Retro Review: Final Fantasy IV (PS1)

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.)

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy III (Famicom)

Though it is just as obscure as its predecessor in the U.S., Final Fantasy III seems to get less attention than Final Fantasy II despite being a much better game. FFIII is in many ways the progenitor of the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, despite being 8-bit itself. Systemically, the game is almost identical to Final Fantasy IV, and aside from the requisite clunky UI, this game plays much more like a modern RPG than its predecessors.

The big innovation that really sets FFIII apart is the introduction of the job system. This isn’t quite the refined system of Final Fantasy V or Tactics, as each set of jobs makes most of the previous ones completely obsolete, but many classic jobs such as Dragoon and Summoner got their start here. Rather than being a system to customize party members, FFIII’s job system is largely used as a puzzle of sorts. At most points in the game, there is a “correct” set of jobs to use, but that combination is not necessarily obvious. Things open up later when the less direct jobs like Bard and Evoker show up, but the game is fun even before this. The biggest flaw of the system is that, in the end, there are two semi-hidden jobs that completely outclass everything else, which takes a lot of the fun out of experimenting.

FFIII plays around with a lot of interesting ideas. Some, like having multiple world maps to explore, are really awesome. And some, like dividing monsters (which split whenever you hit them with most weapons), are not. This is a very uneven game, and a number of dungeons stand out as being especially frustrating. The aforementioned dividing monster dungeon is one, but the final dungeon is of special note. Unfortunately, save points were not among FFIII’s innovations, and the final dungeon is incredibly long and includes five nasty bosses after the point where you can’t even leave and heal up or save if you want to. The final boss is unimaginative and is virtually impossible to defeat if you’re underleveled (not that you’re likely to be, if you did the various sidequests).

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps FFIII gets less attention than FFII because there just isn’t as much to say about it. It’s a solid game, and obviously a huge influence on the games that followed it, but even the introduction of the job system isn’t really that interesting. Final Fantasy III is a rough draft – the core of a good game is there, but it’s not so refined that it’s truly great, or even particularly memorable. The plot is a throwaway, the gameplay is notable mainly for its few frustrating bits, and the game just lacks “it.” And it’s unfortunate that we’ve never gotten a port of the original version. This game is worth checking out if only because this is perhaps the most referenced game in the series.

Review Score: B

Review: Final Fantasy XV

Whenever a new Final Fantasy game comes out, the question people always have is “does it feel like a Final Fantasy?” I’ve never really known what this question means, since Final Fantasy is a series defined by change, but the question has never been harder for me to answer than in Final Fantasy XV. It certainly doesn’t not feel like a Final Fantasy, but I’m mostly at a loss to give any specific reason why it does. Most of the usual stuff is there, including famous monsters and references galore, but they aren’t what the game is about, to a much larger extent than usual for the series.

There is a lot of ground to cover in reviewing FFXV, but the storytelling seems to me like the best place to start. Final Fantasy game stories are generally kind of ridiculous when you think about them, but the way they’re told has been top notch for a very long time, and FFXV is no exception. Indeed, it may be the culmination of that idea: this is the best-told story in the series. I’m still a bit too close to it to be objective, but I honestly think it might be the best-told story in any video game I’ve ever played. And the story itself is not bad at all, which enhances the effect.

The game stars Prince Noctis and his three retainers on a road trip, a premise which seems ridiculous on the surface but is at the core of why the game works. In writing, there is a saying: “show, don’t tell.” FFXV takes this even further in a way only an interactive medium can, which can be summed up as “experience, don’t tell.” Oddly, I never felt like I was Noct, unlike so many of the greatest RPGs, but I nonetheless experienced his story from beginning to end. When the four party members start getting wistful for the earlier chapters of the game, I was too, and for much the same reasons. When the game wanted me to have an emotional reaction, boy did I have an emotional reaction. Quite a few of them, at that.

In several respects, FFXV feels a lot like Uncharted: the banter between your party members is similar to that seen in that series, and many of the more cinematic moments also have a distinctly Uncharted feel. However, Uncharted can feel like a string of events put together to fulfill a quota at times. FFXV’s main story trims all the fat, to the point where it’s one of the shortest main sequences in the series. I arrived at the final chapter in about 20 hours. Many will criticize an RPG for being that short, but I have long been a proponent of shorter main stories, and FFXV makes an excellent supporting case. There’s plenty of side stuff to do, but the story itself remains clean and crisp – with one significant exception.

At this point I would be remiss not to point out that Final Fantasy XV is by no means a perfect game. It has major gameplay flaws that can’t be overlooked. Chief among these is the combat system: it’s incredibly fun and rewarding when it works, and pretty terrible when it does not. Unfortunately, it fails more often than it succeeds. Combat fundamentally breaks down into three actions: warp striking (which serves largely as a way to navigate chaotic battlefields), attack combos, and defending. I am terrible at defending, and that is a big problem in this game. I’m honestly not sure what you’re supposed to do against huge hordes all alternately attacking and leaving almost no opening. For better or worse, you can spam healing items to power through just about any fight, so this is more frustrating than difficult. I had many similar problems with the harder fights in FFXII. Part of the problem is that I expect open-world Final Fantasy combat to be reminiscent of FFXI or FFXIV, but that’s not the case.

The camera can be incredibly bad in combat, which exacerbates combat’s general problems. If you’re fighting on an open plain, it’s fine, but if you’re in the woods, expect to see more extreme closeups of foliage than your characters or enemies. Even when your view isn’t obscured, sometimes you won’t be able to rotate the camera the way you want to for no discernible reason. It’s not just bad, it’s Playstation 1-era bad.

The game also tends to throw incredibly hard optional fights at you without indicating that they’re optional. It’s not fun being one-shot by every enemy in a plot area with no clear idea where I’m even supposed to go. It’s also a little annoying when the main quest suggests a sidequest that I am in no way prepared for, even if it does make sense in the narrative.

Combat isn’t the game’s only flaw. Final Fantasy XV contains one of the most ill-conceived dungeons I’ve seen in an RPG. It’s long, boring, and frustrating, and you lose almost all of your abilities, Metroid-style, at the beginning of it. Truth be told, if it was just shorter – a lot shorter – it wouldn’t really have been a problem. The frustration of it is kind of the point, it just goes too far with it.

Many of these problems can be solved by spending a lot of time in the open world. FFXV’s open world is a lot of fun to explore, with tons of sidequests and monster hunts to go on. Your greatest foe while doing these quests will be load times. You can drive everywhere manually, and even get rewarded for doing so, but using fast travel often takes nearly as long just due to loading. That said, when you get to your destination, it tends to be a lot of fun. All the optional content offers meaningful rewards, and even when the plot takes you away from the open world areas, you can almost always go back to them on a whim. (One particularly annoying exception is the dungeon mentioned above. Not that leveling up would help with that, but at least it could break up the monotony.)

FFXV’s open world is quite large, and filled mostly with open terrain. This certainly helps with the world’s verisimilitude, though it can make travel annoying. I’d definitely recommend unlocking chocobos as soon as possible to help with that. The chocobo rental system can be annoying when it runs out in the middle of nowhere, but you can usually teleport back to your car so it’s unlikely to be that big a deal. The game also has a day-night cycle, and you are strongly discouraged from traveling at night due to powerful monsters that spawn. Instead, you’re better off resting. Experience is only tallied while resting, in a throwback to old-school D&D, and you have an interesting choice to make when doing so. Stay at a camp in the wilderness, and you can cook a meal that will give powerful long-term stat buffs the next day. Or you can pay money to stay at an inn, lose the food bonus (though you could buy one separately at a restaurant), but gain a multiplier on your experience earned the day before.

In many ways, resting serves as a microcosm for what makes FFXV’s game design so compelling. When I was younger, I thought what I wanted was more realism in RPGs: having to eat and sleep, worrying about encumbrance, and so on. It turns out, adding that stuff to a game is generally just a drag. FFXV makes a lot of this sort of thing part of the game, though, in a way that’s interesting mechanically while also serving to draw you into the world. In much the same way as the story is told, the game mechanics help make your journey feel like a journey and not just a video game.

While there’s a ton more about FFXV to cover, the truth is, whether you’ll like this game probably comes down to a few factors. If you like tactical, carefully planned combat, you’re probably not going to find it here (though I would recommend using Wait Mode in this case). If you play RPGs for the story, you will most likely love this game. If you want to explore an open world and get ridiculously powerful, that too is something FFXV allows. I’d recommend it to anyone with the patience for RPG mechanics, even people who aren’t traditionally RPG or Final Fantasy fans. As the game says when you boot it up, this is a Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike. It’s not perfect, but god damn is it satisfying.

Review Score: B+

Halfway Through Final Fantasy XV

Based on hours played and chapter, I’m about halfway through FFXV now. Since the game just told me I’ll be losing access to the open world for a while, I figured this was as good a time as any to give my impressions on that open world.

FFXV feels a lot like FFXII (which I love), with a lot of Uncharted and a dash of GTA mixed in. Some of the cinematic exploration reminds me very strongly of Uncharted, which is a good thing since that game had excellent presentation. The flow of combat also feels similar at times, where things can be quite chaotic than suddenly end. Plus the banter is fantastic, and with a fairly consistent party of four there’s a lot of room for character development there.

The GTA aspect is basically just that there’s a map with objectives on it, and you often have to pay attention to roads instead of going directly to them in a line.

The one aspect of FFXII I never loved is the chaotic combat, because I’m actually quite terrible at it. Sometimes I’d just get my butt kicked by a fight and have to use a dozen consumables to survive, or just spam some cheesy abilities. My only real complaint about FFXV so far is that it feels exactly the same in this regard. It doesn’t help that the camera is awful in combat, particularly if you’re fighting in the woods. I don’t particularly like the targeting, and I generally have no idea why I’m winning or losing a fight.

That said, this really only applies to packs of wandering monsters. Whenever you’re fighting set pieces against human troops, those fights are amazingly fun. Warp striking never gets old, and those fights set you up perfectly for it. I’ve also started getting better about magic (now that I realized you can mix items in for cool effects, like self healing of max HP).

Combat complaints aside, I love this game. The presentation is amazing, the characters are great, and I’m interested in where the plot is going. I do have one worry about the plot, which is that the party seems way too easily bamboozled repeatedly, but I guess I’ll see if it actually plays out that way. If I end up liking this game as much as FFXII, that will definitely be a win for me.

FFXV (Very) Early Impressions

I’ve played an hour or so of Final Fantasy XV, and I’m definitely liking the vibe so far. All of the reviews I’ve seen were kind of vague on why they liked the game so much, but I kind of get it. The bro road trip thing works surprisingly well.

One of my worries was that the nature of the game would prevent it from being very guide-friendly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. I’ll probably have to do some actual mapping for this one, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s plenty of information to gather, though, between items, abilities, hunts, and whatnot. I won’t start doing any guidework in earnest until I’ve finished the game the first time, though, so don’t expect it all that soon.

Retro Review: Final Fantasy II (Famicom)

The original Final Fantasy was largely a translation of the D&D rules into video game form. Some iconic parts of the game were ripoffs (the most obvious being the ochu, which was just a mistranslation of “otyugh”). Final Fantasy II, on the other hand, was an experimental game. Not all experiments succeed, and Final Fantasy II reinforces this. Many items and monsters in FFII have since become a major part of series lore, while the strange leveling system was tossed aside, never to be seen again. But perhaps FFII’s most important contribution to the series was its full-fledged storyline.

Final Fantasy II is certainly a flawed game, but the story holds up quite well, at least structurally. This may be because it is extremely reminiscent of Star Wars. In fact, the rebellion vs. evil empire theme would be repeated many times in later games (to varying degrees of Star Wars-ness). FFII’s story begins with four orphans falling in battle while fleeing their hometown of Fynn, which has been destroyed by the evil Palamecian Empire. Three of the orphans survive, with the fate of the fourth unknown, and join a rebellion headed by the princess of Fynn. For the first half of the game, the party carries out a series of missions for the rebellion.

Between missions, you usually return to the rebellion’s home base. As a result, the layout of the world is far less linear than most contemporary JRPGs, though its odd wrapping landmasses make for quite a strange world map. The civilized towns are mostly clustered near the starting area of the game, with the Palamecian Empire far to the northwest (…or southeast). You can actually walk almost anywhere right at the beginning of the game, if you manage to survive. As a result of the story’s structure, the world of Final Fantasy II feels like a real world to a greater extent than almost any game in the series. Sadly, it’s not a very interesting world, as you can safely ignore most of the towns aside from Fynn and the rebel base in Altair after visiting them once or twice. The sole exception is the town of Mysidia, a series mainstay that makes its debut here.

However, Final Fantasy II is not known for its world or its story, but rather its much-maligned leveling system. The idea is that you get better at whatever you do, but in practice this usually ends up being far from balanced. The system is capable of working quite well, but it doesn’t provide nearly enough information to the player for them to actually do so. It doesn’t so much as hint at major components of the system that you must understand in order to succeed. While the game presents its characters as blank canvases, the truth is that customization is strongly discouraged. You’re all but forced to make direct analogs of the classes from the original Final Fantasy if you want to succeed.

Aside from its problematic leveling system, Final Fantasy II has a few other major flaws that really kill the enjoyment of the game. In the original game, there were a few encounters here and there that could potentially kill the party without the player having any recourse. FFII takes this aspect of the game to a ridiculous extreme. In basically every dungeon in the latter half of the game, there are several encounters that can just screw the player over through no fault of their own. In most cases, going out of your way to level the correct defensive or curing spells ahead of time can help, but even so, some enemies are simply not fair. In my playthrough, I lost at least six hours of gameplay to battles late in dungeons that killed my party before I even got a chance to act. This is not acceptable.

While I’ve actually grown to like FFII over the years, the simple truth is that it’s frustrating and filled with systems that are openly antagonistic to players. However, it does deserve some respect as being the game that really set the tone of future Final Fantasy games. While jobs and summoned monsters don’t make an appearance, many other aspects of the combat system are codified here for the first time. It is historically important… but at the same time it’s the least enjoyable game in the main series. It’s not bad per se, it’s just – and I say this without irony – misunderstood.

Review Score: C−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy (NES)

That the original Final Fantasy still holds up at all today is indicative of why the series has endured for so long. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea these days, but Final Fantasy was an example of excellent design back when it was new. It had a slightly different take on the RPG genre than Dragon Quest and introduced a slew of interesting new systems (albeit with an enemy roster ripped directly from the D&D Monster Manual) that still hold up.

Unlike later games in the series, Final Fantasy doesn’t focus much on its story. It begins as a pretty vague “save the world” plot but degenerates into incomprehensible time travel gibberish by the end. Final Fantasy is a surprisingly non-linear game, especially in the second half, and you’ll have to look for clues and hints to determine where you’ll need to go as the game progresses. The game lacks any really obtuse puzzles, or anything a bit of exploration won’t sort out.

While the traditional job system wouldn’t appear until the third entry in the series, Final Fantasy allows you to choose four characters from among six classes. Since you can use the same class multiple times, there are technically over 1,000 possible party combinations. Practically speaking, the game is nearly impossible without a Fighter, and a White Mage is another must-have. Even given those restrictions, there are 36 combinations, all of which are perfectly viable (and the game can be completed with almost any combination if you’re patient). One of the best parts of the game is the optional sidequest that lets you upgrade your characters to advanced versions of their classes, complete with a new sprite and new abilities. Even the generally inferior Thief becomes a valuable party member when upgraded to a Ninja.

The main quest is memorable, if only for the challenge. Each dungeon has its own unique feel and requires special preparation and a different play style. The spell slot system taken from D&D plays heavily into this. In particular, the fact that your White Mage’s undead-killing spells share slots with healing spells will change your strategy in certain cases. You’ll often find huge treasure troves in out of the way areas, suggesting that you delve dungeons over multiple trips. The game doesn’t play like a modern RPG where you can clear out every new dungeon on the first shot. In fact, the game expects you to gain levels making these multiple attempts to clear out a dungeon.

Not every dungeon is great, though. The Marsh Cave and the Ice Cave in particular can be extremely frustrating. While the Marsh Cave simply requires more resources than you’re likely to have, the Ice Cave is filled with encounters that are just blatantly not fair. Challenge is one thing, but certain enemies like “Sorcerers” (Mindflayers) are more likely to make you quit the game in frustration than offer an enjoyable encounter.

Cheap enemies aside, this is not a game for the faint of heart. There is no tutorial period, and even the first dungeon can easily kill you if you’re not careful. The game has a brutally limited inventory system that requires you to make tough choices with gear, especially late in the game. The spell slot system makes spells too precious to waste in the early going, which can easily lead to every battle being a knock-down, drag-out affair. And the game does a terrible job telling you what items and spells actually do, effectively requiring you to check a guide (I suggest this one!) to get the most out of what’s available.

No discussion of Final Fantasy would be complete without mentioning the bugs. There are quite a few, though most can be worked around. The game was meant to have a number of good party buff spells, but almost none of these work. (Though the exception, FAST, is one of the best spells in the game.) Given that the game makes you choose 3 of 4 available spells per level, it’s easy to work around these broken spells if you’re aware of them. Exploiting elemental weaknesses is a big part of the game, but the elemental properties of weapons do not work, either. Fortunately, while the other bugs are numerous, most won’t substantially effect your quest.

It takes some investment to fully understand Final Fantasy, but once you do, the game is mostly very well-balanced. You can, of course, simply grind your way past anything if all else fails, but it isn’t required. As a result, Final Fantasy has something to offer anyone from the novice JRPG player to the seasoned veteran. It can be rough to visit this game for the first time in the modern gaming era, but there’s a reason it established a long and well-renowned series.

Review Score: B

Retro Reviews!

One of the main things I wanted to do by making my own WordPress theme was add a new aspect to the blog: reviews. I like to review the games I play to collect my thoughts and look back at times, so I have quite a few reviews lying around in various places. Now, I want to consolidate them here.

As the title mentions, I’m focused mainly on retro reviews, for the simple reason that I’ve been playing a lot of retro games lately. (This is the main reason progress on the Final Fantasy VII guide has stalled, so sorry about that!) And when I say “retro” I mean it: the main platform I’ve been playing is the original NES.

I do want to mention a few things about these reviews up front. I really like retro games, and I score them with that in mind. Given the choice, I would definitely rather play Mega Man 2 than almost any modern action game, so I’m going to give it a high score. If you have serious issues with old, pixelated graphics, I suggest you take my scores and opinions with a generous grain of salt. I will be reviewing modern games I happen to play as well, but I’m not grading old games on a curve or anything. I genuinely don’t have an issue with SD graphics. I mean, I’m playing these games on an actual CRT even though I have a ton of HD options. So keep that in mind.  (That said, I can’t deal with terribly play control in any era.)

The reviewed games won’t be restricted to games I’ve made guides for, or even RPGs. Despite the nature of my site, I’m a fan of many game genres. I will be putting up a retro review every Tuesday until I run out, which should take quite a while. Any non-retro reviews will go up whenever I get around to writing them. I hope you guys enjoy these, and I’m looking to add a few more types of non-guide content to the blog as well, so keep an eye out!

The Long Night Approaches its End

It’s nearly time to emerge from my day job work cocoon and actually do something interesting again. Or at least, work on the Gamer Corner. The first priority is, of course, to finish the Final Fantasy VII guide, but with FFXV delayed, I’m not sure what will be next. There’s probably time for an FFXII guide in the interim, but I may take some time to recover and play something new.

I also would like to do more blogging, just for a change of pace. I’m not really sure what form that will take. Hopefully something with a little more content than this post!

Sorting is Fixed

Every time someone leaves feedback, I get a little alert telling me that there’s new feedback, and then I go to the feedback page. Recently, I got some feedback and checked the page to find a note asking for more cross-referencing in the guide. Since that was sent from an FFXIII page, I assumed the user wanted the same sort of linking the newer guides have on the FFXIII guide, and set out to make that happen.  As a result, the FFXIII guide cards should be a lot more usable going forward.

However, as I discovered, that was all a lie. It turns out I had broken the sorting on most of the guides, including the feedback module, which prevented me from noticing the actual latest feedback: that sorting was broken.  Yes, the sorting bug prevented me from learning about the sorting bug.  Oops!  The good news is, sorting is now fixed.

I want to thank guide user Joe for pointing that out, even though it took me way too long to notice. In my defense, I’ve been extremely busy with my day job and continue to be so. (Which is also why the FFVII guide is, unfortunately, not making any progress. It may be delayed all the way until the end of the month. 🙁 )