Every couple of years I find myself replaying Final Fantasy IV. Part of the reason is a steady stream of remakes coupled with a bit of nostalgia, but an even bigger part is that FF IV is actually a really good game.
Like many RPGs, FF IV is an abstraction of a fantasy world. Its planet is peppered with just a few notable locations, and each of its kingdoms comprises only a handful of houses. Beyond these somewhat awkward limitations, though, the setting is structured in a very interesting way.
The feudal world is pretty standard, but it’s also infused with numerous traces of human religion and mythology. The summoned monsters include deities from Norse, Greek, Hindu and Arabic legends, and there’s even a couple of weapons made famous for being wielded by Arthurian and Japanese heroes. None of these elements are logically tied together, but they represent iconic touchstones of many cultures, ensuring that most people who play FF IV will find aspects of it that are familiar yet mysterious.
The game’s own original mythos also revolve around crystals and the moon, both of which contain a plethora of mystical associations. While all these elements might not make for the most original setting, they do create an aura of magic and intrigue that’s more universal than the series’ later focus on hyper stylized aspects of Japanese pop culture.
FF IV’s world does not change based on the player’s choices, but its storyline fuels numerous large-scale events: Leviathan attacks and sinks a ship, dwarf tanks battle an invading force, the Giant of Babel wrecks havoc on the planet’s surface, etc. A further sense of life is added to the overworld through various modes of transportation: yellow and black chocobos, the hovercraft, and three different types of airships.
On a smaller-scale, the towns are filled with their own personal touches. The citizens of Agart ponder the legends of their subterranean ancestors while bomb shards are scattered throughout the ruined village of Mist. The towns are populated by a sparse cast of supporting characters, but each locations has its own distinct layout and overall feel. Many are also associated with individual dungeons and offer unique items for sale, promising exotic upgrades just around the corner.
Aside from facilitating a varied pace and providing background depth, towns also help to make the setting come to life. By physically travelling from one location to another, the player discovers the layout of the world and how to orient himself within it. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a much more immersive approach than a linear series of videogame levels. Simply put, the cohesiveness of the world anchors the player and helps to suspend his disbelief.
The dungeons are also varied, but they don’t rely on dubious one-time gameplay gimmicks common to current day JRGPs, e.g., sneaking into a guarded compound. Since the game’s story dictates which characters are in the party at any given time, the treasures in each area are also conveniently synced with the player’s troops.
In addition, the dungeons contain lots of secret passages and some unique attributes — e.g., the damaging tiles leading to Feymarch that require Float to be cast on the whole party, or the Lodestone Cavern where wielding metal equipment brings instant death — but the greatest variety comes through in the battles.
And FF IV has a great battle system.
Each character’s profession is reflected in combat, bringing together story and gameplay. Kain the Dragoon utilizes massive aerial attacks, black and white mages cast offensive and defensive spells respectively, Edward the bard-prince strums along songs of dubious usefulness, etc.
These abilities come into play against a variety of enemies, all of whom are imbued with a certain sense of personality. Some foes are resistant to magical elements, others counter physical attacks, and a few even inflict punishing status effects (like the swamp hag surrounded by giant frogs that cast toad at the end every turn, morphing the party into a group of feeble amphibians).
Since the story dictates the party’s makeup, the player is often forced to switch up his tactics. A single fighter with 3 mages must keep them all in the back row so they can safely launch their powerful spells, while 3 fighters and a single mage have to preserve MP for healing or make more liberal use of Osmose/MP restoring items. The items are also great as they represent a steady stream of collectibles that are actually useful in combat. They give each character something to do even when they’re facing a foe that’s immune to their innate abilities, providing some extra options for what would otherwise be boring battle scenarios.
The combat encounters are never puzzles with a single solution. The player can simply gain enough levels to overpower the enemy, but he can also utilize various strategies that might prove effective, e.g., the undead are extremely weak to phoenix downs/elixirs/healing magic, but they’re also susceptible to fire and can be dispatched with simple physical attacks. Of course daring players can simply choose to run away from standard encounters and only fight the bosses, but it’s a bit tricky to pull off.
The internal logic of all the items, spells and abilities is quite consistent and gives depth to the world, but it also shines through in other areas of the game. My favourite example of this is how often spells are cast outside of combat (especially considering the abstract nature of the battles and how separate they are from the rest of the game): Palom and Porom use the petrifying “Break” to turn into statues and save the party from a deadly trap, Rydia melts a blockade of ice once she gets past her traumatic aversion to fire spells, the citizens of Mysidia exact revenge on the protagonist by turning him into a pig and other “polymorph” critters, etc.
FF IV is a relatively simple RPG by today’s standards, but its overall structure still holds up. In fact, I prefer its setup to most current entires in the genre, but if you want to (re)check it out, I’d first recommend reading up on the various version differences. Whichever one you choose, though, you’ll get a nice little world to explore.