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Destructoid review: Final Fantasy IV (DS)

8:29 AM on 07.26.2008 // Chad Concelmo

Okay, Square Enix, you got me. After refusing to refer to Super Nintendo classic Final Fantasy II as its chronologically accurate name Final Fantasy IV, I am finally giving in. With your constant re-releases of the Final Fantasy series, my stubbornness is just making everything too confusing. You win. Final Fantasy IV it is.

Even though the original Final Fantasy IV is still, to this day, one of my favorite role-playing games of all time, I wasn’t all that excited when they announced this Nintendo DS remake. Why redo a beautiful piece of art when the original is just fine? To me, it’s similar to someone like Miley Cyrus rerecording Etta James’s "At Last". Sure, the kids might like it ... but what’s the point?

Regardless of my reservations, I knew I was still going to play it. If anything, I was curious how some of my favorite videogame moments of all time would be recreated in fancy 3D (Palom and Porom’s noble sacrifice!).

So what is the final verdict? Does Final Fantasy IV for the DS maintain the charm of the original, or does everything precious get lost in the technological translation? Hit the jump for the full review.

Final Fantasy IV (Nintendo DS)
Developed by Matrix Software
Published by Square-Enix
Released on July 22, 2008

Chad Concelmo

I’m not going to lie: the first two hours of Final Fantasy IV are a little rough. The constant barrage of cutscenes, new graphics, and (gasp!) mediocre, slightly tinny voice acting is almost too much to take. Had it been a brand new, original game this stuff wouldn’t have bothered me -- in fact, it most likely would have impressed me. Experiencing all of this added flair in a game you have already grown to love, though, takes a little getting used to.

The good news: once I got over the initial shock, I began to appreciate how spectacular a game Final Fantasy IV on the DS really is.

For anyone not familiar with the Super Nintendo original (or the Game Boy Advance remake) Final Fantasy IV tells the story of a dark knight named Cecil, captain of a shady fleet of airships called the Red Wings. Through some extraordinary events, Cecil leaves the Red Wings and goes on a journey of redemption accompanied by a wide variety of allies. Like most RPGs, this quest of righteousness eventually turns into an epic battle to save the world.

During its time, Final Fantasy IV revolutionized RPGs by focusing heavily on story and characters. Instead of featuring a cast of generic wizards and warriors, Final Fantasy IV introduced deep, memorable characters, each with elaborate backstories and relationships. While the story was extremely linear, Final Fantasy IV wove a complex plot full of surprising twists and dramatic turns.

Story-wise, not much has changed in this upgraded version. All of the same characters, locations, and emotional story moments remain. If you are a huge fan of the original, this DS re-imagining is worth picking up if only to experience everything again in a brand new way.

The new presentation, though, is a slightly mixed bag. While the upgraded 3D graphics are crisp, colorful, and very clean (much better looking than the similar remake of Final Fantasy III), I found myself missing the personality of the 16-bit sprites. For every gorgeously rendered dungeon that looks like a watercolor painting, there are a handful of generic and bland textures that feel a little empty.

Most of my initial disappointment with this upgraded Final Fantasy IV concerned Square Enix’s odd decision to not incorporate much touch screen support. To me, an RPG is the best kind of game to be played on a touch screen since control is minimal and menu navigation makes up most of the gameplay. Strangely, the touch screen can only move your character in Final Fantasy IV. All of the menus -- including ones used in battles and shops -- have to be navigated using the D-pad and face buttons. It’s not a deal breaker by any means (I love old control schemes!), but I had hoped more touch screen implementation would be included.

Luckily, most of the additions to the game -- for which there are quite a few -- are stellar and really add to the overall experience.

For starters, everything just feels more polished and user-friendly in this new version. Some of the highlights:

-After a battle, an experience meter displays how much more experience is needed for a character to gain a new level.
-The same, gorgeous music from the original is remixed and better than ever.
-A wonderful auto-battle system makes constantly hitting the “A” button a thing of the past
-A new summon for fan favorite Rydia can be customized, trained, and used in fun touch-screen minigames
-A handy map is displayed on the bottom screen showing you key points of interest, be it an armor shop or the location of a hard to find treasure chest.

And speaking of this newly added map: One of my favorite new additions to the game comes in the form of a little rabbit character named Mapingway (an evolution of your classic name-changing friend Namingway). Every time you enter a dungeon, Mapingway provides your party with a map that is displayed on the lower of the two DS screens. However, only the small area around your character is revealed. As you journey through the dungeon, the map starts magically filling in the new areas you discover. If 100% of the map is completed (indicated by a constantly increasing percentage in the bottom right corner) your party is awarded with a special gift. The harder the dungeon, the better the prize! It is an excellent feature and so addictive that you will refuse to leave a dungeon until every last inch has been explored.

Sadly, not all of the new additions in Final Fantasy IV for the DS are for the better.

For one, the challenge level has been increased so much that it almost becomes unplayable at times. At first I didn’t notice, but as the game moved forward I found the experience to be more and more humbling. Bosses, in particular, will destroy your party unless you come in fully prepared with strong weapons and healing items galore. Unfortunately, this is a tough task as the amount of gil you receive after each battle has been dramatically reduced. Don’t be surprised if you fight a giant enemy only to receive a 15 gil reward for all the hard work. A warning to the easily frustrated: You thought the no-metal-allowed Dark Elf cave was hard in the original? Just be prepared.

In an effort to balance out this increased challenge, Square Enix added a brand new system called Augments. When certain characters leave your party they leave behind their abilities in the form of these magical items. By giving one to a party member, that character picks up the ability of the other character.

For example, say you want a non-magic user to be able to cast Cura: just supply them with a White Magic Augment and, voila, your knight can now cure the party! While this seems great in theory (since in the original game characters could never share abilities), the execution is a little sloppy. Once you use an Augment on a character you can never transfer it. Because of this, I wasted many Augments on characters I thought would benefit from certain abilities, but didn’t. Had the Augment been able to be equipped (and therefore transferable), I think this system would have worked a lot better. When it works, though, it works great and I give the designers points for trying something new.

Despite all the changes, Final Fantasy IV for the DS is still Final Fantasy IV: one of the greatest role-playing experiences of all time. While I can’t quite say this new version is the definitive one (that award still goes to the SNES original), it is easily a close second. Final Fantasy IV has one of the best videogame stories ever, populated by characters you instantly fall in love with ... and genuinely miss once they are gone. No matter how it is presented, Final Fantasy IV will always remain a timeless masterpiece.

I may have been a little jaded going in, but the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV stole my heart all over again.

Score: 9.0

Jonathan Holmes

Like Chad, I grew up completely infatuated with Final Fantasy II on the SNES, so it was with cautious optimism that I approached this DS remake. Square-Enix no longer means "guaranteed quality" in the way that it did back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More so, remaking a classic with a more "modernized look" often leads to total failure (I'm looking at you, Gus Van Zant's Psycho). Thankfully, Final Fantasy IV kicks all kinds of ass, and is the most fun I've had with a Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy IX.

First off, the graphics work. There was reason to fear that the jump from 2D to 3D  would diminish the endearing, innocent, honest quality the game has always been known for. The sprite based, action/melodrama is a genre of it's own, with the juxtaposition between the seriousness of the events depicted and the low res sprites containing it's own inherent meaning. There is nothing like a game where little super-deformed 2D sprites declare their undying loyalty for each other, battle to the death, and inevitably utter their dying breaths in the arms of the ones they love. Altering that experience with polygons is risky stuff.

If Final Fantasy IV had employed a look akin to the Final Fantasy VIII, X, and XII's "sexy mannequin" style, I likely would have been turned off by it. But the 3D polygons here evoke the same sweet, childlike charm that the original's sprites possessed. They are still low res and super deformed so they still feel like videogame characters, as opposed to more "realistic people-oids" in the FF games listed above, who mostly never found their way out of the uncanny valley. The ability to zoom and pan in and out of the action also does wonders to emphasize the drama experienced by these cute (but miserable) little bastards.

Make no mistake, playing this game will make you sad. In the first few hours, a main character's mother dies before their eyes, another is forced to murder multiple innocents, life long friends try to kill each other, and others knowingly walk into their own death to save the lives of their companions. This stuff was interesting in the original because it was more mature and dynamic than anyone had seen outside the PC gaming world, but it worked just as much as novelty as it did a real piece of drama. Now with the new translation and camera work, it's not only a novelty, but it's also genuinely effective. If you were a fan of later Final Fantasy games but couldn't get into the earlier titles because they seemed too "kiddie", this remake could make you a believer. It contains as much non-stop, high tension, roller coaster moments as any other title in the series.

Part of that tension comes from the random turn-based battles, which I expected to hate. After being spoiled with Final Fantasy XII and Mother 3, both of which let you see your enemies before you fight them, there was no way I thought I could go back to the tediousness of the random encounter. I was wrong. The turn based battles in Final Fantasy IV work because they are so damn hard. The game almost feels like the first Resident Evil title, where moving from one place to the next was always an exercise in living dangerously. When the battles are this tough, instead of being a chore, each fight feels like a life or death, edge of your seat, survival horror conflict. It's feeling of overcoming hardship and strife, in both the larger storyline and the smaller, individual battles, that makes Final Fantasy IV so special.

Also worth noting are how well the new DS specific features, like the auto-mapping, the new trainable and visually customizable summon "Whyt", and the ability to read what's on your characters mind at any given time by going to the sub-screen, all work extremely well. The only new feature I'm not fond of is the voice acting. It's not badly done, but in a game populated by super deformed characters, it just doesn't feel right. For the record, the only games I can tolerate voice acting in are the Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil series, because they so clearly take their cues from live action films. For me, most other games are best read like comic books, where the in-game character's voices and acting only exists in my mind. Luckily, the voice acting in Final Fantasy IV can be turned on and off at anytime, so it's inappropriate qualities are easily quelled.

In summation, Final Fantasy IV is the perfect game for bringing old and new FF fans together. If you haven't played a FF game since the SNES days, you'll still find a lot to love here. But if you didn't start playing FF until the PS1 or PS2 days, Final Fantasy IV will still be relevant to your interests. It's truly the best of the old and the new, wrapped up together in one sweet little package.

Score: 9.5

Final Verdict: 9.25 (Negligible flaws. Otherwise very, very good; a fine example of excellence in the genre.)

Chad Concelmo,
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