Since its release on the SNES back in the early ‘90s, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy IV has featured on no less than three other platforms, and was introduced to the US market as Final Fantasy II - which is an entirely different game to the original Japanese FFII.
You could be forgiven for feeling a bit confused; keeping track of the various Final Fantasy ports, remakes, compilations and companion titles is an exercise in frustration for those unfamiliar with the franchise. It doesn't help matters when the fans tend to be neatly divided into pre and post FFVII camps, with very little common ground between them.
But that’s not our concern… at this point in time our interest lies with yet another remake by Matrix Software - the same clever folk who brought us a not-half-bad DS revamp of Final Fantasy III. Final Fantasy IV is no mere direct port however; like FFIII it has been rebuilt from the ground up, with improvements to sound, graphics and gameplay, whilst the core game remains practically unchanged.
The playable characters are no ‘wet behind the ears’ noobs. They, along with our main protagonist – burdened as he is with the rather unheroic name of Cecil Harvey – are mostly seasoned professionals in their various fields of expertise, and it’s refreshing to have access to a decent pool of spells, attacks and abilities at your disposal.
Cecil’s tale begins with his demotion from the military elite after questioning the orders of his increasingly tyrannical monarch, and he is then sent away on a mission with tragic consequences. Thus begins Cecil’s long, epic journey towards redemption - with a bit of world-saving thrown in for good measure, and you are taken along for the ride. The plot has more twists than a roomful of shagpile carpet, and more dramatic hyperbole than a school pantomime. Such qualities may seem a bit old hat these days, but Final Fantasy IV was originally released in an era when such qualities were highly desirable.
Controls aren’t too taxing on the brain or the digits, and we felt comfortably settled with the interface after just thirty minutes’ playing time. The stylus even gets a workout; you can use it instead of the control pad to direct the main character in towns and dungeons, or to switch between characters in the menu screens, or even for certain mini-games. Not essential but it’s nice to have the option, nonetheless.
Characters from the original reprise their roles for the DS version, some with slightly modified persona's. For example, Namingway the moogle puts in several appearances throughout the game, each time with a new moniker and profession. Fat Chocobo (that oversized yellow chicken-thing) is your gateway to the game’s bestiary, plus other features such as a music player and Whyt’s menu.
Speaking of Rydia’s summoned eidolon, while Whyt’s main purpose is being her whipping boy for a few turns during battle, you can also customise his appearance (we gave ours a deranged ‘zombie vampire’ makeover), and equip him with spells and abilities from those available to the party by having a chat with Fat Chocobo. For a change of scenery you can battle other eidolons via the DS wireless connection, and improve his chance of victory by playing some stat-boosting mini-games, thinly disguised as brain training exercises.
Augments are another noteworthy addition to this incarnation of the game; these can be used to (permanently) imbue characters with certain abilities from others. This makes for greater flexibility where character development is concerned, allowing you to customise them – albeit in a limited fashion.
One of the most memorable contributions of Final Fantasy IV was the introduction of the Active Time Battle combat system, where the flow of combat plays out in quasi-real time, rather than the standard turn-based battles of previous FF titles. With the ATB system, party members must wait until their personal ATB gauge fills up before they can act. As always, strategy is the key to victory – particularly in those long winded boss battles. You can place weaker characters at the back, where they’re less likely to snuff it, and positions can be switched at the press of a button during battle. Each party member’s actions can be preset with the nifty ‘look Ma, no hands!’ Auto Battle feature, and for less experienced players this is a real boon. However it won’t be long before you’ll want – or need - to take the reins yourself, since different monster types have unique attack patterns, strengths and weaknesses, and unless instructed otherwise, party members will continue to use their preset Auto Battle command.
Right from the outset there’s no quarter given in combat, and you’d be well advised to stock up on precious items and potions that will give your party an edge and replenish depleted HP/MP whilst fighting for their lives. Even with a well stocked backpack and the difficulty set to ‘easy’, expect to reload some battles over and over till you get it right or give up in disgust.
In-game characters are well-rendered, cartoonish, cutesy and colourful – even the monster bosses’ menace factor is low. This along with the simple 3D environments, excellent combat animations and a complete lack of blood spatter, means the game is likely to appeal to the younger set; we reckon the PG rating is right on the money. Elsewhere, the cinematic-quality intro is simply riveting, and cut scenes employ voice actors (of varying ability) to inject more drama and life into the story – something which text-only dialogue is just not capable of doing. FF fans will recognise strains of familiar music, with the entire soundtrack suitably remastered for the DS version.
Final Fantasy IV for DS is proof that great RPGs are not the sole domain of larger, next-gen consoles - and that, when carried out properly, recycling 'old' material can be a win-win situation for all parties involved. There are sufficient enhancements – both in gameplay and visuals, to attract a whole new generation of gamers to the franchise; but at the same time the story and characters remain essentially unchanged, which will keep the old school fans happy.
Sure, it’s yet another overhauled, pimped out re-run of a FF classic, but kudos to Matrix and Square Enix for giving us more than just a straight port - for making the effort to deliver such a polished end product.