The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

A Look at RPGs: Final Fantasy IV

I never understood why Final Fantasy IV is considered so highly among the series (at least compared to the other five of the first six games; I never really played any of the newer ones, and thus will abstain from writing about them). In terms of actual gameplay the fourth iteration is far less interesting than any of the others. The odd-numbered games had the class system, the sixth had the esper system; even the unpopular second game had the interesting (if unintuitive) experience system. Final Fantasy IV allows no such customization: What characters you get to use is based on the whim of the story, any spells they learn they learn when the game says they should, and the story is very linear save for few sidequests.

Final Fantasy IV’s gameplay is not merely less interesting than the first three; some of its gameplay aspects actually hinder its quality. While Final Fantasy VI—the only other game out of the first six to have character differentiation that is out of your control—has many characters that are great to use in their own ways (if you know how to use them), a lot of Final Fantasy IV’s just suck. What other game makes you play as a fucking bard? He is objectively inferior to the other characters in every way except that he can split potions to heal every character a tiny fraction during battle, essentially wasting said potions (this only applies to the Japanese or Game Boy Advance versions; in the US Super Nintendo version her really sucks).

Or how about the dipshit spoiled brat twins, mages too early in the game to have any magic abilities (later on they develop better magic, but only in the Game Boy Advance remake; and by that point Rose and Rydia are superior, still, anyway)? They do have this one move that does quite a lot of damage, but it makes both of them useless in battle for so many turns Cecil and Yang will likely defeat whatever enemies—or one of them will be killed—before the attack even gets a chance to be used. The fact that they’re so weak that they die in so few hits, and that one of them is the only healing-magic user, makes the latter very likely[1].

This is made worse by the fact that your character roster changes all the time, killing off characters in out-of-nowhere scenes just so they can dump you with another character you’ll have for maybe two minutes. And if they’re equipped you lose that equipment forever, unless you de-equip them first, which requires you to already know they will die, essentially punishing new players for not being psychic, which is objectively a bad game design decision.

Granted, Final Fantasy IV is mainly praised for its story, not its gameplay. But its story doesn’t fare much better. The aforementioned character changes are a story problem as well as a gameplay issue. The game introduces characters, kills them a few minutes later, and then expects the player to be devastated. Hey, remember those two dumb ass twins you just met and hate? Well, now they’ve turned to stone to keep a tower from collapsing randomly. And you can’t heal them because of some rule we made up, which doesn’t even apply in-game[2]. Telah kills himself by using a spell that costs more magic than he has… somehow? And you can’t bring him back to life with a Phoenix Down or anything, because, uh… Magic! It’s all so silly you can’t take any of it seriously. For god’s sake, Rydia gets teary-eyed about a character she never even met dying, before she even rejoined your party. Her parents died earlier, but apparently this Telah person she never met was more important to mourn over.

What’s worse is that at the end of the game it turns out everyone is alive. I’m not making that up. Yes, even Cid, who straps a fucking bomb on himself and dashes himself against a tower, lived somehow. Why have these characters die only to bring them back later? It’s stupid from a story perspective and it’s stupid from a gameplay perspective. It’s annoying having to readjust to different characters in battle and it disperses the story’s attention among so many characters that none of them get properly developed, and thus I don’t care when their dumb asses are killed because I know when my magic person dies he’ll soon be replaced with other magic users who are virtually the same. I think it would have been better had they limited the game to only a few characters throughout the whole game and then developed them instead of the clusterfuck they gave instead.

This game’s story is often praised for its depth, but I fail to see it anywhere, to the point that I wonder if these people played the same game I did. The villains have no motivations; they just want to collect all the crystals so they can ruin the world. Why? Because it’s evil! The king doesn’t attack innocent countries because he’s greedy or any other motivation that causes real humans to commit evil actions; he’s just brainwashed! Why does Kain keep betraying you? That darn brainwashing Golbez! Hell, even Golbez, a kindergarten caricature of pure evil with his dark knight clothing and dialogue that would make an airport fiction novel villain look deep turns out to be brainwashed by the true villain, Zeromus, whatever the fuck it is. You learn this at the very end of the game, and learn nothing about what Zeromus is. The game just says, “Oh, hey, we tricked you, this random blob monster’s the real villain instead!”

The best that can be said about Final Fantasy IV’s story is that it’s so awful it’s hilariously awesome. Not only do you need to collect all four elemental crystals, but then you need to dive underground to find the four dark crystals. Then you’ll be able to fly to the fucking moon, where you confront Golbez and later Zeromus (as well as gaining, and then quickly losing, yet another unremarkable character).

And yet, in some cases the story’s stupidity actually harms the gameplay. Magnet Cave is a great example. At the end of it is a “Dark Elf” boss that is so strong that it instantly kills you. This was so original the time it was already done in Final Fantasy III, except in a much more logical, overall better way[3]. With all of the monsters you fight in this game a fucking “dark” elf is the one that is so dangerous? Really? Furthermore, in this game in order to be revived you need to have some certain harp. How do you get this harp? You need to take a guess and talk to that stupid spoony bard to get it from him. But he’s mentioned in-game in such a nonchalant way that no one would think to bother talking to him. I’m sorry, but when someone mentions that Edgar’s resting because he’s hurt (an excuse to keep him out of your party), my first thought is, “Good, tell him to stay the fuck out of my party,” not, “Oh, I’d better talk to him so he can give me some magic harp to revive me when the evil Dark Elf one-hit kills my party.” The whole plot thread is completely random.

Sometimes such randomness is just silly, rather than harmful. At one point you’re about to be killed by another scripted boss. “Oh no, we’re done for no—Oh, wait, Rydia’s randomly arrived to help us. How she got here isn’t answered, but sure, why not?”

The usual defense of Final Fantasy IV’s flaws are that it is old, so criticism is unwarranted. This ignores that this game can be compared unfavorably to older games. I’m not saying Final Fantasy IV is not as good as those new-fangled games that I’ve never even played; I’m comparing it to the first and the third—the latter of which is certainly superior. And to those who defend its cliché medieval environment because it’s old I give two games released earlier: Earthbound Zero and Phantasy Star.

And even if Final Fantasy IV might have been the first truly story-driven RPG, it wasn’t the first story period, was it? You can’t just say that because no other video game has had a story about a hero who starts out evil and turns good that nothing else, such as literature, has done it, either. Video games do not only compete with each other for one’s time, but with other mediums, including books. If a particular video game’s quality is based almost entirely on story, than it better have a story interesting enough that I would rather play it than read a book—especially when books were much cheaper then; why pay sixty dollars for a boring game just for the story when you can pay only five dollars for a book with the same quality story? If it cannot do this, then it should not base its quality on mere story. The other five Final Fantasies do not fall under this trap because they have gameplay that is interesting (even if none of their stories—except perhaps the sixth iteration to some extent—are particularly good, either). Of course, if an RPG has a story that truly does compete with other mediums, then it can succeed. For instance, Mother 3 is mainly story-based, but its story is so creative and interesting that it competes not just with other video games, but books, too. Mother 3 could be written as a book and it would be a solid story; I could only imagine Final Fantasy IV as some airport fantasy novel.

Now after all of this ranting, and after probably already turning-off anyone who might be consoled by this, I will say that I do not think Final Fantasy IV is a bad game, and I have beaten it, which is more than I can say about most RPGs[4]. I just consider it more an okay RPG than good. And, in fairness, there are certainly worse RPGs. Don’t get me started on the sheer blandness of Golden Sun.

[1] I hate how RPGs always make the healer weak, ensuring that the person best able to heal people is always the first one to be killed.

[2] The rule is that because they chose by their own will to turn themselves to stone, other cannot heal them. Have a character turn himself to stone in-battle and watch someone else heal him.

[3] Not only is this done in FFIV after already being done in FFIII, it is done twice in this game, the second time at the beginning of Zeromus’s battle.

[4] Interestingly, this includes FFII and FFV—though these could be due to mere difficulty. I also find it odd that a lot of people claim that FFIV is hard, because it’s actually pretty easy. If I remember correctly, I beat Zeromus on my first try.

Posted in A Look at RPGs, Video Games