Guest article by Hamilton Clower
Final Fantasy IV DS
A little over a decade ago, I was a starry-eyed high schooler, walking home across the Longfellow bridge, drunk on mental visions of Final Fantasy VII and probably a cola slurpee the size of my head. “You know what would be awesome?” I thought to myself, “If they remade Final Fantasy IV in the same style- with the 3D battles and everything!”
I’m opening with this anecdote partially because it seems to be the proper New Games Journalism way to open a review, and partially to remind us all how amazing it is that this is a real thing that now exists- and one that can be played on a phone, at that!
The 3D-enhanced, polygonal remake of the venerable SNES RPG was actually released for the DS back in 2008- I wasn’t able to pick it up at the time, so I was quite happy to see the recent iOS port materialize. The iOS version includes most of the same things that the original did; one subquest/minigame has been cut and replaced with a different one, but everything else seems intact. The changes are both obvious and subtle- along with the massive audiovisual overhaul, many of the game’s characters have been rebalanced, a new character development system has been introduced, and handful of new plot points and sidequests have been added.
The audiovisual overhaul is the most immediately noticeable change to the game. While the earlier PSP remake of Final Fantasy 4 featured redrawn, higher-resolution sprites similar to the originals, the DS and iOS remakes are rendered entirely in polygons. Most cutscenes have been updated to take advantage of both the ability to have a camera that wasn’t fixed in one position and the 3D models’ greater capacity for movement and interaction with each other- I was quite happy with this, and thought that it added quite a bit to many of the story cutscenes. You get a better look at the characters, too, which is both a positive and a negative- there’s a lot more detail on the new models than the old sprites, and not being restricted to a handful of sprites gives them more personality, but it also kind of underscores the shortcomings of some of the character designs.
Rosa’s cape-and-bikini outfit comes to mind offhand, and both Kain and Dark Knight Cecil look like they’ve walked in from a Sentai series. Where there was conflict between the original sprites and the concept artwork, the game has followed the concept art; personally, I don’t think this served Tellah or Cid particularly well, but that may just be me. New voice acting has been added to some cutscenes as well; some actors are better than others, but all of the major cast members are pretty good. Although I could take or leave the new voice acting as a whole, I’m glad to see that it was added in more places than- say- the animated cutscenes in the later remakes of Final Fantasy Tactics.
There was a lot of rebalancing done to this release of the game- both a ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ mode are available; the ‘hard’ mode can be quite brutal at times. Many characters in the original versions of the game had several ‘dead wood’ commands which were specialized for a particular area or not useful enough to ever really be needed; most of these commands have been modified to make them more useful. Edward the Bard’s “Sing” ability in particular- essentially useless in the original releases of the game- has become one of the game’s most useful secondary skills; many other characters have vastly improved ‘support’ commands as well. Some of the new abilities are still more useful than others, of course, but it’s clear that quite a bit of work has been done both to improve the weaker characters and maintain the challenge level of the game.
A couple more subtle changes have been made as well, which vastly improve the game. Visual indicators have been added to show that enemies are suffering from status changes; a list is also available when you attempt to target them in battle. This is a subtle changes, but it’s one that makes attacks that inflict status changes far more viable- I can tell at a glance if a change has worked, and with a slightly longer glance, which status changes are affecting an enemy. Originally, you largely had to rely on guesswork- did I see a ‘miss’ when that Sleep spell was cast? If not, is the enemy asleep, or immune to sleep? If it was asleep a few turns ago, is it still asleep or has the effect worn off? The new way of handling things (first introduced in the Playstation-era games) is a huge improvement, and makes me less shy about experimenting with the various status-change spells.
Many enemies have predefined ‘counterattacks’ which they immediately use when they’re hit. In the SNES version of the game, it was just something that happened, but in the remake, counterattacks are specifically labeled as such. It’s a small change- and one that I didn’t like at first- but being knowing that, say, casting Maelstrom is something that Behemoths do in response to a magical attack rather than something they do at random changes many battles from simple endurance matches to something closer to a puzzle. Given these characters with these attacks, and this enemy with these responses to your actions and these other things it does at random, how do you do enough damage to defeat it without dying? On Hard mode, at least, these are important questions- you can’t rely on being able to simply overwhelm an enemy. It makes ‘solving’ a big battle feel like more of an accomplishment of skill rather than simply having enough levels to outlast the enemy- although it’s a small change, it really adds a lot to the game.
To resolve the lack of customization that was Final Fantasy 4’s only major weakness, a new system of ‘augments’- items that can be consumed to give characters new abilities- has been added to the game. It gives you some ability to customize your characters, and allows you to use commands and abilities from characters who are no longer in your party. All things considered, I’m pretty abivalent about the change, honestly- while having it doesn’t hurt, I’m not convinced it really adds much to the game, either. Many of the augments are gained by giving characters who will leave your party forever other augments before they do, but what you get is often both arbitrary and not revealed until well after they’re gone.This makes the system a bit hard to figure out at times without resorting to a FAQ; I missed several powerful abilities because I didn’t expect certain characters to yield them. Many of the better abilities are obtained as plot points, but it can still be rather arcane at times- it’s a valiant attempt to add some more customization, but I’m not sure it was really necessary.A handful of new plot sequences and subquests have been added to the game, including some additional backstory regarding Cecil and Golbez. In another rather subtle change, bringing up the menu will show you the current character’s thoughts- Dark Knight Cecil frets about Rydia’s safety while passing through the Underground Waterway; Edward stops to think about his lost love on the road to Fabul; Kain resists Zemus’ attempts to control him in the Lunar Core. While it’s a small touch, there are a lot of blurbs for each character, and it does give the game’s characters a bit more depth and establishes their personalities.
My only major complaint with the game is the interface- it’s clearly designed for a DS screen, and an iPhone just isn’t quite big enough to accomodate it. Buttons are small, menus are required to scroll- given the speed of the ATB and the power of most major enemies, battles can turn into frantic finger-painting as you struggle to find that one spell that you need to use right now to stay alive. The game also includes an automap which normally lived on the DS’ second screen- it’s an optional transparent overlay in the iOS version. It works, but it can be very difficult to read, particularly on bright backgrounds.
Despite the issues with the interface, all in all- I’m quite happy with the Final Fantasy 4 remake. It’s a really impressive remake of a classic game, and perhaps the best version released to date. It’s a bit expensive as iOS games go, but I’d say it’s worth every penny.