One of the best RPGs ever gets one of the best remakes ever.
What was old has been made anew. Final Fantasy IV, perhaps the most cherished game of my childhood, now feels as fresh as anything else in modern gaming. It's easy to mock Square Enix for releasing its old games so many times, but with the DS remake of FFIV, they've actually made a new version that is vastly superior to the original and worth playing all over again no matter how familiar you are with this epic tale. For newcomers to the series, this is an excellent point of entry that showcases traditional Japanese RPG gameplay with one of the best stories ever told in the genre.
Final Fantasy IV is about a hero saving the world from pure evil, and he even has to save his true love along the way. Beyond that reductive outline, the game's plot is actually unusual, even by today's standards. Cecil, the protagonist, begins the game as an intimidating Dark Knight who is sent to murder innocent people and steal their valuable crystal. After the deed is done, he begins to question his loyalty to the king, due to the wickedness of these orders. Your first task as a player is to deliver a package that, unknown to Cecil, is a terrorist weapon designed to murder an entire village of summoners. Cecil has a mysterious past and, at the start of the game, he already has a serious girlfriend who is worried about his questionable actions and thoughts of treason. At a famous, pivotal moment in the story, Cecil undergoes a dramatic transformation and plays like a completely different character from that point forward. Throughout the game, characters will enter and leave your party at the story's whim. Some of them will turn against you; others will sacrifice themselves for your cause and never return. Clearly, this is serious material, and it's told through a new translation with a more consistent tone and some additional details that were lost in the Super NES version. There is also a small amount of voice acting of admirable quality, though some of the actors don't quite match the gravity of the plot.
A complex plot demands linearity of game progression, and there is no doubt that Final Fantasy IV is a linear game. It's like a roller coaster… a very slow roller coaster, and you're strapped in for the ride. Your party can include up to five characters at a time, but you have no choice as to the lineup, and every playable character has unique abilities. Although restrictive, this format keeps the gameplay fresh throughout a very long adventure. Your party changes every few hours of game time, so you have to develop new battle strategies on a regular basis. A new feature in the DS version allows you to collect Augments when some characters leave your party; these items let you teach the departed character's unique abilities to other characters. This feature is made more interesting by the fact that the DS version also includes a lot more unique abilities for each character. Some abilities, like Edward's songs, are much more useful now and continue to grow and flourish via Augments long after the original practitioner has retired from the party. There is even a customizable Auto-Battle feature in which you can assign specific skills or magic spells to be used automatically in battle, for when you are facing easier monsters that don't require your full attention. These and other gameplay tweaks will not only delight long-time fans of the game but also make it more accessible and streamlined for new players.
The presentation has been overhauled far more dramatically than the gameplay. An impressive engine by Matrix Software provides some of the best 3D graphics on DS. The visuals are not only easy on the eyes but also allow some of the more dramatic scenes in the game to be played out with full cinematography. Being so familiar with the original graphics, I enjoyed seeing the new 3D models for all the characters and locations, and most of them look great while staying faithful to the original designs. The enemies look especially detailed in combat. Matrix seems to have improved their technology since working on the DS remake of Final Fantasy III, as both screens are now used throughout the game. The touch screen usually displays your party's status or a map of the current location, both being very useful information. The classic soundtrack has been re-recorded with higher quality instruments, but the compositions themselves are untouched, so every song will be immediately recognizable to veteran players.
Final Fantasy IV is one of those classic games that nearly everyone should play at some point. It was an unparalleled experience in the early 90s and holds up remarkably well today. I might not recommend this version to owners of the Game Boy Advance remake simply because they were released so close together and, other than the presentation, are largely the same game. However, if you have never played Final Fantasy IV or haven't touched it since it was called Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo, this is the definitive version and is absolutely worth experiencing all over again. After a string of shameless ports and meager remakes, Square Enix has finally done it the right way. I might even call them bold for taking one of my favorite games of all time and making it significantly better, including some fairly major gameplay additions. This is quite simply the best version of one of the best games of the 16-bit era or any other.