Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core PSP
Final Fantasy VII remains one of the most loved and respected games of all time, widely considered by fans as being the best of the now highly prestigious RPG series. I can’t argue with this praise, as FFVII still remains one of my all time console RPG favourites, right up there with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (otherwise known as Final Fantasy III… don’t ask). Just to make things clear at this stage: If you’re the kind of FFVII fan who still regularly brings the game up in conversation whenever tenously possible, or would happily change your name to Sephiroth if you thought you’d ever be able to get a job again then this review quite simply isn’t written for you. Add six points onto the little score at the bottom and pick up a copy as soon as possible, you’ll love it.
The problem is in the same way that this review doesn’t cater for those who are hardcore FF7 fans, Crisis Core doesn’t always cater for those who aren’t… First impressions are great: roaming about on SOLDIER missions as our predictably spikey-haired protagonist Zack has a feeling of pace and intensity to it, and the game’s graphics, music, and style all shine through to further bolster this rather meaty experience. The weight of the FF7 franchise brings the game to life immediately, sending you to familiar locales and throwing you into encounters with well known faces. If you’re a veteran of the original game then the first few hours of the game feel like a welcome trip down Midgar’s memory lane.
The combat system is considerably simpler than in other Final Fantasy games; simply locking onto an enemy then selecting an action carries out the move in real-time as you have free reign over the character’s movement on the battlefield using the analogue stick. Also able to use defensive moves, evasive rolls and blocking are mapped to square and triangle respectively, which adds a more involving edge to an otherwise overly simplistic system. There’s little to master here though unfortunately, as the effective and easy to master dodge roll renders blocking almost entirely obsolete right from the off.
The magic system uses the same materia as FFVII, which seems welcome at first but later feels poorly judged… Many of the magic spells are the kind that would be used by support characters to boost your main force, but only having one character in combat (and a powerful one at that) means taking up the time and the slot space for much of the materia seems a waste. As you’d expect you have the usual array of enemies with elemental weaknesses to explot using magic, but usually the game does little to dissaude you from simply mashing the attack command repeatedly.
The fresh twist you’ll read about on the back of the box for this particular Final Fantasy is the Digital Mind Wave system (DMW), an elaborate name for what essentially consists of slot reels appearing during battles to either imbue you with temporary power boosts, trigger a special move, or summon a magical beasty. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s appeal is incredibly limited… In the early stages of the game when all of the potential slot combinations result in powerful attack sequences you’ll find the randomly triggered DMW will often answer your prayers by helping you out of a tight scrape, but when the potential outcomes of the DMW diversify you’ll more often than you’d like find yourself having to wait 15 seconds for the game to gift you with a healing spell that you quite simply don’t need…
It’s understandable, but I also can’t help but criticise the developer’s apparent fear of trying anything new. So many of the places and characters you encounter you’ll know from the original, which if anything over time just makes the world feel smaller. On top of this there’s also a huge amount of references and jokes made about people or places from FFVII, which led me to increasingly believe that there were few events in FFVII that hadn’t in some way been influenced by Zack. It’s hard to understate just how ludicrous it all feels at times, clearly highlighting the extent to which the game’s apparent purpose was to pamper rabid fanboys rather than adding to the FFVII heritage. Aside from this somewhat grating aspect there’s little to criticize in terms of the storyline’s progression, when it’s on form it’s every bit as epic and compelling as you’d expect it to be and boasts some truly incredible prerendered cutscenes. Particularly notable is a rather lengthy fight scene featuring Sephiroth which takes place on Junon’s giant cannon, which I can quite happily describe as being utterly jaw-dropping. Often you’ll find yourself forgetting you’re playing on a portable system, the whole experience rarely dropping the torch of home console sheen.
Other aspects of the game seem to have been more keenly geared towards the PSP’s portable nature: Crisis Core quickly points you in the direction of optional missions you can take part in for extra items and experience, something I was glad of in the early stages of the game where I admit I often found myself struggling a little with the combat difficulty. The difficulty level of each mission is clearly labelled, these labels changing as you grow more powerful (i.e. ‘Normal’ missions if not taken on will over time be reclassified as ‘Easy’ then ‘Very Easy’). These missions last no longer than a few minutes, making them absolutely perfect for playing on a handheld system when travelling short distances. On paper this sounds to be the perfect handheld RPG: Deep and epic when you’ve got the time, shallow and simple when you’ve got ten minutes to spare. Unfortunately I found out the hard way that if you spend too long playing missions rather than progressing with the main story then you’ll quickly break the balance of the game, finding a large chunk of the story-based fights incredibly easy from that point onwards. What confuses me most however is the encouragement the game gives you to take part in these missions – you unlock them in bunches of 4 or 5 and there seem to be bloody hundreds of the things (300, apparently) – playing too many of these missions at any stage will permanantly reduce the difficulty of the game. As mentioned earlier however, if you choose not to take on these missions a huge number quickly become ‘Very Easy’ by which point they simply become an absolute chore, which leaves me utterly bewildered as to when should be a good time to take these missions on…
Once the difficulty level starts to slip the combat system begins to show cracks, losing much of its charm; strategic spell usage and retreating quickly being replaced repetitive attack button hammering and occasional dodging. For comparisons sake, imagine the combat system from the start of Kingdom Hearts but without the subsequent progression. To make matters worse it’s at about this point in the game where the materia synthesis system opens up, letting you combine different pieces to fuse more powerful magic to equip Zack with. The system is everything you’d expect, but when you’re easily dispatching most enemies without using any skills or magic it’s hard to see any reason to get excited about working towards more powerful items; if anything I chose to avoid them to prevent the difficulty curve from slipping any further… Unbalanced power also totally undermines the DMW system, as often the special attacks summoned are little more powerful than a normal combo. Once the sweet spot of combat difficulty has passed you by it’s hard not to resent the DMW system for wasting your time by breaking up the action. Overall enjoyment of the game once you’ve hit this point isn’t helped when Zack seems more concerned about helping Aerith make a flower cart than say, taking down a highly dangerous rogue agent. Not that it’s his job or anything… Again though, I realise this boils down to a split of opinion: If going on dates with Aerith doesn’t sound as unpleasant and cringeworthy as it really, really isthen you’ll probably find nothing bad to say about this game.
The more I play Crisis Core the more I can’t help but feel that for too long down the line its developers didn’t quite know what they wanted it to be. The pick up and play mission mode and the traditional story progression just don’t seem to fit, it feels as if they were indecisive about which direction to focus on and ended up throwing them both together in a manner that feels rushed. The result is a game with a difficulty curve which as far as I can tell assumes that mission mode doesn’t even exist, which before long contorts a simple but satisfying combat system into a rather dull button masher with more pointless facets of customization than you can shake a four-slotted stick at.
As you’ve probably gathered by now there’s an awful lot that Crisis Core doesn’t manage to get right, although much of this is most likely the result of the development team being understandably indecisive when dealing with what is for many the most precious franchise in the world. Often it feels they were afraid to try and change anything that might cause offense to the extent that they kept elements that didn’t actually fit. Some of the obvious examples of this are a magic system that doesn’t suit one-man combat terribly well and a world to explore that feels a flavour of familiar that verges on stagnant. For the first few hours seeing well known faces and places is a nostalgic treat, but before too long you just feel like a tourist being shown around a Squaresoft museum. It’s certainly by no means a bad game, but nothing about Crisis Core feels new or fresh. It’s fun and nostalgic, just don’t expect it to expand upon the FFVII universe in any way whatsover.
Whilst it does have its undeniable charms, first and foremost Crisis Core is designed to be fan service: Whilst the weight of the FFVII hallmark gives the game an undeniable sense of gravity, at times it feels as if it also smothers it.