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NDS Review - 'FF Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates'

by Tom Baker on April 26, 2008 @ 1:17 a.m. PDT

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates is the latest installment in the action/RPG franchise, playable for up to 4 players with a strong multiplayer focus, but if you go solo you can use AI characters to perform combos.

Genre: Action/Role-Playing
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: March 11, 2008

The Final Fantasy series has always managed to capture my imagination as a gamer, with its unparalleled storytelling, stunning cinematics and intuitive RPG systems. I'll admit that I am a bit of a Final Fantasy VII fan boy, to the point where I refuse to leave my house without my life-size replica Buster Sword, and my love of the game has made me an instant fan of the franchise as a whole. Any game that has you controlling a guy who resembles B.A. Baracus with a Gatling gun grafted to his arm demands a certain level of respect.

The first Crystal Chronicles series offshoot for the GameCube kicked the original game design in the head; you must button-mash to dispatch enemies, and you enter a sequence of seemingly arbitrary dungeons, all without the slightest reference to a story. On top of the poor choices in game design, it was quite blatant in its attempt to tear gamers away from their hard-earned cash with the ridiculous necessity of three GBAs and a memory card the size of a small server farm in order to participate in the multiplayer mode. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles - Ring of Fates for the NDS has proven to be a pleasantly refreshing, solid attempt at an action/RPG.

Ring of Fates starts off with the main character, Yuri, and his sister, Chelinka, as children who go on adventures and slay monsters that appear after the Great Crystal, which shields the land, starts to glow an ominous crimson color. In typical JRPG style, the children are allowed to handle weapons, put themselves in mortal danger, and use magic liberally. The father's lax parenting style is established in the opening cut scene, when he gives his six-year-old son a hatchet to "go and play with."

Perplexing attitudes toward child rearing aside, the story sets itself up in a fairly standard manner. The protagonists have some ambiguous power and an even more elusive destiny to unfurl, and there is a predictable element of loss in the main story. The evil overlord even wears a cape and lives in a castle that might as well have a sign hanging from it that reads, "Final boss fight in here."

There is a shift in time, as your characters grow up and transform from unbearably cute children into angst-ridden teens, and trust me when I say that this is an improvement. Predictability aside, the presence of a story is a vast improvement on the previous Crystal Chronicles game, and it actually gives the player a sense of progression and necessity to level up. While the first game was essentially offline "grinding" of monsters in order to reach some unspecified and unnecessary level of greatness, Ring of Fates feels as though the relentless monster-killing has some purpose.

The game is based on four playable characters, each with individual abilities of the various tribes that inhabit the world, and while the original Crystal Chronicles made you choose between them in single-player mode, Ring of Fates allows you to play as all of the characters simultaneously in a fairly intuitive manner. As you acquire characters throughout the game, they will follow you through the various dungeons until necessity or boredom forces you to switch to another member of your company by pressing on their avatar on the touch-screen.

While under AI control, the support characters lose all interest in your well-being and are quite content to watch as you get eviscerated by a number of snarling beasts. On several occasions, I had led my party members until they were forming a human wall between me and a monster before they even acknowledged its existence; this could even be overlooked if it weren't for the enemy AI's seemingly telepathic ability to know which character you're controlling so that it attacks you (and only you) as soon as you enter its peripheral vision. This is unfortunate, but the game is made infinitely better through the presence of your witless allies, which is especially useful when utilizing the spell-casting system.

Casting is done in a slightly different manner from standard Final Fantasy games in that the number of times you can cast a spell is related to how many magical orbs you have. Using one of the orbs casts the lowest form of the spell, which is done simply by moving the target marker to the area over which you want to cast. One of my favorite features of casting is that you can lock a marker in place, lure enemies or allies into its path, and trigger it at the opportune moment, thus adding a dimension of strategy to the whole experience. Once you acquire other characters, you can stack spells to perform more powerful magic attacks. This is done automatically when you lock a target in place and select another member by tapping the bottom screen.

The combat in Ring of Fates is remarkably intuitive for a "hack and slash," and the plethora of attack combinations, combined with the ability to quickly change between allies, makes the gameplay run a lot smoother than the previous title. The actions are basic (run, jump, pick up items three times your size), but they blend together to form an experience that proves challenging for a puzzle game, yet dynamic enough to provide excitement for an action game. The only problem with the gameplay is that it's nothing that we haven't seen before in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, minus the items.

The gameplay in Ring of Fates is diverse because of the number of characters that you can unlock with special abilities, but it makes it feel like the game has been smashed into four pieces, none of which make an entirely whole gaming experience. Instead of one character progressing and gaining these abilities, you have to wait until you acquire other allies to progress through certain areas, thus making the leveling system and multiplayer mode feel a little shallow. It's regrettable, considering the fun this game can be on your own or with friends.

With each of the tribes with its own special abilities, you'd think that it would play into a puzzle game more easily, but two out of the four abilities are used for combat, the third is the ability to create items or magic and even travel to distant areas, and the fourth character is left with the rather lame ability of … making bridges. It's vital to the progression of the level, but utterly useless in a fight. If the abilities had dual uses for puzzles and combat, then the game would feel more rounded and fair for all players, but as it stands, one person is left playing as a builder while the others can proudly claim to be "hardcore monster hunters."

The main emphasis of the Crystal Chronicles series has always been on multiplayer, which is an admirable goal if it didn't cheat the players out of a fulfilling single-player experience. Each member of your party will have a shallow range of abilities, which is very fun when playing with friends, but decisively less so when you're a social leper such as myself. Much of the game's enjoyment comes from the multiplayer mode, but any game that sacrifices the single-player component for a more complete experience with three other people should be forced to sit in solitary confinement to think about what it's done.

Graphically, Ring of Fates is one of the more impressive titles on the DS, combining colorful backdrops with well-rendered characters and explosive combat visuals. You can see the expressions on your characters' faces, the individual flames from your fire attacks, and, in one of my personal favorite features of any RPG, you can see the different armor changes on the characters, which prevents the traditional Final Fantasy "disappearing weapon" trick from occurring. The characters are very cartoony, but this suits the almost Kingdom Hearts feel of the combat, and the game generally flows incredibly well through intricately designed, if slightly confusing, levels. The attention to detail on the armor and the ability to paint moogles you find throughout the level are nice touches to the game's overall aesthetic, even if it means that a lot of the moogles were sporting swear words across their foreheads.

The audio complements the visuals well, with the standard semi-orchestral RPG anthems blasting through the speakers. The characters are voice acted, even if the sound of the children will make you want to instantly mute the volume. The overall presentation is almost enough to cover up for the minor gameplay faults. Aside from Phantom Hourglass, Ring of Fates presents some of the best graphics on the DS, and the sound quality matches this high standard. The only fault to be had with the audio presentation is when the same voice clips get looped over and over again for each jump or attack sequence ad nauseam. This certainly makes Ring of Fates one of the most embarrassing and annoying games to play in public.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles - Ring of Fates is a surprisingly valiant effort. It has variety and charm, and even though the RPG elements feel a bit wasted on the action-heavy gameplay, it still flows well. The multiplayer is really where the game takes off, but unfortunately, this is somewhat at the expense of the single-player portion. The controls are innovative but tend to not use the touch-screen as much as they could have; however, this means that the game doesn't feel as though it's been shoehorned into an ill-fitting mold to take advantage of the DS' novelty. If you have a shrine to Hironobu Sakaguchi, then Ring of Fates is a clever, fun, and sure to delight. It's also a good introductory title for action-heavy junkies who are looking for a game with a little more depth.

Score: 8.4/10

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