As part of my streaming project I played through Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. I'd been wanting to play this for awhile, despite hearing all sorts of warnings that it wasn't very good. I dove in blind and managed to play… most of the game without any sort of major assistance. Now that I'm on the other side (32 hours later, twice as long as every other FF I played for this event except for FF3), I can say that all the criticism is valid and warranted.
For those who don't know, FFIV:TAY is essentially FFIV-2. It takes place seventeen years after the events of FFIV and focuses on the son of Cecil and Rosa initially before branching out to the other FFIV characters and their families and friends. The initial release of TAY was episodic, and on mobile devices. It came out across most of 2008 in the form of a new "Tale" being released every few weeks as a separate purchase. The game was later released on the Wii and PSP. From what I hear, the PSP version is probably the best one if you're okay with the altered graphics.
So what's the problem with TAY? I suspect it's largely the original format. Episodic and mobile doesn't make for a solid RPG experience. Anyway let's break down what got my goat here.
First of all the game is extremely linear. In each Tale you are shepherded from place to place by the plot and conveniently placed guards and barriers. Once a Tale ends, you are kicked back to the main menu to begin a new Tale, and cannot access that content again unless you load a save inside that Tale and re-do it. For the first fifteen hours of play I can count two instances of having any real choice in where to go.
Due to the episodic format, most Tales end in a cliffhanger and nothing ever gets resolved until the very end. This would be vexing enough on its own, but most of the cliffhangers are produced in the form of a borderline fourth wall breaking insult to the cast and even the player. The end of most of the Tales involves a conversation that goes something like "What is your plan with the crystals?" "I don't have to tell you", fade to black. No, I'm not paraphrasing. "I don't have to tell you" and permutations thereof is the most common line uttered by the new mysterious antagonist. How much TAY teases you with the potential of new plot reveals only to have this antagonist and her block-of-wood personality slap it away while laughing at you is maddening. This is not how you create dramatic tension.
As an extension of the biffed attempts at dramatic tension, the writing is terrible. Most of the cast act completely inappropriate for their characters. Sure, it's been seventeen years since FFIV, but in that time I don't think Cecil would suddenly become susceptible to his dark side again, or Rosa would literally lose all personality. It just all felt wrong. Surprise twists are also telegraphed so hard I'm unsure their reveals were supposed to be surprises at all. It's all very hamfisted.
Also due to the episodic nature, you're forced to traverse the level 10 to 25 expanse a dozen times. Each time you get a character up to a level that they feel reasonably powerful, the Tale ends and you're forced to start a new Tale with a new cast of level 10s. It gets very grating to not ever get to feel powerful unless the plot dictates it.
Speaking of which, in each Tale you will be in at least two battles that are forced losses. Some of these are just mind numbing… Battles you could win that are forced losses by plot, enemies suddenly pulling out abilities they shouldn't have. Eventually the game just gives up and makes the "You lose now" attack KO the party without even doing damage. At least twice I ended up in fights I thought would be yet another forced loss, only to game over because it wasn't. You've messed up your writing when that happens.
Finally on the writing front, about half the Tales just feel completely pointless and irrelevant. Porom's Tale is all flashbacks to when Palom and Porom were kids. Edward's Tale is nothing but traversing the Underground Waterway three(!!!) times. Edge's Tale is 80% about four comedy relief ninjas you'll never in your right mind use again. Yang's Tale tells the amazingly coherent story of Yang and his daughter having to traverse a dungeon to find fuel for their sailing ship-- If you think you misread that, you didn't. It's that stupid.
So okay, the writing and the pacing are terrible. That's all, right? Nope. If that was all, I think I would have found it to be a semi-enjoyable one-time experience just out of my love for Final Fantasy IV. Once you reach "The Gathering", which imports all your progress in the Tales into a combined story line that runs to the end of the game, the game throws you up against a brick wall.
See, I've mentioned TAY was initially episodic a few times now. Part of this is the inclusion of a "Challenge Dungeon" in each Tale. The intent was to provide the player with something to hold their interest between Tales, but in the combined release ten years after the episodic trickle of content, there's no point to explore them. Each CD provided no plot information or progress, and the loot you get would quickly be outclassed the next time you have access to those characters. To finish a CD, you usually need to be close to 40. It's a grindy time sink. I skipped them.
The Gathering and Finale seem to assume you've done them. The Gathering is just that: you're given a party of four people dictated by plot (Edge, Rydia, Luca, and Golbez if you're curious) and must go find the rest of the cast (and other stuff) to prepare for the Finale. If you begin this Tale with your party in the 20-25 range, you'll get pasted by practically every battle laid out in front of you. Also, every cast member you rescue has some plot reason for being unable to assist you; you never even fill your empty fifth slot. Everyone you pick up just sleeps on the airship until the end of The Gathering. So you're stuck with this party whether you leveled them, want to use them, or neither.
After The Gathering, you pass a point of no return and are given access to your whole cast. You can assemble any party of five you want, finally! Hooray! At this point I was sixteen hours (over many days) in and had forgotten the capabilities, equipment, and whatnot of most of my cast. Though I already had a party in mind I wanted to use. In any case, you're placed at the top of a fifty(!!!) floor dungeon for this. Elevators are spaced every five or so floors, allowing you to return to the ship and restock and rearrange your party. So really it's closer to ten five-floor dungeons.
This is where the difficulty curves really slap you in the face. Most of your cast, you left at the end of their Tale at level 20-25, probably didn't do their CD, and probably didn't use them in The Gathering unless you got lucky with your planned party versus plot requirements. Once you set foot in the final dungeon, the expectation is you're around level 40. I was 20-35 depending on character, so the very first boss in Floor 2 (of 50) just utterly wrecked me. It's here I got so tired of the game and progression that I stopped and grinded for three hours on floor 1 of the dungeon, reaching level 45 on my entire party. This would turn out to be exactly sufficient to finish the game.
The moral of this story? If you don't do the CDs, expect to need to grind several hours in the same one tiny room of the final dungeon to get your party viable. That's not all though. In three specific instances in the final dungeon you will need a specific party. One of these is a big side-plot climax, in which four of your party slots are decided for you. I had to grind a second time because two of these mandatory members were still level 20. That grind was only an hour, though.
So what is the final dungeon? What is in there that's so massive that it needs to be a fifty floor marathon? Probably the worst plot twist in all of Final Fantasy. See, it's revealed to you (spoilers coming) that the crystals in not just the FFIV world, but every classic FF, were placed there by the same singular progenitor who is now coming to reclaim them and destroy any world that has not evolved enough for his experiments. As a result, the final dungeon contains the canonical crystals from FFI through FFVI, and each crystal is guarded by a throwback boss. You fight the four fiends from FFI, the four dark crystal bosses from FFIII, bosses from FFIV you haven't encountered yet in the Tales, and bosses from FFV and VI including Gilgamesh and Doomtrain. It's…. really, really stupid and there's no good reason for it aside from "HEY REMEMBER THIS?!" They even had a chance to make Ultros and Gilgamesh hilarious, and their writers just dropped the ball. It was so disappointing.
Really I consider it a cardinal sin to try to link FFs together like this in fan fiction, let alone an official FF title…
So, thirty hour mark. I've suffered through completely pointless Tales, having my progress reset to level 10 each Tale transition, awful writing, five hours of forced grind because of difficulty curve whackery and forced party changes. I'm five floors from the finale. What's left? Two of the biggest, pointless DPS check bosses I've ever seen.
Once you reach the FFVI floor, you're in the home stretch. Here though lies the most sudden, sharp, jilting difficulty jump known to man. I was level 60 at this point, having started at floor 1 at 45 and just not really run from much as I progressed. I was gaining maybe one level per section; the experience curve had turned into a wall. I was clearly not intended to level much more than this. I expected most of the final fights would be easy, and they were until here. Enter Ultima Weapon.
Ultima Weapon is a mandatory, progress blocking boss that fights like a superboss. He has two abilities that can instantly kill any member of the party, Meteor, physicals that hit for 4,000 damage, and a Bahamut-like countdown mechanic that ends in a 5,000 damage to all megaflare. At this point, with my "endgame ready" party, my beefiest character had 4,700 HP. Megaflare is a wipe, and he can begin the charge to cast it at will. I was unable to knock him down before he cast it, and only by the good grace of Edward having Hide did I not totally wipe. It was a 20 minute battle on its own. I've killed Omega in FFV faster than that! For those curious, the boss prior to him is Doomtrain, whom I clowned in two minutes with Flares from Palom. What a difficulty spike!
Just after you managed to scrape by Ultima Weapon, the game has one more middle finger for you: a battle with Bahamut and the mysterious antagonist. Rydia is required to be in your party for this; even at level 60 she won't survive what either of them dish out; so she's a dead party slot. You also almost have to do this fight on a moon with Black Magic down, so she's doubly useless.
So how's this fight go? The antagonist is invincible and immune to all status effects. Bahamut does what he does: a 5 count before casting Megaflare and wiping you. This is a DPS race. Reflect? Nope, in this reiteration of the fight, the antagonist will cast Black Hole just before Megaflare, the two coming out as a single move. Once the clock hits 0 you're dead. So you have to win this DPS race with four party members, while the invincible antagonist is throwing Tornado, Quake, Slow, Confuse, and Meteor at you. Good hecking luck.
This all happens five floors above the bottom. The next five floors are total filler, feeling like dummied or prototype content. You walk through winding halls of a new tileset, where there are no random encounters, no loot, nothing. This could have been a single straight hallway and been just fine. Though there is a purpose for this that comes later, I guess. In any case my point is this: after coming off the high of beating Bahamut, you're forced to cool down with five floors of nothing, not even music. It really ruins the hype for what's coming-- though the final boss would ruin the hype anyway.
The final boss is introduced as a sudden new foe much like Zemus in FFIV. He has no real backstory, he's only mentioned in side-discussions with who you thought was the main villain until now. He even has the same "use the crystal to begin the fight" gimmick Zeromus did. There's nothing to say. He's also weaker than Ultima Weapon in every way. It's really a disappointment after barely scraping by Bahamut and Ultima Weapon.
So it's over when you beat him, yeah? No. As the dungeon begins to collapse (because why not make him a load bearing boss) you're forced to flee back through the five floors of nothing you descended, with the boss chasing you. At the end of each "battle", plot happens to tie up some loose ends. The writing is terrible, the design is terrible. I think the apex of bad framing here is when one of the plot characters tries to help you by casting Protect on you just before you're forced by the game to flee the battle. Thanks? You can't lose these fights, they're just excuses to let the former antagonist "save" you by sacrificing itself.
The denouncement cutscene is twenty minutes of nothing. Most of it is framed around the four ninjas you don't care about. One funny point though is you're forced into a mock training battle between Cecil and his son and, if you're like me and unequipped everyone you weren't using, they're just punching each other until the game cuts the scene ten turns later. I'm pretty sure that's supposed to go faster than that! Even the closing cutscene has bad story/engine framing.
A long story short: there's a reason why people say TAY is miss-able, even for people who really love the FFIV canon. It's not worth playing even then because the game actively tries to ruin what you'd love about the original FFIV by forcing you to revisit dungeons, bosses, and then caps it off with a plot reveal that basically invalidated FFIV's entire story. I'm glad I played it, but I don't plan to ever touch it again or recommend anyone else do the same.