Game Review

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles

Nintendo GameCube

(Square Enix)

The latest incarnation of Square’s ongoing Final Fantasy universe is a curious digression. Gone are the epic plotlines, elaborate mini-films and involved combat of the “proper” games, replaced with quick, real-time action and a decisive emphasis on little neighborhoods.

The obvious inspiration for the change is Crystal Chronicles’ focus on multiplayer gameplay. A Game Boy Advance and special cable is required for each player to participate, making it the most expensive multiplayer gaming experience short of computer LAN parties. This is the game’s biggest flaw, skewing the single player campaign to such an extent that it feels like half, maybe three-quarters, of a game.

It’s testament to Square’s sharp design mentality that Crystal Chronicles solo is as enjoyable as much more ambitious games being released. Despite the smaller scale (a brief cutscene in which your caravan sets out from your hometown is all that gets things rolling), the world feels as instantly alive as in any full-fledged role playing game. The soundtrack comprises some of the most vivid medieval-themed music yet committed to the videogame medium, conjuring a distinctly Old World atmosphere. Each landscape is rife with textural and architectural detail that makes it seem like an actual site rather than a repetitive virtual board. These maps are overrun by baddies (in dungeons and remote locations) and by amusing communities (in friendly towns) in which you’ll sell goods, hear completely mundane gossip and play with children. In between levels, you’ll receive letters from your family and have the option of sending them items in return.

These are hardly the point, but go a long way in making what is otherwise a stock action-RPG more immersive than it should be. The real test is how well its given set of character classes, equipment, magical items and foes hold up over countless stages of battle. Crystal Chronicles’ top-down gameplay has been compared to Diablo and Zelda, but is most reminiscent of Gauntlet, in which a small band of heroes roved endlessly across tidy little maps filled with monsters and treasure chests. Brilliantly, the countless skirmishes you’ll encounter reflect the turn-based combat of earlier Final Fantasy games and most true RPGs. Each enemy has a small set of behaviors and attacks whose flaws quickly become apparent. Outcomes of battles depend on timing and tactics much more than pure reflex (thanks in large part to the emphasis on timed “charge” attacks over instant strikes). Groups of diverse opponents, set against various character types bearing different arsenals, yield a surprisingly rich set of gameplay mechanics.

Of course, this really comes to fruition when a group of two to four players work in conjunction to overcome tough situations—combining spells, trading items and taking shots in combat. Without them, the game suffers noticeably. The device normally carried by one player, which forces the group to stay within its sphere (thus fostering a sense of togetherness), is a complete nuisance in single player mode. Spell and item combinations become tedious when performed alone. There’s little plot to speak of, providing enough to explain your purpose of being there and leaving the rest up to the human element. Everything feels incomplete from the game universe to your lonesome character. A small blessing, then, that this lopsided game is considerably addictive and utterly evocative.