Note: The Story section of this review contains story spoilers.
Originally published for the SNES in the States in 1991 as Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy IV Advance (for the Gameboy Advance) is the oldest Final Fantasy game I’ve played.
Playing FFIV for the first time in 2014 probably isn’t the ideal way to experience this game for the first time—the world has moved on, and indeed, so has the game, with 3D graphics ports released starting in 2008 for the DS, mobile, and PC platforms (and updated 2D graphics for the PSP). Still, though the old 2D sprites version shows its age in many ways, it’s a game that any fan of the series or of RPG history should play—and it remains surprisingly fun 23 years after its release.
Fans of modern RPG storytelling owe a debt of gratitude to Final Fantasy IV. FFI and FFIII had bare-bones stories—the player-characters didn’t even have names!—and while FFII’s story was a bit more elaborate (named characters fighting an ominous empire), it was still quite simple by today’s standards, and the game featured probably the least popular (and least RPG-like) gameplay of any early FF title.
Which brings us to FFIV. This story feels like a Final Fantasy story, even by the standards of someone who first started playing the series in the PS1 era with Final Fantasy VII. The sizeable array of player characters and nemeses have relatively developed personalities and relationships, the story features surprising (and occasionally ridiculous) twists, and explores themes of loss, betrayal, cooperation, sacrifice, redemption, and an internal battle between good and evil in each of us. Also, the GBA version of the game improves on the rather sloppy original localization of the game for North America in the SNES version (called Final Fantasy II). I would definitely recommend FFIV Advance over SNES’s FFII for anyone looking for an old-school (as opposed to 3D graphics updated) version of the game.
The story is not without its faults. The amount of characters who apparently died—usually by sacrificing themselves for the group—and then were revealed as really still alive later on was farcical: Edward, Yang, Porum and Palo, and Cid. You could arguably add every single protagonist in the final battle to this list (wiped out then brought back by the faith and strength of their absent friends), but since that happens right away, it’s not in the same category for me as the many, MANY situations in which FFIV gives you a heroic death scene, then several hours later is like “Oh yeah that wasn’t for real. I know he jumped out of an airship strapped to a bomb that then exploded, but he didn’t die from that. He just got a little hurt.” The game undermines some of its own emotional power in these scenes. More generally, the story and characters aren’t as fully developed as their successors in later FF games, making this story less rewarding to return to than, say, the several games starting with FFVI. But as I said above, this game is the narrative foundation for all that came after, so even when it’s a bit rocky in its own right, it’s interesting to see where true Final Fantasy storytelling got started.
Sound and Graphics:
It should come as a surprise to no one that Final Fantasy IV sports an excellent Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack. Many of the core themes are here already, and the game features several good exclusive tracks as well. It’s not one of my all-time favorite FF soundtracks, but it’s definitely a plus rather than a minus, and it’s impressive to see what Uematsu was already able to do in 1991 within the aural limitations of the SNES hardware. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere [Telling a Compelling Story with in Game Music], FFVII was the game that got me to start taking game music seriously. If I’d have played FFIV when it came out, that might have done the trick years earlier.
FFIV’s graphics are what you’d expect from SNES (or, in the case of FFIV Advance, GBA) sprite technology. Not terrific, not awful. I didn’t dislike looking at the game, but the graphics weren’t what I’d call rewarding in 2014. FFVI, made for the same system, is clearly making more sophisticated use of the same tech limitations, and holds up better graphically as a result, but FFIV’s graphics are neither a plus nor a minus for me, with the nostalgia factor and the lack of any major eyesores balancing out the fact that it’s not exactly pretty by today’s standards.
Overall I’d have to rate FFIV’s gameplay as just barely worth returning to in 2014. It’s undeniably rudimentary compared to the later games, but on the other hand, like with storytelling, it lays the groundwork for what makes the later games even greater. FFIV introduced the iconic Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which sped up battle and added an often illusory but exciting sense that you needed to hurry and make decisions on the fly. The core of FF turn-based combat is here, with (uncustomizable) character classes and special abilities, up to five characters in a combat party (and twelve playable characters in total), and the other FF/RPG staples like a world map, towns, dungeons, airships, and summons/eidolons are all present and enjoyable.
On the minus side, I set down the game for months on one occasion when, maybe two-thirds of the way through the game, I reached a mandatory boss (Asura and Leviathan) that I was woefully underprepared to defeat. I wound up having to spend hours grinding before being able to get back to the story, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. After that, though I didn’t have to completely pause my progression for long grinding sessions again, I had less patience with the many hours of battles still left.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the way the game would force player characters in and out of your party so you had to keep tweaking your strategy based on the characters and skills currently available. That kept the battles relatively fresh through most of the game (my complaint above about my one soul-crushing grinding session notwithstanding). Also, the fact that the game was picking your party combo for you meant no anxiety about having picked a suboptimal team. I also enjoyed the variety of settings (which, to avoid spoilers, I’ll just refer to as Over, Under, and Way Over), bosses, and even vehicles (which include airships, hovercraft, airships that can CARRY hovercraft, and, shall we say, a super airship). Playing the game today, I sometimes wished save points were more plentiful, but on the other hand, there was some enjoyable tension in trying to forge through a dungeon without running out of MP (and then health) before I could reach the next save point, so those two balance each other out for me. Also, I was disappointed early on by the lack of side quests, but the latter half of the game opened up more, with optional dungeons featuring nice armor and summons and such. Finally, FFIV Advance even offers an early version of New Game Plus to players hungry for more, with a new dungeon unlocking after you beat the game. And there’s this weird motif where a bunch of NPCs you talk to just dance a bunch. What’s that about?
I’m glad I picked up FFIV in 2014. It felt slightly long at 30 hours (in my main + extras playthrough), largely due to that one frustrating grinding session that probably added 4-5 maddening hours to my overall playtime (don't be like me: try to be at least in the upper 40s if not level 50 by the time you get to the Town of the Summonses). All aspects of the game, from story and gameplay to sound and graphics, feel a bit dated, but on the other hand, they’re all really well designed, so despite the fact that later FF games have clearly surpassed this one, it’s still a rewarding experience and there’s a tangible sense of playing RPG history. For players seeking a taste of the action with more modern graphics, as well as voice acting, added minigames, and other modernizing touches, there are the DS, mobile, and PC versions (the Windows version only recently released in September 2014), and the mobile versions (at least—I’m not sure about the others) even offer an Easy mode for those who want to experience it without being slowed down too much by combat. Regardless of which version you play, FFIV is a game that has stood the test of time and is worth a look, if you like the genre and have the patience for an older style of RPG.
Retro review score: 7.9 out of 10
Would I recommend it? To an RPG aficionado, yes. Choose the form of your destruction: there are lots of versions of this game, so pick the one you think you’d like best. Casual RPG players might find this too outdated to fully enjoy, though the updated versions might be fun even for more casual fans.
Would I replay it? Probably not again, but I might play the sequels: FFIV: Interlude and FFIV: The After Years.