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SummaryYou spoony bard!!
The GoodMany Western players became acquainted with the Final Fantasy series through its seventh installment. But while "number seven" was spectacular and brought many features of the series to perfection, it wasn't ground-breaking in terms of starting a tradition or introducing new forms of expression to the genre. Rather, it was following a tradition - that of the three 16-bit Final Fantasies, the first of which was the one that determined the entire future development of the franchise.
To understand the meaning of Final Fantasy IV, one must compare it to the previous installments of the series. The first three Final Fantasies were nice Japanese-style RPGs, with many interesting gameplay ideas, but they lacked that certain something that we associate with Final Fantasy now. The heroes didn't have much personality, the narratives were forgettable, and the gameplay was based on a rather simple turn-based engine.
In fact, Final Fantasy IV can be seen as an archetype of the entire Japanese RPG genre, the first definition of what truly made it different. It is, above all, a game with lots of personality. This is most obvious in its approach to narrative - the ubiquitous (and often ridiculously overdone) drama we've grown to know and love (hate?) in Japanese RPGs appears here in pristine, virginal majesty. The events are reflected through the visions and personal opinions of the game's heroes, and are not presented, like in earlier RPGs, as axioms which can't and needn't be proved. The tasks facing the heroes turn into conflicts. There are moral problems to face and solve. The player needs to identify himself with the heroes and have understanding of their - often contradictory - opinions and judgments. Emotions and psychological nuances have replaced the directness of earlier games.
Of course, all of this is scripted; but that has always been the particular charm of Japanese RPGs: interactive melodrama. The narrative of Final Fantasy IV is highly melodramatic, with soap-opera elements co-existing with "good vs. evil" epic. This style (most certainly derived from Star Wars in this case, but also, naturally, owing a lot to Japanese anime) defined the series; like it or not, it made Final Fantasy, and the fourth game is the one that has opened the doors to it.
The gameplay is based on the cool ATB ("active time battle") turn-based-slash-real-time combat engine, the dramatic solution to the eternal conflict between strategy and action. Needless to say it spiced up things significantly, and made many battles more challenging. Many gameplay ideas which later became typical for the series were either first featured in this installment, or were most satisfyingly implemented in it - for example the summoning concept, the interesting fixed character classes, the exploration of optional areas, vehicles, hidden powerful weapons, etc. It was also the only Final Fantasy (as far as I know) that allowed the player to have five active members in the party; I wish later installments of the series would follow it.
Graphically, the game is a great example of early "console-style" 2D, with nicely designed locations, and dungeons which manage to have atmosphere while being created with simple means. And of course, a special award should go to Nobuo Uematsu for his excellent music.
The BadThere is really nothing wrong in Final Fantasy IV if we compare it to its contemporaries. Of course, the heavily Star Wars-influenced melodramatic narrative might not be everyone's cup of tea. Some players would perhaps also miss the more open character customization of the previous game. Also, playing it today evokes unpleasant associations with some of its over-bloated, messy sequels, but I don't think this particular installment should be blamed for that.
As it was, sadly, the case with most Japanese games of that time, the official English translation is cringe-worthy. The famous "you spoony bard" phrase has become a cultural phenomenon; such outrageous instances of bad translation can be endearing, but the rest of the dialogue is, for the most part, just bad.