Final Fantasy IV Remake – An Examination

The problem with my personal gaming diet is that it contains far too many massive RPGs. Even as my video game backlog continues to pile up higher and higher and feels less and less manageable, I keep adding games that require commitments of 50-100 hours, or even more than that. I finished up Divinity: Original Sin II a couple of weeks ago, having logged 153.5 hours(!) on it, according to Steam. Granted, this total includes a couple of playthroughs I started and quickly abandoned, but those took up less than 10 hours combined. Almost all of that time went towards the playthrough I did finish, and I can assure you I didn’t complete every quest in the game.

Compared to that, the 60+ hours I spent with Fire Emblem: Three Houses was nothing (I haven’t written about Three Houses because I don’t have much to say; the game rules, and you should play it). My 3H playthrough came off the heels of beating Breath of the Wild, an 80-100 hour playthrough where, once again, I didn’t even come close to completing everything the game had to offer. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was my go-to game when I needed something a bit more brisk, and that still took me over 40 hours to finish.

Clearly, I have a problem. I’m addicted to outrageously long games. They’re too much fun! I like micro-managing and I like figuring out how these games want me to strategize and I uh…tolerate solving puzzles. Now that I’ve become familiar with the evils of Steam sales, it’s become clear that this condition is terminal. Don’t ask me how my video game backlog is these days, it can only depress me. I will be strapped to my chair, chipping away at gargantuan video games for the rest of eternity.

In this context, playing the remake of Final Fantasy IV on Steam has been a refreshing palate cleanser. It scratches my itch for classic, story driven, party-based RPGs without requiring me to mortgage all of my free time in order to get through it.

If, like me, you’re a dumb American old enough to remember the 16-bit era of games, you may be most familiar with Final Fantasy IV‘s initial, tragic North American release as Final Fantasy II. This version of the game suffers and suffers mightily from a massive difficulty decrease from the original Japanese version, rendering most of the game trivial, and it suffers even more from a botched translation that was not only shoddy to begin with, but also brought the game in line with Nintendo of America’s then-draconian censorship policies. Thus, the game’s then-groundbreaking story was reduced to a slurry of confusing non-sentences, vague non-descriptions of its own events, and future memes. If you want to play FFIV, it is imperative that you avoid this version.

While the original FFIV did see a couple of proper releases stateside, the remake provides the definitive FFIV experience. The graphics are brought up to PS1-level, with a pseudo-3D feel to the environments. While this does mean that the remake is rendered in blocky polygons that lack the retro charm of the original sprites, I do think this change is a net positive. The animations and cutscenes of the original game are so primitive that they lack any verisimilitude, and the story beats don’t really land as a result. You can bad mouth PS1-style polygons all you want, and I’ll mostly agree with you, but here they allow the cutscenes to show what’s happening much better than dinky sprite animations, making the story more effective. The story is further boosted with a new translation.

The remade FFIV sports a small handful of quality of life improvements. FFIV uses an early version of the active time battle system made famous to North American audiences in Final Fantasy VII, however, in the 16-bit versions of the game, the bars that show each character’s progress towards their next turn are hidden. The display only shows each character’s HP. The remake accommodates HP, MP, and turn progress bars, and on top of that, the bar also fills up to display action and spell casting times. There’s also a map overlay that can be accessed with a touch of a button, and works everywhere. It works in dungeons, it works on the world map, and it works in towns and castles.

But the finest quality of life improvement here is the quick save feature. In absolute terms, this feature is pretty limited. You can quick save at just about any time, but doing so automatically quits to the main menu. On top of that, you can only have one quick save file at a time, and you can only load a quick save using the Continue button at the main menu. Still, that this feature exists at all is a huge improvement from the bad old days, when you could only save and load from the main files, and you could only save in dungeons at designated points. In addition, if you quit without quick saving, the PC version will automatically quick save at or near your location at the time you quit. This is invaluable for ostensible grown-ups like me who have occasional responsibilities to tend to, and also for actual children like me who are prone to occasional rage quits.

This speaks to my favorite part of FFIV; it’s an RPG that respects the player’s time. FFIV is a lean, mean machine of a game. The game is laser-focused on the main story. There are minimal side quests, and there are minimal optional items to find. The side quests and optional items that do exist are easy to find through simple exploration. The gameplay itself is simple. Characters have simple stat lines, and special abilities that are easy to understand. Inventory management is straightforward, and equipment upgrades are both infrequent and easy to navigate. There’s no mandatory grinding sections or esoteric crafting systems or massive bonus dungeons. The remake does feature a deeply unnecessary Augment system, but it’s easy to ignore. This game wants you to get through at a brisk, efficient clip. It’s all of the fun of an RPG, without the exhaustion.

Of course, even the remade FFIV isn’t perfect. While the game was massive breakthrough for the genre in the early 90’s, not all of it holds up to modern standards. The active time battle system is so primitive that I hesitate to refer to it as such. It may be better thought of as an ATB prototype. This isn’t so much a problem for old-school gamers like me who are used to old-school turn-based combat, but some players may find the combat system clunky.

The game is also prone to wild difficulty spikes; in particular, there are several boss battles that are a great deal tougher than anything immediately before or after. While there isn’t a colossal bonus dungeon, The Very Definitely Final Dungeon is nothing less than a marathon, and a brutal one at that. Despite having gone through most of the game at high levels, I still felt unprepared for everything the final dungeon threw at me. Status effects can also be a real nightmare to deal with, as unlike later games in the series, there isn’t any equipment that prevents them.

While the depth of storytelling was unprecedented in FFIV‘s day, it scans as simplistic to modern sensibilities. Certain events just sort of happen, with minimal explanation. The characters and dialogues are often drawn in broad strokes – I don’t think this is purely a bad thing, as it lends the story a certain legendary feel – but there are definitely times when characters behave more like distant archetypes than relatable people. I also think the story gets somewhat less interesting in the later portions of the game. The character and intrigue-driven story gives way to more and more mythology, and said mythology is a little too thin to hold my interest.

Still, FFIV is an essential playthrough for anyone with any interest in Final Fantasy, and if you’re playing it today, the remake is the way to go. Highest recommendation!

Correction (5/12/21): The original version of this post stated that in the original FFIV, the combat screen shows character HP and MP, which is incorrect; it only shows HP. This post has been corrected to reflect that.

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