Review by ConfusedGuy

"If you think you have problems with air pollution..."

In the golden days of the NES and Super NES, Square and Nintendo were inseparable - producing such memorable titles as Final Fantasy 1-6, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and countless others. Unfortunately, it seemed those days would not last; upon the emergence of the Playstation, Square joined Sony's team, and for years there was a wide gulf between the former allies.
But to everyone's astonishment, in 2003 Square and Nintendo announced they'd be coming back together with projects for the GBA and Gamecube. Thus, with a little help from funds Hiroshi Yamauchi had been squirreling away, the Game Designers Studio was born. Their plans: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Sword of Mana, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, a revolution in Nintendo's connectivity campaign.

Since time before memory, the world has been covered by a poisonous fog known as miasma, in which monsters thrive and people perish. Towns have grown around magical crystals which keep the miasma at bay - but these crystals don't last forever, and must be recharged yearly with three drops of myrrh, a holy liquid that grows on trees. The trouble is that myrrh trees are guarded by exceptionally powerful monsters, and so the Crystal Caravans must annually fight these monsters and their minions to provide their towns with the myrrh they need. All four races - the earth-tilling Clavats, the shrewd Selkies, the warrior Lilties, and the mystic Yukes - have settled into this near-constant struggle for survival.

Though this premise seems at first simple, beyond it lies a deeper story. Throughout the game are pseudo-random cutscenes and interesting dialogue sessions revealing the history of the land and many of its mysteries. You'll learn about the former dynasty of the Lilties, the arcane power of the Yukes, wandering characters (like a priest and a Black Knight) with their own tales to tell, and long-forgotten secrets of the world. Though Crystal Chronicles begins with a bland plot about simply saving your village, it later develops into a well-crafted epic of strife and heroism, more like the ones the Final Fantasy name is known for.

A crystal caravan has two powers at its disposal: a crystal chalice (which holds myrrh and keeps miasma away within a small radius), and the caravanners themselves. The game begins with naming your town and creating your caravanner(s) by choosing a name, a race (Clavat, Selkie, Lilty, or Yuke as mentioned above), a gender, an appearance (four different appearances for each race/gender combination), and a family occupation (your folks send you letters and can help you if you keep them happy). A single town (how the game's save file is represented) can hold up to eight individual characters, one for each family trade. You can also import characters from another memory card (ala visiting another town in Animal Crossing), but their families become useless until the character 'returns' to its original save file.

The caravan's quest is to gather three drops of myrrh from the various stages in the world of Crystal Chronicles. Some stages are long, some are short, some filled with puzzles, some flat-out enemy killfests, and each is concluded by a powerful boss creature guarding the stage's myrrh tree. The game has a total of 15 stages, and each one has three 'cycles.' The first time a stage is played, it's in cycle 1; two years later, the stage's myrrh tree is again harvestable, and cycle 2 (with more and more powerful monsters, more difficult bosses, even new paths) comes into play; another two years after cycle 2 is done comes cycle 3 with the same pattern. In some cases, the cycle changes can be rather drastic. Any way you cut it, after getting a third drop of myrrh, everyone goes back to town for a party, and another year of the caravan comes to an end.

The meat of the game bears resemblance to a Gauntlet title, wherein characters fight enemies with physical attacks and magic in real-time. However, rather than character growth by experience points and levels, CC's characters become more powerful with artifacts and equipment. Throughout a stage, both within treasure chests and from vanquished enemies, are numerous items - food (for replenishing health), magicite (for casting spells - permanent for the duration of the stage, but gone afterward), raw materials and plans (for creating equipment), treasures, gil, and a few other miscellany. At the end of a stage, a number of treasures (depending on how well you did in the stage) become up for grabs as artifacts, and you're free to pick one to stay with you for the rest of the game. These artifacts can be stat bonuses like +2 strength, more health, more command slots, and a number of other helpful things. In towns, smithies can take your materials, plans, and gil to create equipment in the form of a weapon, suit of armor, piece of secondary armor, or accessory. So while there are no levels or experience points, it is in equipment and artifacts that FF:CC characters become more potent.

FF:CC has two modes of play: single player, and multiplayer. Multiplayer is played using GBAs connected to the Gamecube as controllers, and each player (one to four - you can, if you want to, play multiplayer on your own with some difficulty) uses the GBA screen as a radar. Each player has a different type of radar: one shows the stage's map, one shows the relative location of nearby enemies, one the location of treasure chests, and the last displays enemy health and other stats. The GBA screens are also used for all a player's necessary menus, from selecting actions to purchasing items in a shop, so as not to interfere with other players. One player must carry the chalice around, although it can be set down if necessary. Though each player can fight independently, their power can be combined by coordinating their actions - for instance, if one player casts Fire on a location as another player focus attacks the same location, the second player can perform an elemental Firestrike attack. Multiple magic spells can also be combined to create more powerful wizardry. Through different radar, the chalice, and action combinations, teamwork is key in multiplayer.

Single player is simpler. It is played with a Gamecube controller, and optionally, a GBA can be plugged into the second controller slot for a map radar. A friendly moogle follows the player around and carries the chalice for him (though running long distances can tire the little bugger out and make him more sluggish until he rests up). Spells can be fused within the player's command list menu quickly and easily (although some of the more powerful spells can't be attained in single player), and at the end of the stage, there's no contest for first dibs on spoils. While playing the game alone lacks the excitement of the game's teamwork aspect, it'll work in a pinch if you just mean to play the game; and characters in any given town can be created or played in either mode on the fly, so if your friends aren't around and you want to continue your own character (or if you've already started and new people want to join up), there's nothing stopping you.

Graphically, Crystal Chronicles is a marvel to see. Everything looks great and moves fluidly, from the chalice's beautiful radius of healing to the smooth and detailed character models. Sound effects (GBA aside) work well with the game, and while the soundtrack is at first uniformly unimpressive, there are several greatly-composed tracks lying in wait.

Asking if FF:CC has replay value is somewhat of a joke; the game is filled to the brim with it. Full character building is an ambitious quest, as though you can only keep a single copy of any given artifact, there are dozens of them to collect, in addition to powerful equipment requiring plans and raw materials that can be difficult to obtain. While there are only (hah!) three cycles for each stage, the trees still regenerate every two years ad infinitum, and so with no practical limit to the game's years, the game can really go on as long as one's heart desires.

It would be wrong to say that Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is perfect. There are a few flaws in the game, including the inconvenience of burdening a player with the chalice, character (and plot) development that may seem a bit slow, and a high price for multiplayer's necessity of a Game Boy Advance and GBA-GC link cable for each player. And of course, sometimes particular stages or enemies can drone on and sour the experience somewhat, as seems to be typical in action RPGs. However, past these issues lie a surprisingly interesting and engaging plot, and gameplay that's usually just plain fun. Even a solo player can fall in love with the game and its single-player accommodations. All in all though, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is worth it.

Overall arbitrary rating: 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/26/04

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