So, I am going to preface this review by saying I am certainly a bit biased towards this game as it is my favorite in the series. Great story, simple, clan mechanics, good pacing. Its all there. This is THE game that really solidified my love of RPGs when it was Final Fantasy II on the SNES. That being said, lets look into what we have here.
First of all, we have a massive amount of content. We have the original game, an interlude, and the after years sequel. Truely massive to fit in one cart. They all use the same engine, with a small change for the after years... that being bands. We'll get into the systems a bit later. Back to the length of the game. You have the main game at 12ish hours, the interlude at 2-3 hours and The After Years which easily clocks in at 50 hours... though this is bloated a bit by repetitive challenge dungeon gathering. I'd like to comment here about The After Years which originally was a cell phone game, and was released in chapters. 12 Chapters in all, 1 for each tale, and the last tale which was broken up into 3 parts originally. To fill in the time between releases they had the challenge dungeon which had rare loot if repeatedly completed as well as a rare dragon that could rarely drop a tail which gave you an accessory later in the game very similarly to Dimensions. This is how they padded the time in this game.
The challenge in this game really varies. In the main game, the challenge level is quite low. Especially if you know what you're doing. You can vary it some by refusing to use Spider Silks... but even without doing any level grinding you can really pace yourself through the main game. The interlude's challenge level is unimportant. It is really only there to tie up a few loose ends such as why the Maenad's can summon and give a timeline to things. In The After Years there's really various levels of challenge. First, some tales really make you consider your strategy as the party compositions change drastically in each one. Also, the challenge dungeons really are a challenge the first time you run them. Unfortunately, you level up really quickly in them and it becomes nothing but a grind after that. The Final Tale you can vary your challenge with the characters you use. Some of the bosses also can be a real challenge. I'm talking about Omega, Nova Dragon, as well as Ultima Weapon. They all require a decent amount of strategy. Strategy beyond Spider Silk.
The system of the game is so clean. You level up or get to certain parts of the game, you gain abilities... or bands. Each character has 5 stats. Strength, Intelligence, Spirit, Speed, and Stamina. The first 3 of these I consider main stats as they weigh heavily into damage, or healing. Speed is the most important stat in the game and learning what equipment makes you go faster is a must. Stamina really is a nice bonus I guess, I never found myself worrying about it all that much. The bands are interesting. They use up multiple characters turns to do some interesting things. Some give mega buffs, some do lots of damage, some do damage and healing... some just kind of look cool. These of course are only available in The After Years.
Postgame content. Well, we have the Lunar Ruins in the main game. This was originally introduced in Final Fantasy IV advance and carries over to here. Its basically just an extra dungeon that gives all your characters another tier's worth of gear with a souped up version of Zeromus at the end. Triple casting. A nice excuse to use some of the other characters though. In The After Years, we have Lost Babil. Which is a fight where you bring in 15 people in 3 parties and each fights a different section... Yeah, kind of a better designed Kefka fight. You win and you get a couple HP and MP increasing items. Oh well.
The story, once again weighs heavily on Elemental Crystals, though we never really see any effect on the elements themselves, its more how they all need to be collected to create an interdimensional gateway to the moon. Except, its not, its more about an angry Lunarian who is able to telepathically control a half-lunarian who is able to telepathically control a human. Yeah, its about travelling around, losing crystals at every turn, and then going to the moon and defeating an evil lunarian who's evil sticks around well after his body.
The after years brings a different moon into this and explains the purpose of the crystals. Initially, you spend the vast majority of the game investigating what happens after a meteorite containing a host of Rydia look-a-like clones called the Maenads to collect the crystals and bring them back to the True Moon. The Maenads consider themselves as a superior, more highly evolved species than us, and share Rydia's abilities to control the Eidolons after chaning them in another dimension. Anyway, after finally banding together and making our way to this True Moon, we descend and discover the crystals are actually recorders of evolution that a being called The Creator sent to many planets... The planets that host FF I-VI apparently. He wants to destroy the Blue Planet because it has not evolved quickly enough and is going to crash the moon straight into it. Really, while it sounds from left field, its a fairly decent explanation of many of the concepts of the game.
Each portion of the game includes its own Bestiary that you can fill up by defeating each monster. This is all well and good, however, in The After Years, some bestiary entries can only be obtained if you follow the non-suggested path through the game. Its like you have to make a choice between doing a canon playthrough and filling up the bestiary. And in a game as long as this, it was a bit annoying.
The sound is really great. The game includes two versions of the soundtrack. The original soundtrack, and a remastered version made especially for this edition. Whether you're going for nostalgia, or a slightly different take on some classic themes. You can't lose. Also, the tracks in this game are so memorable. Nobuo Uematsu's first foray into 16-bit sound truely showed his skill, and what he can do when not constrained by severe limits on the NES. The graphics are nice, the game runs extremely quickly. Which is nice. It still maintains the look of the original with the sprites, and everything, which is what probably allows it to run so quickly on the PSP. The couple cutscenes in the game are also beautiful. They look and sound amazing... especially if you compare it side by side with the DS version.
All in all, this was truely a great game. It was my first time playing the After Years and I was not disappointed. Sure, it was a little bloated, but as stated above, there are reasons for that. This is a game I will never tire of, and I'm sure I will play it again sometime... in fact I know I'm playing it again right now! I do mean sometime again in the future though. It is truly the definition of a classic RPG. Heavily weighted towards the wonderful story and characters with a simple battle system that is fun and engaging. I would bet that 10 years down the road if you wanted to introduce someone to RPGs this would probably still be the go to game to do it.
If you'd like to share your opinion, I would love to hear it!