Final Fantasy IV has been my nemesis for the past 13 years. I first played it back in the summer of 2004, shortly after the Final Fantasy Chronicles collection was released, but despite having all the time in the world that summer I never finished it. FF IV turned out to be much harder than I expected, with nearly every boss stomping me into the ground so thoroughly that overcoming a challenge left me feeling weaker and less able to face the rest of the game. I didn't emerge feeling any more competent and able than when I went in, and the game would only get more difficult as I progressed. Each boss felt increasingly insurmountable, until I hit the wall that made me put the game down for over a decade.
It was a literal wall, too. The exact moment I quit was the Evil Wall encounter at the end of the Sealed Cave, a boss whose future counterparts (known later as Demon Wall) had previously given me trouble in Final Fantasy VII and would later harangue me in Final Fantasy XII. Neither of those incarnations proved a run-killer though, and they have nothing on the original. Turn by turn the Evil Wall would creep closer, doing little more than gradually petrifying my party members and striking out with rather pitiful attacks, all while I desperately raced to burn down its health before it could come too close. My every attempt ended in failure: Evil Wall would reach the finish line first, and proceed to massacre my party within seconds.
I wasn't failing for lack of strategy: the fight is little more than a DPS race, and I lacked the damage output to overcome the soft-timer on the encounter (soft because you can defeat Evil Wall after it reaches your party, but you can only get in a handful of attacks in that time). I knew the solution was simply to grind out levels until my party was strong enough to defeat the boss, but at that point FF IV had forced me to repeat a cycle of grinding so often that I couldn't stomach another go around the block. The bulk of the game had followed a pattern wherein I would grind for a couple hours, defeat a boss, make a bit of progress, get slaughtered by new boss, grind for a couple hours, repeat. When my options were to either repeat the cycle an unknown number of times more before finishing the game, or set it aside and play Chrono Trigger (also included in the Chronicles collection), I made the sensible choice and put Final Fantasy IV back in its sleeve.
It remained a constant burr in my mind over the years that followed. I finished up high school, joined the Marine Corps, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, went to college, earned a pointless bachelor's degree, and spent a depressing amount of time searching for gainful employment. Yet through all of that my thoughts would occasionally return to Final Fantasy IV, and I would be nagged with a sensation of incompleteness. That I had given up on something so inconsequential when I had completed so much else over the intervening period left me almost disappointed in myself, specifically because I refused to face such a frivolous challenge. I still had the disk but had lost my save file at some point, meaning I would need to brave the entire experience over again. The specifics of the game were lost to me (save for Evil Wall), but there was enough of a psychic impression that I couldn't think about FF IV without developing a knot in my stomach, and I refused to undertake the challenge from the very beginning.
Then Curt and I started our LP channel, and as we were planning out what we would like to do with it we came up with The Year of Final Fantasy: every main-line Final Fantasy, excluding FF III due to its having never been released on a console in the west, played through in a single year. I knew going in this meant I would need to face FF IV once and for all, and nervous though I was I also took comfort in the idea that my memories were probably skewed. I told myself I had inflated its difficulty in my mind, that I really only had trouble with the singular boss, that I just didn't know how to play this entry properly, etc. etc. My next attempt would benefit from experience and maturity; should experience and maturity fail me, then living in the future meant I could just turn to the Internet and find a way to cheat my ass off.
Both hypotheses were false: Final Fantasy IV was just as difficult as I remembered, and the internet failed to turn up anything which could be considered an out-and-out cheat. The best hope I could find was a mild leveling exploit about 40% through the game which allowed me to level Cecil, and by extension three of the four other permanent party members, to a degree which largely trivialized everything leading up to the final boss. This reduced the pain from encompassing most of the experience, meaning the only truly difficult portion was the period of time between the Mountain of Trials and the Tower of Zot, with the final boss being one last drop-kick to the liver.
My party came out of the Tower of Zot a living chainsaw, cutting down packs of enemies within seconds and hardly allowing bosses to finish their monologues before descending on them in whirling fury. I no longer needed to grind after every boss, I didn't feel obligated to run from every pack of enemies in order to preserve resources, and even my dreaded Evil Wall was demolished before he could cover more than half the distance toward my party. Only Zeromus, the final boss, provided any real difficulty: though I managed to defeat him on my first attempt I only just pulled through in a photo-finish, which terrified me with thoughts of how much trouble I would have had with him had I not known about the leveling exploit.
So far I haven't said word one about any aspect of this game other than its difficulty because, as I said in my first paragraph, this game is hard. Not challenging, just hard. A first-time player will be punished swiftly and repeatedly as I learned back in 2004, and as I learned again almost fifteen years later. Your party composition is constantly mixed up with new members of wildly varying quality; enemies don't seem beholden to the ATB system the way you are, meaning they can often get multiple attacks in before you, even when you have the initiative; and the challenge ramps up in excess of your power gains, as each new area yanks the rug from under your feet and leaves you feeling meek again. The leveling exploit I mentioned above is essential for completing this game in any sort of bearable fashion.
Final Fantasy IV should be known for ushering Final Fantasy into the narrative-driven experience it is now famed for. Its characters have histories with one another and with the world they inhabit; there are machinations outside the initial understanding of the player and the heroes which gradually reveal themselves over the course of your shared journey; characters learn and grow from their experiences, and few end the game the same as they began. It also gives us the first Hawt Boiz in Final Fantasy history to get all bothered over.
It should be known for all that, but my own anecdotal experience has borne out that it is known first and foremost for its difficulty. I've relayed the story of my crushing defeat at the hands of Evil Wall specifically, and FF IV generally, to several people in my adult life who are familiar with the title, and they've all had horror stories of their own to relate. While turning to the Internet in preparation for my playthrough I came across even more stories, which did nothing to assuage my fears. The Steam message boards for the version of FF IV available on that platform contained a particular tale which chilled me to my core, of a player who had leveled his party into the mid-80's and still could not beat the final boss.
Ultimately I triumphed. I defeated Zeromus just after midnight on January 1st, 2017. While he shook and faded from the screen, I did not feel as though I had completed a grand journey, but as though I had pulled victory out of my ass. While the final cutscene and closing credits scrolled by I found myself distracted by a curious sensation. It was satisfaction I knew, but it was not the manic sensation one normally associates with satisfaction: not the decadent high of sugar or the ecstatic rush of sex. The satisfaction I felt was the sort which accompanies the completion of a duty. It was the satisfaction of finality. I had overcome my nemesis, and I would never need to play Final Fantasy IV again.
Final Fantasy IV ushers the series into its modern era of engaging narratives and rich characters, but the story experience is likely to be impeded by the high level of difficulty. If you plan to break through to the end, be prepared to spend a long time fighting Marionettes.
Addendum: then I had to play it again
Well shit. There I was sitting high and mighty, then I went and fucked up. I beat Final Fantasy IV, cut the videos down into fifteen episodes, knocked them all out with Curt, and immediately after uploading the first five videos I went and deleted the remaining ten. I deleted them thoroughly too! According to the recovery software I used in an attempt to retrieve the videos, the space where they initially existed was immediately overwritten by other videos I deleted at the same time. Why were those other videos moved? Hell if I know. All I knew is that I suddenly had one week to replay FF IV in its entirety, edit back an approximation of the lost videos, record dialogue for them on my own (I wasn't about to waste more of Curt's time), and get them uploaded.
You know what? The second time around wasn't so bad. It turns out the trick to this game is to take it slow and steady. You still need to take advantage of the leveling exploit in the Tower of Zot, but the bosses which had given me trouble before were marginalized by taking a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach. Baigan, for instance, gave me much trouble during my first successful playthrough and proved that my memories of the game's difficulty were not inaccurate. As I rewatched the footage with Curt I realized that most of the damage I was suffering was coming from my own party members as their spells were reflected off of Baigan's body. In my second playthrough I simply didn't cast spells on him after he began casting wall on himself. Instead Tellah was a dedicated healer while Palom took potshots with his staff. My party was no stronger than it had been when I first beat Baigan, yet the difficulty was negated by a methodical approach.
Zeromus was even taken down a peg by emulating the tortoise above the hare. Rather than trying to keep everyone alive to ensure I could put out as damage as quickly as possible, I sacrificed Kain and Rydia and relied upon Cecil's physical attack and Edge's throw ability to put out the damage I needed. While they chipped away at him I would queue up Rosa and wait for a Big Bang to come out, then immediately dump a Cure 4 on my party. I didn't try to anticipate Big Bang, I didn't make any attempt to resurrect fallen members and lose valuable healing on my standing members, I didn't value expediency over attrition. I kept my party healthy first and foremost, to the point where Edge became a dedicated healer once he ran out of items to throw, leaving Cecil as my only damage dealer.
I also came to realize that Final Fantasy IV's difficulty isn't too high; rather, its difficulty curve is too steep. There isn't enough content between bosses to prepare your party for each subsequent challenge. This is actually a comparatively short game, which worked to my advantage during my emergency recording session, but that brevity is detrimental to a new player. The ability to make your way through a dungeon does not mean that you are prepared to face the boss of that dungeon, and there's only so much wandering in place one can do before the desire to progress is snuffed out for a decade.