Review By: Cameron Morris
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It has long been my opinion that, of all the great SNES games that needed to be ported to the GBA, the three 16-bit Final Fantasies were the most deserving. Final Fantasy IV holds a special place in my heart because it introduced me to "real" RPGs, showing me that they could have a serious plot with characters that you actually care about. Back when it was released, the game was phenomenal. If you played the game before and have any real interest in it, or are a newcomer to this particular iteration, you probably want to know just one thing: how does the game stack up, both to the original and to its modern contemporaries on the Game Boy Advance?
Final Fantasy has always been known for taking itself rather seriously, given the often ridiculous or silly (to today's jaded gamer) premise or setting, but unlike many game series this is one that actually manages to do so rather well. Even in a setting which still rings with its D&D roots, Final Fantasy IV thrusts you into a world with real moral conflict and characters that you care about, not just because of their actions but because of their motives and the changes that they undergo as the story progresses. It would be hard to say that this game matches up to today's heavy-hitting console RPGs in terms of emotion conveyed or moral questions asked, but the method of presentation is so honest and frank that you really can't help identifying with it, and instead of being silly the entire game is just likable, like that "high fantasy" novel you pull out and read when nobody's around to see you.
The graphics are, by and large, pretty cartoony: everything is fairly stylized and extremely expressive, so many parts of the adventure might come across as light-hearted when they aren't really supposed to. The sprite work can't compare to the Game Boy Advance's best offerings, but some of the enemy design is simply incredible to look at and the game's sprites really help get the art across from time to time. It looks better than the SNES game, unless I'm imagining things, and is in general pretty bright in terms of color, so if you really like an adventure that's easy to see and play on the go, this one is for you. Just don't expect any great works of visual art.
In terms of presentation, the music is the game's strongest asset. Expertly composed with a heavy emphasis on character themes, this isn't Uematsu's best work within the Final Fantasy series but it's definitely up there. There are tunes to fit every situation and every mood, including one or two that you will find literally unnerving, and in general it's either hard or impossible to complain about the game's soundtrack. I would buy the game's soundtrack and listen to it in my car, if I could. What more is there to say?
The controls in the game are really simple, with only a directional pad and four buttons that you need to actually worry about. In a game like this, minimalism is a good thing rather than a bad one, and functionality wins the day. You don't play RPGs for their innovative controls anyway, right?
The controls are kind of indicative of the entire game's mode of play, in a way, because it's simple and to the point but very effective. You level up automatically, and there's no real system beyond leveling up or equipping better items to raise your stats exponentially; no Materia, no Espers, no Job system, no Junctioning, no nothing. This can be either rather refreshing or merely vexing, depending on whether you're into RPGs for their story or for the new methods of play they offer. As the game is over a decade old at this point, I really hope you aren't the type who puts too much emphasis on the latter.
The game's story is honestly good, too, chock full of characters that are easy to become familiar with and learn to care about. While the core conflict is really basic and the plot twists at the end will either be seen from a mile away or just be irritating, all of it is handled so well that most faults in it can be easily forgiven. The world you'll be traveling through and fighting in and trying to save is a colorful one, filled with colorful characters, and if you try to appreciate it then it will treat you very well in turn. The first time you see the Red Wings on the attack, you can't help but be seized with something like dread if not outright fear, and the fact that something so silly looking can inspire that kind of reaction is a credit to games on the whole.
The world in which the game takes place is huge: in fact the whole game is pretty huge. The average gamer will take about 40 hours to work through it their first time, maybe longer depending on if they ever get lost or want to complete a lot of side quests. In order for that to be a good thing, the game and the world it contains have to be both charming and at least somewhat relatable, and it's to Square's credit that, after all these years, the game has lost none of its luster. Every new area you come to has its own distinct personality, and every major character or group of people will leave a lasting impression on you. It's hard to forget the dwarven greeting of "Lali-ho!" or the sense of dread you get from seeing the game's chief antagonist for the first time.
But that's old stuff. If you're reading this review, chances are you're more than a little curious about the changes made to this incarnation of Final Fantasy IV, and all the little extras added in. I had much the same concerns when I bought the game myself.
One of the first things you'll notice has changed about the game is the little graphical touch-ups here and there: the character portraits, for instance, are now a little cleaner and look much more like the original character art, and certain backgrounds just look sharper and better-detailed. The resolution is naturally less on the GBA's smaller screen, but everything carried over excellently and, while everything looks fairly simple, it's still as pleasing to the eye as it ever was.
The difficulty has been upped, too - not so much that it really rivals the Hard version found on the PlayStation or Super Famicom iterations of the game, but if one of your complaints about the original version on the SNES was that it was too easy, you'll find some love there.
In addition to that, the entire script has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb, so that each conversation can feel different than it did the first time you played through on the SNES. Sometimes it seems like the only things that have stayed the same ("You spoony bard!") were left that way just for the sake of nostalgia. That's a good thing, because the changed script is better, often more believable and less cartoony. Oh, right, and sometimes they even swear. In a 16-bit Final Fantasy!
Much more significant changes, though, come with the inclusion of the ability to use all of your surviving characters at the end of the game, when you gain the ability to switch them out for characters already in your party. Not only does it change certain dialogue segments at the end of the game, it makes the ending much more replayable in nearly every aspect. The added layers of strategy needed in order to use any given character combination effectively are great fun to explore, and there are few things in the game quite as fun as making up new combinations of characters to take up against the final boss, just to see if you can kick his teeth in.
The two new dungeons are great, though for utterly different reasons. The first one is great because it gives you a good place to level up your characters, and get equipment for the members of your party who haven't been with you for much of your adventure, so they won't be uselessly wailing on the enemy with weapons that became obsolete twenty levels ago. Just the ability to use all of your characters properly makes the dungeon worth going through at least once.
The other dungeon is great for an entirely different reason. Only unlocked after beating the game, it allows you to battle your ways through dozens of random floors in a massive tower, fighting your way through special segments that tell you much more about each character and equip you even better to fight against one final super-boss. This dungeon is great because not only is it challenging, from top-to-bottom, but it actually serves a more rewarding purpose than endless fighting in that it gives you story segments simply not available in previous iterations of this game, which offer a much deeper insight to many of the characters and really give you a better feel for a cast of characters that was pretty charismatic to begin with. And if you're just looking for a really tough fight, the final boss is a real kicker that makes the final enemy in the main quest look like a cupcake. A pink cupcake.
Oh, and they added a new feature where you can quick save anywhere but during story sequences and in battles. That addition alone is monumental, greatly increasing the "portability" of the title. If there's one change I hope they carry over to the ports of the other 16-bit Final Fantasies in the works, it's this one.
If you're a fan of RPGs, you need to play this. If you're a fan of Final Fantasy who started playing at number seven, you need to play this. If you played the game way back when.it's worth it for the new dungeons and story sequences and the improved translation.
It's rare that a game this old manages to stand up so proud next to its modern counterparts, but Final Fantasy IV Advance has managed to emerge as one of the best role playing games on the Game Boy Advance, and a worthy collection to the library of any gamer who doesn't just hate RPGs like a plague. If you've never played this before, add another half-point to my score below. Highly recommended.
Posted: 2006-02-04 13:05:14 PST