Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection is what anyone could ask for in a re-release. Aside from including the best version of the original game, this edition also includes the entirety of The After Years, a direct sequel where the cast returns with a new generation of heroes to fight an even more powerful threat. There is even a bonus scenario for those who like a bonus every now and then. This set is an excellent value, but since value is subjective it is obligatory for me to give you, the reader, my thoughts on both games.
The storyline to Final Fantasy IV is one that I thought was incredible when I was ten years old. It's a story that revolves around sacrifice, so for younger me it was the craziest thing seeing characters off themselves relatively frequently. It's a storyline that hasn't exactly aged well due to this aspect. Everyone is in such a hurry to give his life for what is supposed to be the greater good. Thankfully, it's not all bad, as there is some earnest appeal to the story and it isn't like some stories I remember where characters sacrifice themselves to protect others only for said others to die five minutes later. Ultimately the story works on a conceptual level; in practice, it comes off as rather silly, but the themes are there.
This Complete Collection is likely to be about as good as Final Fantasy IV is ever going to get.
I might just be saying all this because Final Fantasy IV has gained some sort of immunity with me. This may be due to having played the game off and on for nearly twenty years, so I'm well aware of all of the game's shortcomings and yet I still really enjoy it. Thus, it is a bit difficult for me to even try to give a pretense of objectivity to this review. Nevertheless, I'll do what I can by pointing out where this game succeeds and falters.
We'll start off with the pacing, because it is perhaps some of the best I've seen in a Final Fantasy game. Cecil and his constantly rotating selection of party members trek the globe, underground, and even to the moon in less than fifteen hours. I looked to my oft-neglected save in Final Fantasy XIII and saw that I had spent ten hours doing almost nothing at all by comparison. I guess the same could be said for many of the cut-scene-dependent RPGs released these days. It takes forever to get anywhere.
The brisk pacing of Final Fantasy IV also benefits the difficulty, giving it a very nice curve. The early game is essentially "press the confirm button to win," but around the five-hour mark even the regular encounters become slightly threatening. I should also shamefully point out that I have an over-leveling habit and I still have difficulty with some of the later parts of the game.
This may have more to do with one of the more frustrating aspects of Final Fantasy IV. A number of late-game enemies love to counter spells with special attacks of their own. There are few things less rewarding than when I toss a firaga or a flare at a dragon only for him to absorb it and then respond with an attack that destroys my entire party. This limits my options severely and I'm forced to stick to just pounding away on foes until they fall over. Any sort of strategic play is best reserved for bosses, since on average the random encounters take about fifteen seconds apiece. This unfortunately leads into the fact that the encounter rate for this game is too high. This is all well and good when I need the experience, but a number of dungeons feature enemy parties that simply aren't any fun to kill (like the Marlboro family and their awful bad breath). There is also a high percentage of battles that start with the party getting ambushed or back-attacked. On the other hand, battles where the party gets the first strike end without the enemy getting so much as a cough out.
More often than not, the strategy for beating a boss in Final Fantasy IV is to figure out its gimmick, use slow to dull its performance, and then unload with the most powerful abilities. Due to how this game focuses on party members with their classes set in stone, options are minimal. I just have to deal with the fact that Cecil is only really good at hitting things with a sword, Rydia nukes everything, and Rosa does the job of a white mage. Thankfully, since this version of Final Fantasy is based off the Game Boy Advance remake, I have a handful of additional characters to pick from for the final leg of the journey.
Aside from the additional party members, this edition also carries over the two optional dungeons. The first one is available just before the final dungeon and presents an opportunity for players to get some nice loot for everyone. The second dungeon is a massive post-game affair and features among other things some character-specific adventures that tie the player's chances at getting some of the best equipment to some rather absurd objectives. Rosa's in particular is terrible, since she has to run around a town healing all of the wounded or else she misses out on a great piece of equipment. Kain also has to solve some boring murder mystery that seems to take nearly a half-hour just to sit through, and if you mess up at the boss you get to do it all over again. Thankfully, this is all optional and will likely only interest those players who must have the best stuff and get to fight the most ultimate final boss.
There are a couple of aggravations still present in this remake. The item limit is still around, which requires several trips to the fat chocobo to unload some weight, and arrows are still limited, which doesn't do spellcasters any favors as they have little else to attack with in random encounters. It is nitpicking, but considering both of these issues are alleviated in the next game, I have to wonder why they persist in this remake, especially considering it came out afterwards. Other than that, Final Fantasy IV is still as solid as ever and everything moves so quickly I don't get hung up on the negatives for too long.
The After Years started off as an episodic series on the Wii and mobile phones. Divided into nearly a dozen chapters, with each of them focusing on different heroes, this entry is all about character development. Aside from the finale, these chapters take about two to four hours to complete. Since this edition includes all of the chapters from the outset, the player has to finish them all before he can enter the final dungeons, instead of merely purchasing what most interests him and going from there.
The majority of this game is a bit of a slow burn. The playable characters start off at low levels. It is one of those things I have to wonder about because it's difficult to believe characters like Rydia, Palom, and the other spellcasters forgot almost all of their magic. Other characters have probably been relaxing a bit too much, since the last battle and their experience levels have dropped down to the teens. They also must have sold all their nice equipment. I guess I shouldn't complain too much seeing as how game characters like Samus Aran and Mega Man lose their powers constantly.
Since After Years is a direct sequel, it takes place on the same planet as the original game. All of the same towns and the same dungeons have been recreated and the same weapons and same armor can be found. To top it off, almost all of the same enemies make their way into this game. I apologize for the redundancy, but this is what one has to expect when taking on The After Years. There are some new enemies and dungeons to contend with, but they're practically buried under all of the recycled content. Don't make the same mistake as I did by playing both Final Fantasy IV games back to back. The feeling of familiarity is nice, but it will get tiring before long.
On the bright side, Square Enix made some effort in keeping each story interesting. First off, the numbers of playable characters in each story is limited, so expect to go through many dungeons with only two or three party members. All of the stories also feature one or even two challenge dungeons that can be attempted. "Challenge" is a good word for these areas, as they feature a number of high-level enemies and some tough bosses. The dungeons are also well worth exploring as some of them are pretty creative. One that I found to be particularly interesting involves Edward looking for money so that he can buy the nicest end-of-dungeon reward.
Experience levels and equipment can also be saved and carried over to the final chapters, an option that is always nice. On the other hand, this can also be considered unnecessary, as better stuff is found in the final chapters as well. If you have the patience for it, you can hunt some rare encounters for their tails. These tails can be traded in for some really nice goodies, but that isn't until the tail end of the game. Another aspect that is just an absolute nuisance is that all completed stories must be saved in separate slots or else they can't be carried over.
The best part of After Years is easily the final chapter. While the character development in the earlier chapters is pleasant and the new cast is fun to play around with, it all feels rather meaningless without a dungeon that really puts their abilities to the test. The Final Chapter basically consists of two huge dungeons filled to the brim with boss battles. While a number of Final Fantasy IV veterans make their return, expect to see classic bosses from other entries in the series. What's also great is that the twenty or so playable characters can be swapped around to inject some much needed options for how to take these battles on. All in all, this makes for an excellent finale to justify the slog that defines the early chapters of The After Years.
This edition of Final Fantasy IV also throws in a new scenario that details the events between both the original game and After Years. I didn't think much of it, as the storyline failed to catch my interest, but it only takes a couple hours to burn through. I'm sure it's necessary for the completionist-crowd who must do everything possible in a game, but as far as I'm concerned it isn't really worth the trouble. This crowd is also likely to go wild for the hundreds of monsters that can be found and, hopefully, killed.
This Complete Collection is likely to be about as good as Final Fantasy IV is ever going to get. Both games still retain the pick-up-and-play aspect that is sorely lacking in Japanese RPGs today. Having to contend with several different subsystems and scraping equipment together by killing dozens of monsters for their skins just doesn't appeal to me quite as much as finding awesome weapons in a chest somewhere and being able to merely select the fight command whenever I want something dead. I strongly recommend giving this collection a look.