MAKUHARI, Japan--The original Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a surprise for a number of reasons. The first was its platform--the GameCube--marked a return to the FF series on a Nintendo console after many years away. Second, the game's multiplayer focus and sometimes curious mechanics had some players scratching their heads. Nonetheless, the game has spawned a sequel: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, set to debut on the Nintendo DS in late August here in Japan. While in Tokyo to attend the 2007 Square Enix Party, we had a chance to try the single and multiplayer modes in Ring of Fates and had a lot of fun with both.
Though we actually started by checking out the four-player wireless multiplayer, it's probably best to start with the solo mode. The game is split up between single-player and multiplayer, though it does seem that you will explore some of the same areas in both modes. The single-player mode begins with a kid who is intent on becoming an adventurer and exploring the world around him. He's got a small sword at his disposal and a female pal who's looking to give him advice in the game's opening tutorial. The two begin running around town, and as you explore with them, you'll periodically run into moogles that will give you the basics on the game's mechanics.
Your basic attacks are executed with the A button. The type of attack you use will depend on your character class in multiplayer (and, presumably, later on in the single-player game), but because our hero is carrying a sword, he simply swings it with each press of the A button. Jumps are carried out with the B button, and you can pick objects, characters, and enemies up with the Y button. Picking up your teammates plays into the multiplayer aspect of the game, but in solo mode, it has its own uses against enemies. Not only can you pick up a foe and hurl him away, you can also hold him above your head and attack him while he's in your grip. You'll even be able to grab a hold of flying enemies that get too close and give them a whack with your sword. But you have to be careful because enemies will be quick to dish out damage if you wait too long and they free themselves.
When moving and battling through the world, most of the action for your character takes place on the upper screen of the DS. The lower screen is reserved for such things as an area map, showing various entrances and exits, as well as stylus access to the attacks of your weapons. Again, depending on your character class, the lower screen will vary according to your special abilities, but more on that in a bit. In addition to your standard attacks, the game will let you pull off special attacks. To do so, you press the right trigger button, thus flip-flopping the screens. From here, you can attack enemies simply by tapping on them with your stylus of finger. These special attacks are usually much more powerful than your standard attacks, and by tapping multiple foes in a row, you can quickly pull off chained attacks.
As you move through the world, you'll encounter various treasure chests, which you can crack open to find money, items, or food that you can use to restore your health. Defeated enemies will also drop things. Our limited Japanese skills meant we couldn't delve too deeply into the menus to see how you can use the various items we collected, but presumably, it will include such things as potions, antidotes, and so on.
While the solo mode in Ring of Fates serves as a nice introduction to the gameplay, the real fun is in the four-player multiplayer we also got to check out. After electing a leader, we picked up a game with three strangers then began to hack, slash, and blast our way through maps that looked similar to the maps in the solo game. Unlike the original Crystal Chronicles on GameCube, there's no need for your characters to all be onscreen at the same time, though it should be noted that you can't leave a map without all players exiting together.
In multiplayer, your character class plays a huge role in how you play the game. There are five character types: warrior, archer, white mage, black mage, and a support class. Each character type has specific roles to play in the adventures. The warrior is your typical barge-in-and-bash close-combat brute; the archer attacks with a bow and arrow at distance, as does the black mage with offensive magic; the white mage is responsible for the health and status of the other members of the party; and the support role is used to keep the magic users filled with magical orbs that power their spells.
During our multiplayer session, we chose to play as a black mage. Dealing magic requires the aforementioned color-coded orbs, with each color referring to a specific type of magic. For example, red orbs power fire spells, while blue orbs are used for ice magic. As you might expect, certain types of magic are better against certain opponents. For example, you can take down a sinister fireball monster with a well-timed blue-orb ice spell. To cast a spell, you first set the type of magic you want to use by tapping on the colored orb you wish to cast. From there, you can press and hold the X button, which will bring up an aiming icon, then release the X button to cast your spell. Or you can hold down the right trigger and cast your magic by tapping on enemies on the screen.
Each time you use an orb, it's taken away from your stash; if you run out of red orbs, you won't be able to cast any fire spells until you collect some more. Orbs do appear as pick-ups in the gameworld (often out of treasure chests), but it's much easier to have a support character on hand to make orbs for you. We didn't get a chance to try out the support role ourselves, but based on a video we watched of the game, support characters will be able to make new magic orbs using a pot that appears on the lower screen of the DS. By stirring the pot with the stylus, you'll eventually get new elemental orbs, which you can then drop into the gameworld for your mages to retrieve.
Other character classes in the game will have their own special abilities. Warriors will be able to use special attacks to plow through multiple enemies quickly, while an archer will have special arrows that will do much more damage than their typical attacks.
The ability to pick up other characters will have consequences in multiplayer. For example, you can toss folks across chasms or hop on a teammate's shoulders to access spots you couldn't normally reach. You can even stack all four characters on top of one another to reach very high spots. That sense of teamwork seems to play into all aspects of Ring of Fates' multiplayer. Whether you're standing on your teammate's shoulders or moving multiple stones in different patterns to access new areas, you'll always be working together. As the mage of our group during our demo, we were tasked with using blue magic to engage a magical bridge by pressing blue orb magic, flipping the screens with the right trigger, and drawing a line down the touch screen, which gave the entire team access to a new area of the map. Later on in the adventure, we had to light all the candles in a room with our fire spells to open a gate. Presumably, a party without a black mage in tow would be able to find another solution to the problems the game throws at you. There doesn't seem to be any reason why a team made up strictly of warriors can't go out there and bash their way to success.
Graphically, the game is quite reminiscent of the original Crystal Chronicles game, with short characters that are distinctly childlike in appearance and a colorful world to explore. Even the monsters weren't that menacing; it's tough to be intimidated when being attacked by what amounts to a squirrel. The only exception was a big robotic insect boss, which was not as tough as it looked.
In all, Ring of Fates really came alive for us during the all-too-short multiplayer experience, which was consistently fast-paced and engaging. The possibilities for different character combinations in parties means the game could be different each time you play it. The game is due for release in August in Japan and at an as-yet-unannounced date in the US.