The Sins of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years
I love Final Fantasy IV. A lot. The original SNES version is not only my overall favorite entry in the series, it is one of two games responsible for making me fall in love with the RPG genre in the first place. Naturally, when its direct sequel, The After Years, was announced, I was ecstatic. Another chance to dive into the world I’ve loved since I was five years old?
Heck. Freaking. Yes.
Alas, the hype would be short lived, as only disappointment would follow its eventual release. My love for the old, hate with the new, would ensue over the better part of a decade, always resulting in me setting the game aside to deal with it some other time. I wanted to love this game – I really did – but was such a thing even possible? Over the past few weeks, I decided to give The After Years one more shake and what I’ve learned is that this game is simply not for me. Here’s why.
I’m not a fan of phone-based gaming, but I’m not blind to its global appeal either. The mobile market is huge and was only beginning to ramp up in the late 2000’s, so it only made sense that one of Square’s biggest series would take the plunge. The After Years wasn’t the franchise’s first foray into mobile – Final Fantasy Mobile has that honor, I believe – but it was one of the first brand-new experiences built from the ground up with the platform in mind.
Therein lies the problem, however; a sequel to a traditional console JRPG would be designed and aimed at the mobile space over all else – hence the episodic nature of its content. Now, this is neither a stab at mobile gaming nor a declaration that all episodic content is “bad,” but The After Years, given its ancestry, would have been better suited for the traditional console market first and foremost. The After Years is divided into nearly a dozen chapters, known as “tales,” with the majority of them focusing on a select few characters before all paths converge into the lengthier final tale.
Pacing is a recurring issue in The After Years, but it is most obvious with the narrative, seeing as very little happens leading up to the last chapter where everything is tied up in a craze. Before that, the majority of content covers a small window of time that is designed to be seen from multiple perspectives, a la the individual “tales.” For the sake of spoilers, just know that some big things happen, then you get to see how each character reacts to it. Unfortunately, the writing is so weak that very little of it leaves a lasting impression. Some new characters are introduced, but they too fall victim to the same issue. While this multi-perspective angle isn’t necessarily a bad idea, The After Years fails to execute it in an interesting way – something that will be made ever more apparent as this analysis matures.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for games being available across a multitude of platforms (including mobile) but I would prefer for those that deal with subject matter deeply established in the traditional console medium – Final Fantasy IV – to be designed around that rather than changing its core philosophy to fit something entirely different. Perhaps The After Years did well financially – I honestly have no clue – but it is clearly one of the more divisive entries in the franchise.
History Repeats Itself…Too Much
The cyclical nature of order and chaos is a common story trope – a bad guy rises, a good guy defeats it, time passes, and history inevitably repeats itself. Tropes aren’t inherently bad, however; it all lies in their implementation. Unfortunately, The After Years takes things to the extreme by leveraging the nostalgic ties to the original characters, enemies, bosses, areas, and music – to the point where there is really very little that is actually “new” in the experience.
For example, one tale has you travel through the Underground Waterway – the same area that Cecil and Rydia find Tellah in during the original game – THREE TIMES in the span of only a few hours. Backtracking is completely out of control here, with the aforementioned tale being one of the worst and only leading to frustration. Virtually every boss that appeared in the original returns, and while there is technically a reason for this, it is clearly a cop-out more than an actual attempt to be creative.
Moments of déjà vu are far more common than anything new and interesting – Final Fantasy IV veterans will be able to see through most plot points from a mile away. The two “mysterious characters” that eventually join the core team, for example, are handled so poorly that you’ll know exactly who they are hours before their official reveal. As much as I love the original game, seeing it cut up and abused in such a manner just feels plain bad, man.
New ≠ Good – (Moon Phases and Bands)
Although The After Years has little to offer in terms of new areas, it does a more respectable job at introducing fresh new gameplay systems. Like so many other things here, the new Moon Phase and Band mechanics seem great on paper, but are ultimately disappointments. Like the original, The After Years revolves heavily around the moon(s), but takes it a step further by making its phases – new, waxing, full, and waning – directly impact the performance of individual commands in-combat (among other perks that are beyond the scope of this article).
For example, the waxing moon will improve White Magic usage while dampening the effects of Black Magic. This adds a somewhat interesting, but rather unnecessary layer of control that can hinder or improve your chances against certain foes. This feature is a double-edged sword, though, since it also affects your own abilities. Truthfully speaking, the vast majority of base game content can be completed without ever really worrying about the moon phase, making it nothing more than a mildly annoying mechanic for min-maxers to juggle.
Moon phases will change by either passing time through battles, or resting up via the inn or comparable consumables. Every “sleep” will shift the moon by one phase, meaning you may have to use three to four times the number of consumables to get back into your preferred moon phase — pretty dumb, if you ask me. Because of how easily this system can be abused, it makes you wonder about the necessity of it in the first place.
The Band system, on the other hand, fares a bit better but still has some issues. Party members that share bonds with one another can attempt to unleash a devastating attack together, requiring a set level of MP from each character involved in addition to a synced charge. There are a ton of these to discover, some only becoming available after certain story bits while the majority can be procured through good old-fashioned trial and error.
Not to beat a dead horse, but again, this sounds really cool as a concept, but has a myriad of issues under the hood. Not all bands are created equal; a few are insanely strong while the majority are mediocre at best. They all look and feel nice visually – flashy animations and big numbers are always fun – but the actual damage dealt often isn’t mathematically better than simply using individual unit commands. Worse yet, fishing for new bands that prove unsuccessful will result in a missed turn for all characters. Those that are successful, however, are saved for easier future use.
A SaGa Frontier-esque approach would have been better suited for the Band system – allowing individual actions the possibility of comboing with one another, with the fail-safe being just the plain, individual attacks themselves. With the sheer number of bands available, and their varying viability individually, I found myself ignoring the mechanic for the majority of my playthrough, though I can see how they might play a far more crucial role in tackling the postgame content. Either way, a gameplay system that can be almost completely ignored is a sign of something in need of serious work.
Freedom of (No) Choice – (Final Dungeon)
The final nail in the coffin for my likely last ever romp in The After Years stems from its final dungeon, which equally represents both the best and worst aspects of the game. Popularized by the GBA and PSP versions of the original game, The After Years allows the player to select their own party to take on the depths of the final dungeon. Successfully completing each tale leading up to the final one will allow you to save a “cleared” version of each of the former, which can then be imported into the latter for a much needed head start on the endgame.
Don’t be a dunce like me, though, and accidentally save over a “cleared” file because you’ll have to re-do that content again if you want to import it — an embarrassingly easy mistake to make. Regardless, if your pool of heroes ends up anything like mine, you could have some characters in the low 20’s while others are in their 40’s; nothing a little grinding can’t offset, of course. Alas, you won’t get very far in this insanely long dungeon before being forced to use very specific characters in order to progress.
There are certain events that require specific party members in your active roster, and cannot be beaten if you do not comply. Although these instances are few and far between, they are not telegraphed well and may cause you to lose some progress as a result. And while it is entirely possible to swap the proper characters in, beat the boss, then go back to your preferred party setup, they could have been designed in such a way that the required allies appeared as “guest members” on the field if they weren’t in your active party, rather than forcing you to potentially backtrack just to swap them in for a single fight.
Surprisingly, one character can even die permanently if you choose to face a certain boss without the ideal party makeup. Though I can see the value from a pure RPG perspective of having such stakes at play, it feels completely out of left field when both Final Fantasy IV and the majority of The After Years are designed in a completely opposite manner. If you want to have choice and consequence, fine, but bake it into the entire experience rather than tacking it senselessly on the tail end of the content. On that note, don’t tease the freedom of party choice when certain members are mandatory for specific progression points, as well.
This last dungeon, as alluded to earlier, is just a bit of mess overall. Because very little happens of substance in the other tales, it tries its best to tie everything up in the final chapter, but there’s simply too much to take in all at once for any of it to leave a lasting impression. This dungeon also causes the game to go from face-roll easy to rather challenging, at times, especially if you use underdeveloped party members. The original Final Fantasy IV was never considered difficult – it is arguably one of the easiest entries in the series – but at least it featured a relatively even “difficulty” curve and bosses that had some mechanics. Sadly, lots of the returning bosses here are only shells of their former selves, with some having even less mechanics than their original counterparts. The whole situation is weird, and only further muddies the already dark waters of the entire experience itself.
Unfortunately, I decided to hang up my “The After Years” hat once again despite my 30+ hour attempt that was only a few hours away from victory. Although I’m hesitant to say, “never again,” I don’t see myself ever returning to this game because it just isn’t enjoyable. The few things I do like about it are simply overwhelmed by my dislike of other things. Honestly, I could get onboard with its mobile backbone, but not when the content itself is so utterly flawed.
As it stands, The After Years is probably my least favorite mainline Final Fantasy game now, and I have almost zero love for Final Fantasy X-2 and the XIII universe of titles. If anything, this experience only solidifies why sequels – in any medium – should be used sparingly and only intelligently. Not every universe needs to be revisited in a new way, no matter how enticing the call for it might seem.
What are your thoughts on The After Years? Do you agree with my thoughts, or do you have a different opinion on it? Let me know!