Review by Ashley Winchester
"Crystal Clear Chronicling of Crap"
Let me sum up the situation in two sentences: I neglected to bring my Japanese Gamecube to Japan with me this summer and thus was at Softmap buying one the day Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles released. I also neglected to take into account Square-Enix could produce a game that is absolute garbage, and thus was at Trader selling back my purchases just days later…
Before this past week’s release of Drag-On Dragoon for the Playstation 2, Square-Enix had yet to release a game anywhere near the craptacular level which Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (FFCC) had sunk to a brief month earlier. Arguably doomed from the start, FFCC represents quite possibly the most well crafted formula ever to defiling a billion selling series’ reputation AND severely disappointing a near-decade shunned Nintendo-loyal group of fans. What started as a freak experiment in adding “real time action” to the traditional turned based Final Fantasy series has yielded nothing short of a new genre of game altogether: the wannabe; a first ever from Square. So you may be wondering: How does the company that reinvented the modern RPG (for better or worse) manage to produce such a horrendous title and then try and pass it off as “good” by adding the sacred Final Fantasy moniker? Well, you’re about to find out.
Blame it on Nintendo if you want, for the big N’s latest attempt to recapture its long gone market is quite possibly the most ill conceived yet: Apparently what all gamers want is Gameboy connectivity and multiplayer games, regardless of the genre. Make sense to you? Didn’t think so. Perhaps FFCC’s greatest fault is that it tries to be an RPG in the first place. Sure a multiplayer formula works well with games like Everquest or Final Fantasy XI, but here’s a hint Nintendo (and Square): those games are ONLINE. That’s right, fans of those two gems can actually have fun without their friends coming over for playtime after the bus drops them off. Honestly, Nintendo is just plain full of garbage when it claims that its aim is to appeal to older gamers, then offers **offline** multiplayer gaming as a means of drawing them in. FAT CHANCE. I don’t know about anyone else older than the age of 12, but generally time spent with my friends involves things a bit more social than videogames. Given this fact, FFCC does not fit my gaming habits at ALL: unless there are humans physically next to you while playing, this game is literally a solo adventure. No, not solo as in the hero and their band of fellow do-gooders, solo as in “me, myself, and I”. Aside from a “helper” Moogle (more on that later), solo adventurers will spend the entire game alone, fighting against a system engineered to accept 2 as the lowest common denominator.
But maybe I’m just different though; maybe there are a whole battalion of gamers who-regardless of age-have a bunch of dedicated gamer friends who will take the time to have a ‘sleepover’ and play some FFCC. Maybe some people have no problem with using socializing time to play a videogame instead of to socialize. Well, the problem only begins at this point. It seems that, according to the game, evil mist has overran the world, and subsequently the only way to travel outside of towns (protected from the poisoned air by giant crystals) is with a crystal cage: a small globe that, when oriented with other crystals, will fill up with a wondrous liquid. Thus enters the first gameplay flaw: any location other than a town has this mist and should your character step into it, their life will decrease. “I know what to do!” one of Square’s programmers must have shouted at this point, “let’s have the crystal cage act as a barrier against the mist! BRILLIANT!!!!” Sure enough, the cage you carry is the only means of survival in dungeons, as it creates a sphere of fresh air around your character and thus a means for life. This is apparently where the designer’s sobriety ended, as the idea that carrying an oddly shaped fishbowl EVERYWHERE you go is the end result. There are two options in dealing with this issue: In a single player game, a computer controller AI moogle will follow the player everywhere and thus s/he can be given the cage to lug around. In a multiplayer game, one of the other players is stuck with the chore. Either way, the only looser in the mix is you for be it moogle AI or human thinking, the entire process is nothing short of an ordeal. Take the moogle: though it will try to keep up with your character, it is entirely possible to find yourself outside of the clean air sphere and thus wind up getting damaged. As a result, players are still obliged to walk in awkward, jerking steps to make sure they don’t wind up damaged. As for multi-player mode, where there is no helper moogle, what gamer actually wants to be assigned to the task of waterboy while everyone else gets to be a smash hitter?
Much to my surprise, while playing FFCC, there was a constant desire to return to the map system of Final Fantasy X, or rather the lack of one thereof. Unlike most RPGs where a world map is actually traversable, Square apparently felt orientation was too difficult a task for its decidedly young user base and therefore opted for a map system so basic it can only be compared to connect-the-dots. When on the world map, all the player need to is point to a location and watch as their avatar’s caravan automatically travels to it, a minor “event” possibly occurring on the way. (Why a single individual needs to cart around a gigantic caravan is beyond me). These events are basically nothing more than dashed hopes of companions, as players meet new faces also on a quest to save the world, but none with possess the basic decency to offer you their help. Each map, of which the game is composed of many, has the same basic locations on it: town, ‘dungeon’, and world barrier. Each dungeon location has one or more mana colors associated with it, and such are the only way to pass the world barrier and make it into the next map…just to find more of the same. Upon entering a so-called dungeon, players are presented with spoken dialogue from their character, reflecting on the area while at the same time showcasing its environment, and then free to explore it. Exploration, in turn, basically amounts to aimless wandering (thanks to the lack of a map) along the way of which simplistic puzzles may come up, as do monsters. The puzzles, usually limited to “kill A, B, and C to get parts X, Y, and Z to open up gates 1, 2, and 3” are an insult to the player’s intelligence, and get tiresome real quickly.
Fans of FFCC may be quick to defend its game play by categorizing it with Square’s REAL action/RPG franchise, Seiken Denetsu (Secret of Mana in the USA). This argument is flawed, plain and simple. Whereas the Mana series features a system that rewards both single and multiplayer gaming ventures, FFCC only wants to deal with the latter category, and haphazardly at that. As FFCC *is* an action “RPG”, one would think at least the action elements would be worth praising. Unfortunately, battles are just as cumbersome and uninspired as the product which features them. Via the push of a button, the player’s avatar will swing their weapon at the enemy. Hold down the button and the character will perform a powered up attack that launches them to another point on the screen. That’s about it. Magic is handled entirely differently than in any other Final Fantasy game: players find magic spells in chests and must assign the spell to one of four possible slots in their command list. To actually use the spell however, they player must not only select it (via a system not unlike that employed in Kingdom Hearts) but then have to physically target where they want it cast on the screen. Twitchy fingers? Chances are you’ll end up healing the grass or lighting ablaze a nearby rock. This system is just plain repulsive, and a clear indicator Square spent no time whatsoever attempting to make FFCC into anything worth playing. While waiting time to cast a magic spell may not be an issue with other players-since others can distract the attacking monsters-it sure is an issue with single player mode. You can literally expect to be mauled with stronger monsters (such as bosses) just while waiting to heal yourself.
Adding more salt to the fire, there is no real presence of RPG elements at all! Whereas the Seiken series allows players to fight monsters and level up not only characters but weapons as well, FFCC does nothing of the sort. In fact, the only REAL advancement in ability you can find is randomly scattered around the various dungeons. In each area, players will find various treasure chests. Inside these chests will be either magic spells (which were discussed earlier), items, smithy parts, or “relics”. Smithy parts can be used to make stronger weapons when you opt to return to town, however relics are the only means of statistical growth. In any given dungeon, the player may find quite a number of relics; some increase the number of life hearts your character has, some may increase a given statistic…you get the picture. While all this sounds great, should the player leave the area before completing it, all the items will be returned to where they came from and-assuming your lucky enough-they may still be randomly assorted in the same way when you return. Even if you do manage to kill the boss monster at the end of every dungeon, you only get to keep ONE of the relics found. Furthermore, the game places a limit on what you can keep! Say, for example, you find a life increase item in the forest and decide that is the relic you want to keep. Now say you go to the next area, a cave, and find the same item. Given the rather steep difficulty of the game, it is not uncommon to want to keep the same relic to add another life heart. No such luck; the game forbids players from keeping the same item from the last dungeon cleared. As a result, you will have to wait until the *third* dungeon if you want to gain another heart, assuming of course that you find the item again. Those who have played this game will know already that there IS so called “experience” and that you can “level up” if you kill enough monsters. Such could not be more of a joke since it will literally require hours on end to achieve just ONE ‘level up’. As a result-especially in single player mode-boss monsters are almost always certain death unless the player is prepared to expend enough time in the area killing monsters as they would to finish some other games entirely.
Yet another gaping hole in FFCC’s already shattered armor is the game’s lack of detail to any character development whatsoever. Maybe character development is something only realized by the presence of others (not too many action games with deep, involving leads), but the fact is this game has none of it whatsoever. Earlier I mentioned the small “details” that separate the different races’ quests. These so-called details basically amount to the game opening with a different species mindlessly sending your character off on their quest and nothing more. FFCC’s aspect of character development could not be any further removed from the Final Fantasy series than Working Design’s translations are from their releases original Japanese language. The drivel your character writes in his or her journal and the miniscule bits and pieces of commentary upon entering a stage or returning home with a filled crystal cage simply are not character development, plain and simple. Just where Square got off thinking a dispensable cookie cutter hero would translate to an enjoyable game is anyone’s guess. Me however, if I’m spending 40 hours on a game there is a basic expectation of actually taking an interest in the simulated roles I’m playing. While the same argument can be launched at MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XI, in those games the character development is *your* job as you ARE the character. Of course, this game is no MMORPG, though it may have turned out half decent if it were. Sure some may argue that Square characters never had any real depth to begin with, but those depicted in FFCC are just plain translucent.
Now I will admit that even the most abysmal game can sometimes be salvageable if there is a decent musical experience to go with it. As one may very well have guessed by this point, FFCC’s soundtrack may be the biggest disappointment in Final Fantasy history. Heck, even Square’s bomb of a major motion picture had a more appealing score (for what it was) than this atrocity. It goes without question that Nobou Uematsu had no input into FFCC whatsoever. Instead, Square handed the music over to the decidedly ungifted Kumi Tanioka, a woman who seemingly could not coin a decent melody if her life depended on it. (Why Square would allow some nobody to handle its pioneering foray into the Gamecube market is about as logical as the game itself). Opening with one of the worst sounding-and certainly most unappealing-intro songs ever to be heard in gaming history, FFCC is a musical disaster; quite a task given the fact that nothing actually seems out of place with the game’s setting. To offer a comparison to the musical style of Final Fantasy IX would be to do said game a supreme injustice, however indeed if FFCC sounds like any game in the main series, it is the “opera tuned” IX. Lacking any creativity however, the music is nothing like the high-society pastime which it tries to emulate. There are two types of music in FFCC: those tracks that are just plain annoying and grate on the player’s mind (such as the main map’s theme) and those that are so seemingly ambient that one actually forgets them *while listening*. To give a little anecdote about the OST to this game, I actually purchased it at Yamigawa Soft just because the Premium Edition had a nifty little blue/green water-filled case to store the music in. As this was some time after I traded in the game, I thought that *maybe* hearing the music outside of the rancid code its designed for would be somewhat enjoyable. I traded it back in the very next day, the second the stores in Akihabara opened. (Just a note for those unfamiliar with the used game/music/etc system in Japan: you pay full price for the item and receive about 25-50% of that when trading back in. That I traded in not only the game, the console its for, AND the OST should really say something indeed.)
Is there more to the game than what I’ve described? Somewhat. I could go on about the four different races of characters (all of which have the same game) or the Gameboy Advance-connectivity or even the ability to color your moogle’s fur, but chances are anyone still reading the review is either utterly repulsed by such detestably idiotic code, or is a vehement Square fanboy/girl and could not DISagree with my opinion more. I really don’t care either way though; as far as I am concerned, Final Fantasy Crystal Chroncles is the greatest disappointment I’ve ever played, and as one can gather from my opening, one of the most expensive ones as well given what I spent to be “privileged” enough to waste my time playing it. It also stands as having *the* most underdeveloped single-player mode ever conceived. All who crave a quality RPG for the Gamecube, do yourselves a favor and invest in Namco’s Tales of Symphonia. At least the programmers of that game had a competent idea in what they were designing. As it stands, FFCC lacks any kind of soul to fill its micro sized DVD. The game is nothing more than an amalgamation of ill-conceived design and even more deficient presentation. It’s a good thing Square knows better than to use Crystal Chronicles as the mold for the proper series, or else we really would be experiencing the Final Fantasy.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 09/20/03
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