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Final Fantasy IV
The first SNES FF has a bit of a muted transition in some departments in the pixel remaster form thanks to squeenix sprucing up the prior entries a bit visually/a consistent level of treatment for the OST reworks. (Not a complaint of course even if I'm missing out on the excitment original players would have had) In other regards, though, the coat of polish given to the earlier entries still can't hide how signficant a step up this was- namely the battle system and story or story presentation, more to the point.
4 brings the arrival of one of the franchise's biggest contributions in the atb system. The most immediate impact of this, to me in this specific context coming off ffs 1 - 3, was the reworking of agility and turn order into something far more grokkable/pleasant to plan around. Now, when you tell a party member to do something, you can expect it to happen immediately (or relatively, in the cast of casting) vs having to wonder whether x move will land before or after a teammates ability or attack. Similarly, heal timing can be relied upon more easily- with the added risk management of casts being delayed so item based healing has more appeal in a pinch. You can also delay allied turns a second to respond to crucial enemy actions as quickly as possible or setup combinations of actions with teammates. And on top of all that, it just adds a feeling of speed and energy to the fights outside all the tactical possibilities.
That's not to say it was all a pleasant changeup though. The need to respond quickly can be gamed weirdly by just going in menus. (Although this can be disabled apparently? Not sure what the intended experience is here) That said, the player might want to keep it on intended or not as the UI is not set up to accommodate rapid information processing and decision making well at all. Your commands appear in the bottom left corner of the screen but the party member whose turn it is/turn order itself/health are all displayed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, so you have to glance all the way over sometimes to even know who youre giving a command to. Furthermore, enemy actions show up at the very top of the screen so if you ARE trying to base your actions or time them around what theyre doing, you need to look at third completely separate point. The game actually maximizes the amount of screen you need to take in at once for.... relatively few things you really need to even look at, which is just bizarre. It's a small quibble to be sure, but just felt it worth noting.
The progressions in combat don't stop at the atb introduction fortunately. Moreso than any prior FF, this game devises new and different strategic considerations from boss to boss and enemy to enemy. (At least, for a good chunk of them) Leveraging curative magic to fight undead is given increased prominence early on when, as a dark knight, Cecil can barely hurt them. Enemies can counterattack now, both generically and even selectively towards magic attacks or debuffs or physical attacks etc. and some of these counters are absolutely brutal- clearly not something the player is just supposed to tank/heal through- enabling the enemy design to demand more precise solutions than just setting your party on auto attack. A group boss battle sees one boss reviving the others if players prioritize incorrectly, another boss goes invulnerable thanks to a wind shield to all but your dragoon who must open up the shield for your party to attack, yet another repels or worse absorbs all attacks while his cape is open asking the player instead to actively utilize the ability of the atb system to let party members pick their moments, dangerous electrical enemies can be "reprogrammed" (ie Confused) with lightning damage to turn the tables, the list goes on and on. You can uncharitably call these fights and their solutions gimmicks, but its a definite progression from the series to date to see so many new ideas tried out across the encounters and it keeps the combat more fresh well into its endgame than prior entries have.
Which is needed coming off III, since the complete lack of any progression system whatsoever has made the naturally growing player investment in seeing their various builds come to life as the game goes on completely absent here. Stepping back from FFIII's true first try at a job system, FFIV sees each playable character in the story locked to a job as dictated by their position in the story. There's little new here too, as most/all? of these identities are built on jobs you could have chosen in III. A couple characters get pivotal job changes at specific story beats but otherwise everyone keeps those jobs all the way through.
While disappointing from a character customization and planning standpoint, it does feed into one of the other massive jumps forward FFIV makes for the franchise- building its character work and narrative moments on top of game mechanics themselves rather than just isolating them to cutscenes. There was the odd forced losing battle in FFII (and maybe the others? can't recall) but now a whole host of scenarios play out in the battle screen itself. The protagonists dramatic job change from dark knight to paladin doesn't happen in a menu or automatically- happens in a battle against himself where the player must very literally stop attacking and start defending to win, mirroring the change in philosophy such a job transition would actually accompany. When heroic sacrifices are made later, characters attempt to actively employ the game mechanic solutions to the problem- phoenix downs and a status remover- in logical fashion tying the two together more tightly. A powerful life ending spell for its user is available earlier in the game but cannot be cast with the characters mana pool, making the strain of the moment they do use it and take their life understandable not just at a narrative level but at a mechanical one.
This.... ludonarrative expressiveness? is the true triumph of the game's story to me. Yeah, the story gets more weight and detail than prior entries and yes the heroic sacrifices are better figured out here than FFII, since FFIV doesn't have a progression system that actively punishes getting characters later in the game and its departures aren't as telegraphed as II's "cursed" position 4. (Just about anyone short of Cecil is fair game for leaving the party) But honestly that stuff doesn't strike me as anywhere near as impactful. (And it's worth noting its heroic sacrifices will work against themselves with how much the game is willing to undo them too- not the last time this franchise will make this mistake!) Spoilers for the next review, but I even prefer the writing, pacing and actual story of 5- a game never really lifted up for it- more than 4 baseline. I'm just giving props where they're due here for recognizing the potential of the medium itself in telling these moments.
It was a tight fight overall in the end for me, between this and III, but the progression this does make for the franchise is just so substantial that even finding it a bigger step back in some ways than any entry to date has stepped back is not enough to keep it from taking the top spot. (Well, again, tell the next entry at least....)
Final Fantasy III
I don't think I'm saying anything people familiar with the series don't already know, but 3 is a return to 1 spiritually in many ways. Job system is back although this time it actually earns the right to be called a job system instead of just sketching a basic template for your character creation foundation. (I don't hold this against 1 as it's obviously a more loose beginning, just clarifying that this truly is one this time) DND spells per rest is back/mp is gone. Traditional leveling with all stats attached to each level up and generic experience is back. (alongside new job levels that, tbh, I still don't particularly understand) And, the more basic warriors of light setting out to defeat darkness/a vaguely defined evil is back over the more complicated war/politics driven FF2 storyline.
But while I gave 2 the edge over 1 for that teensy bit of character building you could control with its leveling system, the jobs here and swapping characters to and from is easily the best of the 3 thus far. And unlike say a lot of modern games with selectable classes or roles for characters, this is a game that embraces the player capability to switch jobs with particular enemies or dungeon gimmicks that ask you to reconsider your setup rather than just settling into 4 jobs and never touching the menu again. This has the side benefit of rendering a lot of what was extraneous dungeon loot in prior games more valuable than just another form of gil- having a few different types of sets of armor/weapons on hand makes swapping in and out of classes supported and the thorough dungeon explorer will find they frequently have this even if they haven't grinded the gil to buy it all naturally.
The only real drawbacks here I noted were a) that there really is seemingly a desire from the game to have you leave some jobs behind permanently as you go on, as earlier jobs may not be quite as potent as later ones even with higher job levels at the time you get the newer fancier models and b) specifically the thief job. The big draw of the thief, as far as i can tell, is its ability to lockpick enchanted locks. Well, you can swap to a thief in front of a locked door, unlock any of them even at job lvl 1 as a thief, then swap back without ever having to actually take a step or fight a battle in the job lol.
The basic story, while drawing from the same well as 1, does sketch in more detail in each place you go than its predecessor. It functions a more episodic fashion I'd say than 1, where learning about the various troubles in the latest town you've popped into is as much or more a focus in the script as the connecting tissue of pursuing the 4 crystals. (the counterpart to 1's four fiends hunt) But this isn't really the reason I prefer its narrative over 1- no the primary advantage it has here is that this is really the first ff where we see them start to really embrace the comedic expressiveness of moving their sprites all around. There are quite a few skits and bits scattered throughout the story and while the core narrative surrounding them isn't anything incredible, they're more amusing than anything in 1 or the rest of 3. (I'd still give the nod to 2's more focused narrative overall though if including all 3 in the comparison)
The episodic/more loose nature of your quest at times though, can lead to more moments of directionless wandering than either of the 2 prior games. This is a big world and you get access to a lot of it fairly early on. It's not a strict downside though as it can be fun to find entirely optional dungeons, particularly towards the end of the game where the series first summons can be had as rewards for completing them. I will say the constant airship juggling is a bit tedious though- even if i ignore the hilarity of airships that can't fly that high despite being picture well above the mountain ranges or the "jumping" upgrade you get later to traverse mountains but only in short bursts, having to swap airships (which entails traveling across the entire map to where you left the prior one) to pick between going underwater or mountain hopping feels incredibly inconvenient in a series thats otherwise felt like its had these sort of edges sanded off in the transition to pixel remaster.
The dungeon design, on the other hand, is all welcome news. The dead ends and trap rooms of ff1 and 2 are now entirely gone. The paths you can go on always go somewhere. And while this does lead to more linear feeling exploration than before, some of that has been made up for with the series' new fascination with obscured paths in certain tiles/between entrances. Loot is frequently hid off the main path now and feeling around every corner will be rewarded.
I dont really know how to critique music so i may just start making lists of my favorite tracks from each game as i go through them lol. I missed FF2's battle theme here (and agree that the pixel remaster version of it is not to my taste) but plenty of other tracks came through great. Eternal Wind, Dark Crystals, The Forbidden Land Eureka, The Crystal Tower, The Invinceable, and Doga and Unei's theme were all varying levels of hits to me.
Lastly, what i didnt miss from ff2 was the random encounter rate. FF3 thankfully pulls back on that quite a bit. These remasters in general are on the easier side, but FF3 does steadily ramp up its difficulty towards the end, even if more of that comes primarily from boss hp just skyrocketing relative to player damage than it probably should.
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