Square Enix have been well and truly lodged in a meteor-sized crater for a number of years. Critically and commercially, the Final Fantasy franchise has taken a Buster Sword to the neck, haemorrhaging not only their most diehard fans, but creative masterminds behind their flagship series, such as the adorably-moustached Hironobu Sakaguchi. Fans have been underwhelmed by the most recent Roman-numeraled entries in the franchise, from XI to XIV and as a result, message boards have been burnt to the ground as fans light matches, setting fire to all the spilt Square Enix blood-gasoline. So you think they’d finally get around to making that Final Fantasy VII remake right? Wrong. Square Enix’s most recent game is known as Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and it deviates from the JRPG powerhouse’s seminal series more than any of their recent entries. What’s even scarier is that this game is remarkably deserving of praise.
Theatrhythm is a rhythm-based 3DS game that features perhaps the one consistently-good element of the Final Fantasy universe – the music. You remember, right? You’ve always chanted along with “SE-PHI-ROTH” during the concluding battle of Final Fantasy VII and bathed yourself in the frantically-paced “Dancing Mad” of Final Fantasy VI. I know you remember that battle music and subconsciously start it in your head whenever you randomly encounter an ex-girlfriend (only me?). Hell, if you remember anything about Final Fantasy, I can guarantee it’s at least partly related to the fantastic, sweeping orchestral scores.
Theatrhythm can be directly compared to Elite Beat Agents and indeed, its Japanese inspiration, Osu Tatakae Ouendan! (two games that you should familiarise yourself with if you are at all interested in the rhythm genre) in that it has you tapping and dragging your stylus across the touch screen to the beat of 75+ songs from the Final Fantasy series, from I all the way to XIII. Fan favourites are there, including the aforementioned “One-Winged Angel” and “Dancing Mad”, as well as some straight-up batshit insane decisions like not including “Those Who Fight Further” and including, well, anything from Final Fantasy XI. Although Square Enix, like an estranged father, has arrived late to the rhythm party, its come bearing gifts that you’re not sure you really want until you’ve played around with them.
The game is divided thrice into three separate play modes, with the overall aim to gather “Rhythmia,” which is a number-that-doesn’t-mean-much except that the more you gain, the more collectibles you unlock. Completing songs in any of the play modes will net you what seems like an arbitrary amount of Rhythmia depending on how well you went. The first game mode, “Series”, is the closest thing to a story mode you’ll find here, allowing you to play three songs from each Final Fantasy title in sequence, “Challenge” is designed to allow you to free-play any song and unlock harder versions of tracks by completing them with an A rank (or higher) and “Chaos Shrine”, the epitome of Square Enix name-wankery, is essentially a song tower, where defeating one set of songs nets you the next level up.
These modes are then subdivided into three separate music stages that each utilise, what really equates to a different note-scrolling technique. Battle Music has notes scrolling left to right in four lanes, Field Music is the same but uses only a single lane and Event Music has a cursor that traverses the screen in weird and unusual ways, floating over the top of notes, which is like the reverse of the former two. Event Music stages also have cut scenes ripped from the original games and placed as a back-drop to the action – all in 3D, of course. The most breathtaking sequences are those from the latter games, especially Final Fantasy X, which looks gorgeous on the 3DS and shows the graphical capability the console sometimes hides.
Of course, that all sounds like your stock-standard DS rhythm game, right? Well, Square Enix, a company not known for shying away from what made itself popular in the first place, also add some RPG elements to the mix, making you pick four famous characters from the Final Fantasy series and levelling them up as you complete songs (for reference I picked Zidane, Cecil, Terra and Cloud, in that order but you can switch characters at any time). Again, the better you perform, the more experience you get. As you level up, your characters gain abilities that affect gameplay, such as allowing you to do more damage in Battle Music Stages or to acquire rarer treasures. You can also equip one item for the entire party that will activate if a certain condition is met. What is fantastic about this design choice is that often the items will be X-Potions or Elixirs and thus, even when you are about to fail a song (your HP meter is emptied), the item will activate and give you a second opportunity. It takes the idea of something like Guitar Hero’s star power and improves it to a power of ten. This is an understated facet of Theatrhythm that provides a level of depth that has not been seen in a rhythm game beforehand. Although merging rhythm and RPG to form a RRPG seems ridiculous, Square Enix and indieszero have made it work.
Aesthetically, your characters all have the Big Head Mode look, but the enemy sprites are a refreshing take on old foes. Kefka’s and JENOVA’s come to mind immediately, but the reimagining of the characters is much less exciting as they all share the same despondent, “get me out of here this isn’t final fantasy look.” If I were to critique the visuals then, I know it’s shallow but, one of my favourite elements in RPGs is the ability to change the look of my characters. I would have loved to have seen an option to unlock different weapons for the character to hold, and in turn affect their stats, but alas, this is perhaps adding a layer of complexity that may put off the casual Final Fantasy fan.
Replayability in rhythm games is often largely based on how long it takes for you to get sick of a certain song. Although they aren’t all gems, the cheeky buggers at Square Enix have thrown a hell of a lot of collectibles and unlockables into the mix to keep you coming back for more. This includes songs, but also a deck of cards that feature the images of enemies and playable characters in addition to a few quotes. There are also 64 trophies to collect, and the songs can be played individually in a jukebox if you ever feel the need to rekindle your love affair with say, Final Fantasy VIII’s “The Man with the Machine Gun”. Couple this with the three difficulty levels and you’ll want to keep playing until you’ve mastered each song before realising you have RSI in your fingers and your touch screen has more potholes on it than the average South Australian road.
One of my favourite stories about Square Enix was told by Tim Rogers: creator of the horribly underrated Ziggurat for iOS in an article he wrote for Kotaku in 2011. In it, he describes the launch of Final Fantasy XII and a “dandruffy young man, waiting all night in the pleasant weather” to be the first to buy the game and thus earn himself an opportunity to exchange palm-sweat with Yoichi Wada (Square Enix head honcho). Tim attended this launch event and his recount of the interaction between dandruff-man and Yoichi Wada follows:
“He shook hands with Wada, had his picture taken, listened to Wada’s perfunctory thanks for his years of customer loyalty and fan servitude, and then, when offered a chance to weep in thanks, accepted the microphone and spoke in a quick super-whisper: “Please remake Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation 3 thank you goodbye”.
This story reflects quite accurately the rage that is directed at Square Enix. The company has descended into irrelevance for many of their hardcore fans and I am not sure this is the game that will win them back, but it’s definitely worthy of the flagship title. Square Enix have also shown they are dedicated to the game by releasing DLC on day one (and indeed, planning to release at least 50 extra songs in the future (at least in Japan) and they don’t mess around in letting you know that the game is driven by nostalgia. To be honest, the game is nostalgia bundled into a plastic cartridge and beamed straight to your eyes and straight through your earholes. Any fan of Final Fantasy would be hard-pressed to find a game that panders to their nostalgia more than this does, and that’s even after the release of Final Fantasy XIII-2, an apology if I ever did see one.
Before buying, ask yourself this simple question: Have I ever gleefully whistled the Final Fantasy battle victory song in the past fifteen years of my life? If the answer is yes, you’re going to want to buy this game.
- Reviewed On