One must hand it to Square (-Enix): they know how to milk a popular franchise for money.
Final Fantasy 4: The After Years is already a big money-maker, as it was a cell phone game over in Japan. Now it is a Wii download. As RPGs go, it isn't too bad, if your preference is for extreme old-school. As stories go...meh.
I can play extreme old-school easily enough; I've been video gaming since the Atari 2600 after all. And of the FF series, FF4 is fairly close to my favorite (beaten only by FF9 and FF10). So it was pretty inevitable that I was going to download at least the first couple chapters and give the game a shot.
It isn't bad. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the best I can say for it.
The character sprites are an oh-so-slight upgrade from the Super NES graphics of its prequel, and they look pretty nice by the standards of the era they come from. The battle system has also received a couple of tweaks to make it a bit more complex than the old Active-Time-Battle system of the original FF4. Rather than just "select move, be attacked, select move, be attacked, etc." as happened in the original, now you must also keep track of the phases of the moon, which power up some skills and weaken others. Both your warriors and their enemies are saddled with the advantages and penalties of each phase of the moon, creating a bit more strategy for you. In addition, you have the "Bands", which, oddly enough, have the characters form groups which don't involve music. Instead, they involve strong group attacks that are based on each character in the Band contributing a skill for a more powerful synergistic attack (or healing spell, or whatever).
That's all fine and well, I suppose. But those improvements don't change the fact that you are using your Wii and TV set to play a **cell phone game**. Seriously, FF4:AY has been ported quite directly from the Cell Phone to the Wii. There are no graphical improvements, there are no audio improvements, there are no game play improvements. This is the same cell phone game the Japanese gamers got, just translated into English and stuck on the Wii Shop Channel.
Also just like the Japanese gamers, we are not getting the entire game at once. However, we are getting it faster than they did. In Japan, twelve small pieces were released once a month, meaning they had to wait a full year to get it all. The initial Wii Shop Channel release, at the start of June '09, featured a large opening chapter for 800 points and a smaller optional side-chapter for 300 points. At the start of July '09, three more side chapters were released, also for 300 points each. In another week (as of the time I'm writing this), at the start of August '09, three more side chapters will be released, again for 300 points each. Finally, at the start of September '09, the large final chapter will be released for 800 points. For those of you not good at math, that comes out to 3 months of waiting and a total of 3700 Wii points.
I personally don't have much of a complaint about this. Once we have all the parts, FF4:AY will be a full length RPG with a fair amount of bonus content in each of the 9 chapters, and for a cost of $37, which is a good $15-$20 cheaper than what we would usually pay for a new game these days. But other people are already griping about this, and I can't say I blame them. $37 is a fairly hefty price tag for a downloadable game on the Wii, where the most expensive downloads generally run only about $15.
And considering that the story is nothing to write home about, it may not be worth that $37. The thing about pretty much every roman numeral in the Final Fantasy series is that the story has a fairly solid ending, and FF4 is no exception. So how can you have a sequel when the story is very much over and done with?
The story of FF4:AY deals with this problem in an incredibly clumsy (and over-done) way: the old bad guys simply come back to cause trouble again. I swear I have not spoiled anything, because this happens in the first 10 or so minutes. The plot is a bit more complicated than I am making it sound (I'm deliberately holding some back to avoid real spoilers), but not by very much. Indeed, it copies the plot of the original FF4 very closely. When you come to an area you remember from the original, chances are the incredible plot twist or extreme melodramatic moment that happened there the first time will simply happen all over again.
It is kind of mind-numbing, and that's a pretty big shame. Fans of the original FF4 (like me), who are the target audience, will get bored by just playing the same old story we played before. And other gamers, who never played FF4 in the first place for one reason or another (or who did but didn't like it), will not care to download this sequel.
But Final Fantasy 4: The After Years will still sell well and make Square-Enix a bunch of money. After all, it is Final Fantasy, and it is readily available to anyone with a net-connected Wii. So yes, they can milk a popular franchise for more money. But it could have been so much better.
+ Good old-school gaming
+ Some updates to graphics and game play
- Just a straight port of the cell phone game; no improvements
- Story is clumsy and pretty dull
* Less expensive than a brand new game; more expensive than most downloadable games