Final Fantasy IV: The After Years--Better Late Than Never?
Eighteen years later, Square-Enix decided to release a Japan-only sequel for cell-phone. American gamers had grown accustomed to Square-Enix milking their franchises after the merger, but this cell phone-only sequel came as a surprise to many. Most RPG fans probably didn't care that the game wasn't going to be released outside of Japan, because many of them cut their teeth on FFVI and FFVII, but I remained somewhat curious, since FFIV cemented my love of video games at a young age. Normally, I'm not a fan of Square-Enix's practice of churning out sequels, but I made an exception for this game, despite being disappointed with FFX-2 and Crisis Core. This game interested me not only because of my love of FFIV, but also because I had conjured up a sequel to this beloved game during recess in 5th grade. Fourteen years later, I was curious to see how the sequel turned out. I never expected Square-Enix to release Final Fantasy IV: The After Years in North America, but to my surprise, they announced its impending release for WiiWare in early 2009. Fast-forward a few months to the busiest week of the video game industry when we are inundated with information concerning new titles, and FFIV: The After Years sneaks by us faster than Locke.
Even though I'm a sucker for game news and all things E3, my first priority on June 1st was to download and play FFIV: The After Years. 800 points and a short download later, I was ready to experience the sequel to one of my favorite games. I fired it up, and was immediately treated to a scene reminiscent of the beginning of FFIV. That infamous scene featuring Cecil and the Redwings was the first thing that came to mind when I was flying over the seas as Cecil's son, Ceodore. Ceodore is a knight-in-training, who is on a mission to obtain an emblem so he can prove himself as a knight and capable member of the Redwings (Baron's elite air force). He is accompanied by Biggs and Wedge, who were notably absent from FFIV, but appear in many later entries of the Final Fantasy series.
Many RPG fans play Final Fantasy for the story, so I won't spoil any important details. Instead, I'll give you my impressions of the game.
Final Fantasy IV: The After Years occurs in the same world as its predecessor like FFX-2, so many of the in-game locations will be familiar. Seven years have passed however, so characters from the previous game have grown older, and new predicaments have arisen. Cecil's son, Ceodore, is the main character of this downloadable episode, so you'll experience the adventure through his eyes. He possesses skills similar to his father--he can wield a sword and has the ability to cast healing spells. Ceodore is not a Paladin, but rather, he's inherited abilities from his father, Cecil the Paladin and his mother, Rosa the White Mage. Throughout the journey, you'll encounter familiar characters as well as ones that are entirely new to the franchise. Some of the new characters have altered move sets, so you'll have to use vastly different battle strategies in some cases. In addition, the battle system has been altered in a couple minor ways. It's still an Active Time Battle System featuring gauges that illustrate whose turn it is, but new moves such as combination attacks have been added. These attacks are similar to techs in Chrono Trigger--two or more characters combine their powers to unleash a powerful attack on the enemy. These attacks come in handy during a few situations, but they are rather scant, so get used to using the same moves frequently.
Another change made to the battle system is the addition of the moon. A second moon has appeared in this sequel, and its state will alter the effectiveness of various abilities. When there is a new moon, characters' magic power increases, while their attack power decreases. Conversely, when the moon is hidden from the naked-eye, the opposite will occur. The game will make you aware of when the state of the moon changes, and you can also alter its state by camping or staying at an inn.
These minor gameplay changes aside, The After Years plays similarly to its predecessor. The battles can be extremely difficult, so it's important to be quick (if you have the game set on active), and you also need to use the appropriate ability for the situation you're in. Veterans of FFIV will have an easier time, because all the in-game enemies are straight out of the original, and they still have the same weaknesses. Fighting battles regularly is important; otherwise, you'll lack the funds to purchase equipment and you won't stand a chance against the game's difficult enemies.
The After Years keeps FFIV's legendary difficulty intact, but has much else changed since the release of the original? The short answer is, no. The After Years sticks closely to the formula pioneered by its predecessor in everything from its graphics to the storyline. Unlike the FFIV remake for DS, The After Years' graphics are similar to those found in the original FFIV. The sprites have been redone and the game runs in widescreen, but you could easily mistake it for the original. The world map looks just as you remember it, with a couple extra caves here and there and the town layouts are close to those of the original. The battle backgrounds have received a minor upgrade, but they're nothing too fancy. As for the character sprites, they've been altered and some of the characters look considerably different, but don't expect an FFVI or Chrono Trigger quality upgrade.
One disappointing aspect of The After Years is its blatant regurgitation of the music from its predecessor. Don't get me wrong, I thought FFIV had an excellent soundtrack, but it just seems lazy to reuse songs we've heard numerous times. It'd be okay on occasion, but The After Years relies far too much on music we all heard eighteen years ago. The sound quality has improved a bit, but the lack of new songs is disappointing. There is one new song, but the quality doesn't really compare to the original, so I suppose that is what Square-Enix was afraid of. It would have been nice to see some new music, but at least the classic FFIV music will tickle your nostalgia bone.
I promised that I wouldn't give away plot details, but I would like to briefly discuss if The After Years' plot lives up to FFIV's legacy. It isn't quite what I imagined as a kid, but I actually enjoyed it. There are plenty of references to events from FFIV, so fans who are still crying over a certain sage's death and remember the burning of Mist vividly will probably enjoy this game. However, if you were expecting a drastically different storyline and new lands, you'll probably be disappointed.
Coming into FFIV: The After Years, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know how long it would be, and I was unaware of the fact that The After Years is an episodic game. I was expecting a quest of at least ten hours, but all I got was a measly four hours (well, 3:52 actually, and that's including the ten minute credits). The length of The After Years is certainly disappointing considering that it's an $8 game, but it might be worth it if you're itching for a unique Wii RPG. I only recommend this game if you loved FFIV--otherwise, you're better off saving your Wii Points.
After downloading the game, I immediately noticed that another episode was available. In the in-game menu, there's an option to download content. As long as you're connected to the Internet, it'll take you to the downloadable content without having to go to the Wii Shop Channel. FFIV: The After Years is an eight part series, but so far, only two episodes are available. After completing the first four-hour episode that ended at the worst possible moment (Halo 2 was nothing compared to this), I immediately proceeded to download the second episode.
The second episode features Rydia and begins in the underground world. You won't find answers to lingering questions from the first episode, but you do get to experience another short quest. Rydia's adventure is shorter and more difficult than Ceodore's, but it more accurately reflects its price, as it's only 300 points. Unfortunately, I found this episode disappointing in comparison to the first.
The first episode had a nice balance of story and dungeon crawling, while this one is almost strictly a grind. It's fun revisiting certain locations, but it's not fun encountering difficult random battles almost every step. In this episode, Rydia lacks her summon powers, and she only has a paltry list of black magic spells. Her physical attack is pretty much worthless and your comrades are fairly weak until you gain approximately 15 levels, so it is important to exercise caution and save frequently. You'll also want to search for an easier side dungeon and equip yourself with better armor once you have the necessary funds. If you're not a highly skilled player, be prepared to hit the game over screen a few times. What makes this episode especially hard is that there's no healer. You'll have to rely on items, so it'll be necessary to fight difficult enemies, blow your money on items, and repeat until you're strong enough to conquer a dungeon.
Most of this episode consists of fighting, so don't expect much plot until the end. Like the first episode, Rydia's Quest ends in a terrible spot, but I'm sure Square-Enix did that to make you want the next episode. Rydia's episode left a sour taste in my mouth, so hopefully the next episodes (if they're released) improve upon their predecessor and remain relatively inexpensive. I want to experience the whole The After Years experience, so to me, it was worth a purchase, but for everyone else, you'll have to decide if less than three hours of grinding is worth the 300 points. The time-to-dollar value of Rydia's episode is certainly better than the initial episode, but personally, I'd rather have a more expensive experience with a fair amount of plot rather than a grind that does little to enhance the FFIV experience.
Long story short, you'll only want to pick up this game if you're a rabid FFIV fan. Everyone else would be better off admiring Reggie Fils-Aime at E3.