Final Fantasy IV
I hate feeling old, so it is particularly terrifying to think there might be people with a Nintendo DS who weren't even alive in 1991. Is the youth the target demographic for this new port of Final Fantasy IV? No. Nor is it older people who've never had the opportunity to play it before. With the difficulty stacked on a considerably higher shelf than your average title, Final Fantasy IV DS is a port for people who've either finished the game before and know it pretty well, or masochists prepared to learn the hard way. An odd move, perhaps, until you look at the sales charts and realise it's only Square Enix devotees who would choose this over Brain Training and Nintendogs in the first place.
I sit nicely within the former category, so with this I begin my third play-through of Final Fantasy IV. There are more variants of this game now than there are Saturday evening musical talent shows. You've got the absolute original Japanese release of Final Fantasy IV, the American release with its difficulty gimped for an expectedly-thick Western audience released as Final Fantasy II. Then there's Final Fantasy IV EasyType, a Japanese-only update which took the easy American version and made it even simpler. It doesn't stop here, though, with additional tweaked ports being plonked on the PlayStation, Wonderswan and GBA, each one diddling various parts here and there to create a somewhat-unique interpretation. Enter the DS, and the first version of the game that's tapped into the third-dimension to produce some rather impressive and eye-catching handheld graphics.
Part of the beauty of it on the technically-capped DS is the nostalgia factor. This looks like how an old Final Fantasy game looks, yet they've jazzed it all up in 3D. It all feels exactly the same, though. Its all here. It doesn't take long to re-adjust yourself to the realisation that you're back inside a Final Fantasy game, for better or worse. Lovers of the series will feel like they've been shipped off on a thirty-hour handheld holiday. Haters might not. But regardless of your opinion of these ever-successful turn-based Japanese faux-epics, acclimatising yourself to this series is a task so important to a seasoned gamer it sits pretty much underneath breathing, reading and spreading derogatory comments about non-preferred video games consoles on internet forums. Whilst it might be the fourth game in the series, it was the one that really set-up everything that we consider part of the modern-day Final Fantasy title.
Part of what makes FFIV feel a bit unique is that it was produced before the series started becoming an endless cyclical cliché. The protagonist, Cecil, isn't some downtrodden peasant with a heart of gold who saves the world, or some nobody thrown into power. He starts the game a high-ranking Dark Knight (with neat armour) who answers directly to the king and commands his own squadron. After being sent on a mission where he unknowingly razes a city to the ground, he goes off on a bit of a sulk and decides to mix things up a little. Things happen, of course, and it's always a shame to give away a semi-decent story, so let's just say the whole thing is a tale weaved from fibres of revenge and desire. Well, sort of. It's marred by a few narrative cop-outs that are a serious injustice on a solid story, and near the end it becomes the 'ragtag bunch against otherworldly power hell-bent on destruction of planet' dynamic that happens in all Final Fantasy games since the beginning of time. And then fate and destiny and domestic family nonsense start permeating the whole bloody thing and you realise that it's just like all the others.
Still, there are some points that continue to stand out today. There's no concept of choosing your own party here, and new members are only introduced when old members are killed or are too injured (after important cut-scenes, not by your in-game actions) to finish the fight. There's a remarkable amount of death and misery in Final Fantasy IV, and if Aeris kicking the bucket was enough to give you nightmares then you probably won't feel at home here. FFIV manages to succeed in its portrayal of a world being scarred and ruined by the villains, and it's probably one of the most vibrant and engaging Final Fantasy worlds created, which is all a bit of a miracle when you stop and realise that everything feels so overwhelmingly static. It's the setting, I think, that gives FFIV its appeal. For the sake of comparison, it's almost as if the DS port of Final Fantasy III was produced to showcase just how much of an advancement IV really was. Things that we take for granted now, like the clichéd twists, cut-scenes and despising the grandiose bastards who are just completely villainous for no real reason were still a developing sub-genre when this one was being made.
But, really, just taking old people on a nostalgia trip isn't going to be enough to warrant another purchase of FFIV. The special bits of the DS port are basically character augments and the map being displayed on the bottom screen. It's the little things that count, though, and the map on the bottom screen makes navigating every little nook and cranny of the world a relative breeze. The augments are put in place to give the almost right-angled rigidity of the characters the chance to loosen up a bit. It works like this: when a member leaves the party, they leave behind some of their special powers that can be bound to a remaining character. The system works competently, and certain abilities become vitally important throughout the game. However, the revolving-door aspect of characters often joining and leaving means that you can never become too attached to any of your neat moves and end up relying on the default abilities anyway. Unless you just plonk everything on Cecil.
The other big shift is in the maps. Exploring any level of a dungeon to 100% completion will yield some sort of monetary or item bonus. Of course, there's the idea that this is risk and reward - but it's basically essential. Grinding your characters up isn't optional, and even if you're having an easy time with enemies and bosses now there will be a set around the corner that will absolutely clean up unless your level is so high you're towering above them in terms of strength and magic.
None of these changes are going to do much in the long run, mind you. It's not like hearing about them is going to make someone who loathes FFIV suddenly rush to the nearest store waving their cash hysterically in the air. And if you like FFIV to begin with, you'll still like it with the new gubbins.
So, on one hand you've got a splendidly jazzed up version of one of the most defining Japanese RPG's ever created, and it's a good forty hours to boot. On the other you've still just got Final Fantasy IV. It's a tricky game to recommend because later games in the series manage to do what it does but more competently, yet it's also a game everybody should have a play with because it's filled with a certain allure that I can't quite put my finger on. Ultimately, though, part of the problem with developers revisiting their old, reliable stalwarts and jazzing them up with graphics that fit the twenty-first century, is that developers of the future will be in for a hard time. What will they rip-off in fifteen years instead of doing some actual work? Because this is the absolute last time I'm playing through Final Fantasy IV, anyway.
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