Remakes are always a dangerous business. On the one hand, you've got the defensive old hands that are already suspicious of anyone tampering with a classic. On the other hand, there's the new players. The ones who are looking for fresh and interesting twists and who don't care for nostalgic nonsense. How do you reconcile them? By carefully choosing what to polish, what to remove, and what to bring into the 21st Century. Final Fantasy IV is a textbook example of how to bring a classic adventure into the next generation of gaming.
It's another typically epic affair from Square Enix, dragged from the depths of 1991 with a fittingly epic paint job to match. The plot follows Cecil, a knight of the Baron Empire forced into exile when the kingdom is manipulated into war by an evil outsider. It's a far more classical fantasy affair than the steampunk stylings of other RPGs in the series, but don't fear if you're not a Lord of the Rings fan - it's still lightweight enough to breeze through without taking much notice of all the talk of prophecies and destinies.
Describing the update as a paint job, however, doesn't do it justice. This is a renovation of Cistine Chapel proportions, with the 2D graphics of the pre-PlayStation era replaced with a glorious 3D engine, fully-voiced cut-scenes and a reworked musical score. What's particularly nice about this is that it's all done with a faithful feel. The spell effects, monsters and even the battle themes all hark back to earlier Final Fantasy standards; a nice touch for fans of the series that a remake on this scale really needs to have.
Combat will be familiar to anyone who's dipped their toes into RPG water before, but newcomers will find the theory of it all quite simple too - friends and foe line up and wait to take turns in battle. A turn might be the casting of a spell, a physical attack or some other ability, but when it's done it's done. In practice, it takes some getting used to the deeper aspects, planning actions in advance and coping with the strengths and weaknesses of your team. For the first few hours, you can safely ignore a lot. But eventually, they'll start to affect your playing style. And for a Final Fantasy game, it throws a few tough situations out fairly early on - giving you mostly magic-using characters, which tends to be harder to manage overall.
The battles are still 'random', too, springing themselves on the player as they walk around the world, which has long been a bugbear for many players but really lies at the heart of Final Fantasy. Thankfully, the much less tasteful requirement for players to run around fighting until they're strong enough to progress isn't really present here, and you're mostly able to charge through the Story mode at a comfortable pace.
This is important, because the story really is the basis of the entire game. The gameplay might be solid and addictive, but the story is what keeps things rolling, pulling characters in and out of your party as the plot drags people apart, destroys cities and gives plenty of opportunities for night-time reflections on rooftops. It's all very opera-lite, but the quick-save feature makes it a portable masterpiece, allowing you to resume the drama at any point, so the hour-long slogs between save points can now be chopped into fifteen-minute segments.
Quick-save is just one of the features added to the game since its original release. There's even a somewhat forced multiplayer mode, which lets you battle one of your characters - a summoned creature called Whyt - against other owners of the game. Although it feels very separate from the rest of the game, there's a cute array of brain-training-like mini-games that allow you to boost Whyt's statistics by doing arithmetic and other tasks. It's a nice idea, but seems like it would do better as a game of its own rather than tacked on to this sprawling RPG.
It's hardly a major criticism, though, and the package offered here is superb - a strong role-playing game given a new lease of life. But lying at the heart is the same solid gameplay that was popular in the nineties - unforgiving at times, but a shining example of what makes the series great.