When it's done right, few things in games are as potent as the lure to earn that little bit of additional experience needed to hit the next level and make your character better and stronger. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time definitely gets this right, delivering a compulsively playable dungeon crawler that is simple and charming enough to appeal to genre newcomers and addictive enough to keep old hands coming back for more. Unfortunately, the charms of Echoes of Time's fundamentally sound spellcasting, monster-hacking gameplay are obscured by a near-constant stream of dull puzzles that succeed only at pulling you away from the fun.
Echoes of Time kicks off on your character's 16th birthday. After choosing a gender and selecting from one of four tribes, you're sent off into the forest that borders your village on a rite of passage that signifies you've reached adulthood. But no sooner have you slaughtered some fluffy woodland creatures and been granted a small crystal after proving your worth in battle, than disaster strikes your peaceful, secluded village. Sent into the wider world to find a cure for the crystal sickness that has befallen a fellow villager, you soon embark on a quest that reveals the truth about the world's crystals and your own mysterious past. Don't come to Echoes of Time expecting the sort of rich fantasy world and epic tale that often accompany the Final Fantasy name, though, as it pauses only rarely for storytelling. This game is all about walking through dungeons and killing things, then taking the materials and loot you've gained back to town to acquire more-powerful equipment, and then beginning the process over again.
The action is simple and fun. As you work your way through each dungeon, you'll dispatch the monsters who try to hinder your progress with some quick swings of your weapon or an appropriate spell or two. When you begin the casting process, your character stands still and you take control of a target ring, which you try to maneuver underneath your foe to hit him with your spell. There isn't any depth to the combat, and there's no strategy to the action; this is classic dungeon-crawling, pure and simple. But it's made rewarding by the frequent leveling up of your characters, which makes you more powerful and grants you new abilities, like a charged-up melee attack and the ability to stack multiple spell rings. You have six standard magic types at your disposal--fire, blizzard, thunder, cure, raise, and clear--and once you can stack two or more rings together, you can combine different types of magic to discover new and powerful spells.
But sadly, your greatest battle will not be with the massive horned toad, the fanged bookcase, or any of the other monstrosities you must face on your quest. No, your strongest opponent is tedium, which attacks you constantly in the form of dull puzzles that bring the action to a screeching halt. The block-pushing, switch-triggering puzzles here are easy and wearisome, and they come up with such frequency that you'll feel like you spend half of your time in each dungeon dealing with them. Making matters worse, there are only a handful of dungeons in the game, and you'll pass through most of them twice, requiring you to go through the motions for some of the puzzles a second time.
Your adventuring is a lot more enjoyable if you have friends to join you on your quest. Even the tedium of the game's puzzles is lessened if you have people to share it with. Up to four players can link up over either local wireless or Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection, and while the story can be advanced only on the host console, each player will retain any experience and currency earned during the session. When cooperating with friends, though, it helps if you can communicate effectively, and the in-game interface for communication, with its trees of preestablished phrases and an onscreen keyboard, is clumsy and limited, making local multiplayer far superior. We also experienced bouts of lag on Wi-Fi, and while the option to invite or join strangers sounds like a good idea, we were typically matched with characters who were well below or well above our own level, making effective adventuring difficult and leading to many abruptly ended sessions.
You can also create AI adventurers to join you, but they're no substitute for flesh-and-blood companions. As in multiplayer, you can travel four-deep through the dungeons, and while your AI companions are generally pretty good at attacking things, they're also pretty good at getting themselves killed, so the larger your AI party, the more healing, raising, and babysitting you'll be doing.
The game is essentially identical on the DS and the Wii, and in the Wii's case, that's not a good thing. Clearly designed with the DS in mind, Echoes of Time is awkwardly tossed onto the Wii, complete with two separate "screens" on your screen at all times. The colorful visuals look crisp and inviting on the DS, but blown up on your TV screen, their simplicity becomes a detriment. And once you've experienced the DS version's touch-screen interface, which lets you use your thumb to instantly switch from one character or type of magic to another, the remote-and-nunchuk controls on the Wii feel unwieldy by comparison. All this, combined with the fact that the action is a great fit for gaming on the go, makes the DS version the better choice. In either case, the tunes you hear throughout your adventure are lighthearted and catchy, providing an upbeat accompaniment to the action.
The boring puzzles that constantly interrupt the game's momentum are a shame, and a greater variety of dungeons would have made the experience richer, but these aren't enough to defeat the game's better elements altogether. The initial quest may take you about 15 hours on your first go, but you can keep developing your characters and advancing into higher difficulty levels after that. Despite Echoes of Time's flaws, fans of dungeon-crawling, hack-and-slash action may be compelled to keep coming back to this adventure for a long time.