The 2008 review revue, part four

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII | Square Enix | PSP | Action
I gave it: B+ | In retrospect, this was: On the mark.

I was certain, before playing it, that I would hate Crisis Core. It looked like everything I hate about video games: all flash, no substance, with a confusing game mechanic substituting for actual depth. Worse yet, it’s basically a Final Fantasy VII fanfiction, and that’s one RPG whose welcome has long since worn itself out. Nothing good seems to come from FFVII: the game itself has aged horribly, the annoying characters are a merchandising empire unto themselves, Advent Children was an abomination, Dirge of Cerberus was nearly unplayable…yeah. There was no reason to expect anything short of pure suffering from the game, and in fact I volunteered to do a second-opinion EGM review on the game just to say I’d put in my dues and suffered through something terrible in order to justify getting my name on the list for more quality material.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up really enjoying the game.

Crisis Core is no masterpiece, but it’s a good, solid portable title. Kind of action-y, kind of role-playing-ish. Story-driven and fairly lengthy, but with plenty of opportunities to take on side projects to kill time, which of course is the ultimate raison d’être for handheld games. It’s a lightweight pop culture snack that eats like a meal, basically…and while I wouldn’t want my entire gaming diet to consist of this sort of thing, a guilty pleasure every now and then is a nice break.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the fact that the FFVII connections actually made me like the game more. There are a lot of things I hate about FFVII, but Crisis Core didn’t really focus on them. Instead, it centered on the good: the interesting world, the elements of corporate empire and conspiracy (something new an unusual for RPGs back in 1997). And it turned many of FFVII’s annoying elements into assets. For instance, the bland Materia system, which was so terrible for its tendency to transform a party of three into identical killing machines, was far better suited to a single character — especially when you factor in Crisis Core’s customization and combination options. I found unraveling the intricacies of the fusion system engrossing, and combining my magical rocks to become even more magical was satisfying and empowering.

Mercifully, Crisis Core downplayed annoying icons like Cloud and Sephiroth; when they did appear, they were far more interesting and fully-realized as characters than they had been in FFVII. But really, Crisis Core focuses on Zack Fairs, who in FFVII only appeared in an optional flashback, despite numerous veiled references to him throughout the story. Zack is basically the antidote to Square’s typical Final Fantasy heroes: he’s good-natured rather than surly, and unlike optimistic characters like Tidus and Vaan doesn’t come off as being dumber than a sack of hammers. He’s a bit naïve toward the beginning of the game, but as the adventure unfolds he actually grows and develops as a character — shocking but true! And the ridiculous superheroic actions that made Advent Children so difficult to watch are lampshaded here: the only time you see genuinely over-the-top action (like Sephiroth slicing apart the towering Junon Cannon installation with his sword) is within the confines of a virtual reality simulator.

Like the game itself, the battle mechanics are a lot better than they appear at first glance. Crisis Core looks like a mindless mashfest on the surface, but that’s really not the case. Its combat system is a sort of inversion of the standard Final Fantasy style; where Active-Time Battles could be considered adding an element of action to a turn-based system, Crisis Core adds turn-based elements to what seems like standard melee action. Every action taken by either Zack or his foes has a certain degree of latency, meaning that simply jamming on the attack button is worthless, especially against powerful foes. Every attack (save for the bosses’ flashy Limit Break-type skills) can be parried or dodged with the proper timing, and executing your own actions correctly will interrupt enemy attacks. The reverse holds true, though. Timing and rhythm are of the essence in Crisis Core, and effective play gives you the ability to go up against foes far beyond your level and still come out on top. And Materia is cleverly integrated into the mechanics as well, allowing you to customize not only Zack’s skills but also his attributes — you can create custom Materia that offer healthy stat bonuses on top of their basic functions. There are even a handful of Materia that change up your basic commands, like turning the rolling dodge into a dash, or letting you leap like a Dragon Knight.

It’s not all perfect, though. Crisis Core suffers from annoying, dated RPG conventions that feel horribly out of place, most notably random battles. Its side missions are incredibly repetitive, and the main missions are painfully linear until you reach the very final dungeon. And then there’s the DMW, the Digital Mind Wave, a series of slot machine reels that spin in the background of every battle for no good reason, dispensing random power-ups. Or stat bonuses. Or even level-ups. Yes, that’s right: Zack’s stat growth is decided (semi-) randomly. It’s possible to manipulate the DMW to a certain degree, and sometimes it will be affected by the story, but it’s still nonsensical and intrusive and is frankly a lousy excuse for a gameplay system.

Crisis Core’s story doesn’t hold many surprises, since it’s a fairly faithful retelling of events presented in the course of FFVII. You know that Cloud will show up, that Aerith has a part to play, that Sephiroth’s going to wig out in Nibelheim, and that in the end Zack is gonna kick the bucket. What makes the game work despite the transparent arc of its plotline is how well the details play out; scenario writer Kazushige Nojima has a reputation for writing touching stories, but this is the first time I’ve really felt the praise was warranted. Zack is a likable character, and — spoiler alert — the climax of his story is one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen in a game, deftly combining narrative and gameplay mechanics to compel the player to keep struggling to grasp some impossible victory despite the obvious futility of it all. As Zack fights to survive and the DMW breaks down while spinning so tantalizingly close to a combination that could save the day, you almost forget how annoying those reels were for the past 30 hours. And that’s a victory in and of itself, really.

That ending is a big part of Crisis Core’s success. So many games start strong but end poorly; seeing a game begin decently but end so powerfully leaves quite an impression. Of course, the coda leaves many gamers clamoring for a Final Fantasy VII remake, but let’s not spoil our happy feelings, OK?

20 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part four

  1. Thanks for your well thought out rebuttle, Tim.

    I second that it was a pleasant suprise. I’ve never been really satisfied with game remakes. They always tend to lose as much as they gained, so why not just make something new? (Answer: Your money.)

  2. I played the story until just about the very end and then spent hours and hours doing missions. After the missions grew stale and I figured I had enough loot — as I was doing 99999 damage to everything — I put the game away and didn’t touch it for a couple of months. After picking up where I left off in the final dungeon, I had almost completely forgotten what had transpired throughout the game. Did cartwheels through the rest of the game and was pretty unimpressed with the end.

    The combination of my disconnect from the story due to a time lapse and lofty expectations for the ending because of FF7 fanboys “OMG best ending ever” most definitely turned what could have been an awesome experience into a game I had forgotten about until you brought it up here.

    Also, what was with all that Genesis quoting Loveless shit? Did anybody enjoy that?

  3. You know I was one of the fanboys who got caught up in the Aerith death way back in the day. I have since cooled down a bit (protip: never name modern rpg girls after you girlfriend). However, the one part of FF7 that sticks with me more than anyone else is when they dropped the part of the city on the slums. I mean that was during the “good” part of FF7 and I still can’t believe that Square was willing to kill off that many people on the wave of a hand. I mean seriously, did people just forget about this part or am I just an idiot?

  4. I whole-heartedly agree about the ending. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy CC, even though I’m one of those guys who still thinks FFVII is the greatest game of all time ever. It had enough to keep me going though, and I enjoyed the combat and, more importantly, I enjoyed Zack. The real high point of this game was definitely the ending, though. I fought like hell at the end. It made me think of MGS4, when Snake is trying to make it through the hallway filled with microwaves and you are compelled to mash the triangle button for what feels like forever, even though you don’t actually have to. I knew Zack was going to die, but I desperately did not want him to go out like a punk.

    CC has it’s flaws. Many of them, in fact. All told, though, I very much enjoyed this game. B+ indeed.

  5. tavir: It’s Tseng.

    And faithful to FFVII my ass. It’s retconned to hell and back, going so far as to contradict the original game at certain points (there’s one moment in particular that my friends and I refer to as THAT RETCON since it’s so big and contentious). Plus, “Fair” is a silly surname.

    Well, at least it wasn’t Dirge of Cerberus…

  6. Oh, and parish, I’m one of the half-dozen people who would love FFVII on the DS, a straight port complete with Lego-block chibis (but hopefully with a better translation), and I’m a huge fan of the original. Putting it on the PS3 would potentially mean horrible things for the more offbeat elements of the game; besides, stylus control for certain minigames would rock.

  7. I wasn’t too interested in this game, but you say that the last battle is a futile life and death struggle against the DMV? Sweet! Finally, I can vicariously cleave that lady in twain when she sends me to Window C for a Form 64-B53 because I don’t have a change of address card for JUST GIVE ME MY DAMN DRIVER’S LISCENSE ALREADY *ka-slash*

  8. Parish, besides Shiren, are there are any other games you reviewed which you feel significantly different about?

  9. I’m actually replaying FFVII for the first time in about 8 years and I find that it hasn’t aged considerably at all. The blocky meat tenderizer-armed map models are dated, yeah, but the game’s still very atmospheric and the battle graphics are still really impressive and are only surpassed by Square’s later titles on the PS1 and a handful of other PS1 games. I got chills when I went to the City of the Ancients this time, with the eerie BGM and eldritch beauty of the pre-rendered backgrounds. That’s not a sign of a game that’s aged horribly. But then again, hating FFVII is still in vogue.

  10. FF7 is still very much a fun game for me, it’s just a baaaad series.

    CC bugs me the same way the Star Wars prequels do. There’s no real need to flesh out the backstory in question, and padding it out with extra action, silly retcons and terrible love scenes only dilutes, rather than enhances, the overall plot. That said, it’s easy enough to ignore.

  11. Ah, you got me. I only criticize FFVII because I’m trying to be cool, not because I have genuine issues with it.

  12. I have a feeling that a lot of reviewers who totally skewer the story haven’t played CC to its completion. Around the halfway point, when the narrative had mostly focus on Angeal, Sephiroth, and Genesis, and when Zack was showing much more, um, gusto, in his personality, I almost gave up on it. I just couldn’t stomach the cringeworthy dialogue (especially from Genesis, who admittedly is a blight on the game for its entirety) and the plot didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

    But Jeremy, mainly based on your praise of the game, I stuck with it and as the more personal story came into focus I did wind up enjoying things more. Thanks for the protip there.

    Crisis Core’s story reminds me of MGS4 in that there were two tales being told: an over-the-top struggle for the world’s safety and an individual’s inevitable journey towards his end. In both games the latter works incredibly well and the former falls flat on its face. Why are developers so afraid to focus on a smaller, more intimate story?

    In a recent 1up interview David Cage at Quantic Dream admitted that Indigo Prophecy’s story floundered into nonsense because he felt like it wasn’t a videogame without some struggle for the world’s safety. When we can get past that mindset- that’s the point when I feel like the medium will be maturing.

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