Sometimes, nostalgia lets you down. Thankfully, Final Fantasy IV didn’t.
I have never been so relieved when replaying a video game. Most of the time, that’s because the only video games I replay are Pokémon games or games I played as an older teen so I have a more mature perspective on why I enjoyed them so much. So when I picked up Final Fantasy IV again, I was slightly nervous that the writing, gameplay, and pacing would let me down a bunch. What I discovered, however, was that in the time since I’ve last played it, I’ve gone through the three phases of loving fantasy: from “oh my god this is all so COOL,” to “oh god no that stuff is so cheesy,” and finally to “oh my god it’s so wonderfully cheesy.” My time revisiting Final Fantasy IV — which I was enjoying so much I completely abandoned any attempt at getting to Final Fantasy VI this week — has fallen very solidly into the latter category.
Firstly, let’s start with the obvious: I’m playing a remake, so there are some era-appropriate additions (a wandering bunny with a changing name that gives you completion challenges and other bonuses being the most 2000s-DS of them all). Also important is that the original game was released in 1991. This is pre-Nirvana, post-Berlin Wall, and fantasy storytelling hadn’t re-ascended to the mainstream heights of Xena: Warrior Princess. It also wasn’t exactly in the mode of the gritty grimdark of A Game of Thrones (1997) — the only fantasy novel on the New York Times Best-Seller list that year was The Seeress of Kell, by David and Leigh Eddings, which falls safely in the good-and-evil-fight-for-the-fate-of-the-world high fantasy genre. Cheesy medievalist dialogue, overly talkative battles, and yearning romantic subplots abound.
Disclaimer: I love David and Leigh Eddings’ Elenium trilogy, super weird central romance notwithstanding.
In that sense, Final Fantasy IV hits a really sweet note for me. It’s such a massive step up from the original game that I can’t help but be glad of the improvement, whilst also breathing a sigh of relief that a game I love is still fun. Sure, I’m a little bored by random battles — Pokémon is better without them, fight me — but at least the power creep is pretty steady, and levelling isn’t the most tedious experience on the Blue Planet (the game’s name for Earth). I still have to grind to get my party strong enough (I’m following a guide for levelling before dungeons, because dear god I hate dying unnecessarily), but at least the diversity of combat approaches in the early game is interesting. That’s not the reason I’m here though. The reason I’m here is because the story is so damn fun.
The opening cinematic sees our protagonist Cecil, the angstiest of angsty soldier boys, in turmoil over the massacre the king of Baron had just ordered him to commit whilst stealing a crystal. He’s comforted later by his dear friend Kain, another solider boy with the weight of his family’s legacy on his shoulders, and by Rosa, who is in love with him. That’s about all I know about Rosa so far. Her early characterization is typical of female characters in video games in the early 90s (read: borderline nonexistent). I have vague memories of this improving as time passes, but at least Cecil clearly and abundantly returns her affection, even if neither of them are really able to communicate it. From this introduction, they go and set a town on fire (by accident), Cecil adopts a small magical child (without a real plan), they get lost in the desert, has to save Rosa’s life, meet an angry father, and watch a kingdom burn to the ground.
I’m about, oh, four hours in. We haven’t even reclaimed a crystal yet. Or met half the party.
If there’s a trope to be found, Final Fantasy IV finds it. Corrupted kingdom? Check. Hero with a mysterious background? Check. Magical McGuffins around which the fate of the world revolves? Check. It extends to the setting as well. There’s a concept in Dungeons and Dragons: “fantasyland,” the vaguely defined, trope-heavy world that all the fantasy of a certain kind seems to take place in. It’s the place Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels strove to satirize. Final Fantasy IV is in it, and for lovers of the games, it’s got all the series hallmarks: a pseudo-medieval world with a narratively convenient wild landscape that somehow also features airships and hovercraft. Its characters are cut from archetypal cloths of the high fantasy genre: dark knights, loving maidens, roguish, er, rogues, and small wizards with big powers.
The thing is though, you kind of… fall in love with all of them. One of my favourite features, and one of the key ones that makes the characters endearing, is a small little menu mechanic. Whenever you open the menu, a thought bubble pops up over the character’s head, giving you insight into their thoughts at this stage of the adventure; you can see what everyone thinks by rotating through which party member is the sprite you’re wandering around with. (Blissfully, picking who to walk around as is purely cosmetic, unlike in FFI, where your walking sprite was at the front of your party, which means smart players always had to look at a boring fighter as they wandered.) This small mechanic makes the party feel much more present, much more responsive. You’re walking with real people who are trying to process the adventure as it happens, and its part of why the game really works at the early stages. Cecil, continuously conflicted about literally everything else, becomes immensely focused on saving Rosa when her life is in danger; it’s all he thinks about until she’s healed, and then just relieved she’s okay. You get inside the character’s heads, as caricatured and overblown as those heads might be. After a while, you care about them, and the gameplay let’s you live it.
Your bard, the prince Edward, is a coward — one of his special abilities is ‘hide’ — and he has a dramatic scene where he must fight an enemy alone, encouraged by the ghost of his deceased love. Your summoner, Rydia, whose mother died in a fire, is unable to cast the fire spell during the initial stages. This interaction between mechanic and character is small, but adds to a profound moment as you move into the real rising action of the plot and Rydia has to face down that fear or your party will fail to save the next endangered city. Being able to see these characters’ internal feelings, as simple as they are, play out through gameplay, makes you feel far more invested than you otherwise could be if the story just happened around the mechanics. This integration helps you look past the mild absurdity of these low-poly cartoon characters emoting intensely about unintentionally destroying an entire town.
The absurdity, however, is what makes it fun. It has a lot of the hallmarks of a cheesy film, the overdramatic dialogue and insanely high stakes clashing with a colourful and often goofy world. It’s all the best parts of Final Fantasy as a series — the ability to take itself completely seriously whilst doing utterly ridiculous things on the side. There’s a giant chocobo just chilling in a desert oasis. Why is he not in a forest where chocobo live? Why is he so much larger than literally every other chocobo on this planet? How does he consume enough food to survive? Why has no-one in this isolated town questioned the arrival of a giant flightless bird? Why is he friends with this weird little fluff?
This is the thing I love about a lot of games from Square Enix, this willingness, in the midst of a dead serious plot, to just jar you with some levity and goofiness. The Legend of Zelda games do this well too — see the minigame where you leap off a cliff clinging to a small chicken in the middle of Twilight Princess’ dark and moody plot — and so does the Yakuza series. These moments work in part because they provide such a sharp contrast to everything else going on, because they play with your expectations just enough, that your suspension of disbelief extends just far enough to encompass a plot about a disgraced knight, mass murder and magic crystals. Oh, and did I mention the weird sexy belly dancing?
It’s this stuff that makes the game so fun. If it only ever took itself completely seriously, the game would feel utterly self-important and unaware. There’d be no escaping the clunky dialogue, strangely revealing outfits and jarringly grim violence. It would also be kind of boring, without a relief from the melodrama and infinitely mounting stakes. Thankfully, Final Fantasy IV won’t quite let you take it seriously.. This is why, over a decade since I first played it, it still works for me; it let’s me get weirdly invested in tropey characters and go on a grand, colourful adventure to save the world. Sure, maybe I’m undercutting the quality of the narrative a bit — it’s very good for what it is — but for me, Final Fantasy IV is pure, blissful escapist fantasy. And I really, truly, honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.