Square-Enix has really been trying hard to innovate and bring new experiences to the table of late. Yet, with Theatrhythm Final Fantasy being a risky spinoff of a well-established and highly successful franchise, I was concerned about the ability of a developer to effectively take Square-Enix’s genre defining games in a new direction.
With that being said, I’m very pleasantly surprised by the results of throwing seemingly random genres in a blender and making a game out of it. And I think die-hard Final Fantasy fans will be very pleased as well.
Being a series with a reputation for having some of the best musical scores in gaming, Theatrhythm could’ve been a game without a premise, opting to simply allow players to experience beautiful music in a brand new way. Instead, players are given a loose story about Chaos and Cosmos’ ongoing battle for supremacy and the Music Crystal needing Rhythmia, earned by playing songs, to bring harmony to the world. The whole story is completely pointless and I hardly noticed it was even there. I feel like telling Square-Enix that sometimes it’s best to just focus on the gameplay and let players make up their own motivation.
Of course, since this is a music game, the most important content has to be the setlist. Lucky for us, Final Fantasy has an enormous catalogue of amazing scores to call on from perhaps the best composer the game industry has ever heard. With a total of over 70 songs pulled from each of the thirteen numbered entries in the main franchise, you can almost be certain that your favorite songs are included. I was really impressed by the selected songs and I have to admit that all I wanted to do while playing Theatrhythm is jump straight into an old Final Fantasy game to quench my intense feelings of nostalgia that welled up. I was disappointed by the absence of songs from Final Fantasy Tactics, Dissidia, and X-2, but these are minor removals in the grand scheme.
The songs are classified into four main types: BMS (Battle Music Stage), FMS (Field Music Stage), EMS (Event Music Stage), and DMS (Demo Music Stage). Even though the DMS features some of the best songs, they’re practically worthless because DMS stages have boiled down to mindless tapping in time with onscreen symbols. The remaining three types are the main faire of our musical meal. BMS songs are the bread and butter of Theatrhythm, featuring the battles between your party and the legendary monsters and bosses from the series, like Cactaur, Tonberry and the dastardly Kefka. FMS functions as a stand-in for the open map exploration that’s usually present. EMS splices together many of the iconic cutscenes into a playable events. Looking at each of these stages as a package, I found that Theatrhythm formed an appealing way to experience familiar content comfortably for long-time fans or beginners.
Each of these song types share fairly similar elements of tapping, holding and sliding the stylus in time with icons that appear onscreen. It all sounds very simple, but then the higher difficulties begin to throw several notes at once, combining complicated patterns of all three mechanics at the same time. I loved some of the intense challenges that were thrown at me, but it gets vicious by the end. I did feel like the songs’ notes were not always charted properly, but I think this is mainly an issue in Chaos Shrine mode (which we’ll get to in a second) because it tries to automatically scale difficulties, which leads to too many or not enough notes.
Then there’s the simplistic party management system of Theatrhythm. Managing skills, magic, items and party members make all the difference your eventual success during the most difficult songs. As you miss notes, HP drains away quickly making it vital to use appropriate party members to ensure survival. There are also the other stats like strength, intelligence, agility and luck to help players out in their battles. Players will gain levels fairly quickly, but choose carefully because you will likely fail based on party construction.
The game is made up of three modes: Series, Challenge and Chaos Shrine. The main attraction is the Series mode that compiles the five included songs of one of the Final Fantasy games and that lets players experience the familiar music in an interactive way. It’s the simplest, but also most structured mode to be found in Theatrhythm. Challenge mode provides an opportunity for fans to replay any song from the game on the most challenging difficulties, or the easiest if you’d prefer. Finally, the Chaos Shrine takes every FMS and BMS song in the game, randomly combines them together, and slowly increases the difficulty according to your party level. Chaos Shrine quickly became my mode of choice because it allows party levelling, winning rare items and unlocking hidden characters. Series mode can be completed within three or four hours, but there’s infinite replay value in Challenge and Chaos Shrine. Plus, the incoming DLC’s will provide even more content to enjoy for months to come.
The complete package is pulled together by the cute chibi art. Chibi style characters are not my favorite, but I think it really works in Theatrhythm’s favor. Every character looks like they’ve been adorably made out of paper and such a drastic change keeps the experience completely separated from the main series. On the other hand, the cutscenes used during the EMS stages look amazing. I wasn’t even aware that the 3DS screen was capable of playing such clear video before playing Theatrhythm. The remaining elements of the visuals, like effects, are kept to more of a minimum, which only further helps to keep the emphasis on the most important part: the music.
Looking back at the entire game, there isn’t a heck of a lot of depth to the game, which makes me wonder how worthwhile the title is to pick up for casual fans of the franchise or someone expecting heavier RPG portions. I think the main purpose that the game will serve is to prove that we need a full musical-RPG that uses the gameplay of Theatrhythm, but with a open-world to explore and more robust party customization options.
Even so, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is an excellent start to what I sincerely hope becomes a franchise for Square-Enix. I don’t think it has found the right recipe yet, but I feel confident that a second game could give gamers a more complete package that fulfills more than just the musician inside gamers.
GO Rating: 4/5
Available now for 3DS for $39.99.
[Images via Machinima]