Love it or hate it, Final Fantasy VII was a landmark title for Squaresoft, the Playstation platform, and videogames in general. It set a standard for communicating story through high production values and connecting its players to its characters. Cloud, the game’s central character, was intriguing at the time: He was moody and distant, and his murky (if not convoluted) back story could be considered as much a star of the game as the main plot itself is.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII does a fantastic job in bringing this back story to life in vibrant detail. The experience centers on Cloud’s best friend, Zack Fair, whose very limited involvement in Final Fantasy VII proper is shown to belie his importance to Cloud’s existence. Following Zack through his time as part of the Shinra Corporation’s military force, SOLDIER, Crisis Core gives you some insight into the past of Final Fantasy VII veterans such as Tifa, Aerith, Sephiroth, and of course, Cloud, through their interactions with Zack. A new character, Genesis, whom you may have caught a glimpse of if you played Dirge of Cerberus, serves as the primary antagonist of the game–and the main plot thread is actually about pursuing him.
Zack is an actually very likeable guy, his upbeat demeanor reminiscent of Final Fantasy male leads such as Zidane and Tidus. Certainly he’s a polar opposite to what we see in Cloud in Final Fantasy VII. Up front he may seem one-dimensional but you can definitely see how he matures from eager and almost impetuous to nurturing as the game progresses.
Now, I didn’t find the main storyline–pursuing Genesis and uncovering his motivations–all that intriguing. Genesis himself is pretentious to the point of annoying, frequently quoting verses from an epic poem while trotting about. Certainly, the more interesting plot points are those which tie directly into Final Fantasy VII’s back story, capturing some of that game’s most iconic flashback moments re-rendered and produced with much better visuals than we were afforded in 1997. Even cut scenes using the in-game polygonal engine look quite nice, with emotive, convincing motion capture. Luckily, Squaresoft seems to pay as much attention (if not more) to tying these threads with Final Fantasy VII as they do with unveiling the main storyline of the Genesis pursuit. And without spoiling anything, the way in which the writers do so is incredibly effective, creating an almost seamless transition point between the game’s conclusion and Final Fantasy VII’s beginning.
All told, the events that occur, and the aesthetics that accompany them, comprise some truly great fan service, even for me, being someone who doesn’t remember Final Fantasy VII quite as fondly as many others do.
But looking at the big picture, fan service and plot are pretty much the only things Crisis Core is good for. The act of playing the game is, well, almost no fun at all. Whether it’s mindless button mashing, a combat subsystem that you have almost zero control over, or monotonous mission “design”, Crisis Core continually challenged my will power to NOT be a jerk and just look up the main story points on YouTube and Final Fantasy wikis.
Crisis Core bills itself as an action-RPG, with its combat largely eschewing nested menu commands in favor of allowing you direct control over Zack’s movements and sword strikes. I say largely because there’s still a simple row of commands at the bottom of the screen corresponding to the materia that Zack has equipped. Materia, in Final Fantasy lore, are in the simplest terms stones that carry innate powers. Most of your equipped materia translate directly to magic spells and special physical attacks that Zack can carry out in combat, while others give passive benefits such as status boosts. The former are right there for you to select whenever you choose, requiring only a few shoulder-button taps to select the right materia and X to execute the command.
The framework is actually sound. The idea of merging the materia system with its various complexities–materia growth, in particular–with sword-happy combat seems like a great idea. But “character action” this is not, as the mechanics prevent combat from feeling like a smooth experience over which you have total control. The game treats “Attack” just like any other command, requiring you to have selected it with your cursor and hitting X to pull off a slash (complete with Square’s classic “poink” sound effect). Maybe it’s the fact that the game auto-targets and auto-directs you to a target even if you aren’t pointing at anyone, or perhaps it’s the way they animate your attacks, but it really does feel as if you’re selecting a menu command repeatedly as opposed to actually balancing sword swings, dodges and parries in real-time… even though combat takes place in real-time.
And most of the enemies, frankly, are brain-dead. One erstwhile games journalist blogged that Crisis core was, “attack attack attack attack cure attack attack attack”–and I’d be lying if I said that I felt differently. Once in awhile you’ll be challenged to the point where you have to do quick rolls to dodge enemy attacks, and taking the typical precautions by casting Barrier before engaging enemies hearkens back to the RPG battles we know and love, but I was able to emerge victorious quite often by mashing on the X button with one hand. Not a good sign. Or, at least, not what I want out of something with any sort of “action” billing.
Then there’s the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) system, which is nothing more than a slot machine–yes, you read that right–that they stick in the upper left hand corner of the combat screen. As you fight, the slot machine whirrs and stops on various portraits of Crisis Core characters. Meanwhile, numbers accompany the faces, so you’re trying to hit any combination of matching numbers and faces. Match faces in the outer slots, and combat stops, dramatically zooming in on the machine as the middle slot lands on the final character. Will you match three? Will you not? What numbers will you get? Supposedly implemented to introduce luck, drama and “fun” to the combat the DMW system can result in status buffs; restored hit points, magic points or ability points; or limit breaks (super special attacks or other status buffs, for those uneducated in Final Fantasy lore).
But guess what? Apparently, you have almost ZERO control over this, not with any button presses, not with the actions you take in combat, nada. The only influence I could tangibly detect that I had over the DMW was with special materia that, when equipped, would increase the chances of landing a specific limit break. So, the system as a whole just seems kind of silly. Then you get to the part where combat comes to a screeching halt for the sake of keeping you in dramatic suspense as the game zooms in to show you whether or not you match that third slot.
Furthermore, the game randomly shows “images from Zack’s heart” (as the tutorial puts it)–really just artwork that represents key moments in Zack’s life and Crisis Core’s plot–which indicate that you somehow have increased luck for that particular go-round. Who knows how they determine that. And, of course, waiting for those images to appear on the screen takes up even more time. Now, if you thought it was tedious to wait for an unnecessarily long magic spell or creature summon animation to run its course in a full-blown RPG, imagine having combat flow (or Crisis Core’s version of it, at least) interrupted every so often by this obnoxious slot machine and its fly-by images. It really just takes away from the time you could be using to slice up fools. It’s enough that, among the randomness that accompanies any game at least partially rooted in role-playing (damage, chance to suffer status effects, etc), they’re asking us to put up with even more randomness. But now they’re wrestling actual interaction time away from us during combat sequences that are supposed to be all about action. It renders combat monotonous at best, and a real annoyance at worst–and not at all fun.
These mechanics are all tied up in optional mission design that is, to be polite about it, tedious. At any save point, you can initiate a mission, the reward for which can be materia, money, or special weapons and armor. Accompanying each mission is some nice descriptive text, but actually completing the mission is almost always just a matter of killing the required number of enemies. Exciting? Hardly.
Perhaps the only thing that comes close to a saving grace from a systems standpoint is materia fusion, where you combine two materia to generate a new one. Though most combinations yield nothing special, every once in awhile you come across a new attack or a more powerful spell variant, and the experimental aspect of the fusion at least manages to inject some amount of amusement, regardless of how minute. But I missed the materia slots and linking aspects that were present in Final Fantasy VII. These could have added an extra layer of planning and strategy to a combat system that is, as a whole, a boring affair.
That the combat ends up boring is a bigger shame in a game like this than a traditional RPG, simply because Crisis Core emphasizes directly-controlled action. No, it doesn’t have to be Devil May Cry or God Of War. But shouldn’t we expect–and receive–more than a game that could easily devolve into one-handed button mashing? I think so, and perhaps the lesson that videogames at large need to take to heart is that magnificent presentation and interesting story beats don’t make up for kludgy mechanics and lackluster gameplay design.
Now, watching YouTube clips and reading a wiki might get you the information just fine, but you lose that emotional connection with the characters that you might otherwise get by suffering–sorry–spending 20-plus hours with them. And it’s in that regard that Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII entertains in spades, doing enough with Zack and Cloud’s relationship and story line that it’s worth slogging through the tedium for the emotional payoff. That it leverages Final Fantasy VII’s iconic universe only helps it. Given what I just said about story not making up for tedious gameplay, that’s as close to an endorsement as I can give. But I freely admit succumbing to nostalgia, having somewhat of a vested interest in the Final Fantasy VII’s world and flawed but intriguing legacy. What if you don’t give a rat’s ass about any of that, and are just looking for a solid action-RPG to play for the mechanics and design? If that’s the case, then there’s very little reason you should even sniff in this game’s direction.