Saturday, December 22, 2012

Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy Review

[This review was already posted by an associate on Destructoid, give or take a few edits.  It was written by me.  It's not plagiarizing if it's my own work.]

Being an action gamer who lives for the thrill and feeds off of swordplay and punch-ups, a game like Theatrhythm Final Fantasy doesn’t sound like the kind of game you’d expect me to play.  But even we action gamers need a break from mercilessly slaughtering hundreds of soldiers and fighting tournament-holding crime lords..  Sometimes we want to sit down to a friendly game with a simple design.  It is for that reason I bought Theathrhythm Final Fantasy for the Nintendo 3DS.

I’m not what you’d call a “fan” of the Final Fantasy series.  The only games I’ve played in the series are the Final Fantasy 4 DS remake to a fairly lengthy point, and I beat Final Fantasy 6 on the SNES.  Aside from that, my knowledge of the Final Fantasy games has come from the internet.  Though I may not be big on the games themselves, I’ve always admired Final Fantasy’s music and art design, which has all only gotten more varied over the years.

Consider that a disclaimer.  Despite what the advertizing of this game is playing up, nostalgia did not affect me when playing it.  It never does.  I don’t have any kind of childhood memory to relive.  I am telling you as a neutral gamer.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a retelling, of sorts, of the crossover PSP game series Dissidia Final Fantasy.  However, unlike Dissidia and its many expository cutscenes, Theatrhythm’s story is hard to follow and almost nonexistent.  From what I can gather from the text-scrolling prologue at the very beginning of Theatrhythm, the gods of harmony and discord, Cosmos and Chaos, are in conflict.  Apparently, Chaos has shifted the balance of good and evil, which now needs to be repaired by gathering some kind of power called rhythmia.  Now the warriors of each of the numbered Final Fantasy games up to 13 must go to each other’s worlds and gather rhythmia with the power of music.

That is truly the extent of the story and I assure you I left nothing out.  There’s a prologue and epilogue of scrolling text at the beginning end of each world in the game’s main mode.  While the prologues give a brief and helpful synopsis of each game’s setting, the epilogues seem to be dialogue from a random character in the game the epilogue belongs to.  No indication is given as to who speaks the epilogue, and there’s no voice acting, meaning it’s all up to speculation by fans of the source material.  I find this strange, as I expect a more casual-oriented game like this one wouldn’t want to keep new players this much in the dark.

Why can't we just take Setzer's airship? 
If you know me, you’d expect me to be up in arms about the lack of a story, but I’m more forgiving in the case of Theatrhythm than other games I’ve played that lacked story.  At least Theatrhythm doesn’t try to pretend it has more of a story than it really does, as was the case with Cave Story and Chrono Trigger.  It doesn’t try to convince you you’re playing a complex, intricate Final Fantasy story.  You’re just playing a music game.

I made up my own with what I was given anyway, for coherency’s sake.  The story I made was one in which the Final Fantasy heroes divided into 3 groups to take on the first 12 game worlds, then gathered the 3 best of them into one last group alongside Lightning to finish with Final Fantasy 13.  And when my story features Zidane, Tidus, Shantotto, and Vaan fighting Anima, it’s already something memorable.

Each of the 13 games represented in Theatrhythm has 3 tracks, and an opening and closing number, with another 12 songs being unlocked by hoarding rhythmia after beating the game.  Each of the 3-track combinations is separated into 3 different types of stages: battle, field, and event.

All 3 types follow the same mechanic of tapping and swiping the touch screen in rhythm to the music and in accordance to icons on the top screen, similarly to Elite Beat Agents.  However, each stage has its own style of play and objective that makes it very distinct from the others.

Field stages use field music from the Final Fantasy games, and have you tapping to notes that scroll from left to right as your character walks down a path.  Regularly in a field stage, you’ll have to move your stylus up and down while keeping it pressed on the screen to travel along a path of notes.  Each time you mess up in a field stage, your character trips, loses health, and possibly switches out with another character in your party.  The farther your character walks in a field stage, the more likely it is they’ll get an item for their trouble.

In event stages, you tap to the music as an icon travels around the screen in front of a (rather good) music video depicting whatever Final Fantasy game the music is from (It’s nothing but FMVs starting with Final Fantasy 7 though).  The gimmick in the event stages is that the icon you need to tap to changes direction and speed frequently, requiring you to pay attention to dramatic shifts.

Last is my favorite, the battle stages.  Rather than one path, there are four different paths notes can come from.  It doesn’t require you to tap any differently from the other stages, but it really requires you to pay attention to the entire screen as well as to the beat of the music.  Each time you tap a note correctly, you strike a blow to an opposing monster, and each time you mess up, the monster strikes a blow to you.  Kill enough monsters and you may reach a boss.  If you kill the boss before the song ends, you’ll get a special reward.

By hitting enough notes in a string of shiny ones, you summon a  spirit in the battle stages and chocobo in field stages.

From those descriptions, you might think there isn’t a whole lot to Theatrhythm’s gameplay, but that changes when you take the game’s RPG elements into consideration.  Whenever you clear a song, you gain experience for the four characters in your party and level up.  This matters a lot, because stats affect your success.  For example, having more agility lets you travel farther in field stages, and strength deals more damage in battle stages.
Magic is brought into play with the special abilities you can equip to characters using limited ability points, much like Kingdom Hearts.  Some abilities are passive, while others, like offensive spells, are activated after chaining a certain number of notes by not messing up.  Some abilities even activate by missing a certain number of notes, as something of a crutch skill.
Your party can also be equipped with a classic Final Fantasy item.  Some deal damage to enemies after their health gets low, others let the party summon a special chocobo without fail, and some give the party leader an ability after winning a stage with the item equipped.

All these RPG elements and gameplay mechanics make the game more complex than the average rhythm game, and it’s especially favorable for my situation.  I wanted a break from all the fast-paced story-heavy action games I play all the time, and I got a game that wasn’t any of those things (save for the fast-paced part, starting at expert difficulty), but still delivered an experience familiar to me.  I was playing a music game, yet I was using my reflexes and sense of timing to have guys with swords fight monsters.  It’s a combination of two genres that mixes well.

He's watching you.
I greatly question the item system’s specifics though.  Because only one item can be used at a time, and more than one item is often collected at the end of a stage, there’s a lot of stockpiling that makes me wonder why I can’t equip more.  Also, I don’t understand the point of having an item that gives a character an ability at the completion of a stage.  Why couldn’t they just give them the ability immediately?  If finishing a stage is all it takes, a player can just complete one on the easiest difficulty, but if they’re only doing so for the ability they’ll get from their item, it’s a waste of their time.

But that’s not what you’re here for.  This is a music game, so of course you expect only the finest soundtrack on the 3DS.  If that’s what you were expecting, then you clearly know Final Fantasy’s music.  It seems as though the song selection for the game was decided by vote, as the arguably most popular tracks from each game are represented, such as the infamous One Winged Angel and Battle With the Four Fiends.  Not everyone will be satisfied, however.

Because they could only choose three tracks for each game (and a handful of unlockable ones), it’s likely some of your favorites won’t be in it, if you’re a Final Fantasy fan.  Thankfully, Square Enix has released downloadable songs for a dollar each so that they can release the songs they couldn’t fit into the cart.
I’m not sure I should approve of paying a full dollar for these songs, and especially not since it includes tax, but if you have a dollar or two remaining after a separate E-Shop transaction, it’s a good way to get rid of it.
I got over a dozen of the DLC tracks myself and made some observations: that some of the DLC tracks use backgrounds exclusive to DLC songs, with the others using ones already in the game, and that there are no new monsters in the DLC battle stages.

I waited for months to get this DLC track.

There’s a final boss stage you’re forced into after getting 10,000 rhythmia, but it’s an anticlimax in which you fight Chaos to an easy and dull song before seeing the more amusing credits.  The final battle can’t be replayed either, which you’d think would be a given when everything else can be.  What really puzzles me is that once you beat the final boss, you unlock another, far longer, far harder, and far more epic song that would have much better served as a final boss battle theme.  Why didn’t they use something like that?

The original Nintendo DS didn’t have the best speakers and were best listened to with headphones on, but for Theatrhythm, they aren’t necessary.  It’s quite remarkable how clear and loud the music comes out of the 3DS speakers.  There’s no sound compression I can hear when playing.  It all sounds like the magnificent orchestra that performed it, save for the first 3 FF games, which are NES chiptunes.  I don’t understand why the NES games in the series are presented as 8-bit chiptunes when it seems everything from the Super Nintendo games onwards sounds like a remastered track.  It’s not that I don’t like the NES music (there are no losers in the song selection), but it feels inconsistent and unnecessary.  I suppose it gives some more variety, but the soundtrack would have been varied enough anyway if they had simply used a more modern version of the NES music.

The game’s art matches the music’s quality.  As a stylized representation of the game’s portability, all the characters are drawn in a cutesy, keychain-like way.  That doesn’t mean much for the playable characters, as they all have the same face, but it does mean a lot for the creatures.
It was delightful to see the badass bosses of Final Fantasy given adorable chibi forms.  Even the most grotesque and strange of the Final Fantasy creatures have been transmogrified into adorable, huggable, cartoonish caricatures.  Somehow, despite this, they’re still somewhat intimidating; keeping their menacing features, out-sizing the little playable characters, and animating like they have loose marionette joints.  The game’s visual style makes it look like a parody of Final Fantasy that should give anyone who knows the source material a lighthearted feeling.

Backgrounds have also had effort put into them.  Every song has its own colorful venue, but while the battle stage backgrounds faithfully recreate the game they’re trying to emulate, and they have small background effects to keep them from being static, they keep all the action in one place.  It’s the field stages that really show off the backgrounds, as characters walk by many landmarks from the song’s respective game, making the worlds of Final Fantasy feel more alive.

I only wish those backgrounds could look more expansive.  Disappointingly, the 3D effect for the game feels ultimately wasted.  In Theatrhythm, the 3DS’ titular feature only uses 3D to make the note field pop out to separate itself from the rest of the game, and make menus look a bit neater.  Playing in 3D does make it easier to focus on the notes, but there are many missed opportunities.  Why couldn’t they have the background in the field stages have depth relative to the character’s position, or have the FMV sequences in the event scenes be in 3D?  It’s called the 3DS.  If a company is going to use 3D, they should use it all the way!

Maybe they ran out of storage space for better 3D with all the stuff they crammed in the cartridge.  Rhythm games have never been known for their wealth of content and longevity, but Theatrhythm appears to actively try and avoid that.  There are many unlockables to obtain for the game’s music player, theatre, and street pass functionality, each of which you slowly obtain with every 500 rhythmia you gather.  The theatre allows you to see the animated backdrops of the event stages without having to play them, and the music player not only allows you to listen to the wonderful soundtrack, but also lets you to plug your headphones into it, and continue to listen while the 3DS is in sleep mode.  It feels somewhat arbitrary to have to unlock things you hear and see regularly in the game, but the headphone functionality does give you something to play for.

Outside of series (story) mode and challenge (quick play) mode, there is also the Chaos Shrine to keep players occupied.  In the Chaos Shrine, you randomly play 2 different stages taken from the game (some of which you can only find in the shrine): a field and battle stage.  Aside from randomized songs and monsters, the catch to the Chaos Shrine is that although the songs are the same, the rhythm in which you tap to it varies, making it more unpredictable and fresh.  The Chaos Shrine serves as little more than a small diversion from the primary modes, and I tend to play it when I feel like using it as a randomizer.  However, it isn’t that great at being one.  The Chaos Shrine seems to choose tracks from a pre-determined pool of songs, and that pool does not include every single song the game has available at the start.  That means you can expect to play the same song in dozens of the Chaos Shrine’s rooms.  That’s a pretty lazy shortcoming on the developer’s part.

Just whose line is it anyway?
 Through the game’s street pass functionality, players exchange personalized profile cards.  On the front is one of 4 backdrops of your choosing, a character of your choosing (starting with the first 13 playable ones, with others unlocked later), a personal message you type yourself, and a title composed of 3 pre-written segments (also unlocked) consisting of an adverb, adjective, and noun, in that order.  The back of the card shows some records, your current party, and your most played song.  If you want, you can also attach your favorite song combination from the Chaos Shrine to share with others.  The street pass in Theatrhythm is only a slightly more advanced form of the built-in 3DS street pass, which was already enjoyable itself.  I always like features that allow for personalization, and with the expansive number of title combinations and characters, it’s unlikely for people to have identical cards.  It’s a fun diversion, but not one you’ll be often returning to.

Probably the biggest replay factor Theatrhythm has going for it is the collectacards and crystal shards.  The collectacards are exactly what they sound like: cards you collect by completing stages and beating certain monsters.  There’s a large album of them: one card for every character and enemy in the game.  Collecting a card more than once levels up your card, eventually to holographic and then platinum.  Once a card is holographic, in addition to changing the card’s design, you’re given the ability to view the card’s character’s animations.  Each card also has a brief bio for each character on the back, but that’s just throwing a bone to those unfamiliar with the source material.  The card descriptions do make them feel more like real collectable cards though.
Since I love the game’s character art, it’s great to have a picture book where I can look at it all anytime.  You can even get cards for creatures or characters you have yet to see (bonus bosses like Shinryu and Ultima Weapon), making you want to play the game in the hopes that you may eventually come across them.

Outside of the collectacards are the game’s second gotta-catch-em-all feature, the crystal shards.  You can collect these shards of varying color by collecting rhythmia and killing certain bosses in the Chaos Shrine.  If you get 8 of one color, you unlock a corresponding character.  There’s at least one of such characters for each of the 13 games, and they’re usually the ones with a close relationship to the initial character, such as Yuna and Locke.  Shards are rare though, so finding them requires a lot of playing, mostly in the Chaos Shrine.

With all the unlockables it offers, Theatrhythm gives players incentive to go back.  It’s one of those games with simple mechanics that are best enjoyed in bursts, though you may be surprised at how much time passes in one session.  I played for over an hour straight before, but it felt like only 15 minutes or so.  That is the kind of captivation and time consumption games like this succeed in.

What we have with Theatrhythm is a collection of Final Fantasy’s best music, that can even double as a music player, with a fun game built around it.  Even if you’re not a Final Fantasy fan, Theatrhythm is worth playing.  After all, many people who have expressed negativity for the Final Fantasy series have cited poor combat, random encounters, and, for later games, bad stories.  Since Theatrhythm has none of those complaint points, the same people could say that Theatrhythm is a game that takes the worst parts out of Final Fantasy and emphasizes the best.

It should be noted, however, that some of the songs are cut so that they're a little over two minutes.

Theatrhythm has some missed opportunities that could have pushed the game from being “really fun” to “great”, but regardless, no seasoned gamer should miss out on this wonderful game.  I give Theatrhythm Final Fantasy a 7.5 out of 10.

Now that Final Fantasy has shown how a decade's worth of soundtracks can be put to extra use, the same needs to be done with Kingdom Hearts and...

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