Stream Thoughts: Final Fantasy IV

This is part stream thoughts, part review, and part an exercise in getting back into writing again.

We took this weekend off from streaming for two reasons. Foremost, I lost my voice somewhat to a cold and didn’t want to subject the audience to four hours of wheezing and groaning. But secondly, I said I was going to do a post-mortem for our most recently completed stream longplay, Project II: Final Fantasy IV. So in lieu of a stream this weekend, have an article.

Usually when there’s a turn-based RPG that we want to do on stream, I’m not the one playing it. This isn’t particularly because I’m bad at them, but because I haven’t played as many and my repeated failures are less likely to bring more people into the viewing audience. No one wants to watch some idiot bumble around a video game unless they’ve already committed themselves to watching that idiot. And from this idiot to you, thank you for suffering through my terribleness. Your grace knows no bounds.

To relieve my dear compatriot and reality-grounder of his usual duties on our Saturday streams and give him the opportunity to laugh at me, we decided that I should do an RPG on stream, one that he was familiar with. We settled on Final Fantasy IV, but with a twist: The version we would use would be the mod/romhack called Project II. This hack is a new translation of FFIV, remedying the myriad issues with the various translations that have been released over the years. It also restores a significant amount of dummied content and fixes various bugs and outright useless pieces of equipment and spells, but we’ll get to that in more detail later.

Jake has played Final Fantasy IV several times through, making him an excellent guide through the game to make the process smoother. While by no means am I new to the concept of turn based RPGs, I haven’t played many of the Final Fantasy series to be quite honest, and having someone who knows the game fairly well handy and watching my every move did have the wonderful effect of bringing my peak stress levels down from “holiday season retail manager” to “holiday season retail temp hire”. It’s a potentially aggravating experience, and it’s something new with foreign oddities and incomprehensible processes around every corner, but at least it’ll be over soon.

Fallen paladins are cliché; let’s make this one un-fallen

Needless to say, beyond this point, hic sunt spoileres.

In contrast to its direct successor or its predecessors, Final Fantasy IV gives you more party members than first gen Pokemon over the course of the story, but never more than five at a time. The one constant is Cecil Harvey, who begins the story as a dark knight of the kingdom of Baron and the flight admiral of the Red Wings, Baron’s air force. His defining features: a suit of black armour fused to his body and scouter-breaking power levels in self-loathing. Not long into the game he has a magical transformation through the powers of self-realization and self-harm — seriously, you get to 1v1 yourself — into a Paladin, making him possibly one of the first examples of a “fallen paladin” type that becomes un-fallen.

Unfortunately, Cecil’s functionality as a DPS-focused paladin class is more like that from modern World of Warcraft and less Dungeons and Dragons. While his white magic can certainly keep himself topped up between fights early into his paladinhood, he never learns anything more powerful than Cura, doesn’t pick up Revive, and has an unfortunate late-game lack of willpower stat to make up for either of those. Thankfully, Rosa is not only a competent healer but well into end-game her single-target Curaga tends to be enough to put a near-death character back up to full health for half the MP cost of an actual full heal in the form of a Curaja. Her !Aim ability to throw out extra projectile damage with a bow equipped also makes her a useful healer with DPS on the side during low-damage fights of attrition.

I’m not even sure what the final boss is supposed to be, but it clearly doesn’t want a hug.

A good RPG has a good plot, and Final Fantasy IV fits that requirement. The usual bad-guy-is-doing-bat-things-with-the-crystals kicks off the story, but the game throws you for a loop after the first four crystals fall with “by the way there’s another set of crystals in Hell, which is populated by Dwarves, and has the literal Tower of Babel, and also magma-resistant airships”. And it just gets more and more nuts from there, but entirely in a well-written, planned out way that all ties together neatly at the end. My one complaint is that the plot had the core party member Kain flipping between heel and face so often that it felt like he was switching sides every five minutes. This is something that’s repeatedly cited on the intertubes, I came to find out, though in actual fact he only does a complete moral 360 twice in the course of the game. What makes it feel like a more frequent occurrence is the effect this has on your party; you lose one of your main sources of reliable, heavy-hitting physical damage and get to replace him with another character for the next two or three hours.

There’s an awful lot of other characters who you rotate in and out throughout the game, but generally you’ll end up with a caster, a second melee DPS, and someone else. For endgame, though, your three other party members are a Dragoon (the aforementioned Kain, better known as The Dragoon), a Summoner (Rydia, post-time travel), and a Ninja (Edge, who is so non-notable I had to look up his name). Kain spends most of his time in the air using !Jump so he only gets hit about 50% of the time, if even that, making him an incredibly useful party member when he isn’t busy getting mind controlled int doing evil shit. He gets exactly no magic, though, so his utility is limited. The best that you’re going to get out of him that isn’t damage is him missing a fully party wipe attack while he’s in the air and then chucking out a Revive Potion at Rosa as soon as his turn is up.

Rydia is my favourite character on account of her getting literally all of the nukes. She starts the game as a young girl whose god you slay and whose mother you murder, leaving her severely traumatized and in your care. Congratulations, you’re the best protagonist ever. You asshole. Thankfully after being sucked into the ocean by Leviathan, she spends a solid decade in the Feymarch and reunites with the party as a grown woman with her traumas mostly behind her and most of the main recurring Final Fantasy summons to deal with everything else. Her damage output gets frankly absurd after your return to the Feymarch, since Leviathan as a summon throws out massive all-target non-elemental damage, and later, Bahamut more or less replaces Leviathan in your rotation. Presumably, while waiting in the astral plane and watching the battle, Bahamut responded to Leviathan’s smarmy “did you see THOSE damage numbers” with a casual “hold my beer while I dish out quad nines”.

Edge soaks damage, throws smoke bombs to make running away cheaper (standard L+R running has a chance to drop a percentage of your gil), and can cast Blink on himself with the Mirage ninjitsu. Sometimes he’ll get revived before the end of the battle. Sorry buddy, that’s all I can really think of to write about you.

ATB is my greatest enemy

Final Fantasy IV birthed unto the world the Active Time Battle System, or ATB. The gist of ATB is that instead of having a fixed initiative order that each entity on a battlefield takes its turn according to, a la most pen-and-paper roleplaying games, the initiative order is used at the start of the battle, and then turn order is based on whose ATB gauge recovers first. When a character uses an ability or attack, their ATB gauge is depleted, and it refills according to their speed and speed-related stats. This is a gross simplification of it, but at least for FFIV, it’s close enough. On paper this concept is incredibly simple but in practice, for those of us who have the reflexes of a stoned sloth, this can get to be a bit of a pain point.

It took me about a session and a half to get back into the swing of things with ATB. For that six or seven hours though I was an immeasurable idiot getting hit more than I needed to while I decided what to do. This is something I tend to have issues with in RPGs, preferring a slow and methodical (read: overthought and paranoid) approach. The trick, as I eventually came to use, is to open a magic or targeting menu in a battle to pause the ATB system. Then I can safely relax and spent fifteen seconds freaking out and plotting every possible thing that can go wrong in the next three to six turns. Invariably, I would do this several times in the timespan of a single turn, only for Cecil to throw out five times as much damage in a single blow as I was expecting. The moral of the story? Get therapy.

I’ll save you the literal headaches and worse by not actually animating this 60fps palette swap flashing crap.

Being the first implementation of the ATB system, FFIV‘s battles are a bit difficult to feel the pacing of sometimes. The ATB gauge is not visible, unlike later games, so predicting turns and planning ahead has to be done with a healthy dose of guesswork. The final battle ended up being a bit of a stress point for my run when party members started going down and I had no visual indicator for when one of the living party members would have their next turn to throw out a Revive. In the early and middle acts of the game, the guesswork gets more difficult because of how many characters join and leave the party every other town. Imagine if Goku was the only saiyan who could safely spend an entire episode powering up because none of the other characters were guaranteed to be around for 22 sequential minutes.

The gameplay is on the whole quite fun. This is the only main series entry where you get to keep five “permanent” party members at a time, so in case things start going really badly you have an extra chance at a turn for throwing a Revive at someone or soaking an attack. Cecil is a phenomenal damage dealer and an equally phenomenal tank when he has Blink cast on him. He will attempt to block damage meant for party members who are at critical health levels, and having Blink on him makes him when there’s a near-downed ally makes him a damage-nullifying machine.

My main criticism of the game from a mechanical standpoint is that they hadn’t quite figured out how the SNES worked while developing it, so the main way of communicating “something magical is happening on screen” is to change the colour palette and flash the screen wildly. This incredibly NES-tastic part of the game shows up every few minutes, so if you’re prone to photosensitive medical distress, grab one of the ports of this game so you don’t literally die from playing what is otherwise a solid turn-based fantasy RPG.

A romhack and then some

“This boss has a gimmick. *beat* And no clothes.”

Project II is a bit different than vanilla SNES Final Fantasy IV. As mentioned before, the translation is completely re-done, as the original translation released to North American audiences as Final Fantasy II ispoorly written and fairly deeply censored and in the words of vivify93, the mod’s author, “J2e’s translation of this game is rife with awkward hacking, strange phrasing, and over-the-top references”. Project II contains a whole new translation based on the original release of Final Fantasy IV with a pile of enhancements, including dummied-out enemies and abilities being implemented, commands like Pray and Salve working as intended, in-battle effects for various spells that didn’t have in-battle effects originally, and my personal favourite, so many minute balance tweaks to everything that it comes with a stack of reference manuals.

Jake and I both thoroughly enjoyed Project II, as it gives a bit more of a modern, updated feel to a game that is 27 years old at the time of writing. It’s still not too modern — the traditional English names of spells are used, and you’re still well aware that you’re playing a game that’s old enough to get a PhD and complete residency, but at least it’s not one of the horrible mobile ports. You can download Project II from ROMHacking.net here: https://www.romhacking.net/hacks/1659/

I’m not sure if this is a function of Project II or if Rydia is this awesome (one might say, best girl) in the original game, but the final battle was primarily everyone except Rydia eating hits or attempting to dodge them, and Rydia dishing out quad nines and ignoring damage entirely. Not only was she the last party member up, but I was convinced we were going to wipe when Zeromus began to cast Meteor. Rydia decided she wasn’t going to have any of that shit and the spell didn’t even go off. Her subsequent Bahamut summon, on the other hand, did complete, and it turns out that Bahamut really doesn’t like transforming moon people.

Lessons learned

There’s a few things I’ve learned from this, some by force, others out of my own free will.

  1. Listen to Jake when he attempts to explain mechanics. This saves me a lot of pain.
  2. As much as the game was attempting to induce it, I do not have photosensitive epilepsy.
  3. Download your VODs immediately after they process so you can archive them ASAP.
  4. Plan the next game we play well in advance and test the hell out of your emulators.
  5. Rydia does mechanics, and that makes her best girl.

Next Saturday we’ll be starting up Final Fantasy III on NES. Jake will be playing since I plan on actually sitting down and doing some stuff mid-week, and after FFIII our plan is for me to play a game that neither of us have played but both of us have heard good things about: Phantasy Star IV on the Sega Genesis.

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