MAKUHARI, Japan--Proving the old adage that good things come to those who wait, the playable version of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on hand at the Square Enix Party in Japan offered an impressive taste of what to expect from the promising PSP game. Though it's been a long time coming, the game was originally announced in 2004, and this Final Fantasy VII prequel seems to be poised to deliver on the trailers and talk of the past three years.
If you're a little hazy on where Crisis Core fits into the FFVII family of games, here's a quick primer. The game is part of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project that's resulted in spin-offs from the classic Square role-playing game. You play as Zack Fair, a young recruit working for Soldier, the elite private military of the Shinra Corporation seen in FFVII. The game sends you on an adventure that fills in Zack's backstory and sheds light on events and characters from FFVII.
The playable demo at the party featured two named bits to try, Zack vs. Genesis and The One That Goes Beyond Bahamut. While both offered a good sampling of what to expect form the game, each demo seemed to focus on a specific element. The Zack vs. Genesis level skewed more toward the game's storytelling, although, as the title implies, it did feature a battle with Genesis. The One That Goes Beyond Bahamut demo showed off how you'll get between different areas, namely a highway system that we ran along, and focused more on combat.
The storytelling we've seen in the game so far sticks closely to the Square Enix template of in-game cinematics, conversations during gameplay, and CG movies. Combat, on the other hand, has seen some significant changes. The game plays out in your standard third-person view, offering you limited control over the camera with the shoulder buttons, which lets you swing it right or left when in the field. When exploring your surroundings, you can call an area map up by hitting the square button to help get your bearings.
As you make your way around, you'll go into random battles with enemies that appear. Rather than play out via turn-based battles, Crisis Core's battles are played out in real time. A trio of meters comes up on the lower left-hand side of the screen, and an action bar shows up on the lower right. The meters show your HP, MP, and "AP." Though your life and magic points are fairly self explanatory, the AP bar seems to be tied to Zack's defensive actions. Guarding or performing rolling dodges to avoid being hit lower the bar, which slowly refills when not in use. The action bar in the lower right-hand corner of the screen features several different icons you can toggle between by using the shoulder buttons. The first icon is your basic sword attack while the others in the row appear to be materia, which is used to perform heals on your self or boost magic attacks such as fire and lighting. One bit of randomness to the proceedings is a small three-character slot. From what we can gather, the slots are constantly cycling and will randomly shift over to a screen-filling interface that requires you to stop them at the right time. Specific combos of character portraits in the slots yield power-ups and special attacks.
The visuals in the game, while still incomplete, veer from impressive to stunning, setting a new bar for visual fidelity on the PSP. The playable demo and trailers we saw in the theater showcased the amazing design and graphics engine, which freshens the familiar locales from FFVII with an Advent Children flavor, and it works out very well. The character models get the same treatment and, coupled with the robust graphics engine, look great. Most significantly, the facial animation during the real-time cutscenes is extremely fluid. The visuals are enhanced by some cool sleights of hand, such as when Bahamut decides to put the hurt on you during your battle with him and unleashes a world-shattering attack that's shown through a slick transition from gameplay to CG. There are some minor inconsistencies here and there in terms of textures, performance, and aliasing, but considering the game isn't done, we're not too hung up on them.
The audio is coming along as nicely as the visuals, with a robust score that includes familiar tunes from FFVII as well as new compositions. What we heard sounds like a reliable mix of orchestral music and rock music that all fit the FF mold. Voice acting, albeit in Japanese, was implemented and sounded suitably convincing.
Based on what we played and saw, Crisis Core looks to be delivering on the promise of the past few years. The game's visuals are impressive, both in design and tech, raising the bar for what's possible on the PSP hardware. As far as gameplay goes, Crisis Core is doing some reworking of the familiar Square battle system, and we like it on the whole, though we can take or leave the whole slot-machine thing. The story may prove to be a little confusing to anyone without a working knowledge of FFVII, but we expect it should still be possible to get into the game regardless. As far as fans go, it's hard not to get a kick out of seeing old faces from FFVII, especially a pre-"crazy times" Sephiroth. Crisis Core is slated to ship this fall in Japan. Look for more on the game in the coming months.