There appears to be a curse on Nintendo and its system-exclusive games. Far too many of these GameCube titles have seen high degrees of hype surround them, only to finally heap a large measure of disappointment on the loyal fans. This has been evident in Sonic Adventure, Billy Hatcher, P.N.03 and several others. Each game showed so much promise in the early development stages, yet somehow failed to deliver the expected quality upon completion and release. Crystal Chronicles broke the vicious cycle before it was even released, however, as based purely on rumours and hearsay this title quickly became one of the most the most reviled exclusives on the GameCube. Forum members, fan sites and even professional reviewers have constantly been finding issues with this Square Enix game. The big question is, though, are they right? Read on to find out...
Brace yourselves, as this review is going to commence with some bad news for many of you. This game is nothing like the typical Final Fantasy games found on Sony's platforms. However, there is some good news in that this, the first Final Fantasy game to appear on a home Nintendo console since Final Fantasy III US (VI in Japan), still captures all of the magic and true FF essence that has made the series the most popular RPG franchise in existence!
Everything about this game feels so different yet so familiar, from the plot to the action, the essence of Final Fantasy remains. As soon as you switch on the game and the music starts you realise that this is truly a Final Fantasy game - the wonderful, enchanting music that just floats serenely in the background, a staple of Final Fantasy through-and-through. Even the opening menu screen is identical in style to every other Final Fantasy game. However, once you start your new game the differences start to become apparent, for in this game you are your own, a single character and no more. Your entire history has not been pre-written by some skilled Japanese writer locked deep within a software studio. It is you, the gamer, who creates the majority of the game's story-related details. This level of choice is more akin to that seen in an online role-playing game, with you having to invent a name for your village and main character, choose your race and gender, as well as selecting some of your physical attributes.
Once you've made your selection the traditional opening Full Motion Video (FMV) sequence starts...well, not exactly. You see the opening scene is not actually FMV; it is actually a clever use of the in-game graphics. Despite some nay-sayers believing that this is not pure Square Enix, as it is made by a SEx subsidiary named the Game Des!gners Studio, the company's touch is definitely present and correct here, with the game achieving the high graphical standards set by other recent titles in the FF series. Unlike some other games, such as Square's own Unlimited SaGa, Crystal Chronicles looks far better in reality than any of the screenshots can depict - it's a beautiful-looking game, of which the water effects are some of the best seen on a console to date.
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles takes all of the common conventions of previous FF titles and turns them on their heads. Whereas in past titles the plot was laid in the vein of a storybook, dictating how you played the game, with progress only being granted when certain story arcs had been sufficiently completed and the entire experience feeling rather linear, FF: CC differs greatly. Instead it has adopted a style more similar to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the GBA and FF X-2 on the PS2 - a less intrusive style that allows for a more open gaming style. As with most games in this genre, you start off with a simple minor quest, and it all goes from there. Before you know it, you are on an adventure to retrieve drops of "myrrh," a liquid that helps to fend off the evil "miasma" gasses that infect the world of FF: CC. Each year, villagers set out on a quest to obtain the cherished substance, exploring polluted caves, mines and villages, infested with monsters and huge bosses.
The plot revolves around a world covered in the poison called miasma and the only thing protecting you whilst on your quest is a small chalice that creates a barrier for you to survive in. Dare to venture outside of this protective enclosure and you slowly take damage, stay inside and you gradually heal. Whilst in single-player this chalice is carried by an accompanying Moogle (a small, fluffy creature, the only real element of Final Fantasy that survives each ever-changing game) who follows wherever you go, and in multi-player this chalice is carried by one of the players. The player can drop it any time and similarly can have it knocked out of their hand at any time. The main qualm is that the chalice significantly slows the player down due to its apparent weight and awkwardness to haul long distances. This re-enforces the need for teamwork, working out a type of schedule for who is lumbered with the boring task of carrying the chalice and when to switch players. Sadly this means that there will always be one player having to sit around, not able to take an active role in fighting or collecting items. Perhaps including the option for a Moogle to carry the chalice would have been better, as in the single player mode, that way at least people would have had more choice in how to play through the game.
The magic system has also been customised to a great extent. Magic in FF: CC is performed with "magicite." These magic balls can be obtained by defeating enemies or picking them out of treasure chests. They go into your command menu for use in battle and consist of the familiar spells such as Cure, Fire and Blizzard. Holding the magic button on the controller will bring up a cursor on the battlefield that you can hover over an enemy - let go, and the magic will be performed. Likewise, to Cure yourself or another party member, select Cure and hover the cursor over the player that needs healing. By "fusing" your spells you can create stronger ones - two Fires will make a Fira, for example. In multiplayer mode, communication is a key factor because performing more powerful spells is handled differently. Instead of fusing, two or more players can charge their magic attacks of the same type and place the cursors over each other to make an even more powerful spell.
One of the most impressive aspects of the game, something that is quite innovative for the series, is the "Level-less Level-Up System". Unlike other FFs there is no experience in Crystal Chronicles at all, not even any character levels. Unthinkable for a Final Fantasy game, yet it works, it definitely works sufficiently well. You start with a basic statistics line and the only way to empower yourself is to gain better equipment and collect artefacts. As you progress you can collect superior equipment to aid your quest, and defeating bosses at the end of each area rewards you with a different artefact. By replaying through stages, you can acquire rarer and better artefacts that increase your statistics for strength, defence and magic, or gain magic rings that let you perform specific spells without needing magicite. It is a simple system, but does the job well.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is certainly not the traditional RPG that fans of the series would have been hoping for, but so long as you know what to expect, this is a very enjoyable game. Whilst the most fun lies in the multiplayer aspect of the game, this is still a good single-player experience. It can get a bit tedious when it comes to having to replay through levels in order to top up the myrrh, but there is a lot of unique level designs with a fantastic Celtic-inspired soundtrack that fans of Zelda: The Wind Waker's musical score will adore to pieces. The story might seem a bit non-existent to begin with, but once you get to the later stages of the game, things open up a bit more and you get to see the deeper side of the world. Go into this game with an open mind, rather than expecting something as epic as traditional Final Fantasy games, and you will appreciate and possibly even fall in love with the magic of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles.
Apart from some niggling issues, the gameplay is nearly faultless. The simplistic menus and buttons may not appeal to Final Fantasy enthusiasts, yet they are very easy navigate and the whole game has that 'pick-up and play' feel that is lacking from many recent Final Fantasy titles.
'Squaresoft' and 'Final Fantasy' have become the embodiments of graphical quality. Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game post-FFVII will know what to expect, and for those who have not, expect some of the best graphics you will ever see on the GameCube. If this is what can be achieved by 'knocking' out an FF game on GC, imagine what could be done with more time!
The sound quality is very high, but Square Enix has done far better on previous Final Fantasy games. It is more background music and while it does not reach out and grab you its character suits the game well, but loops far too soon. Perhaps Nobuo Uematsu should have lent a helping hand, sine his work on FFTactics Advance is actually far better than this...
This is the game's major downfall. There is a good 30-40 hours of gameplay from the first sitting and there probably enough replay value for a second sitting, trying to find the anything previously unfound. But after doing that there is not much more left to do. On top of this, the levels and enemies are too similar and the repetitiveness of battles can soon lead to boredom.
This game has definitely earned the right to carry the 'Final Fantasy' moniker and is a worthy addition to the Nintendo catalogue and, more importantly, your growing collection. As with any other FF title, Crystal Chronicles does require some effort and has a few flaws, however your perseverance will be greatly rewarded in the long-term. This will not satiate any GameCube owner's appetite for an actual straight, turn-based RPG, but it has breathed new life into what was becoming a slightly stagnant franchise. In a time where even Square Enix is all too happy releasing rehashes and old ports it certainly says a lot about game developers' attitude towards Nintendo and its supporters when heavy-weights such as this deem it feasible to test new ideas on the Kyoto company's consoles!