Saturday, September 24, 2011

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Review

Mog, the annoying singleplayer sidekick, not pictured

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is one of the most shallow games in the Final Fantasy franchise. I’m not saying it’s terrible or awful, merely shallow. The overall experience is mixed, because it doesn’t do anything so wrong that the game is ruined, but it doesn’t make up for its problems with anything good enough to redeem it. This game is like being stuck in limbo and the ending is ironically something quite similar to that. Role-playing games usually try to accomplish things like tell a story, provide great combat experiences, or a vast onslaught of sidequests. But Crystal Chronicles just exists and forces you to undergo community service to your fictional hometown. The thing I’ve discovered about this game is that it accomplishes what it claims to be its selling points, but fails to accomplish the things they don’t mention. That way somehow it’s not false advertising. 

Selling point as advertised: Really interesting premise for the story, with miamsa covering the world. What they don’t mention: A good premise needs a good payoff for it to be worth anything. The setup for Crystal Chronicles is great, but it never has a payoff. It just keeps going on until you discover the secret area and the secret final boss and the secret final ending. It baffles me that after going to all that effort to set up a really good story, then go nowhere with it, and at the end suddenly decide to give it a villain and a spirit thing saying some mumbo jumbo about memories and the human nature and all that. There is no satisfaction in killing Raem or the Meteor Parasite because there is no buildup to them. There was no buildup to them because they were thrown in at the last minute because the game needed to end somehow. 

Selling point as advertised: Create-your-own character with customization. Race, gender, appearance, job, and so forth.  What they don’t mention: The entire customization is as shallow and superficial as they could possibly make it. All the Crystal Chronicles races suck and there’s nothing special about them. No racial skills or advantages beyond base stats and the weapons they can equip. The appearance combinations for your character are incredibly limited and virtually all of them look lame, bland, or ridiculous. Picking a family job only makes it possible for your family to carry out that job; the player themselves cannot be a blacksmith or anything. Of course this means whenever you want to do anything with that job you must go all the way back home to your family to craft something. Some of the jobs are completely useless like fishing, where your parent will give you free fish. That problem is compounded when your race is coincidentally a race that does not like fish at all, yet it’s your parent’s job.

Selling point as advertised: Wonderful and Unique co-op multiplayer. What they don’t mention: Multiplayer is incredibly inaccessible and is really a greedy scam. The big deal with multiplayer is that to play it you must have two to four Gameboy Advance systems and a GCN-GBA link for each one. The Gamecube controller only works in single-player. I don’t know how much four GBAs and four links cost when this game was released, but I will tell you it cost too much back then. Even assuming the links can be bought cheap, take into consideration the odds of four people coincidentally with four GBAs who all want to get together and play co-op Final Fantasy. As Nintendo handheld systems progress into the 3DS and beyond, the multiplayer in this game becomes less accessible as less people own a GBA or GBA SP. A bigger problem with this game is how hard it tries to get you to play multiplayer by showing how much singleplayer is limited and sucks. The one and only sidequest in Crystal Chronicles is collecting Moogle Stamps. Guess what they do? Once you have all of them, once you have grinded for hours to collect every single stamp everywhere, it unlocks a multiplayer-only mini-game. Virtually every way of promoting this game always shows four heroes going on a quest, including promotional art, trailers, commercials, ads, the cover art, and even the game’s intro. At no point do you ever really see or get a sense this game is about one kid with a Moogle next to him. Magic acquired in single-player like Life is only useful in spell fusion or multiplayer. You acquire food that only really helps other races and armor recipes that don’t fit your race. Around every corner of this game there is this haunting reminder that this is a multiplayer game and you are only given single-player as a mere accommodation for lack of friends and spare Nintendo products.

            That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the multiplayer is actually really good. Once you get there, past all the GBA stuff, the game really uses it very well. The pause screen and the menus appear on the GBA controller, which means that the action on the actual TV screen is not paused and continues even for the player who did not pause and wants to continue. Because of the miasma, however, they can’t make it far without leaving their paused teammate behind. The bonus points system also gives a competitive edge to it. However, the biggest problem with multiplayer is one person still has to carry the chalice. I do not know why they did this and why they couldn’t just keep the single-player Moogle in the multiplayer. One person has to always be technically not playing, just tagging along while the other players have fun. Oh sure they can take turns carrying it, but someone always has to. 

            The story is very minimalist, but somehow they managed to make a ton of plot holes in it. So a deadly gas called miasma is covering the world and only the crystals protect humanity from it. The crystals are powered by myrrh, a liquid created by the forgotten memories of people and found on special trees surrounded by monsters. Each town and city sends warriors out to find drops of myrrh, three of which will power their crystal for a year. Obviously, the player is one of those warriors and they are tasked with the survival of the village. My question is why does the town place all of their faith in one child? Not even a special destiny kid like in Legend of Zelda. Just a regular kid. Where are the able-bodied adults and why aren’t they going on the dangerous mission to save the village? As a kid your parents just expect you to be able to do this. Your father is probably up to the task, especially if he has a tougher job like blacksmithing. What kind of horrible parent is he to make his kid go fight all the monsters? Physically fit fathers should not sit at home while sending their 12-year old daughters to war. What kind of pathetic village do you live in where children are the toughest people in town? Who was the person gathering myrrh before my character started and what happened to him/her? Did they die or hit puberty, becoming a lazy neglectful adult like the rest of the village? Do they even have a backup plan in case you fail? Can’t we collect a lot of myrrh and just store it in a warehouse, not having to go out into danger every year? These problems are basic and could be easily explained away somehow but this game doesn’t put the smallest amount of effort into addressing blatantly obvious issues. 

            Throughout single-player you are accompanied by a Moogle named Mog who carries the chalice, except he gets tired sometimes and can’t carry the chalice as fast and tells you that it’s your turn to carry the chalice. Well that’s his job, his only purpose. If it’s my turn to carry the chalice I say it’s his turn to fight. This is his job and he should do it right. After several years of carrying that chalice a long way through many dungeons he should have gotten used to it, probably even buff like a bodybuilder Moogle or something. Painting Mog with different colors determines which spell he can cast in combat. Of course, he will not always be able to cast a spell, only when he thinks he should and only when he’s not carrying the chalice (which is almost never).

            Square Enix has certainly captured a mood in this game. This game is not overly kiddy or pandering; it takes itself and its universe seriously without being too deep or mature. The environment and setting of this game feels like a vast world with a lot to explore and see (even if not a lot to do). The music is wonderful, top notch work by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. The soundtrack conveys both a sense of adventure and childlike innocence. However, none of the music has excitement since the only battle music is in boss fights. Oh yes, the music is great in the peaceful and tranquil sense but in a game that mostly involves fighting monsters there needs to be battle music. Additionally, the intro and ending music was dubbed horribly in English. I don’t normally make a big deal of out English versus Japanese dubbing, but the two songs in this game are just unbearably awful in English. 

The graphics are fantastic, pushing the Gamecube to its limits. Almost every aspect of this game shines in stunning clarity for its time. Sadly, a problem with the visuals is not the quality of what you are seeing but what you are seeing. The characters don’t express emotions very well (or at all) and the enemies usually don’t look like anything special. The only monsters that seemed threatening at all were bosses, and even they were hit or miss. The victorious mood after finishing a dungeon is ruined by an excess of annoying, pointless, useless cutscenes that take place in the overworld map. They never stop and with the exception of Black Knight and Gurdy, never contribute anything of value or entertainment. They are merely annoying distractions designed to remind you that Square can make good cutscene graphics. 

            The best part of this game is the single most important thing in any video game: gameplay. There are a lot of important things in a game, but gameplay is always the dealbreaker. They put a really good, simple combat system in this game. You can attack like normal, a focus attack which is where you jump in to attack from afar (or for various weapons shoot the mob), cast magic, or use an item. These are all on a command wheel that can be toggled through using L or R. The commands are set in the main menu, and unless you want to switch the command list entire levels can be played with very little pausing or using a menu. On the one hand it’s great to have a non-turn based system. Downside is you can only select one command at the time. Upside is you can switch which one it is on the fly rather quickly. Downside is you may be able to switch the command selected quickly but you won’t be able to use it as quickly as you switched it. For example, when fighting a monster it will have to move pretty slowly for you to be able to switch between attack and defend when you need to do one or the other. 

Magic works similar to focus attacks; you hold the button and use the cursor to indicate where to cast and release for it to happen. You can also use food to heal on the fly like potions, except your race indicates what food heals for the most. In between battles you want to use Cure though, unless your bags are getting full. Magic is infinite use once you pick it up in a level but you lose every spell once you finish or leave an area. This means you have to pick it up again once you enter a new stage, but it doesn’t take long to find them. You can also fuse certain magic spells together to take up one big command slot. For example, three Fire fused is Firaga and two different elements is Gravity. Later on in the game you can acquire rings that cast magic and never fade away when you leave an area. Life magic is useless in single-player aside from fusion, yet it keeps dropping. Phoenix Downs can be equipped in command slots and instantly revive you when you die, like the fairies from Legend of Zelda.

So it all comes down to the big question: is this game fun? No, I certainly think single-player is not. Most games with problems get the gameplay wrong or do nothing unique with it and then get other aspects like plot, multiplayer, sidequests, and graphics right. Those games totally mess up the core gameplay and focus on all the surrounding fluff and extras. Crystal Chronicles does the opposite. Square Enix made a good core and then built almost nothing of value around it. That is why I say this game is shallow. The only thing that is both good and unique about this game is the gameplay. The story is a huge disappointment, the levels are grind of blatant repetition devoid of extras and sidequests, the multiplayer is well-done but is essentially a greedy scam, the graphics are good but those fade in time, the music is good but does not fulfill every required purpose, and none of the characters (protagonists, monsters, or otherwise) have any entertaining qualities or personalities. 

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is a core without a crust. A skeleton with no meat on its bones. I can barely recommend this at all. I mainly recommend this game is to Final Fantasy diehards determined to play anything with the FF name attached. I also think kids would like it if you want to give them a cheap game, like as a gift. It would make a nice stocking-stuffer at the price it goes for these days. I also recommend the game for the multiplayer. If you have multiple Gameboy Advances around and people who want to play a co-op RPG, go pick this game up and a few GCN-GBA cables if you need them. You and your friends will probably have a fun time. Just don’t expect too much substance to it.

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