Jun 15 2009 2:52pm

Review: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

In 1991, a humble 16-bit video game changed the way we look at interactive storytelling. That game was Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System). Before Final Fantasy IV’s arrival, video game narratives were rarely more complex than Plumber collects mushrooms, kills turtle, saves princess; or Boy with sword collects triangles, kills pig wizard, saves princess. Generally you had a world, a silent protagonist, and a goal, and once the last monster was slain, the damsel-no-longer-in-distress gave our hero a smooch and the credits rolled. Final Fantasy IV gave us twelve playable characters working cooperatively, each with unique skills and vivid personalities, each with his or her own (sometimes conflicting) goals and motivations. The Dark Knight Cecil, our protagonist, commits genocide in the first hour of the game. Thus begins a tale of betrayal, love, and redemption that spans three worlds. Mainly sword and sorcery, Final Fantasy IV incorporates dwarves, spaceships, ninjas, the Bible, Norse mythology, and steampunk, and not one element feels inorganic or out of place. The game is a sweeping epic in the echelon of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, with a script richly written and hundreds of pages long.

Now, after eighteen years, a direct sequel has been released as a WiiWare title—Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. A lot has happened since we left our heroes at the end of the first game. Most of them are world leaders living busy but peaceful lives. Our new hero, Prince Ceodore, is about to become a knight in the kingdom of Baron, which is ruled by his parents Cecil and Rosa, protagonists of the original game. Returning from Ceodore’s knighthood test, his airship is waylaid by monsters and crashes. All aboard are killed save Ceodore, who encounters a hooded man determined to see the prince safely back to Baron. On their journey, they encounter familiar faces, old dungeons, and new adventures.

The updates are slight, and at first glance The After Years looks exactly the original SNES title. But there are differences—though many of the maps are the same, the characters have gotten a bit of an upgrade, putting the imagery on par with Final Fantasy VI. There are a few new innovations to the battle system, including a “Bands System” that allows characters to make combined attacks with their teammates, and an “Age of the Moon” option, which adds bonuses and penalties to certain abilities depending on whether the moon is new, waning, waxing, or full. It sounds silly, but it adds a degree of complexity to an otherwise simple battle system that encourages the use of characters and abilities that most players would otherwise neglect.

If you’re more accustomed to the streamlined control of more recent console RPGs, The After Years may feel a bit clunky. There are also some balance issues. At times you feel like battles are impossible to lose, and other times you’ll be forced to spend a good chunk of time leveling up because your characters are grossly underpowered. One upside to this is that the menus load quickly, so when the same giant bird kills you fifteen times in a row, it will only feel like he has killed you eleven times.

Despite these speed bumps, there is no denying that this is an authentic Final Fantasy game. Produced by scenario writer of the original Final Fantasy IV, Takashi Tokita, The After Years presents many of the tropes so beloved by fans of the series—an anti-hero is redeemed, a boy comes of age, a close friend dies, an extraterrestrial calamity threatens the survival of the planet. Yes, The After Years feels like Final Fantasy, which is an important quality some of Square-Enix’s recent spin-offs (Dissidia, Crisis Core, or even FFXII) have lacked.

What really makes The After Years unique is how you acquire it. It is available only for download on the Wii. For 800 Wii points, you receive the first three chapters of the game where we follow Ceodore with a few cutaways to Cecil and Rosa, Kain, and other heroes from the original. After the first three chapters, other chapters are available for download for 300 points each. Currently, only one additional chapter is available—Rydia’s Tale: “Eidolons Shackled”—with a few more coming out in July, and others in August. The final chapter, where you can import save data from the previous chapters to retain power levels, items, and weapons, will reunite the cast and thrust them into the climax of the game, for an additional 800 points. Some fans are grumbling about this development, feeling cheated. But these first four chapters gave me about ten hours of gameplay without attempting the super hard optional dungeons at the end of each chapter, so working out the math on that, the full game ends up costing the same as a mid-list new release for the DS or Wii, and you get the same amount of content. Seems fair from where I’m standing.

If you read the blogs, some of these complaints will sound familiar. Similar arguments are going on with regards to downloadable movies and books. In Japan, chapter one of The After Years was available free for download, and this idea of breaking up an RPG into chapters, like a comic book or TV show, is innovative. The concept of expansion packs is not new to games. First-person shooters, real time strategies, flight sims, and RPGs all have them, but Final Fantasy is particularly well-suited to this style of release. The series has always been more like an interactive video novel than a free roam tabletop RPG. Only a few chapters in, I’m already reeling with speculation of what will happen next.

The best part is, it’s your call how to play. Buy just Ceodore’s chapter, or buy them all, or play just your favorite supporting character’s chapter, but skip Edward’s, because he’s just a spoony bard.

My score: 8/10

William Frank
1. scifantasy
...I think this may qualify as the first reason I would seriously have to consider buying a Wii.

(Or any latest-generation system, really, because nothing on PS3 or Xbox 360 grabbed me. Hell, I never managed to finish Final Fantasy XII.)
Dan Sparks
2. RedHanded
I just got done replaying Final Fantasy IV on the DS, and this will be great to play as a follow up. I suppose while I'm waiting for new chapters to come out I could just level my characters up to ungodly levels. Final Fantasy II is what got me into RPG's in the first place.

@1 I never finished FFXII either, I couldn't figure out how to do the special Quickening(?) attacks, then again I never put that much effort into it.
Paige Bruce
3. jhae
I'm looking forward to this. There's something nostalgic about classic games and this one still has the 16-bit feel to it!

I'm still debating whether my Wii was worth the money I spent on it, but I won't deny that there are some very fun games for it and I've enjoyed having it.

@2: The Quickenings were tricky, but once you get the hang of 'em, they're fantastic.
Richard Fife
4. R.Fife
@2 Yeah, I second @3's remark. Once you learn how to chain like 12 together, it gets pretty awesome. It was honestly probably the only good thing about that game.

@0 Thank you, you finally pushed me over the edge, I need to get a wii now ; ;
Luke M
5. lmelior
Curse you! When you posted your first RPG review, I lamented that yet another of my favorite sites are taunting me with games from systems I don't own (yet). I later said that my first and favorite RPG ever is Final Fantasy IV. So what do you do? You review the sequel! While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?

I don't have a Wii, but I have a question for anybody who has a Wii and follows WiiWare: do the prices ever change? That is, are there ever any sales? If not (like the Playstation Network), cue rant about pure digital distribution system here. Hopefully, though, this is released as a full game at some point, perhaps on the DS?
Marcus W
6. toryx
Is the original Final Fantasy IV (or II for those of us who had the SNES in the US) available for download for the wii?

I'd love to get these follow-up chapters, but I'd rather play the original again first. It's only been about fifteen years since I last played it.
7. Ford75
@5 - I have never seen the prices change on the wiiware/Virtual console games. Usually just the one price.
(And I doubt they'll do a bundle for download; perhaps on the DS down the road. but they havent' done a bundle on the Final Fantasy: My Life as King sets).
8. Ford75
@7 - no, none of the FF's are available on the Virtual Console yet (though, #1 is supposed to be coming this summer). FFIV is available on the NDS/DSi though.
Jeff Soules
9. DeepThought
Man, FFIV remains like my totally favorite game ever. To the extent that I even played multiple fan-retranslations on an SNES emulator on my computer. I was originally hooked on the (likewise more complex than the scrollers) Dragon Warrior series and FFI; but IV took it to a new level of story and complexity that the series never matched in my opinion (whatever the FFVII fanboys may have to say about it).

Makes me wish I had a DS.

A nit--this actually isn't the first continuation of the FFIV story--nobody remembers it any more, but there was an ill-conceived and poorly-received Gameboy release way way back in time, when Gameboys were not yet museum relics. Actually, come to think, that gives the lie to the claim that FFX-2 was the first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy title! Hah! See, this game was such a terrible idea that not even Square's marketing department remembers it.

Anyway, everyone should play Final Fantasy 4. It's the gold standard for the 90s RPG genre; and if it hasn't held up in particular areas (repetitive combat systems and a little bit of inevitable grinding) it's still the game that made all of the best elements of subsequent JRPGs possible.
Luke M
10. lmelior
For replaying, I highly recommend the DS version. The breakdown is as follows:

- The original SNES version was dumbed down for American audiences. Several items and most special battle commands were removed for simplicity, the random encounter rate was reduced and weapon and armor abilities and stats were enhanced to make battles easier, and hidden passages were highlighted in blue so we wouldn't get lost.

- The PS1 version restored much of what was taken out, added a couple CGI scenes, and improved the translation.

- The GBA version removed the CGI and added extra dungeons and weapons, allowed you to change party members after a certain point so you can use all of the characters that you lost, restored plot points from the original Japanese version and greatly improved the dialogue, changed names to match the current spell and item naming convention (e.g. Fire3 became Firaga), and slightly improved the graphics (enhanced the color mostly).

- The DS version removes the extra dungeons and weapons but switches to full 3D, includes voice acting, includes mini-games, replaces the character-switching system with the "Augment" system (where you can give your current characters the abilities of characters you lost), and includes some brand new scenes.

If you want the SNES look and feel however, then the GBA is probably your best bet. Just be aware that there are some glitches in battles. The order in which your characters' ATB bar fills up is lost sometimes, so it can trip up your rhythm when the one you expect to act next doesn't get to. Also sometimes the character gets to act twice in succession even though their bar hasn't filled up. Occasionally there is a frustrating delay between the bar filling up and the menu popping up too. Lastly, the item duplication trick doesn't work in this version unfortunately (only the original). ;)
11. Magellan
I am currently playing FF VII (Crisis Core) on my PSP. It is very good, and has the look of "Advent Childred".
Kimberly Woods
12. Calli
DeepThought @9:

You don't mean the Final Fantasy Legend series or Final Fantasy Adventure, do you? Neither are related to the Final Fantasy series at all -- the name was just tacked on for Western audiences. The FF Legend games are the first games in the SaGa series, and FFA was the first Seiken Densetsu (Mana) game.

Other than those, I can't dig up any FF Gameboy games.
Eugene Myers
13. ecmyers
@ 5

I haven't seen any sales on Wiiware titles through Nintendo, but they sometimes offer "Wii points" at a lower price, which adds up to some meager savings. Games are priced according to the original "system" for the Virtual Console, or according to the developer's whims on Wiiware. I have seen Amazon offer a sale price for a game before, World of Goo, I believe. It's also worth noting that another person with a Wii can send you games as a gift, so you could always hint heavily to your family and friends when an occasion turns up :)

I have no regrets about owning a Wii, except that I don't have nearly enough time to play it. If I hadn't already owned the system, I would have purchased it for Mega Man 9 alone. The upcoming remake of A Boy and His Blob, based on the NES game, looks like another winner.
Matt London
14. MattLondon
@6 A recent replay of the original adds to The After Years experience, for sure. I'd give a thumbs up to both the GBA and the DS remakes.

I wonder if FFIV served as a gateway drug into scifi/fantasy literature for anyone besides me. Share your stories, everyone!
Richard Fife
15. R.Fife
Mmm, I remember Final Fantasy 1 being a strong gateway for me, along with some of the best movies of the 80s (Last Unicorn, Flight of Dragons, Dragonslayer, Labyrinth, etc).

I do recall spending many many hours on FF2(snes)with my big brother, and when we finally managed to kill the final boss, it was almost dinner time and my mom was yelling at us to come to the table while we ignored her and watched the ending.

On an aside, I actually just got done playing FF2US on my SNES emulator. Alas, my brother who lives 1000 miles away from me still has the actual cartridge.
Joe Sherry
16. jsherry
You spoony bard!!!!

Outstanding, sir. I was trying to figure out what The After Years was and this is perfect. I won't get to play this for a while, but I'm excited for this.

I don't mind the breaking up into chapters and having to pay for it, provided that the price tag matches the gameplay. $8-$11 for 10hrs (approximately) is decent given that other NES and SNES games are available for around the same price and you get arguably less for it. Plus, you can be a level-whore and really pump up your characters for the future installments.

More than any other Final Fantasy game, I've long wondered what happened to the characters from FFIV.

Oh! Anyone play Secret of Evermore? Cecil makes a cameo on that one.
Jeff Soules
17. DeepThought
@Calli #12 --

No, I remember playing those, and they were unrelated (FF Adventure was practically a Zelda game, no?)
This was something REALLY obscure. I remember seeing screencaps in Nintendo Power or something -- it had King Cecil as a general, fighting a new wave of monsters with cannons. I never played it (obviously) but it looked kind of like a precursor to the FF Tactics series (not that I ever played that either, tho').

Perhaps the game cartridge only reappears once every twelve years or something? :)
Kimberly Woods
18. Calli
jsherry @16
Yes! I played Secret of Evermore (and beat it, though apparently I missed the extra secret stuff after the end), and I'm one of...*quick count*...three people I know who'll admit liking it. It used to get a lot of undeserved flack because it wasn't FFV or the next Secret of Mana.

I still think it's one of Jeremy Soule's best soundtracks. Maybe it's just me being a softie for quality 16-bit game music.

DeepThought @17
Screenshots could easily have been an April Fool's prank, or a hoax, or even an actual title that never got past early development. I've put my Google Fu skills to work trying to dig up info on the web, but I'm not finding anything substantial. This is the sort of thing the diehards would have latched onto, too, so I'm guessing it's one of the reasons I mentioned (unfortunately).

You do mean the original Gameboy (or its 8-bit color iteration) and not the Gameboy Advance, right?
Joe Sherry
19. jsherry
@18 - Cecil was before the conclusion and was a merchant (I think) in one of the last towns. I'll admit to liking the game, too - though this may be because I've never played Secret of Mana (I'll get my chance w/ the wii virtual console sometime in the future). It wasn't the best thing ever
Kimberly Woods
20. Calli
Oops, I didn't mean to imply Cecil was part of the post-ending stuff -- I know he's in the shop in Ebon Keep. The post-ending stuff was more along the lines of "...Or is it?" (And for the really stubborn, there's another hidden thing about 15 minutes after the credits, but I've only heard about it.)

If you do pick up Secret of Mana on the VC, you should be aware that it retains multiplayer support, just like on the SNES. Also be aware that it's kind of buggy. (The sequel was even moreso -- and that was a major factor in why it didn't make it to North America.) It's still fun, especially in multiplayer.

On a related note, I don't have FFIV The After Years, but a friend does, and he mentioned there's multiplayer support a la FFIII/VI.
21. susan01
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