Looking at it afresh in 2012, Final Fantasy IV marks the point where the famous JRPG series moved into its teen years. It's a little awkward in places, but also more adventurous and capable of handling more mature themes.

The protagonist here is no carefree youth adventurer or blank-slate amnesiac. Cecil (that's you) starts the game as the renowned captain of the fearsome Red Wings airship fleet, a man torn between allegiance to his king and his own sense of honour.

He's troubled by the atrocities he and his squadron have been asked to commit, including theft and, it's implied, mass-murder. Yikes.

Upon its original release in 1991, this was ambitious stuff for a Nintendo-based blockbuster - backed by the introduction of new elements elsewhere. The question is, how does it hold up today on iOS?

Questionable lineage

The answer to that question is pretty predictable: about as well as it has in every other re-release over the past 20 years.

This version is actually based on the revamped Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo DS, which we reviewed way back in 2008. That means that the rudimentary 2D sprite-work of the original SNES game has been jettisoned in favour of chunky 3D models.

While it's good to have a more up-to-date version, we can't help wondering whether the enhanced 2D version we saw on the PSP might not have been a better bet. 3D tends to age worse than 2D, and so that proves here when the action zooms-in on the character models in all their rough-edged, simple-textured ugliness.

It's especially noticeable on the ten-inch Retina display of the more recent iPad models. Still, when zoomed-out - which you will be for most of the game - it looks quite nice, thanks to its timeless cutesy art style.

Go forth into the world

Quibbles over the 3D engine aside, this remains a majestic old skool RPG to spend 40 or more hours with. It's almost refreshing these days to find an iOS game that actively encourages exploration, and doesn't mollycoddle you with persistent signposting and lengthy tutorials.

Anyone who played and loved Final Fantasy VII back in the day will recognise an earlier version of the sprawling world map that forms the hub of your travels. This can be explored on foot or with one of the game's brilliantly empowering vehicles when they become available.

Casual gamers beware - this relatively open, hands-off approach means that you'll get lost in the vast overworld and labyrinthine caverns from time to time. However, there's nearly always something worthwhile to find by straying off the beaten track - a sturdy piece of armour or a powerful new weapon, say.

Off the beaten track

The main drawback of straying away from the main path is that you'll have to wade through yet more random battles. We won't get into the arguments for and against Final Fantasy IV's battle system, as they're exactly the same as they have been for almost every other JRPG over the past 25 years.

Just know that if you didn't previously like pausing every 30 seconds to play a game of simplified chess with mages and dragons and warriors, you certainly won't now.

This is where the Active Time Battle system first kicked in for the Final Fantasy series, which makes battles flow a little more and imbues them with a bit more urgency. But it's still equivalent to a boxing match where the fighters take it in turns to throw punches.

Final Fantasy IV differs from previous and subsequent versions in the way it gives you specialists - which means that if you're given a mage, it stays a mage throughout the game. Some may not like the limitations this places on character customisation, but for my money it reinforces each character's identity and role within the team.

While we're talking about musty old mechanics, the game's menus - from the equip screen to the battle interface - are pretty clunky, even with touchscreen assistance. Both require too many button-presses (sometimes of the same button), distracting you from the good bits.

Telling stories

But Final Fantasy IV is a real leap forward in terms of narrative.

Here was the start of Square Enix's golden period, when it could create compelling stories with surprisingly nuanced characters without losing that whimsical charm or childlike sense of wonder that made the company's output such hot property.

It's still a tale of good versus evil, of arbitrary side-quests, mystical artefacts, and of gathering heroes for an almighty scrap against a powerful foe. But it comes with just enough colour to make it interesting.

There's betrayal, despair, lost love, and guilt - all wrapped up in a saccharine-sweet shell.

Final Fantasy IV, then, is still an excellent RPG. In spite of its age-related aches and pains, it's arguably the point at which the Final Fantasy series starts getting really good. Fans of the mid-'90s golden period of the series - and RPGs in general - will find much to like here.

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