The World of Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy IV
In 1991, Square released the first Final Fantasy game for Super Famicom (Super Nintendo). "Final Fantasy IV" took full advantage of the new console's superior power. Graphics and music received a tremendous upgrade. The new ATB battle system changed the whole gameplay drastically. But the greatest change was not in the way the game looked and sounded, but in its totally new approach toward storytelling, and the placement of the emphasis on character development. Instead of telling the story objectively, the creators of the game showed it from the point of view of its main character. This was the true revolution of "Final Fantasy IV", and the firm foundation stone for all future Final Fantasies. With "Final Fantasy IV", the series finally got the shape and the content we know and love now.
"Final Fantasy IV" tells the story of Cecil, a Dark Knight, captain of the imperial elite soldier squad called the Redwings. The king continuously sends Cecil on missions to rob innocent people, to steal from them mysterious Crystals, which supposedly hold a great power within. Cecil obeys reluctantly, and after completing one of the missions, he feels his conscience does not allow him to continue doing this any more. He dares to step in front of the king and to question the justice of those missions. The angry king deprives Cecil of his right to guide the Redwings, expels him from the capital city of Baron, sending him on a new dangerous mission. Cecil's friend Kain tries to protect him, but ends being expelled together with Cecil. The two friends now start a journey, during which they will reveal the truth behind the king's desire for the crystals - the truth that won't be entirely clear until the very end of the game. They will meet other people on their journey, who will help them to understand their true selves, and to find the way to defeat the ultimate evil.
This story, that on the surface looks very similar to a typical early Final Fantasy plot (evil empire, crystals, etc.), is in fact totally different. The main difference lies in the identity of the game's protagonist. Cecil is not just another "chosen one", not a nameless "noble" warrior of light, but a human being with doubts, fears, and hopes, who is insecure about himself, and longs to reveal the truth concerning his own past and his destination in life. Cecil is a character who is capable of making an independent decision, and to follow his conscience rather than a pre-determined path. The possibility of playing a supposedly evil character, who becomes good through his sheer desire, was completely new and revolutionary in the world of console-style RPGs. Cecil starts a long line of typical Final Fantasy "conflicting" characters, those whose main personal quest is to discover their own identity. The character was copied and cloned in countless games in the future, and very few of those clones maintained the fresh and the natural impression Cecil made on the players. The other main character, Kain, is darkly romantic in his constant struggle against the evil within him, in the contrast his instinct and his weak innate self form to his strong will, as he tries to overcome his own inner obstacles. The continuous development of the story as uncovering greater evils behind what seemed the ultimate evil at first glance will later become almost a trademark of Final Fantasy. The emotional approach from virtually all the characters , the abundance of sacrifices and deaths also became a very characteristic part of the series. The story even bears the first slight traces of melodrama, vaguely introducing such motives as jealousy and love. The villain Golbez is one of the most memorable evil characters of the entire series - later in the game, a surprising plot twist concerning him takes place, which takes the story onto an entirely new level. His mysterious connection to Cecil also spawned many imitations by plot-writers of other games. Other characters of the game are less interesting, but altogether form a great supporting cast for the main heroes.
The gameplay also underwent a change, namely the first introduction of the ATB (active time battle) system. The battles ceased to be entirely turn-based and became a mixture of real time and turn-based styles. During a battle, the number of turns depended on the dexterity of the character. Fast characters would act quickly, while slow ones would have to wait longer until they are able to perform an action. If the player did not issue any commands to his characters, the battle would still continue, and the monsters would not wait for the player's party to do something in order to act themselves. This system changed the pace of the gameplay drastically: the battles became much more dynamic and thrilling, as quick decision was now required as much as strategical planning. The ATB system opened new possibilities for time-enhancing spells and items, so that magic like Haste became very popular.
Otherwise, the gameplay of "Final Fantasy IV" is fairly traditional, and technically offers less possibilities than "Final Fantasy III". The character classes are now set in stone: each member of the party belongs to a certain class, which cannot be changed: Cecil is a paladin (knight), Kain a dragoon, Rosa a white mage, Rydia a black mage/summoner, Edge a ninja, etc. The magic is now learned automatically by a character upon achieving a certain level, instead of being bought in towns or found in treasure chests. However, the simple system doesn't prevent the game from being way more interesting gameplay-wise than earlier Final Fantasies. The reason for this is the constant changes within the party: characters join and leave constantly, and the final form of the party is established only in the later stages of the game. Each time, the player has to deal with the strengths and the weaknesses of his party, which is never boring or frustrating. Interestingly enough, "Final Fantasy IV" is the only game of the series that allows the player to have five characters in an active party.
The magnificent music of "Final Fantasy IV" sounds almost orchestral and is very impressive even by today's standards. The rich music added tons of suspense to the game, in particular to the dungeons, that now became darkly atmospheric.
"Final Fantasy IV" is a true Final Fantasy in every aspect, introducing everything that later became considered a "must" for all Final Fantasy games: personal approach to storytelling, rich mythology, epic plot, ATB combat system. etc. It will be remembered in years to come as one of the great classics of the console-style RPG genre, the first "genuine" Final Fantasy game, the beginning of true greatness. Even now, twelve years after its release, it continues to amaze players with its emotional power, its majestic musical score, its classically simple, yet captivating plot line, its memorable main characters, and its perfect balance between story, atmosphere, and gameplay.
Later the same year, "Final Fantasy IV" was ported to the USA, and released there as "Final Fantasy II" (since the only other Final Fantasy game that was previously released in the States was the first one). The US version of "Final Fantasy IV" had a somewhat simplified gameplay, omitting some special abilities of the characters. The title of the American version started a tradition of giving incorrect titles to Final Fantasy games, which ended with "Final Fantasy VII" for Playstation, and caused a lot of confusion to the non-Japanese players. The original "hard" version of the game was later released for the Playstation as part of "Final Fantasy Collection" in Japan, "Final Fantasy Chronicles" in the USA and "Final Fantasy Anthology" in PAL countries.
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