TOKYO--Western gamers are always intensely interested in the comings and goings at Square Enix's Japanese headquarters, located in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo. In this virtual mecca of the RPG world, we had an opportunity to play Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII, one of the latest (and most controversial) chapters in one of the longest-running and most-respected RPG series on the market, at a Square Enix press event prior to the start of the Toyko Game Show 2004. This action RPG is being developed by Square Enix's Final Fantasy brain trust for the Foma i900 series of mobile phones on NTT DoCoMo's iMode service--a very specific class of handset on a carrier that operates only in Japan. If you've been following the game's progress, you may have heard some detractors across the Pacific preemptively criticizing Before Crisis for being equal parts greed-motivated misstep and monstrous crime of hubris, cursing Square Enix for forcing a huge part of its Final Fantasy-starved Western fan base to eat cake. After several hours of quality time with Before Crisis, we can safely say that there doesn't seem to be malicious intent on Square Enix's part. This game's level of technical accomplishment, which relies upon heavy usage of high-speed network streaming and camera-image recognition, would be more or less impossible to duplicate in the West at present, given our relatively backward command of cellular infrastructure.
Our demo copy of Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII came installed on a black FOMA 900iV--the so-called "Cloud Phone," so named for its usage by spiky-haired Avalanche commando (and hero of Square's hit PlayStation RPG Final Fantasy VII) Cloud Strife in a recent Japanese advertising campaign. The game's title screen opens with a low-angle shot of the Shinra Corporation's headquarters in Midgar, panning gradually upward past the neon-red Japanese characters to the top of the skyscraper. At the start of each new game, you are offered a choice between four new Turk recruits, two male and two female. Fans of Final Fantasy VII will remember the Turks as a gang of sharp-dressed thugs--and, like in that game, your recruit character will be dressed in a very conservative black-suit-and-tie ensemble over a white, collared shirt. The first male recruit, a redheaded fellow who wields a spring-loaded baton in an underhand grip, is the only playable character who lacks a firearm at the outset. His compatriots--a blonde woman with short hair, a man with wild black hair who lacks a tie, and another girl with flowing brunette locks--all use guns of one sort or another. Each character has different strengths and weaknesses. The redhead, for instance, has a sizable advantage in hit points and melee damage but fewer magic points, while the brunette sacrifices hardiness for more magic energy and a shotgun that fires a blast in three directions. At a press conference yesterday, Square Enix personnel confirmed that Before Crisis will launch with only these four characters but also promised that more playable Turks would be forthcoming.
After selecting your character and creating an account on Square Enix's Before Crisis server, you are taken to an options screen, where you can change the game's network settings, view your character's available missions, and create "materia"--the crystals of congealed organic force (called "mako energy") that serve as foci for magic spells in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Materia generation and management are important gameplay elements in Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII. The Turks won't get far in combat without using offensive and defensive magic, so it's vital to outfit their weapons and armor with an assortment of materia before sending them off on a mission. Fortunately, the Turks are a part of Shinra's corporate hierarchy, so they have access to Shinra's advanced mako technology, which can synthesize materia in a laboratory setting. The game simulates this generative process via a brilliant utilization of the i900 series' onboard camera. Simply take a picture with the camera, and the game's onboard image-recognition software will distill the image down to its basic color and create a like-colored materia. Predominantly white pictures make white healing materia, while yellow and red pictures are good for lightning and fire magic, respectively. There appears to be no limit to the amount of materia you can create. However, the crystals gain power as they are used in combat--just as in the original Final Fantasy VII--so it's a good idea to keep a rotation going if you want to have access to a wide assortment of spells.
Once you've performed all these logistical tasks to your satisfaction, your newly equipped Turk can hit the mean streets of Midgar to crack some Avalanche skull. The advertising slogan that has been attached to Before Crisis in Japan translates roughly as "Turks vs. Avalanche: the night before the final battle." In this sense, the game is a true prequel to Final Fantasy VII, finally detailing the Turks' successful counterinsurgency operations against the Midgar-based Avalanche group, six years prior to Cloud's association with the rebels. The first game referred to this civil war only tangentially--here we learn that the Turks' victory over Avalanche was instrumental in establishing Shinra's hegemony over Midgar, allowing them an undisputed monopoly on power until the rebel army was resuscitated under a new generation of leaders that would include Cloud, Tifa, and Barret.
At the start of Before Crisis, however, the outcome of this secret war is still very much in doubt. Tseng, a commander in the Turks, dispatches your recruit to report on Avalanche's activities in a seedy part of Midgar characterized by storefronts and narrow alleyways. It turns out that one of the three principal leaders of Avalanche, a bandanna-wearing rebel named Sears, has prepared a strike against Shinra from the sewers. An in-game cinematic sequence shows the Avalanche band silently filtering onto the streets and overcoming several Shinra guards, at which point your character happens upon them. After a hasty consultation with headquarters on your cell phone, a confrontation ensues.
Combat is a simple enterprise in Before Crisis. The screen switches from navigation mode--where you maneuver your character through the streets, following a navigation arrow to your next objective and chatting with your boss on your mobile--to an open arena, where everyone draws their weapons and starts fighting. If you are battling with ranged weapons, the idea is to get the enemy in your line of fire while dodging his or her shots. Melee combat requires a little more cunning, because you must avoid the enemy's shots to get in close proximity. However, once you're in close, you can rapidly pound your opponent with your baton until he or she drops, never giving him or her a chance to answer. In either case, using your standard attack is a matter of moving around and pressing the action button at the right time. Square Enix has even added a convenient automaneuver feature to facilitate mobile combat--if you hold down the action key, your character will lock on to the nearest enemy, follow him or her around, and attack, always maintaining the correct angle to score a hit.
Fighting standard enemies one-on-one isn't particularly challenging, but they usually come at you in twos and threes, making their attacks much more difficult to avoid. It is in these situations that you must resort to using your materia. Offensive spells are much more powerful than regular attacks--so a typical shotgun blast may hit for 15 HP, while a fire or lightning spell will take off 60 HP--and, more importantly, most of them are "area-effect" abilities that will strike multiple targets. To get maximum benefit out of your magic, you have to run circles around your opponents, carefully maneuvering them into range so you can nail them with a spell. It's vital to conserve your magic, as there doesn't seem to be any way to regain magic points during the course of a mission at this point. Square Enix plans to increase the possible number of color combinations so that the most powerful magic will require complex, multihued mixtures. There are also tentative plans to enable materia trading over the network, although these features haven't yet been discussed in any detail.
Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII is seeded with substantial RPG elements to foster extended play. Your characters will gain levels as they become more experienced, increasing their ability scores and making them much more effective in combat. For example, gaining a single level will increase the damage dealt by a baton blow from 20 to 25. In addition, the game is very liberal in its use of dialogue. It seems like you can't enter a fight or move to a new area without the game cutting away to cover the goings-on at Turk headquarters or a terse conversation between your character and a rebel leader. Most of this dialogue is scripted in the early going (and you are free to skip through it using the right soft key), but on later levels, including one that is clearly recognizable as Junon, you'll have a chance to speak freely to civilians to gather intel on Avalanche. Even though the gameplay is mission-based, you'll be able to return to levels you've previously completed to level your character up. The overall effect of these features is to make Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII feel like a legitimate entry in the Final Fantasy pantheon rather than a shoddy spin-off.
The game's strong audiovisual components bolster this impression. Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII is a treat graphically, thanks in part to the FOMA i900 series' expansive QVGA screen, the acuity of which is largely beyond the range of the Western mobile experience. The backgrounds are fantastically detailed, down to the cobblestones on the streets of Midgar. Spells and other special effects produce impressively clear gradients of red, orange, and yellow. The character models are large, and they have more frames of animation than you might expect from a mobile game. Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII's sound is among the best we've heard in a mobile game. The game's driving industrial beats, screaming guitars, and sharp sound effects lend themselves to the effect of playing a console game in miniature. On the other side of the coin, there is a heavy price to pay for all of Before Crisis' finery. Most seriously, the game is plagued by long loading times, sometimes clocking in at 90 seconds between levels. These loads aren't particularly smooth, either. In fact, our handset crashed fairly routinely during the process, although this was likely due to the fact that we were running the game on Square Enix's brand-new server. The game runs quite smoothly for a downloadable Java application, but its frame rate may disappoint console gamers who are used to lifelike FMV sequences and fluid combat animations. Finally, we noticed that the game drained the 900iV's battery at a very rapid clip. None of these deficiencies are particularly surprising, especially given the amount of envelope-pushing Square Enix is attempting in this game. Nevertheless, we hope that the developer will continue to optimize the experience.
In all, Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII seems as if it will deliver a gaming experience worth the tremendous amount of hype, as well as the yen that millions of Japanese gamers will spend to play it. Square Enix's strategy of transition to "polymorphic" content, which many in the games industry have derided as a fool's errand, is appearing more justified than ever, given the level of polish it's managed to apply to Before Crisis--and the increasingly lethargic performance of the Japanese console gaming market. It's entirely possible that the game will be an instant hit in Japan and that it will generate tons of revenue for both Square Enix and NTT DoCoMo via subscription pricing and data-transfer fees.
Now that we've built up your hopes, we must deliver the inevitable letdown: This game will not see the light of day outside of Japan for at least another year, if ever. Disappointing though it may be, we must acknowledge that Square Enix is probably doing the right thing by withholding this type of content from the world market at present. Until we achieve a level of technical savvy (and broad market penetration) consonant with that of NTT DoCoMo, any effort on Square Enix's part to sell new mobile Final Fantasy games to the West would be futile. We've seen firsthand that Before Crisis strains even the mighty NTT DoCoMo's resources--and this is the same operator that pioneered mobile data services way back in the 1990s. Simply put, you wouldn't want to play a game like Before Crisis on a typical Verizon or Cingular handset, and we can't imagine that Square Enix would want you to either. It appears that Before Crisis' main draw will be its completion of Final Fantasy VII's backstory, which will spread through the Internet at the speed of blog whether we have a chance to play through it or not--and with any luck, Advent Children and Final Fantasy XII will sate our hunger until the cellular gap closes. For more updates, be sure to check GameSpot's coverage of the Tokyo Game Show 2004.