Every reviewer has a different way of scoring remakes. For some, a grade is given to the remake that judges it based on the improvements it made from the previous version(s). For others, a reviewer may compare it to other remakes done for other systems and evaluate it that way. For me, I grade the game based on one underlying question: if this was the game's initial release, how does it stack up against the completion on the current hardware? After completing my recent journey, one thing is vehemently clear: in comparison to the other RPGs currently offered on the Nintendo DS system, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than Final Fantasy IV DS.
For those who don't know the now boilerplate story, it goes something like this: Cecil and Kain are friends and knights for the royal army; the kingdom turns corrupt; Cecil secedes and meets some new friends; Kain is manipulated by Golbez to steal crystals for a dark lord, unbeknownst Cecil; Cecil frees Kain while getting help with said friends; Cecil uncovers the plot of the dark lord with help from a long lost family member; The dark lord is defeated; Everyone rejoices with a fist pump in the air.
While the narrative may not seem as epic as current RPG fare on the home consoles such as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, on the DS hardware the story is truly something to behold. Even though some instant classics such as the Etrian Odyssey series and Lost Magic have been amazing portable games, their stories have been anything but memorable. In this sense, Final Fantasy IV DS is unlike anything else the system has in its library.
When comparing it to any of its various predecessors, it is safe to say that this game contains the best translation and some nice nuances making it unique among previous fare. For example, when Cecil meets Kain to go to the village of Mist at the beginning of the game, there is a quick flashback between the two characters that shows them in training. While brief, it is these moments that make the FFIV veteran stand up and cheer for increased character development and the more complete narrative than what was seen when the game came stateside in the early 1990s. For those reviewers who might say the game has a trite storyline or that the story seems unbalanced (characters make appearances and die too quickly), I ask you this: find me a better tale of tragedy than the twins or a better story of revenge than Tellah's quest on the DS system. Quite simply, Final Fantasy IV DS is the best story you will find on the portable Nintendo system.
Aiding in telling Cecil's story are enhanced 3D graphics and this is where FFIV DS pales in comparison to some of its DS contemporaries. While the 3D looks nice in certain battles, and is tremendous in certain dungeons (the Tower of Zot and the Giant of Babil come to mind), it looks clunky and unclean in other situations. For example, some of the character designs look questionable at best: pre-paladin Cecil is ugly to say the least and what the heck does Tellah have over his eyes? Some of the monsters look good- I especially like the way the Elemental Fiends are represented- but some are downright ugly (the Octomammoth is hideous). When compared to other versions of the game, I would say this version stacks up about equally but again it is clear that the game is definitely better than average when comparing to other DS titles, especially when including the absolutely gorgeous CG opening.
While the graphics may be slightly below average, the gameplay is some of the best you'll find anywhere. Even as someone who recently completed the second installment of the Etrian Odyssey series, this game is flat out hard. No matter how much level grinding you do and how much you've played the other iterations of the series, you will die in the process of the game. As someone who once beat the SNES version of the game at level 46 at the height of my RPG prime, I was getting wiped out at level 60 when trying to get Bahamut. The reason level grinding does not help you is because you have to use strategy in certain situations when fighting bosses. Instead of some of the later Final Fantasies where you will receive hints of what to do, this game insists that you try some status effects on bosses or you will lose. A great example of this is the Magus Sisters, a boss of three sisters that you encounter when trying to track down Golbez in the Tower of Zot. If you try any basic attack strategy, you will lose in a heartbeat. The game requires you to think outside the box and use a different combination of moves in order to be successful. This type of complexity is unmatched on the DS hardware.
In addition to the punishing difficulty and dynamic strategy in the game, Final Fantasy IV DS contains great gameplay through its inclusion of certain "old school" elements that are lost on most current RPGs and definitely lost on any other DS title to date. There is a world map that you can traverse without hotspots and has some hidden locations to find; there are concrete roles for each of your characters to have (white mage cures, dark knight attacks); and gamers are not pandered to with advice on how to defeat certain bosses. Even though some additions I thought made the game interesting (a map feature on the bottom DS screen, completion bonuses for filling out maps, an augment system that allows for certain skills to be transferred to characters), also serve as a way to soften the difficulty a bit and make the game more palatable for modern audiences who can't imagine an RPG without a map in them. I'm not sure if I would have included them into this remake, but they definitely do not deter from the experience.
The best addition to this game, however, unlike any of its previous installments is the New Game+ feature that allows you to max out characters, finish collecting all of the augments, or even complete some of the optional storylines such as the Namingway storyline. Finally, in the New Game+ you can fight two optional bosses. Yeah, good luck with them. After playing through once and working my way through some of the New Game+, I can tell you this: the gameplay in Final Fantasy IV DS is absolutely tremendous.
The control system is not the best I've seen on the DS hardware, but it is definitely adequate. Moving equipment around between characters is extremely fluid and intuitive, and the use of the bottom screen is handy when analyzing purchases. My only complaint is how the touch screen can be used to move your character. It does not work well and it is clear that Square-Enix tacked this on just to have some touch screen functionality. I'm glad the control pad allows for traditional movement.
Do yourself a favor. Before you fire up Final Fantasy IV DS, buy yourself a nice pair of headphones and plug them in. The audio in the game is some of the best you're going to find on the system and the little speakers on the unit do it a tremendous disservice. While I am not an audiophile like some of the other members on staff, I definitely appreciated the "Theme of Love" rendition by Nobuo Uematsu and I liked most of the voice acting in the game. For those voice acting haters, let me say that you can turn it off during the key sequences so that your enjoyment of the action is not ruined. Besides Luminous Arc, I have not played a DS game with audio that can match FFIV DS.
There is no way to properly rate a remake. Some may look at how the game has improved from its predecessors, while others may grade based on how certain bugs may have been addressed. While these methodologies may be sound, I like to look at the intrinsic value of the game. If Final Fantasy IV DS was a brand new release on the Nintendo DS hardware, how would I have judged it? My answer: Final Fantasy IV DS is the best RPG you will find on the system. Period.