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The Whole Game in My Hand #9

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2008-05-28
Games reviewed in this article:

A very nice start to the new year ... if not in quality at least in quantity! There are some very interesting titles out this quarter, including loads of dungeon crawlers and hack-n-slash action-RPG's. Speaking of quarters, I have decided to take this article quarterly. It seems to be moving that way, and provides me some more clarity in terms of getting stuff together. I will review games released all the way to the end of the quarter and plan the article for sometime the following month,depending on the releases. This month had a couple of large games released just before the end of the quarter, pushing things out a bit for me.

Nintendo DS – January/February/March Releases

Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts (DS) (My Score 2.5/5, Rated E)
Apparently there was a game called Dungeon Explorer released on the TG-16 back in 1989 that was also released on the Wii Virtual Console last year. The game was a fairly blatant Gauntlet-clone with additional RPG elements and some nice varied locations, but nothing all that revolutionary even nineteen years ago - it is certainly not one of those historic gems that brings a nostalgiac tear to older gamers' eyes. So it is perhaps surprising that Hudson chose this franchise to resurrect for a pair of games on the DS and PSP bearing the same name but otherwise very different. But neither new Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of the Ancient Arts game owes much to the original other than the moniker, and they are different enough to deserve their own reviews.

There seems to be some common elements to dungeon crawlers on handhelds: average graphics, decent soundtracks, thin plots, simplistic controls and an almost maniacal focus on combat. Dungeon Explorer pretty well fits that mold, but let me dig into the specifics a bit. The game is a fairly basic hack-n-slash affair, and the basic motivation for your dungeon crawling is laid out in the opening scenes and quick tutorial quests. Simply, there is a ancient evil god who was sealed away, but there are plans by some to bring him back to support their evil schemes. It is up to you to thwart those plans. Along the way there are plenty of NPC's you can talk to who will provide you with loads of backstory and flavor as well as some quests. It is a nice addition that provides even more motivation for your main quest.

Technically the game is below average. The graphics are GBA-standard at their best, and lousy at worst. The soundtrack is fairly standard stuff, but is of pretty high quality in terms of sound fidelity and also the quality of themes. As expected, the dialogue isn't voiced, but there are plenty of other sound effects which are all pretty decent as well. The controls are quite basic - you use the D-pad and buttons to play, with no touch-screen utilization. Paired with the graphics, it makes the game feel like an early DS game that was originally intended for the GBA and then reworked slightly for release on the new system. Note to Hudson: the DS isn't remotely new anymore, so there is little excuse to release a game that feels like it could have been a 2002 GBA release.

Of course, a game like this lives or dies in the dungeons. Fortunately this is the best part of the game; unfortunately it still isn't great. You choose from the standard fantasy classes (fighter/rogue/mage) and enhance your abilities and skills as you gain levels. You also gain power through new equipment, and also by gaining a pet robot that can gain the ability to evolve into a powerful companion. Mages will gain new and more powerful spells as they progress as well. The simple controls work quite well and allow easy access to spells and items. The different classes provide a fair amount of replayability, which is good because the main quest is fairly short - about ten hours or so. Unfortunately the only multiplayer option is multi-card (meaning all players need a copy of the game), and the multiplayer quests are also rather short.

There is little reason for me to recommend this game to anyone: if you are not a fan of dungeon crawlers you won't like this game, and even if you are a fan there are several better options available on the DS: Izuna, Tao's Adventure, Etrian Odyssey (with the sequel coming soon), and the recently released Shiren the Wanderer and forthcoming Mazes of Fate DS. Yet if you are a true die-hard fan of the genre, you will not consider the game a waste of money: you know that the graphics will be sparse, the story thin, and the combat system and character classes satisfying enough to carry you through a few playthroughs. And what else can a fan of classic roguelikes ask for?

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (DS) (My Score 4/5, Rated E)
I never knew I had a masochistic side, but apparently I do. How do I know this? From the long string of terribly difficult rogue-like games that I buy just to watch myself die repeatedly as I work my way through. This particular game is a remake of an old Super Nintendo game released more than a dozen years ago only in Japan as Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fuurai no Shiren. Why do you care? You don't, it just frames the expectations for this game in terms of graphics, gameplay and difficulty. The game hits all of the required elements for a rogue-like: turn-based combat, hard as nails, unforgiving death penalty, paper thin story, graphics as an afterthoughts, focus on combat. And it does it all well enough to make this an easy game to recommend to anyone who liked Etrian Odyssey or Izuna, and an easy game NOT to recommend to everyone else.

The first thing that should be clear is that you do not buy a rogue-like looking for great graphics, cutscenes that will tug at your heart strings, intricate and winding stories, or other things you might find in a story-driven adventure or more traditional RPG. It looks, sounds and plays like a game from the SNES era, albeit updated to work perfectly on the DS and with graphics that are perfectly acceptable for a 2008 release on the platform.

The turn-based system is simple enough - every time you move, attack, equip items, or use an item it counts as a turn. You regain health with every move and can also remain stationary and pass turns manually to heal while watching your surroundings. However, enemies on the field also get a move every turn and will actively pursue you over a wide range of each level. As you work your way through areas you pick up items that you can use or equip or save for later. In town you can (and absolutely must) store these in a warehouse for when you die.

This brings up the real question for fans of the genre: just how brutal *IS* this game? Plenty brutal; as in 'expect to die often' brutal; it is 'you die permenantly and lose everything' brutal; it is so brutal that one of the cool features is that you can send out a 'revive request' over Nintendo WiFi. If someone else is in-game and has access to WiFi they can come out and rescue you where you dropped. Is this likely to ever happen? Not based on my experience - but it is really a cool feature. Also in town (and occasionally in dungeons) you will find people who will give you helpful advice and occasionally helpful items. Any items you get for free are welcome as gold is scarce throughout, and the help and practice is very nice as mastering the game is as much about learning tactics as anything else.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is not for everyone, as I have said. Some folks get quesy at the thought of putting hours into a game, only to quickly die and lose everything and get returned to level one. If so this is just not a game for you - it is brutal in difficulty, unforgiving in death, and full of thnigs that you need to constantly worry about. But if you can get past the limited inventory and your character's constant hunger for food you can barely afford, and if you can manage to learn tactics and be patient in working through dungeons, the game is a fun and rewarding addition to the roles of rogue-likes on the DS.

Anno 1701: Dawn of Discovery (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E)
The Anno series of strategy / simulation games is very popular in Europe, and the 2006 North American release of A.D. 1701 (why the name change?) enjoyed some popular success (read my GamerDad review here). However, for all but fans of the series the news released over a year ago that a DS version of the game was planned never registered. The game was released in Europe last August, and has finally arrived in North America with the subtitle "Dawn of Discovery" ... but at least it keeps the Anno moniker.

I really loved the PC game, and this one is every bit as good. You start right in with a tutorial that loads on skills and information while having you play the game - you learn layer after layer of strategy without feeling either overwhelmed or spoon-fed. There are loads of things to build to grow your fledgling colony - markets, houses, fisheries, sugar plantations, roads, and more. You will also need to man ships for exploration and to transport good between the various ports of the islands you'll inhabit and populate. But beware, there is combat possible if you run afoul of the natives, and don't forget that there was plenty of competition in settling the colonies. But the majority of the game is about building, expanding and upgrading your settlements.

One thing that really surprised me was how well the control system worked. After all, this is essentially a real-time strategy game! The game works off of a radial selection menu that is flexible and very simple to operate. You choose what to build and then place the building or connect the road between two points. You use the stylus to select buildings and then a radial menu appears offering plenty of micromanagement options. There are zoom levels that allow you to back off for more strategic control or zoom in to more closely monitor what is happening. Very little seems to have been sacrificed bringing this game to the small screen - there are plenty of feedback options and the game does a great job managing use of both screens.

One thing that is new for the DS version is that you can compete against others over a local WiFi connection using multi-card competitive play. It would have been nice if it allowed for connectivity over the internet, since most people I know with this game are in Europe, but that doesn't take away from the fun the game offers. This is a great strategy game mixed with economic simulation and world building - is like a refocused Civilization that is easier to share with younger kids. Because the game is more tightly focused on supply economics than the sprawling expanse of Civilization IV, it is easier for kids to get into playing it. Yet there is considerable depth - this isn't a simple 'city builder'. It falls somewhere in-between both of those types of game, while having a unique characteristic that makes it appealing.

The ESRB has rated this game 'E for Everyone' and only noted 'Mild Violence'. This is directly related to the potential battles with natives and other military options. Similar to the PC version, you set these up but don't have any direct control, nor is there anything violent or bloody that happens. In fact, it is only slightly more violent than the average Harvest Moon game or Animal Crossing, and certainly much less so than any of the Civilization series.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate(DS) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated E-10+)
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a fun GameCube game that hit its' best potential when played by a group including someone with a GameBoy hooked up to the Cube. Unlike any of the other games in the Final Fantasy franchise I have actually seen this one played firsthand - my older son picked it up in the bargain bin a couple of years ago, and has enjoyed playing it occasionally ever since. But just like every other game in the franchise I never played it until it hit handhelds. This is not an epic top-quality journey like the two other games out of the franchise this year (Final Fantasy XII: Revenent Wings for the DS and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the PSP), but neither is it as bad as the whiny opening would have you fear.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate is a party-based action-RPG that starts off with a cute tale of a young brother and sister unable to manage an axe to split a log who discover a joint ability that gives them power beyond what they could imagine. Pretty soon they are taking on an adventure in search of fun and excitement, but the tale quickly gets darker and more serious - but never falls outside of safely E-10 rated content. There is a tragedy that forces Yuki and Chelinka to grow up quickly and deal with serious situations. They need to team up with a variety of other characters to battle a group called the Lunites who are looking to bring the evil influence of the moon to rule over the world. One thing that makes this game stand out from most other DS games is that the majority of dialogue is voiced. Sometimes the voices of the main protagonist children get annoying, but overall the acting is suprisingly well done. This is fairly uncommon on the DS - some games have some voiced dialogue, but it is usually poorly done, while most games have text to read. Even the excellent Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the PSP has only limited voiced dialogue, so the combined quality and quantity of it here is a surprise. Visually the game is solid throughout, with gorgeous cutscenes dropped in alongside detailed graphics that show changes in your characters' armor and weapons, and varied scenes and environments.

The gameplay itself is a straight action-RPG but is clearly part of the Final Fantasy universe: there are no jobs, but the spells, equipment and other items will allow you to develop a very standard Final Fantasy party. The combat system works very well for melee attacks, featuring normal and special attacks as well as different abilities for each race. The magic system is powerful and there are diverse spells, but the need to aim spells manually is problematic. Also problematic is the intelligence of party members not directly controlled by the player - in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate it is possible to walk off a ledge and take damage and have to respawn. If this happens to one of your party members you need to press the L button to respawn them - you will be doing this frequently.

Multiplayer is excellent, with one caveat: it is 'local' only. Just as with the original, part of the fun of the game is gathering together in the same room to work through a bunch of quests. In that limited scope it is excellent and really satisfying. However, the lack of a story-based mode and especially the lack of WiFi multiplayer are a real shame. Given that the main game is relatively short, lasting less than a dozen hours, it seems that online multiplayer would have been a natural extension that would have provided a much longer life for the game.

Overall Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate is a solid and fun game that is a fine addition to the franchise and easy to recommend to DS RPG fans. It is a good game but not a great one; it is a game with many solid features held back by some control issues and inadequate multiplayer. If you can only buy one Final Fantasy game this year, don't make it this one - either of the other two 2008 releases I mentioned would be a better choice. But if you go into the experience with open eyes and an open mind, you will not be disappointed.

Nintendo DS – The DS RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

April has a few solid-looking RPG's on tap for the DS: Rondo of Swords, The World Ends With You, new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, and my personal fave GBA port Mazes of Fate. May brings the first iteration of the Summon Night series to the DS - I loved the GBA games and am looking forward to this. June sees the arrival of one of my most anticipated games of the year - the sequel to Etrian Odyssey.

Sony PSP – January/February/March Releases

Warriors of the Lost Empire (PSP) (My Score 2.5/5, Rated T)
Every now and then a game comes along that redefines a genre or subgenre; a game that changes your assumptions about what is possible; a game that becomes the standard-bearer against which all newcomers are judged. This isn't one of those. Instead, it is a generic hack-n-slash dungeon crawler with limited combat and a more limited story. Amazingly for a game with such limited scope, each of the four characters has a distinct story entering the game, working through the game and all the way to the end. And while you might not want to play through to the end, fans of the hack-n-slash genre will get several hours of fun from the experience and appreciate that with all the flaws the developers at least took time to add in at least a bit of replayability.

But there are flaws - oh, how there are flaws! First and foremost, *every* dungeon you enter looks identical! OK, that isn't quite fair - there are 'early game dungeons' and 'late game dungeons' ... so that is variety, right? Not really - it is a singular change that gives you a breath of relief for a second then resumes pure boredom. Think of why you like action-RPGs: interesting and varied challenges against enemies, possibly solid enemy AI that tries to kill you and prevent dying, and a feeling of impending peril that makes you want to avoid dying. None of that is present here - the monster intelligence is poor even by the low standards of the genre, as enemies will stand around as you kill them off one at a time, and if they do notice you, move away and they'll quickly forget you.

Combat is dreadfully boring as all you have to do is button mash throughout - no strategy will help you, as either you are destined to beat the dungeon or be beaten to death. But no worries - there is no penalty whatsoever for dying - you simply restart the dungeon with every item and experience point intact. If that sounds like a formula for sucking the fun out of a game, it is. This is the sort of game that will be an effort to play for an extended time, as quickly you will start finding things such as doing laundry and cleaning floors as exciting alternatives. The game is fun in short bursts, but there are many others that are at least as good - skip this one and get the Dungeon Siege PSP game instead, even with the horrific load times it is much better.

Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts (PSP) (My Score 2.5/5, Rated E-10)
Apparently there was a game called Dungeon Explorer released on the TG-16 back in 1989 that was also released on the Wii Virtual Console last year. The game was a fairly blatant Gauntlet-clone with additional RPG elements and some nice varied locations, but nothing all that revolutionary even nineteen years ago - it is certainly not one of those historic gems that brings a nostalgiac tear to older gamers' eyes. So it is perhaps surprising that Hudson chose this franchise to resurrect for a pair of games on the DS and PSP bearing the same name but otherwise very different. But neither new Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of the Ancient Arts game owes much to the original other than the moniker, and they are different enough to deserve their own reviews.

Taking a somewhat different approach than the DS version, the story takes place a few centuries earlier and focuses on heroes that rise up to battle the emerging evil. There is political turmoil and you are forced to take up as an adventurer, though your experienced pedigree allows you to advance more quickly through the adventuring classes than a fresh new recruit. The game is also more visually focused than the DS release, allowing you to select your general appearance, your gender, race and basic class before getting started with the adventure. Depending on what race you select you get a slightly different starting story, all of which end you at more or less the same place. The game starts off pretty nicely - you help seal off a cave which should seal away the monsters who have been overrunning the world, but strife amongst men creates evil in the land which feeds the power of the trapped monsters and allows them to break free again.

The structure of the game is fairly simple: you go to the adventurer's guild, take on an adventure, then exit through the town gates into a random dungeon where you battle enemies, collect items and treasures, and destroy 'monster generators'. These generators do exactly what they indicate - produce a non-stop stream of monsters until destroyed. After completing all tasks in the dungeon - or failing - you are transported back to town. Back in town you can rest in your room, which allows you to store items and save your progress; you can also buy items and allocate attribute and skill points gained through completing quests. Be careful buying items - unlike so many games in the genre, gold remains tight throughout. This entire quest process is repeated for the entire game - story quests are pretty much the same as optional quests, but often are accompanied by a cutscene. There is little compelling content - the story feels incoherent at times, and there is just not much to motivate you to get to the next quest or level.

Technically the game looks and sounds pretty good, but isn't going to win any awards. Translations are particularly spotty - they start out badly, but actually improve to be reasonably done for the majority of the game. Controls work quite well - and fortunately so, since combat is the core feature in this dungeon crawler. Your character has primary and secondary skills and spells you can assign to various buttons, and you often get to bring a companion or two or three along on a quest. Added team members allow you to unleash time-based team attacks that can be very powerful. The game also allows easy changing of your character's combat class, which keeps things fresh at the possible expense of replayability.

The game rounds out the experience with a solid crafting system and reasonable multiplayer. You can take up to two other players through dungeons with you, but you cannot do this to gain additional levels as you only gain items through multiplayer. Items from either single player or multiplayer can be used in the crafting system, which allows all manner of offensive and defensive items. This helps augment the typical dungeon crawl process of gaining levels and loot to fight more powerful enemies to gain more levels and loot and so on. This game is better than something similar such as Valhalla Knights, but unless you are a die-hard dungeon crawler junkie there is no reason to even give it a try.

Wild Arms XF (PSP) (My Score 2./5, Rated E-10)

The PSP strategy RPG space was a festering sea of mediocrity in 2005 & 2006, featuring games such as 'Generation of Chaos'. So 2007 was a sort of renaissance, with two stellar (Jeanne d'Arc and Disgaea) and one very good (Final Fantasy Tactics) addition to the genre for the platform. While not a repeat of last year, 2008 is starting out on the good side of history, with the solid and enjoyable Wild Arms XF (XF stands for 'Cross Fire') providing fans of the franchise and genre with many hours of fun with some unfortunate problem spots that hold the game back from reaching the potential occasionally seen in the game.

The Wild Arms jRPG franchise is highly regarded and has many solid entries on the Playstation consoles through the years - it has even inspired an anime series. The games are unique in their setting - the American Old West. They also feature music and other elements that are reminiscent of movies about the 'wild west'. Through the series new elements have been added to broaden the audience - science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy components are mixed in with the traditional western setting; the games have also become much more action-oriented with each entry. Wild Arms XF is the seventh game in the series (though one is an enhanced remake of the original), and the first for a handheld game system. It is also a departure because it is a strategy RPG that focuses much more on thoughtful decision making than on quickly laying down heavy swaths of destruction.

From the very start the game is captivating - wild west themes, bright anime visuals, and an engaging story draw you in and let you know immediately that this is a Wild Arms game. The cutscenes are very nicely done, with solid voice acting and a story that is interesting enough to keep your head in the game during the long battles. Even the battlefield is a hex grid similar to recent PS2 entries - but that is where the similarities end. The focus in a s-RPG is on long and paced combat that is won by careful planning and use of resources. The battle system works very well, with an informative overview that will provide tactical clues as you prepare your party for combat. You can change classes and craft items, and each of these is essential at different times during the game. On many occasions the battles feel like a quest for the one hidden strategic element key to victory, but are generally just nicely challenging struggles that use elements familiar to fans of the genre. Surprisingly there are are no side-quests or multiplayer options to enhance replayability, but the game itself is quite long and the difficulty is high enough that you'll be busy for dozens of hours just getting through the main quest.

So ... I've said that the story is decent, the presentation is solid, and the battles are challenging and engaging; are you waiting for the other shoe to drop? Well, there is no major 'killer defect' that destroys the game as there were in all of the pre-2007 sRPG's, there are enough 'little things' that are frustrating and limiting that keep this game from rising above 'good'. In fact not only does everything about the game - story, presentation, combat, characters, classes, quests, general structure, and so on - fall well below the high bar set by Jeanne d'Arc and Disgaea, they also fall below Final Fantasy Tactics. Switching classes is great, but constantly having to switch to a particular class to meet an objective and remembering to re-equip items each time is just frustrating. Challenging and varied mission objectives are expected at this point, but 'quick fail' missions like being spotted causing stealth mission failures and a single villager dying causing escort mission failures ends up just being frustrating as you constantly replay these annoying missions again and again in order to proceed.

Is Wild Arms XF something you should get? I have no major regrets with my purchase despite the flaws, but it is not something I would recommend getting unless: you have completely played Jeanne d'Arc and Disgaea, and Final Fantasy Tactics on the PSP; are a big fan of the Wild Arms series; and have nothing better to do with dozens of gaming hours.

Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core (PSP) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10)

Here is a game that PSP users have been waiting for over three years, and I look at it in detail as this month's 'feature review'.

Sony PSP – The PSP RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

Did you see that tumbleweed? After a blazing first quarter things quiet down quite a bit. In fact, there isn't a single RPG I could find for the next quarter. I have a non-RPG action game that I will include and anything else interesting that comes along, but suffice it to say that the focus in the second quarter isn't on the PSP.

Well, this has proved an interesting few months, with some reasonably good releases on both systems during what is usually a very slow time of year ... now let's move on and take a look at Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core in some more detail.

Handheld RPG Review - Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII(PSP)

I feel like the often incoherent Paula Abdul speaking to contestants of American Idol as the first thing I say about this game is "it looks absolutely gorgeous". Yet when you play the game, by the time you reach the opening menu screen that is exactly what you will think. This is a great looking game, and fortunately it is also a lot of fun to play.

As someone who was there at the launch of the PSP I had been waiting for a look at this game for three years, but since I'm not a huge Final Fantasy fan I don't consider myself biased either negatively or positively by that. It is just something that seems to have been on the horizon for as long as Dragon Age, so when it actually got a release date it was hard not to get excited. There are certainly flaws and some oddities throughout, but overall Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a solid game that is an easy recommendation to anyone who owns a PSP.

Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?

So what is the name of this thing anyway? Some call it Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core while others call it Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. It really doesn't matter to me, but for many it is a sign of emphasis. Is this an off-shoot of the seminal Playstation game, like the not-so-great 'Dirge of Cerebrus', or is it a new story that wraps around the existing mythos? Apparently the 'official' name is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, perhaps indicating that the game is intended to be a robust and stand-alone story in the Final Fantasy VII universe, so from here on out I'll just call it Crisis Core.

For many, the Final Fantasy VII world has been tapped out to the extreme between the expansions and movies, so seeing yet another game in this setting causes 'franchise fatigue'. Again, I haven't played any of the games, and only seen snippets of the movies (which made little sense without any knowledge from the games), so I entered the game without anything but basic knowledge - Sephiroth = eventual really bad guy, Cloud = Good guy, Zack = minor NPC seen only in flashbacks, Aerith = doomed, and not much else.

Fortunately you really don't need to know anything about the previously released games or movies to make sense of Crisis Core. The setting is in a futuristic fantasy world dominated by corporate conglomerates with grand designs on consolidation and conquest. Shinra Corporation is the largest controller of Midgard, and has an elite military force called SOLDIER. You play as Zack Fair, a brash young SOLDIER second-class who is very ambitious and more than a little reckless who wants nothing more than to be a hero and ascend to the highest rank - first class. Honestly, he starts the game whiny and annoying and reminded me of a better looking version of Rosh Penin from the game Jedi Academy with cool anime hair. He is mentored by Angeal, a cool and calm SOLDIER first-class who carries - but barely uses - the Buster sword (yes, THAT one). The early story quickly fleshes out the relationship between those characters, introduces Sephiroth and also an unseen for SOLDIER names Genesis. From there you are sent on missions which are augmented by loads of cutscenes that push the story along. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the story for two reasons: if you know the Final Fantasy VII story, telling you what happens is like outlining the Star Wars prequels to someone who already knows the Original Trilogy (yeah, Anakin becomes Vader, we get it already); and if you don't know the story, it is worth uncovering on your own.

On a mission without permission!

Your goal as you play is to advance the story and complete your assignments for Shinra and learn about Angeal, Genesis, Sephiroth, meet Aerith and advance Zack through levels and ranks. However, while you could spend perhaps a couple of dozen hours or so doing that, you will spend tens of hours completing optional missions you can access from save points.

Missions come in all forms: from simple fetch quests to more elaborate boss battles, tasking you with bringing back materia, discovering new beasts or defeating tough monsters again for research purposes. But ultimately they are single-minded: you enter an area, kill everything and grab whatever goodies you can find, and then defeat the final enemy wave to get the reward and leave. That doesn't make them boring; indeed, the way they are structured and the nice variety of mission types and locations and enemies makes it a perfect fit for handheld gaming. It is easy to get lost in sessions of doing nothing but missions for quite a while without advancing the plot at all.

Just another note on missions - there are 300 of them. That is right: three hundred missions. And they are on a rolling difficulty scale that changes as you gain experience and Zack levels up. This means that a mission rated 'very hard' when Zack is level 6 could be 'easy' when he hits level 12. The good thing about this is that it allows you to try hard missions to push yourself, and if you fail you can go back when you're more able to beat the challenge. Failing a mission (i.e. dying) has no consequences for the player - you are simply returned to the save point and can retry the same mission, attempt another mission, or go back to working through the main story quests. Dying in the main game means 'game over', and since you can only save at specific save points (or at chapter transitions) this can mean losing a fair amount of progress.

It all falls to a roll of the ... um ... wheels?

The combat and level-up system in Crisis Core are ... well, weird. Well, combat at its' core isn't too weird: Square Enix has abandoned the turn-based combat system in favor of an interesting 'turn-based action-RPG' system. OK, I guess an action-based system that still has turns sounds strange, and it feels somewhat unresponsive until you realize that combat consists of quasi-continuous one second rounds. You can take advantage of this to line up attacks, but can also bog yourself down if you resort to button mashing. Once you sync up with the system you will find yourself able to use the rhythm of the turns to queue up attacks, switch between combat, magic and healing easily between rounds, and generally keep yourself a step ahead of your opponents - although you will occasionally meet up with enemies that will one-hit kill you and destroy all of your carefully planned combat strategy.

Combat in Crisis Core involves many common Final Fantasy elements: there is the typical swordplay, familiar spells such as Firaga and Cura, and materia and fusing of elements. The concept of materia was central to Final Fantasy VII and is carried on nicely in this game. Learning the skill and collecting materia allows you to fuse them to create more powerful items. You are not creating a party of characters with complementary jobs here, it is all Zack: but as you progress you learn the offensive and defensive spells in addition to various combat moves. In the tradition of previous Final Fantasy games you can equip Zack with all sorts of combinations of armor, spells and skills - or simply choose the 'best' configuration for offense, defense or magic. Unfortunately you cannot do this during a battle (which actually makes sense), so if you are equipped as a sword-fighter and come up against an enemy who is resistant to physical damage but weak against lightning, you will have to fail, reload and re-equip.

At the core of the entire combat and leveling system is the 'DMW' - Digital Mind Wave. This is a set of three constantly spinning dials in the upper left corner of the screen numbered 1-7. These are accompanied by the faces of many key characters from the game. Using AP during combat causes one of the wheels to stop. When certain combinations come together, something happens. If this sounds like a slot machine, it is because that is how it functions. Minor combinations happening during battle will provide status bonuses such as spells requiring no MP or skills requiring no AP or Zack being immune to physical damage or so on. When 'major' combinations come up - such as three Sephiroths - you call a special power attack that does devastating damage to one or all of the enemies. You can tell you have had a 'major' combination because the DMW expands to occupy the whole screen.

The design of the level-up system makes it almost entirely dependant on the DMW. In order to level up a skill you need to 'spin a pair' - have a pair of the same numbers come up. So if you have two "1's" come up you might level up the Cura spell and then launch a special attack. If you come up with triple 7's, Zack gains a level. If this sounds completely random to you, you have it pretty much right. What happens when can have a powerful effect on the results of a battle or mission, and you have little power to affect this part of the flow of battle. I say 'little power' because the system isn't entirely random. The longer the wheels spin since the last time you gained a new skill level, a special combat condition or a new level for Zack, the more likely one of those conditions is to occur. But there is still no escaping the fact that the system will occasionally reward Zack with two levels in the same battle and other times go through several missions without gaining any special attributes.

We are the music makers... and we are the dreamers of dreams.


The music of Final Fantasy has always been good, and Crisis Core is no exception. The music of the series is so beloved that it has spawned two best-selling worldwide concert tours (latest one - Much of the soundtrack for the game is based on works from the original Final Fantasy VII, but at no point does it simply fall back on that work. This is an area where the game could have chosen the 'quick and easy path' and not been too harshly criticized: fans greatly enjoy the original and would have been fine with a remix, and those new to the game would have been treated with a truly excellent set of musical themes. But the composers did themselves proud by reworking central themes from the original, expanding and devolving some to reflect the prequel and prescient nature of events of the game, and also introduced many new songs and themes that are exciting and engaging.

I have already mentioned how great the game looks, but I really just need to elaborate a bit because it is more than good looking - it is drop-dead gorgeous. The cutscenes - of which there are many - are equal to watching a theatrical CGI film on your PSP in terms of visual and audio quality. Voice acting is rock-solid throughout. There are also plenty of in-game scenes, which are also great to watch but contain my single complaint - there is scant voice acting despite watching the character's lips move. It seems petty, but in such a great looking game it is a shame that more of the lines weren't voiced. The look and feel of the rest of the game - characters, settings, effects and so on - are also very well done. Put simply this game looks better than almost any PS2 game and stands head-and-shoulders above pretty much any other PSP game (except the recent God of War: Chains of Olympus).

Having good controls on the PSP is a critical challenge for action games. Too often you feel the impact of not having two analog sticks, and also feel limited by the number and layout of buttons. Simply making the controls 'unremarkable' is a tough feat to manage, but that is what Crisis Core achieves. You will not have problems with the camera controls or moving about or switching combat functions during battle, because the controls are laid out logically and overloaded in a way that makes sense. You will not ever think much about the controls - unless you go out of your way to think about them, at which point you'll realize that they are pretty solid.

Of course, all of this comes at a price, right? I mean you simply can't have killer graphics and voiced audio and a complex battle system with intricate animations without paying the ultimate price in long load times, can you? Can you? Well, guess what? You can when the game is Crisis Core. Loads are very quick and the UMD chatter is infrequent; you know that the game loads assets as you play, but don't ever feel it stutter as a result. My only gripe is that during the longest of the loads - 10 to 15 seconds - the screen is left blank. It seems that a simple game logo with 'loading' superimposed would have been nicer to see, but that is a small complaint and doesn't compare to how pleased I was NOT to have to blast the game for crappy loads. I honestly expected long load times with the killer graphics, so I was doubly pleased.

Go THAT way, really fast. If something gets in your way - turn.

There is no such thing as a perfect game, and I really doubt that anyone assumed that an occasional blank screen for 10-15 seconds would be my only complaint. And you would be correct in that assumption, because while this is a really good game that I recommend for anyone with a PSP, it is far from perfect.

So what are the problems? The first one, as the section heading intimates, is that the game is extremely linear. You simply go from cutscene to cutscene; mission to mission; and on occasion you can make someone wait for a little bit while you engage in side-missions and even take on a few optional quests. But in terms of the core story, nothing happens without you being there - there is no living world, you are being walked through a tightly locked-in story with no branching based on your actions or choices. Yes, I know that this is a cornerstone of jRPG design, but with all of the flexibility in taking on missions, it would be nice to get some sort of open-world feel to the rest of the game.

While the real draw in any of the story-based Final Fantasy games is the single player experience, for a while there was talk of some form of multiplayer. This never made it into the game, and it isn't clear what would have worked given the essentially single player nature of combat. Co-op would have proved challenging to implement, and a player-versus-player mode would have been some limited fun but would have been a problem due to the nature of the combat system. Other sort of challenges could have been implemented that would have allowed players to compete for the most points, SP or Gil in an area or over a time period, but again that would have been fairly limited and it isn't clear that it would have mattered to the core fanbase.

But those, like the blank load screens, are very minor complaints. The biggest problems with the game are the combat and mission systems. The missions are fun, but after doing more than a few dozen you will begin to get bored by the sameness - kill everything, get materia or items or gil or whatever. That is how I adopted my playstyle: I'd battle from cutscene to cutscene until I wanted a break, then go mission after mission for a while until I couldn't stand it, then went back to the story.

Combat in Crisis Core is a crapshoot, to mix gambling metaphors. Quite simply, if they had made a player-vs-player multi-player mode, the winner would very often be decided not by skill but by whomever got the best spins of the wheels. You will find this to be true very early in the game when you face an enemy and assume they are just too strong because you get wiped out quickly. Then you face them again, get better combat bonuses and perhaps gain a level, and defeat them without using any up any of your inventory items. Combat is still fun and exciting, but it is diminished by the randomness that often takes your skill and learning out of the battle. It might seem like these are minor issues, and perhaps they are, but given how much of the game is wrapped around these two elements it becomes a fairly serious issue.

Pros and Cons

+ Captures and modernizes the essence of the classic Final Fantasy VII
+ Great story that will draw you in.
+ Manageable difficulty (too easy?)
+ Tons of missions.
+ Awesome graphics and cutscenes.
- Strange leveling system.
- DMW randomness
- Repetitive combat
- Repetitive missions


Final Score and Game Info

Is it ever possible for a prequel to live up to a legendary game - especially when more than a decade has past, allowing the legend of the original to reach the level of myth? Perhaps it is, but it certainly isn't likely. And Crisis Core is not going to make anyone forget about the original Final Fantasy VII, nor will it be held at the same level of esteem. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it is a highly polished and deeply enjoyable RPG that takes the traditions of the franchise and extends them with a modern take on some of the core systems. Those changes make it a great fit for portable gaming, but they also cause some problems with the game that ultimately limit the overall depth of the experience. It is a really good game, one that I strongly recommend to all PSP users and not just RPG fans. Yet it isn't the truly great and transcendent experience that many had hoped for - it highlights the capabilities of the hardware, but is not a defining experience for the platform. After the first half-hour I couldn't wait to see more; after the first hour I knew this wasn't getting a 'perfect' score; and from there the score just kept dropping until it plateaued at a solid 4/5 stars.

Score: 4 / 5 Stars.
Box Art