Review by bearsman6

"You mean I have to visit my friends... in person?"

There has been much controversy surrounding Square’s return to Nintendo, especially regarding the manner of that return. It had been years coming, but no one quite knew what to expect. Then we got Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and the bickering only intensified. “It’s not a true FF,” many a fanboy shouted with all of his capitalized, bolded, forum-trolling might. “It’s too expensive,” another said, somewhat more coherently. “It’s only good for multiplayer,” others adamantly criticized. None of these are true.

If you come in having heard nothing about the game (which is almost impossible) and expect the traditional, turn-based RPG the Final Fantasy name has grown associated with, prepare to be disappointed… at first. You won’t find experience points, level-ups, angst-ridden heroes, fan service heroines, or epic plots about saving the world as we know it. You won’t find the pre-created, clichéd, and unchangeable stories the series thrives on. Instead, FF:CC abandons the traditional approaches and gives the players control.

To begin with, you choose your own identity. While not as expansive as many MMORPGs with only 32 character models, it still has enough variation to lend that feeling of pride, because “I created this character!” Next, you’re told a brief history of the region; how a deadly mist called miasma now covers the land, held off by only a few magical crystals that require an even more mysterious dew, called myrrh, yearly. Without the myrrh’s regenerative powers, the protection of the crystals would fade, and everyone would die.

With that uplifting knowledge in mind your party, the Crystal Caravan, is virtually kicked out into the unknown where, somehow, you are expected to bring back enough myrrh to cleanse your town’s crystal, effectively buying it another year. Confused yet? It’s not like it matters. The plot is just a vehicle for the action in FF:CC, and this might even be part of the draw. Creating your own destiny is almost as important as discovering the beautiful world around you. And when you get together with friends, well, it doesn’t even matter what the plot is. It’s just that good a game.

Back in the miasma-filled world, the Crystal Caravan has its work cut out for it. Luckily, you aren’t alone. Due to the toxic surroundings, every city requires its own protective crystal, and thus sends out similar caravans of adventurers. To protect themselves, each caravan must carry around a chalice – a rather clunky object that provides both as a small protective bubble for the Caravan and storage place for any myrrh it finds.

The chalice eventually becomes a major factor in the game. Unfortunately, it’s so large someone has to physically carry it at all times, and when you’re carrying the chalice, you can’t do anything else. This really doesn’t hurt gameplay much, though, because a simple button tap throws the chalice down (no harm done), and the character can then rejoin the action. Just make sure not to leave the chalice’s protective shell or else your life points will slowly drain away. This is countered by the restorative properties of the chalice itself. Spending time under its safe haven will gradually restore your health, granting an even greater recovery rate to the carrier. So while the chalice is a bit cumbersome, it’s also a critical strategic tool.

The controls are easy to pick up, but the intricacies and strategies can prove difficult to master. You can attack, defend, or use any other ‘active ability’ with A, while performing more physical actions (like lifting or examining) is handled with B. To toggle between active abilities, just hit R or L, and that’s basically it.

You also have a few more special moves, called charge attacks, that involve holding down the A button until a targeting circle appears – the physical equivalent of spell casting. Once charged, just move the circle under what you want to attack, let go, and enjoy the beautiful animation. Charge attacks do more damage, but they’re risky because of their charging time (during which your character is vulnerable and stationary). Is the strategy becoming obvious yet?

The controls are some of the smoothest I’ve seen, and thanks to the additional screen each GBA provides, multiplayer is even better. Unfortunately, the GBA requirement for multiplayer limits the controls to a pathetic 5 buttons, upped to 6 in single-player since the GC controller allows it.

This points out one of the game’s problems: it never fully utilizes all the tools available to it. Why not allow a few extra buttons in single-player since you are required to play with the GC controller? Better still, since both use the same control scheme, why not allow the use of a GBA as the single-player controller just like it is in multiplayer? It just doesn’t make much sense. Then again, it never seriously detracts from the overall experience, so it works out well.

As I’ve hinted, multiplayer is where FF:CC really shines. Even with four players onscreen fighting a horde of enemies, flinging spells around like spitballs, and trying to work out a strategy while trekking through an immaculate landscape, there is never any slowdown. Furthermore, multiplayer actually finds a way to encourage teamwork while keeping the game fun. This is a very good thing, since teamwork is necessary.

Regardless of expectations, when you’re forced to work together with friends, often relying on them completely, just to execute a strategy and defeating a boss, it is simply magical. In one level, you might need to work out combination magic to neutralize one group of enemies specifically. Later, you might have to solve puzzles jointly, and some involve sacrificing one teammate. FF:CC is certainly no pushover. In fact, since one character will need to carry the chalice at all times, you will be you will be forced to work together just to make it through a level alive. That is half the excitement. When a team finally starts to come together and work well with one another, it is a beautiful thing.

This seems to be the overarching lesson behind FF:CC – to get more out of the game, you have to be willing to put more in. Playing alone is fun, but it can be a bit repetitive, and while the absence of teammates will make strategy a bigger issue, some aspects are simplified. Spell fusion, for example, is infinitely easier when you can fuse spells in your own command list, but the cost is that the highest-level spells are unattainable. A single-player campaign is far more difficult than multiplayer, but it’s supposed to be. To get the most out of your gaming experience, you will have to find friends, even just one friend, to play with.

That said, let me correct all the critics who might think single-player mode is worthless. Single-player has the potential to be just as engrossing as multiplayer, but in a different way. It isn’t going to breed cooperation; there’s no one to get help from. You get a single moogle, but he really isn’t consequential except as a chalice carrier. The game is, however, challenging, and it’s self-paced. At times, things get so rough that they seem impossible… but they never are. Getting through – surviving – is part of the fun. Single-player might be less fun, but that’s only because multiplayer is orgasmic.

Another common slight on the game is its overwhelmingly linear structure. Then again, it isn’t nearly as bad as most FFs where each player is presented with the same, preordained, clichéd ending. In FF:CC what each player discovers, or more accurately what each character discovers, throughout the course of the game is dependant largely on the amount of time committed. Small cutscenes and random events pop up every now and then, but only to those who don’t do the bare minimum. I should also add that many have some bearing on the ending received.

On that note, the graphics are beautiful to say the least. There is nothing quite like walking along a lake side and noticing that not only does the water reflect your character, but it’s also doing so realistically, including ripples. Then there are the spells, which vary anywhere from small, brilliantly colored crystals (Blizzard) to massive, full-screen onslaughts of frozen shards (Blizzaja).

Beyond these elements, the game was designed to be more cute than realistic. In my opinion, it works marvelously, but I have always been a fan of sprite-based games. Moogles might have taken a turn for the worse (they now look like fur-coated beach balls), but I’ve never seen such a beautiful game. It’ like poetry in motion.

Not all of the visual presentation is up to the Final Fantasy standard, however. Cutscenes may disappoint since they aren’t quite as grandiose as those for the Playstation games. Being handled by the same sprites and graphics as the rest of the game, it’s no small wonder they look great. They just aren’t as detailed and ornate as some scenes from the predecessors. Furthermore, cutscenes only pop up sporadically. There are the guaranteed scenes before each boss and major plot event, but they are somewhat rare and often trivial. Then again, the game has a strong focus on gameplay, and for that you don’t really need extensive cutscenes.

Another unfortunate casualty of the game is the music. To say it isn’t handled well would be a gross understatement. The soundtrack mirrors the cute, bubbly theme relayed by the graphics, but it almost sounds like a rethought mixture of scores from FFIX and Pokèmon. I kid you not. The opening movie’s theme is used, reused, and abused so many times throughout the game it’s sickening. I realize that it is the main theme, but if it is going to get that much playing time, at least make it a good tune! To further aggravate matters, the universal theme is painfully long, which is especially noticeable during the unavoidable, opening cutscene. Just pray that you don’t have to start a new game more than once.

In the end, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles lives up to the standards of the franchise but in a completely unforeseen way. It abandons the mainstays of the franchise in order to provide a truly great multiplayer experience. Sure, single-player is good, but let’s be honest: this game was intended for groups of two or more. The GBA requirement for multiplayer, while somewhat expensive, is also immensely helpful and revolutionary. Having the extra screen to organize each player’s character separately, while not disrupting the game, is simply ingenious.

If you’ve got friends, or even if you don’t, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a brilliantly executed, yet wholly different kind of game that only Square-Enix could have pulled off. While it might not be the turn-based FF people expected, overlooking it solely for that is a grave error. The gameplay is fluid, the graphics are smooth, and the fun is undeniable. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you; once you join the Crystal Caravan, you’ll be hooked.

Gameplay: 8/10
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 6/10
Replay: 6/10
Multiplayer: 10/10
Single-player: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/20/04

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