Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection — Staff Review

Final Fantasy is a series well known for its ports and remakes, but out of the series, one game stands above them all as one of the most frequently remade games of all time.  Final Fantasy IV has seen six iterations over the years appearing on the SNES, PlayStation, WonderSwan Color, GameBoy Advance, the Nintendo DS, and finally the PSP as Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection.  Along with an updated Final Fantasy IV, players will also get Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and a new mini-story titled Final Fantasy IV: Interlude which helps slightly to tie the two main games together.  It’s a lot of game in a very small package, so the question becomes is there still life in Final Fantasy IV?

Full Disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Final Fantasy IV and actually have all six versions, including the Japanese-only WonderSwan Color release.

Final Fantasy IV tells the story of the dark knight Cecil, captain of the elite Red Wings in service of the kingdom of Baron. Backed by its fleet of airships, Baron is the most powerful country in the land, and growing ever more powerful with each passing day.  Baron’s success is due to the fact that it possesses a fleet of airships, from which it has created the Red Wings, the most elite military unit in the world.  As the story opens, Cecil is tasked with stealing the Water Crystal from Mysidia, a village of mages. He completes his task dutifully, but his conscience tells him that the slaying of innocent people is wrong.  For this, he is pulled from his post and embarks on a quest with his best friend Kain that ultimately ends up determining the fate of the world.

The Interlude picks up very shortly after the conclusion of the events in Final Fantasy IV and acts primarily to set up the sequel.  It’s an on-rails linear story that shows that the entire world was not as peaceful as everyone assumed after the great war.  Something is afoot, but no one seems to know what it is.  Though somewhat inconsequential, the story does tie the two main games together and offer a bit of a temporal prospective on how long the events that lead to the beginning of The After Years have been brewing.

The After Years is the direct sequel to Final Fantasy IV, taking place about 17 years after the first game.  It was originally released on Japanese cell phones in an episodic manner, and as such, the game contains several short stories that can be played in any order before the final and longest chapter of the game.  It is also worth noting that this PSP collection is the only version of the game that contains all of the stories in one piece without the need to download any additional chapters or pay a monthly fee.

Oh, Kain!  Wait... have you been getting into my purple lipstick?!
Oh, Kain! Wait… have you been getting into my purple lipstick?!

Final Fantasy IV is undoubtedly among the most important games in the genre of RPGs for its introduction of Active Time Battle, usually referred to as ATB. Though ATB seems rather standard now, when it was released in 1991, active battle was very innovative.  Games prior to this were either action based as with Zelda or Ys or turn-based as with the previous three games.  With the latter, you could leave a game in the middle of a fight indefinitely and the enemies would sit there waiting on you to input commands, but with the introduction of ATB, enemies no longer wait and will continue to attack you whether you offer up any resistance or not.  This was a game-changing mechanic, and it’s hard to imagine games today without it.

The After Years adds significantly to the battle system of the original game.  There are two new features, both of which play a critical role in how things are done.  The first and most important is the Moon Phase system.  A second moon appears in The After Years, and its gravitational effects influence reaches even into battle.  During various moon phases, attack, black magic, white magic, and special abilities are either made stronger or weaker.  For instance, during a full moon, physical attacks are weakened while black magic is more effective.  The augmentations go for both friend and foe alike, so one must be strategic about under what moon phase you act.  This is particularly important towards the endgame where both bosses and your party have powerful black magic spells.  You have to decide if it’s worth it to receive a bonus in a particular area, because enemies will also get it.  Should you wish to power up black magic, more powerful attacks like Meteor, which can hit your whole party, can become unsurvivable attacks. The moon phases will change on their own over time, but they are primarily changed by sleeping at an inn or using a tent.

The other new aspect is the Band system, which allows two or more characters to combine attacks to produce more powerful abilities.  Many are crucial to winning story-based boss battles, and in the game’s final chapter, several more powerful attacks are unlocked for use.  As such, their usefulness in the beginning of the game is somewhat low, but at the end-game, they can be the most damaging skills available to you.  It is also worth noting that some bands are allowed to break the 9999 damage barrier, so they are an excellent way to deal five-digit damage to the bosses at the end.

Visually, these games present arguably the best version of Final Fantasy IV to date.  All three games use updated graphics, including redrawn sprites that make the game feel fresh and new. Final Fantasy IV DS does offer an impressive take on the world with its 3D sprites and dungeons, but the game just feels better in 2D as it was originally meant to be played. The battle sprites are by far the best ones yet, and they are a visual treat.  There is also an art gallery complete with original character designs and other pieces of art for all three games.  Many spell animations have been changed and significantly improved, although the Meteor spell, which is used a fair amount in the end of both Final Fantasy IV and The After Years, has a long animation and is unskippable.  It was very cool to watch it the first time, but when some bosses seem to use it nearly every turn, it can get long and annoying as it prolongs battles unnecessarily.  The game also has the CG videos from the DS and Wii Ware versions of each game respectively , which look gorgeous on the PSP’s screen.

Titan would later come to regret forgetting his SPF 80 and running around all day in a loincloth.
Titan would later come to regret forgetting his SPF 80 and running around all day in a loincloth.

Aurally, this is the best version.  The music of Final Fantasy IV was always impressive with such strong pieces as Baron’s militaristic theme or softer pieces like Rosa’s Theme of Love, but everything gets an auditory overhaul with remixed tracks.  Fans of the originals will be pleased, as a menu setting can replace the songs with their 16-bit originals from the SNES version with a few button presses, though there is little reason to do so.  The After Years also has a few extra songs that are quite good, particularly the Mysterious Girl theme.

As for the plot, Final Fantasy IV is dated and a little cliche, but the actual story is still as good as it ever was.  All of the individual characters have their reasons for joining the conflict, and it is one of the better stories found in an RPG.  It should also be noted that this is an updated version of Final Fantasy IV: Advance, which many consider to be the best version of the game.  It allows you to alter your party when you reach the final dungeon, and it contains a bonus dungeon after you beat the game. It does not, however, contain the additional backstory for Cecil found in Final Fantasy IV: DS, but a condensed version of what you learn there is found in one of the tales contained in The After Years.

The story for Interlude is pretty scarce.  It does show when everything was set in motion for The After Years, but the story is too short and it is too restrictive to really be as much fun as it could have been.

The real treat for most people will be getting their hands on The After Years, which for many people will be their first crack at it.  The plot is broken up into several chapters, most of which can be played in any order the player chooses.  At the completion of a story, an optional bonus dungeon is unlocked that will allow you to level the characters in that chapter to become much more useful in the final tale.  The game also introduces the player to a handful of new characters, many of which are fun to play.  The only problem is unless you spend considerable time in bonus dungeons, virtually all of the characters, including all of the new ones, will be nearly useless in the game’s extremely lengthy final dungeon.  The first few chapters are all entertaining and flow very nicely once you adjust to the episodic nature of them, and the final chapter is practically a fleshed out game in and of itself.  Though the plot definitely dips a bit in the middle third of the final chapter, it picks back up again for the conclusion and is worth playing.  The only complaint is that the writing for the characters at end of the dozens of boss fights in the final dungeon is repetitive and serves little purpose.

Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection is a lot of game.  Finishing the original game will take anywhere from 15-30 hours depending on how familiar you are with the game and if you choose to complete the optional bonus dungeon in its completion.  The Interlude is quite short and clocks in around 2-4 hours, and The After Years is a hefty 40-75 hours if you take the time to go through the challenge dungeons that are unlocked after you finish each of the game’s chapters.  It is not impossible to spend well over 100 hours on this compilation if you want to squeeze every bit of play out of it, and many people will.

Okay, I put this AXE hair wax on, and I've NOT been pounce tackled by ANY women.  This is some flagrant false advertising.
Okay, I put this AXE hair wax on, and I’ve NOT been pounce tackled by ANY women. This is some flagrant false advertising.

As for the actual gameplay itself, all three stories hum along very smoothly if the player chooses to install the game data to the memory card.  The install file is not overly large at just over 300 megs.  The only place the game seems to slow down is when saving the game.  It takes about 30 seconds to write the save data to the memory card, and it feels rather sluggish.  There is also an autoplay feature by pressing select in battle that speeds up the battle considerably and makes every character select attack.  While it is true that this mode can accidentally screw you up if you bump it in the middle of a boss, causing your healer to attack instead of casting a much needed cure spell, the auto play feature is a welcome addition.  The After Years is particularly grindy, and this allows you to go through countless battles with minimal thought and time investment.  It can be flipped on or off at will and is useful for speeding up longer spell animations like summons, Meteor, or Tidal Wave.

All three games are also relatively easy.  The encounter rate for the games is pretty high, but there are few bosses that will present game-breaking challenge.  In the case of The After Years, most difficult boss fights can be mitigated by sleeping in a tent until a more favorable moon phase is in effect, which can drastically alter the difficulty of any fight.  For instance, if a boss uses strong physical attacks, engaging it when physical attacks are weakened will put you at an advantage. If at any time you feel any boss fight is too hard, you can always grind for a bit and come back, as sometimes a couple levels can make all the difference.

Overall, this is the definitive version of Final Fantasy IV, especially if you’ve grown up with the game.  So then, the question becomes is it worth it?  If you have much interest in Final Fantasy IV: The After Years at all, this is definitely worth your money. It’s about the same price to pick this up rather than to pay for it online, and you get Final Fantasy IV as well.  Fans looking for nostalgia will also find plenty to like, but the hardest sell will be to people that have already played the DS or GBA versions.  The DS version is very much like a remix with many of the mechanics changed, so this still plays like a different game with the same plot, but it’s an improved port of the GBA version, a system now dead.  There are also some people that are tired of remakes of Final Fantasy IV. Regardless of whichever camp you belong in, it’s still a lot of game for a pretty decent price.  The package adds up to being more than the sum of its parts.  I say go for it.

Platform: PSP
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Interface: 7/10
Story: Final Fantasy IV: 8/10
Story: Interlude: 5/10
Story: Final Fantasy: The After Years: 8/10
Visuals: 9/10
Sound: 9/10
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Estimated Playtime: Final Fantasy IV: 15-30 Hours
Estimated Playtime: Interlude 2-4 Hours
Estimated Playtime: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years 40-70 Hours

RandomNPC Review Score: Final Fantasy IV: 8/10
RandomNPC Review Score: Interlude: 5/10
RandomNPC Review Score: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years: 8/10
RandomNPC Review Score: Overall: 9/10

All three games in the collection were played to completion with a review copy furnished by Square Enix.

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