Four heads are better than one. Much better.
Nintendo and Squaresoft used to be the bestest of buddies, as all the old Final Fantasy games appeared on the classic Nintendo consoles, and in many ways defined those systems altogether. But like elementary kids going into high school, the two grew apart. Square fell in with the cool kids, the popular pretty boys led by Sony, while Nintendo swore off its old friend for selling out. The companies would pass each other in the hall, but they'd look the other way.
Luckily for Gamecube owners, the two finally got over themselves and decided to become friends again. Unfortunately, this resolution is no night at the prom. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a meeting of two great minds, but winds up more like that distinct moment of awkwardness when two distant friends pick up the pieces of where they left off than the brilliant merger everyone was expecting.
You should know that FF: Crystal Chronicles is not remotely like any of the FF games you might have played in the past. While there are Moogles and miasma in Crystal Chronicles, the game has a completely different soul.
For starters, Crystal Chronicles is an action RPG, not a story-driven RPG. It's heavy on the action and much lighter on stats and story. The plot, however, still revolves around a typical Final Fantasy topic: an evil fog has overrun the land, and only with the use of crystals can this darkness be dissipated. You choose a nondescript character and seek out myrrh, which rejuvenates the crystals and keeps the fog at bay, which you then store in a little magical chalice.
There are four classes: human, jungle folk, weird spindly creatures, and squat plant people. Each follows the standard four-player action roles as dictated by the ancient Gauntlet: one's a brute, one's a magician, one's a defensive specialist and one is balanced. Besides choosing between male or female (sorry, no "other" or "yes, please"), you also select your family's background skills, which merely dictate the kinds of side perks you receive. If you set your family as farmers, you can send your family grain to get bonuses. It's more of a side detail than a full fledged feature, really.
The crux of Crystal Chronicles is the time-based action. Forget about evolving stats or a random generator that dictates whether or not your attacks connect. You choose from an assortment of basic attacks to mash away at or spells and attacks that require a momentary charge up. When you are fully charged, you gain control of an aiming indicator, but the cost of these powerful attacks is that you're stuck in place. There are no level progressive stats, which could have added a sense character building, but at the very least, your health increases, equippable items provide boosts and two kinds of spells can be fused together for more magic options.
However, spells do not carry over from area to area. The flow of the game runs from map screen to area to completion and right back to the map screen; in between are erstwhile villages of limited interactivity. It's a typical set up for an action RPG and does admittedly get quite redundant. When combined with the very simple gameplay mechanics, it leads to a game that just isn't particularly thrilling.
Taking all of this into consideration, it's pretty clear that Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a single-player game best taken in small doses. But it's not really meant to be played alone.
If you can muster up three friends, Crystal Chronicles becomes much more fun. By way of each player's Game Boy Advance, everyone can manage their items and abilities without stalling the group, an often recurring problem in co-op games. It keeps the game running at a nice fast clip. Everyone also has different map screen indicators, thereby forcing conversation and strategizing. It all works really well and leads to an innovative co-op experience.
But one that comes at a high cost, because every player needs their own GBA. Well sure, that might be guaranteed if you're under 12 and have nice parents, but I've got friends from every walk of life, and few are as deeply imbedded into gaming as I am. When I want them to join in on the fun, it ain't so easy. It's just a huge hit on the wallet to have four link cables, four Game Boys, a Gamecube and a copy of Crystal Chronicles. Why couldn't Nintendo have included some kind of rebate when you buy multiple link cables? Who knows. The fact remains that the great multiplayer is hampered by the somewhat exclusionary GBA requirement.
Crystal Chronicles is visually stunning, with lush, pretty environments and excellent character modeling. You might not fully appreciate it thanks to the distant, wide shots of the overhead camera – much of the detail is lost – but it's tough to argue with the nice effects and overall beauty.
The music and effects are pretty generic but get the job done. Since there isn't much in terms of distinct characters development, voices have not been included, which is a shame.
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is an interesting game. The bland single player holds it back, but things get much better when you play with friends. Of course, that's not as easy it sounds. Innovation in GBA connectivity is always appreciated, but not when the game relies on it. If you don't have a bunch of GBAs, this reunion is bittersweet.