FF4 is a surprisingly quick game (completed in under about 17 hours played.) There are a few points of real difficulty, but even those can be breezed through by simply doing fights as they come. I reached the end game on the moon at about level 57 across the party by the time we used the crystal in the last fight. Simply knowing how the Active Time Battle system works this time changed the whole world. I knew what counters were used by what monster; Behemoths were no longer a long, drawn out fight once I realized they countered every hit with a nasty attack. Rubicant was no longer a stopping point once I realized how his cloak works; and the water turtle demon Caganazzo, or whatever, was a push over.
Even without cheating and letting myself be back attacked on Mount Ordeals and wasting a turn swapping rows and not doubling back to use a tent wasn't really all that bad. Zeromus was difficult, but solely because Rydia had 2000~ HP (she ate all our HP apples) and would take 1800~ from Big Bang. This meant that Rosa's turn was either Curaja or waiting until Big Bang and then Curaja.
So, what did FF4 bring to the series? Characters are now actually characters. We tried to do this with FF2, but the NES was just a fairly weak platform to really do that. Kain and Cecil get the most development, but even Rosa and Rydia have moments and growth. In doing this, though, we lost a lot of the flexibility that made FF1 to FF3 fun. Characters are locked into a role; yes, Rosa can shoot her bow or spam Holy, but then who is going to heal? Even with the PSP remake letting me trade out my end party, the only real question is whether I take Rydia or Palom; Rosa or Porom; and then two of Cid, Yang or Kain. Edge and Edward, for all their speed, are just a bit too fragile for me to want to bring with us. With enough money, you can probably substitute Edward for your healer, but at that point it really wouldn't matter much at all, would it? (For the record, my end party was: Cecil, Kain, Yang, Rosa and Rydia.)
A lot of things worked really well in FF4, but the feeling of being constrained and knowing that my party was a fluid, changing thing, kept me from ever really slowing down to smell the roses. I never wanted to waste time on people who would be leaving soon. In FF5, we're going to see Squaresoft try and address these problems by giving us characters with customization, looking back to the job system of FF3 and truly realizing it to its fullest. But, that's not to sell FF4 short. Our characters integrated their skills into their personality; little Rydia learning to cast fire is fairly sophisticated, for an SNES Japanese RPG.
Next, we'll be playing through the Interlude and the After Years.
Go on now and finish your Christmas shopping.