Over the past few years, one of the main trends in gaming has been the inclusion of RPG elements in new genres. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brought the system into the FPS world by introducing experience points, persistent ranks and upgradeable characters and weapons based on players' commitment to the game. The system has also branched into action and adventure titles, with more and more games introducing customizable characters who can have certain stats tweaked by dumping in growth points, skill points or some other variation of the experience system that's been with us since the birth of the RPG. It's no surprise that one-on-one fighting games would eventually get a dose of genre cross-pollination, and it's even less of a surprise that the company who would be the first to combine the two would be Square Enix. Unfortunately, this attempt to appeal to two disparate gaming factions with the creation of Dissidia: Final Fantasy will leave neither group satisfied, and the end result is an unintuitive mishmash that tarnishes the otherwise sterling Final Fantasy franchise.
Dissidia's main draw is that it brings together nearly all the major heroes and villains from the first 10 Final Fantasy games and forces them to duke it out mano a mano. The game closes any nasty continuity issues by explaining that the goddess Cosmos and the god Chaos have spent all eternity locked in a struggle that has ultimately maintained the balance of order in the world. Unfortunately, the forces of Chaos have managed to gain the upper hand, and Cosmos is forced to call on 10 virtuous warriors to find the 10 crystals, which are the only hope for restoring order before Chaos attains victory and the world is utterly destroyed. Chaos, for his part, calls upon 10 champions of his own to stand in the heroes' way and prevent them from fulfilling their noble quest. With the stage set, franchise fans are free to spend the remainder of the game geeking out as the likes of Cecil, Cloud and Squall travel together fighting against foes such as Golbez, Kefka and Sephiroth.
While the story was tailor-made for Final Fantasy fans, it doesn't take long for it to devolve into an ugly mess. In order to progress through story mode, players must take on each of the 10 heroes' stories in whichever order they wish. Even though the stories interlace with one another, the freeform nature of the narrative means that it would be very difficult to create a cohesive overarching plot with a thread running through each tale. Consequently, each character's story is more of a personal journey, and most of them are mired in the basement of video game storytelling prowess. Firion spends his scenes espousing the virtues of wild roses, and Tidus continues to have daddy issues. Meanwhile, Cloud mopes around in an existential funk that seems to be just another step in Square Enix's plot to make what was once their most beloved character into the franchise's biggest jerk. It's a major disappointment considering this is the same franchise that brought us the death of Aries, the revelation that Tidus was not exactly mortal and so many other great plot moments along the way. For Dissidia to suffer from such shoddy storytelling is enough to bring a tear to some gamers' eyes.
The best way to describe the gameplay in Dissidia is to classify it as a sort of one-on-one fighting action game. This isn't a Street Fighter approach, where characters stand on opposite sides of the screen and trade attacks, but rather something more akin to Dragonball Z, where stage design and verticality play a much larger role. The basic mechanics are fairly straightforward, with only two main attacks. Each character has a numerical value assigned to him known as "bravery," which determines the base amount of damage he can do to an opponent. The Circle button launches bravery attacks, which allow the player to steal his opponent's bravery for his own use. If you completely drain an opponent's bravery, he becomes much more susceptible to your physical attacks, and his attack power drops to zero until his bravery refills. Tapping Square unleashes HP attacks, which damage your opponent equal to your character's bravery. Therefore, most matches are more complex than your typical fighting game, with opponents trading bravery attacks until one gains a large enough advantage to unleash a flurry of HP attacks and ultimately win the match.
The wild card in every fight is the character's EX Mode, which can be activated by taking enough damage or tracking down the special EX Cores. Activating EX Mode sends your character into a sort of berserk mode, and connecting with an HP attack will allow you to launch into a special, often match-ending, super attack. Some examples of these ultimate attacks include Sephiroth summoning meteors or Terra turning into an unstoppable Esper. What makes these attacks even cooler is the fact that many of them are powered up in the same way they were in their original games, so if you want to land Omnislash with Cloud, you will be required to rapidly tap the Circle button to draw up enough energy.
The fundamentals of the battle system are sound, but things get a bit sticky in the execution. For one thing, Square Enix sought to create large arenas for the fights so as to give the impression of epic battles, but this often ends up working against the player. Many stages have multiple levels, and the camera has an exceptionally hard time tracking opponents once they get off-screen. Even worse, the constantly shifting camera can force you to suddenly head off in the wrong direction. Should the characters get caught up in a duel near the intersection of a wall and a ceiling — which is not uncommon since they sort of float around the stage — don't expect to be able to discern what's going on, as your view is nearly completely obscured. The flat, wide-open stages are absolutely fine, but anytime you're forced indoors or into an area with lots of different levels, things are about to get hairy.
Combat's other major downside is its wildly fluctuating difficulty and balancing issues. All too often in story mode, you'll be able to mow down basically any standard baddie you encounter, only to hit an absolute brick wall in terms of that character's boss. Suddenly, after facing nothing but sword fodder for several stages, you're forced into combat against an enemy who can dodge, block and parry everything you throw at him while you are subjected to what seems to be a series of undodgeable attacks. It feels as though whenever you face a boss, the difficulty level is ratcheted up to the max and the match is over while you're still waiting for it to begin. While this practice gives you a massive sense of accomplishment when you finally triumph, that joy is offset by the hours you've spent cursing at your PSP and wondering how you can rip the plastic off the UMD casing so you can snap the tiny disc inside.
As mentioned at the top of the article, Dissidia also attempts to integrate role-playing elements into a fighting game. This is handled through the typical character leveling and loot gathering, which are staples of the genre. Unfortunately, the concepts of leveling and loot grinding have come along for the ride too, and they are decidedly less enjoyable. All characters start at level one, and the only way to improve their ability is to compete in matches, which will earn you enough experience, money and new skills to become more powerful and buy better gear. The issue is that if you choose to proceed through the story mode with a level one character, you'll likely get squashed, and if you want to use the game's free mode to beef up a bit before heading into the story, then you're going to have to devote hours to meaningless battles that get you no closer to your goal of beating the game. While RPG gamers have come to accept and even embrace the grind in traditional titles, it really doesn't work in the fighting genre. In an RPG, I expect to need time to discover my characters' true potential, but in a fighting game, I just want to pick up and play.
This complexity expands into the game's myriad options and extras menus, which will be a treasure trove for some and an absolutely incomprehensible concept for others. There are numerous accessories that add seemingly inconsequential bonuses under very specific battle parameters, as well as page after page of help menus and advanced concepts that only the elite players will ever fully understand. Furthermore, the game requires most of its unlockable content to be purchased separately through a special in-game store with points that are earned in a slow trickle. Yes, there's a ton of depth here for those who really want to dig in and play Dissidia for weeks or months on end, but it also creates a high barrier of entry for less hardcore fans.
At its barest elements, Dissidia: Final Fantasy is phenomenal. Take all the great heroes and villains from the Final Fantasy universe, throw in a simple combat system and make them duke it out. This concept alone should have been the recipe for an amazing game. Unfortunately, Square Enix forgot that in game design, as in most aspects of life, the K.I.S.S. method is the best way to handle things. Rather than making a simple, fun fighting game, they opted to add in convoluted and trite stories, confusing stages, frustrating bosses and piles of extra content that don't seem to make much sense. You end up with a game that crumbles under its own weight and doesn't do a very good job with either the role-playing or the one-on-one fighting aspect. Somewhere under all these layers of extra junk is a really fun game, but I fear most players won't be able to find it. Dissidia is a nice diversion to hold Final Fantasy nuts over until FF XIII, but for regular RPG or fighting gamers, it just doesn't have the right elements for success.Score: 7.0/10
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