Back into the lifestream.
Let’s face it. If you’re reading this, you’re either a full-blown Final Fantasy VII fanboy who blushes every time Tifa reveals her front side or a person who could live without materia slots, large yellow Chocobo breeding, and effeminate men with steel swords that are long and hard. I, however, sit in the uncomfortable position between the two: a hardened critic whose first RPG was, indeed, FF7. For better or worse, it holds a special place in my gaming heart.
[image1]But seeing the FF7 name tarnished by Dirge of Cerberus made me skeptical about Crisis Core. Another action-oriented spin-off (starring a main character named Zack whose fate is foretold in the original) seemed like another unnecessary trip down disaster lane. It feels like walking into the theater to watch Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Episodes I and II didn't live up to the hype, and you are already anticipating the tragedies that have to happen for A New Hope to make sense. So how can this ever be good? Well, if Episode III is any indication, Crisis Core is surprisingly strong, with nearly everything that a FF7 fanboy would want, give or take some oddities that might make the common RPG lover cringe.
Zack Fair, a mysterious figure who appears in several pivotal scenes in FF7 and Advent Children, wishes to be a SOLDIER 1st Class operative, just like everyone else in the Shinra army. A youngblood with black Sonic the Hedgehog-like hair and who is incredibly eager to become a hero, he is brought under the wing of Angeal, a sturdy, samurai-spirited operative who frequently instructs him to “embrace his dreams” and “protect his SOLDIER honor”. Despite the events that lead up to the infamous Nibelheim incident, which turns Sephiroth into one of gaming’s most memorable villains, Zack remains a cheerful and light-hearted warrior who befriends the likes of Cloud and Aerith.
For a storyline primarily designed to reveal the events that set up the original, it’s able to cast each character in a sympathetic and compassionate light, although their personal histories and the relationships between them aren’t explored very deeply. The ending in particular leaves some threads unfinished, but not enough so that the plot is weaker than that of its original sources. The FMV cut-scenes are exquisitely produced on the handheld, on par with the it-would-look-like-this-today teaser trailer for FF7, while the orchestral score whimsically reinterprets and remixes the melodies from the original.
To protect Midgar from Wutai units and uncover the true origins of some SOLDIER 1st Class operatives, Zack must overcome hordes of monsters and soldiers alone, though not in the traditional turn-based way. Battles are entered and resolved by walking into an unmarked but usually obvious hotspot on the map, and hack-‘n-slashing any enemies that appear with his trusty sword. Equipped with materia, he can also unleash MP-consuming spells and AP-consuming special attacks, switching between each action in real-time.
[image2]Though the combat system follows much of the same action-oriented approach as other Square Enix titles like Final Fantasy Chronicles and Kingdom Hearts, Crisis Core progresses like most standard Final Fantasy RPGs. Getting through the first few levels relies on leveling up your character and mastering the basics of combat, such as dodging, timing attacks, striking enemies from behind for critical hits, and fluidly changing commands on the fly. By the last area, survival depends on the materia that you’ve amassed or created through the complex materia fusion system, as well as any powerful equipment and accessories that boost your vital stats and prevents debilitating status effects like Stun, Stop, and the ever-iniquitous Death.
Unfortunately, the game falls needlessly short in how it controls limit breaks, summons, and general character advancement: a slots-based DMW (Digital Mind Wave) system. You heard that right. Slots. Like walk-into-a-casino-and-sit-there-for-hours and watch-pictures-spin-around and cry-because-you’re-broke-and-alone slots. Spinning reels weren’t fun for Tifa’s limit break in FF7, and it’s even worse here. Not only do you not have any control over when the reels stop, but you also have no control when the reels start. Yep, you don’t even have the pleasure of pulling a shiny lever (a.k.a. pushing a button).
Now, not everything in an interactive game needs to be interactive (*cough*), but even passively automated systems shouldn’t be random, especially those that control when you level up, when materia levels up, when limit breaks are performed, and when dragons of pwnage are summoned. I’m not sure who decided that putting the most exciting elements of battle out of the player’s hands was a good idea, but I would like to meet that person on a cliff where dreams die.
Even odder is that though Zack levels up only when three 7s appear, those three 7s won’t appear if he hasn’t earned enough experience points, which by the way, aren’t displayed anywhere. I could explain how confusingly convoluting this is, but it’s the kind of thing where you start to think, and all that comes out is blood.
[image3]This isn’t surprising, however, for a title that is fearlessly motivated by fan service. As expected, its main focus is to get the player through the story painlessly. Most enemies are easily defeated, especially given the inexpensive potions and ethers that not only restore a relatively high percentage of Zack’s maximum HP and MP, but can also be purchased from the main menu in between battles. Shopping is all done electronically, though stores exist physically throughout Midgar’s slums. Without a world map and with a very linear level design, exploration is limited, apart from several fetch quests in Midgar and the 300 side missions which all take place in the same five or so maps.
I’m not going to harp on the amount of additional content too much, as most of it’s voluntary and accessible at any save point in the game. Still, there’s something to be said when 100 missions could have given the same thrill with less space, and when the optional boss makes the final boss look as harmless as a squirrel with osteoporosis. In fact, the accessories you gain after defeating the optional boss and completing every mission are so godly that they, in conjunction with the legendary Genji equipment, call the entire storyline into question.
Crisis Core will make all mako energy-loving fanboys giddy with nostalgia, swoon over the sweeping soundtrack, and ingest every last detail of the story. Most everyone else probably won’t understand what all the hooplah is about, since the main draw is in understanding the references and connections to the original. A well-produced, uncomplicated, pleasant, but lamentably flawed action RPG,