torstai 21. lokakuuta 2010

REVIEW - Crisis Core - Final Fantasy VII (2007)

Genre(s): Action / RPG
Released: 2007
Available on: PSP
Developer(s): Square Enix
Publisher(s): Square Enix
Players: 1

After the release of the ill-fated third-person action game Dirge of Cerberus - Final Fantasy VII, it seemed like the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was carried by the strength of the original game and its marvellous movie sequel Advent Children; when Dirge of Cerberus bombed in the press, I said they'd better just make the remake of Final Fantasy VII and get the whole compilation over with, since that's what people really wanted. As expected, on the 10th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII, the whole remake hype returned stronger than ever, two years after the infamous technical demo at E3 2005, which showed how Final Fantasy VII would look like on PS3, and the announcement of a mysterious Final Fantasy title in works exclusively for the PSP. In reality, Square Enix didn't really know at that point what exactly they were doing. Series veterans Tetsuya Nomura and Yoshinori Kitase brought in rookie director Hajime Tabata and negotiated with him on the subject, and he said he would like to make a game for the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. The original idea was to create an extended version of the popular mobile game Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII, but after some further negotiations, the trio decided that the game should be another prequel starring Zack Fair. Kitase, the director and co-writer of the original Final Fantasy VII, now working on the game in the capacity of a producer, laid some ground rules for Tabata in regard of how the game should be made, totally different from all the other games, but accessible to the fans of the compilation, and most definitely an RPG to at least some extent. Kitase's expectations were exceeded, fans were on their knees... here's Crisis Core.

Only the good die young

Rick Gomez : Zack Fair
Andrea Bowen : Aerith Gainsborough
Steve Burton : Cloud Strife
Stefan Marks : Lazard
Ryun Yu : Tseng
Carrie Savage : Cissnei
Quinton Flynn : Reno
Crispin Freeman : Rude
Sterling Young : Dr. Hollander
Paul Eiding : Professor Hojo

SOLDIER 2nd Class Zack Fair is an extremely talented combatant, but he has zero attention span. He lacks focus and a certain mental edge possessed by those in 1st Class of SOLDIER, and is constantly denied a chance to prove his skills to his superiors and to finally make it up a rank. When a potentially malevolent 1st Class SOLDIER named Genesis deserts the Shinra Army and takes a bunch of low-level SOLDIERs with him, Zack finally gets his big break as he is assigned to seek him and his troops out. Zack makes new friends, as well as some new enemies, and discovers horrible secrets concerning the whole planet on his long mission, which turns out to be the road to his imminent demise.

"Overconfidence will destroy you." Should've
First, I didn't quite know what to make of Crisis Core. I mean, sure, Square Enix can carry on the story as long as they want - even Dirge of Cerberus is a well-written game... but once again telling the story of Zack, the true fallen hero whose identity Cloud stole and who was never really a standout guy himself in my opinion, seemed like barking up a dried-up old tree. My good friend, whose PSP I'm actually playing on to get this review done, is a total contrarian; he has always found Zack a fascinating character who deserves a deeper look at his backstory. OK, well, after playing Crisis Core, I must say that a deeper look at Zack's backstory is indeed crucial - but it's largely because of the supporting cast. Zack's path to oblivion is decorated with some beautiful, heart-warming scenes and the character himself possesses about a hundred times more personality than he ever did, it's just too bad that most of the time he strikes me as a reckless, overtly confident, happy-go-lucky dude, the kind of character which I usually dislike. Much worse than Zidane or Tidus, both of whom have qualities which make them great leads; Zack doesn't have any. He's like Cloud on uppers. The climax of the game has got to be one of the most touching and beautiful scenes I've ever seen in a video game, even moreso than that of Final Fantasy X; again, I just wish I'd care for the lead character himself rather than just his legacy just a wee bit more.

To cover up for Zack, we are treated to a fabulous support team. The game introduces a few new major characters to the Final Fantasy VII mythos, brings new life and perspective to old classics, and does its bit of compilation tie-in by at least including references to Before Crisis, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus. The developers even went as far as bringing in the enigmatic character of Genesis from the secret ending of Dirge of Cerberus back as the main villain of the game. Of course, Sephiroth is a central protagonist-to-antagonist, all the way from the beginning, but Genesis has been cleverly written in to fill some chronological gaps before and after the scenes we have seen in some form before, among other characters such as Cissnei the Turk, SOLDIER director Lazard, the heinous Dr. Hollander, and my personal favourite, Zack's mentor and the first bearer of the legendary Buster Sword - Angeal Hewley. It's funny, though, that the original game actually somewhat botches Crisis Core's legacy, not the other way around. Buster Sword is described as an honorary blade with unimaginable power, and of course, it serves as Zack's ultimate weapon - while in the original game, you couldn't wait to get rid of the damn thing... somehow I can't help but snicker every time someone mentions the Buster Sword or its long history. Although it's meant to be somewhat touching, I actually burst into laughter when I heard Angeal's dad worked himself to death to be able to provide his son this magnificent sword. This is just an example of awkward storyline elements in the game, others being the philosophical importance of those damn apples and Genesis' annoying obsession with Loveless - but overall, the most important parts of Crisis Core are excellently written. Some liberties are taken with the original storyline... AGAIN, but most of the time the writers hit the bullseye and actually manage to enhance some small bits. As a result, Crisis Core has us screaming for a Final Fantasy VII remake... AGAIN.

You know I'm going to cut off your hind legs
and shove this sword up your ass, dontcha?
The graphics of the game blew me away right off the bat when I started the game. It looks like a PS2 game, and the small LCD screen allows definition that makes Crisis Core actually look better than a lot of PS2 games. However, as you advance, you might notice that there aren't really a lot of different environments. The game is short in itself as its pretty much only task is to tell a story, while the most crucial elements of an RPG like leveling up and gathering materia and items are mostly applied to sidequests, or missions, which there are plenty of, but all of them are quite alike and there are only a few different environments to do them in. The main focus of the graphical display was clearly to show off with cutscenes that could easily be associated with Advent Children. Still, the game looks simply awesome - unimaginable, even. This is just a small UMD disc for a handheld console we're talking about. Look at it, and be amazed.

As every source of information says, almost word to word, Crisis Core is one of the few Final Fantasy games not composed by Nobuo Uematsu (and the first I've reviewed); instead, the soundtrack is written by Takeharu Ishimoto, the same dude who did the soundtrack of the Last Order OVA, which somewhat influenced Crisis Core's story. Some of Uematsu's classic tracks from the original game appear as heavily remixed versions, almost unrecognizable at their best (or worst), like "Still More Fighting", "Bombing Mission" and "Aerith's Theme". The remixes are all pretty good, even if I'm not a huge fan of the industrial/techno style which seems to be standard to the series nowadays. Ishimoto introduces a few really good new tunes, such as a tear-jerking ballad that pretty much serves as the theme song of the game, and an array of adrenaline-pumped battle themes. I don't think Final Fantasy VII purists have a lot to complain about when it comes to the soundtrack.

The voiceover work is another thing. Compilation veterans George Newbern and Steve Burton are back, and they once again nail their parts. Zack is a "little" more on the forefront than before, and his voice actor from Advent Children, Rick Gomez, hasn't quite got talent enough to drive the game. Annoying characters are often defined by their voices, and it happens here too on a few occasions. Andrea Bowen, who had a very minor part in the movie, replaces Mena Suvari as Aerith, and does a great job. Quinton Flynn kind of loses it as Reno; I truly dug the character as well as Flynn's performance in Advent Children, but in this game he applies his usual hot-potato, just-woke-up, don't-care mumble which I haven't been able to stand ever since I first heard the guy's voice in Metal Gear Solid 2. Rookie actor Oliver Quinn (Terry O'Quinn's son) replaces Robin Atkin Downes as Genesis, and actually sounds like a Finn speaking very fluent English - I should know how that sounds like. It's definitely not bad, but distracting on a personal level. Josh Gilman (Angeal) and voiceover legend Paul Eiding (Hojo) balance out the cast's overall performance with dedication.

On yet another mission.
Crisis Core features few gameplay elements from the original Final Fantasy VII - accessorizing and the use of materia being the most important ones. However, remarkable changes mark even these basic elements. Crisis Core is a whole different game from Final Fantasy VII. First of all, it's an action-oriented RPG, that's the most obvious difference, but just saying it won't tell anyone a whole lot. I'm gonna need some more coffee.

Crisis Core is indeed not a long game in storyline. Being an operative of SOLDIER, Zack usually roams the Shinra Building and Midgar's Sector 8 where you can converse with different NPC's, gather some tidbits of information and occasionally, unlock a side mission or two while doing so. To advance in the game's chapter-based storyline, you usually need to simply talk to an appointed person and get on with your job in another hour-long chapter if you're sure you don't want to carry on with the constantly more challenging missions.

The missions are the best and worst quality of Crisis Core. The missions, labelled from "Very Easy" to "Very Hard" can be accessed via the menu after a certain point in the storyline very near the beginning of the game, and you can keep going just as long as you want, or as long as the storyline's development allows you to; more missions are unlocked after completing certain tasks in the storyline, or talking to specific people. Success in the missions guarantees rare items, accessories, or materia, and usually there are many regular items scattered around these environments in treasure chests, so they're good for item hoarding, more efficient than shops actually - which are also accessed via the menu. You don't actually have to go anywhere in this game. Considering that SOLDIER is a force of the most capable fighters around the world, they're quite damn lazy. Seriously I think it's pretty much a memory capacity related thing. On this graphical scale, the game simply can't be built by using traditional role-playing methods... and I'm definitely not saying it's not handy to handle all these things from your very own menu.

Even Malboro isn't as bad as usual. That's a
relief instead of a real disappointment, though.
The downsides to the missions are a-plenty. They repeat themselves in look, for one, and there are literally hundreds of them. Some of the environments are frustrating mazes, filled with random encounters. Although the game is in full 3D, sometimes the camera just won't co-operate with you. Let's say you want to see the left corner behind you to confirm if there's a treasure chest - you can't turn the camera to the left corner, while you can turn it to the right corner. You'll need to check the left corner for yourself, and very likely, an annoying female computer voice says that damn "ACTIVATING COMBAT MODE" bit (it will really get on your nerves sooner or later, probably sooner), and you will have to fight a potentially boring battle to see that there's nothing in the corner.

Also, mission labels deeming the missions "Very Hard" are not exactly correct. In Final Fantasy XII, challenging an enemy who had his name written in red, basically meant death, especially if there were two or more of them. As you level up in this game, the labels gradually switch to easier difficulties, just like the enemy names in XII switched to lighter colours to indicate your chances of winning. However, just learning to play the game and using tactics like guarding and dodging, almost guarantees a victory to you even in the "Very Hard" missions. However, once in a while a similarly tagged mission comes along; it's usually long, maze-like, but easy as hell. So easy, it's frustrating. Then, when you finally encounter the boss of the mission, he kicks your ass in two seconds and no buffs will help you. Thanks for nothing, huh? Luckily, you "won't die" during the missions - you just lose all the items you use while attempting them. In turn, you get your HP/MP/AP restored, and to keep all the SP (standing in for EXP... sorta) and items you gathered on the mission until you bought a farm.

The battles are fun and very dynamic at first and throughout the storyline, but the missions botch the fun part. There's this one particular mine maze that requires you to go on the hunt for Tonberry's Knife. This rare item is very essential as it results in adding Tonberry to your "summons", but getting through the maze, finding Master Tonberry and defeating him is nerve wrecking. You see, Tonberries are not nearly as difficult enemies as they were in the previous games, but they do retain their high HP and the murderous Kitchen Knife attack, which can be dodged, however. Imagine fighting for two hours against these guys, encountering them on every single step while just trying to make your way through the maze. The camera rotates constantly, so you'll probably lose your way during and after the battle. Their high HP but total incompetence makes these battles fine examples of overtly boring, repetitive fighting in this game. Halfway through your general mission progress, it might very well be that you'll just leave it be, out of boredom, and just go on with the storyline 'til the very end. After all, you can easily beat the game itself at Level 50 and in 15-20 hours, while conquering all the missions takes about 50 hours.

When Zack met Cloud.
Time for an extensive look on the basics. Initially, you can equip Zack with four pieces of materia and two accessories. The materia system kind of works the same way as in Final Fantasy VII, but blue materia is now independent, similar to purple materia, and grants supportive abilities such as Libra; the materia can't be linked like in the original game. However, after a certain point in the storyline, materia can be fused to generate more efficient materia, with the cost of SP attained from battles; and after another point, even items can be used in materia fusion to create some really dastardly pieces of death. Red summon materia can no longer be equipped. Just having possession of it is enough, and I'll tell you why later. Zack's basic attack, and all the materia and items which are useable in battle are arranged in the way the player wants in the bottom right corner of the screen in combat mode. The player needs to toggle between commands by using the shoulder buttons in the heat of battle, there's no ATB or even the stop-action system of Final Fantasy XII, this is closer to the battle system of Kingdom Hearts and as fatal as it might sound, it actually results in smooth flow and a truly intense general feel. Top this with the AP consuming abilities to dodge and guard. I like all of it, up until the point fighting gets boring in general view. You see, you don't even level up the traditional way. The game's most important gameplay element is the newly established Digital Mind Wave, which has its ups and downs.

The Digital Mind Wave dictates leveling up, temporary perks and traits in battle, summons and a form of Limit Breaks. The DMW appears to you as a constantly active reel of numbers and character faces in the upper left corner of the screen, like a slot machine. Numerical combinations like 111, 222 and 333 grant you different perks which last for about 20-30 seconds, like "No MP/AP Cost" or "All Attacks Critical". The same goes for any combination with at least one 7. Randomly, two of the same faces might align, which takes you to a "modulating phase" regardless of the numbers. If the number 777 turns up as a result in the modulating phase, Zack levels up. If there are two of the same numbers between 1-6, for example a combination like 4-7-4 or 1-4-1, the corresponding materia, in this case either the materia in slot 4 or 1, levels up. It's hard to explain, but I tried my best, huh? This modulating phase makes leveling up really random - although SP should somewhat increase luck - and moreover, it breaks up the heat of battle. It's really distracting, a standard method to level up would've been much nicer. I don't understand why Square Enix has such an obsession to mystify simplicities nowadays... and still they wonder why the Final Fantasy series has experienced a landslide in critical response during the last ten years.

Win-win. Zack levels up, and Bahamut attacks.
The DMW certainly doesn't stop there. If three faces align in the modulating phase, Zack executes a Limit Break, which could therefore easily be accomplished over ten times in one battle, depending on the enemy of course. If Zack doesn't know the character yet, he or she is shown as a silhouette, and Zack does one of his own attacks. If Zack does know the character, he uses a Break inspired by him or her, or even lets this character do his job for him. The DMW randomly switches to Summon Mode or Chocobo Mode. Summon Mode replaces the characters with summons; if Zack already has the summon, he attacks enemies with the summon spell corresponding to it. If not, he just lashes out with a regular Break. Chocobo Mode features more humorous summons, like the mentioned Tonberry, and they are acquired by finding rare items instead of red materia. The Limit Breaks, as well as the summons, level up via usage.

What I play Crisis Core for is the story, and it covers up about 95% of why I'd recommend the game. The battle system features some great ideas and fighting is fun for a sufficient period of time, but really, at some point you will wish the game would be over, regardless of how much you basically like it. From Nibelheim onwards, the end of the game feels like it's stretched to forever along with Zack's ultimate fate. In a total turn-the-knife move, the game even ends in a whole new rendition of Final Fantasy VII's opening cutscene, prompting the players to "stay tuned for Final Fantasy VII", which leaves perhaps a cool, but conflicted aftertaste of Crisis Core. Why in the hell did you make this game? Why couldn't you just remake Final Fantasy VII? Then, when you think back at all the different, fabulous new views this game provides regarding the Final Fantasy VII storyline, and how great the game is at its best, you can't help a weird desire to play it again. It's very conflicted, and difficult to review with a definitive rating. It misses out on a lot of classic stuff I would've wanted to see at least referenced a bit further, but on the other hand, it includes a lot of surprising, subliminal pointers just casual players of the original game won't probably even notice.

The final scene is perhaps the gaming moment
of the decade... even if there's zero surprise
factor in the script.
You have two different difficulty levels to choose from, right off the bat. Normal Mode is of course, made for most players and first-timers, but also those advanced players who just want to experience the story, while Hard Mode hands your ass to you on a plate, with a little garlic on the side, as you take on the missions. The missions aren't easy even on Normal Mode, and I'm not the kind of player that gladly takes it up the ass on Hard in any game that doesn't have Trophies or Achievements related to difficulty level in it, so I can't really give you a deeper look on Hard Mode, but considering how hard the missions are on Normal, I guess Hard's pretty damn hard throughout. The storyline's a breeze, and actually some of the battles which are supposed to be epic, are effortless disappointments. Take Bahamut, for example; what a pushover.

Crisis Core is a great game in its own way, but naming it the greatest handheld game of the decade would be more than exaggeration; Final Fantasy VI Advance is actually a pretty good nominee for that title. I would've really liked to name it the greatest, because it's even more of an essential part of the Final Fantasy VII storyline than Advent Children, and a visual phenomenon. The game's impressive physical appeal for the first ten hours simply loses its hold once the repetition kicks in and the easiness of the main quest unfolds.

Graphics : 9.6
Sound : 8.4
Playability : 8.0
Challenge : 8.2
Overall : 8.0


GameRankings: 82.50%

Zack's full name is revealed for the first time. "Fair" is derived from "fair weather", which is intended to contrast "Cloud Strife".

Tetsuya Nomura based Angeal's character design on his original design of Cloud Strife.

Main villain Genesis Rhapsodos' resemblance to Final Fantasy VIII protagonist Squall Leonhart, and his clones' knack for gunblades, Squall's weapon of choice, are perhaps explained by the fact that they were both modelled after Japanese pop artist Gackt. Gackt voices Genesis in the Japanese versions of Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core. He also wrote "Redemption", the main theme of Dirge of Cerberus.

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