Note: This review covers the original version of Final Fantasy IV, first released in the U.S. as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles, and not the SNES version that was released as Final Fantasy II.
In many ways, especially mechanically, Final Fantasy IV is the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. Not only does it give you the least party customization, it really gives no customization at all in a series where complicated leveling systems have always been a touchstone. Yet the game indisputably feels like a Final Fantasy game. This may be largely due to the fact that, since we missed FFII and FFIII in the US, FFIV is to some extent the first “real” game in the series. The strict linearity didn’t feel weird at the time, only in hindsight. Yet including the second and third chapters, it is actually out of place – it makes me wonder how it is viewed in Japan.
Regardless, FFIV is a good game for reasons I’m not sure I can put into words. This is a review, though, so I’ll give it my best shot. I am personally quite partial to the party customization that is so lacking in this game, yet its absence doesn’t really bother me. It’s worth noting that gear selection does offer some level of control (though this is mitigated by the game’s terrible lack of clarity about the bonuses granted by gear), as does the exact timing of when you tackle certain late-game side quests.
What FFIV has going for it is the first truly memorable cast of characters in the series. FFI and FIII both had anonymous parties, but FFII was somewhat similar in that it had predefined characters that drove the plot. FFIV, however, has a larger cast, and manages to integrate each characters’ abilities into the overall storyline, a big change for a series where every previous party member was a blank slate. But who can forget the summoner Rydia, or Cecil becoming a paladin? Despite betraying the party on more than one occasion, the dragoon Kain has long been a fan favorite (I chalk this up to a combination of Jump being a cool ability and his awesome combat sprite).
While the characters are solid, the actual plot of FFIV is pretty weak. The melodrama of characters sacrificing themselves is overdone, especially considering how rarely those sacrifices end up meaning anything. The big plot revelation was already done in Star Wars (not to mention FFII), and going to the moon seems more ridiculous the more you think about it. Add all this together with the fact that your party generally fails at every task they attempt up until the climactic battle, and the story isn’t actually that memorable.
FFIV may lack the game mechanics pedigree of the rest of the series, and the plot is on par with most JRPG drivel, but what FFIV really establishes – and what makes it feel like a Final Fantasy game – is the drama. The plot may not be memorable, but a large number of scenes are. Being rescued from inevitable party death by a character long-since thought lost will always be awesome, and is certainly in the running for most memorable scenes in the entire series. The game does a great job with automated plot battles, the best of which involve Tellah (“You spoony bard!”). And somehow Edge pining for Rydia never gets old.
The riddle of FFIV, though, is how they managed to make the game fun to replay despite it playing almost identically every time through. Here I’m guessing the answer really is just straight-up nostalgia. But maybe something about FFIV makes it like a book or movie you just want to keep reading or watching despite its faults. Certainly the polish on the game has a lot to do with my continued enjoyment of it. The sound track is legendary, and I’m still a big fan of the combat graphics (though the less said about the tile-based non-combat graphics, the better).
The bottom line is, FFIV is a good game even if I can’t explain precisely why. Not that you need to rush out and play it if you haven’t (and if so, er, sorry about the spoilers but it’s been several decades now), but any series fan can still appreciate the game. The fact that it manages to be in the discussion of “best Final Fantasy game ever” at all says quite a lot. (Like that fans are crazy, in my view, but still.)