Nostalgia is one thing, but a completely broken game is something else entirely. Know what you're getting into.
So you can imagine the excitement I felt when I heard that Square-enix was making an official sequel to the game and placing it on the Nintendo Wii's virtual console service. Not only would I be able to dust off my long forgotten and unplayed Wii system, but I'd finally get to see my favorite JRPG hero, Cecil, return to kick some monster tail.
Before I continue, I should mention that this game is only available in parts that don't fully come together until each section of the entire game has been purchased. While "Final Fantasy: The After Years" is essentially an episodic game, the episodes were released so close to one another that I didn't feel slighted by their delayed releases. Unlike other games (Half-Life 2) I was pleased to see a new "chapter" released every month. Though the individual chapters themselves are quite short, the bonus dungeons you can visit after beating a chapter's main storyline take three times as long to complete as the quest itself. This is good if you're bored or masochistic, but might be a bit too much for the casual player. I only cleared two of them and the treasures I obtained weren't really anything to get excited about.
While the equipment is plentiful, the first thing I truly noticed was the music. While most of the game's soundtrack is populated with perfectly emulated recreations of the original SNES title's music, there are quite a few new tracks that are worthy of mentioning. Specifically the final boss music and the creepy tune played during the visits you have with the "Mysterious Girl" that stalks you throughout the game. While these new melodies are welcomed and appreciated, they are done on modern hardware and tend to stick out quite drastically when sandwiched between two 16 bit chip tunes. It's almost comical when you hear what amounts to a MIDI file immediately followed by something that sounds like redbook audio from a PS2 game.
Still, this game is about story, and story is what you'll get.
Taking place almost two decades after the original Final Fantasy 4, After Years introduces the player to characters both new and old. You'll see Cecil's insecure son Ceodore, Yang's tomboyish daughter Ursula, Dwarf King Giott's Ax-toting princess Luca, King Edward the Bard's useless secretary Harley, Palom's shy student Leonora, and Edge's four Ninjas in training. The new characters all play some role in the story and have new sprites and in some cases, new abilities to use in battle.
Like a well written daytime soap opera, Final Fantasy 4 and it's sequel, After Years, never disappoints in the JRPG drama department. I felt a rush of nostalgia as Edge recalled his battle against Rubicant and once again faced the demons of his past. I laughed when a minor character at the end of the original SNES title's ending vignette for Palom and Porom turned out to be a major NPC in the sequel. I even found myself jumping up and cheering when Kain finally admitted what a failure of a man he was and found a way to atone for his many sins.
Without a doubt, The After Years is a nostalgic Final Fantasy Fan's dream come true and should be played by anyone who owns a Wii. Even if it's only to see the large cast of new playable characters that are thrown into the mix.
Unfortunately, the new characters never out perform or become as useful as the original Final Fantasy 4 heroes. No matter how much you level them, they'll never become as powerful as the heroes they were born from or serve. Ursula will never out damage her father Yang, none of Edge's Ninja students will get a decent amount of hitpoints, Leonora will always die from one hit and Luca has pathetically low magic resistance which destroys her usefulness in the game's later stages. The only exception to this rule is Cecil's son Ceodore, who actually becomes one of the best front line fighters available.
Still, it really aggravated me that the new characters, who were so original and fun to use, were also so unfathomably weak. I found myself wanting to use a party full of them (Leonora, Luca, Ursula, Tsukinowa, and Ceodore) but their hitpoint totals were so depressingly low that leveling them required Kain, Cid or Yang to babysit them and absorb all of the incoming damage. Even when leveled, they were still significantly weaker than their elders, which took away a lot from the game's potential since the last few dungeons were so incredibly challenging that I couldn't afford to use them. Though I did play most of the last two chapters using nothing but "new" characters, I caved in near the final dungeon's last floors and dug out old faithfuls Edge, Kain, Rydia and Rosa. Though I understand the reasoning behind the new guys being weaker than the veteran warriors, I still think the they should have been made a bit tougher to give players a reason to use them.
Which brings me to where this otherwise fun game starts to crumble. The difficulty.
Though the bonus dungeons at the end of each character's chapter are incredibly tough and almost impossible to complete due to restrictions placed on leveling, the game's final two chapters make them look like child's play. For instance, When playing as FuSoYa and Golbez, you are constantly finding yourself smacked for several thousand points of damage and yet you are stuck using two very poorly equipped and inadequately defended mages who die after two hits. To complete Golbez and FuSoYa's quest you have to literally cast nothing but healing spells every round and hope Golbez hits their weak point with whatever elemental spell he's casting or else you'll be sucking dirt two rounds into every fight.
This only gets worse in the game's final chapter when even at level 80, your very best armored characters will die in one or two hits from *normal monsters*.
Don't even think about the bosses either, most of whom get auto-counter attacks and cast meteor every round without any warm-up or apparent penalty. Even the normal randomly generated enemies have unfair advantages, since a good portion of them can attack 3 to 5 times per round, forcing you to build up money and buy 99 Elixirs just so you can revive people in a timely fashion without waiting for your White Mage to cast the needed restorative magics.
Which is assuming that the moon is in the right phase for your magic to be useful.
Adding a bit of unneeded complexity to the game is the moon phase system which tries to emulate Persona's own similar system but fails tragically. The moon phase in After Years will either increase or decrease certain abilities in combat, resulting in you merely using another tent to rest so you can get to the one moon phase that basically does nothing but raise attack power. The other moon phases, which gimp your white or black magic or cut your physical damage in half simply add too much difficulty to battles that are already imbalanced.
It may sound like I'm exaggerating or that I'm some unskilled gamer who can't play the game properly, but I am telling the truth when I say that even the infamously difficult Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne wasn't this hard. After Years is the first Wii game that caused me to throw my wiimote, a problem usually attributed to Wii Sports Bowling!
All joking aside, After Years is incredibly imbalanced. Encounter rates are through the roof, enemies get ridiculously quick and frequent attacks every round, mostly everything has one-hit kill unblockables, and many bosses are made in such a way that they auto-cast 3 or more spells before the battle even starts. It's especially bad when one of those spells is haste and the other is Meteor. Long time Final Fantasy fans know how deadly a combo that would be.
Simply put, Final Fantasy: The After Years is an unnecessarily difficult and needlessly frustrating JRPG that takes the ease of play and relaxing nature of the game its a sequel to and unceremoniously throws it out the nearest window. While it makes a great effort to introduce new gameplay thanks to the Chrono Trigger-esque band system (which makes sense, since Chrono Trigger director Takashi Tokita reportedly worked on this game) and the inclusion of new attack modes such as Ursula's Tenketsu option, it's brought down by the poor balancing and the built-in late game obsolescence of the new characters that possess these abilities.
While some folks may think the recycled music, 16 bit sprites, or repetitive locations are what drags down this title, I find that its only real flaw is its lack of discipline in game design. Like some sloppily crafted RPGmaker title born out of the imagination of a teenaged boy without anything better to do, After Years spends too much time telling a story and not enough time getting the required RPG fundamentals down pat. When you have to grind experience levels for 5 hours just to beat a boss, you've taken the fun out of your game and replaced it with tedium. Granted, the last Shin Megami Tensei game was guilty of that, but at least your win against a boss was primarily due to pre-fight preparation. In Final Fantasy The After Years, wining is dependent on whether you have more maximum hit points than the boss has in first-hit attack strength.
Now I know why there are a few dozen threads online about how to trick the game into giving you hit point modifying items.
Your enjoyment of this game depends not only on how fondly you look back on the original Final Fantasy 4, but also how patient and masochistic you are as an RPGer. If building levels for a week, reading item farming guides, and reloading saved game files every 5 minutes is your idea of fun, then this game will give you everything you want and more.
If, however, you want the same relaxing gameplay found in most of the pre 3D Square RPGs, you may want to just watch a longplay of the game on Youtube.
The story is great, but the tasks needed to see it to the end are enough to send your Wiimote flying across the room in frustration and anger.