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If you’ve played Final Fantasy IV, you needn’t tell you that it’s one of the classic Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) of all time. With its in-depth combat system, memorable cast of characters, heartfelt story, and charming graphics, it essentially pioneered the formula that most JRPGs still follow today. But after recently replaying the game, what struck me the most about FF4 was that it took me 21 hours to beat, side quests and all.
Modern fans have grown accustomed to the idea that JRPGs are huge, grandiose, bloated productions that can consume 100 hours of your life or more. FF4 is a stark reminder that this doesn’t have to be the case. During my 21 hours with FF4, the game never dragged on or overstayed its welcome, and left me satisfied rather than exhausted. I started wondering: Are modern JRPGs really better than their ’90s brethren – or just longer?
Revisiting the classics
If you’ve never played FF4, its presentation is extremely simple: you play as Cecil, a dark knight from the kingdom of Baron. He defies a horrific order from his king and embarks on an adventure to pursue the magic crystals that protect the land. Along the way, he teams up with a delightful cast of characters, from brooding dragon Kain, to passionate summoner Rydia, to cantankerous sage Tellah.
The gameplay should also feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game in the past 30 or so years. You recruit a party of up to five characters, then fight hundreds of random battles to level up their attributes and abilities. It’s the game that pioneered FF’s Active Time Battle mode, which forces players to think things through rather than just politely waiting for their next turn.
I first played FF4 when I was in high school, and even then I was impressed by how modern the game was. My first exposure to the series was the flashy and outlandish Final Fantasy VII, and I feared only FF4, with its simpler gameplay and 2D graphics, seems primitive by comparison. Instead, I found a challenging combat system, an involved narrative, and gorgeous sprites. Final Fantasy on NES is where the series was born, but FF4 is where it matured.
A few weeks ago, I purchased Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection on the playstation vita, and played about six hours in one sitting. Right from the start, I couldn’t believe how fast the game was moving. I didn’t have to watch a 30 minute cutscene before I took control of Cecil and started fighting enemies. Kain and Rydia did not have tedious and overly long presentations; they just joined the party and revealed more about their personalities as they went.
After six hours in a modern JRPG, like Xenoblade Chronicles 3, you’re in luck if the story made it past the initial mountain of explanatory dialogue. After six hours in FF4, I had recruited a group, lost said group, and recruited a whole new group to replace them. I had covered half the world map, first on foot, then by hovercraft. I had seen shocking twists, full of redemption, betrayal and sacrifice. I had even faced a big bad guy.
The fast pace of the game continued through to the end, yet it never felt rushed. The story has gained its thrilling climax; each character has a full arc; each dungeon challenged my combat skills. There were three large world maps to explore; there were plenty of optional missions to undertake. FF4 is full of powerful gear and hidden bosses, but you don’t need a walkthrough to find them. The game doesn’t have endless mounds of “content”. Instead, it has a generous – but limited – number of worthwhile adventures.
When the credits rolled and I saved my completed game file, I saw that I had accumulated 21 hours of gameplay, having completed the main story and most of the optional quests. This playtime would be considered incredibly stingy in a modern JRPG, but I couldn’t see how the game could have benefited from being longer. It accomplished everything it set out to do, in terms of story and gameplay, and didn’t consume months of my free time in the process.
Compare and contrast with some modern JRPGs. According HowLongToBeat, personas 5 takes between 98 and 113 hours; Tales of Arise takes between Yakuza: like a dragon takes between 45 and 67 hours; Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes between 41 and 56 hours; 59 and 92 hours. It’s worth wondering how many of those hours are gripping cutscenes and thoughtful gameplay challenges, and how many are just repetitive or wordy presentations.
While some game companies like to brag about how many hundreds of hours their games last, I would say that the length of a game is not that important. We remember the impact of a game, not the time it took us to beat it. That’s why, for example, The Witcher 2, with its 35 hour runtime, is probably as good as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which can last 100 hours or more. The Witcher 3 has more going on, but The Witcher 2 tells a much tighter story.
While there’s no universal perfect length for a JRPG, FF4 is a great reminder that less can be more. Given the choice between 20 hours of good stuff and 100 hours of fluff, which would you rather have?