Despite the millions of gamers who adores it, I have always found Final Fantasy VII to be a decent but ultimately average title. But for many, Final Fantasy VII was the first Japanese RPG they ever played. And for many others, the only! It is difficult to dismiss the title's significance in introducing a once obscure genre to the mainstream, and for that alone I tip my hat to Final Fantasy VII.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is the latest instalment in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII series of Square-Enix quick cash-in of taking advantage of desperate buyers. Surprisingly and more importantly, luckily, it is one of the better spin-off titles in Square-Enix's Final Fantasy VII portfolio (Advent Children being an incredibly forgetful experience, and Dirge of Cerberus apparently a turd - I haven't tried it but YouTube videos advised me not to). One reason being is that Crisis Core isn't really a spin-off, but a direct prequel to Final Fantasy VII, which explains among other things why Cloud is so mind fucked in Final Fantasy VII. So shocking as it is, you do get a glimpse of a happier laughing Cloud before he started brooding 99.99% of the time. Spoilers ahoy throughout!
Crisis Core evolves around Zack Fair, a 2nd class SOLDIER under the employment of the Shinra Electric Power Company, a multi-conglomerate dictator. Cocky as he usually is, his ambition is to become a 1st class SOLDIER and to be a hero of Midgar - to live his dreams so to speak. The game begins with Zack and his mentor Angeal sent to infiltrate and destroy enemies in Wutai., only to be attacked by clones of a missing 1st class SOLDIER Genesis. Saved by Sephiroth, Zack later learns that Angeal has gone renegade joining ranks with Genesis. Throughout the game (which spans a couple of years), Zack retains his belief to guide Angeal back to the right path. We also get to see Zack's first meeting Aerith, as well as their eventual romancing; and becoming best friends with Shinra infantryman Cloud. There are a couple of story arcs in Crisis Core, one that surrounds the main antagonist Genesis, as well as the infamous Nibelheim incident where Sephiroth went insane.
A couple of supporting characters from the previous (sequel) game is here, all connected through Zack's interaction with them. The human side of Sephiroth is of particular interest here as he showed himself to be a kind and funny fellow, and of someone who once recognised friendship above all. It is interesting as I've always thought him of a two dimensional villain, so I was thankful that we finally get to visit a side of him when he was sane and smiling before his mental breakdown. Yuffie also makes an appearance, constantly stalking Zack via e-mail; as well as Tifa, who appears as a guide to Zack and Sephiroth while in Nibelheim. There are quite a number of boss battles to be dealt with, but none were particularly difficult or memorable, especially those 'mid-bosses'. Sadly, the final boss was a joke, but this is Genesis we are talking about. His constant citing of LOVELESS poetries is truly video gaming irritation on a huge scale.
While the story begins excruciatingly slowly, the plot eventually did gradually built up. To be honest, I found the multiple story arcs here far more enjoyable than the one in Final Fantasy VII. It must have something to do with playing with what seems to be a very likeable and funny protagonist, unlike what Cloud came to be in Final Fantasy VII and its subsequent sequel Advent Children. Seriously, Zack is now one of my favourite Final Fantasy characters next to Balthier (Final Fantasy XII) and Rydia & Kain (Final Fantasy IV), though it did take a couple of chapters before his do-gooder personality rises. It is sad that the manner of his death was so tragic, but if you are really into Final Fantasy VII lore, you would have known of it by now (I did, but not the manner). Basically, Zack Fair is a genuine Mr. Nice Guy whose optimism is a rarity among modern Final Fantasy characters these days. For all intent and purpose, I believe that Square-Enix succeeded in creating an extremely likeable centre character.
Unlike most Final Fantasy games, there is no world map for the player to traverse. Instead the player is automatically transported to each location through cut scenes. It does suit the portable nature of the game so I won't complain of the lack of airships and Chocobo riding, though it does make the main mission a very linear experience. Even side missions are only accessible through the menu when Zack is standing on a save spot, which I found to be extremely weird but useful for quick missions. Later on when Zack is escaping the Shinra forces, you can still access missions of Zack working for Shinra, which I found to be rather silly.
Unlike its predecessor, Crisis Core is an Action RPG title featuring a real time combat system not too dissimilar to those found in tri-Ace's Star Ocean and Level-5's Rogue Galaxy. Battles are still random (annoyingly sometimes every 3-5 seconds) but only in open areas, and though there is no transition to a new battle screen you will still have to wait as Zack readies his sword. When in combat mode, the bottom left displays the HP, MP and AP stats and the top left features a slot machine-like spinning reel. This is called the Digital Mind Wave that randomly giving the player helpful boost (such as the limit break-like Power Surge!), levelling up equipped Materias. The DMW also sometimes shows unseen cut scenes revolving around Zack, which is fortunately skip able (it does repeat these cut scenes rather a lot). Summons are also evoked through the DMW.
The player controls Zack using the analogue pad and cycles through the equipped commands using the shoulder 'L' and 'R' trigger. Pressing 'X' will confirm Zack's action, though you can also evade and defend using the other face buttons. If you can run or dodge around to the back of the enemy and attack, you will earn a critical hit. Bizarrely the EXP counter is not visible in any portion of the game, and you will only level-up if the DMW reel shows 7-7-7. Personally while I feel that the DMW is a welcomed addition to the game, it does become monotonous after a while - particularly when you can't skip the Power Surge attack animations. But it was used brilliantly in Zack's final battle. The learning curve is easy.
Visually Crisis Core is a very pretty PSP game. But it isn't as close to the new high benchmark set by God of War: Chains of Olympus game. Environments aren't as detailed as it could have been and the geometries are very simple. Pathways are wide to accommodate the real time gameplay, giving the player room to manoeuvre, but are unsightly. Some locations are downright awful with constant grey walls or brown deserts. It gets boring awfully quickly, which is why I tend to skip most side missions. Texture quality is good and the cut scenes are told in both pre-rendered videos of varying quality and in-game cut scene engine. Facial animations (in both pre-rendered and real time cut scenes) are excellent - far better than most games I have seen and equal to that of Final Fantasy XII on the PS2. Loading is quick too, though no where near as seamless as Chains of Olympus. Overall, environments are a bit meh, but character and enemy models were brilliant.
The soundtrack mainly consists of 'remixed' versions of those in Final Fantasy VII, which consists of tracks that I enjoyed and hated. The "heavy metal" piece during certain fights were bloody annoying back then, and is equally annoying here. I am normally a fan of all sorts of heavy metal (bar nu), but the pseudo-metal soundtrack does not suit the game at all. Having said that, the majority of the soundtrack was particularly memorable, especially the western-style string. Voice acting was okay. When I first listed my pros and cons for this review, I did dislike the English voice acting at first, but towards the end I found that I eventually did warmed up to them. Sound quality is excellent.
Crisis Core is rather light on its content. The main campaign I reckon could be completed in around 15-20 hours. I myself took around 23 hours to complete the main game with around 20% of the side quests done, most of which were done during my daily tube commutes. Most of the hundreds of available side missions are pretty standard repetitive fillers with no plot sense, though they do give the player an opportunity to harvest rare Materia. Grinding isn't a requirement though, as the game is pretty easy. Some enemies are capable of instantly killing you, though if you have the status Raise (you can get it for free in the Shinra lobby or from a dash of Phoenix Down) you will automatically be revived. Not all side missions are fillers though, as some do advance the back story of certain characters like Yuffie. There are also optional quests like building Aerith better flower wagons and helping out a hapless 3rd class SOLDIER.
The Materia Fusion mentioned earlier is similar to Alchemy in Dragon Quest VIII and Skill Binding in Jeanne d'Arc, where you can combine different Materias to either attach stat boosts to it or to create new Materias. The amount of Materia that can be equipped is limited. For example, rather than wasting two slots by equipping Firaga and a HP boost Materia, you can combine both to create Firaga + (HP+). Playing around with the Materia allows you to achieve very high stats earlier in the game instead of relying on levelling-up. By the time I reached the quarter of the game, my Zack already had his HP boosted from 3000 to 9999, even when his level was around 30. The same applies to boosting MP and AP, as well as boosting Zack's attributes like his physical attacks and magic defence.
Overall I am surprised to have found myself genuinely enjoying Crisis Core. I avoided the hype, and at the end my expectations were more or less met. It doesn't matter if you, like me, didn't like Final Fantasy VII or Advent Children; Crisis Core is still worthy of a title in its own right. So forget about your love or hatred about the original sourced title, Crisis Core deserved to be played despite its well documented short comings.
Things I like about Crisis Core:
- Story is engrossing.
- Portable friendly bite-sized missions, with well spaced save points.
- Character model are detailed, with good facial and body animations.
- Real time combat with menu based element is intuitive, though not as polished as Final Fantasy XII's.
- High production value and polished presentation.
- Quick loading.
- Plenty of side quests, some which provides back story.
- Random battles happens without transition screen.
- Material Fusion.
- New Game+ (finally!), and hard mode included.
- Zack is a likeable protagonist.
- Hidden EXP counter.
- Normal mode is too easy.
- I don't mind random battles, but having one every 3-5 seconds is taking the cake.
- Very linear storyline, no world map.
- Lack of challenging puzzles.
- DMW gets too repetitive.
- Dull environments.
- "Heavy metal" battle theme.
You can preorder the Euro exclusive special edition from Amazon UK. Or get them from Amazon.com.