This post is a part of A Crystal Compendium, a collaborative blogging project between multiple writers, reflecting on the Final Fantasy series. Check out the hub article for a full listing of games and posts!
Giving a forgotten 90s property a sequel might sound like something we’d do in the west today, in the era of reboots, but would you believe Final Fantasy IV got a sequel, The After Years, back in 2008? At 17 years, it’s the longest gap between game and sequel in Final Fantasy history – unless you count the weird connection between FFI and Dissidia (21 years). Oh, and just to make things weirder, it was originally a cell phone game. Like, the old kind of cell phones, where you had to use the numpad as a D-pad if your phone didn’t have arrow buttons? You know, flip phones! Infamous as cesspits of irredeemable gameplay dreck, rightly condemned to the abyss of obsolescence? Of course, it wasn’t Square’s first cell phone game: it was predated by quality examples like the internally developed FFVII: Before Crisis, acceptable examples like Namco’s port of FFI, and examples of the aforementioned dreck, like FFVII Snowboarding. But FFIV’s sequel would be handled by FFIII and FFIV DS developers Matrix Software, so how was this going to fare?
FFIV’s sequel would also be Square Enix’s first real “episodic” release, ala Telltale Games. Square Enix’s first episodic game might seem something of a banner in hindsight, now that the company is preaching “games as a service” and has stretched out the FFXV franchise over the course of innumerable expansions and months. But technically speaking, Square Enix didn’t stick with episodes very long after this. The only other game that strictly matches the Telltale model would be TAY’s little sister and fellow Matrix-developed game, Final Fantasy Dimensions 1. Even TAY abandoned the episodic approach after it finished on WiiWare. Nowadays, TAY is sold as a single, more affordable package. You can choose between the version on the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection, which is the last 2D version and also the best representative of the original design decisions, or you can take the version released on smartphones and Steam, which features 3D graphics and a handful of radical changes for good or for ill. The changes aren’t so radical as the changes between the 2D and 3D versions of the original FFIV, but they’re still big enough to consider before you buy.
The central gameplay premise in TAY is not unlike Dragon Quest IV: you visit various characters in turn, each at the start of the journey, and they all unite later on. Unlike DQIV, where the individual scenarios last for maybe a third of the game, TAY threads along individual plots almost two-thirds of the way, and that’s just getting started! TAY follows that up with two more scenarios with the party only half united, and only in the final two chapters of the original cell phone release do you actually command your full team. Oh, and you get to play most of the early chapters in whatever order you want. If you’re like me and enjoy the sometimes puzzle-esque limitations of an early party (so long as they’re well-executed), TAY can be a lot of fun, as each of the individual episodes features essentially distinct gameplay. Even one of the “half-reunited” chapters has a lot of puzzle elements to it. On the other hand, if you’re into games strictly for the end game power peak, TAY is hardly going to satisfy. “Not for everyone” is an understatement.
Complicating the puzzle elements are some of the game’s new mechanics. The lunar cycle of the alien moon hanging over your heads as part of the plot influences whether attacks, magic or special abilities are on the wax or wane, forcing you to learn how to use all of your characters’ abilities to adapt each possible cycle. This makes up for some of the faults in the original FFIV, where some characters had abilities that were so useless, they were cut out of the North American and the FFIV “Easytype” releases. Then there are the “Bands,” team-up attacks between characters with strong relationships. The Bands seem like something of a good idea that experienced some bad implementation, possibly dating back to the original cell phone release schedule. There are dozens of Bands available in the final chapters, but rarely more than three in any previous chapter, which you’ll recall make up the bulk of the game. You can almost imagine the devs slowly realizing they had made a mistake when one system – the “new characters every episode” system – began to cancel out the Bands almost entirely! To make matters worse, most releases of the game force you to unlock Bands via arcane menu combinations, bringing up bad memories of Phantasy Star IV’s combo system. The 3D versions fixed that by making Bands openly available as soon as you have the right characters in the same party, but those versions feature other cuts that make them hard to recommend in return for just one fix, no matter how important a fix.
The game gets started with the original, free-to-play prologue. Your lead character in the prologue is Cecil and Rosa’s awkwardly-named son Ceodore. His name doesn’t even make sense unless you played FFIV’s 3D versions, which identify Golbez’s birth name as Theodore. Awkward for anyone who bought this game in the FFIV Complete Collection, which pairs TAY with an old-script version of FFIV!
In any event, Ceodore’s off doing his thing, and also griping about his parents, just in case you ever wondered if Cecil “Far And Away More Children Have Nearly Died In My Presence Than Any Other Final Fantasy Protagonist” Harvey might have trouble as a parent. But enough family drama! There’s a new moon in the sky, and it’s dropping monsters left and right in what we might generously call an “homage” to FFVIII. Commanding the assault is a green-haired woman who somehow has control over the Eidolons of the FFIV world, and who repeatedly kicks the parties’ asses in what becomes so dull and routine that you’ll probably be caught off-guard the first time the game actually expects you to… you know… win. At this point, the prologue ends with the entire cast in turmoil, the world on the brink of destruction, assorted shots of mysterious future party members, and also please buy the first premium episode. Years later, Matrix would end FF Dimension’s prologue in essentially the same fashion. It’s surprising how Dimensions ended up shadowing its predecessor in terms of sales tactics, but I suppose if it worked for Matrix the first time, they had might as well try it again!
After this, versions released after the original cell phone will play with Ceodore a while longer before finally giving the player control to select (and on cell phone and Wiiware, buy) episodes in whatever order they please. Each episode of the game focuses on either a single legacy FFIV character, or a small team of the same. Usually, they’re accompanied by members of a new generation. Yang has a daughter named Ursula; Rydia teams up with the dwarf princess Luca; Palom is off to Troia to mentor a new Epopt; Porom’s chapter is… actually also heavily dedicated to Palom, so much so that she actually completes her chapter solo, but that’s an exception. I guess I’m still bitter about that last one, though it’s still nice how everyone’s favourite brown-nosing twin has reinvented herself as a pink-haired rebel diplomat, whatever that’s supposed to mean (she doesn’t know either).
Sadly, not all the chapters are created equal. On the plus side we have chapters like Rydia’s and Edge’s. Rydia (and Luca)’s chapter allows you to free-roam, has sidequests, and even introduces two additional party members that you can save and carry into the later scenarios, if you know how to do it (though be aware that the cell phone and Wiiware version are outright mean about it). Edge’s chapter introduces a whole team of variant ninjas Edge has been training, each ready to fill whatever precision role you want them for in the final party, assuming you can get them there alive. Each one of them has their own scenario in Edge’s chapter, where death means losing the character forever.
On the flip side, some chapters are also real failures. I’ve already complained about the mixed focus in Porom’s tale, and the rest of the chapter isn’t very good besides. Palom’s tale introduces a few nice concepts but also raises a lot of questions the game doesn’t seem to realize it left unanswered. Edward’s tale has the nifty idea of allowing you to control Edward, a support character, behind a wall of retainers, but also introduces Harley. Harley’s a nice enough character as narrative goes, but her gameplay abilities feel like someone walked out in the middle of designing them and never came back. I’ve seen poor Harley ranked as the single weakest character in the entire franchise as a consequence!
And then there’s the narrative high points but gameplay missteps that are both Kain Tale and the Lunarian’s Tale. Kain’s Tale is so easy after the first dungeon that it may as well play out automatically, and the Lunarian’s Tale… well, put it this way: if you introduced a Fire Emblem-esque character who starts at a high level but never gets more powerful, would you put them in the hardest scenario, knowing it would be impossible for the player to grind to fix the difficulty? Of course you wouldn’t. But Matrix did! Maybe it was a bad extension of their puzzle idea, but if you’re going to mix RPGs with puzzles, at some point you either have to deal with grinding at the root or accept it as an inevitable.
As for the narrative, it has its ups and downs. The dozen-plus viewpoint characters allow TAY to tell a global story in ways unavailable to the rest of the series. How often have we watched supposedly global wars play out in our RPGs, but in such a fashion that the battles only happen when our viewpoint characters arrive on the scene (FFIV itself)? Or what about those plots where tragic things happen to places we’d never even visited (FFVIII)? In TAY, everything is happening to everyone at the same time, all of it on-camera, which also allows the game to show the full scope of the conflict, and also for it to hint that not everything is as it seems, since it would be impossible for… hrm, but that might be saying too much.
But TAY didn’t buy that cleverness for free. Matrix bought that kind of complexity through heavy asset re-use from FFIV. Most of TAY’s new elements, like bosses, are either minor enemy sprites with new powers, or are outright copied from FFIV itself. The outright re-used boss encounters are definitely bad, but would it have killed them to give us more than a single green-haired girl sprite for the new bosses prior to the endgame? The same question can be asked about a lot of Square Enix sequel games from the 2000s, especially Kingdom Hearts, and there’s no answer but, “They’re trying to save money at an almost cartoonish level.”
At least we’ve got good character writing. TAY loves to dive into the characters’ interpersonal lives, and it’s especially fond of dirtying up the original game’s happy ending with complexities that anyone could have picked up over seventeen years. Cecil and Rosa have been negligent parents to Ceodore. Porom hates her brother’s gloryhogging and is uncomfortable with the job she seems natural for. Edward refuses to let go of old bonds even when it comes to extremes, and I’m not just talking about Anna and Tellah. A certain someone from the original game is trying to make some rather drastic amends. Oh, and then there’s the question of what’s going on with Kain, who’s acting especially odd. It’s all quite good if this is the kind of narrative you’re going for. Honestly, the worst I can say is that Edge’s chapter lacks for drama, being weirdly focused on exploring other character’s storylines, even though we visit those very storylines in other chapters!
And so the game goes, until you clear “The Crystals, Part 1,” and the entire party is together. The final party has upwards of twenty-two characters if you can believe it, not to forget around a dozen Guest party members you left in your wake, depending on whether or not you count certain “generic” guests as distinct distinct individuals. Matrix must have figured that such a massive party deserves a massive final dungeon, and so TAY’s final dungeon spanned two whole chapters of the cell phone game (“The Crystals, Part 2” and “Part 3”), now folded into one on Wiiware and beyond (just called “Part 2”). Taken in total, TAY’s final dungeon is arguably the largest pre-set dungeon in the entire franchise. Sadly, the game blows most of the original cell phone “Part 2” on even more repeat elements from FFIV, having you refight virtually every boss from the original game as if Matrix had to complete a checklist or something. Thankfully, there’s a lot of good character moments along the way, and besides, the second chapter makes up for it. Well… depending on version.
You see, the final half of the final dungeon changes dramatically depending on whether you’re playing the 2D or 3D versions of TAY. The 2D versions have a much, much longer second half, wherein you battle some surprising “new” foes. I won’t spoil it if you don’t know. Unfortunately, that would mean making new 3D models for the remakes, and darned if Matrix weren’t trying to save money even for the remake. Instead, Matrix just scooped out who chunks of the final dungeon with a backhoe, dumped those sections in the trash, and replaced the “new” bosses with god help us more repeated elements from FFIV, elements that in this case had already appeared in TAY. I suppose you’ve either learn to stomach this sort of thing by the time you make it to the final dungeon or you’ve already given up on the game hours ago. Still, it’s a huge loss, and the best I can say is that it might improve the pacing of the bloated final dungeon. But at what cost?
I won’t go too much into the ending, but I will say that the difficulty spikes just before the end, and the ending is also pretty disappointing, making TAY akin to FFLII in my eye (see my Crystal Compendium coverage of FFLII for more). Again, I don’t want to say too much, so I’ll use a spoiler tag, but I can’t leave without pointing out that this is probably the only RPG in history where the final boss fight is… an accident (spoiler, highlight to see). How does that even work? Oh, and like FFX/X-2’s Japanese-only sequels and a lot of modern Hollywood, TAY has the nerve to set up an additional sequel it hasn’t earned, and that, in TAY’s case, we will certainly never see. On the flip side, leaving the plot hanging does force a few of the character relationships to dangle unresolved, which feels inimically more human than happy endings all around. But no matter how I compliment it, the plot hook is still there: there’s a wild final boss still stomping around the FFIV universe, and we’re never going to resolve that. Let’s just shove our fingers in our ears and pretend that never happened.
While I’m here, I might as well talk about the FFIV:Interlude. I mean, nobody else will, because it’s not worth it. Critically speaking, I mean. Financially, it is worth it, because it’s part of the FFIV: Complete Collection, which is one of the best versions of FFIV and TAY out there, period (the absence of FFIV:DS’s enhanced story notwithstanding), but if you’re already sitting comfortably with a copy of FFIV on PSX and TAY on Steam, the Complete Collection’s not worth hunting down just for the Interlude. Around an hour or two of new content, none of it very interesting, and no gameplay challenges that weren’t already featured in both FFIV and TAY. About all it has to offer – and get out your microscopes for this one – is the fact that it renamed and recoloured the Mom Bomb into a Dad Bomb. Whoopie. Final Fantasy Dimensions II would later turn the Dad Bomb into one of its hundreds of referential summons, and in my opinion it’s easily FFDII’s most obscure reference. If that doesn’t have you vibrating with excitement, you’re not the only one, and that’s the Interlude in a nutshell. Still, if you do have it, I suppose it’s worth the play. Let’s just not let it tar the memory of an otherwise good duology by turning it into a sagging trilogy.
If you liked this post, check out my original coverage of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years here, or other Final Fantasy games on the top bar! Or carry on to the rest of A Crystal Compendium at the hub article!
FFIV:TAY screenshots in this article come from a longplay by Valis77’s longplay of the 3D version of FFIV:TAY on the PC, available from World of Longplays (YouTube). The Interlude screenshot is by Silent Ryuni.