Disclaimer: the game that I am reviewing is Final Fantasy 4, not Final Fantasy 2. Yes, it was released as Final Fantasy 2 in the United States, but it is actually the 4th entry in the series. And now, onto the review...
Although it doesn't get the same amount of hype that Final Fantasy VI and VII does, Final Fantasy IV is probably the most important game in the series. Where the previous games in the series were generic experiences with stock characters and plots, Final Fantasy IV's characters were fleshed out and its story actually had depth and thematic significance. Furthermore, Final Fantasy IV introduced Active Time Battle, which has been featured in most of the games in the series. However, the question on most player's minds won't be if the game is important or not, but if it is still worth playing after all these years. The answer is yes. Despite being dated in some aspects, Final Fantasy IV is a remarkably well-rounded retro RPG with its fun battle system, its surprisingly engaging story and cast, and its accessible dungeon crawling.
Final Fantasy IV is the story of the dark knight Cecil. At the beginning of the game, he plunders a peaceful mage village and takes with him their powerful and sacred crystal. However, he begins to feel remorseful and questions his King's orders, orders that are uncharacteristic for the usually just king. When Cecil is fooled by the King into releasing a firestorm into an innocent village and killing the young girl Rydia's mother, he vows to fight against his King's mysterious aggression and takes the now orphaned Rydia under his wing. This sets the stage for a tale that holds up surprisingly well. The dialogue is not particularly well translated and its brevity feels like a missed opportunity in ways, but the spirit of the story is still quite powerful, highlighting themes of loyalty and redemption. Plus, the characters have tons of personality and are very likeable, especially the funny brother and sister mages Palom and Porom. However, what is Final Fantasy IV's biggest asset story-wise is the eventfulness of the plot. Since Final Fantasy IV is not a very long game, the plot moves very briskly and big events come much more quickly than in other RPGs. That the game constantly serves up memorable moments goes a long way towards pushing the player forward through the remarkably well-executed story. And if you want to experience the story with better dialogue, one of the later translations might be a good option.
The structure of the game is much like other RPGs of its day, with over world travel, town exploration, and dungeon crawling. There are a few surprising moments in terms of the game's progression, but this is pretty standard stuff overall. One of the great things about the earlier parts of the game is that the game points you in the right direction in a rather linear fashion, ensuring that you typically won't be scratching your head, wondering where to go next. And while the latter parts of the game do present fuzzy objectives, the game is much more focused than some of its cotemporaries. Furthermore, the dungeons are extremely accessible, especially if you've played stuff like Phantasy Star II, which goes kind of crazy with its punishing mazes. Final Fantasy IV's dungeons hit a perfect sweet spot between not being total linear cakewalks, but also being easy enough to get through that you won't ever feel stressed or annoyed. Plus, treasure boxes are well placed (there are also plenty of secret locations) and save points are not overly abundant, but you will find one if you need one.
Although the dungeons can get repetitive in terms of their appearance (most of the dungeons are caves), the game does take you to some unexpected places, which I won't spoil. Towns and castles are pretty par for the course for a game of its age, but the developers do find ways to inject personality into them. One example of this is the many dancers that you will encounter on your journey; if you talk to them, they will be happy to show you their moves.
The battle system in Final Fantasy IV has held up extremely well due to the Active Time Battle system. Unlike previous systems, the ATB system time sensitive. You have to wait for an ATB meter to fill up before you can attack or use spells; the same applies to enemies. And though you don't actually see the meter in the SNES version of the game, the ATB system still functions the same as it does in other Final Fantasies. This gives the battle system an exciting element of timing. Furthermore, the enemies in Final Fantasy IV seem faster than the ones in some of the other games, meaning that you'll have to choose commands quickly, which makes battles feel engaging, especially when you are taking on the game's awesome boss fights. Though the game might be dated in some ways, the boss fights are some of the best in the series. They keep you on your toes, but they are not difficult. Like many of Final Fantasy IV's elements, they hit a happy medium.
Customization is pretty bare bones, but I liked that the game doesn't force you to buy lots of new weapons, armor, and accessories. You can make very good use of the equipment you have until it comes time to replace it. This cuts down on a lot of the busy work that customizing characters entails.
One thing that annoyed me a bit is that the game constantly takes away your characters and replaces them with new ones. Some of the characters come back into the party, but it's kind of bothersome to grind up a character and equip them with pricy armor and weapons only to have them leave. Granted, the game does this for story reasons, but in some cases, the revolving door of characters doesn't seem particularly necessary. That being said, the game will typically scale returning characters to Cecil's level, so at least they don't inconvenience you on top of the initial inconvenience of constantly having to give up characters.
Another slight inconvenience is that you'll have to do some rather heavy grinding towards the end of the game since there's a bit of a difficulty spike before and during the endgame. However, it's not too much of a problem considering that the game generally does a pretty job of not being overly grindy.
The visuals get the job done, but they are probably the most dated aspect of the game. Comparing it to Final Fantasy VI (which is also on the SNES), it looks kind of like a really polished NES game, with its rather bare bones environments and sprites (that being said, the sprites do have a pretty good amount of personality). The overworld fares much better with its vibrant colors and its more sophisticated effects, but the visuals in general are more functional than they are pretty. The most impressive thing about the graphics are the enemy designs, which are always excellent and much more detailed than the rest of the game's visual presentation.
The soundtrack is definitely solid, but it's not one of the stronger sets of songs in the series. The songs always sound good (and are remarkably crisp) and they fit the scenarios and environments they are associated with, but there are not as many standout songs as there are in later soundtracks. Like the visuals, the music and sound effects get the job done, but the sonic presentation won't wow you unless you played the game back in the day and are nostalgic about the game's music.
Final Fantasy IV is notable for its contribution to the evolution of story in console RPGs, but in this age where game stories are much more developed and ambitious, Final Fantasy IV is also notable for just how well it holds up. Unlike some other retro RPGs, this game doesn't feel like a chore and its story still has power despite the dated presentation. Many retro games have to be rebuilt from the ground up to be compelling to modern players, but not this one. If you're a fan of RPGs or Final Fantasy, you owe it to yourself to get past the bare bones presentation and play what is one of the most important role-playing games of all time.