Unlike the GBA remake, the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV clearly outdid itself in its efforts to renew and update the game. Not only does it provide most of the characters with shiny CG embodiments and showcase them in a lovely introductory cinematic, it also introduces voiced cutscenes. That’s right, every party member now has a voice. And while most of them are a good fit, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at how much deeper than the others Kain’s voice was. It really does border on the jarring: I would have expected this kind of bass on a villain, not on one of the game’s heroes. It also creates a very stark contrast with Cecil’s youthful tones. It may have been intentional, but as a result, Kain sounds older and Cecil younger than they really are.
If you remember FFIII DS, then you’ll know what to expect from the graphics, even though the character sprites are a tad more realistically proportioned this time around. It’s nothing breathtaking, but it does give the world more depth, movement and realism than flat 2D backgrounds. The combat screen has been uncluttered, moving the characters’ HP, MP and time bars to the lower screen. Moreover, there is now a blue help box on the lower screen as well: when your cursor points to a specific ability in the combat menu, it will give you a brief description of what the ability does. Some more renaming has also taken place for items and abilities (e.g. Porom’s Tears ability is now called Cry). More significantly, an Auto-Battle feature has been introduced, possibly to facilitate level-grinding: just set a default action for every character (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Attack), press a button, and they will automatically perform these actions in every battle you run into. Obviously, the system has its limitations, since, if something goes wrong, you still need to intervene manually, but it does give your thumbs some breathing space on easy battles.
There have also been several more significant changes. Firstly, combat difficulty has unmistakably been increased, presumably so that veterans don’t get too complacent. So don’t be surprised if some encounters leave your characters picking their teeth up off the floor. Secondly, several short storyline segments have been added, mostly to develop Golbez’s background, but also to give more details about Cecil’s, Kain’s and Rosa’s friendship. While it’s nothing spectacular, it does give those characters more presence. This is especially beneficial for Golbez, as it serves to somewhat alleviate his ‘faceless villain in scary armour’ image. Thirdly, you can now listen in on characters’ thoughts. When in the field, bringing up the main menu will also show what the current party leader is thinking at that moment. This has no impact on the storyline, but it’s an entertaining way to flesh characters out a little more. The thought bubbles also get updated on a surprisingly frequent basis.
Last but not least, several characters’ abilities have been modified. Most notably, Edge learns more Ninjutsu spells, and Edward learns more songs, which you can now freely choose from the menu. On top of that, his Heal ability (now called Salve) will no longer split one single Potion among all party members, but use one Potion per character, which is much handier if the party needs a quick pick-me-up, but will also eat through your reserves faster. Cid gains an extra ability called Upgrade, which allows him to use an item to give an elemental property to his weapon. Possibly more trouble than it’s worth, but it does add to his bag of tricks. Yang’s Focus command can now be stacked up to three times to further strengthen the resulting attack. Fusoya’s Regen command has been renamed as Bless, no longer prevents him from acting in combat and restores MP instead of HP.
Rydia has been given an extra summon, which she already knows as a child and will retain as an adult. This little fella, dubbed Whyt, behaves differently than other summons, in that he will replace Rydia in combat for three turns when called upon. You can’t directly input commands for him, but you can select a batch of abilities for him to choose from prior to combat. On top of that, he gets his own small sidequest and comes with some customisation options. His default appearance is a small, white, sickeningly cute humanoid figure with a smiley face and a bowtie. You’re free to change his facial features by drawing some new ones yourself. Moreover, you can improve his stats by playing a set of five mini-games, each featuring one of the final five party members. They become available when the character in question joins the party (in Cecil’s case, he has to become a Paladin first), and each controls one stat: Rydia’s for Intelligence, Rosa’s for Spirit, Cecil’s for Strength, Kain’s for Stamina and Edge’s for Speed, with a high score of 9999 for each game. Obtain 9000+ three times in a row, and the corresponding stat will be maxed out. Obtain 9999 at least once, and Whyt will unlock the corresponding character’s costume, which he can then wear. Two more costumes are also available for completing a New Game+ and completing the bestiary.
Essentially, this means that Whyt can become very hardy in combat. Problem is, while Rydia’s, Rosa’s and Edge’s mini-games are tolerable in terms of difficulty, Cecil’s and especially Kain’s are a massive pain in the rear end. To give you an idea, it took me seven hours (non-continuous, of course) to manage to get the mandatory high scores for Kain’s mini-game. Up to you to gauge if it’s worth the hassle. Unless you want bragging rights or really enjoy the challenge, it probably isn’t, since, despite his beefy stats, you still have no direct means of controlling Whyt, and he has no proper equipment to enhance these stats.
Everything related to Whyt’s customisation is managed via Fat Chocobo (and, amusingly enough, the one on the Lunar Whale is now a robot). Since inventory space is no longer limited, this is certainly a way to rehabilitate its usefulness. And if that weren’t enough, it’s now also in charge of the bestiary, a music player and even a cutscene theatre. Talk about multitasking. But the Fat Chocobo isn’t the only one who’s undergone a job change. Since you can no longer change characters’ names (due to voice acting, which means they now pronounce each other’s names during cutscenes), Namingway–who now looks somewhat like a bunny in a red hoodie–also needs something new to do. And so, he’s involved in an extensive sidequest that spans the entire length of the game. He still travels all over the world, but each time the party encounters him, he’s involved in something different and changes his own name in accordance. He notably gradually unlocks the Fat Chocobo’s various functions, but also provides the party with a special, self-filling map. In practice, this means that every time the party enters a new area, they will have to map it out. And to provide incentive, every newly completed map grants a reward in the form of consumable items.
Completing the Namingway sidequest also earns you two Augments. Those are arguably the single most significant change introduced by the DS remake: items that allow a character to learn new active or passive abilities. Since the developers must have decided that the ‘pick your party at will’ system introduced by the GBA version was a bad idea, the temporary characters are no longer available for recruitment in the later stages of the game. However, in order for them to not completely go to waste, they will now leave behind a certain number of Augments upon departing (from one to three, sometimes depending on how many Augments you gave them prior to that), usually reflecting their special abilities. E.g. Palom and Porom will leave behind two copies of Twincast, thus allowing any two other characters to learn this ability. You may also gain Augments from certain bosses or sidequests, thus giving your party access to even more, previously unavailable, abilities (such as Scarmiglione’s Curse, for example). Each character can learn as many augments as you wish, but only four of them can be activated (i.e. picked in that character’s battle menu) at any given time. Needless to say, this opens up vast possibilities of customisation, especially since some of these Augments have a visible effect on the characters’ stats after level 70. You might want to look up a guide if you want to reap the best results from Augment distribution without having to figure it out yourself.
In particular, Augment distribution depends on yet another change introduced by this remake: the New Game+ feature. When you finish one playthrough, you’ll be allowed to keep all Augments, minigame highscores (and thus Whyt’s costumes and stats) and certain items for your next playthrough, up to a total of three consecutive playthroughs (if you do a fourth one, you’ll have to start from scratch). Obviously, this makes each playthrough easier, especially since most Augments can be obtained again, and the subsequent duplication will allow some characters to cough up more Augments. There is a purpose to this, of course, as this remake also introduces two brand new optional superbosses for your butt-kicking pleasure: Geryon (a combination of all four elemental fiends) and Proto-Babil. They may not have the luxury of inhabiting optional dungeons, but I assure you, without the proper Augment setup and equipment, it’s your party’s butts they will be kicking, rather than the reverse. Especially Proto-Babil.
To sum things up, this is an excellent remake, as opposed to its lacklustre GBA predecessor. While I may not be particularly fond of the mini-games, or of the fact that you need to play the game at least twice to be able to take on the optional bosses with any degree of confidence, I can’t deny that the developers genuinely tried to breathe new life into the game and work different angles. I may have preferred keeping the ‘personal trials’ optional dungeon from the GBA version instead of one of the optional bosses, but this is a minor nitpick. If you’ve never played FFIV before, I would definitely recommend this version. If you have played it before, I recommend it anyway.