Square’s return to Nintendo consoles is a great multiplayer game, but it shouldn’t be played alone or with RPG expectations.
*Note: This review is not an editorial on the GBA requirement for playing the game in multiplayer. I am reviewing the game on its own merits and assuming you have access to enough people and equipment to play the game as it is meant to be played.
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (FFCC) has been compared to everything from Gauntlet to Diablo in an attempt to describe its unusual game concept. Its closest relative is probably Square’s own Secret of Mana, another real-time action/RPG with multiplayer features. Crystal Chronicles even shares a similar character design philosophy with the Mana series. However, this monumental return of the Final Fantasy series to GameCube carries with it the burden of many expectations inherent to that name, most of which it doesn’t even try to fulfill. FFCC blazes its own path, one light on story and very heavy on multiplayer features. My friends (who are integral characters in this review, by the nature of the game) had a tough time understanding why FFCC doesn’t have summoning monsters or real-time battles, but everyone who got to play the game in multiplayer came to love it for what it is.
We played the entire game with three players, only venturing out with two for trips to the blacksmith or attempts at “leveling up” (increasing stats by replaying levels). I have not played the game with four players since E3 2003, but I know the experience is very similar to three players, just more chaotic and with more specialization available for each player. Going with only two players is a less active and ultimately less entertaining exercise in communication and cooperation, as the available battle strategies are simply not as diverse. I also briefly tested the single-player mode, which employs a different interface and control layout, as well as some weird tactics for cooperating with your moogle helper. Playing this game alone is, to be blunt, not recommended. It’s much like playing Mario Party or Smash Bros. alone. It’s a nice feature to have for players who want to improve their skills, but the gameplay just doesn’t adapt very well for a single player. Without the constant communication and strategizing the game forces upon you in multiplayer, plowing through levels and hacking at enemies gets boring quickly. Just as normal games often have “tacked on” multiplayer features, FFCC has a “tacked on” single-player mode. Its inclusion is appreciated but should not be relied upon.
With even as few as two players, but preferably three or four, Crystal Chronicles is one of the most innovative and enjoyable multiplayer games around. Within the first minute of action, players begin to settle into roles which may last for the entire stage, then reverse completely for the next one. The person who picks up the Cure spell will have to be responsible for healing the whole group, at least until another copy of the spell pops up from a defeated enemy. The person whose GBA shows the level map will have to lead everyone, since the terrain is hard to navigate otherwise, with such a zoomed-in, overhead camera. The person carrying the chalice will have to move quickly and make sure its protective aura reaches close to nearby enemies, so that the others can fight without the disadvantage of standing in the poisonous miasma outside. Most of these roles can be swapped around at will, simply by dropping unwanted spells and taking turns with the chalice, but it can be a lot of fun to simply accept what the game gives you and try a style of playing that you may have missed out on before.
The game progression is a bit odd. There are distinct levels scattered on the world map, along with a few towns and crossroads, where story scenes take place. The levels tend to be pretty big, often taking over an hour to complete. There is no way to save mid-level, although it is possible to teleport out of the level and save on the world map. You’ll lose some of your loot by doing that, however. All the levels are full of enemies, most of them strong enough to require at least two attackers at once. Some enemies require special tactics, such as the huge Zu birds which must be brought down with a coordinated Gravity spell. Others have vicious frontal attacks but are vulnerable in the rear, so decoy tactics work well. Bosses can require more complex strategies, such as frequently moving the chalice or having one person kill minions while others attack the big guy. Most of the levels are not terribly hard, though they do ramp up quickly towards the end of the game. After a level has been completed, it can later be replayed with stronger enemies, new paths, and better treasures. There are about a dozen of these levels, which isn’t a huge number but is sufficient considering each one’s size and the fact that significant changes are present in subsequent visits. After beating the first level two or three times, it became so hard that our play group couldn’t even reach the boss.
Characters grow through the “years” by assembling new equipment and collecting stat bonus rewards at the end of each level. Creating new weapons and armor is a fundamentally simple matter made complex by the insane number of special ingredients available (which must be stored in your limited inventories). End-of-level bonuses depend on which artifacts the group found in the level. Each artifact grants an immediate but temporary bonus on the person who found it; the effects include stat increases, extra command slots, longer life bars, and permanent spell rings. Then, after the boss has been defeated, players take turns choosing one artifact out of the pool to keep permanently. The choosing order is based on how well each player accomplished his secret bonus goal, so this feature adds a touch of friendly competition to the game. In general though, you want everyone to be strong in order to beat the hardest levels. It’s in everyone’s best interests to share or at least trade around building materials, extra spells, food, etc.
All these ideas make for a game that feels much like Secret of Mana or Phantasy Star Online, but with levels and puzzles and enemies specifically designed for multiple players who are very much required to communicate and work together at all times. It’s a different way to play games than I’m used to, and it’s a lot of fun for everyone involved. Discussing battle plans out loud, counting down together to nail the timing on a fusion spell, and heckling the player who’s always a step behind all become part of the experience. The game’s set-up makes it easy to move different players in and out of the quest at any time, and nothing will blow up if a cord comes loose…just plug it back in and wait a few seconds for the software to download back into the GBA.
Crystal Chronicles will appeal strongly to fans of dungeon hacks and other types of real-time adventures, but almost anyone can enjoy a few levels of multiplayer fun, if not a full quest. What practically everyone will revile, however, is the game’s pitiful story. It’s true that telling a coherent story is difficult in such an unusual game structure, especially considering that players may come and go as the story rolls along at its own pace. Nevertheless, it’s hard to justify the seemingly random vignettes and preposterous dialogue found in this game. The level introductions, fully voiced by a woman who speaks with a light Celtic accent, are an utter joke. If you aren’t put off by the writing, with such zingers as “Never…trust…a monster,” you’ll be appalled at her vain attempts to dramatize the script. Real-time cut-scenes, which occur mainly at the world map’s crossroads, star a small cast of recurring characters who are usually trying and failing to be either funny or foreboding. I can respect that FFCC tries to tell its story in a new way, but the story itself is vacuous and poorly written. Devoted Final Fantasy fans who manage to adjust to the radically different gameplay may still be turned away by the inexcusably poor story elements.
That would be a shame, of course, because Crystal Chronicles is a unique game that can be very engaging with friends. Despite a few shortcomings and a few ideas that just don’t work out, the game is immensely enjoyable when played with a competent and cooperative group. Its mechanically simple gameplay is fleshed out by the cooperative aspects laced into every level, and the initially easy challenges evolve into some absurdly difficult final levels and bosses. If you have the people and equipment to play it, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a great adventure that has no trouble standing out from the crowd of GameCube RPGs. Ahem.