A fresh look at 'Final Fantasy IV'
FINAL FANTASY IV
3 ½ stars
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
SYSTEM: Nintendo DS
AGE RATING: Everyone 10-plus
Updates and re-releases of classic games are common these days as game makers target the nostalgia of the first generation to grow up with a console hooked to the TV.
But even so, it takes something special to draw a jaded gamer's eye once again to "Final Fantasy IV," which has already seen two reissues this century. And sure enough, "FFIV" for the DS is worth at least a look.
This is the fourth version of the game released in the United States since 1991's Super NES original, when it was called "Final Fantasy II." In 2001, it was given back its true name in a PlayStation re-release as part of "Final Fantasy Chronicles," then received some enhancements with 2005's "Final Fantasy IV Advance." Now it's plain old "Final Fantasy IV" again, but the simplified name belies the sweeping changes made to parts of the game.
Gone are the extra dungeons and customizable parties of "Advance." In their place are detailed and stylized 3-D graphics that cleave to the wispy original character designs by artist Yoshitaka Amano, well-done voice acting in key sequences, new story elements, mini-games and a reworked adventure that offers fresh challenges even to veterans of previous versions.
The plot is pretty simple by today's standards, but in 1991, it was more complex than that of virtually any other console game.
The game opens with the guilt-wracked Dark Knight Cecil of the Kingdom of Baron returning home after stealing an elemental crystal from the wizard-populated town of Mysidia. Cecil is the captain of the Red Wings, Baron's airship fleet, but he is troubled by his king's increasingly bellicose behavior.
As punishment for questioning his king's judgment, Cecil is sent to deliver a ring to a backwater town, accompanied by his friend Kain, a high-jumping Dragoon. Once there, the ring burns down the town by itself, which is the last straw for Cecil. Sick of being used as a blunt instrument, he turns against Baron and sets himself on the path to redemption.
By the end of the game, he'll have discovered a threat greater than Baron, greater even than the puppet master behind Baron's warmongering. But as this is a new version of the game, we'll not spoil the details. "Final Fantasy IV" was Square Enix's first foray into what it called "active time battle," in which characters can take actions once a timer is filled rather than in a pre-set order each round.
As an early experiment, it lacked the flexibility of the next two installments. Cecil is joined by a revolving cast of companions, each with special abilities and gifts, and the player may never control the party's makeup. Some characters are more useful than others, so battles in "FFIV" are very much an exercise in making the most of the current roster, whether it be weighted toward magic users or physical powerhouses, or a balance of both.
Gamers who've only played the 1991 release will notice plenty of new abilities, such as Cecil's Darkness command, which adds power to his sword at the cost of life, and the great sage Tellah's Recall, which has a chance of casting a random spell not present in his spell list. These things were removed from that version of the game to simplify it, and the challenge was also reduced.
Players will find no such hand-holding here; this version is tough. Enemies attack faster and harder; they counterattack more frequently and in different ways, depending on how they're hit; many have new abilities; and familiar battle patterns have been changed considerably. This more than anything helps make the game fresh; even a longtime player won't breeze through this remake. There's an auto-battle function for use once the party can overpower an area's foes, but as players enter each region, they'll have be on their toes, or dead.
Also, characters are not limited to the abilities they initially have in their command menus. They may replace these with other commands and learn new abilities through Augments. Augments are doled out or found at certain points in the game, and they impart a useful skill like counterattacking or automatically healing oneself when in trouble.
Giving these abilities to characters fated to leave the party eventually ensures that they will leave behind new Augments of their own, but new players on their first time through won't know who comes and goes, and the system is pretty obtuse and poorly documented. A strategy guide or online game guide might be necessary to get the most out of the system, but beware of character spoilers.