Gamestyle Archive intro: The return of Square Enix to a Nintendo console – there was much hype and anticipation around the Crystal Chronicles. So much so that Richard took a crash course in Japanese to experience it first.
Published: August 2003
How long has it been since Gamestyle has played a title with the names Nintendo and Square mentioned together in its credits? Possibly the last game developed by Square on a Nintendo console was Super Mario RPG on the Super Nintendo back in 1996, if our memory serves us right. So it comes as a really pleasant surprise that after all those years devoting its efforts to the Playstation, Square finally returns to the Nintendo fold with two new Final Fantasy games – Final Fantasy: Tactics Advance for the GameBoy Advance, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for the Gamecube. (Technically, the return of Square games to a Nintendo system was marked by Chocobo Land on GBA back in December 2002, but the games that truly herald such an event are these new Final Fantasy releases.) Created by Game Designers Studio – a new division of Square Enix – Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles’ development was supported by Nintendo, hence the Gamecube/Game Boy Advance ‘connectivity’ idea. And therein lays the game’s appeal… and its problems.
Crystal Chronicles’ storyline is classic Final Fantasy – literally. There’s not much here besides a band of adventurers who travel the world to revive the power of the Crystals that keep the world in balance. This reminds Gamestyle of the original Final Fantasy all those years ago. This time though, instead of Light Warriors bringing light to the Orbs, it’s four kids and a Crystal Cage full of magic water. This magic water protects the game’s heroes from a deadly mist that has surrounded the world and plunged it into a state of decay. Your merry band of adventurers – played by up to four people using their GBA-SPs (preferably) as controllers – take to the dungeons scattered about the world map and trounce enemies in standard-realtime, action-RPG style instead of turn-based battles. Options are limited: fight, defend, and then whatever magic spells and items are equipped in the player’s command slots (you start with four and then gain more as the game progresses). The inventory system is not quite satisfying in that each character’s inventory is limited and you’ll run into that brick wall sooner than you think, constantly finding yourself dumping out items. What’s worse, if you bring your character into another player’s memory card for a team-up game, you can’t carry items back and forth, only weapons and status upgrades. This prevents outrageous cheating perhaps, but is somewhat annoying.
There is also practically nothing in the way of plot or character development – the emphasis is placed firmly on multiplayer dungeon exploring, which is a letdown compared with other Final Fantasy games. Each player has a different display on their Game Boy screen, determined randomly (and switching each time the party enters a new area) – a level map, an enemies radar, a treasure radar, and an enemy-stats display. Since the television screen only shows a little bit of the level at a time, the maps become necessary for navigation, which means that all four players have to constantly check their maps.
When enemies pop up, the player with their stats at hand needs to check for weaknesses and hit points. Since each player only has a tiny bit of the total picture, this encourages constant communication. One piece of information on each player’s screen that they might not be willing to share with the group is their own bonus condition for the current dungeon. This can be a certain task (deal out a lot of physical damage), something to avoid (don’t get hit with magic), or something silly (do get hit with magic). The player who fills his bonus requirements best gets first pick at the artefacts that are found throughout the dungeon. These artefacts are the only way your characters can level up, so they are quite valuable, and having first crack at them is nice. And thus an element of competition is added to this mostly co-operative game. As you can see, there’s quite a lot to the multiplayer mode. And all of these facets are carried over into the single-player. Unfortunately, that’s all the single-player mode really is – a toned-down, inelegant version of the multiplayer game. In place of your friend’s characters, you have your loyal Moogle to carry the Crystal Cage for you. (Spraypaint your Moogle different colours and you’ll change your GBA screen type.) The problem is of course that it’s like, say, playing Mario Party by yourself: you can squeeze out some fun here and there, but it comes nowhere near the enjoyment of playing with three friends. And the same applies for the story – with a tedious main character and a shallow plot, Gamestyle finds it hard to see why anybody would want to play Crystal Chronicles in single-player mode more than once.
Where Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is beyond reproach is in the production values. It is a strikingly beautiful game; each new town or dungeon is like a new work of art to discover. Sprawling with life and detail, they have enough eye-candy to make you want to revisit them time and again. The lush rolling hills of green contrast with beautiful bodies of water and lovingly rendered skies bring a natural, almost pastoral look to the world.
In particular the music, composed by Kumi Tanioka, is done in folk-style and recorded live with ancient instruments from flutes and accordions to pan pipes and violins, producing a wonderfully authentic sound. Crystal Chronicles’ screen text is completely written in Japanese. In order to overcome the language barrier, Gamestyle took a crash-course in Katakana (one of four character sets in the Japanese language, and the easiest to learn) which proves useful in most Japanese games. However, Crystal Chronicles’ text is displayed in a decorative font which doesn’t make it any easier to read – and there was enough Kanji that we were unfamiliar with, making the game hard to understand. Unless you’re either a native Japanese speaker, or very fluent, you may want to hold out for the translated version (or play with a translation guide close at hand). It’s still playable though, in spite of the Japanese text. This Final Fantasy outing isn’t as story-heavy as other Final Fantasy games, so you’ll possibly manage quite well if you can’t decrypt Japanese.
The multi-GBA approach is refreshing, interesting even, and works remarkably well. But let’s face it – who knows three other GBA-owning friends who would be willing to come over on a regular basis to play multiplayer Crystal Chronicles? Frankly, Gamestyle can’t see this happening very often. Because of these niggles, it’s hard to pin down a satisfactory verdict on Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. If you’re looking for a solid RPG experience, either wait for Crystal Chronicles to be translated into English and released in spring of 2004 (so you can understand the story), or look elsewhere.
As fun as Crystal Chronicles is – given the right mindset – Gamestyle has to conclude that it’s not a “proper” RPG. While obviously lacking in the story department, neither the single nor multiplayer modes really capture the Final Fantasy zeitgeist, instead having more in common with action-adventure titles like Gauntlet or Zelda. If you’re a fan of Square’s games generally, and/or just appreciate innovative gameplay like we do, Crystal Chronicles is a pretty good buy… but your ‘best bet’ is perhaps waiting for the English translation.
Gamestyle Score: 7/10