While diehard fans keep waiting for Square Enix to unleash the license-to-print-money otherwise known as the long-rumored Final Fantasy VII remake, they can at least tide themselves over with the upcoming PSP spin-off prequel, Crisis Core. Square has been milking FFVII nostalgia for years with lighter fare like Japan-only mobile games, but based on our time with an early version of Crisis Core, we can confidently say this is the most complex and lavishly produced of all the games based on the bafflingly popular PlayStation original that we've seen yet.
That's not to say it's necessarily very similar to its predecessor, at least in gameplay terms. Crisis Core drops you in the role of Zack Fair, the elite SOLDIER operative who was only glimpsed in flashback in the original Final Fantasy VII. Like all members of SOLDIER, Zack is a special agent who cleans up after the nefarious Shin-Ra corporation, the organization that owns FFVII's central city of Midgar, and the one which is quietly sucking dry the life force of the planet. A few hours into the storyline, we haven't quite figured out where things are going yet. So far, we've been chasing after a rogue SOLDIER named Genesis alongside our mentor, a hard but noble agent named Angeal who's showing plucky young Zack the ropes. Based on what we know about Shin-Ra from Final Fantasy VII, we can't really blame Genesis for going against the grain, but we'll see where the story goes from here.
Crisis Core wastes no time pulling at your nostalgic heartstrings. Familiar characters like effete goth heartthrob Sephiroth, spunky little ninja-in-training Yuffie, and austere Tseng of the Turks have gotten plenty of play so far, and we expect a lot more to show up throughout the game. The game's CG-animated intro movie is highly reminiscent of the original game's opening sequence (and is also of startlingly high quality, as is all of the CG we've seen so far). Even the sound effects that accompany menu selections and such are spot-on re-creations of those in FFVII. Fans will surely be pleased.
The game follows a linear mission structure that has you hanging out at Shin-Ra HQ, receiving orders, heading out into the field to carry out those orders, and ending up back home awaiting your next assignment again. There's no overworld that we've seen yet, but you can at least venture out into Midgar's underbelly between missions, though we haven't found much to do there yet, since it's sparsely populated. We've already seen one location, Wutai, that we remember from the original game, as well as a couple of new towns that have seemingly been created just for this game.
So far, the combat system has been the most surprising aspect of Crisis Core to us, since it blends action and more traditional role-playing-style turn-based combat into a fast-paced whole. You'll control Zack manually, running around and dodging enemy attacks, But you'll issue standard attack, magic, and item commands from a command bar at the bottom that you cycle through with the shoulder buttons. So if you want to hit an enemy with your sword, you'll have to target them (the game automatically targets the enemy in Zack's line of sight) and select the attack command while you're running around.
There's also a bizarre slot machine of sorts called the DMW that works during battles, though even in this English build, we haven't quite made sense of it yet. The DMW will kick in seemingly at random during battles, at which point it will take over the screen and scroll three columns of characters' faces. Depending on the face matches and the numbers attached, you could become briefly invulnerable or be able to use magic without expending MP, or you may be able to use a flashy animated special attack that sees Zack flying all over the screen and slashing everything to ribbons. As you meet new characters and summoned monsters, their faces will be added to the DMW, giving you more special attacks that may be randomly selected.
You've also got a constrained version of FFVII's materia system here, which lets you equip new materia in slots that will add new physical attack abilities, magic spells, and summons to your arsenal. However, the RPG-style character customization is more limited than you'd expect. In addition to four materia slots, you've only got two accessory slots into which you can equip armbands and the like, which will give specific bonuses like an extra 10 percent to your hit points. But there's no new armor or weapons to collect that we've seen so far, which certainly detracts from the gear-lust factor that drives many RPG players.
Crisis Core is very possibly the best-looking game we've seen on the PSP so far, not just due to its beautiful CG movies. The in-game cutscenes are surprisingly well animated--better than we've seen in a lot of console games--and the character models here exhibit a nice level of detail (though the backgrounds are pretty sparse). We've been generally pleased with the voice acting too, though Zack's such an extreme dude we keep waiting for him to slam a Dew before leaping into his next mission.
The game is less than a month away from US release now, so Final Fantasy VII fans can go ahead and start acting all giddy like they're so wont to do. If you're unfamiliar with that seminal 3D RPG, you may find a much higher barrier to entry--but wait for our full review around the time of release for a full summation of Crisis Core's quality.