Everything you need to know about FFCC, short of buying a player’s guide.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles has been the object of much anticipation and debate ever since it was shown at E3, the centerpiece in all of it being the requirement for four players to use GBAs as controllers. I’ve logged over thirty hours into the Japanese version in the past few months, and the following review breaks down the game in its entirety, including the solid integration of the GBA into its design, why it’s a great multiplayer game for those able to set it up, and how well it endures in single-player.
The basic concept of the game is that a poisonous miasma has settled on the world, and all that keeps it at bay are crystals powered by “myrrh". Every year, travelers must venture out from each village to find Myrrh Trees to rejuvenate their crystal’s power. The group is protected by a special crystal chalice (more affectionately known as the bucket), which holds enough myrrh for the following year. Unfortunately, Myrrh Trees are heavily guarded by monsters and only produce a small harvest once every few years, so players must get three such harvests every year, forcing them to journey farther and farther from home.
You start out the game by naming your town and creating your characters. There are four races to choose from (Yuke, Clavat, Lilty, and Selkie), and each race has four male and four female character designs. Each race uses specific types of weapons and armor and as a result, has predispositions towards fighting close-range, using magic, etc. Next you’ll choose your family’s occupation from eight selections such as merchant, blacksmith, or miller, each with special skills that can be of aid to your group. You can create eight players on a save file, and the town’s population is made up almost entirely of those players’ families. If you’re playing by yourself, the town will be pretty empty.
The overworld in FFCC is a simple globe with roads that only allow your caravan to move from point to point. You can only see small sections of the globe at a time, which rotates when you pass from one area to the next. Different sections of the globe are separated by caves storming with miasma, and the only way to pass through the storms is to change the polarity of the bucket in one of the nearby dungeons. The storms change polarity from year to year, which, along with other obstacles, can prohibit you from reaching certain lands until a following year. The globe is also where much of the story progression seems to take place. As you travel, you’ll randomly encounter other adventurers, including caravans from other towns looking to buy rare treasures; rotten little bandits that hop in your wagon and steal apples when you aren’t looking; cute girls in straw hats handing out corn; and other more significant characters. Since my Japanese is really only good enough to get me through the game, I can’t claim to understand all of the encounters, but the scenes seem to get lengthier and more significant as the years pass.
The meat of the game, however, occurs in the dungeons, where you’ll spend the majority of your time hacking away at dozens of enemies while searching for treasure and the Myrrh Tree. The bucket forms a ring of clean air around your party, effectively keeping everyone together. If any of you wander outside this protective bubble, you’ll eventually start taking damage. Conversely, by staying inside the bubble, you’ll gradually regain health, which is represented by hearts. Near your life bar is a command indicator, which displays the command you currently have selected. The L and R buttons cycle through commands, and you execute them with A. Attack and defend are you basic commands, but from the menu, you can also assign items and spells from your inventory. Each player starts out with a rather small amount of hearts and command slots, but more can be obtained as you progress.
Battles take place entirely in real-time. Enemies are just sitting around the dungeons waiting for unsuspecting whelps like you. Your physical attacks vary, depending on the character’s weapon, but timing your strikes appropriately can execute combos. You can also perform a more powerful attack by holding the A button for a moment, selecting a target with the cursor, and then releasing A. Spells take the form of magicite orbs that are picked up along the way, and are cast using the same charge method described above. Players can even cast unique combo spells by placing their cursors over the same target and releasing the button at the proper time. Interestingly enough, there are no magic points to limit the number of times a spell can be cast, but it never seems to feel cheap, since you’re pretty much a sitting duck while you’re casting a spell and you can’t carry spells over to the next dungeon.
Your characters also don’t gain experience or level-up like in most RPGs. There are only three stats (attack, defense, and magic), and they can only be increased by forging new weapons and armor or by finding artifacts. Forging equipment is quite a task, requiring you to find “equipment recipes" and the materials required by those recipes to make the items. In addition to this, you’ll also need to find a blacksmith that is able to forge that particular item, as smiths in different towns have different skills. Artifacts have various functions, including boosting one of your stats permanently, adding a heart or command slot, giving you a special equipment recipe, or allowing you to keep a spell permanently. Six of these artifacts are hidden throughout each dungeon, but you only get to choose one after you’ve defeated the boss. Looking for more artifacts and equipment to strengthen your character serves as the main reason to repeat dungeons because as time goes on, new enemies creep into old haunts, and new paths open up, allowing you to find more valuable treasures.
Crystal Chronicles is designed from the ground up as a multiplayer connectivity title. Each player needs a Game Boy Advance and GameCube to GBA link cable to play, but it’s not just a gimmick that could have been handled differently; connectivity is integral to multiplayer and worked into the gameplay in multiple ways. The most important use for the GBA is the player's menu. You’ll frequently need to equip spells to command slots, use healing items, and select items to trade with other members of the group. The Game Boy screen allows each player to do that at will, without slowing down the action while the others continue to fight and explore. While you’re in the menu, your character will even move on to keep up with the rest of the group, although you will be defenseless if an enemy attacks. Each screen also displays different information to help you on your quest, increasing the need for your team to communicate with each other. The four screens show map data, monster locations, treasure locations, and detailed info on the current enemy. These screens change players as you move through different sections of the dungeon, so it’s important for you to keep up with each other. Finally, the GBA also fosters competition between the players by giving specific goals to each. Goals include avoiding damage, using magic, not using magic, picking up items, or even things as tough as not curing yourself or not curing teammates. At the end of the dungeon, each player will be rated on how he met his goals, and whichever player did the best will have first pick of the artifacts. If you ignore your goal, you may find yourself left with nothing more than a measly +1 stat raise.
Aside from all that, playing a multiplayer RPG together can be a great experience. There is room for eight characters on each file, so players can join the quest randomly, but the best scenario is to have a consistent team of four willing to go through the game from start to finish. Eventually, even the early dungeons start getting too tough for a new player to join in without being a hindrance to the rest of the group. With a reliable team, however, you can learn each others’ strengths and start coordinating attacks - trading off the bucket, deciding which members are going to heal, which will attack up-close, etc. At first, arguments may arise, as one player may just want to plow through the stages and another grabs every bit of treasure while the rest are fighting off monsters, but eventually everyone starts to learn the importance of gathering treasures and sharing them among the group. At blacksmiths’ shops, you’ll all start looking through item lists and organizing trades with each other to try to get materials needed for new weapons and equipment. Boss battles require particular coordination since each boss is joined by a pair of endlessly re-spawning standard enemies. One of the party members needs to take care of these nuisances, while another casts cure spells, another focuses on the boss, and another keeps track of the bucket to make sure the others are within range of their goals.
I spent most of the game playing single player, and although it isn’t as frantic or exciting as multiplayer, it’s still a good game. A Game Boy Advance isn’t a requirement for single player, and in fact, you have to use a GameCube controller -- with the GBA only serving as an optional secondary display for maps and the like. As a single adventurer, you’re given a moogle side-kick to carry the bucket for you and to assist with casting combo spells. At special moogle houses, you can spray paint this little buddy to change the type of information displayed on the GBA, but most of the time your best bet is to keep it set to the map screen. Single player has some advantages over multiplayer. You’re always in full control, so you can explore freely, and the enemy AI becomes a bit easier to predict and counter-attack. Jumping to the menu pauses the action on-screen, so if you’re in trouble, you can quickly hit Y and eat a fruit or fish to heal without worry. You also get to keep all the spoils along the way, but the game’s inventory system turns out to be its biggest flaw. There is a very limited number of slots to store items, and in time you have to start throwing things away. As the years wear on, you start to gather a rather large collection of recipes that you need materials for and materials that you don’t quite know whether you’ll need or not. Eventually, it gets to the point that you’re tossing out food, extra spells, and anything else you can think of (basically wasting a lot of time in the menu) just in case that griffon claw turns out to be something you need to forge your next weapon. Another disadvantage you’ll have in single-player is that the annoying little sidekicks bosses have can become more of a problem, since a lot of time is spent either on getting them out of the way or dodging them to get a clean hit on the boss.
It would be an injustice to talk about this game without giving due respect to the gorgeous graphics and soundtrack. The art style is clearly more fantastic than the main FF series has been in the last few installments, but not quite as extreme as FFIX. It has a style all its own, and manages to avoid looking too cartoony. There are tons of glittering details throughout the game such as subtle reflections on marble floors and passing shadows from the clouds above. The ring surrounding the party traces over the surrounding environment like a laser, and fur shading on moogles and other characters looks wonderful. The only downside is that there aren’t any camera controls to let you zoom in and gawk at the graphics up-close.
On the audio front, Square-Enix has put together a wonderful soundtrack. Composed, produced, and arranged by Kumi Tanioka, the music consists almost entirely of ancient instruments, such as the hurdy gurdy, psaltery, and crumhorn, played by performers from Roba House. Overall, the soundtrack is more cheerful than Uematsu’s grand compositions, but it does have its somber and ambient moments and it perfectly fits the style and charm of this game. Although I can’t say how well this has been dealt with in the US version, the Japanese game features vocalist Yae on the opening and closing songs, and she also gives narrative introductions to each dungeon. If you’re interested in picking up the complete Japanese soundtrack, our partners at Video Game Depot have both the standard edition and even the limited edition CDs in stock.
Before wrapping this up, it would be good to let you know that one of the more significant disappointments is that the means of getting to the last stage seems entirely random. Unless it’s specifically mentioned by a character in the game and I missed it due to language differences, you’ll likely finding yourself spending additional hours wandering back to the same old dungeons over and over trying to figure out what you missed. For those that don’t mind spoilers: [there’s a storm blocking your way to the final stage that none of your standard crystal polarities can override. The only way to get past this storm is to go to a desert on the opposite side of the world and start casting specific spells on random objects like cacti and rocks. After a bit of this, a flower will appear, and casting the right spell on it gives you a rainbow polarity that will override any storm and grant you access to the final stage.]
In all, FFCC consists of about fifteen dungeons, which last about an hour each. You could probably beat the game in six or seven years (around twenty hours in real life), but the final boss battles will likely send you back to familiar territory to look for better weapons. You may also end up going back to the first stages extra times to introduce new friends that join in. If you can get a group together that’s willing to take on the whole game, FFCC is a great cooperative adventure that’s easily worth picking up. Single players can enjoy this title too, but nothing can replace the energy of working together with friends.