It’s a rare game that gives you goosebumps in its opening minutes. But Final Fantasy IV Pixel Remaster is no ordinary game. It’s a remodeled, reorchestrated take on 1991’s Final Fantasy IV, one of the most seminal JRPGs in the genre’s history. As a SEGA kid, I missed out on Final Fantasy IV. I have been waiting decades to play it without gambling on a dubiously functional SNES, slogging through the notoriously slow-loading PlayStation port, or turning to a 3D remake.
Despite roughly 30 years of agony, the wait was worth it. Final Fantasy IV lives up to its storied reputation and establishes the narrative formula and battle system that define many of today’s best JRPGs. The Pixel Remaster’s quality of life tweaks ameliorate nearly all aspects of the game that show signs of age, and the reorchestrated soundtrack will keep you on the edge of your seat for the game’s 20-odd-hour runtime, if not longer.
Final Fantasy IV begins with an engrossing bang that never subsides. You’re introduced to central protagonist and badass Dark Knight Cecil as he commands his air force to massacre nearby townsfolk and steal their famed crystal. Afterward, he and his rattled conscience approach their king and ask the age-old question: why are we slaughtering innocents, exactly? The king takes this about as well as you’d expect, demoting Cecil and commanding him to carry out more killing. Obedient Cecil complies until his king’s command leads him to murder a little girl’s mother unintentionally. When soldiers try to kill the girl, Cecil finally snaps. He defends her, defies his king, and kicks off a globe-trotting quest to save his world from the malevolent force behind all the evil he’s witnessing.
The game’s reputation for pioneering dramatic storytelling in RPGs is well-deserved. Departing from the narrative norms of early ’90s JRPGs and previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy IV’s story takes center stage here, and the gameplay is shaped around telling it. This approach contrasts with FFI-III, where a superficial narrative existed solely to give some context to the combat and exploration on offer. As a result, FFIV’s gripping tale of betrayal, love, forgiveness, and redemption is chock full of twists that made me tear up and gasp more than once.
In Final Fantasy IV, the narrative never lags or loses its luster as it progresses. On the contrary, the more you get to know the memorable cast of characters who accompany Cecil, the more you’ll relish them and their vibrant world. Sadly, your heart will wrench as several of your new friends die unexpectedly or betray you — novelties among early ’90s JRPGs that still hit hard today.
However, like most JRPGs of its time, this is a decidedly linear tale devoid of meaningful side content and player choice. You tackle the carefully crafted plot points that comprise Cecil’s journey in the same order each playthrough, and nothing you do in-game impacts how events unfold. The game also gives you little to do beyond progressing its narrative; the Pixel Remaster offers none of the remakes’ bonus content, and it boasts only a few short sidequests for special spells and weapons. This version includes a charming bestiary that details the monsters you’ve slain, but it’s rudimentary and oddly accessible only from the main menu. Depending on what you’re looking for out of Final Fantasy IV, its linear nature and this version’s scarce side content may be disappointing.
The game’s wonderfully reorchestrated soundtrack also helps tell its story. An alarming crescendo of trumpets and drums in “Red Wings” accentuates Cecil’s growing apprehension toward his king’s reprehensible commands. Relaxing, cozy tunes of harps and flutes behind “Welcome to Our Town!” underscore the tranquility among the townsfolk Cecil unwittingly decimates. “Theme of Love’s” melancholic yet hopeful flute, piano, and oboe melodies convey Cecil’s longing for Rosa and the simpler life the pair yearns for.
Each of the 46 reorchestrated tracks in this remaster is captivating and breathes more life into the cast and their quest than I’ve ever imagined a soundtrack could. To boot, you can enjoy each track to your heart’s content in the Pixel Remaster’s handy music player, accessible in the main menu. Nobuo Uematsu’s work here is about as close to musical perfection as I’ve ever heard, and it’s reason enough for you to drop what you’re doing and nab a copy of this game today.
Speaking of reasons to dive into Final Fantasy IV: its active time battle (ATB) system was innovative when it debuted in 1991, and it remains a pleasure to play today. Each party member has an ATB gauge that automatically fills up as battles progress. The higher each character’s agility stat, the faster their gauge builds. Once it’s full, the character can unleash a spell, ability, or item of your choosing. Depending on how you configure your battle settings, ATB gauges may build — and enemies may act — while you peruse item, spell, and ability menu options, so you probably need to place a premium on staying focused and acting decisively during battles.
It’s easy to see why JRPGs continue to adopt the ATB system. This simple yet elegant battle system deftly balances keeping you on your toes with giving you just enough time to make thoughtful, strategic decisions. Thanks to the subtle pressure of the ATB system and the relatively challenging enemies inhabiting Final Fantasy IV’s dungeons, I almost always found combat engaging and fast-paced, praise I can heap on few RPGs I’ve played this year. The game’s high random encounter rate (which you sadly can’t adjust) will leave you, too, feeling thankful for how fresh and smooth combat feels.
The game’s boss encounters are standouts and speak to the impressive capabilities of its simple combat system. Bosses’ stats dwarf your party’s, and few can be brute-forced. Instead, nearly all boss encounters require you to think hard on the often-novel mechanics at play, leaving you with a palpable feeling of achievement when you prevail. For example, one boss with exceptionally high physical defense casts Reflect on itself just as the battle begins. (If you cast spells on a character with the Reflect status, they’ll toss those spells right back at you.) A thoughtful player may realize that if they cast Reflect on their party and nuke themselves, those nukes will find their way to the boss and circumvent his reflective barrier. But a less engaged player may assume magic isn’t an option and rely on physical attacks instead. I’ll let you guess which player will spend hours repeatedly reloading their last save in a state of abject confusion.
Nonetheless, first-time players of Final Fantasy IV may find some aspects of its combat system a little too basic. Kain and most of your other melee damage-dealers are armed with few abilities, limiting their tactical utility and sometimes rendering them forgettable during battles. Each of your party members also comes with a predetermined, unchangeable class, and you can’t customize any of their stats, spells, or abilities. Perhaps because I expected Final Fantasy IV to be a story-focused experience, this didn’t dampen my experience. Still, the passive role you play in your party’s development may be a sore spot for players who value shaping their characters to match their preferred playstyle.
High praise aside, a few aspects of Final Fantasy IV betray its age. Thankfully, the Pixel Remaster’s quality of life improvements curb most headaches associated with these blemishes. Like most RPGs of its time, this one requires a few hours of grinding to get past its tougher bosses. And while you’re traversing dungeons, the aggressive random encounter rate will probably pull you into more battles than you care for. This is where the new auto-battle feature and battle speed options come in handy. When you toggle auto-battle on, your party will continually carry out the last command you issued, and when you set battles to maximum speed, several characters can carry out their turns in the blink of a second. These godsends let you wrap up any necessary grinding in a matter of minutes and zip through random encounters you aren’t in the mood for. This remaster also equips you with a minimap that you’ll quickly cherish. If you’re in a dungeon, it lays out your surroundings and labels doors that’ll take you to a different floor, and if you’re in a town, it flags inns and shops. This minimap will drastically cut down on time you may spend wandering around lost, especially the game’s more labyrinthian dungeons.
The Pixel Remaster also layers the game’s already impressive presentation with touches of polish that render it jaw-dropping. The intricately detailed character sprites and environmental backdrops are stunning and help bring this world to life. Spell animations sport a crisp, modern look, reminiscent of Octopath Traveler, and are a joy to behold. Fog, sandstorms, and other weather effects are now visible in dungeons, helping to flesh out their environments without detracting from pre-existing dungeon designs. I didn’t even mind the game’s divisive font, which I found easy to read and never distracted me from events on-screen. Purists scoffing at this remaster’s graphical touch-ups are in luck; you can toggle on a CRT filter that’ll give the game a classic—though rather blurry—look that’s likely to tug at your nostalgic heartstrings.
Even 30 years after release, Final Fantasy IV still shines as brightly as it did in 1991. Its genre-defining story and combat system coupled with the Pixel Remaster’s reorchestrated soundtrack and quality of life updates make this an iconic game you’d be a fool to miss. Much like Cecil struggles with his unwitting role as a killer for his king, I struggle to let go of Final Fantasy IV Pixel Remaster after spending a few dozen hours wrapping up its main quest. If you have even a modicum of affection for JRPGs, you will too.