maanantai 27. syyskuuta 2010

REVIEW - Final Fantasy IV (1991)

Don't believe the lies: Take 1.
Genre(s): RPG
Released: 1991
Available on: SNES, Virtual Console
Developer(s): Square
Publisher(s): Square
Players: 1

1991 saw the first of two most important turns in Final Fantasy's existence, as the series was carried over to the 16-bit era and brought back to the United States with the release of Final Fantasy IV, only a year after the much delayed U.S. release of the first Final Fantasy game. Since the two previous games hadn't yet seen release in the U.S., and were not about to for over a decade, the game was awkwardly renamed Final Fantasy II -  rendering two games that had a big part in redefining the series unknown to all except the most hardcore role-playing enthusiasts. Despite all the artificial, numerical confusion, Final Fantasy IV turned out to be an excellent sum of all games that came before it and later, a standard for the series' development in several ways.

From darkness to light

Seems these guys have been huffing on the
Baron is the most powerful kingdom in the world, and its formerly noble king has suddenly taken it upon himself to enforce his rule by assigning his elite forces, the Red Wings, to rob other regions of the world of their precious elemental crystals. Cecil Harvey, a dark knight and the captain of the Red Wings, does not know what the crystals exist for, but he has his fill of the king's brutal greed and stands up against him, getting demoted in the process. The king then sends Cecil and his best friend, the dark dragoon Kain, to deliver a package to a nearby village inhabited by Callers, people graced with the amazing talent of summoning. Unbeknownst to both men, the package contains a fire spell potent enough to burn the village down. A child named Rydia survives, and in her sorrow and anger, she summons a creature that splits the earth beneath the two friends. Out of guilt for killing her parents, Cecil takes Rydia with him to grant the little girl a new chance at life. However, as it turns out, it is Cecil himself who is on his way to a whole new life. It is time for the dark knight of Baron to truly redeem himself and boldly rise against the true evil threatening the whole planet.

Excuse me... COCKTRIC? I knew the translators
were high, but they were also hilariously
Explaining Final Fantasy IV's plot in a simple way after dealing with the relatively thin storylines of the previous games is like humping a cheese slicer: interesting, but damn painful. The story we have here is a character-driven masterpiece, totally different from every game that came before it - ANY game. Actually the first thing I want to talk about is the plot, since many people have noted not just the game's awful grammar, but the dialogue's severe inconsistency, and even all the utter lies that come out of the mouths of NPC's, such as totally wrong directions. These are all facts, I agree. The characters are described as "shallow" and "uncaring". Yes, they would seem that way. The game was made to raise questions, emotions and care for the characters. So, why do playable characters just say something along the lines of "oh, crap" when they witness a friend's demise and sulk a little, while a "death theme" plays in the background, and then carry on, hardly ever mentioning those who passed again? I have heard many theories such as that Nintendo of America didn't want players to attach to mere video game characters like they would to real people, but there's simply no excuse for everything mentioned in this paragraph, and that particular excuse simply doesn't work when "northwest" is suddenly "southeast", or that Tellah is suddenly Edward's father instead of Anna's. The translators fucked up. Spank you very much for the inconsistencies, the irrelevancies, the senseless and probably unintentionally hilarious localizations; check out some of the screenshots. At this time we didn't even have Ted Woolsey to blame - he was actually advised to study Final Fantasy IV when he got hired by Square, to ensure this kind of mockery would never take place again, how about that?! The presentation of the story and some distinctive humane qualities of the characters go to waste. "Okey dokey!", proclaims prince Edge in delight, right after being forced to kill his own parents. It's not just the translation, either. The game was torn to pieces by American censorship altogether, not even the simple element of death got past the censors in full. I somewhat understand dropping (badly) pixelated strippers, but I don't understand why important storyline threads that would've helped to refine certain characters were dropped. Space limitations? Fuck you.

Well, of course it is! This is a Final Fantasy
Like I said, as far as the story goes and disregarding its North American style of presentation for now, Final Fantasy IV was the first game to be based on a dramatic, complex storyline of this scale. There's an unprecedented amount of 12 playable characters, who all have a strict, unchangeable class, but in turn, a unique backstory to why exactly they're fighting the good fight. It's clear that Square originally wanted this game to be a whole new beginning to the Final Fantasy saga. Many storyline threads and recurring elements return from the previous games, to unite as one 16-bit mammoth. Of course, first and foremost, we have Cid, who's a playable character this time around, and chocobos. We have a touch of traditional dwarven/elven mythologies, elemental crystals held by four Fiends, dark knights and light warriors, from the first game and Final Fantasy III. There's a small hint of the real Final Fantasy II's theme of rebellion, and that particular game has clearly been used as the main influence on the general values of storytelling. If the North American version of the game wasn't such a watered down lint of fluff, it would be one quite damn brutal, and sad game... in a positive way, of course.

Enough with all of this chatter about the cons of its localization, let's talk about Final Fantasy IV as a game. What's it like? How are the characters like? How does Final Fantasy IV manage to expand and enhance the basic gameplay experience of J-RPG's that came before it? Why exactly is Final Fantasy IV called one of the greatest role-playing games of our time? I hope to answer most of these questions, and more, right now.

Final Fantasy IV was released in Japan on July 15th, 1991, 15 months after the release of Final Fantasy III, and 9 months after the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In very early stages of production, Final Fantasy IV was planned to be released as the last Final Fantasy game for the NES, but it was very soon clear to them that the project they were working on was something only the 16-bit could handle. Enter Mode 7 for airships, and a handful of animated backgrounds. Enter a further developed menu design, easier on both the eyes and the mind, and impressive detail in character sprites, which also have an impact on the already unique enemy design. Everyone I know says the game is ugly as sin. Yeah, well, it is. But then again, think of all the different visual material Square had to work on here, for their FIRST 16-bit title. And don't go telling me most of it looks like an NES game. I hate that. And it doesn't. Just compare everything on show to Final Fantasy III and try saying that to my face again. For a game its size and date of release, Final Fantasy IV looks sufficient. Not pretty, but sufficient.

Just one example of the U.S. localization's
severe inconsistencies with the plot.
I'm really not sure if I should even get started with the game's musical score. Let's see, now. Final Fantasy IV was one of the first games to have its own, well known soundtrack CD. Actually, there are three of them. Japanese schools teach kids to play songs from the game. The whole concept of Nobuo Uematsu performing live is based on how this game made music a truly essential part of a good video game. Uematsu has called writing this particular soundtrack one of the most exhausting, but massively rewarding tasks of his career. All these wikifacts aside, the music of Final Fantasy IV is phenomenal. Not my favourite collection of tunes in the series - as a matter of fact, now that I mentioned it, I don't really have one - but a fine mix of epic march music, silly showtunes and beautiful keyboard compositions nonetheless.

To get back to the story and the characters, now completely placing the localization aside, I must say Final Fantasy IV is a huge leap forward from the first trilogy of games; even Final Fantasy II which was the only game to even resemble a character-driven, branching story. Cecil is by all means the main character of the story, he's not just one member of the group. The whole story revolves around this man's journey from darkness to light, and all the personal challenges and tragedies he has to face to become a better person and fulfill his true purpose in life. He is without a doubt one of my favourite characters in the Final Fantasy universe. It's more than clichéd to say something like this, but I see a lot of me in Cecil for different reasons I'd like to keep to myself. On the complete opposite side of this here cavalcade stands Edward Chris von Muir, the prince of Damcyan who drives me crazy in storyline and gameplay alike. This "spoony bard", as he's called by another character in one of the only instances of good fluffy localization, likes to cry. A lot. And also automatically run away from battles in an untimely case of critical HP, even more. He's, without a doubt, one of the most annoying characters in the Final Fantasy universe. In the between, we have the twin mages Palom and Porom, the ninja prince Edge, the dragoon Kain, the caller/black mage Rydia, the white mage Rosa and chief engineer Cid, and three other characters who all have their major parts in how this grand scheme finally unfolds.

That's it. I want the same stuff the translators
had. Weren't they supposed to make the game
LESS explicit?
All of the characters indeed have their own classes, which change during the storyline in a couple of cases, but unlike in previous Final Fantasy games, the player can't manually change a character's class or job. Of course it is well taken care of in the storyline that the player always has the most balanced group needed to execute different tasks, by the introduction of new characters. You usually travel in a group of five at the most, but there are some situations on the first half of the game which Cecil has to deal with on his own. Very often a member of the party leaves to manage other business, or even dies (oops), or whatnot, but usually, a substitute for him or her is found in a jiffy, from a class fitting the next quest. Naturally, the final journey is made by five party members, who you cannot change at any point. The identities of these individuals, and their personal agendas, are for you to find out for yourself.

Each character class has its own chain of commands apart from Fight and Item - except for Cecil's initial D.Knight, which has no additional commands at all. For example, Rydia has Call, which she uses to summon creatures of the underground to aid the party in battle. Edward has Sing, which he uses to inflict different negative status effects on enemies - as well as Hide/Show, which can be used to manually remove the faggot from battle before he effectively does it himself. Edge has Dart, which enables him to throw extra weapons and items at enemies, Sneak which enables him to steal items from enemies, and Ninja, which is a list of special physical and magical moves becoming of the class.

Final Fantasy IV introduces the concept of sidequests... sort of. In later games, it has become a standard to include as many secrets as humanly possible. Hard ones, even so hard that they're plain stupid, such as the hunt for the Excalibur II in the otherwise magnificent Final Fantasy IX; who the hell wants to speedrun an RPG for a weapon that you have no actual use for? Or the Zodiac Spear in Final Fantasy XII; who would ever leave even one treasure chest unopened in an RPG in hopes of getting one damn rare weapon? You get the idea. Well, in Final Fantasy IV, the few locations for taking a break from the story are easy to find or even in plain sight, and they're pretty much the kind of stuff you must do to level up enough and see the game to its surreal end. The world maps are still quite plain even in all of their king-sized glory. Did I pluralize the word "map"? Yes, I did. Final Fantasy IV was the first Final Fantasy game to include multiple world maps. Believe me, the game's still quite big even if the amount of different locations is nothing compared to the complex, thoroughly inhabited lands from Final Fantasy VI onwards. The minimap's still beyond a cryptic puzzle; the old "Square code" is replaced by having to use the white spell Sight to see it, but you don't need it. It's all clearly laid out, and even the Mode 7 sequences manage not to fuck up your vision on the earth below.

Here we go! Thanks, little dude. It's funny,
though, that the dwarves are actually taller
than our sprites.
There are more treasure chests on the field and secret rooms than in the three previous games combined, but they never really contain anything that special - many basic curative items or varied amounts of money, but scarcely new equipment. The list of different equipment in Final Fantasy IV is relatively short as it is. More emphasis is placed on experience level and natural strength granted by one's class, and the use of magic, rather than fancy weaponry. One of the main quests in the game is even based on being able to let go of your strongest weapons and equipment, and going for softer and lighter materials instead. Mages and other characters with magical talent learn new spells by simply leveling up. No more planning, no more organizing, no more of those damn Spell Charges ever again. Just let it flow. 

Certain types of weapons, armour and accessories can be equipped to certain classes only, just like before. The first situation in which you have the opportunity to change gear is where in my mind, the game breaks its biggest flaw. The menu is still a mess, even if it seems to look and play out a lot better than ever before at first. In the stores, you aren't shown how many weapons or armour of a certain type, like Short(sword), you already own or whether it's stronger or weaker than the piece of equipment currently equipped, just the characters who can wield it. Unless you want to pay your ass sore for all the shit on sale, you need to keep double- and triple-checking your inventory, and your active equipment. The stronger-weaker comparisons don't even show on the menu when you're sorting through all your crap, you simply need to test it by equipping it and keeping a tight eye on the numbers indicating changes in your strength, defense and magic.  You can't use more than one item or one spell from the menu at a time. Simply curing some severely wounded party member on the field, regardless of the method, takes time and patience. Same items gained on different occasions - let's say you buy 10 Cure1's, then get 10 Cure1's more in the next dungeon - don't stack, unless you take a small break to stack them manually. Your inventory's limited, so you have to manually discard your belongings from time to time, sell them or give them to a rare Big-Chocobo for safe keeping. How rare is a Big-Chocobo? Well, I remember encountering the first one about seven hours into the game, a second one another seven hours later and the third one while travelling to my final destination. That rare.

How'd you like my foot up your ass?
The battles have undergone one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of console role-playing: Active Time Battle, henceforth known as ATB. No more will you be planning all your moves in advance, your party members and the enemies take turns according to each member's speed, which practically means the marching order is totally random in most battles; if you're ambushed, all of the enemies will be granted a blow each. If you manage to take the enemy by surprise, you get a similar turn to assign duties to each of your party members. The enemies can also attack from the back, which initially reverses your party's formation, lowering your defense, and allows enemies to attack first. ATB guarantees more dynamic battles with a fast tempo, although some specific commands, like any magic spells, take horribly long from your party members to execute. Sometimes they drive you crazy, since there are so many enemies impervious to physical attacks. You just need to take that ass handed to you, and wait. Sometimes they work too late, and you'll end up using a Cure spell or item on an already K.O.'d member - and this kind of error still consumes MP, or the item. It's still a bit flawed... but a step into the right direction.

Dude. Your parents are real ugly.
I've already gone over the most major pros and cons of the game, but a few more things need to be said. I know Final Fantasy IV and every other official Final Fantasy game better than the contents of my pockets, except for the experimental MMO Final Fantasy XI. Every Final Fantasy game has its minor or major downs, and each one influences another game in the series. There's always a sense of past, present and future. Here's a little segment concentrating on minor downs I, for some reason, like to call Past, Present and Future. Past: people still have the tendency to get in your way, all the time. In addition, you need to backtrack your way out of lengthy dungeons on a few occasions despite having both the Warp and Exit spells at hand. Present: it's not only the localization, but I feel important characters, both playable and non-playable, like Kain and Golbez, were left undeveloped on the behalf of going on and on about a spittoon like Edward and his undying love for his dead girlfriend. Future: related to the Present - there's no real, well developed villain, someone you learn to hate or love during the first hours of play and continue to hate or love 'til the very last moments of the game, the final confrontation. Everyone's possessed by someone, and finally you end up fighting "the alpha demon" whose existence you had no clue about until the last few hours of gameplay, and who has no alliance with the previous would-bes. Ring a bell? Correct answer: Final Fantasy VIII. However, as far as quality of the rest of the storyline goes, I think it's wrong to even mention that game in comparison to Final Fantasy IV.

You can change the field sprite at any time by
pressing the L and R buttons. A cool little
In spite of its downright puzzling and at its worst extremely frustrating final dungeon and boss, Final Fantasy IV is not a hard game; it takes roughly 25 to 30 hours to complete to the hilt. Leveling up during the first five hours isn't forced upon the player, nor is it even necessary, since Cecil goes back to LV1 in any case after those five or so hours. After that, you're free to level up and there's not really a single dungeon in the game that would require you to conduct some excessive kick-ass on the world map; leveling up is quite automatic as you proceed through the dungeons. EXP comes in large amounts, and since it splits between the whole party, you can always bend the rules a bit and kill everyone else in your own party to buff up your character of choice with 10,000 EXP in a fight that would normally grant 2,000 EXP for each member. Money is not an object at all, you just have to keep some track of what and how much you buy. By far, only the few sidequests, one in particular, have the potential of giving you true hell besides the mentioned final dungeon, and with high experience levels, you shouldn't have any problems with them either. The challenge of the final hours is largely based on a maze-like, lengthy dungeon filled with the worst monsters you can possibly face in the whole game, just one save point, and the infamously lethal final boss, whose humble lair is something like an hour away from the single save point.

It's hell to read, but heaven to follow. Final Fantasy IV started a whole new age for the Final Fantasy series, and it was followed by several of the best video games of all time; the series was a constantly progressing masterpiece as long as it stood up to the standards partly set right here, in this very game. If you haven't experienced Final Fantasy IV, you don't know what a pure Japanese RPG is. It has its flaws, but it's still the most impressive role-playing game of its time.

Graphics : 6.8
Sound : 9.5
Playability : 8.8
Challenge : 8.0
Overall : 8.7


GameRankings: 89.39%

Nintendo Power ranks Final Fantasy IV #28 on their list of the Top 200 Nintendo Games of All Time.

The game was re-released for the Sony PlayStation as a stand-alone title in early 1997. This version of the game was released in a bundle named Final Fantasy Collection, with similar enhanced re-releases of Final Fantasy V and VI, two years later. Another two years later, the game was released in another bundle named Final Fantasy Chronicles, with the unrelated Chrono Trigger. In 2002, the game was finally released in Europe, as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology. The game was remade for the Game Boy Advance, with a much improved localization in 2005, and again for the Nintendo DS in 2007.

A direct English translation of the game would make Final Fantasy IV the most explicit game in the series, as the Japanese version includes several verbal references to sex, as well as words that translate to "fuck" and "whore" in English. Also, numerous graphical changes were made to the attires of female sprites, that of the enemies as well as NPC's on the field. All direct notions to death and religion were removed, as well as Kain and Zemus' in-depth backstories. Edge's ultimate Dart item "Cleaver" was changed to "Spoon" in an example of the general, toned down violence of the North American localization.

The debut of recurring summon creatures Ifrit and Ramuh, who are known as Jinn and Indra, respectively.

The original Japanese version included a secret programmers' room, a penthouse, in which the party could communicate with the programmers of the game. The room was cut entirely from the North American version due to a porn magazine which could be found there. The basic concept of a secret programmers' room was used again as a secret ending in Chrono Trigger.

Cecil Harvey (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) and Golbez (voiced by Peter Beckman) are rivals in Square Enix's all-star anniversary game Dissidia - Final Fantasy, released on the PSP in 2008.

The game spawned a direct sequel named Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (a.k.a. Return of the Moon), released on Japanese mobile phones in 2008, and internationally as WiiWare in 2009.

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