon, the player exits only to be killed by a Back-Attack! by three mythical creatures!
The presentation is about as great as the previous DS installment. The enemies and blades and even items draw from a great range of mythologies, British, Greek, Norse, and Japanese, among others. Searching the names of most enemies in a book of mythology (or online for the less literary) will often turn up a legend or myth regarding the enemy. The story is inspired, and certainly takes the player around the world, as it were. The opening cutscene is a beautifully eye-catching and amazingly well-executed scene that will have the player coming back a few times to watch it and say "Oh, that's what that is!" The menus are well-organized, although I miss the marbling of the Final Fantasy III menus. These menus have the improvement, however, of having an "Optimize" setting, and different ways to sort items. The Augment system used in the game is a little annoying, and the limited battle menu for characters leaves the player feeling uncomfortable: there is only a small number of abilities a character can use at one time, and they are permanently attached to that character. In battle, the abilities not on the list will not be accessible! Even in battles, with special abilities learned, the game still plows on, generally giving too little time to ponder whether a special ability is appropriate. In battles, you'll notice that what you look at the most is the ATB gauges, which determine when your characters will be able to attack. The enemies, and even their names and stats, which are placed in a helpful but too out-of-place help bar, will not draw your eye. Nor will your own characters. The pace is simply so quick that the player will most likely be staring at the battle menu, and then looking nervously at the health and MP. In short, battles are a hectic and almost entirely menu/text-based. This is expected of an RPG, but unfortunately, the amount that the ATB system draws away from the actual graphic experience is a little over-much.
Indeed, the battle system is to me perhaps one of my largest qualms with regard to the game, and with regard to Squeenix's supposed improvement of Final Fantasy III. What, pray, was wrong with turn-based battles? The new Active Time Battle system will have you hammering at the buttons sometimes, and sometimes just mashing A. If you make a mistake, and accidentally selected a fire spell, and then remember that the enemy absorbs fire, too bad! If you realize that one strategy is better than another, too bad! Your party doesn't really work like a team: when one character is ready, his move had better be the right one, 'cause you will not get the chance to choose your party's moves before you can cancel. Can you wait a second to think things out? No, the battle continues, and enemies will hammer you while you make choices--this option can be turned off, but honestly doesn't seem to make things better. The gauges are innovative and interesting, but sort of take a bit away from the traditional RPG. And some enemies have ridiculously quick-filling bars. When you select "Attack" with all your characters, a bunch still manage to get in their own attacks and even powerful spells before you even get a chance to react. Because the battle is no longer turn-based, you have to wait until your healer's bar fills up before trying to heal, and then you have to wait another bunch for his spell-bar to fill up; in short, there is no guarantee that the healer will even get to cast the spell before being hit again, possibly fatally. Then, combined with enemies that seem to have endless amounts of MP and super quick casting times, you will be hammered by multiple status-effects, and then black magic that will slap you before you even get a chance to get rid of the status-effects. In short, the difficulty level is ridiculously high, and the ATB exacerbates it, not to mention its being rather unnecessary for an RPG. That said, it is enjoyable when you are over-leveled. But it shouldn't be that way. It means that when you beat a boss, you'll sometimes feel that you only luckily managed to sneak in that heal or that finishing attack. It's very off-putting.
Despite its flaws, Final Fantasy IV is a great game. Unfortunately, as a somewhat disgruntled and unforgiving reviewer, I may make the game seem worse than it is, or I may even pick too much on seemingly trivial aspects, but the fact is that when thinking about picking up a game to play, the small trivialities do pop up and make the player's hand move a little to the left and pick a different game. Final Fantasy III was personally a much more enjoyable game, except for the story, which felt short. Final Fantasy IV offers so much more, in way of replayability, including a second improved playthrough, minigames, and a surprisingly high number of environs which far surpass III. The graphics are beautiful, if at times a little unimpressive. The cutscenes are great, and the sound is at times very vivid. Unfortunately, the game can be very annoying when it comes to its difficulty level. As for its being suited to the DS, I believe that the touch-screen capabilities are heavily underused. But the DS has just the capacity to play the game, and for a full Wii or PS3 price, I would not frankly be moved to buy this game. It is far below home-console standards, but it meets, and exceeds in some areas, the expectations for a DS game. Should Final Fantasy V come along for the DS, this game would certainly be a reason for my getting it. It is a masterful oeuvre, and the effort that went to the intricate building of it pays off, particularly if the player chooses to be more forgiving than I was in my reviewing, allowing the inspired, epic quest to unfold and despite a hiccup or three, to end in a triumphant victory.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Final Fantasy IV (US, 07/21/08)
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