ron, May-22-2007

Final Fantasy: infinite loopicles

So Square Enix is going to remake Final Fantasy IV again, this time for the Nintendo DS. We're not sure where it aired first, as we could have sworn it was still news when we read it somewhere on GAF on Sunday, but then we found prior art on 1up.com, hinting at an earlier public disclosure of the project's existance. Hmmm. In any case, Square Enix, please notice that we haven't even finished the GBA version yet, and feel the desire to do so, which was already low to begin with, is now pretty much in ruins.

Final Fantasy IV is important to the series, as a test-bed for several long-standing concepts, but it is just massively overdone. We'll get to the hows and wheres in a bit, but overall FF IV is not one of the good ones in the series. It's not the worst, mind you, that title would belong to either FF2 or FF X-2, but the game has huge problems nonetheless. When stuck in a dark room with a Gameboy Micro as the single source of light, and a choice of either the FF IV or FF I carts to drive it – deliberately ignoring for a while that the system lights up just fine with an empty cart slot, so pshhht! – our choice is clear to us.

And you'd probably not even notice what's wrong with FF IV until it's too late. Final Fantasy IV's normal progression is over too early, for RPG standards anyway. The first twelve hours or so are fair enough classic FF, and you can plow through it in a straight line if you are just slightly careful in boss encounters, save often, use your tents and all. But then, oh my, then.

After giving you these twelve hours of properness, FF IV degrades into the ultimate mindless grind-fest of the kind where you'd become ready to tape a rock onto your controller and go shopping while your characters gain levels – except that this method wouldn't even work with FF IV. Or if you've ever heard of people who watch TV while playing a game, and thought that miraculous, FF IV is exactly the kind of game where people develop such habits, and playing it would make you understand. The ramp-up in difficulty towards the very end of the game is ludicrous, and most likely a deliberate game-stretching measure.

Your crew is what, level 31, 32 or thereabouts after offing a certain Rubicante elegantly and getting decked out in diamond armor. Then you get your chance to explore either of two optional dungeons or a cave that is known to lead you to the final showdown. All three options feature extremely strong enemies. After getting wiped out in the main story cave a number of times and finding grinding on basic enemies ineffective, we divert our attention toward the optional dungeons, and their promise of greater gear and faster leveling.

But those are not easy pickings. Both of these dungeons feature floors that will sap your health at every single step. There's a white-magic spell that lets you avoid that constant damage, but you'll need to be level 35 to even learn it. So that's the plan: grind to level 35, to be able to more efficiently grind to level 40 to be able to progress with the main story. And levelling progress at this point is slow, due to the huge discrepancy between experience points awarded for the available enemies, the effort required to make them yield those points, and the amount required for the next level. Going with this realization, that was the point where we recently put down FF IV Advance, before even being aware of the DS version. Difficulty? Yes, please. Accidental leveling by exploration? 'k. But keep your mandatory grinding far away from us, thx.

Not to mention that we don't consider an arctic wind and similar items to be workable rewards for anything, what with a proper black mage in our party and all. The game teases too much and delivers too little. If the desire for proper closure, to be finally done with it, feels like a stronger motivator than any in-game event, we know we have a real problem in front of us. Loss-cutting time.

But as we mentioned in the introduction, it'll take a while before all this becomes apparent. So if you plan on watching how Final Fantasy IV DS shapes up, and it may well feature polished-up gameplay, do look out for reviewers who actually play through, or at least play fifteen hours or so, before handing out a score.

Besides our pesky little feelings towards its play balancing there is still something else about Final Fantasy IV which outright defines that which we will call "the tolerable phase" from now on: people fall over themselves to sacrifice their lives, sometimes almost plausibly, sometimes just for the fun of it, seemingly. One character even brings this up in a dialog close to the end of TTP, kind of breaking the fourth wall (a term coined no doubt in an era where your average TV was not a big truck, but a series of bricks). It's positively ridiculous. The permanent loss of a character, sometimes even a party member, is not unheard of in later Final Fantasy installments, but FF IV is ruthless. Everyone dies, all the time, and repeatedly if at all possible. The small doses of character death later in the series could be the product of a)the sinful orgy of all-species suicide that is IV, and b)reading the sentence "Less is more" at least once, and getting it, at least once.

Contrast the loss of a party member every fifteen steps with FF III where you quickly gather the party that will stick with you, where you know your investments in skills and gear will be yours to keep, and Final Fantsay IV feels like a step back in gameplay, and mean, even though liberal application of death does allow for a little bit more story oomph here and there.

Oh but where were we? Ah yes, Square Enix remakes every Final Fantasy game as often as possible, in an effort to stall the remakes that Final Fantasy fans actually would like to see. And if our taste buds aren't entirely clogged up, the re-announcement of the Final Fantasy IV re-remake makes it seem unlikely that quality is a factor in determining the frequency of reapperance of your average Final Fantasy game. That's an important lesson to learn about modern-day Square Enix, as it initially seemed to be more choosy: FF II was shamefully integrated with a good Final Fantasy game on the same cart. Seeing FF IV remade twice doesn't feel all that justified on these grounds. Relatively easy revenue? Sequelitis, going specifically for the demographic that gobbled up the FF III remake? Yeah, that could work.

At the end of the day, this is all filler. What everyone really wants to be remade are FF VI in 3D and FF VII in … not-cancer-inducing-to-look-at. Seriously though, we really think FF VII is made mostly of excellence despite all the success and our own tendency of going for recalcitrance whenever in doubt. And as we realize that even Square Enix has limited development resources – going by the amount of releases they employ probably half of the Japanese population –, every time they decide to make something we don't want, they also decide to work a little slower on something we do want. Just look what has (not) happened to Crisis Core for at least its first year (hint: nothing), and you'll understand that key developers being tied up with shovelware, relatively speaking, is a real bummer.

In other words: FF IV DS? Pffft. *groan*

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