It's impossible to argue that Final Fantasy VII is one of gaming's most recognized and beloved franchises. What was originally designed to be yet another turn-based RPG in the Square Enix line of FF titles quickly took on a life of its own. Through thoughtful and heart-wrenching storytelling, as well as gameplay as deep and rewarding as any RPG before or since, FF VII was able to capture the hearts and minds of gamers over several generations. Since the introduction of the franchise a decade ago, it has seen a movie ("Advent Children"), a spin-off game (the severely underwhelming Dirge of Cerberus), and innumerable amounts of fan fiction and message board usernames. Now, Square Enix is taking us back to where it all began with Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and this is a journey that all fans need to take.
FF VII holds a special place in my heart because it was the RPG that got me hooked on the genre as a whole. I played the game to death, beating it at least six times and going to the lengths of breeding a gold chocobo, finding the Knights of the Round materia, mastering said materia, and taking down all of the optional bosses (beating Ruby Weapon is still, to this day, one of my single greatest gaming achievements). I even tried a couple of the crackpot theories for reviving Aerith. Don't laugh; you know you did it, too. Some would look at my love affair with the original and declare me a fanboy unfit to review this latest installment. That's untrue, however, because as a fan of the original, I wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than excellence on the part of Crisis Core. Thankfully, the game succeeded on nearly all fronts.
The plot of Crisis Core takes you back several years before the events of FF VII, putting you in the shoes of Zack Fair, the doomed, raven-haired hero that haunted Cloud during the events of FF VII. Genesis, a fellow member of SOLDIER and crackpot extraordinaire has gone rogue, and it's up to Zack, his mentor Angeal, and the infamous Sephiroth (seen here before he went completely insane) to bring Genesis to justice before he is able to build up a clone army and wipe out the planet. As the story progresses, Zack will learn that there's more to his friends than he ever knew, and that we all hide dark secrets deep within. Also along the way, players will be treated to watching Sephiroth turn from a solemn, skilled SOLDIER operative to the maniacal, cackling madman that earns him a perennial spot amongst gaming's greatest villains. Perhaps the true testament to the greatness of the game's narrative is the fact that anyone who has played the original will know all along what is going to happen, but you still can't help but hope that maybe, deep down, history will play out differently this time. In that respect, it's all the more heartbreaking as you watch the characters hurtle toward their inevitable destinies, and you sadly continue along, knowing full well you are powerless to stop it.
In transitioning the FF franchise to the PSP, Square Enix has vastly overhauled navigation and the combat system. Gone is the ability to freely roam around the overworld map. Instead, the game is mostly linear in that you are taken to your objective and tasked with going from point A to point B while slicing and dicing enemies along the way. I personally enjoyed the more linear approach for the most part, though there were times I wished I could go back and revisit areas through which I had rushed before. In that respect, gamers who need the open-world environment will be somewhat disappointed, while those driven by story will likely enjoy the streamlined approach and acceleration of narrative.
Another change from the FF VII formula is the removal of turn-based battles. Since Zack fights alone, it would hardly be fair to pit your one character against a mob of enemies, give you one turn, and then force you to sit back and take it while you're attacked upwards of five times in a row. Instead, the game plays out in real-time, with a combat system that Kingdom Hearts fans will find instantly familiar. All attacks, magic, and items are mapped to the X button, and you must use the shoulder buttons to cycle through and pick the specific attack or item you want. It sounds cumbersome and it does take some time to adjust to, but once you've gotten the hang of it, it's all quite simple. Unfortunately, the combat may be a little too simple, as most fights can be won by repeatedly mashing the X button. Bosses require a bit more strategy, but by and large, your regular foes can be thwarted simply by running up and hacking away. Coupled with the overly frequent number of random encounters (yes, they're back), a combat system that was designed to be one of Crisis Core's greatest strengths quickly becomes its largest shortcoming.
The final new wrinkle in combat is the introduction of the DMW, a constantly spinning set of three wheels that grants you special attacks and power-ups during battle. If the DMW lines up three pictures of the same character, Zack will launch into a Limit Break attack designed to either pile on the damage or provide a significant stat boost. In addition, lining up numbers on the wheel will grant you special buffs, such as reducing the MP needed to cast a spell to 0 or making you temporarily immune to physical or magical attacks. Ultimately, the wheel controls almost all the intangibles of battle, casting summons, buffing Zack, and even controlling when you level up. While some might initially be turned off by the fact that the DMW is completely out of your control and operates at random, it's actually quite an ingenious device that injects just the right element of luck into otherwise bland combat. Also, since the DMW can only help you, and since the boosts come quite frequently, you'll quickly grow to love it.
When you grow tired of propelling the story forward and are bitten by the side-quest bug, Crisis Core provides you with a simple, quick, yet fulfilling method of passing the time. As Zack progresses through the game, NPCs will provide him with missions that can be accessed from any save point. These are usually quick jaunts into enemy-infested areas rich in items and materia. Zack must make his way through the areas and take down a "boss monster" (often either a powered-up regular enemy or a rehash of a boss you fought earlier in the game) in order to claim the loot. These missions are completely optional, yet they are integral if you want to track down the rarest items and materia. Also, they are all very short, with each mission taking only two to three minutes to complete. These quests are perfect bite-sized chunks of the game and are quite appropriate for when you just want a quick fix or need to take a break from the bigger picture for a while.
Aside from the game itself, Crisis Core also makes the perfect tech demo for the PSP, really showing what the handheld can do in the realms of graphics and sound. The characters and environments are well-rendered and smoothly animated, and the PSP processor is able to keep up with the action no matter how many enemies are on-screen or spells are flung. The cut scenes are also breathtaking, making you wonder if someone switched out your game for a copy of "Advent Children" while you weren't looking. I can honestly say this is the first FF game where I watched the computer-animated cut scenes for the summons every time they came up simply because they are so impressive to see. If you have the capability to hook up your PSP to an HDTV using component cables, then I strongly recommend it; you'll be in for quite a treat.
The beauty doesn't stop with the graphics, though, as the sound also gets treatment worthy of any current-gen console game. The music is just as beautiful and haunting as any other FF title, and you'll likely feel waves of nostalgia wash over you whenever you hear the soft piano and strings after meeting Aerith in the church or the intense crescendos and choir of Sephiroth's battle music. It's a full sensory experience, as sight, sound and touch all come together in perfect harmony.
It's hard to find any reason not to recommend Crisis Core to RPG fans in general and FF VII fans in particular. The lack of an overworld map and button-mashing combat may be off-putting for some, but these are really only minor blemishes in an otherwise flawless package. Just like saying you wouldn't date Cindy Crawford because of her mole, refusing to play Crisis Core based on these small issues amounts to simply being overly nitpicky. More than just recommending the game, Crisis Core is a genuinely great reason to buy a PSP. If you've been on the fence about grabbing Sony's handheld, then go ahead and pick it up and make this your first software purchase. You'll be truly glad that you did.
More articles about Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII