After a decade-long absence, Final Fantasy has returned to a Nintendo console in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. But if you've been playing the revered role-playing game series for a long time, this might not be the return you expected. Crystal Chronicles is a hack-and-slash action RPG that in some ways has more in common with dungeon crawls like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Diablo than it does with its own namesake. It's a decidedly Japanese-flavored take on this style of gaming that contains some truly bizarre elements and one of the most unique (and slightly off-putting) multiplayer implementations we've ever seen. It's not for everyone--but, in the end, Crystal Chronicles can be a tremendously entertaining multiplayer game for those willing to work together to overcome some obstacles both in the game itself and in its design.
Crystal Chronicles' story is novel but also very thin, and ultimately it serves more than anything as an impetus to get you traipsing and fighting through the game's fanciful world. A poisonous miasma covers all the land, kept at bay only by large, magical crystals that repel the murk. Each town has one of these giant crystals at its center that protects its people, but here's the catch: The crystals' protective effect fades after one year and must be recharged with myrrh taken from myrrh trees. Year after year, caravans roam the world collecting myrrh to keep their hometowns safe just a little bit longer. You'll play the part of a valiant hero (whose name, tribe, and gender you can select) who's saving his or her village by questing for the myrrh trees, one of which is conveniently located at the end of each of the game's many and sundry action levels. Once you've collected enough myrrh to replenish your crystal's power, you'll return home to celebrate, visit your family, and prepare to start another year's journey. That's pretty much it for the plot--it's a little weird, a tad underdeveloped, and downright nonsensical at times, but at least it's unique.
Most games of this type steer away from character-specific storylines, allowing you to customize your character extensively to your tastes. Even so, Crystal Chronicles' character creation routine may seem a little alien at first. You won't select your character class at the game's beginning; instead, you'll pick which tribe he or she hails from. This choice determines the character's appearance and, more importantly, his or her proficiencies in battle. The Clavats have high ratings for defense and magic; the Lilties are the squat battle tanks of the game with their high strength and fighting prowess; the gangly Yukes excel at casting spells; and the ragtag Selkies can use special attacks more quickly. You'll also select a family profession from jobs like blacksmith, merchant, tailor, and fisherman, and then when you visit your hometown at the end of the year (or any other time, really), you can visit your own family to avail yourself of the services they can render based on the job you picked.
If the only safe havens from the deadly miasma are rooted in the earth of town squares, you may wonder how the caravans can move around the world unhindered. Simple: They can do it thanks to the crystal chalice, a container used for the collecting of myrrh. Apparently myrrh in its raw form has the same miasma-repellant properties as the big crystals, because a circular safe area surrounds your chalice when you're out in the wilderness. In the single-player game, one of those piglike moogles flits around carrying the mystical bucket without any direct interaction required on your part, but in the multiplayer version of the game, there's no moogle, and so one of you (take your pick) has to carry the chalice for the party to remain mobile. This effectively disables one party member as a fighting and spellcasting agent any time the group is moving, although it's a simple and expeditious matter to drop the bucket and rejoin your comrades in battle whenever you run into enemies.
From a mechanical standpoint, the utility of the crystal chalice is obvious: It forces the party to stay together on the same screen. Unfortunately, since this device is so inextricably tied up in the game's story, it couldn't very well be removed from the single-player game. The presence of this multiplayer-specific mechanic can add needless frustration to your solo experience when your moogle gets hung up on background scenery (which, thankfully, happens rarely) or more frequently becomes tired and lags behind, demanding that you carry the infernal bucket for a few minutes. Granted, the game's myrrh-and-miasma setup is interesting, but one has to wonder why the designers couldn't have simply required all four players to stay within the boundaries of the screen. That sure works in other games.
Getting past the sometimes-but-not-always constraining movement limitations, Crystal Chronicles' action is pretty unique for a game of this type and strays a little more toward a Zelda feel than a Dark Alliance one. Your character has an array of typical action RPG abilities: attack, defend, magic, and item. How you use these abilities is a little different, though, since you have to assign them to "command slots" (which start off at a paltry four) and then cycle through them one at a time, using the A button to perform whatever action is currently selected. So it's difficult, if not impossible, to be attacking an enemy, for instance, and then switch to defend quickly enough to dodge an incoming attack. In the single-player mode, it's merely inconvenient to switch to your onscreen menu to swap items and spells in and out of your slots, but in multiplayer it's ruinous when you're beset by multiple enemies and have to switch to your Game Boy Advance to summon up more healing items while your onscreen character gets hacked to bits with no means of self-preservation. Then again, that's what your teammates are for.