Crisis Core - Final Fantasy VII
In the age of Halo, GTA, BioShock, Guitar Hero and their assorted mass-market familiars, games matter. They matter a lot. They probably matter as much as music, or film, or literature; although the old-fashioned mass media might tell you otherwise. Back in the day (well, the mid-90s), only one game really made games matter in the same culturally-significant way they do today - and that was the genre-defining, cult-creating Final Fantasy VII.
Square's seminal RPG so-perfectly blended story, characters, exploration, exposition and battling, that it quickly became one of the defining game's of the PlayStation generation, propelling the platform into the realms of the 'phenomenon', selling millions copies, and making superstars of its creators. Cosplayers still ape characters like Cloud Strife to this very day, and while the cyber-punk look the game kick-started is now common, the impact it had on the J-RPG's that followed cannot be underestimated.
Little surprise, then, that Square-Enix have spent the best part of the last couple of years, trying to recapture the buzz that elevated FF VII above a crowded genre, capturing the hearts and minds of gamers that didn't know what they were looking for prior to the original's hits release. We've had tied-in anime, a feature film, and an action game - now let's see if this new RPG for the PSP can succeed where those other properties failed; delivering a blast from the past that doesn't devalue the series.
Picking up Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, you'll be thrown into the role of Zack Fair, a second-class SOLDIER operative, working for the almighty Shinra conglomerate, who are in the midst of a violent war with the Wutai. Yes, Crisis Core is a prequel to the events of Final Fantasy VII; and the story from the outset is unashamedly 'one for the fans'. Meeting important FF VII characters like Cloud Strife and Aerith Gainsborough, the game spares little time on context or explanations, instead plowing straight on with the back-story - much of which hardcore Final Fantasy VII fans will relish.
The interplay between the events of this game and Final Fantasy VII is expertly interwoven, but be warned, those that aren't familiar with the nuances of the series will find themselves out of their depth very quickly. The main villain Sephiroth is back (as a SOLDIER), Cloud, Aerith, and many more; indeed the premise and plot are best viewed as a celebration of the Compilation - delivering a few surprises along the way, if nothing revolutionary.
The plot takes in the events at Nibelheim, the war with the Wutai, and fills in other key details - but the manner of progression is somewhat different from Final Fantasy VII.
The battle system has undergone and overhaul on the PSP. Square-Enix call it Digital Mind Wave, and its basically a kind of reel-based gambling system, which awards hero-Zack power-ups based on matching values. Squenix call this system Soldier Points.
Battles unfold in real-time, and you can control both Zack and the camera at all times during confict. Here's the clever bit: While offensive orders (both spells, and physical onslaughts) are racked-up on the go using a menu system, the player can also evade incoming attacks by dodging or blocking on the fly - using standard action title controls. Its an interesting system, and it works well for the most part.
Square's trademark cut-scenes are back in Crisis Core, and are as ever delivered with some panache. They look particularly lovely on the PSP's widescreen, and at times can deliver some gasp-worthy instances; all be it of the non-interactive variety. I've heard complaints about the CG cut-scenes not being skippable, but really this title is best viewed as pure fan indulgence, so I won't criticise Square too harshly for this move.
The environments you'll be exploring as Zack aren't quite up to the standard of the cut-scenes, sadly, the scenery occasionally slipping into the mire of the dull, although luckily the missions you'll be undertaking are sufficiently zippy (and therefore well-designed for the PSP on-the-go motif) that at least you won't be stuck somewhere boring for too long. Progress through the game in general is fairly quick, Zack's skills improving as he strives to reach first-class SOLDIER grade; although choice is a little thin on the ground when it comes to how you move through the plot.
Plot is understandably key, and Square-Enix are eager to control the manner in which players moves through Crisis Core. If you find you're moving through the main game too quickly, there are a range of side missions that can prove entertaining diversions for a few minutes a pop, but then again, there's certainly nothing as ground-breaking about the gameplay in Crisis Core as there was in the hugely influential original Final Fantasy VII.
So, having covered the basics, where have we arrived? Well, the central character Zack is engaging enough (crucial in an RPG, natch) although perhaps doesn't affect the player in the quite the same way as Cloud did in years gone by. The remixed music and new compositions are evocative and occasionally nostalgic, and the cut-scenes maintain immersion and interest perhaps better than the professionally made but uninspiring game world itself. The plot will prove to be a gem for series fans, and the fighting, which makes up the bulk of the interactivity, is slickly produced; the who shebang well adapted for the PSP handheld.
That said, were it not for the plot and the special significance of Final Fantasy VII this game would invariably fail to stand out in a crowded genre, brimming with innovation and quality. Still, this is Final Fantasy, and that still counts for something...