Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
After a wave of Final Fantasy 7 spinoffs that have been almost universally panned, we see the release of Crisis Core, a prequel game featuring a minor character from the original game, Zack Fair, and a highly enjoyable experience for fans of the original game.
Set several years before FF7 proper, we see Zack rise through the ranks of SOLDIER and get to fill in some more of the gaps in Cloud's past. Fortunately, and much to my surprise considering the recent track record, the game tells a very good story.
Zack is a very likeable protagonist, we get to see another, more human side of Sephiroth before his fall, and meet a bunch of interesting original characters like Zack's mentor (and original Buster Sword owner) Angeal. You Aerith fans will be happy to see that she makes several appearances and reveals that she has one of the all-time best phobias.
Because anyone who's played the original also knows Zack's ultimate fate, the entire game has a vague feeling of inevitability and sadness to it. In that sense, it can be interesting to play FF7 right after Crisis Core but I would recommend this for series vets only. A new player needs to play the original first or Crisis Core loses a lot of it's impact.
For the majority of the game, you're taking on missions for the Shinra and it's interesting to see a little more about their internal workings and how the SOLDIER organization is run. However, as anyone who's played the original FF7 knows, Shinra isn't exactly a benevolent group of people, and this has huge implications for Zack and the people he cares about. We do eventually get to play through the famous events of Nibelheim and the execution was absolutely superb. They meshed the original dialogue with new scenes in just the right way to make the games feel like they're truly in the same world.
One of the only disappointments I had relating to the plot was with one of the game villains. There's such a thing as a villain you love to hate, but this is a guy that you'll just plain hate because he's so bloody annoying as he's doing his evil deeds.
Crisis Core doesn't feature the traditional turn based combat that it's parent game is known for. Instead, everything plays out in real time in a battlefield of limited size. You always control Zack solo (and the game seems to be reaching a little bit for excuses to have him always be alone). The pace is very quick and most conflicts will be over in a matter of seconds. Combined with the very limited load times, it makes fighting something to look forward to rather than an annoyance to deal with on your way to solving a puzzle or reaching a boss.
Still, that would make for a pretty simplistic game if that's all there was to it. You can also use the shoulder buttons to cycle through special attacks and spells you have access to, as well as dodge enemy attacks or try to block. The real time nature of the game means that you'll be focusing on avoiding attacks and healing while trying to figure out an effective strategy for offense. The random encounters can usually be button mashed to victory, but there are a handful of considerably difficult bosses that take more planning than that. It's also necessary to consider the fact that you'll get critical hits if you can get behind an enemy, and you have a full complement of the usual healing/support, offensive, and status effect spells to use on enemies and vice versa.
The game features an unusual combat side system called the Digital Mind Wave (or DMW reel), which is basically a slot machine that's always running in the top left corner and features the faces of major characters. When the slot machine is likely to make a winning combination, it takes over the screen temporarily so you can see the results, which include things as diverse as level ups, temporary immunity, and most frequently, limit breaks. Some of the minor effects truly appear to be random chance but there are situations where limit breaks are much more likely to occur, and the level ups are related to a hidden experience point counter. So while some have criticized this system as making combat too much related to being lucky, it's mostly just the same old systems with a flashy new disguise.
The materia system is fairly deep and you eventually gain the ability to fuse different types of materia and to fuse materia with special items to learn new spells and enhance your stats. This isn't something you have to do to beat the game but if you love maxing out your character, you're likely to have some fun with it. You get a preview of the final result before you commit, which saves you from the inevitable saving and reloading that would occur if they made it a total mystery.
The mission system is the most problematic addition to Crisis Core. It adds hours of additional optional content that can be completed for new items and bragging rights. For someone who measures a game's quality by it's length, this is going to seem like a great thing. But anyone who want to experience good gameplay should only spend a little time on these missions.
There's some much repetition that it's almost comical and the environments you end up in seem to have almost no relation to the mission. For example, I was told I had to deal with monsters in Midgar. I start the mission and I'm... at the Chocobo Farm near Kalm. What? That's far from the only time such a thing happened to me. Other locations include Midgar Slums, some desert, and extremely generic interior areas with no distinguishing characteristics. All of these appear to have been created with a random map generator or extremely lazy programmers.
These missions are completed by wandering through one of these boring environments, dealing with random battles, and opening up mostly useless treasure boxes. Eventually you'll notice a monster sitting somewhere that's visible on the field as opposed to a random encounter. Once you fight it, the mission is successful. It's almost always the same thing with a different environment and different monsters. The very best of these missions (and it's not saying much) are those that put you against a boss battle without the time wasting dungeon.
There are so many of these missions that it's hard to conceive of anyone actually completing them. I'm sure I spent at least a few hours and I only reached about 12% completion. I can see someone being a little more forgiving of these areas if they just want to kill some time during a lunch break or car ride but I have to use a higher standard than that.
Crisis Core features stunning visuals, by far the most detailed I've seen on a handheld system. Characters are more than capable of expressing a lot of emotion with facial expressions and gestures using the main game engine. It's fantastic to see so many locations you remember from the original game rendered in full 3D as opposed to prerendered. It's not necessarily better in every case, but it does feel right. The voice acting during main story scenes is also very effective with excellent casting. What they've done with the FMV sequences blew me away, as it seemed to be on the level of a high budget production like Advent Children. The soundtrack isn't anything special, however. There are a couple of catchy tracks, and some songs that'll stick in your head that you might not want in there. More enjoyable are the nostalgic remixes of many songs from the original game. Yes, they snuck One Winged Angel into one of those FMV's.
So, do I give my recommendation for this game? If you've played FF7 and liked it or loved it, then I think you should look into Crisis Core. If you hated FF7, then no. This game is designed in every sense to appeal to someone who loved and has fond memories of that game. If you've never played FF7, go try it first. You might still enjoy Crisis Core without doing so, but you just won't get the intended experience.