Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Retrospective JRPG Countdown: #8- Final Fantasy IV

My first exposure to RPGs came in the form of a Final Fantasy VIII demo that existed, bizarrely, on a demo disc a friend of mine obtained from Pizza Hut of all places. Yes. Pizza Hut. It's crazy, I know. I played it and was blown away not only by the visuals, story, and character designs...but even moreso that games like this existed. It was a surreal experience I'll talk about more in depth later, in a certain other game's entry.

Now, this demo only covered a very brief portion of FF8, and without the money (I was 11, for God's sake) to buy a full copy of the game, I was forced to turn to other places to satisfy my newfound RPG cravings. This is where wacky coincidences start to come into play.

Somewhere in the months before exposure to FF8, I came into possession of a shoebox full of SNES games a cousin of mine no longer wanted. He, in turn, had obtained them when another cousin, much older and wiser in the gaming world than us, had for some unknown reason given them away. The box contained a wondrous assortment of classics including Super Street Fighter II and Samurai Shodown. However, most important of all were the beautiful cartridges for Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III...those of course truly being the American versions of IV and VI, respectively.

Recognizing the franchise title with a mixture of bewilderment and frantic joy, I remember trying both games out in the same day. My older cousin had several advanced save files on both carts, and these I eagerly jumped to with absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing. I saw all sorts of colorful characters and beasts, and though I was initially moreso drawn to VI's higher quality visuals and varied cast, it was FF4 that eventually won the day in my heart, and I started a new game for it.

Right from the start, the game gripped me in that way that I think any nostalgic fan of the first ten Final Fantasy titles will perfectly understand. You're thrown right into the action following the protagonist, Dark Knight Cecil, as he flies about the sky commanding an airship, battling monsters, and for some unknown reason attacking what appears to be a harmless village and stealing what can no doubt be a magical crystal. All the while THIS music is playing.

That's all it took and I was sold, ready to follow Cecil and his badass-dragon-looking-buddy Kain on their adventure to take a package to a nearby village for some unknown reason. Now, of course, that is only the setup for what becomes a much more grandiose affair spanning three different worlds, but I was eleven and I had no idea what was coming.

If I had to pinpoint why FF4 captured my heart the way it did, I would want to say it's because while the game is alarmingly simple compared to future FFs, or even future ports of FF4, it is in a way the first Final Fantasy that I think really exemplifies what made the series so special for a time, albeit in its most simplistic form. Consider this my thesis statement or something.

First, take a look at FF4's hero, Cecil. Seen here in all his beautiful splendor as both a Dark Knight and a holy Paladin warrior.

Though he begins the game as a totally badass Dark Knight with menacing armor and an intimidating presence (for a 16-bit sprite) we quickly discover that Cecil may in fact be the first concrete instance of an effeminate Final Fantasy hero who is melancholic and taciturn all the while going about with enormous melee weapons stabbing freakish monsters in order to save the world. Before he even leaves the castle to go on his journey proper, Cecil is already bemoaning his actions as a Dark Knight and his inability to disobey what he feels are unjust orders, as they come from the King of Baron. We also see that he has an attractive female lead ready to throw herself at him, but he is, of course, not at all interested.

Now, I think this is important in the grand scheme of the series because it obviously establishes a pattern that, while often mocked today, was a huge departure from the norm for quite some time. Before Cecil, two out of three FF protagonists were faceless "Light Warriors" whose personalities were more or less defined by their Job Class and any imaginary roleplaying the player may have done. The only other named protagonist before Cecil is FF2's Firion, who as far as I can tell is a standard fantasy hero who tries to be courageous and chivalrous in his fight against an evil empire.

Even his Amano sketch is masculine.

Cecil's thoughtfulness and tortured moral stance help set him apart in a role that is generally occupied by hot-blooded, battle-hardened warriors or eager, plucky boy adventurers. He's seen some shit, and he's done some things he isn't proud of. His conflict between his conscience and his duty to the crown brings up some interesting questions, and really pulls us into the story. We want to follow Cecil and see where he takes this drama. We want to see him stand up for what he believes in and defy the king.

The rest of the cast is similarly colorful and memorable, each with their own small dramas that play out over the course of the rapidly escalating conflict between good and evil over the power of the ever-important crystals. These characters also each embody one of the FF series' classic jobs, from Monk to Mage to Dragoon, eschewing the job systems of earlier titles to give players a more simplistic, yet constantly changing, party of fighters.

Speaking of fighters, and in turn fighting, FF4 is also the first game in the series to introduce Active Time Battle, or ATB. Before FF4, battles were standard turn-based affairs where you chose everyone's moves and then things happened all in a row. ATB changed all of this by forcing players to make decisions on the fly as characters got their turns in real time, indicated by a small gauge next to their name. Enemies would not cease their attacks and wait for you to make your moves, so take too long and it would easily be game over.

"Hey guys, aren't we all just...beautiful?"

And those game overs would come a lot, too, depending on the version, because FF4 can be brutally difficult at times. Tons of enemies in the game, from lowly Needle Rats to mighty Behemoths, brought deadly counterattacks to the table, enabling them to attack out-of-turn if struck with the wrong move. This is introduced as early as the first boss fight, the Mist Dragon, where striking the creature while it is in "Mist" form causes a deadly counter that hits the entire party.

Between the newly implemented ATB and the extensive counterattacks from enemies, battles in FF4 became a fast-paced and tactical affair where you were constantly confirming the next healing spell or attack before your party dropped dead, but also trying to figure out the exact attacks to use that wouldn't get you murdered inside of two turns. Though it can be severely frustrating later in the game when enemy strength and difficulty suddenly ramp up, the battles feel rewarding and exciting in practice, and once you discover how an enemy fights it does get easier. ATB would of course remain in the series right up until FFX, though the rampant counterattacks would see considerable scaling back in future games.

Of course, it's hard to talk about battles without mentioning the skill system, and in that respect FF4...well, it doesn't really have a system, per se. Characters learn new spells as they level up, and that's about it. I think Edge and Tellah learn spells through a few mandatory story events, but other than that it's just leveling and learning. Similarly, other than one sword that involves a sidequest, all of your equipment is obtained either through treasure chests in dungeons or through shops in town. The best weapons in the game are all simply in treasure chests in the final dungeon, or guarded by bosses in that same place.

Under today's circumstances I might consider this simplicity a problem, but for the time and for the way the game plays out it works and makes sense from a design standpoint. FF4 is constantly shuffling characters in and out of your party with the one constant being Cecil, whose only change is transforming into a Paladin just a few hours into the game. There's little point in extensively customizing these characters' skillsets when they're just going to leave again in a few game hours to be replaced by a completely different class of character. While you are eventually left with the same five characters no matter what (outside of future ports) I like that there isn't much customizing or game breaking to be done with them. Being forced to work with what you're given makes the player learn the strengths and weaknesses of their final team, and you can then find and use the best strategies to win those fast-paced, counter-heavy battles.

Other than its bishounen characters, Final Fantasy is often lauded for Nobuo Uematsu's masterful soundtracks, and of course 4 doesn't disappoint there. From the opening scene with the theme of the Red Wings right up until the final battle the score almost never fails to impress and immerse, using that new-fangled SNES technology to produce sounds that are significantly more pleasant than 8-bit NES tunes.

One of three.

What else? Oh, how about the game featuring three entire world maps, which we touched upon earlier? Sure, the Underworld and Moon aren't exactly huge and overflowing with places to go, but they really add a sense of grandeur to the story. Players are also gifted with numerous means of transportation from a hovercraft early in the game to a damned spaceship by the end. The world(s) are also brimming with sidequests to undertake, which reward determined players with powerful weapons and summon magic...which I totally forgot about earlier. The final trek to find and defeat Bahamut and earn his summon is especially epic, as players fight through a lunar cave and down countless Behemoths before fighting the big dragon himself.

The story itself is, again, simplistic in its beauty. On the surface its a quest for magical crystals while fending off attacks from the big mean people. Lying just underneath all that is a plethora of betrayals, dramatic last stands, and familial reveals that (like the three worlds) help to give the simple good vs. evil plot the gravitas it needs to keep players hooked. That said, it's hard to feel surprised when your ninth friend heroically sacrifices themselves to save you. Spoilers?

Things get a bit odd towards the end as super-advanced technology starts to crop up in an otherwise entirely medieval universe, but I guess this is handwaved by the reveal of Moon people...as weird as that sounds. There's also the reveal of a new Big Bad in the 11th hour, but I guess that too has become a hallmark of the FF series, and at least Zemus gave us a little more warning than FF9's Necron.

I could probably go on for several more pages about this game, but I think I've already risked rambling so I'll try to wrap this up with a pretty, melancholic bow. FF4 is a game that I have no shortage of nostalgia for. It's the first FF I truly played (technically) and even today when I reach certain moments (You spoony bard!) or hear certain songs from it I get all tingly and a big smile pops to my face. It's comforting in that way. It's an old game, and it lacks some of the technical features that prove so popular in future entries, but it has a wonderful cast of thoughtful characters, a quality story with just the right twists and turns to stay fresh, exciting battles, and an expansive world to explore and conquer all while listening to music that is just a joy for the ears. It's everything a Final Fantasy game needs to be, in my opinion, and it ends on a perfect high note.

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