Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: March 25, 2008
Final Fantasy 7: Crisis Core is a full prequel to the events in Final Fantasy 7. Set a few years before the original game began, Crisis Core follows Zack's journey, from his early days in SOLDIER (the elite forces of the Shinra Electric Corporation) until his final battle on a hilltop near Midgar. While it may seem rather strange to play a title when you know the ending before the story even begins, the real fun is in the journey. You get to discover the true origin of Cloud's trademark Buster Sword, witness Sephiroth's descent into madness, and see what Cloud was like before he took on his false identity. Much of Crisis Core is simply candy for die-hard Final Fantasy 7 fans, full of references and cameos ranging from tragic heroine Aeris, appearing here as a love interest for Zack, to a young and scrappy Yuffie Kisaragi, who witnesses SOLDIER's assault on her hometown of Wu-Tai, and even cameos from the Japan-only cell phone game, Before Crisis.
Of course, it wouldn't be much fun if Zack's story were all about the characters from Final Fantasy 7, so Crisis Core also has its own story to tell. The story revolves around Zack and his mentor in SOLDIER: a no-nonsense, first-class SOLDIER named Angeal. While on a mission to Wu-Tai, another high-ranking SOLDIER named Genesis vanishes, and Zack and Angeal get swept up in a deadly quest to find out exactly what happened to him, which leads directly to the deadly events at Nibelheim and beyond. Along the way, Zack discovers some nasty truths about Angeal, Genesis and Shinra itself.
Rather than returning to the turn-based combat system found in Final Fantasy 7, Crisis Core opts for a more action-oriented combat system, more similar to Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy. As Zack travels throughout the cities and dungeons of the world, he occasionally gets accosted by ne'er-do-wells, in honest RPG tradition. Luckily, Square Enix has managed to create a seamless transition between wandering and combat. A quick warning sound and enemies appear on the field, and Zack draws his sword and combat begins, with nary a loading screen to be found. When combat ends, it's much the same way: a simple victory theme, a pose and then Zack is back on his way.
Of course, to reach that victory theme, you're going to have to fight. Combat is fairly simple, although it contains some twists that gamers will have to contend with before fully mastering it. The analog nub moves Zack around the battlefield, the Circle button attacks, Square dodges, and Triangle blocks. The L and R triggers switch Zack's Circle button attack. Beyond the regular sword, Zack also has a number of Materia and items available to him. You press L and R to highlight a Materia or item, and use it by pressing Circle, thus ensuring that combat is never slowed down by menus.
While movement, blocking and basic attacks are free of charge, any other action Zack takes tends to drain one of the three status bars: health, magic and action. Health Points, or HP, is fairly self-explanatory; it's Zack's health, which is naturally lost by taking damage, being poisoned, or coming up anything else that's bad for your health. Some Materia uses Magic Points, or MP, without which Zack cannot cast even the weakest spell. Action Points, or AP, are a bit different from HP and MP. Zack's dodge ability requires a small amount of AP to function, and if you run out of AP, you'll find Zack staring down an enemy's fireballs without a way to avoid them. AP also functions like MP for certain kinds of Materia.
Much like in the original Final Fantasy 7, Materia comes in a variety of colors. By far the most common, Green Materia grants magical spells. Zack can shoot fireballs and lightning from his fingers, drop chunks of ice on enemies' heads, and heal wounds with ease. Naturally, each of these spells takes some of Zack's MP, so you can't just spam fireballs forever. Yellow Materia was called "Command Materia" in Final Fantasy 7, and it serves a very similar, if quite improved, purpose here. It gives Zack access to new abilities, like performing a 360-degree spin attack, jumping in the air like a Dragoon, or even simpler things, such as improved combo ability. The catch is that any Command Materia that Zack uses drains his AP, so overusing these powerful abilities can leave him defenseless. Various other Materia exist that allow Zack to buff his own stats, improve the effects of other Materia, or even the rare and valuable Red Materia, which allows Zack to summon gigantic beasts to fight for him.
Early on in the game, Zack is given the ability to fuse together Materia, which is a pretty fun take on creating new and more powerful Materia. Some combinations simply improve one of the Materia put into the fusion, granting it improved attack strength and attributes. Some combinations, however, will give you new and more powerful Materia. As one example, combining certain Command Materia with Magic Materia will give you Magic Sword attacks. Since Materia isn't easy to come by, fusing it willy-nilly isn't the best idea, and players are certainly going to have to plan ahead if they don't want to end up with a bunch of junk.
The big wrinkle in Crisis Core's combat is the DMW system, which stands for "Digital Mind Wave" and serves as the basis for many of Zack's special abilities. Situated on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, the DMW is made up of two slot reels. One reel contains the numbers one through nine, while and the other consists of pictures of various characters that Zack has met on his quest. As he fights, these two reels spin, and if, at any time, three numbers match up, Zack is awarded bonus attributes, ranging from improved critical rate to immunity from ranged attacks.
The real fun begins when two character reels match up. At that point, the game goes into Modulating Phase, and the combat pauses. The DMW reels fill the entire screen, and the final character reel, as well as the number reels, spin. If three character reels match, Zack unleashes a special move based on that character. Getting three reels of Turk leader Tseng, for example, means that Zack pulls out a cell phone and yell for backup, causing a Shinra helicopter to strafe the enemy. Three of Angeal's icon makes Zack unleash a Hard Rush, a brutal unarmed combo that can hit up to three foes at once. As Zack advances, he'll meet new characters, which in turn gives him access to new moves. There are other benefits to the DMW's Modular mode; certain combinations will grant a Power Surge that refills some of Zack's HP, MP and AP. If Zack's bars are full, these surges can "break" them, meaning his abilities will go beyond their normal limit for a brief period.
You'll notice that I didn't mention the numbers in Modulating Phase yet. That is because the numbers affect changes quite a bit in this phase. Matching numbers at this point is very important; they're the only way to gain levels in the game Matching specific numbers will level up the various Materia that Zack has equipped, making it more powerful. The most important number, however, is the rare 777. Three sevens give Zack an extra level, bringing with it extra power and defense. You can't control the DMW, which means that grinding for levels isn't going to work as easily. Instead, you'll have to rely on your own skills and the cold, unfeeling hand of Lady Luck.
Beyond the main storyline, Zack also has access to a number of missions that he can undertake on behalf of various clients. Missions can be accessed from any save point in the game, and have no bearing on the plot at all. Instead, they mostly revolve around exploring mini-dungeons and hunting down specific foes. Naturally, these missions come with their fair share of rewards, including rare Materia, special equipment, and even occasional upgrades to Zack's abilities. With over 100 unique missions to complete, gamers who intend to finish every section of Crisis Core will be at it for a long time.
Unsurprisingly, since this is a Square Enix title, Crisis Core is one of the best-looking games on the PSP. The graphics are crisp and excellent, easily beating out most of the other PSP games in quality. To Final Fantasy 7 veterans, the landscapes are full of familiar sights, and it's difficult to not crack a smile when you wander into an area of Midgar and realize it's a graphically improved version of the same location you visited in Final Fantasy 7, right down to the posters on the wall. Of particular note are the summon animations. When you call down one of the powerful Summon Beasts, the game switches into an incredibly high-quality FMV to show off their attacks, with some of the best choreography and style the Final Fantasy franchise has ever had. It's hard not to be impressed when you witness Bahamut smash open the sky and fly back down while gigantic chunks of sky-glass rain around him.
Much like the rest of Crisis Core, the audio is a clear mix of nostalgia and new elements. One of the very early scenes has Zack running toward a battle, with the Final Fantasy 7 battle theme playing slightly muted in the background. When he turns the corner and comes upon a boss creature, it segues seamlessly into the classic Final Fantasy 7 boss theme, although updated and improved. While a few new songs are thrown into the mix, expect to hear a lot of returning favorites as well.
Final Fantasy 7: Crisis Core is the last Final Fantasy 7 spin-off that Square Enix has planned at the moment, and it's arguably the best one so far. Returning to the past has given Square Enix a chance to explore the Final Fantasy 7 world once again, including seeing old friends and introducing a few new ones. The action-based combat system feels so right for the Final Fantasy 7 universe, especially after the high-flying fighting seen in Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children. The DMW system also helps to keep the game flowing quickly and smoothly, with a minimal amount of menus. Crisis Core is shaping up to be a fine send-off to the Final Fantasy 7 universe … assuming, of course, that Square Enix doesn't decide to surprise us with the much-rumored Final Fantasy 7 remake.
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