Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Ring of Fates Hands-On

The Crystal Chronicles are coming to the DS. We check out the single-player action in this Square Enix role-playing game.

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Twins separate from their parents, learn of the mysterious power that resides within them, and go on to use that power to defeat evil--maybe even save the world. True to the epic nature of the long-running Final Fantasy series, Square Enix's upcoming Nintendo DS entry in the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series--dubbed Ring of Fates--hits all of the role-playing game notes you'd expect from its story: betrayal, heroism, family loyalty, and many more. The undercurrent beneath all of the drama's plot are some fun game mechanics that help keep the game moving from one big story reveal to the next.

Whether playing the single player game or four-player multiplayer, the action is always at the forefront in Ring of Fates.
Whether playing the single player game or four-player multiplayer, the action is always at the forefront in Ring of Fates.

Right off the bat, we should mention that for this preview, we were only able to play Ring of Fates solo. As you might recall, we got a brief taste of the four-person multiplayer action in our previous look at the game from last year's 2007 Square Enix Festival in Japan. While we hoped to spend some more time battling monsters with our officemates, a single preview cartridge of the game meant we had to focus our time on the game's story mode.

The story in Ring of Fates focuses on twins--Yuri and Chelinka--who, when we first encounter them, are very young children living with their father in a small village. The children are marveling at their father's strength as he chops wood in front of their house. During this display, Yuri attempts to pick up the hatchet but doesn't have much luck. Then, the father asks Yuri to attempt lifting the hatchet with his sister and, mysteriously, they are both able to lift the axe. Soon, Yuri is able to lift the axe by himself and swing it as a weapon. It quickly becomes clear that there is more to this pair than meets the eye.

With his makeshift weapon in tact, Yuri, with Chelinka in tow, heads to the local caves to practice his moves on whatever critters are unlucky enough to be in the area. The caves act as a gentle introduction to the combat controls in the game, as well as a preview of the sort of dungeon exploration and jumping puzzles that seem to make up a large part of Ring of Fates' early gameplay.

With sword in hand, Yuri's basic combat moves are handled with the A button. You can chain together a few attacks in a row in the beginning, and that number will grow as Yuri levels up. You can also perform leaping attacks by pressing B to jump and A to strike. If you hold down the A button in midair, Yuri will do a bashing attack on an opponent underneath him, which will cause more damage.

 Only in a game can kids kick this much butt in combat.
Only in a game can kids kick this much butt in combat.

Even in this early mission, you get a feel for the different types of enemies that you'll encounter in Ring of Fates. Your typical monster won't put up much of a fight and will go down with a few swipes of the sword; more troubling are the flying enemies that are not only tough to hit but will also drop spells. You quickly learn to keep moving when in combat, if only to avoid these kinds of attacks. A targeting ring that indicates where the spell is aimed will help you avoid trouble here. A handy ability when fighting flying foes is jumping up and then grabbing onto them (by pressing the Y button); while hanging on to an enemy, you can cause damage until the monster kicks you off. You can also pick up ground animals and toss them against a wall.

Beyond fighting enemies, the other aspect of Ring of Fates' gameplay is the copious amounts of puzzles that are strewn throughout the level. Some of these are simple--such as gates that require a key or magicite orbs (more about those in a bit) that you have to open. Some of the puzzles require you to find items in other areas and then double back to access a new area. Still, others will require a bit more interaction with the environment--such as moving blocks or using magic to open up new areas to explore.

Yuri's explorations eventually land him and Chelinka in a stark cave that holds only a mysterious golden coffin. Yuri, as happy-go-lucky as any RPG hero, happily begins cheering when the entire room starts shaking and--surprise!--a nasty-looking boss monster appears from the coffin. By focusing Yuri's attacks on a bright red crystal embedded in the monster's chest, we were able to take him down. Immediately afterward, Yuri and Chelinka encountered a mysterious-looking young girl who may or may not have been a ghost.

It's not always hacking and slashing; magic plays a big role in Ring of Fates' gameplay.
It's not always hacking and slashing; magic plays a big role in Ring of Fates' gameplay.

Granted, this basic combat tutorial is a breeze to get through and the puzzles themselves aren't too tough either. Still, the learning in Ring of Fates continues into the game's magic system. Remember the magicite orbs we mentioned earlier? Those act as "ammunition" for your character's magical abilities, and in addition to picking up magicite orbs off of defeated enemies, you can pick them up in town shops (along with healing potions and ethers). All of these items are saved in "pockets," which are indicated on the lower screen. You can only have so many magicite orbs at one time, though you can purchase additional pockets that will allow you to hold more items.

Magicite orbs come in a variety of "flavors," such as fire, blizzard, thunder, cure, raise, and clear. As you've probably guessed, the type of spell you cast with each orb depends on its type. Casting a spell takes a couple of steps: First you choose the type of orb you wish to cast by tapping on it on the lower screen. Then, you hold down the X button and move a targeting ring with the D pad to the area you wish to cast the spell. Once you let go of the X button, your spell will cast. Interestingly, if you have other members in your party--such as the robotic birdman Alhanalem who joins you briefly in an early mission--you can stack magical attacks on top of one another by switching between players (by tapping on their icon on the lower screen) and then repeating the spell-casting process. These stacked magical attacks cause considerably more damage when they hit, but because of the time it takes to pull one off (that targeting ring moves just a bit too slow for our taste), it's a risky venture unless your opponent is stationary.

Alhanalem has another handy use when he's in your party: As a member of the Yukes tribe, he can draw on the power of magical poles placed at key points in a dungeon or area. By pressing the right trigger, you can flip-flop the screens and then draw a line of magic out from the pole to a highlighted area in the world. A typical use for this kind of thing is to open gates, whether by lighting distant candles or causing previously invisible walkways to appear out of thin air. Another good use for allies is to stand on their shoulders so that you can access previously out-of-reach areas. Indeed, playing with a party adds some new wrinkles to gameplay that makes Ring of Fates more interesting than when going it alone. It also serves as a great example of what to expect from the game's multiplayer experience, which is fully focused on the idea of cooperation among players.

So, we've established that there's a lot to do in Ring of Fates, but what about that storyline? Well, without giving too much away, it's fair to say that early on in the game, Yuri and Chelinka suffer a critical loss that changes their lives in a fundamental way. After skipping ahead for what appears to be a good stretch of time, we meet back up with a slightly older (and definitely bigger) Yuri who's honed his combat skills during the interim. From there, it's up to Yuri and a suddenly telepathic Chelinka to head out into the world on their own to set things right.

Cooperation between characters is one of the keys to solving puzzles in the game.
Cooperation between characters is one of the keys to solving puzzles in the game.

Graphically, Ring of Fates holds up just fine on the DS. The squat kiddie character models might not appeal to everyone, but it's cool to see Yuri's armor and weapons change as you upgrade his equipment throughout the game. Although the enemies aren't that threatening-looking to begin with (who's afraid of a stripe-tailed squirrel, after all?), the boss creatures are significantly larger and look a good deal more threatening. In addition to a nice score by original Crystal Chronicles composer Kumi Tanioka, the game's audio presentation has the added bonus of including voices for the main characters during key story scenes.

With a strong storyline, plenty of action, and all that multiplayer fun, it seems Ring of Fates will have plenty packed into it when the game is released in the US in March. Stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks, as well as a full review once the game is out.

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