Review by Great_Khan
"For the love of God, someone please stop Square-Enix from trying to be cool."
I'm sorry Square, it pains me to say this to you after you've given me so much joy over the years, but someone has to. You're not cool; you were never cool, stop trying to be. There, I said it. You're a bunch of Japanese video game nerds with a fascination with Anime. You're just not cool. And by extension you don't know what is cool. Hell, you chose the name Squaresoft, a combination of two of the most uncool words in the English language. Please, just stop. I know that I'm not cool, I play Final Fantasy games, but I can recognise this, and you really need to start doing the same.
Sadly, it appears that Square-Enix's impression of cool is somewhere between the old ninja turtles films and early 90's Luke Perry. As likable as Zack was in FF7, from his first soul crushing line of "Awwwwwhh Yeeeaah" in Crisis Core he becomes so easy to hate. This has plagued all of the main characters of Enix-era Final fantasy games; they always make the hero's into skinny, high voiced tools. Admittedly Zack was never designed to look like a tank, but why is he so damn skinny looking here. And I know Cloud was young, but that's no reason to make him sound like a 12 year old girl. And he was reasonably badass, for some reason he's a meek whiny child that has less attitude than people who compete a cat shows. I'm not sure why they made this character change. Oh Square, why must you bully my childhood? The script writers really need to stop modelling the heroes off the people playing the games. I get that you want to make us relate to the characters better by making them more like you're horribly deluded and lame impression of normal everyday people, but people don't relate to the characters just because they're skinny midgets like us. We want to be Bruce Willis from Die Hard, not Shia LeBeouf in any of the films he's ruined.
The result is you get a bunch of non-imposing characters that walk around shooting off Xtreme lingo and making lame poses, and this is a criticism about a prequel to a game where you literally had a posing mini-game. Indeed this game is filled to the brim with moments of Square-enix's desperate attempts to be cool, none of which are even close. From making Sephiroth into a over styled husk, to having a villain who speaks in nothing but bad 7th grader poetry, every character has gone through "Square thinks its badass" filter, ironically making them all the antithesis of badass.
On the plus side, unlike the disastrous Advent Children they've been pretty solid in not really ruining the original. Not to mention those annoying anime influences are largely removed apart from a single scene, which is set in a simulator anyway so it could even be hand-waved away. Hell, apart from the hairstyles (poor poor Sephiroth) the characters all have very human, natural faces, with anime design largely ignored.
Ever since the Playstation 2 arrived and gave us access to actual voice acting, Square-enix has really struggled with the transition. Back in the days of the PS1, in order to make characters interesting, you had to make them overact, both in terms of visual theatrics and in terms of scripting. Now that characters can speak, facially emote, there's a certain level of subtlety which has become necessary to give a character substance and worth. Square just haven't got this. They haven't gotten a character right since final fantasy 9 for an easily identifiable reason; they're sticking to their guns and using the techniques which made the early games so good, and they just don't hold up anymore. Barret's ludicrous kneeling chest beatings of anger, Steiner's comedic hopping up and down in frustration, Kefka's hammy cackle are all things which worked when characters needed to overact to be noticed in a game, but they would be mocked and hated by the general audience if delivered in a modern, visually stunning, fully voice acted environment. The delivery of the story in Crisis Core simply hasn't changed since those, and it really breaks the mood, every character almost exclusively overacts. It's a surprise that the game looks as good as it does, because in all fairness, all the scenery should have been chewed through by the first 15 minutes.
Crisis Core is, like about 6 other recent Square-enix releases, based around the events that preceded FFVII, namely the events in Nibelheim where Sephiroth went crazzzzzzz... Sorry, just dozed off for a second, I've seen this story so many times now it hurts. Admittedly, there was once a time for a game discussing this moment in time, mainly because the way it was explained in FFVII was extremely convoluted and awkward. Namely, three different 15 minute cut-scenes, and two of them were wrong, but contain elements of the correct events. But we've had the story told to us quite a few times now, and we get it. The game tells the story in an easier to follow linear pattern, so now all possible trouble with understanding the plot should be cleared up, but it really doesn't fill us in on any details that were missed out of the original story. Crisis Core does what Advent Children did in a sense that instead of answering questions that the fans were actually unsure about, it simply told us what we already knew, while adding in an entire new plot and enemy with no real relevance. The whole Genesis and clone monster plot is superfluous, and of no consequence to the original story, but actually functions as the main plot of the game. The result is most of the games duration is spent discussing things which fail to hold interest, with only a sprinkling of events that actually entertain. Luckily, all elements of the original FFVII story we're interested in are nice and correct, which is more than I can say for much of the FFVII compilation series.
The plot itself moves along a nice pace, taking you to many nostalgic locations, and remains interesting and punchy enough to hold your attention through the slow but consistent trickle of little details you actually care about. Rather than focussing on the actual pre-FFVII events, the game focuses on one of SOLDIER's other scientific experiments that goes horribly wrong resulting in a villain who wants to destroy the world. So it's pretty much FFVII, but effeminate and without a sense of mystery. The whole linear plot thing does bring up a few holes in the original story, such as Cloud being in the army at 14 years of age, and Zack having a huge, statutory-sexual-assault-level age difference over Aeris as they date, which are elements I had never picked up on originally.
However, the characters are the main problem rather than the plot itself. They're all either stereotypical like Hollander, uninteresting planks like Aeris (Come on everyone, she was always a boring plank) or the Director of Soldier, or overacting pop-culture rejects such as... Pretty much every other character. It's the scripting which hurts the game, rather than the actual story being told. In fact it's probably the characters and soundtrack that makes the sour-taste-leaving end of the game far too soppy and sentimental for its own good, instead of the events. And I suppose its better cringe from a lame power ballad ruining a formerly touching scene, than to cringe to a scene where a character sings one, thus saving the earth forever, but honestly, the effect is no different.
So anyway, Zack is pretty unlikeable now, which does make playing an entire game as him kind of irritating, but luckily, the game really isn't that bad. It's certainly different, as it now contains elements of action games, and only one combatant, but it still feels surprisingly comfortable and Final Fantasy-like. You play as Zack and Zack alone, who you control in real-time with the ability to run around, roll, stab things and use spells. The game gives a pretty good array of enemies, some of which can be beaten using your rolling and running to avoid their attacks, and some which you may as well stand there, hit them in the face repeatedly, and just take their abuse. Certain fights against slow things that hit for 9999 damage are actually kind of fun, but for the main part the only reason you'll run around is to try and get a cheap critical hit. Casting spells is kind of cumbersome due to the whole real time thing. While in an intense battle with 4 or 5 swarms of wasps you don't really want to be focussing on scrolling through menus while actively rolling to avoid their attacks. And of course with only one character taking time to heal up MP is a timewaster. Indeed, only having one character is one of the biggest problems with the whole system, it leads to many, many cheap deaths, and the removal of basically the only piece of strategy that FF games have ever had. The reason why these deaths are cheap is easy to understand; despite your severe disadvantage of only being a single man, the classic old-school enemy attacks which hit for 9999 damage, or leave you with a single, solitary hit point are still in the game. Now think about that, you're out numbered, you are the only target, you have no other characters to heal you, you can't revive yourself once you get killed, and there are enemies who can knock you down to 1 HP no matter how strong you are. This is basically the only way you'll ever get killed in Crisis core, get out numbered by an enemy with an attack with that ability. It's exceedingly frustrating.
You can't equip weapons, only materia and equipment, you're limited to 6 materia, and 4 pieces of equipment. Most of the time, materia is kind of useless. Spells are weaker than your physical attacks for the most part, plus casting spells takes more time and can be interrupted. Most of the materia you'll take into battle would be for stat boosting and healing. Equipment however is extremely important, but you'll never have enough slots. As I said, there many enemies with the ability to hit you for 9999 damage, so you're going to need some break HP limit items, sadly, none of these are available to until the very end of the game, and only after you trudge through about 70 missions. Added to this are the statuses, most aren't too bad such as the pathetic poison which is not worth healing, but there are a few which screw you over big time. Statuses which have a place in traditional Final Fantasy games, like death, stop and stun have always been quite viable as they add another level of character management to your party. However, with only one person in the battle, you have no party to manage. Instead these statuses are basically checks on whether you came into battle with the correct items equipped, and if you didn't it punishes you with statuses which will destroy you in no time. Without multiple characters it's usually pretty hard to even wing it through these battles like you've been able to do in earlier games. Here it's prepare or lose, with very little room for error.
The other major thing about the game is the DMW wheel. No one knows or cares what it stands for, or what intangible and flimsy premise it has that relates to the actual plot. All you need to know is that it's a slot machine that wins or loses hard fights for you. Basically, it's a three wheeled slot machine that spins during the entire duration of a battle, and depending on what sequence of pictures and numbers that comes out, you'll either perform a limit break or summon, get a good status, level up heal HP and/or MP, or nothing will happen at all. Basically, everything of value you do in a battle is almost entirely dependent on this device. It accounts for 100% of your over 9999 damage attacks, and 100% of your MP healing (Because of the time wasting I mentioned earlier) so it's pretty important. The fact that so much importance is given to what is in effect blind luck is a pretty big downside to the whole system. Since how you perform is at least 70% driven by whether it wants to shower you with its blessings, and if it does, whether it wants to give you the right ones. Two fights against the same enemy with the same equipment can often differ hugely in difficulty purely based on whether you get good limit breaks or not.
Most of the gameplay takes place in missions, which are pretty much the only side quest the game offers, outside of the actual plot. They're like little mini-dungeons with bosses at the end, with increasing difficulty levels as you progress. This is where you'll find all the good items, obtain all the good summons, and boost most of your levels and stats. So sadly, you have very little choice but to go through them if you want to get powerful. You don't need to by any means, as the actual plot based battles and bosses are all extremely easy to deal with, and there are no optional bosses outside of the missions themselves. Most of the early missions are extremely easy, and most of the later ones are exceptionally difficult unless you can get yourself some good equipment, due to the multitude of 9999 damage attacks most of the bosses have. Sadly, the only way to get this equipment is by winning these harder missions, making the whole experience quite futile. The only reason to do boring, meaningless, repetitive tasks is to get items that allow you to do more boring, meaningless repetitive tasks. There are over a hundred of these to do, so it is possible for it to be a big time eater, but chances are you'll get bored with the whole system by the time you've done about 30. The structure never changes; it's nothing but run to the end of the level and fight a monster at the end every single time. There are no puzzles, hell, none of them are even multi-roomed; this is truly as straight forward as everyone says it is. Luckily, most random encounters are avoidable by using the well known wall hugging technique, but the multitude of wide open maps makes this impossible, so you're going to have to do some extra fighting quite often.
Despite how generally different Crisis Core is to the standard FF formula, combat still feels surprising comfortable and familiar. Especially if you've had FFXII break the non-traditional turn based ice on you. Instead the biggest difference comes from the world. Sure, the world itself is chock full of familiar locales and faces which barrage you with nostalgia faster than Jet Li can punch, but this is the first Final Fantasy game which doesn't feel like it actually has a 'world' to it. Remember the shock and misery that came with FFX when you discovered it didn't have a world map; this is twenty times worse. Other than Midgar, during a couple of predetermined passages of time, Crisis Core doesn't give you the option to go exploring anywhere. You never have the ability to travel from you location to another whenever you like. There are no towns full of people either. This game is truly linear, the game puts you somewhere, you pass through that area, and you never get the chance to return.
In terms of graphics and design, Crisis Core is horrifyingly close to FFXII. The cut scenes are just as good as you'd expect since it's basically a video, so there's no real reason that they shouldn't be just as good, and the world seems to made from the same engine. The general graphics are excellent, easily beating out a lot of PS2 games. Again, it all seems straight out of the PS2's final visit to the franchise, if with slightly less resolution. The sheer beauty of the game can almost make up for its short many comings.
Much like most of the better games on the PSP, this game is far from perfect. But there's something about the PSP that minimized how badly a company can mess a game up. The combat engine is entertaining for the main part, and with the quality of the visuals, playing the game is an enjoyable pursuit for it's pretty brief duration. It won't hold up if you try to finish all the missions, or play through multiple times, but this is a pleasant as any of the last few console games Square has put out. Sure, the characters are embarrassing and full deserving of any hatred anyone can throw at them, but the game is limited by the PSP's disk size to only forcing us to sit though a few cutscenes of bad poetry and terrible acting. It's not an epic tale that will thrill you from plot, nor is it a deeper insight into some of the most important characters in FFVII, it's a good game engine, with pretty colours to entertain you. That's it. If you've got a PSP, Crisis Core is worth your time and money, its certainly not worth buying the console just because you're a fan of the franchise, but you'll struggle to find a handheld action RPG this solid.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/12/10
Game Release: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (AU, 06/19/08)
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