Review: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is the first Final Fantasy sequel numerically, though not the first that was actually released. Originally an episodic game for WiiWare, this sequel/remix of FF4 features SNES-style graphics, a new plot, and a whole lot of reused assets.

The structure of The After Years is reminsicent of Dragon Quest IV: each chapter features a separate set of characters, culminating in a final chapter that brings every character together into one big finale. Unlike the original game, the plot doesn’t heavily feature Cecil, which allows the game room to explore the various minor characters of the original. People like Edward and Palom and Porom get the spotlight they were never given previously, and a number of fun new characters are added to the mix as well.

Unfortunately, while the players in the plot are pretty novel, the plot itself is largely derivative of the original FF4. You’ll revisit almost every location from that game, sometimes several times, and many feature the same basic mechanics and enemy mix. There are a few new locations, particularly in the form of “challenge dungeons” you’ll find in every chapter, but nothing of any real substance until the finale. It’s fun to revisit old haunts, but it gets old pretty quickly, and the plot’s focus on mystery and putting off resolution doesn’t help.

Most of the game takes the form of the final chapter, which consists of a short plot introduction followed by a massively oversized dungeon. The first few floors are recycled from old content, but most of this final dungeon is brand-new. The enemies are not, however, borrowing from all of the first six Final Fantasy games. You’ll fight sets of bosses from each, and while the game does offer many opportunities to save or regroup, the constant boss fighting quickly becomes tiresome. The encounter rate would have been high even in the ’90s, which is even more frustrating in modern times.

If you like tailoring a huge party to your specific desires or hunting for rare items, there’s a lot to do in The After Years. However, much like the original Final Fantasy IV, you can overcome every challenge without doing half of the crazy stuff, making these special items feel somewhat extraneous. Only completionists need apply.

The After Years makes great use of the FF4 combat engine, using some mechanics (such as a separate timer bar for abilities) that the series didn’t follow up on, and most battles are pretty quick. The roster is incredibly large and there are dozens of discoverable combo attacks, though you don’t actually need to switch out from your favorite party in the final dungeon.

The bottom line is, if you loved FF4 and want an excuse to revisit the world, The After Years is it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something new, you will likely be overwhelmed with the old. There is good stuff if you go look for it, but you’ll have to put in the work.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy IV (PS1)

Note: This review covers the original version of Final Fantasy IV, first released in the U.S. as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles, and not the SNES version that was released as Final Fantasy II.

In many ways, especially mechanically, Final Fantasy IV is the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. Not only does it give you the least party customization, it really gives no customization at all in a series where complicated leveling systems have always been a touchstone. Yet the game indisputably feels like a Final Fantasy game. This may be largely due to the fact that, since we missed FFII and FFIII in the US, FFIV is to some extent the first “real” game in the series. The strict linearity didn’t feel weird at the time, only in hindsight. Yet including the second and third chapters, it is actually out of place – it makes me wonder how it is viewed in Japan.

Regardless, FFIV is a good game for reasons I’m not sure I can put into words. This is a review, though, so I’ll give it my best shot. I am personally quite partial to the party customization that is so lacking in this game, yet its absence doesn’t really bother me. It’s worth noting that gear selection does offer some level of control (though this is mitigated by the game’s terrible lack of clarity about the bonuses granted by gear), as does the exact timing of when you tackle certain late-game side quests.

What FFIV has going for it is the first truly memorable cast of characters in the series. FFI and FIII both had anonymous parties, but FFII was somewhat similar in that it had predefined characters that drove the plot. FFIV, however, has a larger cast, and manages to integrate each characters’ abilities into the overall storyline, a big change for a series where every previous party member was a blank slate. But who can forget the summoner Rydia, or Cecil becoming a paladin? Despite betraying the party on more than one occasion, the dragoon Kain has long been a fan favorite (I chalk this up to a combination of Jump being a cool ability and his awesome combat sprite).

While the characters are solid, the actual plot of FFIV is pretty weak. The melodrama of characters sacrificing themselves is overdone, especially considering how rarely those sacrifices end up meaning anything. The big plot revelation was already done in Star Wars (not to mention FFII), and going to the moon seems more ridiculous the more you think about it. Add all this together with the fact that your party generally fails at every task they attempt up until the climactic battle, and the story isn’t actually that memorable.

FFIV may lack the game mechanics pedigree of the rest of the series, and the plot is on par with most JRPG drivel, but what FFIV really establishes – and what makes it feel like a Final Fantasy game – is the drama. The plot may not be memorable, but a large number of scenes are. Being rescued from inevitable party death by a character long-since thought lost will always be awesome, and is certainly in the running for most memorable scenes in the entire series. The game does a great job with automated plot battles, the best of which involve Tellah (“You spoony bard!”). And somehow Edge pining for Rydia never gets old.

The riddle of FFIV, though, is how they managed to make the game fun to replay despite it playing almost identically every time through. Here I’m guessing the answer really is just straight-up nostalgia. But maybe something about FFIV makes it like a book or movie you just want to keep reading or watching despite its faults. Certainly the polish on the game has a lot to do with my continued enjoyment of it. The sound track is legendary, and I’m still a big fan of the combat graphics (though the less said about the tile-based non-combat graphics, the better).

The bottom line is, FFIV is a good game even if I can’t explain precisely why. Not that you need to rush out and play it if you haven’t (and if so, er, sorry about the spoilers but it’s been several decades now), but any series fan can still appreciate the game. The fact that it manages to be in the discussion of “best Final Fantasy game ever” at all says quite a lot. (Like that fans are crazy, in my view, but still.)

Review Score: A−

RPGs and the Perfect End Game

Gamer Corner Guides exists in part because I wanted to avoid some of my issues with many typical guides.  In particular, I don’t want to focus on the end result of character customization.

In Final Fantasy VI all of your characters will naturally reach almost 9800 HP and 990 MP at level 99 without any influence from espers, so the general sentiment is not to bother with many esper HP or MP bonuses.  I haven’t seen much discussion of the value of having a bit more HP or MP at any point during the game, and this bothers me.

When I was younger, my goal in every RPG was perfection.  In college, I was playing FF4 and stumbled on a “perfect levelling guide.”  It revealed that the stats you gain after level 70 are somewhat random, and how to maximize them.

It didn’t take all that long to get Cecil and Kain each to level 80.  Before starting a third character I wanted to see what would happen if I took on Zeromus with just those two.  I figured they would be crushed, but shockingly this was not the case at all.  I had to use some Elixirs (Big Bang is still Big Bang, after all), but I won the fight easily.

It was at that point that I realized how pointless what I was doing was.  Zeromus is the hardest fight in the game, and I could annihilate him with a party of two, so why was I still leveling?

Since then, I don’t bother with perfection.  I find games are much more fun when you focus on the journey, not the destination.  There is a balance to be struck: I’ll choose espers in FF6 based more on stats than spells for some characters, but I’m not likely to leave an esper on a character once mastered (because that would be wasting magic points).  It’s not an optimal decision in the long run, but I will have completed every challenge in the game long before optimal becomes required, so what difference does it make?