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Final Fantasy IV shows how tedious modern JRPGs have become

final fantasy iv
(Image credit: Square Enix)

Welcome! This column is part of a regular series in which we share what members of the Tom's Guide staff are playing and enjoying right now, with an eye towards helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talk about Halo Infinite.

If you’ve played Final Fantasy IV, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s one of the all-time classic Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). With its deep 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 most about FF4 was that it took me 21 hours to beat, side quests and all.

Modern fans have gotten used to the idea that JRPGs are huge, grandiose, bloated productions that can consume 100 hours of your life, or more. FF4 stands as a stark reminder that this doesn’t have to be the case. During my 21 hours with FF4, the game never dragged or overstayed its welcome, and left me feeling satisfied rather than exhausted. I started to wonder: Are modern JRPGs really better than their ‘90s brethren — or just longer?

Revisiting the classics 

final fantasy iv

(Image credit: Square Enix)

If you've never played FF4, it has an extremely straightforward pitch: You play as Cecil, a dark knight in the kingdom of Baron. He defies a horrific order from his king, and sets off on an adventure to pursue the magical crystals that protect the land. Along the way, he teams up with a delightful cast of characters, from the brooding dragoon Kain, to the eager summoner Rydia, to the cantankerous sage Tellah. 

The gameplay should also seem familiar to anyone who's played a Final Fantasy game in the past 30 years or so. You recruit a party of up to five characters, then fight hundreds of random battles to level up their attributes and abilities. This is the game that pioneered FF's signature Active Time Battle mode, which requires players to think on their feet rather than simply wait politely for their next turn.

Final Fantasy on the NES is where the series was born, but FF4 is where it matured.

I first played FF4 when I was in high school, and even then, I was impressed by just how modern it felt. My first exposure to the series was the flashy, extravagant Final Fantasy VII, and I was worried that FF4, with its simpler gameplay and 2D graphics, would seem primitive by comparison. Instead, I found a demanding combat system, an involved narrative and some gorgeous sprites. Final Fantasy on the NES is where the series was born, but FF4 is where it matured.

A few weeks ago, I picked up 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 quickly the game moved. I didn't have to sit through a 30-minute cutscene before I took control of Cecil and started fighting enemies. Kain and Rydia didn't have tedious, overlong introductions; they just joined the party and revealed more about their personalities as they went.

Keep it short 

final fantasy iv

(Image credit: Square Enix)

After six hours in a modern JRPG, such as Xenoblade Chronicles 3, you're lucky if the story has made its way past the initial mountain of expository dialogue. After six hours in FF4, I had recruited a party, lost said party, and recruited a whole new party to replace them. I had journeyed across half the world map, first on foot, and then by hovercraft. I had seen shocking story twists, full of redemption, betrayal and sacrifice. I had even faced off against a major villain.

The game's brisk pace continued all the way until the end, and yet it never felt rushed. The story earned its exciting climax; every character got a complete arc; each dungeon challenged my combat skills. There were three big world maps to explore; there were plenty of optional missions to undertake. FF4 is full of powerful equipment 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'd amassed 21 hours of gameplay, having completed the main story and most of the optional quests. This playtime would be considered unbelievably stingy in a modern JRPG, but I didn't see how the game could have benefited from being longer. It accomplished everything it set out to do, in terms of both story and gameplay, and didn't consume months of my free time in the process.

Compare and contrast to some modern JRPGs. According to HowLongToBeat, Persona 5 takes between 98 and 113 hours; Tales of Arise takes between 41 and 56 hours; Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes between 45 and 67 hours; Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes between 59 and 92 hours. It's worth asking how many of these hours are riveting story cutscenes and thoughtful gameplay challenges, and how many are just repetitive level-grinding or verbose exposition.

While some game companies love to boast about how many hundreds of hours their games last, I would argue that a game's length isn't all that important. We remember the impact a game makes, not how long it took us to beat. This is why, for example, The Witcher 2, with its 35-hour runtime, is probably just as good as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which can last for 100 hours or more. The Witcher 3 has more stuff to do, but The Witcher 2 tells a much tighter story.

While there's no universal perfect length for a JRPG, FF4 is an excellent 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?

In other FF news, Final Fantasy XVI could get a new trailer in October.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi. 

  • timtucker
    While I greatly enjoyed Yakuza: Like a Dragon (and it's very obvious that the development team had a love for classic JRPGS), there was definitely room to trim length -- it could have very easily been shortened to 20-25 hours for the main story.

    Some things that would have helped:
    Shorter cut scenes
    A good indication that many of the cut scenes were too long: when the controller frequently powers off before they're overBeing able to automatically skip extended animations for special attacks
    You could press a button, but you needed to do it every timeBeing able to leave "auto-battle" on
    Again, you can turn it on, but you had to do it for every battleA "fast" or "faster" option for battle speed
    They went to the trouble adding in battle speed option... but only allowed you to slow things downLower costs for equipment
    The series walks a strange line between realism and absurdity:
    Food prices seem pretty normal for restaurants
    Roaming groups of thugs often only give rewards on par with the amount of cash that you might expect them to be carrying
    Convenience store food has convenience store food pricing
    Taxi fares seems a little on the cheap side
    When you go to buy a "nice" box cutter or baseball bat... it can be as much as ¥ 2,000,000?
    Reply
  • Travelguy38
    "Persona 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."

    What?
    Reply
  • Goldfishmind
    Honestly, this article made me realize that it's a trend in media (both games and movies) to basically no longer respect the consumer's time. Early RPGs are great because they tell these spanning stories, generally without being too grindy and without wasting everyone's time with over-expositioning everything, or adding a billion needless side quests (FF4 has some side quests, which you mention, but all of them close or explain narrative loops not directly related to the main story). Now, we have this ideal that longer is better, so games and film will faf about as much as they can, diluting themselves to the point of farcity. We see "engagement time" as the end-all-be-all, actively trying to get people in the created worlds 24/7 rather than simply telling their story and moving on. It's sad, and it's definitely not for the better.
    Reply
  • Unlii
    I am on the last two of playing all of the single player Final Fantasy games in order. I finished FFIV back in May and I honestly didn't like it. The story was fine but the game play just bothered me and I felt like 24 ish hours was still too long. The one I had the most fun with was FF9 with all side quests complete at around 36 hours. FF9, if all you did was play the story and watch cutscenes is about 12 to 15 hours. Sidequests are optional for a reason. What sucks is when a games story drags on till you lose interest (like FFIV). When I beat the last boss of 4, I didn't even want to go back to do sidequests.
    Reply
  • Jojall
    I completely understand trimming the fat from a game, nobody wants useless stuff. That said, if I'm dropping $60 on a game, I want to be able to sink my teeth into it. I don't want 10 or 15 hours, or with some games even less time. Call of Duty can get away with that because most folks play multiplayer, but when it's a single player only JRPG, all you have is what you have. If other players want so little, I can respect that and more power to them, but games can be massive and good.
    Reply
  • Philll
    Come on! There is a very obvious and hypothesis busting reason you're talking about FF4 and not FF1. There are PLENTY of short games out there. You're more than welcome to keep playing them over and over while we enjoy our longer games.
    Reply
  • timtucker
    Goldfishmind said:
    Honestly, this article made me realize that it's a trend in media (both games and movies) to basically no longer respect the consumer's time. Now, we have this ideal that longer is better, so games and film will faf about as much as they can, diluting themselves to the point of farcity. We see "engagement time" as the end-all-be-all, actively trying to get people in the created worlds 24/7 rather than simply telling their story and moving on. It's sad, and it's definitely not for the better.

    One of the things that has changed over time is the difference in development time -- it takes longer and longer to create the general world and environment for a modern game.

    The majority of people involved in these projects aren't writers trying to tell a story -- they're artists & developers sinking their time (sometimes years of their time) into creating a setting for telling stories in.

    Using Yakuza: Like a Dragon as an example, the side quests / sub-stories are often just small vignetes focusing on a story that only tangentially relates to the characters. Ultimately, though, all of them boil down to "because <insert convoluted reason> you need to beat someone up", with some kind of minor in-game reward for completion.

    The stories fit in with the world and the game engine seems very well suited to delivering them, but I'm less sure that an RPG is necessarily the best format for telling them. On the other hand, I'm not sure what the incentive would be for completing them or how they might be packaged without the context of the larger game.

    Assassin's Creed Odyssey seemed to experiment with this a little with their "Story Creator" mode where anyone could use the platform to tell their own stories. Despite the potential, though, most of the stories turned into either a series of crass jokes or just a thin excuse for farming xp & gold.
    Reply
  • Joe-wise-hunter
    admin said:
    Final Fantasy IV pioneered the formula for modern JRPGs, and even after all this time, it could show the newcomers a thing or two about pacing and storytelling.

    Final Fantasy IV shows how tedious modern JRPGs have become : Read more

    Sorry, but this article smells overgeneralization and oversimplification, with a dose of nostalgia. There are also games thare are huge and earn their time, and games that are short and feel like do would be better if things were flashed out more.

    The how long to beat pointing at Persona 5, ok. The game(s) takes time because they have life simulation elements, which adds to the experience the franchise ains to provide, not merely filler. Xenoblade games takes time because their worlds are huge, and as a matter of fact, some of the most beautiful and full of things to explore there is, far from what should be considered filler.

    That comparision between the beggining of FF4 and Xenoblade 3 is just silly. While many things are listed one your brief time there, truth of the matter is, none of them holds the same weight as an all out war with each side killing each other for more life spam, with races and two worlds from two previous games in a build up story of 10 years that Monolith Soft crafted with the Xenoblade series. Do not disregard cutscenes as mere downtime when talking about super well crafted cutscenes in a story with a lot of background.

    Furthermore, many times when people say some RPGs waste their time with griding, that is actually on them and not the game. Some people resort to level up to face challenges in the story when this is actually the less desirable approach to face these challenges, equivalent to mindless bruteforce. The actual mean you are expected to deal with it is through good management of equipments, attack options, accessories, classes, party composition and proper strategy, that is, you know, playing well. If you nail that, level is not much of a barrier.
    Reply
  • Horomancer
    One thing being forgotten here, is limitations. Stories had to be much more condensed due to hardware. Had FFIV been developed from the ground up, on any of the last few to generation cycles, it would have likely been a longer game.

    It is also a matter of personal preference. People who play a lot of games, usually for work, tend to look more favorably on shorter games, so they can move on to the next one. The biggest fans of JRPGs like to stay in the world longer, not just speed through them. To fans, side quests and grind are part of the experience.
    Reply
  • jibothegray
    this article is based on a fallacy. there is no such thing as a modern jrpg, at least not any that could be considered "AAA", final fantasy was the last jrpg and it was thoroughly dead by 15.
    Reply