Review: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles
Posted 12 Mar 2004 at 03:30 by Mark Cullinane
First of all, leave your Final Fantasy pre-conceptions at the door.
Now, if you're ready, we'll begin…
Well, strictly speaking it's not Square, but rather the oddly-monikered The Game Designers Studio who are responsible for this one. The company, a subsidiary of Square were only a start-up developer a couple of years ago, and were assisted by former Nintendo head honcho Hiroshi Yamauchi's Q fund. The team is comprised of many former Square people, who had worked on some of the mid-90's RPG epics. Crystal Chronicles is their first project.
For some reason, waiting for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles became something of a nightmare for me. There was something deeply enticing about it that wasn't easy to put my finger on. Was it the developer's pedigree? Certainly. The innovative connectivity? Absolutely. The extraordinarily lush graphics? Oh yes. But it was the allusions to better days of RPGs which really had me transfixed. The glory days of Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger- within our grasp again? Upon extensive play of the finished English-language version, though, what we have is a completely different experience that is quite unlike any other RPG you've ever played- and, despite it's undoubted flaws, is all the better for it. You see, this game is an 'action RPG' with the strong emphasis on 'action'.
The plot is simple but remarkably effective and quaint. The world is covered in a poisonous miasma (let's just call it a toxic mist) and the only way people survive is by erecting large mist-repelling crystals in their villages. However, the crystals need to be 'recharged' every year, and that's where you come in. Mana trees, across the land hold drops of myrrh, which are capable of restoring the crystal's power. Crystal caravans travel the land collecting myrrh. You're a member of your home village's crystal caravan. That's it, really. No all-powerful dark lord hell bent on claiming world domination to be found in this game. No convoluted and confusing plot, with a cast of hundreds. Just a good old-fashioned simple tale. It's refreshingly different- and the same can be said of the game as a whole.
You're given two modes to choose from- Single Player and Multiplayer mode. Both are exactly the same game (with some very minor changes to cater for the different number of players). Choosing single-player mode necessitates the use of a GameCube controller, while if you opt for multiplayer, every player present must use a GBA, complete with GC link-up cable. This brings it's own pros and cons, but I'll discuss this later.
A spectacular and dazzlingly beautiful intro credits sequence (replete with it's own song, we hasten to add) opens up proceedings. Very FF, you might reasonably think. You're then asked to name your home village, and create character(s). You're given four different species of character to choose from – the normal-looking Clavats, the all-female Selkies, the tiny Liltys and ferocious-looking Yukes. There are a number of different optional appearances for each character- customisation is always welcome. Intriguingly, you also choose your trade- be it farmer or fishermen, among many others. In multiplayer mode, all character creation is done via the GBA's screen. After a short sequence, you leave the village with your caravan crew (or on your own, depending on which mode) and you set off, into the unknown.
The game is split into a number of separate levels, accessible from the exquisitely designed world map. Upon selecting a level, which can be replayed any number of times, you'll see a flyby of the level, as well as something unexpected. A female voice-over tells a story about the area you're in. It's typical fairytale stuff, but it sets the scene nicely, and is again, unique.
Playing Crystal Chronicles also requires explanation. It's important to remember that this is a strictly action-RPG, with no random battles to speak of. This is only the start of the raft of FF tradition-bucking elements of the game. The standard physical attack is performed with a tap of the A button (controls are the same whether you're playing on GBA or controller) and varies depending on which character you've chosen. Holding A causes a targeting reticule to appear- this is your 'focus' attack. Direct the reticule onto the chosen enemy and depressing A results in a much more powerful attack. Simple, no? The GBA has clearly limited and simplified the controls significantly- but that doesn't mean it's easy. The L and R buttons choose which command is set to the A button, be it Attack, Defend, Magic (many types are available) or an item you want quick access to. Many reviews of this game have singled out the controls for unbridled criticism, but I'm firmly of the opinion that it adds an unintended, yet welcome, layer of strategy to the games many battles. That said, using the D-pad for hours on end can get a little rough on the old fingers, but that's hardly the game's fault. I'm preparing my inbox for the inevitable deluge of complaints on this particular issue…
The magic system is also completely different to just about every other RPG you could mention. An item of some sort inevitably comes from the fading remains of a dead enemies body, and a magic orb is a common one. Collecting an orb grants you unlimited use of it's magic. Fire, Cure, Thunder, and Blizzard are on offer, among others. They are accessed via the L and R commands. What's most interesting about the magic system is the spell fusion system. In multiplayer mode, aiming the same spell at the same enemy and releasing A at the same time unleashes a much more powerful spell. Combining three spells has even more impressive effects. This adds a new dimension to the combat which is at times sorely needed.
In each level, the aim is to fight through hordes of enemies, solving the odd puzzle on the way, culminating in a boss battle. And what battles they are. 4-player co-operation reaches its peak with the bosses- no question about it. They're often brilliantly designed and animated- particularly the Gigas Jack Moschet, or the supremely odd Armstrong. Each have their own attack patterns and weaknesses, meaning a form, co-ordinated strategy is required. The only criticism here is that one boss feels quite like another- once attack patterns are learnt, they're almost identical in how you approach them- nothing as complex or ingenious as Zelda's guardians had to offer.
And that, in essence, is where Crystal Chronicles can be faulted- it's lack of variety on the gameplay front. Each and every level takes the form of a linear maze, with endless battles, simple puzzles and similar bosses. Yet, it doesn't feel quite as stifling as it should. Why? The magnificent variety in the environments is truly a sight to behold, and one of Crystal Chronicle's strongest points. You'll explore gentle river paths, windy caverns, grand oversized mansions, abandoned monster-ridden villages and huge mushroom forests, to name but some of the locales on offer. Gloriously tranquil villages split up the levels, alleviating the occasional monotony of the 'dungeon' levels.
One thing every level has in common is breathtaking beauty. The locations are wonderfully vibrant, with some of the best textures the Cube is capable of everywhere to be seen- it's a shame, however, that the permanently zoomed-out camera rarely makes the most of what the game has to offer, visually. The developers have also gone to town on graphical effects- the water is some of the best of this console generation, and character animation is impressive. In a particularly striking effect, pass behind a village's crystal, and you'll see your character refracted through it. Now that's detail. The natural beauty of the locations is something that has rarely been seen- it's almost like a throwback to the 'good old days' of RPGing, with lush fields and picturesque, old-world villages dotted across the landscape. Top notch.
The high standard of presentation is evident throughout the game, from opening menu screen to end credits. In fact, there's a distinct 'first-party sheen' to the entire presentation- loading times, in the best tradition of Nintendo developed games, are kept to the bare minimum.
Special mention must go, too, to the game's music. This being an FF game, the compositions are singularly beautiful. Delicate strings and brash panpipes can be heard in many of the levels, perfectly complementing each level's feel and the wider 'natural' theme of the game. There are also an exceptional array of tunes on offer here, with each level and each village having its own music. Many of them are eminently hummable; all of them charming. Crystal Chronicle's score goes down with some of the finest heard on a Nintendo console in many a year- the only criticism here is that many of the tracks become repetitive and are jarring after a while.
The game's biggest innovation, of course, is the GBA link-up. Passing judgement on it isn't an easy thing to do, frankly. It's functions, I've already described- controlling your character, and managing items and inventory. Another which I haven't mentioned is the radar screen, which really comes into it's own in four-player mode. Square-Enix have gone to great lengths to promote co-operation with players, and the GBA is used to this end. Each player has a different radar available to them- be it treasure map, enemy radar, map screen and 'enemy analyser' (showing HP and weaknesses). The game randomly switches who has what screen every so often, mixing up things nicely. It all makes for what is a highly accomplished, frenetic, and compulsively playable game, with each player shouting orders, arguing, calling for help, focusing spells- the list goes on. In a particularly clever Four Swords style injection of competition into things, each player is given a private 'bonus mission'- along the lines of 'Use spells on enemies' or 'Collect money'. Depending on how well you fulfilled your objective, you are ranked at the end of each dungeon, with the highest-scoring player getting to chose first which stat-increasing artefact they wish.
This brings me on nicely to the health and upgrade systems- again, in a move sure to surprise hardened FF players, there are few numbers to be seen in Crystal Chronicles. Health is measured in hearts (shock, horror) for example. Character attributes do play a part, though, with strength, defence and magic being the three variables here. The only way to permanently increase them is to buy stronger weapons or armour, and collecting artefacts.
It's by no means a small game, either- each level must be replayed several times, with tougher enemies compensating for your increased strength. A healthy complement of levels, along with a couple of quirky sub-games and pleasing replayability means you won't feel short-changed by the experience.
There are plenty of flaws in the design which need to be mentioned. Delving into your GBA menus to retrieve a spell during a battle is pure suicide without the necessary back-up from a friend. Invisible walls also irritate- the game refuses to let you veer off the beaten path, surely this isn't what RPG's should promote? The lack of interactivity in villages is also galling. You can rarely enter houses and explore, as in most games of this genre. A bit more Zelda-style village atmosphere and interactivity would have improved the experience no end. The fact that the villages are so exquisitely detailed makes it even worse.
The verdict on the connectivity is generally positive, although the interface isn't as accessible as perhaps it should be. Wouldn't plundering the 'magic ring' menu selection system from the illustrious Secret of Mana have been a good idea? The expense in getting the requisite equipment is also prohibitive for many players- there's no doubt about it, FF:CC asks a lot of the player. There remains a nagging doubt in my mind that all this connectivity malarkey is really the way forward. It's a fine novelty, and all that, but is a bit of personal item-management and radar screen really justification for such a lot of money? It's a contentious issue, all right. Had the game used standard controller, implemented analogue control, and used Secret of Mana's afore-mentioned magic ring system, then surely the GBA wouldn't have been required. It does add a certain something to the multiplayer experience though, and that shouldn't be forgotten.
But for all it's infuriating limitations and idiosyncratic touches, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and was curiously refreshed by it. Playing it in small doses seems to be the best way to get enjoyment out of it, the level-based mechanic promotes this. The potential for a world-beating game is there- it's unfortunate that all of it wasn't realized. As it is, Crystal Chronicles ends up being considerably inferior to the glorious Secret of Mana- and that's where the Game Designers Studio should be looking to for inspiration in the future.
Of course, the one question on everybody's lips is this- is it worth getting? Magazines like Edge and websites like IGN have been typically quick to write off Crystal Chronicles as a dissapointment. And it's true; Crystal Chronicles is a tough game to review. If you've got the necessary equipment- 4 GBA's, four link-up cables, and four friends willing to journey with you, then the answer is clear and unambiguous- a hearty yes. Three and even two player games also work very well. One player mode, though, feels a little lonely, and all too often a little shallow and tedious. You'll undoubtedly enjoy it, but it's not FF:CC as it's meant to be experienced.
The bottom line on Crystal Chronicles, then, is this: A lavishly beautiful, unusually innovative, daring and unique breed of action- RPG that is sometimes a little too old-fashioned for its own good and occasionally marred by teething problems. It irritates and impresses, all at once. But when push came to shove, I couldn't help but be charmed by FF:CC, and I doubt you will either. A flawed gem, it may be, but a gem all the same, and worthy of the Final Fantasy name, even though it bears few similarities to that seminal series. Enjoy Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for what it is, and not for what it isn't, and you won't look back.
Welcome back, Square-Enix.
N-Europe Final Verdict
A fascinating, unique, flawed yet ultimately worthy return of Final Fantasy to Nintendo.
Wonderful graphics and sound
A hassle getting players together
Lack of interactivity