Final Fantasy IV, originally released as Final Fantasy II in the US for the Super Nintendo, has long remained a cherished installment among series fans. The GBA version marks the first time we've seen it in handheld form on these shores, though the game was released overseas on the WonderSwan Color platform. The game makes a sharp conversion to the Game Boy Advance with some graphical enhancements and new touches, while keeping intact the classic gameplay, characters, and story.
So, what can you expect from this version? First of all, it has all the updates that you might have already seen if you've played the game from the PlayStation Final Fantasy Chronicles package. All the battle stage backgrounds are spruced up with some detail and depth, from rocky caverns to grassy plains and from golden deserts to dark forests. Character sprites are sharp and look right at home on the GBA's small screen, as do the multitude of monsters you'll encounter as you run about saving the world, with all their fearsome teeth and tentacles nicely detailed. Dialogue between the main characters--Cecil, Rosa, Kain, Rydia, and so forth--all features character portraits along with the text for added personality. And while the art for the portraits tends to be on the simplistic side depending on the character, it makes for a nice little eye-pleasing addition.
Spells and such all carry at least some rudimentary graphical effect to them that rounds out battle visuals nicely--and Kain's dragoon jump still launches him neatly offscreen. Nothing has been untowardly mucked with here, so far as visual effects go, and the resulting package makes for a very nice handheld presentation. The sound is also really nice, with none of the tinny or mangled notes that might be expected from a less-than-solid conversion. All the old tunes are here and reproduced quite well, so you'll experience the game with a backdrop of rich music.
The battle system also retains its traditional feel, with an active turn-based method that lets each character attack based on their initiative, but doesn't let you just sit around waiting to move. By default, battle is paused while you sort through menus to attack and to select spells to cast, though you can also set the system to be completely active and not pause for anything. Either way, fights tend to flow right along at a nice brisk pace as you pummel monsters through the many random encounters you'll experience. In another aspect true to the nature of the game, the encounter rate is pretty high--sometimes to the point where you'll exit one fight only to take one step right into another.
At least hacking away through all these monsters is made quick and simple by the multitude of abilities and powerful spells each character brings to bear. Cecil can utilize his dark knight powers early on in the game that let him attack a whole screen's worth of enemies at once, while magic users can wreak havoc with their destructive black magic (fire, blizzard, thunder--the gang's all here) on either a single target or on a group of foes. Kain can use his dragoon jump, Edward can strum his harp to either attack or heal, and Rydia can summon creatures to aid the party, from chocobos to titans. Each member of your party will bring something unique to help you mow down the local flora and fauna.
Of course, all these familiar character abilities, along with the storyline, will be old hat to fans. For those of you not in the know, though, Final Fantasy IV begins in the kingdom of Baron, a nation with a powerful military headlined by the elite Red Wings and their fleet of airships. The Red Wings are lead by Cecil, a warrior who studied the dangerous dark arts in order to become a powerful dark knight, so that he might better protect his king and his people. All is not right with the king, however, who sets about ordering the Red Wings to retrieve crystals, which are sacred artifacts held in scattered locations across the world. To seize the crystals, the Red Wings are forced to slaughter innocent people, an act that doesn't sit right with Cecil at all. This puts him at odds with his sovereign, who promptly strips him of his command and sends him on a mission to deliver a bomb ring to the village of Mist, accompanied by Cecil's longtime friend, Kain.
The mission turns out to be one of genocide, as the bomb ring detonates and destroys the town, which harbored a culture of people trained to summon monsters. One girl, named Rydia, survives the devastation, and Cecil's attempts to protect the child turn him ever further from Baron. It soon becomes apparent that the king's lust for the crystals has dire repercussions for the rest of the world and all the people in it, so Cecil and his growing band of friends fight to protect the crystals from harm and to stop the encroaching madness.
It's a story with plenty of twists along the way, along with death, betrayal, romance, and sacrifice--in short, the foundation for the Final Fantasy series' storytelling style is laid down here. The way the tale is told hasn't changed all that much in the GBA version, though the occasional line or monster name might have been tweaked. The really important thing is that Tellah's famous "You spoony bard!" line has survived unscathed, so this version definitely retains its cred.
Final Fantasy IV for the GBA looks to be a very worthy version of this classic role-playing game, and those looking for a nice title to warm their handheld system this holiday season should definitely keep their eyes on this release. The game is currently scheduled for release sometime this December, so keep watching this gamespace for the latest news and our full review.