Final Fantasy used to be my favorite video game series of all time, and several Final Fantasy games still rank among some of my favorites ever made. Almost every one of these games Square released was a mega-hit that surpassed the one that came before it, and even the ones that weren’t were interesting experiments. Final Fantasy, for a time, was the opus of Square’s catalog.
Now, I’ve briefly mentioned Square-Enix in this blog before and my distaste for the way they’ve handled some of their recent titles, specifically in the Final Fantasy series. Back in the 1990s, Square (pre-Enix; that merger wouldn’t happen until the early 2000s) was the developer for RPGs on consoles. But right around the time of the merger with Enix, Final Fantasy began to unravel.
The series’ budget had been ballooning for a while, but it really began to skyrocket starting with Final Fantasy X, and along with that increasing budget came a sense that Square was more interested in making a game that was marketable than a game that was good.
The stories and characters started to feel focus-tested for a teenage Japanese audience, and the gameplay became steadily less and less complex (though it’s worth noting that FFX’s combat system was probably the best in the series).
This trend culminated with the Final Fantasy XIII “trilogy” (yes, they made two sequels to one numbered sequel; I’ll get back to that in a minute), which dumbed the gameplay down to the point where the game barely demands (or seems to want) player input, and paired it with stories that are literally among the worst pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.
Each FFXIII game has seen steadily worsening sales, which has reportedly prompted Square-Enix to reconsider the path they’re taking with Final Fantasy. I sincerely hope this is the case, but given what has become of the series, I won’t be holding my breath.
However, in between FFX and the present, Square, desperate to stay afloat after the disastrous bomb that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within destroyed the newly-formed Square Pictures and left the studio teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, accepted a loan from Sony and merged with long-time rival RPG maker Enix to stay afloat. Yet, this was still not enough to return the studio to profitability, and so they broke with long-standing tradition and decided to make a direct sequel to FFX.
Prior to this decision, each Final Fantasy game had been unrelated, plot-wise, to the previous installments. Though they shared common gameplay elements and the same creative team, each game had a different cast, world and story. However, hard-up for cash, Square-Enix decided to make a sequel to their mega-hit, Final Fantasy X, and thus Final Fantasy X-2 came to be, and opened the door for other direct sequels.
And like most sequels, the majority of these were terrible. FFX-2 was the first Final Fantasy that was almost universally agreed to be a genuinely bad game; it basically threw everything that was remotely good about the original game out the window and replaced it with fanservice, bad J-Pop, tedious mini-games and side-quests, and (somehow) an even worse localization.
But, riding on the hype of FFX and combined with the fact that the game re-used so many assets from FFX that it cost a fraction of what the first game did, FFX-2 was massively profitable for the newly-formed Square-Enix. As a result, almost all other FF sequels have followed suit.
That being said, there is one notable exception to this trend, and that is Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.
Originally released as a cell phone game before the iPhone made cell phone gaming an actual market with some viability, After Years eventually received a US release on the Wii as a downloadable title, and has since been ported to the PSP, iPhone and Android platforms.
And it’s no surprise that the game has performed well, selling more than 3 million downloads as of 2009; out of all the direct Final Fantasy sequels, After Years is the only one that somehow manages to truly capture the spirit of its predecessor; it feels as though it was written and designed by people who played and loved the original game just as much as fans did.
In brief, Final Fantasy IV (original released as Final Fantasy II in the US, due to the actual II and III not seeing localizations until the 2000’s) was Square’s first project on the Super Nintendo, and it also marked a substantial departure from the three games that came before it.
Final Fantasies I through III were among the earliest console-style RPGs, and told rather simplistic stories where the characters had little to no identity or personality. The characters in those titles were fully customizable; you got to choose their names and their roles in the party according to how you wanted to play the game. They were games more focused around the battle system and exploring dungeons than they were on telling an overarching narrative.
By contrast, Final Fantasy IV marked Square’s first foray into making a truly story-centric title. Its characters are non-customizable and have names and defined personalities and backgrounds and the plot is driven as much by the characters and their personalities as events.
Granted, its story is still rather simplistic and wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical Saturday morning cartoon at the time, and the original localization wasn’t much better than just running the game’s script through Babelfish, but that was still more ambitious than anything most other video games had attempted at that point. As a result, it had a tremendous impact on a generation of young gamers, and is still a beloved classic to this day.
So, Square-Enix and Matrix Software (After Years’ co-developer) had a lot to live up to in making a sequel. And surprisingly, rather than mess with a winning formula, they opted to make the sequel as much like FFIV as possible. In terms of visuals, gameplay, music, and even story structure, After Years borrows as much from its predecessor as it possibly can. And after having lived through the harrowing experience of popping a Final Fantasy X sequel in, only to be greeted by this:
I can’t adequately express how grateful I am that Square-Enix declined to re-invent the FFIV wheel and ruin it in the process.
The gameplay is almost identical to that of FFIV: you command a party of up to 5 adventurers, exploring an overworld map, towns and dungeons on your way to your next objective to advance the story. Along the way, you’ll be confronted by random monster encounters, as well as planned boss battles at the end of most areas. You issue orders to your party in turn-based battles, taking advantage of their unique abilities to formulate a strategy that will allow you to win.
The flow of the game is very basic, and the battle system is virtually identical to that of FFIV, save for a few key tweaks.
The Active Time Battle (ATB) bars that dictate when your characters go are now visible, much like they were in all subsequent FF titles that used that system, so it’s easy to tell when your characters will get their next turn. You can also see a visual representation of how long it will take a particular character to execute a command, which takes the guesswork out of planning around the casting of a particular spell or ability.
Another change is the Moon Phase system. As you play the game, the moon shifts through different phases; a shift will happen after enough time passes, or any time your party sleeps in a Tent, Cottage or Inn. Depending on what phase the moon is in, one kind of battle command with be strengthened, and another will be weakened; for example, under a Full Moon, physical attacks will be weakened, but Black Magic will become more potent.
The Moon Phase system adds an additional level of strategy to the game, as each party member will be more effective in particular phases, and players must plan around the phases to maximize their characters’ strengths. Also, monsters are subject to the phases of the moon as well, so a skilled player can weaken a tough boss monster and strengthen their own characters by fighting it during the correct phase.
I think the Moon Phase system adds a great deal of depth to the game, but it can be annoying having to waste Tents just to advance the moon to an advantageous phase, especially in the portions of the game where you’re stuck with a fixed party of characters.
The final major change to combat is the Band system. Anybody who’s played Chrono Trigger will be instantly familiar with this concept; the Band system allows characters to perform powerful team attacks, provided that all characters involved have enough Magic Points and are able to act.
Unlike Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs, however, characters won’t instantly learn Bands simply by being in a party together and knowing the requisite skills; players have to manually try to discover Bands with those characters in a party together. On the one hand, I like the feeling of experimentation that this encourages.
On the other hand, pretty much anybody who picks this game up is just going to look up a list of Bands online, so the manual search aspect just becomes pointless busywork. Either way, I do enjoy the depth of strategy this opens up, especially once you’re able to choose your party members towards the end of the game and can decide how important Bands are to you when forming a team.
The graphics, sound and music are almost completely identical to FFIV’s as well. The character sprites have been completely redone (they look more akin to FFVI characters than FFIV), but the monster sprites, spell effects, towns and dungeons are almost all recycled from FFIV with minor tweaks and smoothing, and a few new locations and creatures added for good measure. The sound effects and music are also mostly recycled, with a few original melodies here and there.
I know that sounds incredibly lazy, and to be completely honest, it kind of is, but it actually does work with this game. After Years is all about revisiting the past, finding out where these characters have come in the intervening years, and having them revisit familiar locations and experience familiar sights and sounds is appropriate and feels right here.
And this game is very much a retro trip; when I say it plays almost exactly like FFIV, I mean it, including the high level of difficulty. The random encounter rates are through the roof, battles will wear your characters down and wipe them out if you don’t take the time to grind for experience and money every so often, and boss battles (as well as late-game regular battles) will quickly wipe the floor with you if you don’t react fast and with the appropriate strategy. In short, it’s very much an old-school RPG, and you’ll either like that or you won’t. Personally, I found it to be a welcome return to form.
While the game has a lot going for it, the one thing that really doesn’t work is the pricing. You see, the game is broken up into several chapters that must be bought piecemeal, each one dealing with a particular group of characters and telling their portion of the story.
The WiiWare version of the game costs about $8.00, and that includes the first two chapters. Each subsequent chapter has to be purchased for an additional fee, adding up to a grand total of $37.00 for the whole game, which, for a title that’s essentially a glorified ROM-hack of FFIV (albeit an excellent one) is borderline extortion.
Frankly, I’d recommend picking up one of the other versions of the game over the Wii version if you’re interested; even the iOS version is a better deal at $15 (though I can’t vouch for how it controls with the touch-screen).
You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about the story so far. There’s a reason for that; namely, that it’s impossible to go too much into my thoughts about the story without revealing massive spoilers for both FFIV and After Years. And honestly, if I try to go too far into my thoughts on the story, I’d be writing this forever. I know because I started to do an analysis and it added roughly 3 pages to the review before I’d even begun to scratch the surface.
Suffice it to say that the story of After Years makes perfect sense in the context of where our characters were left 17 years prior with the end of FFIV. Everybody’s position and development in After Years fits their character perfectly. There are even some interesting reversals (Kain and Cecil, in particular, each end up in much the same position the other was during FFIV). And while the reveal of the game’s new villain is kind of odd and a bit cliche, ultimately I think it fits the story, and really, that’s the most important thing.
These characters all feel like the same ones we fell in love with so many years ago, and the resolution to their stories feels satisfactory and more conclusive than the finale of FFIV did. And after suffering through sequels like FFX-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that completely butchered the characters whose stories they were supposed to be continuing, that’s incredibly welcome and refreshing.
If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy IV, definitely give this game a shot. It’s more of the same, and that’s a very good thing. If you aren’t a fan of Final Fantasy IV, then this won’t do anything to change your mind. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy IV…well, what are you waiting for? There are plenty of different re-mastered versions to choose from, so pick one up and play it!
Personally, I like the 2008 DS remake; it’s got the best localization, the best version of the combat system, and plenty of added secrets and side-quests to keep you busy. And if you don’t have a DS or 3DS, the 2008 version was recently released for iPhone and Android, so it’s easy to come by.
I’m still feeling nostalgic, so next time we’ll cover another game that’s a real blast from the past. Until next time!