Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: November 20, 2005
One game taught the world that yes, you could get eaten by a gigantic serpentine sea-god, but all it would do is regurgitate you into a land of mythical creatures that would end up at your beck and call. It taught us all that, in true Final Fantasy fashion, death is never permanent unless the plot wants it to be. It taught American video gamers as a whole what the word "spoony" meant. It is seen by some as the greatest game for the Super Nintendo, and seen by many others as the greatest in the Final Fantasy franchise.
Of course, I'm talking about Final Fantasy IV. Granted, at the time it was first released in English-speaking countries, Squaresoft got the notion of calling it Final Fantasy II, screwing up the entire numbering system through their original run on the Nintendo consoles. One of the most-remade games of the series – trumped only by the original Final Fantasy – leaves many a fan wondering: After buying the original SNES version and the PlayStation rendition, is getting another version for the Game Boy Advance really worth it?
For those readers who either are just getting into the Final Fantasy series or have been living under a rock for approximately 15 years, Final Fantasy IV is the tale of Cecil Harvey, dark knight, captain of Baron's airship fleet, and winner of the World's Worst Last Name contest. Baron has been going power-hungry as of late, with the king commanding his troops to take the four elemental crystals keeping the world in balance. Sound familiar yet? If so, that's possibly because the crystals have been the Final Fantasy-trademarked McGuffin since the beginning of time.
Regardless, Cecil speaks out against his orders only to be dismissed from his post and sent on a delivery mission to a remote town. This simple quasi-fetch-quest sets a phenomenal chain of events into action, taking a relatively inconspicuous opening and unfolding it into a plot of epic proportions. Along the way, he befriends new allies, fights old friends, and sees the light – in more ways than one.
For those folks wanting to get into the entire Final Fantasy series, this is a good place to start. The combat system gets more refined in later games – Final Fantasy VI and IX come to mind – but is truly at its purest here. The system is almost as simple as the original Final Fantasy's, with no extra material or magicite or guardians or job classes to futz your stats around with. In addition, the plot flows at a brisk pace, and while a few of the quests you must embark on are little more than fetch quests, they are few and far between, and are incidental in the span of the story.
In addition, several new features come to this incarnation of the game. In the original, your party was set in stone, Cecil gaining and losing companions as the plot moved on, only to be stuck with his final four allies as the GAME dictated, forget any sense of taste. In Final Fantasy IV Advance, many of the companions you gain in your travels may be selected at the end of the game, allowing your favorites to get a potential extra dungeon or two worth of screen time. On top of an all-new, rewritten (and surprisingly coherent) script, there are also two new dungeons – one designed to provide your newly selectable allies with equipment up to par, the other designed as an extra bit of challenge with super-hard monsters and randomly generated dungeon floors.
However, there are a few points tripping up the game. The difficulty curve is wildly erratic compared to its earlier renditions, with enemies rarely, if ever, attacking you early on and yet felling you with a few solid hits later on. In addition, the random battle rate is ludicrously high, spiking past even games such as Suikoden 4 and landing in the painfully frequent realm of Skies of Arcadia or Tales of Destiny. This makes battles a chore instead of a certainty, causing a player to start running frequently from battles and depriving themselves of experience, thus making the later areas even harder yet.
It doesn't help that the active time battle (ATB), the very cornerstone of the Final Fantasy battle system, is glitched and screwed up like somebody tried to code a "fix" during their lunch break and ended up coding in the contents of the ham sandwich they were eating instead. Characters get turns when they aren't ready to, making it sometimes seem like one character gets five turns in a row; early enemies, as previously stated, have to wait three years before even trying to make an attempt at kicking your behind, and the game places an odd priority on your allies' turn order, meaning the resident ninja in your party may end up getting 10 turns to the white mage's one even without turn glitching. This seems to get more recurrent during the end, and isn't really a game-breaking glitch so much as a major annoyance that should have been removed.
Graphically, the game looks a fair bit better than its original SNES counterpart. Character portraits accompany characters when they speak now, adding a certain level of personality to the script. The out-of-combat sprites have been touched up as well to better match their in-battle counterparts. Unfortunately, the sprites are still quite dated and archaic, bearing the nice thick black outlines and single-digit frame counts of a first-generation SNES title. It all fails in action, as well; the battles, flawlessly executed on the SNES, experience horrendous slow-down here if the action is heavy, as if characters have multiple images of themselves thanks to the Blink spell.
Sound is a bit of a mixed bag. All of the tunes – arguably some of Nobuo Uematsu's best – have been remixed, though it's nearly impossible to tell, due to the GBA's poor, tinny speaker and sound chip. Sound effects were significantly dumbed down as well, or outright changed. Some of the attack sounds are entirely inappropriate, while others appear to have been muffled against the music. Control is similarly unimpressive; it's not too difficult to choose selections from a menu or move around a tile-based map, but even then, there seems to be a noticeable lag in many points from pushing a button to getting the desired effect.
Sadly, Final Fantasy IV Advance suffers from Old Dog syndrome: You can't teach an old dog new tricks, and you can't remake a remake without it seeming a little tired. The extra dungeons and ability to choose your final party – as opposed to getting railroaded into it – are both welcome additions, but the hefty price they pay comes in the form of the game being a port of a port, a rehash of a rehash. They took the GBA game wholesale from the Japanese Wonderswan version, which is good in theory, but next time, Square should take a look at bug-testing it. If this is your first chance to play Final Fantasy IV, it's not to be missed, but if you already own the PlayStation port or the original SNES version, think about it twice or even three times.
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