“True evil will never die.”
As I approached Final Fantasy IV for the latest instalment of this series playthrough (read my impressions of Final Fantasy 1, 2 and 3), I realised it was the first of the pre-PlayStation era entries that I’ve had prior history with. I’ve started it three times over the years, absolutely adored its early premise, but then dropped it for something else a few hours in. That’s never been the game’s fault, exactly, just that I’d always started it in-between releases, then the next big game would drop and take priority.
Regardless, what a great premise it has, opening with the hero as an antagonist, rather than a protagonist.
Cecil Harvey heads a group of elite airborne, the Red Wings of Baron, as under King’s orders they lay siege to Mysidia, the peaceful city of mages, to steal its revered Water Crystal. The Mysdian people offer little resistance, yet slaughter ensues regardless as the dutiful Dark Knight’s team completes its task with bloody aplomb.
On the way back to Baron, Cecil overhears his men trying to reason out their actions. The Red Wings are meant to protect people, not slaughter them, right? He too is uncomfortable with what he’s done, but reaffirms that orders are orders and that Baron’s leadership must have their reasons. Here we see his faith waver, however, even pondering if the recent rise in monster encounters is punishment for the blood on their hands.
Upon delivering the crystal to the King’s court, Cecil’s guilt gets the better of him, and he airs his concerns, resulting in the relief of his duties. Cecil’s best friend and fellow Soldier, a Dragoon called Kain, tries to defend his honour, but he too is given the same fate. They are then sent on a grunt’s mission as punishment, ordered to kill an Eidolon nested in a nearby valley, before delivering a ring to the town of Mist, home to the world’s summoners.
Before venturing out, Cecil confides in Kain, his girlfriend Rosa and long-time friend Cid. He feels cowardly for blindly following orders that play on his conscience, yet he remains torn, given that the King took in both he and Kain as orphans and raised them as his own. All agree that the King has been acting out of character, though, and that his obsession with the elemental crystals, not to mention the lengths that he’ll go to obtain them, is deeply worrying.
Compared to my experiences with the idealistic, prophetic heroes of the previous games (Final Fantasy 1 and Final Fantasy 3 in particular), this scenario of an ultra-loyalist soldier struggling under the weight of his actions was positively fascinating. The fact that Cecil, the hero, is willingly complicit in terrible things, helps to create some enjoyable conflict, which only escalates further.
Compared to the idealistic, prophetic heroes of the previous games… the fact that Cecil, the hero, is willingly complicit in terrible things, helps to create some enjoyable conflict, which only escalates further.
Cecil and Kain complete the first stage of their mission, easily defeating the Eidolon Dragon, but then discover that the mission was a sham. Upon entering Mist, the ring they were to deliver releases powerful fire magic, destroying much of the town and killing its inhabitants. In the chaos, they discover a newly orphaned youngster cradling her mother’s corpse, and are horrified to discover that not only have they just been duped into unleashing fiery death upon unsuspecting innocents, but the Eidolon they had slain was summoned by the girl’s mother to protect the village. In killing it, they had also killed her.
With the bloody reality of their actions staring them in the face, the distraught pair agrees that enough is enough; they must stand against their King. They move to save the girl, Rydia, but in anger she unleashes the might of Titan, resulting in a violent earthquake. Once the aftershocks have subsided, Cecil awakens to find himself separated from Kain and unable to get back to Mist or Baron, thanks to the quake’s impact on the terrain. He also finds Rydia unconscious nearby, and escorts her to the nearest town, Kaipo.
There they take shelter, but their rest is interrupted by Baron soldiers, intent on killing the girl. This is the point of no-return for Cecil as he dispatches his former comrades quickly and easily, winning Rydia’s trust in the process. It transpires that Rosa has also made the trip to Kaipo to warn him of the Red Wings’ powerful new leader, Golbez, who is now continuing Baron’s campaign to gather the world’s crystals. Soon thereafter, it becomes painfully clear that Golbez, not the King, is the true driving force behind all that has gone wrong so far, and wants the crystals for himself, but to what end, no one is sure.
This is where Cecil’s path to redemption – for me, Final Fantasy IV’s core theme – truly begins, as he’s forced to confront his guilt head on.
His biggest test comes after a run-in with a Leviathan at sea leaves him separated from the party and washed up on the shores near Mysidia, the city he attacked in the sombre opening. With no other option, he enters to take refuge, but the magical townsfolk have good memories and, quite rightly, treat him like crap, turning him into all manner of creatures if spoken to. This was a terrific way of engaging me with their dislike of Cecil through action, rather than text, seeing Square continue to explore ways to provide more player interactivity in areas other than combat, and this is one of their better (if still subtle) attempts, not to mention one nicely woven into FFIV’s themes.
Undeterred by, but accepting of, the completely warranted hostility, Cecil seeks counsel from Mysidia’s elders and begs for both forgiveness and help. They, unsurprisingly, refuse, unless he can prove that he has changed by beating the trials waiting on Mount Ordeals. Yup, Mount Ordeals. Hilariously on the nose for a mountain where personal growth happens, but regardless, at its peak, he must let go his aggressive Dark Knight nature and become its polar opposite: a Paladin.
From a thematic perspective, it fits perfectly as the first major step of his soul cleansing, charting the metamorphosis from his role as someone else’s unquestioning weapon, to being his own man with his own purpose. He can still hit hard, but after this reawakening, he can also shield, heal and protect. Now, in other words, he’s a Final Fantasy hero.
As you can probably tell from its opening, Final Fantasy IV features some of the series’ darkest moments so far, and most of the characters that join Cecil have had their lives touched by darkness in some way, and there’s a brilliant disparity in how each of them processes that.
Tellah and Edward are perfect examples, with a shared motivation for joining the fight in Tellah’s daughter, Anna. When we first meet Tellah – a formerly powerful mage that has forgotten all but base-level spells – he’s frantically searching for Anna after she’s run away with Edward, a ‘spoony bard’ with whom she is madly in love. They are engaged, but Tellah is against their relationship and wants Edward’s blood.
Final Fantasy IV features some of the series’ darkest moments so far, and most of the characters that join Cecil have had their lives touched by darkness in some way…
When Tellah tracks her down to Damcyan, where we also discover that Edward is not only a bard, but also the Damcyan Prince, the city is besieged by Golbez and the Red Wings who, predictably, have come for the Damcyan Crystal. In the madness, Anna falls victim to an attack meant for Edward. Tellah blames him and they come to blows, before Anna sets her father straight with her dying breath.
Tellah – who, in his mind, has lost his daughter twice over – is blinded by rage, and against the advice of the others, vows to find the world’s most powerful spell, Meteor, to destroy Golbez. Edward, the sensitive soul that he is, finds himself haunted by Anna’s death, quite literally at one point, with a beautiful moment where her spirit confronts him at a moonlit lake, and pleads for him to carry on. While they share Anna’s death as impetus, I love how differently both approach this mutual loss, with Tellah heading down the path of fury and vengeance, which eventually costs him his life, whereas Edward internalises his pain, taking a more considered approach and helping from afar the best he can.
Rydia too faces some challenges as she strives to get over the destruction of Mist, and this is never more prominent than when the party find a wall of ice blocking their path and she, the only one that knows any fire spells, is reluctant to cast it given the way her life was forever changed by flames. Square nailed a believable, personal struggle here, as she’s torn between helping the others and giving in to her fears. She is gently talked around and reassured by Rosa in what is, really, a minor moment in the scheme of things, but one that really stuck with me.
Sadly, there are plenty of intended emotional scenes that fall short too, especially when it comes to the vapid way in which Final Fantasy IV treats death. One such example comes when, lacking transport, Cecil decides to sneak back into Baron and steal one of the Red Wings’ airships.
Of course, the infiltration hits several hitches, including hostile Red Wings and friends under enemy mind control, and comes to a head when they discover the reason the King has been acting so aggressively: he was murdered and replaced by one of the four Elemental Archfiends working with Golbez, Water Lord Cagnazzo. A battle ensues, naturally, and once the team is victorious, their escape is halted as the Water Lord sets in motion a contingency plan… the group find themselves locked in a corridor with the walls closing in. Classic.
Two endearing child mages, Palom and Porom, who joined the party as something of a pilgrimage, take it upon themselves to prevent everybody from being crushed to death, taking a wall each before turning themselves into stone. Tellah, in particular, is devastated by this. He is old, he argues in a mixture of upset and anger, he should have been the sacrifice. He tries in earnest to cure the pair, but fails, their magic apparently irreversible.
Initially, I found this to be one of FFIV’s more powerful scenes, but its power is sucked away completely as both Palom and Porom feature prominently in end-game festivities, seemingly revived without any explanation. I can’t help but feel that a side-quest to find a remedy would have sat a lot better, especially thematically, and could have easily tied into Tellah’s quest to regain his forgotten spells.
Oddly, such quests exist for characters that faced deaths way more certain, both also reneged surprisingly cheaply. In the party’s adventure beneath the world’s crust, two escapes are possible because monk Yang takes the full brunt of a powerful cannon at point blank, and later, pilot Cid leaps out of their airship, over molten lava, to hand detonate an explosive device.
After Cid’s apparent demise, Cecil takes a second to question why all his friends are so quick to choose death, but this became another hollow moment as Cid is found alive as part of the main questline, being nursed by the Dwarves that rule the underground, while a recovering Yang can also be found as part of an optional side-quest before the end-game. Neither of them explain their impossible survivals despite being asked; both are just impervious to lethal blasts apparently, and it’s only Tellah’s death that sticks and holds any meaning.