Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Final Fantasy IV DS remake review

Now that Nintendo has finally (well almost) abandoned development of the DS in favour of pursuing none-gaming Wii money, DS owners has been looking towards 3rd party developers to pony up to its core audience. One such developer has taken up the task with massive enthusiasm. In fact Final Fantasy IV DS, the game I will be writing about today, is Square-Enix's 17th game on the platform - with many more due within the next six months.

Having said that many of the titles are either ports or remake of old titles - Dragon Quest Roto trilogy, Chrono Trigger etc. While Final Fantasy IV DS isn't exactly a new property that many I am sure would rather have, the fact that the classic title has been redesigned from the ground up meant that it almost felt like a new title. While the plot and gameplay remains almost unchanged, the script has been written, visuals upgraded from sprites to polygons and some new gameplay introduced.

Comparisons to the previous Final Fantasy III DS is inevitable, but the two could not be any further apart. While Final Fantasy III eschewed storytelling for addictive gameplay and its revolutionary job system, Final Fantasy IV was always best known as the title that finally introduced some kind of storyline within the franchise. While most of the time you would not really care about deaths in the previous game, Final Fantasy IV is littered with death (I won't spoil it for you), or what may seem like loss. It is a storytelling strategy that Square (and Square-Enix) has since used in many of its future titles.

The story begins with the delusional Dark Knight Cecil, leader of the Red Wings of Baron. Through certain circumstances where a bunch of innocent villagers got killed, Cecil eventually turns on his now corrupted kingdom. During his journey to salvation he teams up with what is now easily one of the most memorable cast of Final Fantasy characters assembly, including the Summoner Rydia, twin extraordinary Palom and Porom and Dragoon Kain (who is now more Dark Knight-like than Dark Knight Cecil himself!). Together they aim to defeat the dark lord and restore peace to their surrounding kingdoms.

Final Fantasy IV DS attempts to introduce some form of customisation in the form of Augment System (known as Decant Ability System). Personally I've ignored the new feature so please forgive if my explanation seems rather elementary. Abilities are scattered throughout the game, some hidden and some through event-triggered circumstances (such as when certain members leaves the party). These abilities allows some degree of customisation and gives party members new abilities that were previously unavailable to them in previous iterations of the game. Another new addition to the remake is the New Game+ mode which gives you access other features. I've yet to delve deep into New Game+, but from what I was told that you are limited to three playthrough. In addition to being useful to completists, two bonus bosses are also available in New Game+ mode.

Controls are via the face buttons. Thankfully you are not forced into yet another gimmick stylus touchscreen controls, as I personally believe that face buttons works best in games that features an overhead perspective - they just work. The semi-old school Active Time Battle is retained, relatively unchanged from the original with minor UI tweaks and a new feature to toggle auto fight. Auto fight, unlike the superb implementation in Final Fantasy XII, is an utter gimmick here. You can only specify a single type of action and unlike Final Fantasy XII's gambit you can not assign a trigger to the action. It is probably useful during level grinding but for random fights, and especially boss fights, I would not recommend to use it unless you have a video gaming death wish.

Visually Final Fantasy IV DS is similar to Final Fantasy III DS. While they look better initially (due to the none-chibi like character designs), on closer inspections I've found that character models in comparison to Final Fantasy III are slightly downgraded. Polygons are clearly rougher and the liberal use of camera close-ups tends to reveal nasty looking textures. While still a technical achievement, I often wonder how much better a remake of Final Fantasy IV would look if it was remade on a more powerful machine like the PSP or Wii, using either the Crisis Core's or Crystal Chronicles's visual engines instead. There are some nice touches like self shadowing and hair flutters but those are limited to cut scenes (Adrian in the comments section brought up a good point about the number of characters on screen will undoubtly cause the developers to reduce visual fidelity). Having said that, the character designs are wonderful even though nowhere as accurate as Yoshitaka Amano's designs. Regardless I expect this title to be the limit on how the DS can be pushed visually, though I hope to be proven wrong with Dragon Quest IX.

Voice acting is the bane of this otherwise enjoyable remake. While I initially looked forward to voice acting, I now wish that they were banished and space saved to be dedicated to better quality textures and bonus dungeons. I did mention that the script has been redone and now features more a ye olde English screenplay. The voice acting on the other hand is mainly littered with atrocious and contradictory American accents, for example Palom and Porom sounds more like the Olsen twins than wizards. I've no qualms against American accents, and the cast is made up of some pretty damn good voice actors - veterans of series like Shin Megami Tensei and other fine franchise including other Final Fantasy titles. But somehow American accent and fantasy storytelling does not seem to gel - just imagine Viggo Mortensen doing a GI Jane accent in Lord of the Rings. Still I am impressed by the way they sync their lips to the voice acting. The re-arranged soundtrack excellent, but you know that already. Tip: wear headphones.

Now, plenty of people have complained about the difficulty in Final Fantasy III DS. While we personally found Final Fantasy III DS to be easy, I am glad that Square-Enix did not retool Final Fantasy IV DS's difficulty to appease these RPG noobs. In fact the difficulty has been ramped up even from the already hard GBA version, giving us a delightful treat of challenge after challenge. The save system remains essentially the same - you can only save in the world map or dedicated save sections in deep dungeons - so be prepared to read nasty reviews by people who lacks foresight or the ability to strategised correctly. Regardless we didn't feel like we spent too much time purposely grinding we did in Final Fantasy III DS - the goal to achieve 100% exploration in exchange for bonus treats probably helped.

Final Fantasy IV DS is, despite its lukewarm conversion, the definitive version of the game. But somehow it felt that Square-Enix just needed another excuse for people to repurchase Final Fantasy IV for the fourth or fifth time. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with Final Fantasy IV in the first place and the 3D remake did not go far enough, or perhaps I would have loved it more if this was the first time I played it and not the sixth time. Overall, anyone who has never enjoyed the classic title should play this. It is a flawed rework, yes, but it is still a wonderful game that deserves to be appreciated by all.

Final Fantasy IV DS will be released in the UK this Friday.


Adrian said...

On the graphics side, to be fair to Square-Enix there is an additional party member compared to FFIII and from what I've read they've kept the original monster formations instead of reducing the number of monsters for graphical fidelity. Something has to give.

I'm still really looking forward to this, although it's a shame about the voice-acting. Incidentally ASDA's pre-order price is ridiculously low at just under £18.

Jon said...

That's a good point. The amount of party members and enemies on screen far exceed the remake of III.

£18 is ridiculously cheap. Starting to regret not waiting for the EU release...