Echoes of Time attempts to bridge the gap between the original GameCube game and Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates on the DS by releasing simultaneously on the Wii and DS. While the structure and style of the title haven't really changed since Ring of Fates, the multiplayer capabilities have certainly made a leap forward.
The gameplay basics are easy to grasp. At the beginning of the game, you choose a male or female character from the four established races. Each race has its own specialty, and the gender can determine whether you can or can't wear a few unique pieces of equipment, but every character can generally do the same things. The A button swings your weapon, the B button makes characters jump, the Y button is used to pick things up or throw them, and holding down the X button lets you place a spell ring to cast magic. The magic type is determined by the colored orb that you select on the touch-screen, and magic rings can be overlapped to create spells beyond the basic cure, clear, fire, ice, revive and thunder. You can cast magic with a partner or stack spells by putting a ring in place, clicking L and putting another spell on top of it.
The races add a bit of complexity to the basic abilities every character has. Yukes master magic-casting faster and have more MP, while Lilties specialize in heavy weapons and can execute powerful moves with lances and hammers. Selkies double-jump and gain bow- and racket-based abilities, and Clavats toe a nice middle ground, favoring a mix of swordplay and magic. Even with these slight differences between characters, everyone can get by with just running around and beating or magicking enemies to death.
The challenge of Echoes of Time comes mostly in the form of puzzles spread across the dungeons. While every dungeon has a pretty unique set of monsters, the real difference between the areas is the boxes you'll push, bookshelves you'll shove and switches you'll flip while you're there. The game is full of cleverly designed levels, although a few places, like the aqueduct, feel like a parade of switch-flipping. Dungeons are a chance to tease your brain into figuring out where you need to position a crate or test how quickly you can run a book from one side of the screen to another while a switch is flipped. The lack of real-world physics can be a little confusing when puzzling, though. I still don't understand how a barrel that's not heavy enough to press a switch is strong enough to support the box that can press that same switch. Even with the distinctly unrealistic puzzle pieces, it's still a very cerebral experience.
The game's puzzles are made to accommodate a single player, but it's incredibly simplified by having a friend or three along for the ride. Just like in past CC titles, the game begs to be played in multiplayer. Square Enix has considerably simplified this in the years since the first game, so you no longer need to have your friends gather around a GameCube with Game Boy Advances and connector cables. All you need is a copy of the game and some friends with DSes and copies of the game. It's a little more expensive when every player needs a game cartridge, but it caused a lot less griping than when the first Crystal Chronicles came out. It's a lot more technically difficult to play the game when the processing load is spread to several different players, and it's even worse when using the Internet connectivity.
This leads to the biggest problem with Echoes of Time. It wants to be a multiplayer experience, but the DS seems to have a really hard time with any sort of WiFi. It stutters and skips when processing more than a handful of enemies in an area. It doesn't help that playing online almost always produces a second or two of input lag just because of distance. This means that every player connecting over the Web has the reaction time of a slug, and it makes them useless in any sort of heated combat where the frame rate drops to a near-pause. To make matters worse, if you're not playing locally with someone you can talk to, communication is a jumbled mess. You have a few preset phrases that you can spout to teammates, but it's almost impossible to coordinate the stacking of spells, and navigating the menu takes time you shouldn't have if you're focusing on fighting or puzzle-solving. The Wi-Fi connection does not work, and the title seems to have overstepped its limitations without realizing it.
While this crippling flaw ruins a lot of the multiplayer experience, there's still more to it than just bashing the life out of critters and pushing crates with friends. Like any RPG worth its salt, EoT has tons of equipment and customization options. Although races have different specialties, they're not too limited on customizability, as every weapon and armor can be equipped by any race.
The main place you're going to be dealing with equipment is the town's two shops, The Compleat Adventurer and Custom Fabrications. The Compleat Adventurer works like any other shop in any other game, offering a steadily increasing range of weapons, armor and accessories at exorbitant prices. The much cheaper and feasible option is heading over to Custom Fabrications and fusing items for about half the price. You can buy or find scrolls, which allow you to put together materials that are dropped by different monsters in different locations at pretty constant intervals, to create some of the best items in the game at low, low prices.
The only problem is the completely random scarcity of some items, and the larger problem that the differences in item strengths are usually too small to warrant constant upgrades and attention. There are a lot of choices to be made in the fabrications shop, and there's not a huge impact from being a completionist and keeping ahead of the curve. The gems that you can generate from more powerful equipment (for a fee, of course) confer neat stat bonuses that are often worth a look, including MP regeneration and increased strength or magic, but acquiring them is even harder than finding the regular materials for equipment.
In order to get all the materials you need, not to mention the obnoxious amounts of money that the game demands of you, there's going to be a lot of trekking back through dungeons, even during your first play-through. Assuming you don't have higher-level friends carrying you through fields of monster corpses and letting you pick up all the loot, a first run-through can take a huge chunk of time before you unlock the replay mode and hard mode. To help make up for this, though one of the game's greatest assets is that it has a great and thorough aesthetic appeal to help you forget you're going to the same places and doing the same things over and over again to reach the end.
Although they're a bit grainy and blocky on the DS' tiny screen, the character portraits and in-game models are really quality work. They perfectly uphold the style of past Crystal Chronicle games while still being unique and wonderful. The soundtrack helps in the same way by keeping to the semi-Celtic, whimsical themes of past titles without rehashing the same few boring notes. The sounds aren't so spectacular as to be memorable, but they're entertaining and show a great care for detail and polish.
The writing in the game offers that same quality feel, with clever quips from side-characters and random npcs enhancing the lighthearted feel of the game-world. Even though the story has dark themes of war, murder, greed, and perhaps some moral messages about our dependency on oil, it still manages to be light and fluffy in presentation. That's a feat worth commending just by itself.
The plot never feels terribly interactive, which is a pretty consistent complaint across JRPGs. For instance, you'll be asked to describe the plot's villain as "Resurrectedly OK" or "Vanishingly all right," and the NPC response to each is almost identical, and then there aren't any more dialogue choices until four more dungeons are conquered. The plot is charming and mysterious enough to keep you working to resolve it, even if you don't ever feel like a real driving force. It's punctuated with a few too many instances of "You'll find out soon enough!" in an attempt to make it more mysterious, but it's a story well worth uncovering.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time lends itself to occasional bursts of cooperative fun, peppering a main course of blasé grinding and repetition. Fortunately, even if there isn't a whole lot to chew on when you get right down to it, the entire package is dressed up so nicely that the experience is definitely worth your time. If you can get a few friends to play the game with you in a cooperative effort, it's as fun a Crystal Chronicles experience as you'll ever find.
More articles about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time