FINAL FANTASY 4 ADVANCE (2005) – SQUARE ENIX
Of all the games in the Final Fantasy series, the fourth instalment is the one that causes me the most headaches when evaluating it. On the one hand it’s pretty much everything that you could ask for from a classic RPG, and on the other it’s a frustrating and basic experience. Held in high regard by many, it just doesn’t appeal to me like it should do.
It should be noted as this point that I never did get my hands on the original copy released for the SNES (known confusingly as Final Fantasy II in North America), but instead played the port released on the Game Boy Advance, and that is the version that this review concerns.
So where should we start when looking at this game? Much of the praise that it has received comes from its character driven plot, so it would be wise to start there (it remains unchanged from the SNES version on the Game Boy). At the start of Final Fantasy 4 we are introduced to Cecil, a Dark Knight (no Batman references here) who commands the Red Wings, the elite airship force of the kingdom of Baron. Cecil finds himself increasingly unable to accept the strange requests of the King Of Baron who is looking to take various elemental crystals from across the world by force, and is demoted from his command. After being split from his comrades Kain (a Dragoon Lancer) and Rosa (a white mage) on an early mission, Cecil begins a journey to stop his replacement as the commander of the Red Barons, the sorcerer Golbez, from taking the crystals, picking up a motley crew of allies along the way to help him in his cause.
To say that FF4 has a plot that was ahead of its time would be fair praise; the characters and the story they partake in are really quite extraordinary and a marked departure from the ‘Warriors Of Light’ plot that the first three games in the series had followed. The love triangle between childhood friends Cecil and Kain over Rosa provides much of the drive for the story, as the two men follow separate paths with Cecil becoming a Paladin and Kain increasingly finding himself allied with the evil Golbez. The other party characters also have a fair amount of interaction with each other; Edward the Bard and Tellah the Mage have issues with each other, and Rydia the sorcerer undergoes quite a dramatic change throughout the story. The main stem of the plot is relatively simple (get the crystals), but the way it unfolds is the joy of Final Fantasy 4; in much the same way that Final Fantasy 6 would do later, it makes you care about the characters and their development, and that in truth is what all good stories should do. The translation of the game also led to some of the great early ‘engrish’ quotes that the gaming world has come to know and love; Tellah calling Edward a ‘spoony bard’ has lived long in the memory.
However, my problem is that for whatever reason, I didn’t find the plot to be terribly engaging when playing through. Cecil comes across to me as quite a stale main character, and he pales into comparison against the much cooler Kain. The cast also chops and changes too much for my liking; apart from Cecil you control a variety of characters at any given time, and it makes it difficult to appreciate any of the links between them, being more a case of ‘Hey, I’m here for this part but I’ll be gone in twenty minutes’. I also find the plot to be a little ridiculous at times; for the most part it is quite a down to earth story, but then you end up flying to the Moon in a giant metallic whale. Yeah….so for me it’s not quite the great story that people claim it to be.
I will not argue however about how FF4 revolutionised the gameplay aspect of the series. The core of FF4 is traditional fare; you have a mixture of towns that you can visit to get information, rest up and get items, a world map that you travel on to get from location to location, and dungeons where the treasure is and most of the boss fights take place. This game had a huge bearing on the series (and on many RPG’s in general) however by introducing the Active Battle Timer: rather than just play out a battle in turns, battles now actively took place and you had to make decisions in real time. If you took time to select a command, then the enemy could get a hit in and damage you. It lead to a whole new dynamic in fights, as battling was now a tense affair, and being combined with random battles that could strike anywhere meant that you had to remain on your toes at all times. There were a other tweaks as well to the traditional formula; your party could now have five members at any one time, all of whom now had specific roles; Rosa can only cast white magic spells for example, whereas Rydia could summon magical beasts, and Kain could jump and avoid damage for a set amount of time.
For the Gameboy port, Square took some time to make the game more user friendly as well; the original game on the SNES is notoriously tricky to work with as it doesn’t tell you whether or not new equipment benefits you or not. Thankfully, the port incorporated many of the features that made later games in the series; you can see how stats are affected by equipment, spells and items were re-named for easier recognition (so for example ‘Bolt2’ became ‘Thundara’), you can actually see the flow of the ATB on a gauge next to the character’s name and there is a quicksave option that allows you to create a temporary file in a location that isn’t a save point; perfect for on the go action. The port also featured a music player on the main menu, where you could play any of the songs heard in the game, which is a really nice little feature.
So the gameplay can be seen as revolutionary. It can also be seen as something else; a nightmare for casual RPG players. This game is a difficult challenge, make no mistake about that. Bosses are generally overpowered to highly annoying levels, random fights seems to take place every few steps in places and grinding for experience can often take an age because few enemies grant a good amount of EXP. Final Fantasy 4 also features one of the most difficult end of game bosses that I’ve come across in RPG’s; lets just say the phrase ‘Big Bang’ fills me with dread whenever I see it. The Game Boy version is much easier than the SNES version it must be said, but it’s still pretty tough to get through.
Final Fantasy 4 also has the dubious honour of being remade and ported on several occasions; to date it has appeared on 7 different consoles. With every remake the graphics and sound have been slowly but surely improved. The Gameboy version stands around the middle of all these improvements, especially in graphical terms. It’s a much sharper game than the SNES original with clearer colours and detail, making best use of the sprites that the SNES employed, and is generally pleasing to the eyes. It has aged pretty badly however when compared to the Gameboy ports of Final Fantasy 5 and Final Fantasy 6 however.
On the sound front, I feel that Final Fantasy 4 marks the start of Nobuo Uematsu’s rise to fame. Using the increased power of the SNES, he was able to create a much larger and complex soundtrack than had been on the previous games, and some of the songs have become favourites amongst the Final Fantasy community. The Red Wings Theme and The Dreadful Fight have become classics, the boss fight music was used in a special battle in Super Mario RPG, and Zeromus is a personal favourite of mine. The soundtrack does suffer a bit on the Game Boy as a result of its small speakers, but it doesn’t do enough to detract from the overall quality of the soundtrack.
Where does Final Fantasy 4 stand in the rankings then? It deserves praise for the way that it changed the series for the better and also for its improved presentation over the previous games in the series, but for me personally the story is not as strong as it has been made out to be, and the difficulty factor can hinder upon ones enjoyment of the game at times. Calling it a bad game would be doing a disservice to it; I see it more simply as being a good solid RPG that has been surpassed as time has gone on. The Advance version is fine, but check the original SNES version for the full fat challenge, or the DS remake if you want a more engaging time.