I’m a sucker. I know this and Square-Enix knows this. I’m not alone, either. Like a lot of gamers my age the early Final Fantasy games hold a special place in my heart and that warm glow of nostalgia is enough to ensure that I will never stop re-buying those games. To date I have bought most of the 8 & 16 bit Final Fantasy games three or four times. I put up with absurd load times in the PlayStation compilations. I bought a Gameboy Advance SP as a dedicated Final Fantasy jukebox when Square began porting the Wonderswan Color remakes for the Western market. I’ve avoided the hideous 3D remakes of III and IV for the Nintendo DS on sheer principle.
Luckily, at the same time as Square-Enix has been uglifying Final Fantasy for the DS, they’ve also been creating what have to be the definitive 2D versions for the PlayStation Portable. In 2007 they released Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition, compiling remastered versions of Final Fantasy I and II to celebrate twenty years since the release of the first game. Now, for the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy’s first appearance on the SNES, Square-Enix has released Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection for the PSP. Like the Anniversary Edition, it features updated, high resolution sprites, backgrounds and fantastic new 3D spell effects. But best of all, it packs in the episodic sequel, The After Years, previously only available on Japanese cellphones and WiiWare, and a brand new bridging story, Final Fantasy IV: Interlude.
After the jump, I’m finally getting what I’ve always secretly wanted: a new 16 bit Final Fantasy
Modern Final Fantasy games are so far removed from their origins that it would be difficult for most people to recognize the lineage without the name to rely on. As they’ve gotten more ambitious they’ve gotten increasingly linear, more bombastic and seemingly out of touch with the endearing simplicity and earnestness of the SNES titles. Not that the more recent games are bad, Final Fantasy XII is brilliant and there are even things about XIII I really like, but for a long time a Mega Man 9-style retro revival for the series has felt long overdue. If development complexity has ballooned so out of control that it takes four years between single player installments, making smaller, 2D, pixel art, chiptuned games that hearken back to the 16-bit era for the downloadable market seems like an obvious move.
The Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is in many ways just such a game. Conceived as an episodic release for a rapidly evolving cellphone gaming market in Japan, it was designed as a literal sequel to the original title. Until now the only way to play The After Years in English was to buy the episodes individually through Nintendo’s WiiWare service, but there are nine of them being sold separately making that a rather expensive proposition.
Without a Wii, and unwilling to spend almost forty dollars for the privilege of playing a Final Fantasy IV sequel in any case, I was pleased to hear all of The After Years would be included with the Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection. Even better, Final Fantasy IV: Interlude is an additional, new scenario created to bridge the narrative gap between the end of Final Fantasy IV proper and The After Year. Having played through the original game many times already, Interlude and The After Years are where my real interests lie.
Final Fantasy IV: Interlude picks up a year after the end of the original game. Cecil, the new king of Baron, is married to the white mage Rosa. Both are travelling to visit their friend Edward, King of Damcyan, to celebrate the rebuilding of his kingdom. It’s a reunion of sorts with all the surviving party members from Final Fantasy IV expected or in attendance. In the middle of the festivities a soldier bursts through the door to report monster activity on a nearby mountain. Cecil, Rosa and Warrior Monk King Yang rush off to investigate.
Unfortunately there is little else to say without spoiling the whole thing. Interlude can be finished in under three hours and relies heavily on recycled assets from the first game. Perhaps this is to be expected, but you are literally just revisiting two dungeons you’ve played through before. It’s kind of nice seeing these places again, and if you remember them well you’ll be rewarded for your knowledge of their layout, but isn’t very exciting. The combat systems is also identical to the original, so there’s nothing new to learn or adapt to. It’s familiar and all the old strategies will work as you expect, but there is no sense of discovery.
To make matters worse, Interlude begins with every character at a high level and well equipped. You breeze through every enemy encounter and are never hurting for money or supplies. The only real difficulty I had was facing a particular boss who used a powerful quake attack on my whole party. Normally I’d need to grind levels until I had unlocked the “Float” spell to make my party immune to such damage. Here that didn’t even prove necessary as long I was proactive with my healing.
I was also hoping for a more involved story, but aside from a couple nice nods to relationships from the previous game, the narrative is cryptic and lacking. Sinister forces are in motion, but I don’t really know anything about who they are or what they’re planning. Disappointed, I moved on to The After Years.
To it’s credit, the episodic sequel makes more effort to distinguish itself from the original game. Having played about ten hours I’ve already seen new parts of old locations and brand new dungeons not in the previous game at all. New gameplay systems have also been introduced. The phases of the moon cycle between one of four states every time you use a tent or stay in an inn. In each phase certain abilities are weaker while other become more powerful. Combat also features a new “Band” system that allows party members who have forged a strong bond to team up for special attacks.
Party members are a mix of older characters from the original, including grown up versions of Rydia, Porom, Polom and the Dwarven Princess Luca, and new characters, including Ceodore, the son of Cecil and Rosa who has joined the Red Wings. The story still largely remains a mystery to me, but by now I at least know it involves a mysterious girl who is stealing power from the world’s summon monsters, including series regulars like Bahamut and Sylph.
I’d know more, but a few hours ago the game just gave me an airship and vaguely suggested I tool around to become more powerful. Thus far The After Years has been disappointingly disjointed and devoid of strong motivation. A true sequel to Final Fantasy IV is a great idea, but the fact that this one was made on the cheap cannot be hidden. Aimless grinding is used to pad out playtime, little effort was placed in creating new assets, and the limp story trades on the player’s attachment to the original game and little else.
Perhaps the later episodes are more interesting, but already my enthusiasm has cooled considerably.
Up next: It’s everywhere I wanna be.
Click here for the previous Final Fantasy IV entry.
Brad Grenz lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He writes fake biographies about real bands, blind reviews of games he hasn’t played, and makes good use of his degree in Philosophy eking out a living in web design.