Final Fantasy IV (DS) review
"Final Fantasy IV DS is not a new game, nor does it pretend to be original. As with many of Square Enix's re-releases of older titles, it is aimed primarily at the nostalgia factor for those of us who were old enough to play it the first time around (and, were it human, Final Fantasy IV will be old enough to vote next year.) However, even if you didn't play it as a wee small thing back when it was on the Super Nintendo and it was called Final Fantasy II, there's still plenty here for you if you like challenging gameplay and well-executed stories."
Final Fantasy IV has long been one of my top 5 RPGs, but I'll admit I was incredibly skeptical when I heard of the plans to re-release it on the Nintendo DS in the same style as Final Fantasy III. I'm a sucker for classic 16-bit graphics, and I just knew that something was going to go horribly wrong in the process of redesigning the entire game. So it was with much trepidation and pessimism that I anticipated the release of Square-Enix's latest attempt at emptying their fans' pockets.
It was worth every cent.
Final Fantasy IV DS is not a new game, nor does it pretend to be original. As with many of Square Enix's re-releases of older titles, it is aimed primarily at the nostalgia factor for those of us who were old enough to play it the first time around (and, were it human, Final Fantasy IV will be old enough to vote next year.) However, even if you didn't play it as a wee small thing back when it was on the Super Nintendo and it was called Final Fantasy II, there's still plenty here for you if you like challenging gameplay and well-executed stories.
If you played Final Fantasy III on the DS, then the graphics will look exceedingly familiar. Gone are the familiar two-dimensional 16-bit sprites, replaced by three-dimensional polygons and a much wider colour palette. However, the updated graphics did not ruin the ease of navigation. The viewing angle feels like the older versions of this game, only rendered in three dimensions. Also, the maps have not altered - if you could navigate Mount Ordeals with your eyes closed before, you can still do it now, although it will be significantly prettier. The world, however, is much more lushly detailed - enemies are more interesting to look at, and with the expanded colour palette, the designers were able to use the backgrounds to evoke different moods more easily.
The graphics are not the only thing that received a significant update from the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and GBA incarnations of this title. The localization has been completely redone, although there are a few nods to the old-school, such as keeping the famous "spoony bard" line. Where earlier incarnations of the game had a low-key, modern tone, the language in Final Fantasy IV DS is far more formal, reminiscent of Ivalice Alliance games like Final Fantasy XII, which adds a very different feel and a great deal of depth to the familiar storyline about saving the world. In addition, there are many story details included that were lacking from earlier versions, including an excellent bit of backdrop that makes the villain make far more sense than he did previously.
One of the new additions to the game is the "thoughts" mechanic. Entering the menu screen will show you a little thought bubble from the character currently leading the party, and you can switch lead characters easily in the field screen with the L or R button to get inside each person's head. These little thoughts do a great deal to flesh out the characters and add impact to a lot of plot events, or give you reactions from characters who don't speak in a given scene. I found myself jumping to the menu screen in each new area and after every event, just to see if the thoughts had changed. It was a wonderful treat for those who want to delve deeper into the characters, without lessening the game itself for those who don't care.
Unlike the GBA remake of Final Fantasy IV, which just tacked on a couple of dungeons and the ability to change one's party members (a "feature" that is lacking in the DS remake), Final Fantasy IV DS has actual alterations to the gameplay that make it a new experience even for those who have it memorized (like me.) The difficulty level has been ramped way up, with early normal enemies posing a far greater threat than in previous incarnations. Many boss battles have been altered either in terms of the boss's pattern of attacks, his weakness, or both, which led me to a great deal of confusion when I charged in with guns blazing in the manner I had learned, only to get absolutely slaughtered. The difficulty curve really does not abate until very late in the game, which is due to one of the other innovations.
Final Fantasy IV DS has a new system called "Augments." Since the party is constantly rotating due to various story events, you often lose access to important skills which may not be fully replaced by new members. The Augments system allows you to gain these abilities and assign them to any character. For example, when Edward the bard leaves your party, you can gain access to his Hide ability (which permits a character to "hide" from battle when her HP is low) and to the Bardsong ability, which lets you choose from 8 different songs with varying effects such as Regen and Haste (more like Final Fantasy V's Bard class, and much more useful than Edward has been in the past.) Most characters, upon leaving your party, will bestow a single Augment upon you, but if you've given them other Augments, they'll give you more. This provides significant incentive to give Augments to early party members even if you know they will leave you, because the Augments they give you in return are more than worth it.
One frustrating thing about the Augment system is that a character's battle menu cannot exceed five commands, nor can the Item command be removed. Attack, however, can - so, for example, upon giving Rosa an Augment that would let her double-cast, you can replace her Attack command with Aim, which is very useful since the Aim command is required to make a bow a worthwhile weapon. Also, Augments will carry over into a new game plus mode, adding replay value since some Augments are actually impossible to get the first time around (and other Augments can be acquired up to 3 times.)
The designers also included an incentive for every player to take the time to fully explore each map, even if you already know where you're going. The main action of the game takes place on the upper screen, while the touch-screen displays a map of the area you are currently in and a percentage indicating how much of that map you have explored. Getting 100% on a map will earn you a reward, which ranges from little items like Potions to incredible items like Gold Apples, which boost a character's max HP by 100 (very useful for low-HP mages.) Getting 100% on every map in the game will earn you the Treasure Hunter Augment, which doubles the drop rate for rare items (making hunting for that cursed Pink Tail just a tiny bit less frustrating.)
In addition to new battle mechanics, an increased difficulty level, and the Augments system, Final Fantasy IV DS boasts voice acting in some of the cinemas. I really enjoyed the voice acting, although personally I think they gave Edward rather too manly of a voice, but that's just me. There are no one-liners during battle (a la Final Fantasy XII or Persona 3 FES), but rather it is reserved for specific scenes that were changed from in-game graphics to full video. This kept it from growing annoying or overdone, but at the same time there was enough of it that it did not feel tacked-on--a great balance. The music has not been changed from earlier games, and the sound quality is much better than with the earlier GBA port.
Unlike Final Fantasy III on the DS, Final Fantasy IV DS makes almost no effort to integrate touch controls. I say "almost" because there is an exception, but it is completely optional. Rydia has gained a new summon called Whyt, which costs 50 MP to call and it will take Rydia's place in battle for a time. Whyt's battle commands can be set to any ability another party member has - so, for example, he could be set to cast Flare, Ultima, and Meteor. His statistics are determined by the outcome of five mini-games, which can be played anywhere Big Chocobos are found. The mini-games are based on five of the playable characters (Cecil, Kain, Rydia, Rosa, and Edge) and they boost Whyt's strength, stamina, intelligence, spirit, and agility respectively. It's entirely possible to beat the game without using Whyt at all, which is good because some of the mini-games are ungodly annoying, but it's a cool option to have if you want to exploit it. Otherwise, all controls are done with the D-pad and the four face buttons, which is a relief after Final Fantasy III's clumsy efforts to integrate stylus control.
Final Fantasy IV DS also has significant replay value. In addition to Augments that carry over, as mentioned above, there are two optional bosses that can only be unlocked after completing the game once and selecting a New Game Plus. You must level up to level 99 in order to be able to battle these optional bosses, and they are frustrating in a way that will be familiar to those who have taken on optional bosses in such games as Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy VIII, with overwhelming statistics and plenty of nasty tricks up their metaphorical sleeves. Whether these optional bosses are a bonus or an annoyance to you will depend, in large part, on how much you enjoy beating your head against the wall. I tend to think of them as a bonus.
Overall, Final Fantasy IV DS is an amazing game. It goes well beyond the territory of a mere port and is actually worthy of the title "remake." There's plenty of nostalgia for older players, and enough new things to keep your interest without crushing your fond memories from early years spent playing the game. For those new to the game, I feel that the updates make it much more playable and interesting than older versions, despite the difficulty increase. I can see myself replaying this version even more than I did my poor old SNES cartridge.
Freelance review by Lassarina Aoibhell (January 13, 2009)
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