It would be very difficult to not recommend Final Fantasy IV. Even though it's not the very best in the franchise, being second-best for Final Fantasy is often far better than any other comparable game, and this particular installment ranks pretty highly among the franchise's titles.. That also makes it hard to criticize a remake, as Matrix and Square Enix would have to take some pretty severe steps in the wrong direction to spoil the experience. That said, let's just get it out of the way: this is a great game.
That doesn't mean that this particular version is great -- it just means that the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV is built on an excellent foundation. But it's not exactly the game you remember, and if you didn't play it, it's also pretty far removed from many of the other RPGs on the system. The result is an odd hybrid of old school and new.
It's difficult to get a good fix on the remake of Final Fantasy IV from screenshots and video, but that very blend of styles is very apparent in the overall look of the game. The backgrounds are simple and gorgeous -- there are no complaints that could possibly be made on that aspect -- but because they do look so good, they serve to make the characters look a little blocky and less polished. Worse, they seem to clash a little. The 3D characters just look out of place. It's never bad, but it's certainly odd, and not always as attractive as it might have been. One place I always liked them, though, was in the battle animations. There are also some neat touches; for instance, background characters who originally all used the same sprites also all look the same here.
The gameplay has been adjusted a little as well to fit in with this old vs. new idea. Final Fantasy IV is very linear and many things, like party make-up, depend on where you are in the story. This doesn't give the player a lot of options. One of the new additions to the game adjusts this in an excellent way: you can now give characters a single ability from another character. Someone exits due to a story shift? No problem. This also expands on the game's replay value, which is admittedly lacking, since it's an RPG (but don't worry; you won't need to replay it, as it will take you long enough to complete the first time).
The other addition is the new summonable ally, and that's where the mini-games come in. Yes, that's right: they've put mini-games in Final Fantasy IV. This was by far my least favorite addition. It almost feels like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the DS, since the game doesn't capitalize on the system's unique features.
One of the best things about Final Fantasy IV will also be the worst thing for some: the revamped difficulty. The game, which was never easy, is now difficult enough to be downright grueling at times. We were warned about tweaks to the bosses, but the warning didn't go deep enough. Prepare to try, try again ... and to try strategies that are different than those you attempted a decade or more ago. Personally, I found the new boss battles to be a real treat, but it does take some time and some thought to get through them.
One area in which the remake definitely shines is in its sound. You won't regret picking up the headphones for this one. While not everyone will like the voice acting, surely everyone will agree that the score is rendered beautifully here. Final Fantasy IV doesn't have the best music of the series, but the DS remake makes it sound like it might give any other version a run for its money.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy IV feels a little extraneous. It's pretty, but not pretty enough, and it hardly makes use of the strengths of the system. Considering that the last version of this seminal game debuted less than three years ago -- and is playable on the same system, though without the 3D graphics or the newer touches -- it's hard to guess just what purpose this game serves. Unlike Final Fantasy III, IV didn't really need anything. The changes are interesting, and there are some improvements to the game ... but there are also some drawbacks. Matrix did a good job with the updates, but it also feels like Square Enix is edging toward a bit of laziness with these remakes. Final Fantasy IV is a great game, and this is a good version, but whether or not it's great will depend on how much you feel like playing what is still a pretty linear, and very difficult, RPG.
Final verdict: 8/10