It isn't a "perfect" game, but it DEFINITELY has the perfect heart
- seeing Sephiroth as a good guy is priceless
- beautifully realized story
- it ends
Writing a review for Crisis Core is a difficult process I would not wish on any reviewer. Even though the FFVII universe has been expanded in ways that have just become inconceivable, and to some extents pointless, but as a whole package, the universe has been more or less felt complete, with one exception.
How it all began.
This is not to say that "how it all began" is in fact the best term to describe the story. Indeed, if Square wants to pitch in more money, they can go back as far in the story as Jenova's arrival on the Planet, and as far in the future as 500 years after the events of the main game.
While this is not currently the case, the reason behind naming the prequel "Crisis Core" is revealed in a wonderfully woven storyline that never fails to engage the players. The story is told from Zack's perspective and offers a surprisingly deep insight on all the flashbacks that Cloud had during the course of the main game. If it were only that, the story would have been a great eye-opener. But it goes miles further by showing how things started off bad in the main game to begin with.
Crisis Core isn't about saving the universe from ultimate destruction. It isn't about a group of teenagers who happen upon an artifact that holds great power. Crisis Core is about human bonding and friendships. The story is intricately woven to show the relationships between Zack, his mentor Angeal, Sephiroth, a new guy called Genesis, Aerith and, later on, Cloud. How all the characters interact in the story and weave their fates together into an unforgettable finale - and the introduction to the main game - is simply astonishing.
The nostalgia factor is extremely high and you'd be moved with the story while filling in all the missing pieces that have been shrouded from you in the past decade. But you not knowing the main story does not mean you won't enjoy Crisis Core - by now everyone knows who Sephiroth and Cloud are, at least. However, it is especially catered as a fan service, so they'll be getting the most out of it.
Telling any more of the story will just give it away, but what I can say is that, seeing Sephiroth as a good guy is simply priceless.
Storytelling aside, the gameplay is solid but incredibly confusing and will take you a long while to figure it out. I suspect many bad reviews on the battle system, but the "aha" moment of understanding it is undeniably a pleasure in and of itself. What is greater is how it actually fits into the story and the overall emotion.
Simplifying things, there are two aspects to battling. One is a Kingdom Hearts-like pseudo real time fighting mode, where you and the enemies run around and cast magic, attack, do some special moves, dodge, block, etc. If you've played Kingdom Hearts you will feel right at home here, but it will be a bit slower, and this is where the pseudo real time comes in. It appears real time while beneath the surface there are "turns", or basically "break out" times where you can't issue commands. So don't expect to be pulling off 100-hit combos, similarly, enemies won't be pulling off fatal combos on you too. It works great. On Normal mode though, the enemies are a bit easy, so you may opt for Hard to ramp up the challenge.
Attacks and magic are based on a stripped-down version of the Materia system found in the main game. Materia play a major role in the game's storyline, but for now you can consider it as "ability stones". You get magic materia that is element based, some technical ability materia, support materia, and status materia, etc. Since Zack has one weapon, you only get four slots (expandable to six) to place your materia in, so you have to be pretty selective on which to bring along.
Later in the game you acquire the ability to fuse materia together to get new materia. The outcome depends on the properties of the materia used as well as any items you put up to be fused along. It allows for a great deal of customization with the creation of new spells and abilities; but if you're in for a casual run then the materia you collect during the course of the game should do you fine.
Back to the battle system, the second thing that is most prominent is what is called a "Digital Mind Wave", which is made of three scrolling slots with pictures of characters you have met along with numbers. If it appears totally random and out of control, it is because it is. This is the most interesting thing about the battle system in that it makes fights completely unpredictable.
I will split the DMW into parts: Faces and numbers.
While you're during battle, the DMW keeps scrolling and randomly stops. If two slots happen to stop at the same time while bearing the same portrait, the DMW fills the screen and the third slot scrolls. If it stops and all three match, you pull off a limit break depending on the character. For instance, Aeirth will heal you and give you invincibility temporarily, while Cloud will let you pull of his meteor limit break. Your HP, MP and AP also get a boost - so don't be surprised if you find yourself in battle having an HP that is 5000/2400.
The second part of the DMW is numbers. While the portraits are scrolling, so are numbers that appear to scroll independently. During combat, a combination of numbers give you different abilities, like invincibility, protection against magic, the ability to cast magic with no MP cost, etc.
Now, when the DMW comes into full view (because of a portrait match), then the numbers take on a different role. A 777 will make you level up (which I think is calculated more than it being random), a combination of a number and two other matching numbers less than 7 will level up the materia in that slot. Say, for instance, you have Cure in slot 5. Getting 2-5-5 will level up Cure. A 4-2-4 will level up whatever is in slot 4, etc.
Before I forget, summons are also random. When the character portraits match and the third start scrolling, a summon-trigger may occur which brings up a summon slot. When three slots match a summon monster (which is most likely to happen) then that monster will be summoned.
The randomness adds to the combat in ways you wouldn't appreciate until you're fighting a tough boss and then a random limit break or healing spell saves the day. As for the way materia or Zack levels up, whether this randomness is your cup of tea is up to you.
The DMW however is not just a piece of arbitrary combat design. It has a meaning within the game as it is a representation of Zack's thoughts. If you just emerged from a sequence where the story progressed strongly from Sephiroth's side, you'd see that Sephiroth and Angeal's faces turn up more often. Also, Zack gets "heightened emotions" from certain story sequences (and rightly so), meaning you'd be pulling off more limit breaks than you'd like to.
You don't just battle during the main quest; there are literally dozens of side missions that you can undertake. All of the missions take place in a small set of "maps" - so the idea of playing the same map over and over again to kill the same enemies to acquire a different item can be mundane. The advantage of doing so is that you get rare items, rare equipment, rare materia, etc, as well as leveling up and opening up rather impossible missions. Some diversity in the missions would have been great, or, at least, not so many missions that take place on the same map. But die-hard fans or gamers wouldn't mind it because the loot is especially rewarding.
The graphics are simply breathtaking, surpassing anything seen on the PSP before. The character models and animations are superb, however some of the environments are too sparse and of noticeably less quality. The CG scenes are Advent Children quality, so that is enough in its own right. The music isn't Uematsu's but it is surprisingly emotional and perfectly fits the game. The guitar work is brilliant and most of the tracks are memorable. I was even surprised at some of the remixes done to old time favorites. Zack's theme and the overall Crisis Core theme are quite emotional.
So how does Crisis Core do? Well, regardless of what anyone will say, it is not the perfect game but it has the perfect heart. Crisis Core is not only the perfect fan service (well.. other than a FFVII remake, which from the looks of it is possible), but it tells a convincingly emotional story that leads to arguably one of the best and most involving endings in videogame history, all without having to worry about the well-being of the world.
That's Cloud's tale to tell.