Review by Rango
An old-school, yet solid remake of a classic.
Final Fantasy IV was created in the early 1990s for the SNES, released as Final Fantasy II in America. For what it's worth, FF4 was a successful and beloved RPG. The cast of characters, the developing story, and the soundtrack all contributed to a title that would forever set the standard for future RPGs to come. Amidst its many re-releases on various platforms, one of such releases came to the Nintendo DS in the 2000s. However, one thing to know about remakes is that they're not always an upgrade.
As Cecil Harvey, you're the Dark Knight of Baron. You are the commander of your units, the Red Wings. The game's prologue starts with his army forcibly taking a crystal from the land of Mysidia, his army killing the hapless citizens. Your game starts with getting to know Cecil, his unquestionable loyalty to the king, his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosa, and his best friend, Kain. Together with Kain, you travel to deliver an item to the village of Mist. What happens along the way would change your impression of how stories start in RPGs, as it begins a series of plot twists that are ahead of its time for a game of its age. You'll meet the Dark Knight, Cecil, the Dragoon, Kain, the White Mage, Rosa, the Summoner, Rydia, and many more. Their backgrounds have stories to tell, and their actions truly speak volumes in this game. They're more than battle avatars, but actual characters you'll grow attached to. You'll see stories of sacrifice, betrayal, love, and vengeance unfold over the 20+ hours you play through the game.
Final Fantasy IV DS is a step up, but also a step down to some, in terms of visuals. Now remade in full 3D, the characters are brought to life by their character models. While FMVs treat you to realistic character models, which you may be familiar with from the CGI in PlayStation FF titles, the in-game models are more chibi-like. Eyes are huge, characters are blocky, yet they are still brought to life. Loyalists to the series may not appreciate them over the sprites, but their animations are solid and reminiscent of the aforementioned PS1 FF titles. Enemies are in constant motion and cutscenes play out before your eyes, giving the game a new breath of life by showing the original intention of how they were supposed to look. Stages are detailed with new colors, textures, and overlays that separates them from one-another. Summons are now fully-animated cutscenes, all of which are skippable.
Nobuo Uematsu's compositions were well-renowned after this game's release. It was truly one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. Faithfully remixed by Junya Nakano and Kenichiro Fukui, the soundtrack takes advantage of the more powerful DS sound chip. New sound effects, and even remixed sound effects, such as Bio, have been added, and Critical hits sound like powerful swipes now. They recapture the feel of the original SNES, as the FF titles on the SNES had great and memorable sound effects for magic spells.
Final Fantasy IV is a turn-based RPG. Fans of the original will remember the cast of characters and their unique abilities. The leveling system is straightforward and linear. Every character has a class and abilities they gain by leveling up. You can have five characters per party, and you put to work a team strategy that covers all of your bases. However, Final Fantasy IV DS has two noteworthy differences.
The first is the Augment system. The Augment system gives your characters special traits and abilities, such as Counter and Auto-Potion. These are found by various characters throughout the game, and many of which you have to go out of your way to find. Be sure to talk to all NPCs you can, as this will be quite helpful.
The second is the game's difficulty. Square-Enix and Matrix Software chose to make the game more difficult to appeal to veteran players. However, for a newcomer, this game will be nothing short of crushing. For a veteran player, you will be forced to grind levels. You gain levels and EXP fairly slowly in this game, as even a difficult fight will only raise your EXP bar by a slight margin. Sometimes, you will be ambushed by powerful enemies, and both will cast a powerful AoE spell that wipes out your team before you have the chance to react or even escape. Save points are sparse and the encounter rate ranges from moderate to high. Oftentimes, this game will feel quite unfair, and by forcing the player to grind levels, also repetitive. Despite the balance of the original game, which was challenging in its own right, the only grinding required was in the final dungeon. Barring that, it was straightforward so long as you continued to fight all of your battles and not run from them.
Finally, FF4 DS maintains a feeling of old-school. If you die in battle, you do not save the EXP you got. Your only checkpoints are the save points. Also, several parts of the game will require you to explore around the entire world map. Getting the Magma Rock means finding an arbitrary well in a place you haven't been to yet. The unclear sense of direction may force players to find a walkthrough or spend hours looking for something that was not clarified by any NPC in the game. Without a story synopsis or a guide, you will end up stuck.
To veteran players, it's pure bliss. Partly because this is a remake of a game that has been ported several times over the course of (at the time) 15 years, and partly because it's a nostalgic sense of challenge. To newer players, or those who prefer a more straightforward experience, this is a punishing, grueling experience. You will spend time looking for things that were not clearly pointed out, and when you're not praying and hoping a random enemy doesn't ambush you, you will be forced to grind it out just to survive a boss' 2-hit kills.
If you are familiar with the SNES or PS1 versions of the game, the main content comes from a reworked script and two superbosses, which can only be fought after the final boss is defeated. If you are coming from the GBA version of the title, the extra dungeons and equipment are removed. Also, you cannot switch your party members at the end of the game. It's a loyal remake through and through, but one that comes with great difficulty, oftentimes frustrating.
Overall, I give the title a 7/10, and it comes from that frustration that I do so. Being forced to grind levels is an example of rushed design, and for a game made in 2007, poor sense of direction is a cumbersome trial for any player when we live in the world of maps, HUDs, and other advancements. As much as I enjoy a game of exploration, I feel it came down to carelessly not giving hints to the player on where to go next that became irksome, while forced level grinding could have simply been replaced with new abilities, or even a Hard Mode as a post-game option.
In my firm opinion, the DS version is an upgrade from the SNES and PS1 versions, due to the visual upgrades and retranslated script. However, the GBA version also had a retranslated script, updated visuals, no difficulty spikes, and more extra content. And if you can hunt down a European version of the game, you can avoid some of the minor glitches involving ATB as well. Overall, Final Fantasy IV Advance is the best version of the game for a Nintendo owner, while Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection for PSP is arguably the best all-around. Visuals are even more updated, even beautiful, and it retains extra content from the GBA version.
If you're itching for a challenge and own a DS or 3DS, there's no reason not to own this game. It tells one of the most beautiful stories in RPG history. However, if the thought of forced grinding, one-hit-kill enemies, and getting lost frustrates you, you may be better off picking up either the Advance, PSP, or Steam/iOS versions instead. It's a good remake of a great game, but it's far from perfect.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Final Fantasy IV (US, 07/21/08)
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