Available on: PlayStation Portable
I knew I was in for a fanservice-fest. Because what else could a prequel to the most famous Final Fantasy game be? Knowing this, I armed myself with a heavy dose of leniency before inserting the Crisis Core disc into my PSP. But leniency can only take you so far when the developers are only making half-hearted efforts to meet you halfway.
So much is wrong with this game that I’m not sure where to start. Perhaps the gameplay: the FF series has nudged the boundaries of its RPG classification over time (e.g. FFT, FFX-2, Revenant Wings), but Crisis Core takes it a step further. You control a single character (Zack) in real-time, complete with dodging and blocking. You still have a semblance of menu; however, scrolling through it, and especially through the Item submenu, can make you lose precious seconds, which is sometimes the difference between life and death. This is where ‘RPG’ and ‘action’ start disagreeing: if you’re going to implement a menu in an action game, make it pause the action, at least.
Then you have the strange animal that is the Digital Mind Wave, or DMW, reel, which constantly spins in the top left of the screen during combat. It includes numbers and portraits of characters that matter to Zack or creatures that he can summon in battle, thus basing his fighting abilities on his emotions. You can’t control the reel directly, which is clever, as it mirrors the randomness of emotions, but doesn’t work all that well with the battle structure. Pictures aligning will trigger a special attack called a Limit Break, while numbers aligning may add temporary stat boosts, level up Zack or his materia (the now-famous coloured spheres of energy which formed the basis of the FFVII battle system). What this means is that levelling up is, essentially, random. It can happen twice in one battle or not happen for ages. The odds eventually even out, but it’s still rather annoying. It’s also annoying to see a Limit Break pop up when Zack is one hit away from dispatching an easy enemy. Especially if it happens to be a summoning sequence: they are extremely long, albeit skippable. They also include Ifrit (a recurring summonable creature in the FF series) in disturbingly tiny briefs. Pass the Brain Bleach, please.
But the gameplay issues pale by comparison with the storyline and characters. This game must’ve been written by drunken monkeys. The plot can’t decide whether to reference FFVII at every turn or to vaguely attempt to do something new. Events are disjointed and awkward, and one plot point is a direct rehash of Hojo’s involvement with Sephiroth. It feels like a bad remake, cheapens the original plot (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a rabid Sephiroth fangirl), and does no credit to the developers’ imagination. And let’s not even talk about the acid trip that is the final stretch of the game (where someone ends up eating some of Zack’s hair, because…reasons) or the nonsensicality of the final dungeon.
Characters…Don’t get me started. The biggest offender has got to be Genesis, probably one of the worst villains in the whole FF series. “I’m going to wear red leather instead of black (c.f. Sephiroth), spew crappy poetry every time I show up, put on that misunderstood emo act, shove apples in people’s faces and hope I come across as a tormented badass!” And no, before you ask, it doesn’t work. But hey, Angeal is almost as bad. Which may be a shame, because he did have a few promising aspects at the beginning. But as soon as the story kicked in, he deflated like a giant balloon and became mired in some incomprehensible soul-searching, or whatever it was. Needless to say, I promptly lost interest and just proceeded to giggle at the innuendo-riddled dialogues between him and Zack (including references to Angeal’s giant sword).
Lazard, the director of SOLDIER, is another example. There’s an interesting storyline twist about him, but then he peters out like a wet firecracker. You also have Cissnei, one of the Turks (the Shinra’s private “police” force…and no, I don’t know why they chose that name): cute as a button, interesting potential…never goes anywhere. But worse than both of those, you have Aerith. She already was one of the videogame characters I despised the most, but Crisis Core made it worse by giving her a severe case of the Rikku. You know, when a female character loses 90% of her brain cells and wears skimpier clothing to ‘hype up’ her image, like what happened to Rikku in FFX-2? In every scene featuring her, Aerith acts like an idiot. In a strappy dress and platform shoes.
The only characters I was even remotely interested in were Zack himself–even though I usually don’t like the cheerful, happy-go-lucky type–and Tseng, more in line with the stern, silent, slightly menacing type I tend to favour. He’s actually quite the looker too, unlike the bunch of Lego-like pixels he was in FFVII. His development didn’t go anywhere either, but at least he had more presence than any of the other Turks.
Rounding up the issues: firstly, the extreme repetitiveness of the 300 optional missions. They’re meant to represent the everyday work of SOLDIER, but did 99% of the environments need to be recycled? And did they really need to bring back Yuffie, who was, unsurprisingly, already an annoying brat in her childhood? The problem is that doing all those missions is the only way to obtain good items and eventually leads to the optional superboss. But apart from that…*snores* There are also completely mindless minigames, like the sniping gauntlet (Pentazemin please?), mixing perfume or building flower carts for Aerith (and I really wish I was kidding), slicing missiles (yes, slicing) or counting objects through keyholes.
Secondly, the materia fusion system. It’s a good idea on paper, as it allows Zack to play alchemist and create more powerful materia with the basic ones he picks up, but the rules are simply mind-boggling. Especially because they involve invisible data: some materia are ‘better’ than others and will thus be prioritised in the fusion process (i.e. the end product will probably not be what you’re gunning for). But of course, you have no way of figuring this out except trial and error or a FAQ. Way to go there, champs.
Thirdly, the music. Yes, the FFVII universe has a steampunk vibe. But FFVII’s score did perfectly well without screechy guitars and rock arrangements. There’s only one noteworthy tune I remember from Crisis Core: the one in Aerith’s church (and no, it’s not “Aerith’s Theme”). The rest? “Woo, another tacky guitar riff.”
And, to finish with a bang, the ending of the game. I knew–just as anybody who’s played FFVII–what was going to happen. I actually think it was a pretty bold choice for an ending. Or, well, it would’ve been…if the developers had managed to pull it off. I get all the stuff meant to tug at your heart-strings (gradually disappearing DMW images, first-person view, Aerith’s premonitory gaze at the sky cutting to Zack’s eye, etc.), I get the tragedy of the moment. But maybe because I’d already given up on the game, maybe because the ending sequence became choppier and choppier as it progressed, maybe because you still had to mindlessly slaughter grunts while waiting for the requisite DMW sequence to trigger, maybe because Zack’s voice actor bungled his delivery, maybe because of the incredibly cheesy intervention by Angeal…I don’t know, but I distinctly felt that what could’ve been a true tear-jerker was simply overloaded with emotional gimmicks. Like they were trying too hard. Perhaps this could be said of the game as a whole? I’m still not certain whether they were trying too hard throughout, or not trying hard enough up until the ending, when they suddenly decided to pull out all the stops. But what it comes down to is this: underwhelming on all fronts. Don’t let the fanboys fool you.