Play it again, you spoony bard!
In general, there are two camps of Final Fantasy fans: those who were fans before Final Fantasy VII and those after. As an unfailing member of the latter camp, I occasionally have to prop my head on a table and listen to members of the former camp rattle on about the androgynous androgyny of Squall, the wussy wussiness of Tidus, and above all, the weakly weak-sauce of every Final Fantasy that isn’t 2D. Many of them would claim that compared to others in the long-renowned series, Final Fantasy IV, in particular, was the real masterpiece, with a better storyline, a better overall challenge, and a far better feeling after beating the final boss. And on all those counts, they would be right… almost.
[image1]First, let’s be perfectly clear. This remake of FFIV for the DS is indeed an upgrade, in much the same way as Square Enix re-imagined Final Fantasy III for the DS. Virtually everything has been updated to 3D - the sprites, the monsters, the environments, the world map, and even Rosa’s and Rydia's virginity (*wink* *wink*). Sure, the graphics are about as fugly as the first wave of 3D titles on the Playstation, but for the DS, they are outstanding. Likewise, the soundtrack made famous by Nobuo Uematsu has been enhanced, if just slightly, while still retaining all the jingles and themes Final Fantasy is known for.
The only caveat with the presentation is that the opening cinematic is so vividly pre-rendered in 3D that you wish the whole game was simply remade for a next-gen stand-up console, instead of being wasted on a handheld. Even the cut-scenes, almost all of which are fully-voiced, only beg the question as to why this classic, of all classics, has to be relegated to a system whose main innovation is the stylus - a feature that this remake hardly ever uses.
My only guess is that Square Enix has a secret motive. They are going to update Final Fantasy V and VI for the handheld as well, and then when E3 2010 rolls around, a party of four Square Enix representatives will dash onto the stage, with one wearing purple overalls and a crazy hairdo, riding a confused chocobo, and holding an unnecessarily large sword, saying, “Well, you know we have to follow precedent. We are remaking Final Fantasy VII.”
Very little of the story changes much, either. Aside from a few thought bubbles that appear above your character when you open the menu screen, the story carries out as much it did on its Super Nintendo progenitor. You still witness the transformation of the dark knight Cecil - a brooding and unrelenting warrior clad in blackened, blood-stained armor - becoming the kinder, gentler, more androgynous, and absolutely not awesome Cecil. Accompanying you in your journey across faraway lands (including one very, very faraway land) is your love-interest white mage Rosa; your childhood friend, Kain the jumping-fiend dragoon (who, single-handedly, has made me understand why dragoons are so damn awesome); and a long list of companions that go as quickly as they come.
That said, the story is practically a compendium of “How To Write A Plot Twist 101, Volumes 1-4”. With a party maximum of five, no system for member swapping, and nine characters shown in the game’s manual alone, you can do the math. Every five cut-scenes, you can expect a “No, you can’t be dead!”, “Why have you betrayed me?”, “You are my father!” revelation that every RPG lover is accustomed to.
[image2]Some might be quick to conclude that the story is well-developed and more or less spectacular, but there is a difference between story and plot, at least in writer’s terms. While many plot-twisting events occur, this does not mean that the characters are fully expressed or that there is substance to the dialogue or enough emotional tension built between characters, so that when a plot twist does come around, you care. Here, every scene follows the same brisk but thin pace as a general storyboard, rather than a script that actually pays attention to the finer details of nuance.
Of course, it’s admittedly overbearing to accuse an old classic of having, well, an old story. FFIV’s storyline was at the forefront of game-oriented scriptwriting for its time and helped paved the way for (a few of) today’s more masterfully crafted titles. Still, since this is being released yet again (Final Fantasy IV Advance for the GBA), the overwhelming linearity and, specifically, the use of scripted boss battles become apparent. Simply riding on plot twists is not good enough anymore.
Ultimately, the reason you would replay FFIV again is for the Curaja-healing, Kick-inducing, handheld-breaking battles. If facing wave after wave of monsters that can level your party into face-flat poopy-makers (every ten to twenty steps on the map) isn’t challenging enough, the enemies are even stronger this time around. Just entering a battle practically ensures that you’ll be hit first. Whether your party is on the verge of death, scrambling to eke out enough MP for healing, or dashing toward the nearest chest, the sense of urgency is constant and often unrelenting.
Offsetting the almost unfair bump in difficulty is the Augment system, which lets you copy a character’s specific abilities, such as Yang’s Kick and Counter moves, to another character. It’s not as powerful as the system in FFIV Advance, which allowed Cecil to reunite and team up with most of his old friends right before the final area, but it does allow for more customized characters. Unfortunately, the more spectacular augments are only obtained by giving certain characters a specific number of augments, and without some sort of guide, you will miss out on some of them. It’s also difficult to tell what some special augments actually do, with only a blurb that is head-scratchingly difficult to decipher, and since you can’t remove augments, you’ll have to resort to the save system to make any changes.
[image3]Another odd addition is Whyt, a small fluff of nonsense that serves as a personal summon for Rydia. You can alter Whyt’s face and boost his stats with stylus mini-games (because all DS games just have to use that stylus somehow), but none of it is really worth your time. You’re much better off leveling up your party.
Revamping classics seems to be at least half of Square Enix’s main method of attack, and it’s working. While FFIV has a geriatric story and presentation - the 3D graphics and enhanced soundtrack are impressive for the DS but they still look old - its challenging battles and nerve-wracking bosses make up for it. Fans of the earlier Final Fantasy titles replay them for the intense gameplay that’s missing from many of today’s RPGs, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then this remake won’t disappoint. Compared to Final Fantasy IV Advance, it teaches virtually the same lesson, but it’s a lesson worth retaking nonetheless.