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Final Fantasy IV Retrospective Review
--by Zachary "upmagic" Brictson
First released on: November 23, 1991 (North America)
Later released on: April 19, 2011 (North America; PSP remaster)
The whole Dark Knight business isn't really working out for Cecil. It's a bit of a shame, too, since quickly won battles often give the best feelings Final Fantasy IV has to offer, and Cecil's Dark Knight abilities make easy work of large goblin groups. But not everyone picks the right career with their first choice. After all, what kind of name is "Cecil" for a soldier of darkness, anyway?
As he laments the idea of becoming a powerful-but-remorseless warrior, Cecil further ponders his personal identity when orders from his king suddenly become morally bankrupt. Yet, by the time he realizes his kingdom is corrupted by Golbez and the evil force he commands, Cecil and his brother-in-arms Kain have already supplied two of the world's Crystals to the enemy's cause. Having been used to commit heinous crimes, Cecil decides to abandon his duty and follow his heart, henceforth fighting on the side of humanity.
In his quest to hang up his blackened armor for the path of a Paladin, Cecil sets foot upon Final Fantasy IV's world map. His mission is to seek out and alert other kingdoms that their Crystals are in jeopardy of being stolen, and their peoples in jeopardy of being destroyed. What Golbez plans to do when all the Crystals are in his possession is a mystery that no one wants to see solved, but because Golbez is always two steps ahead of the player, it seems that he will inevitably achieve his goal. And where each step you take in pursuit is likely a random battle encounter, you're in for a game of both rewarding and frustrating levels of attrition.
Really, it's almost impressive how many battles you'll run into just walking to a treasure chest not more than a screen's distance away. The game's caverns and towers are actually quite small in scope - just a few floors deep apiece - but the sheer density of enemies prevent too quick of progress. So, entering a dungeon means being smacked around quite a bit, and after each battle you'll revisit the menu screen to sprinkle your party with healing magic before pressing on. How far can you inch forward before you can no longer sustain your party's health? That is the question that defines Cecil's adventure.
This question also makes Final Fantasy IV a sort of save point drama, and an intense one at that. It's especially apparent in final dungeons that are littered with legendary weapons to collect and mini-bosses to dispatch. You rack up levels and cash, and occasionally find secret pathways to powerful loot. All the while, creatures are weakening your party. Distinctive artwork, whether you choose the original Super Nintendo version or the glossy remaster on PlayStation Portable, give a powerful presence to the threats your party faces and instantly telegraph whether you should fight or run scared, leaving hard-earned coins behind. Two menacing black knights and a half-serpent, half-human sorceress? Please, just take the money.
Yes, there will be times when you'll have to double back and come up for air at the world map before taking a deep breath and trying to dive deeper than before. That is, until you come across the halfway save point and revel in its hospitality. Save points let you use any Tents - items that completely replenish the party's HP and MP - you've stocked up, which takes a lot of stress off your shoulders and allowing you to answer Final Fantasy IV's other teasing questions. Will that treasure chest be worth going out of your way for? Rarely. Is all of this abuse worth the disappointment of Golbez beating you to the punch, again and again? Not really. The one time where you do win the race, reach the next Crystal, and defeat Golbez in a clean fight, he takes it anyway.
But the silly drama plays to its advantage, sending you all over the globe - beneath its surface and atop its mountains - in a smoothly told tale that grants early access to airships, a hovercraft, and other forms of speedy travel. The pace of it all shuffles your battle party at every opportunity, and this character variety will revitalize your spirits before you trudge through another quagmire of constant battle transitioning. Cecil will first be accompanied by two spunky mage children, then a sappy bard that confuses enemies with his harp, before an airship mechanic that the story will later exchange for a disciplined martial artist.
Their move sets are varied but little of their talent is actually compatible with the unforgiving difficulty. The white mage, Rosa, has entire pages worth of support magic, but you'll only need to touch a handful of spells -- the healing ones. Half of the battles you trip over are "back attacks" or ambushes that give free volleys to your opponents, further requiring you to focus on nothing but rigorous upkeep. Bosses challenge how fast you can select heavy healing magic off the menus, where even attempting to revive a fallen ally may not be worth the time it lends to an actively turn-taking enemy.
In this manner, enemies force otherwise interesting characters to be seen merely as healing batteries or damage sponges. They become forgettable, and don't benefit from their lighting-fast introductions or attempts at dramatic sincerity, either. Meeting someone new is routinely followed by the heroic death of a previous comrade you were just getting comfortable with. This incessant depiction of noble sacrifice soon becomes unintentionally hilarious; watching sprites you barely got much use out of jump onto explosions and off ledges, crying to the success of Cecil's mission in a wholehearted failure to evoke something through their vain and sudden decisions.
The algorithmic emotion ends up falling in line with the numbers game that Final Fantasy IV truly comes off as: a hypnotic dungeon crawl where melodic themes nest in your mind as you work up a party worthy of presenting to the next boss. A well-mapped adventure filled with grueling struggle, it proves as addicting as it is unmemorable; a game where becoming a righteous Paladin is more meaningful for its addition to your banks of healing magic than as a turning point of the experience.
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