Sunday, August 5

Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy Review (3DS): The joy only found in song

Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy isn't the first attempt by Square Enix to present a cross-section of characters and rivalries from the JRPG series that spans decades and multiple instalments. The Dissidia games were simplistic, though visually spectacular fighters that were padded with nauseating dialogue and questionable exploration mechanics. I loved the destructible environments and spectacular attacks, but the script turned many characters that I had come to love into incoherent and insufferable, oft-gasping low talkers. The developers had managed to capture the look of the venerable franchise, but should've abandoned their attempts at a stand alone narrative. Theatrythm takes a different tact, as hinted by the name, focusing on memorable pieces of music across thirteen instalments of Final Fantasy proper (no material from Crisis Core, X-2, XIII-2 or Dirge of Cerebrus). Does relegating the series' big personalities to the background make for a more pleasing score (ha! review pun)?

The short answer: yes. Having memorable crusaders such as Cloud, Squall, and Lightning act as window dressing for a rhythm game that features some of the most poignant midi tunes in gaming history really works a charm. The RPG elements are still there, however, they are somewhat superficial in terms of implementation (in all but one important instance, but more on that later). While you do indeed choose your party, adorn them with abilities, equip a group item, earn experience points and level up; players can pay lip service to these mechanics and enjoy the tap-heavy action with few concerns of failure. If you plan on taking on the higher difficulties, a Phoenix Down or two will help, but you can still succeed without them.

As I said previously, the implementation of RPG elements in Theatrhythm is usually pretty light except for one important genre trope: grinding. To experience all that this game has to offer, you'll need to replay a modest amount of content ad infinitum.  As an example, to unlock the Expert difficulty for a game in Series mode: you need to defeat a game set on Basic and then play through each of the songs individually on Expert. I'm not even halfway to unlocking one member of the extensive cast of extra characters, and I've beaten the final boss! After six hours I may have seen the epilogue, but I would dearly love to access some extra content without going round in circles.

There are three types of tracks in Theatrhythm: Field Music, Battle Music and Event Music. Field Music tracks are by far the easiest to beat, with a lot of held notes that make it easy to score critical hits. Battle Music gets chaotic (read: awesome) on higher difficulties with notes appearing on four tracks, one for each party member. Event Music tends to be a little harder to master, with varying pace and lots of swiping. One piece of each type from each instalment is available from the outset, and in terms of difficulty across the series, it's all relative. To actually see the challenge that the game can potentially present, you'll need to select higher difficulty levels: Expert and Ultimate. Basic gets a bit tiresome after thirteen games worth of songs, Expert is a genuine test of your tapping and swiping abilities, and Ultimate is hard to the point of trolling!

Presentation is one of the game's strongest points, with each of the franchise's heroes, summons and villains rendered using a gorgeous, chibi papercraft style. Theatrhythm -- in distinct contradiction to both the Dissidia games and what I endured of FFXIII -- even has a sense of humour, subtly poking fun at the melodramatic nature of the series with your party delivering a random, usually nonsensical war cry before each song. The track selection is also of a high standard; even the maligned Final Fantasy XIII ends up sounding good with "Saber's Edge" holding up as one of the series' best boss themes. Your eyes and ears will sing the praises of Theatrhythm, whether you're a fan of Final Fantasy or otherwise. I should note that I preferred to play without the system's patented 3D visuals as I found that focusing on the track line led to blurring of characters and effects.

Theatrhythm may borrow some characters from the Dissidia games, but its aural focus makes for a far more enjoyable experience. Unburdened by lofty dialogue and painful pensivity,  a series worth of memorable arrangements is given new life with a whimsical presentation style and simple, addictive tap and swipe gameplay. There may be some issues with grinding and repetition, but it's an unexpectedly enjoyable trip down memory lane that I can easily recommend to fans of Final Fantasy and rhythm games alike.

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