Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII achieves a striking balance of old and new, and juggles fan service with pure role-playing satisfaction. It's striking how these elements have been shaped into such an appealing and emotionally affecting prequel. There are some new characters and plenty of fan favorites too, such as Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith. However, the characters you're most likely to empathize with are unlikely ones, including protagonist Zack, and Sephiroth, who is complex, troubled, and even sometimes likable. The way their personal stories weave in and out of each other--and set the stage for the events in Final Fantasy VII--makes Crisis Core not just the finest role-playing experience available on the PSP, but also one of the best Japanese RPGs in years.
Zack isn't new to the franchise, but he was a mere flashback in Final Fantasy VII, which may not make him seem like the best choice of leading man for a prequel to one of the best RPGs ever created. Yet he's as interesting as any Square Enix star, and transcends the usual spiky-haired heroism and teenage angst with an uncommon maturity that develops as the game continues. Revealing almost any plot point could be a spoiler; the Gaia world is rich with mythology and complex character motivation. What's important is how the characters interact, change, and grow. Scenes between Zack and Cloud are both effortless and poignant, and stem directly out of Zack's most impressive character traits: trust and loyalty. As each plot thread twists together and the game reaches its inevitable conclusion, your heart will soften and you may shed a few tears. Crisis Core tells a memorable and exciting tale, but more importantly, it makes you care about its characters, even if you are new to the lore. The game's final scenes are amazing and heartfelt, and one sequence in particular that brilliantly mingles gameplay with narrative is one of the most incredible and moving moments in role-playing history.
The game's stunning cutscenes have an immeasurable effect on the emotionally resonant story. There is a harmonious mix of prerendered cinematics and in-engine cutscenes, and both were created with precision. Dramatic camera angles frame Crisis Core's greatest moments, from earth-shaking soliloquies to the quiet pauses Zack and Aerith share. There is a standout scene in which Sephiroth comes into deep focus using a cinematography technique familiar to Alfred Hitchcock fans. This kind of range is rare in cutscenes, even in RPGs, yet it's never forced or overdone here. The quality is further enhanced by incredible voice acting. Past Final Fantasies have sometimes suffered from awkward English voice-overs, but each actor here delivers the right degree of emotion at the right time, which in turn gives weight to the story. As Zack matures, you can hear the newfound confidence replace his adolescent arrogance; when Angeal tells Zack that he's just a little more important than his sword, you can hear a subtle grin in his deep, commanding baritone.
If you enjoyed Final Fantasy VII, this kind of attention to detail won't come as a surprise. However, you may be startled at how the combat works. Crisis Core is an action RPG. Granted, it does have many of the same elements as FFVII: materia, limit breaks, and so on. However, it plays nothing like its inspiration, which may irritate some fans. This doesn't make it better or worse, but it does make it different, and once you get used to it, it's a lot of fun. Battles are almost exclusively random, with the exception of those that end your side missions (more on those later). When combat begins, you are limited to a contained area, but you can move freely within it. To target an enemy, you simply face in its direction, and to attack, you hit X. It's not quite real-time, but rather a series of quick turns that give you a smidgen of time in-between to select a different spell or attack. You can switch among different options and spells on the fly using the shoulder buttons. If you're familiar with the Tales series (Tales of the Abyss, and so on), you'll have a rough idea of how the combat works in Crisis Core.
You can also guard and evade oncoming attacks, though doing so spends action points. A number of special attacks, such as assault twister, also use action points. Other attacks, like spells, use up magic points. To perform them, you need to possess and equip the corresponding materia. Zack can't use an unlimited number of materia in battle; he's limited to a certain number at a time, so you'll want to choose wisely before you head into late-game combat, especially if you know a boss fight is imminent. You can also fuse materia together to make new spells or enhanced attacks, such as the impressive Thundara Blade. There are times when you'll need to take advantage of your materia and dodge oncoming attacks. Nevertheless, for the first half of the game, Crisis Core is remarkably easy, and a lot of battles come down to mashing on the X button. There is no shortage of potions and gil (the series' currency), either, and given that you can purchase items at any save point, there's no reason not to be fully stocked.
The combat is fun, and it will get Final Fantasy fans talking. But no mechanical element is bound to get more attention than the Digital Mind Wave, or DMW. The DMW is a slot reel that holds the key to two important facets of Crisis Core's gameplay: leveling up, and powerful attacks called limit breaks. The reel contains six slots: three that contain character portraits, and three that contain numerical digits. As you fight foes, you earn soldier points, which in turn function as currency that keeps the DMW in the top left corner spinning. When the left and right character portraits match, you enter a separate limit-verge screen where you wait for the digit slots and the center character slot to stop spinning. If you match all three portrait slots, you unleash a limit break, which is accompanied by a dramatic cinematic. If you match numerals, you may level up an equipped materia or Zack himself. The DMW also controls some status changes, such as temporary invincibility, though they aren't signaled by a change to the limit-verge screen.
This all sounds very confusing, and it may take you some time to figure out exactly what's going on. Essentially, leveling and limit breaks are left to the roll of the dice (or in this case, the spinning of the reel). The idea of random leveling and special attacks may make you squirm, and on paper, it sounds like a bad idea. In practice, it works out far better than you'd think. Just like when you pull the lever of a real slot machine, it's exciting and intriguing to see if you make a match. You can't skip past the limit verge screen, but if you could, you'd be missing the point (and be warned that you can't skip past cutscenes, though you can skip out of the long summoning animations and the flashbacks that occasionally crop up during limit verges). Your results are not completely random because your character's heightened emotions make it likelier that the DMW will spin up a positive result, such as after a phone call with Aerith. However, you may go a while without leveling up, only to level up multiple times in a short period of time. Sure, it's a strange system, and it will make your head spin at first. But it will become second nature, and in the end, it works. The downside is that it takes control of the game's most impressive attacks out of the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys having the game do the grunt work for them, but the system is original and streamlined, and likely to grow on you.
Outside of the main story, there are plenty of side missions to keep you occupied. Most of them boil down to entering an area, killing a bunch of creatures, and earning your reward. It's simple, sure, but incredibly addicting, perfect for players on the go, and you may find yourself losing hour after hour to mission after mission. This is Crisis Core's grinding mechanic, but the combat is entertaining enough (and the DMW mesmerizing enough) to keep you involved. Some of the missions also weave in cameos from other characters, such as a charming set of missions centered on an impish Yuffie. Yet the action and limited customization goes only so far, and it seems that Square Enix understood that. Crisis Core is on the short side, clocking in at around 20 hours if you do a reasonable number of side missions, though you could add another 10 if you want to see every secret the game is hiding--and there are some good ones that will get fans talking. That may make the game feel less grand than previous entries, but in actuality, the length feels just right and keeps the action from wearing out its welcome.
You'll marvel at Crisis Core's visual and sonic beauty. Environments were designed with painstaking detail, from the slums of Midgar to the crystalline vistas of an underground lake. Character design is equally terrific, from Genesis' solemn sneer to Zack's gleaming blue eyes. Monsters look great too, and the imposing and astonishing bosses are particularly awesome to behold. The game sounds as good as it looks, starting with the terrific musical score, which includes both grinding rock tracks and haunting orchestral interludes. There are moments in which the action is undercut not with the same heart-pumping guitars we've heard before, but with softer tunes. These battles feel even more important because the music connects them so well with the emotional scenes that came before. Additionally, familiar sound effects have been updated and new ones added to make for combat that sounds as tremendous as it looks.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a game you must play if you own a PSP, if you like RPGs, or if you want to get lost in a gripping story. Like most Final Fantasy games that came before it, it has its quirks. However, this is one of those cases where you should embrace them for their originality and charm because they add something uniquely compelling to the game. The only truly disappointing aspect of Crisis Core is reaching the end, because Gaia is a world you want to stay in, populated with extraordinary characters who will move you.