This review is spoiler-free. The game was remade several times and I played the PC remake.

Most interesting… You combine your strengths to overcome foes stronger even than yourselves.

-Rubicante, Autarch of Flame

Final Fantasy IV (FFIV) is an RPG featuring turn-based combat, something I once considered to be an antiquated remnant of tabletop RPGs, but it’s with turn-based combat that you, alone, can act as many. Each new enemy encounter presents a tactical puzzle that, if competently designed, requires a good understanding of your enemies’ and allies’ capabilities. Fortunately, with over 10 specialized characters to play as, and over 300 enemies, FFIV provides a stream of encounters that keeps the gameplay engaging.

FFIV introduced the Active Time Battle(ATB) system, a turn-based combat variant created by Battle Designer Hiroyuki Ito. This combat system is more dynamic and reactionary than the elementary turn-based combat of previous games. Combat no longer progresses in rounds: characters and enemies each have a bar that fills in real-time. They can move if and only if their bar is full, regardless of other combatants, and once a move is taken the bar depletes.

Four characters battling a monster.

The implications of ATB are threefold. First and most obviously, the real-time nature introduces a tad of frenzy as you zoom through menus trying not to waste precious time. Second, it removes the idea of well defined rounds, making for more continuous gameplay. You can no longer put down the controller while the characters duke it out on screen. Third, but most importantly, ATB allows for more reactionary tactical decision making. Rather than waiting to react to an entire round of moves, you can react to a single move. Bosses especially force you to use these more refined tactics.

ATB’s mark on the RPG genre is notable. The critically acclaimed Chrono Trigger enhanced ATB’s temporal aspects by adding a spacial component to combat. The Final Fantasy series used ATB up until FFX, but the reactionary interleaved turn making(point three above) remained, even as the real-time components were retired. 2012’s Bravely Default included a combat system that also appears to be inspired by the interleaving notion.

While the combat system affords deeper tactical gameplay, I found most standard encounters too short and simple to warrant a strategy other than spamming basic attacks. This meant that a lot offensive magic and support spells were reserved for boss battles. One particular boss behaved like a ticking time bomb where enough damage must be dealt before it goes off. Other than blowing up, it did nothing, turning the battle into a damage output optimization puzzle where I could utilize several support spells I had never casted. There are still spells in my arsenal that I haven’t casted because they didn’t seem too useful. FFIV doesn’t disseminate information about spells, status effects, or its combat system in general, so I sometimes consulted the internet about these.

Progressing naturally through the story provides the levels required to defeat bosses as they come, even if they take a few game-overs. Unfortunately, the difficult final boss featured a long unskippable cutscene right before it so I opted to do some sidequests and grinding before returning to the challenge.

A man clad in dark armor watching a village burn.
Cecil Harvy, the dark knight who is a good man.

The first thing you’re treated to when starting a new game is a cutscene, immediately establishing the game’s focus on narrative. The Final Fantasy series was known for its emphasis on story, but FFIV took it to another level, paving the way for video game narratives in general. FFIV is a story of redemption, of light vs. dark, of hope, and ultimately, about staying true to one’s self. Our main character is Cecil Harvy, the dark knight who is a good man. Indeed, nothing is as it seems in FFIV. Monsters disguised as friends. Deaths undone. Victories, defeats. Final Fantasy IV wants us to dig deeper than what’s seen on the surface.

Not all of the narrative is spliced between gameplay via cutscenes; some of it is baked in. Pausing the game displays text revealing what each character is thinking and I always made sure to read these when they changed. During the ascent of a mountain you meet aggressive undead who are weak to fire-based spells. You’d like to throw strictly fire spells at them, so you can’t help but notice that these are absent from the young summoner Rydia’s arsenal. The reason of course, is revealed in the narrative.

Another instance of gameplay-narrative fusion is seen when fights occur in non-interactive cutscenes: we always see the battle interface. Whether it be two characters slapping each other for 1 damage or a devastating spell dealing 9999, FFIV enhances narrative moments by providing a gameplay lens to look at them with.

A wizard tells a frog, "We are all born pure and innocent. Why do some men's hearts grow so dark and full of hate?

While the 3D remake’s low-poly models and textures colorful and distinct, I much prefer the timeless pixel art of the original SNES version. This was the first Final Fantasy made for the SNES, where 16-bit art afforded a wider variety of character, enemy, and background designs. People of many cultures and creatures from the ferocious to the uncanny populate the world.

Like the 16-bit art, FFIV’s sounds and music could take advantage of the SNES’s more advanced hardware. The upgraded sound chip supported using several audio samples rather than relying on simple triangle or square waves. The NES was no slouch when it came to music, but with the SNES’s wider variety of timbres, composer Nobuo Uematsu could realize a fuller sound.

Consider the differences in the songs that open FFIII and FFIV. In particular, note that Uematsu can play more advanced chords without resorting to fast arpeggiating. He takes full advantage of this in Boss Battle, where around 0:40, you hear many staggered instrument entrances, an effect impossible on the older NES sound chip. Theme of Love is known for being introduced in some Japanese schools’ music curriculum, but my favourite track, embedded below, is the main theme that plays as you roam the overworld.

Unfortunately, the track is often interrupted by random encounters, that is, you are sent into battle without warning while walking around. Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons often featured dungeons that were prepared with specific encounters; however, the overworld was too vast to be prepared similarly. Players resorted to rolling a dice to check if say, a pack of wolves attacked them while traveling around. Computer RPGs retained this mechanic but applied it to the overworld as well as dungeons. This means backtracking requires fighting more battles, something that gets tedious after exhausting all the enemy combinations.

FFIV was released in 1991, but RPGs saw a move away from such random encounters as early as 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. There, the overworld included visible enemies wandering around, and battle would begin only when your character made physical contact with them. Most RPGs have moved on from the frustrating traditional random encounters, opting to use a mechanic like Zelda II’s. The Final Fantasy series hasn’t used traditional random encounters since 2001’s FFX.

Some peoples’ initial impression is that FFIV is teeming with RPG tropes, but as an early RPG, it may have pioneered them while paving the way for games with a narrative focus. Beyond the narrative and its fusion with gameplay, Hiroyuki Ito’s Active Time Battle system was a leap forward for turn-based combat, while the SNES architecture helped the artists and composer Nobuo Uematsu realize their potential. Final Fantasy IV was my first Final Fantasy game, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Extra Thoughts

  • Nobuo Uematsu’s music is often featured in live orchestral concerts.
  • Some style is lost in the 3D remake, and it reminded me of this article on pixel art and remakes.
  • For some reason the 3D remake included a smaller field of view, making navigation through dungeons difficult. As a result I often had the map overlay open to aid with navigation.
  • When a character levels-up, their stats increase to reflect the new skills they’ve learned; however, there is one exception. The elderly sage Tellah’s already low speed decreases when he levels-up.
  • Final Fantasy has come a long way. Check out the trailer for 2016’s FFXV.