A Grown-Up Story?

I picked up the remake of Final Fantasy IV for the DS and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s a nice repackaged bit of childhood nostalgia, and I think it’s a great way to introduce people to the roots of a great series—FFIV was when Final Fantasy really came into its own. Curious to hear what the press thought of the game, I read a few reviews, and stumbled onto RPGFan’s (IMHO) overly harsh review that contained this somewhat bewildering passage:

FFIV uses a polished in-game engine for cutscenes, which is not bad but underwhelming. The resolution and detail are average for DS. Stylistically I found myself even less impressed. The characters looked cleaner and more mature back on the SNES. The blocky, disproportioned, childlike models do not suit the game’s mature story.

Mature story? Uh, isn’t this the same game where one of the characters throws himself off an airship with a giant bomb strapped to his chest to sacrifice himself for the good of the party? Isn’t this the same game where characters previously thought dead return with lame excuses (“You thought I blew up, but I was okay!”) until the threat of death itself becomes laughable? You spoony bard? Final Fantasy IV is about as mature a story as your typical kid’s movie. It’s a cartoon, drawn in very broad strokes, and yet this game is still held up as a shining example of RPG narrative. Some reviews even credit it with being the greatest story ever told in an RPG. Why? Is it the nostalgia factor? Is it the fact that it’s the first videogame that attempted a story of this magnitude? Sure it’s good, it’s entertaining, it’s fun, but it’s not well written, well plotted, or even groundbreaking.

In my opinion, FFIV DS actually improves on the story quite a bit. The script is a vast improvement over any previous translation, and extra scenes have been added that attempt to explain some of the more nonsensical moments. I even like the voice acting—sure it’s cheesy, but the whole game lays the melodrama on pretty thick, so it fits. The 3D cut-scenes are often quite well done, RPGFan’s review be damned. Early on, in the classic scene where Rosa visits Cecil in his tower, the camera pans into the room to reveal him sitting on the bed, one leg crooked and one dangling. He’s staring out the window at the two moons in the sky. This is not a moment that the SNES was technically capable of achieving, and I don’t think it’s really one that the developers would have thought to include. The original version feels like the story is flying by the seat of its pants most of the time, like the writers are just looking for the next cool villain to introduce or character to kill off (only to revive them later, psych!). The DS version attempts to take the game’s messy, illogical, ridiculous story and invest it with some real emotion. Taking the time to explore Cecil’s moral predicament really brings out his feelings of confusion and invests his doomed attempt at redemption (the delivery of the ring) in an interesting light.

Despite the improvements, it’s still pretty pulpy. When RPG fans hold up this story as the greatest every RPG story, the rest of the world says “Really? That’s the best the genre can do?” In a genre where both narrative and gameplay conventions have gone stagnant, maybe it’s time to forget the glory days of the past and start work on something brand new.

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~ by Ian D. on August 3, 2008.

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