For a story-centric game, Final Fantasy IV really moves along. Although there's a substantial introduction before you gain control of the character (probably 5-10 minutes depending on how fast you read), it's both action-packed and introduces a whole SLEW of important conflicts: The long-term battle over the Crystals, Cecil's crimes in Mysidia, Cecil's dismissal from the Red Wings by King Baron, and of course it sets up the first mission to the Valley of Mist.

From there, there's a steady pattern of plot, exploration, and fighting that remains consistent and balanced for the remainder of the game. While dungeons, battles, and plot sequences do get longer and more involved as the game progresses, they never overstay their welcome. Unless you get lost or stop to grind levels, you'll never be out in the wilderness or dungeons so long that you forget about the story. Meanwhile, story sequences are only as elaborate as they need to be to advance the plot, yet are still memorable.

Do you remember the incident in the Valley of Mist when Cecil and Kain arrive at the town with the package? Of course. It's an incredibly dramatic event: You realize you've been duped by the King, the town burns, Rydia is discovered mourning her mother, who is dead because you just killed the Mist dragon. There's a quick struggle and then Rydia summons Titan in a panic, who causes an earthquake. Cecil wakes up in a thicket with comatose Rydia, Kain nowhere to be found.

The entire plot sequence lasts two minutes, then you are on to the next gameplay scenario which involves crossing an overworld desert, fighting alone for the first time in the game. Contrast with early plot sequences in FF7 such as riding the train through Midgar (7 minutes) and the Tifa flashback (5 minutes). That's 12 minutes of game time that involves no battles, no exploring, and minimal plot advancement. Add some additional scripted sequences with Barret and the entire post-mission plot consumes probably 15-20 minutes of game time, not counting of the time you spend on the Sector 8 plate or checking out the shops in the Sector 7 slums.

And it's not an anomaly. FFIV flows that way for the entire game. The Red Wing attack on Fabul sequence: a little over 10 minutes (and involves a lot of battles). The Leviathan attack: 6 minutes. The Dwarf Castle sequence with the Calbrena: also less than 10 minutes. The Giant of Babil: 4 minutes. And again note how all of those involve major plot points.

Even the field-to-battle transitions are snappy in FFIV. Within 2 seconds of a battle initiation, your menus are popping up ready to start playing. This is a major contrast with FF7, where the standard battle transition is about 7-8 seconds or FF9 where there is a whopping 14 seconds of waiting before the battle actually begins. And of course, everyone knows about the lengthy battle animations in the playstation Final Fantasies(especially summons), which are really fun to watch but really slow the game down. In Final Fantasy IV, all of the abilities have creative, detailed animations measured in frames, not seconds.

Taken as a whole, the Final Fantasy IV narrative has no glaring weak points. It's tight and coherent from beginning to end. You can quibble about details, like which characters are best and whether it really matters that Zemus is introduced so late in the game. You can argue that too much suspension of disbelief is required at times and some of the scenarios are absurd. But you can't claim the narrative loses its way. Of the classic Final Fantasy games I have played, it's far and away the best in this regard. Final Fantasy V is basically on par with IV, better in some ways but it's a bit long for my taste. Final Fantasy VII and IX move at a glacial pace. VI would be at the top of the list if we only considered the first half of the game. Once you retrieve the airship after the cataclysm, the story spends all its time with character-specific side-quests and the main narrative never regains its previous momentum. While the character stories and side-quests are all solid and entertaining, the final confrontation with one of the best villains of all time is lacks a proper build-up.


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