Review by JD Fedule

"Go Crystal Crazy."

Be warned - this is not Final Fantasy as you know it.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles marks the return of Final Fantasy to whence it came. While the series will undoubtedly be immortalized more by FFVII than most others, Final Fantasy was originally a Nintendo thing. And at long last, to Nintendo it has returned. Sadly, the series will be remembered for it's era on the Playstation and PS2, but after Tactics Advance last year, Nintendo fans have finally got a Final Fantasy game on their beloved home console.

But as I said, it is not the Final Fantasy we know and love. You may love it, but know, definitely not. Far from sticking to the same old formula, Square Enix simply MUST be different. While risky, Chronicles takes Final Fantasy down some new paths. That said, there are some noticeable nods to FFIX in Chronicles. Most notable are the characters themselves - the way the characters are designed reminds many of FF9 and the slight "weird" factor they had. True, nothing could ever top Quina, but they came close. There's the similarities between Steiner and the Lilties, as well as perhaps Vivi and the Yukes. Then there's the moogles - once again, they are delivering mail throughout the world, though this time the characters themselves send letters through the moogles rather than actually operating the damn postal service for the moogles. The moogle mailman Artemecion truly screwed up with Mognet, and now it seems they've got it working again. Those who like to bear grudges will be pleased to know that Artemecion has since been fired and you can take revenge on him if you like... Stiltzkin is back too, still traveling the world and exploring, but sadly not hawking bargain items. He also offers combat training.

Now, what else is old? Oh yes... the Miasma, or "Mist" as it used to be known in FF9. Far from being confined to one continent, the Miasma has spread worldwide and is fatal to the touch. But fear not, for the inhabitants of the world have discovered certain crystals that keep the Miasma away. Smaller crystals are distributed to villages, while larger ones are given to towns and cities. But all things are neither free nor infinite - and the crystals prove this by expiring after a year or so. Before this happens, they must be renewed by a magical substance known as Myrrh. Myrrh is quite rare - it is found only in trees that are rare themselves and only regenerate their Myrrh after two years. Additionally, each tree, when harvested, yields only a drop of Myrrh, a third of the required amount. Consequently, the towns send out "Crystal Caravans" to hunt the Myrrh from over the ever expanding horizon. For their own safety, each Caravan gets it's own crystal shard which provides an entire localized Miasma free area in which they can survive. The titular Crystal Chronicles is a diary kept by the members of one such caravan, around which this game revolves.

Now we've got that out of the way, what's new?

Well, the entire engine has changed completely. Gone is the "field" screen and the "battle" screen - there is only the world map, the towns and the dungeons, in which you walk around and even fight in real time. Consequently, the menu based battle system has been revamped. When in a dungeon, your character has a list of four commands they can carry out (expandable to 8 later on). The first two are reserved for Attack and Defend, the rest can be customized with magicite (more on that later), items, and even equipment. Slight downside is that due to the new inventory system (each character only has 64 item slots, and multiple items take multiple slots unlike previous FFs), you have to reassign items to the command slots after one use. Anyway, one command is assigned to the A button, and you can change it by cycling through your list with the L and R buttons. This is fine, but it makes defending rather redundant, as in the time it takes you to cycle through the menu, and select "Defend", you've been hit. If you know for a few seconds that the attack is coming, you're fine as you can defend at will, and some characters have rather absolute defenses (such as Yukes turning invisible), so all is not lost. Instead of "HP" as a number, each character's HP is represented by little red hearts. 1 HP = half a heart. Each player starts with 8 HP and can earn up to 16.

Of course, you can also cast magic spells. The latest brainwave by Square Enix regarding magic is their new Magicite system, which is painfully simple. There are six kinds of Magicite - Fire, Thunder, Blizzard, Cure, Clear, and Life. Equip one to a command slot and cast a spell. Simple, innit? Well... a bit. You see, you can also fuse Magicite to form ever more powerful spells. This includes the ever persistent -ara and -aga variations of spells, and some others, such as Gravity and Holy. To fuse spells, place Magicite next to other Magicite on the command list. Order matters - Blizzard and Life make Holy but Life and Blizzard make Slow, so be careful. However, be warned - once you leave a dungeon, you leave all the magicite behind, too. To get the spells again, you must find them again.

Then there's the crystal chalice... this is the vessel in which Myrrh is collected, and in which your portable crystal is stored. This means you must carry it with you at all times. This task is entrusted to a moogle, imaginatively named "Mog". But Mog won't carry the thing forever - you have to shoulder his burden sometimes.

The other new thing about Chronicles... is Multiplayer. Yep - FF9 had it's "shared" controllers, and now this. But there is a catch, and a rather expensive catch at that. Once you have the game, it costs approximately £60 (or US equivalent) per person to play. That's because you need a GBA and a link cable per person in order to play multiplayer. Sucks? Perhaps. But it's necessary. Let me explain a few things about Multiplayer.

First, the menu. I'm sure I don't need to elaborate too much on the chaos that would arise from four people simultaneously trying to use the menu screen. The solution is to move the menu for each player onto another screen. Everything that does not involve the other players, be it the menu, reading mail, or shopping, is now done on the GBA screen. This presents a bit of a problem - in SP mode, one can access the menu at any time and the action will pause. In MP mode, accessing the menu leaves the character completely vulnerable. So be quick with that menu. Second, spell fusing is done not in the menu, but on the field. You see, when you cast magic, you have to aim it at someone, yes? So to cast Gravity in multiplayer, two players must respectively aim Fire and Blizzard at the same spot at the same time. It takes some getting used to, but works wonders for cooperation skills. There are a few oddballs, though. To keep things fair, some powerful spells are made accessible to two players by some weird timing conditions. Example: In SP, to make Firaga, one must fuse Fire, Fire and Fire. In MP, to cast Firaga, one player must cast Fire, the second must cast Fire at the same spot but must wait a second after the first players spell has been cast. Mucking up on the timing will result in either the inferior Fira or just two Fire spells. Third, the chalice. Multiplayer makes Mog redundant, as one of the players must carry the chalice. Thankfully, you don't get exclusively MP or SP files - each file contains only the caravan as a whole, and you can choose to play SP or MP on any file, at any time. You don't have to have seperate files for MP and SP games.

All this makes multiplayer quite hectic and incredibly fun to play. It really is absolute chaos - and it couldn't be better.

Now, let's get to the characters. There are no main characters at all - you must choose and develop your own character. You must choose a race (The tranquil and defensive Clavat, the strong and hot headed Lilty, the mysterious and magical Yuke, or the nimble, agile Selkie), a gender, an appearance (each race has 8 appearances, 4 male, 4 female) and a family profession. There are 8 characters maximum in one caravan, and 8 different professions to choose from. Once you create a character, that family will be open for business, and family discounts apply. Keep your family happy by sending them nice letters and helpful gifts. The better the relationship, the harder your family works and the greater your discount, as well as better items being on sale. Unfortunately, due to the custom characters, character development is difficult, but is done through random "events" and diary entries.

The locations in this game are amazingly well done. From the tranquil River Belle to the punishing Mt Kilanda to the scorching Lynari Desert, all the locations are beautifully presented using gorgeous graphics. The soundtracks are well done too. Only two tracks are annoying - one is heard only in short bursts and is tolerable, the other is the world map and will drive you nuts. Otherwise, no complaints about the music at all. Each area is introduced by a narrative (as in, an actual voice) that apparently belongs to one of your caravaners. During this voiceover, only the back-beat of the BGM plays, and the melody kicks in as the location's name appears on screen. The tunes are of the variety that seem massively appropriate in context but don't do much on their own. There are two vocal tracks - one for the beginning of the game and one for the end.

Character advancement has changed, too. Levels are gone, there are only stats. You have three stats, Strength, Defense and Magic. To increase these stats, you collect artifacts from the dungeons. However, when you leave a dungeon, all bar one of the artifacts in your possession vanishes. Each character can remove one artifact permanently. Sorry, no dupes - each artifact is good only once. The only way to have dupes is to pick the same artifact up from within the level, but you will not be allowed to keep the dupe. Also, two players cannot remove the same artifact at once. This will undoubtedly cause rows, so Square Enix came up with this great idea of having a bonus condition during each level, such as "Defeat enemies with focus attacks" or "Don't pick anything up". Fulfilling these conditions, as well as bagging enemies, opening treasure chests and picking up battle spoils earns you points, and at the end of the level, the player with the most points gets first choice over the artifacts. The artifacts do many things - either raise stats, add hearts or command slots or provide permanent access to a particular Magicite.

Bosses... oh yes. Each dungeon is guarded by a boss, and only by defeating the boss can you access the Myrrh Tree within the dungeon. Bosses come in all shapes and sizes, but each has a common destiny - the afterlife. Bosses also drop artifacts - the nature of which depends on, once again, bonus points.

Now, here's an interesting feature. Easy dungeons do not stay easy. Each time a location's Myrrh Tree replenishes, the dungeon advances to the next of it's three "cycles", in which the enemies are tougher and have more HP, the boss is harder, and has more attacks, and to compensate, provides better artifacts. The dungeon does not ever reverse back to an easier cycle - once you're in cycle 3, you'd better get used to it.

Finally, the minigames. Both of them. First, trampolining. There is a (difficult but) fun minigame in which you perform tricks while bouncing using the A and B buttons in various combos. It's VERY tricky, and anyone who's ever played the "Falling" tower calibrations in Final Fantasy X-2 will truly sympathize with anyone who this game annoys.

Second, Blazin' Caravans. It's played on the GBA, and is unlocked by fulfilling certain requirements that involve moogles and stamps (yet has nothing to do with letters). I have absolutely no experience of it, and cannot offer an opinion. Neither have I ever heard one.

Note - there is also a random event held in a certain place that relies entirely on luck and is quite boring - I am not listing this as a minigame.

I have a few gripes, however. First, the character advancement system in tandem with the cycles makes raising a decent caravan full of decent characters on SP incredibly tedious. I am now in a situation where my character owns, but the other 7, when used in a MP game, get thoroughly served and make the game harder. 2 player is really not recommended, but 3-4 player definitely is. Second, the world map theme. Third, for a reason which I cannot for the life of me fathom, there is no character called Cid. Yes, this historic SYMBOL of Final Fantasy is missing. And of course, the multiplayer price tag.

Cutting to the chase...

Graphics and Sound - 10/10. I will NOT allow the world map theme to ruin this.
Gameplay (SP)- 9/10. Takes some getting used to, but will really grow on you.
Gameplay (MP)- 8/10. Very expensive, but well worth it.

Replayability- Currently clocking 50 hours and still having fun.

Buy or Rent? Buy. Buy, Buy, Buy. Buy a GBA as well, it's seriously worth it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/25/04, Updated 06/05/04

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