Great Moment: Climbing Final Fantasy IV's Mt. Ordeals

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

I find Cecil interesting, which is not something I can say for many other video game protagonists. For instance, he's in a solid, mature relationship with a strong woman right off the bat. And from the very beginning, he's grappling with a clear moral dilemma--break his oath and step down or continue slaughtering innocents in the name of the Empire? It's evident that Cecil has a lot in his mind right from the beginning, which is all the more impressive for the fact that he's only a tiny 16-bit sprite.

In fact, there was a lot going on with Final Fantasy IV's story in general. The cast is huge, and the heroic sacrifices and heroic twists almost constant. But the best moment happens early on, when Cecil climbs Mt. Ordeals with the twin mages Palom and Porum in a quest to shed his darker half and become a Paladin.
At this point, RPG fans should know this sequence by heart, but here's how it goes anyway. Cecil heads to Mt. Ordeals, where he encounters Tellah, who's on his own quest to learn Meteor and avenge his daughter. Before reaching his trial, Cecil's party is attacked by the Archfiend of Earth in one of the first really difficult battles of the game – a battle momentous enough to warrant its own theme. Finally, Cecil is forced to look in the mirror and literally confront his evil side.

One of the things I really like about this sequence is the strong buildup. Cecil's ambivalence about the actions of his king are made clear from the outset, and it's apparent that he'll have to answer for his crimes at some point. So when the payoff finally arrives, it's extremely satisfying, even if it takes place relatively early on.

The other thing I really like about the battle is the boss fight itself. I scarcely remember the other Archfiends, but Scarmiglione stands out clearly in my mind. His battle includes just a bit of extra tension thanks to a scene in which Golbez dispatches the fiend to take out Cecil's party. Particularly worriesome is that Scarmiglione's minions are members of the Undead, making them immune to Cecil's attacks.

After the initial shock of Scarmiglione's appearance, he does his best to lure you in a false sense of security, showing up with a few undead minions who can be quickly dispatched with Fira and Cure spells – no problem at all there. But then comes the first "oh crap" moment in the game, when Scarmiglione comes back twice as angry, and actually launches one of the ambush attacks that are such a pain in random battles. The mages are exposed, regular attacks are neutered (not that Cecil is much use in this battle anyway), and on top of that, Scarmiglione is wielding powerful poison attacks. As boss battles go, the fight against Scarmiglione is the hardly the most difficult in the game, but it does serve as a bit of a gut check, setting expectations for what's to come. Not only that, it only serves to highlight how weak Cecil is as a Dark Knight.

The scene that follows is one of my favorite in the series – maybe my favorite RPG scene ever. After a few lines of dialogue, Cecil is transformed into a Paladin, then action shifts to a battle scene, where he faces himself as a Dark Knight. Not much has to be done here – simply defending against Dark Knight Cecil's attacks are enough – but even this relatively simple interaction is enough to drive home Cecil's transformation. That, and the fact that it's played to the tune of "The Red Wings," which is suitably heroic.

I think modern Japanese developers can learn a lot from this scenes. It's an important moment in the story, but it relies on short, punchy moments rather than overly long in-game cutscenes. It also drives amplifies the moment in a lot of subtle ways, the most notable being that it's interactive. There are similar moments in the game to come – Final Fantasy VII's jaunt through Cloud's mind, for instance – but none of them come off quite as well Cecil's transformation in Final Fantasy IV. It's a strong moment that doesn't overstay its welcome, which makes it remarkable among its peers.

The scene on Mt. Ordeals ends up being the high point of Cecil's arc, which would ordinarily be depressing. But from there, he steps back a bit to allow the rest of the cast to shine, at which point Final Fantasy IV turns into a highly entertaining ensemble adventure (something Final Fantasy has always been good at). A lot of great moments follow Cecil's trial on Mt. Ordeals, but because it's so rare that I really get wrapped up in an RPG's story, that is the moment that always comes to mind when I think of Final Fantasy IV. Proof, if anything, that subtlety can trump even the largest budgets and the latest technology.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.