Video games are a medium filled with lousy stories, absurd scenarios and otherwise ridiculous plot points. That said, there are also some real gems out there. The sort that rise above the stupidity of their bretheren and prove that yes, gaming can be a real, honest-to-goodness medium for storytelling. Sadly, few can do this perfectly. Even in the best games there are those moments where you just have to sit back and wonder what they were thinking.
This week: Final Fantasy IV
Let it be known from the get-go that Final Fantasy IV is actually a game I really enjoy. I also know that in terms of RPGs there are few games endowed with quite the same classic status as this one. The Super Nintendo version (Final Fantasy II to us silly Americans) was for many people the RPG that really hooked them on the genre.
Its gameplay created the active-time battles that would serve as a template for the majority of the Final Fantasy games to follow, as well as for many other RPGs to the present day. Moreover, its story line was one of the first to really use a story as more than just an excuse to saunter about the world slaying monsters.
That said, most people even amongst its fanbase would be lying if they tried to claim it wasn’t a flawless plot. It is after all built around the now tired premise of “good guys vs. bad guy being controlled by a secret ultimate evil”. More then that though, the biggest problem with Final Fantasy IV is the inconsistency in the game’s tone.
Personally, I tend to seperate FFIV into two distinct sections. The first, encapsulates the portion of the story focused on Cecil’s personal redemption. This bit begins roughly after Cecil is betrayed by the king of Baron and ends about the time that he ditches his Dark Knight class for that of a Paladin.
This part of the game is extraordinarily dark for a game of this era. People are being killed left and right, often without mercy. Main characters die. City are destroyed. It’s good stuff.
Unfortunately, after Cecil takes on a more holy guise, the game becomes a bit more lighthearted in its approach. Death, and more specifically, self-sacrifice are effectively cheapened by the consistent return of characters that by the game’s own logic should have been killed.
Palom and Porom for instance, turn themselves to stone in order to stop a pair of walls from pressing together and smushing your party. The assumption is that they’re screwed. The game even makes a point of saying that the spell is irreversible because they cast the spell on each other willingly. Then later in the game who comes to the rescue at the head of an airship fleet? Palom and Porom! It seems the spell wasn’t as serious as suggested.
The obvious question is, why was such a big deal made out of it earlier? It’s as if the developers wanted to make it dramatic and serious, but then lost their nerve as time went on.
They pulled the same move with Yang later in the game. He is presumably killed in a massive explosion and then turns up alive a bit further on, comatose. He is then cured by a whack in the head with a pan. This might be fine if we hadn’t seen another character killed earlier by an explosion. The game lays a precedent that such things aren’t all too survivable.
I liked it better when he was dead.
The worst part of this is that these character revivals serve no real purpose other than to give the game a happier ending. The Game Boy Advance port allowed for you to used as playable characters if you wanted, but in the original and the DS remake, they just stuck around for moral support.
A part of me thinks that the only reason Kain is the most popular character from the game is because he is the one that remains the most consistent. His motives are selfish. He is manipulated, betrays his allies, and to an extent remains a man who is at least partially evil. Where the game eventually compromises itself, Kain doesn’t.
The storytelling problems in Final Fantasy IV don’t go so far as to ruin the experience. It is a classic game, and deserving of its prestige. That said, when the DS remake was announced one of the things I was hoping they’d improve were the clumsier elements of the story. They didn’t but it’s still a great game. It’s just a great game made dumber by some of the narrative choices its developers made.