Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Impressions

We check out Final Fantasy's return to Nintendo.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles marks the return of Square Enix to a Nintendo platform following SquareSoft's shift to the PlayStation with Final Fantasy VII. The game is a joint effort by The Game Designers Studio and Square Enix, and it is a departure from Square Enix's recent console offerings. The action RPG will offer multiplayer support for up to four players and feature connectivity with the Game Boy Advance. We checked out the E3 demo to get a feel for what to expect from the game.

The demo offered three levels--Tida Village, River Bell Path, and Veo Luce Sluice--to play through with three other players. The Game Boy Advance connectivity feature lets the handheld system replace the standard GameCube controller when connected to the GameCube via the link cable. Besides replacing the standard controller as a means to control your character, the GBAs give players access to different information about their quest on the screen. For example, one player will have a map of the area on his or her screen, while another will have information on your enemies. In addition to accessing the player-specific information using the GBA, you'll be able to view your character's stats, check out your inventory, and select equipment. You'll also be able to customize your character's attacks by equipping different magic attacks. (You'll gain new spells by collecting magicite, which should be familiar to fans of Final Fantasy.) While you're tending to such matters, you'll see a GBA icon appear by your character's portrait on the television, alerting your companions to the fact that you're accessing information on the GBA. While this occurs, your character is controlled by the AI and sticks close to your party. This is especially important due to an interesting, and potentially dangerous, twist to the gameplay: The areas in the game you'll explore are overrun with poisonous mist that will damage you and any member of your party caught in it. To combat the hazard, your group has an artifact that creates a safe area around whoever is physically carrying it. The mist adds an interesting twist to the game and ensures that everyone sticks together during your exploration, basically doing away with the need to split the screen four ways during gameplay. The mechanic also forces the other three players to defend the carrier from danger. However, if the need arises, whoever is carrying the artifact can set it down and join a battle.

The game's combat takes place in real time and is reminiscent of the arcade classic Gauntlet V. The entire party can engage foes individually or take them on as a group by attacking them as soon as they're onscreen. Each character will have physical and magical attacks that you can toggle through on the fly using the shoulder buttons on the GBA or GC controller, depending on what you've equipped on your character. Spells are cast in real time and require a short period to charge, which leaves you vulnerable to attack. Once the spell is charged, a targeting reticle will appear and you'll be able to move around the screen and pick the enemy you want to cast the spell on. While the combat system may appear simplistic, there's actually a bit of strategy to it, as you and your party members will be able to perform combos by combining different types of attacks or staggering their timing. The combos will dole out considerably more punishment than standard attacks, and they appear to be crucial to taking out bosses. While the system ends up working well, it will likely require some players to spend a little time getting adjusted to it. On the plus side, if you're taken out, you can still control a ghostly image of yourself and make faces at your enemies and other party members as you wait to be revived.

The graphics in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles are quite impressive, showcasing some very slick special effects and texture work to create the distinct look of each of the three areas. Each area featured some interesting element, such as the water reflections and rainbow seen in River Bell Path or the weathered look of the rocks and surrounding area of Tida Village. The characters featured distinct designs that reflected their Final Fantasy roots without being too derivative. The models were detailed and animated well, especially during battle. The bosses we saw also featured little graphical touches that gave them a very polished look. For example, the crab boss we fought featured a reflective shell that had some specular highlights, while a stone robot had ornate carvings on its body. The spell effects in the game were suitably impressive, although they've been scaled back a bit to better suit the combat system's faster pace. You'll find the standard Final Fantasy assortment of effects for cure and thunder spells, as well as slightly flashier variations for their charged-up incarnations. The graphics engine is also showcased in the real-time cutscenes that move the narrative forward and bring the camera in close to the action.

The game's audio is still coming together and mainly consisted of a score and some assorted sound effects during combat. You'll hear the classic Final Fantasy menu and spellcasting sounds as you go about your business, and the game's score frames the action with an appropriate mix of understated and broad pieces of music.

From what we've seen so far, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles offers an experience that is very different from that of a traditional Final Fantasy game. The game is best categorized as an action RPG, given the speed of its gameplay and basic combat system. The GBA connectivity is an interesting feature that certainly encourages cooperative play among the group of people playing together, although it's a bit more basic than we expected. Still, the game has a solid feel and does offer a pretty engaging experience that should please GameCube owners aching for a Square Enix game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is currently slated to ship later this year for the GameCube.

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