INNOVATION? Releasing games in chunks is a new idea — but it's not a good idea.
Final Fantasy IV: The After Years started as a Japan-only cellphone game and has washed up on American shores in the form of WiiWare. Only the first four chapters have been released so far — which translates into about six hours of gameplay. These wrap up with a twist designed to motivate you to buy the next three chapters when they're released in July (and then the next three chapters the month after that, and again after that).
Everything about TheAfter Years recalls its predecessor: the setting is the same, most faces are familiar, the plot will give you déjà vu. Even the treasure chests are in the exact identical spots. You'll spend some time playing as FF4 heroes Cecil and Rosa, who are now the monarchs of the land of Baron, but the real protagonist of TheAfter Years is their son Ceodore. The 17-year-old prince begins the game by earning the right to be a part of the king's most prestigious airship fleet. Soon afterward, however, monsters attack the airship and it crashes, leaving the prince as the sole survivor. Ceodore spends the game traveling back to Baron (where monsters are already attacking his parents' castle), running into followers and foes as the plot demands. His main companion is "The Hooded Man," a mysterious swordsman who seems to recognize recurring characters.
The battle system is identical to FF4's, with two variations. First off, there's the influence of the moon. It will change its phase if you stay at an inn, set up a tent, or simply wait long enough, and that phase will determine which of your fighting tactics works best. When the moon is full, for example, black magic is twice as effective, but your sword is half as strong. Keeping track of these phases adds a new tactical element to the long-established Final Fantasy battle system.
The other change is the addition of "band" attacks, by which two characters can combine their strengths. King Cecil can, for example, merge his sword's slash with Queen Rosa's white magic to form the attack "Holy Blade." The game will not let you know which band attacks exist, so you'll want to try combining characters' attacks on your own to discover them all.
As for the graphics, remember that TheAfter Years did start out as a cellphone game. You'll find yourself wondering why the developers chose to release it on the Wii instead of as a hand-held (or, better yet, on American cellphones). Simplistic sprites were made for tiny screens, and playing TheAfter Years on a big-screen TV seems . . . wrong.
The reason Square did release this game on the Wii, of course, was so it could use the WiiWare system to release a piece of the story each month. The thing is, Final Fantasy fans would still have grabbed this title if it had been a $40 release on the DS or PSP. (It'll cost $37 on the Wii once the full story is available.) Releasing games in chunks is a new idea — but it's not a good idea, especially in an industry where gamers already see their most anticipated releases get pushed back time and time again. Diehard FF4 fans could be counting down till July; everyone else is apt to have forgotten about TheAfter Years by then. Besides, the game's story is too reminiscent of FF4 to keep anyone in suspense for long. Couldn't we just break out the SNES and play the original?