If hearing some old Final Fantasy tunes will convince you to go back and play a mediocre game again, that’s easy the worst thing to be said about them. I decided to give the PSP port a look in 2011, but it offered little. Final Fantasy IV is the first Final Fantasy that a significant number of people still care about in something close to its original form. While it probably broke new ground as a story-heavy RPG with an emphasis on cutscenes and a large cast of characters that come and go, there’s not really enough to justify the tedium. With its sci-fi lunar bases and so on, things are taken beyond a simple swords-and-sorcery premise, but Square’s ability to tell a story had yet to mature.
Before the series found its groove in storytelling, the games flip-flopped between customizable parties and pre-made characters with a greater emphasis on an existing personality. II was the first game with existing characters. IV was just another step in that experiment. V went back to simple party arrangements with an emphasis on customization. With VI, they finally seemed to settle on something good, and if you’re looking for a game that still holds up, there’s probably no reason to look at any of the games before it.
The battle system is simple, and aside from learning to anticipate a few scripted enemy spell combinations through trial and error, there isn’t a lot of tactical ability required. Characters have unique skills, like stealing, praying, and jumping, but these are very unbalanced and often worthless. Later installments in the series make better use of the feature.
The random encounter odds are too random, and it can be frustrating to get into another fight one step after your last when you know you could have potentially taken 40 steps without seeing a thing. But what’s worse is that this weird answer to a technical limitation became a staple of RPGs and that we still see these invisible random battles in recent games. The lack of evolution explains a lot of the enmity many gamers have toward RPGs, and JRPGs in particular. I stopped after VIII, so I’m curious about how things have changed as of XIII and onward.
Most items, like potions and prefabricated spells, are pretty worthless. Truth be told, I’m the kind of player who almost never throws a grenade because “I might need it later,” but here, most treasure chests aren’t even worth opening. The only valid strategy in a dungeon is to play conservatively until you find a save point you can heal at, or you’ll run out of MP. Playing without using MP is boring, but the system encourages boring decisions. Either spam basic attacks or try to flee.
Most RPGs use enemies this way, in a strategy of attrition where only the player needs to worry about long-term wounds. The feeling of resolutely clawing through an unending horde feels better in an action game, and in turn-based systems I tend to find myself with time to wonder about the survival instincts that are nowhere to be found in these demons. Turn-based games should be tactical, and tactics are relatively pointless when the opposing forces aren’t even remotely equivalent.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Crimson Shroud, and the Zeboyd Penny Arcade games, among others, use systems where MP counts up from 0 at the beginning of battle, and this works a lot better when encounters are expected to last longer and be less trivial, but that isn’t a bad goal at all. Pokemon would also be more interesting if every enemy trainer had six pokeballs on their belt and you got a free heal at the end of battle. Etrian Odyssey IV demonstrated to me that MP-depleting random encounters can still be made interesting at times, but that isn’t the case here.
There’s no “finding secrets” in FF4, only esoteric knowledge from players’ guides and the internet, unless you bump into every single wall in the game in the hopes of finding something. There aren’t cracks to be seen or mysterious shadows cast, and you can’t rely on NPCs to complain about the mysterious draft behind every secret bookshelf. The best items in the game are hidden this way, and it affects game balance. I prefer a game to be self-contained, rather than to rely on outside sources for information while I play.
The game is tedious, grindy, uninteresting, and the few things it does right are still done better elsewhere. There’s no excuse for FF4 and the other early games in the series to get repackaged and sold over and over again under the banner of “appreciating the classics” while making no attempt to do anything about its clumsy and obsolete design sensibilities. Don’t go buying this out of some misguided feelings of nostalgia.