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.
Much ballyhoo has been made about Crystal Chronicles' rather unique multiplayer setup, which (as you may have heard) requires all players to use a Game Boy Advance and link cable to play the game. That's right--you cannot play this game's multiplayer mode without every player owning and using a game system other than the one the game is running on. The process of putting together a multiplayer game of Crystal Chronicles sounds a little like a credit card commercial. One GameCube: $99. One copy of the game: $50. Four Game Boy Advances with four link cables: $320 (or $440, for GBA SPs). The utter calamity that results from getting all the people and hardware required to play this game together in one room: Priceless. Of course you're free to play through the entire thing by yourself, and will likely have a decent enough time doing it, but this sort of game is really made to be played cooperatively with friends--not to mention there's a raft of puzzles and areas you simply can't access on your own.
The saving grace of this plot-to-sell-GBAs-cum-multiplayer-"feature" is that Crystal Chronicles is a ton of fun to play with your friends. Surprisingly, it can also be harder this way. There are some cool things you can do with multiple people that aren't quite as interesting by yourself. Here's an example: In the single-player game, you can fuse two spells together to make new ones by putting them in adjacent command slots. For instance, fire and life become holy, while fire and blizzard (inexplicably) become gravity. In the multiplayer game, you can't combine your own spells; you have to link up your spellcasting with other players and cast simultaneously to get these effects. Three characters that cast cure at the same time can instead produce curaga, a more-powerful version that heals everyone on the screen. The multiplayer game also breeds an interesting sort of selfless camaraderie, as you'll happily drop a few hundred gil or bequeath a rare item to a teammate if it means he or she can build a better weapon that will, ultimately, benefit the group. All for one and one for all, right? Call it one part action RPG, one part social experiment.
So what's the point of using the GBA as your game controller? Simply put, it's meant to streamline the experience for all involved. It's not that you can do anything new on your GBA that you can't do onscreen in the single-player game; you just have to do everything old on the small screen instead. All of the multiplayer mucking around in menus, whether it's filling your command slots, buying items at a shop, or sending letters through your friendly neighborhood mailmoogle, is confined to the GBA screen, leaving the other players free to run around the screen unencumbered by your own rude textual intrusions. Do other action RPGs work without any such device? Yes. Could Crystal Chronicles have been designed to work without any GBA involvement at all? Most likely. But the way you use your handheld screen to interact with the big one is both novel and useful without really feeling gimmicky. For instance, players are randomly assigned different parts of the map when you're adventuring--one will have the geography, while another has dots to mark treasure, and a third can see only the location of nearby enemies. This kind of thing might be an artificially imposed limitation, but it does foster teamwork in a way that most cooperative games don't.
The increased difficulty of the multiplayer owes mostly to clumsy bucket operations. When you're engaged in a frantic boss fight and your designated bucket carrier is running one direction while the rest of your team runs the other, things can go sour real fast. So playing Crystal Chronicles with friends becomes quite a vocal experience as you yell for the bucket carrier to come back or count out loud to three as you time your spellcasting. All of this means the game has an extremely high learning curve compared to most multiplayer games--it's not pick-up-and-play by any means, if you're involving people who've never tried it. But once everyone in the game has a solid feel for the way things work, you'll feel a pretty amazing sense of teamwork when you manage to work together to beat a tough boss or work your way through some insidious puzzles.
The flow of Crystal Chronicles proceeds about the same way whether you're questing solo or with friends, as you move on a world map from level to level, occasionally stopping at towns to talk to people, buy supplies, and forge new weapons and armor with component materials you've picked up. Occasionally, you'll run into other caravans or wandering characters between areas and have brief dramatic interludes that sometimes yield a new item or information about an upcoming stage. The action levels themselves are pretty formulaic: Fight some enemies, throw a few switches, fight some more enemies, kill the boss, collect myrrh. Wash, rinse, repeat, maybe, but it's a lot of fun every single time--you're always eager to best the level's puzzles and monsters and see what the next area has in store.
There are a couple more points about the gameplay that bear description since they're perhaps not what you're expecting from an action RPG. First of all, your character doesn't level up in the typical way--you can kill slimes until you're blue in the face, but your character won't get any stronger. Instead, you'll pick up artifacts during a level that contain various upgrade properties, and then at the end of the level you're allowed to pick only one of them. These items carry upgrades like "strength +2" or "gain another command slot," so you'll be able to slowly power up your character as you play through the game. In the multiplayer version, players are rated based on various performance criteria, and this rating determines who gets first choice of the items. Though you can finish all of the game's action levels and move on to the final dungeon in five game years, you're free to keep playing the existing levels (whose myrrh trees replenish yearly) repeatedly to power up your character and look for better items.
Obviously there's an incredible amount of gameplay material in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, but even on a superficial level the game is just splendid to look at. It may not have the jump-out-and-caress-your-eyeballs beauty of The Wind Waker, but spend enough time with Crystal Chronicles and you'll see that its world has a subtle beauty and cohesion of design that not many games can equal. The environments are the real star of the visuals--they contain an evocative use of color, lots of whiz-bang graphical effects that are used tastefully, and a load of really nicely rendered set pieces that are there just because. It all adds up to create one of the most whimsically realized gameworlds we've seen in some time. The character design is certainly a polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing since it goes to a very overstated extreme, with lots of dandy-haired fops and squat little child-warriors running around, but at least it should be familiar to anyone who's played Final Fantasies IX and XI. Whatever you think of the game's aesthetics, you'll have to admit that it at least moves well, with really expressive animations, a consistently smooth frame rate, and a camera that works surprisingly well given that you can't control it at all.
Crystal Chronicles' sound design and music are right in line with its visual aesthetics, which is to say they're a little eccentric but fit right in with the tone of the game. There's almost no voice acting to speak of, except for a female voice that cryptically introduces each new area, but this voice and the sound effects overall are quite nicely done. The game's music is of a decidedly cheerful lilt, and it's nicely composed and never grating, but if you can see yourself going crazy at the renaissance faire, it may start to bug you after several hours. Still, it's all a matter of taste--again, all of the presentation is top notch and well suited to the game.
So if you're into action RPGs and you like cooperative multiplayer games, you must be asking if you should get this game. Well, that really becomes a question of resources. If you have two, or better yet three, friends with the requisite hardware and the interest and will to learn how the game works, then yes, Crystal Chronicles will definitely tickle your fancy. But if you only have a GameCube and none of the other items, the proposition gets seriously expensive, and we'd like to think that no game should require you to make literally hundreds of dollars of extra investment to reap its full benefit (certain strange experiments notwithstanding). The extra requirements seem a little odd, in fact, since the GameCube with its four controller ports has long positioned itself as the multiplayer system of choice with games like Mario Kart and Smash Bros. On the plus side, Game Boy Advance owners are more common than GameCube owners, and there's plenty of overlap between the two markets, so if you're serious about games, you'll probably know some people who already own a GBA and are as eager to join the adventure as you are.
Though it's got a couple of irritating quirks--namely the weird bucket mechanics and absurd hardware requirements--Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles really is a fun action RPG with its own style and a fair amount of replay value. It doesn't exactly fit into the Final Fantasy series proper, aside from the involvement of crystals and a few familiar monsters and magic spells, but it's good enough to stand on its own without any famous franchise names attached to it. Crystal Chronicles plays specifically to those who will appreciate it, and it serves as a fitting return for Square to the Nintendo partnership that first brought the company to fame so long ago.