A game that's not afraid to take risks
*This review contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII*
I still remember the first time I played Final Fantasy VII and reached the point in the story when Cloud figures out that he has been living a lie. No, it’s not when he goes on a romantic Ferris wheel excursion with Barrett in the Golden Saucer. It’s the moment he realizes he’s not the elite SOLDIER First Class he has pretended to be throughout the game. That heroic past actually belonged to a guy named Zack, who was Cloud’s role model and eventual savior during Cloud’s time in SOLDIER.
Cloud and Zack look similar on the surface—Zack has spiky black hair instead of spiky yellow hair, for example—but they could not be more different in personality. Where Cloud single handedly launched the hollow eyed, emo JRPG stereotype, Zack is relentlessly upbeat and selfless. In fact, the two heroes’ personality differences are one of the elements that make Crisis Core such a brave, brave game. Not every game developer is willing to so effectively marginalize one of its most popular characters, and by the end of Crisis Core you cannot escape the simple fact that Zack is a better, more likeable hero than Cloud could ever be.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Crisis Core introduces Zack as a fiery, up-and-coming SOLDIER Second Class in the Shinra Electric Company’s military division. Any series fan will know that this setup presents players with two big servings of dramatic irony: first, Shinra and SOLDIER are two evil forces in Final Fantasy VII, and second, Zack is a dead man walking. I don’t mean he is a zombie (thank God), but that in the course of Final Fantasy VII’s convoluted, completely batshit story, you learn that Zack sacrificed his own life to save Cloud’s and passed on his iconic Buster Sword, which Cloud still carries at the beginning of FFVII. (Crisis Core further reveals that the sword was not initially Zack’s either.)
A third important facet of Zack’s story was hidden more cleverly in FFVII, so it’s possible that some players missed it: Zack and Aerith—another endlessly positive character who prematurely bites the dust before Cloud & Co. save the world—were boyfriend and girlfriend. Crisis Core gives you a nice look into their charming (if naïve and clumsy) relationship, to the point where a long-ish chunk of the main game is dedicated to finding Aerith spare parts to build a flower wagon.
The story isn’t simply limited to Final Fantasy VII fan service, though. Crisis Core offers an interesting, if still unnecessarily complex, look at Shinra, SOLDIER, and the Turks in their prime. The game’s title is actually very apt to its story, focusing on a little knot of SOLDIER First Class companions discovering the Mako-soaked truth behind their power before slowly going mad and bringing down Shinra with them. The game does a good job making Sephiroth a more rounded character as well, at one point even showing him horsing around with the other two top-tier SOLDIER fighters, Genesis and Angeal. One particular cutscene of these three guys sparring is actually more impressive and flat-out awesome than anything in FFVII: Advent Children.
Which leads me to the gameplay of Crisis Core. This is a PSP exclusive with much effort and thought going into dividing a long game into bite-sized, portable units of playtime. Throughout the main campaign, this is achieved mostly through frequent save points. These save points also grant access to the game’s optional missions, which are unlocked in two ways: by progressing through the story and completing other optional missions. At any save point, you simply open the character menu and select “Missions.” Each one has a little backstory to go along with it—one set of missions, for example, revolves around a spunky child ninja whom fans will recognize—as well as a difficulty estimation based on your current level.
The traditional FF battle system sees not so much a facelift as all-out reconstructive surgery in Crisis Core. Encounters are randomized, sometimes reaching the absurd take-one-step-and-fight-some-more frequency of older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, but there is no separate battle window this time. The enemies simply appear around Zack, and he can run around the battlefield, using physical attacks, magic, or items in real time. Striking enemies from behind will result in a critical attack bonus that can be happily abused in nearly every encounter in the game. There is also a dodge button that, given the power of some enemies’ attacks, can often mean the difference between a flawless victory and game over.
During the battles a little slot machine runs constantly in the left-hand corner of the screen, showing faces of important characters Zack has met in the main story. And if all three wheels line up on the same face, the battle pauses to show a brief cutscene reminding you of that character’s relationship to Zack, and a second animation in which Zack receives a fighting bonus. Lining up three Aeriths, for example, grants a healing bonus so powerful that Zack’s HP will nearly double, causing his health bar to read something like 4500/2500. Some bonuses are persistent until you die (either in the main game or in side missions, though death in a side mission does not result in a game over screen), and some are only good until the end of the fight.
Numbers also accompany the faces in the slot machine, and they control the leveling system. Three sevens will raise Zack’s level by one. Getting two of any other number, 1-6, will raise the level of Materia that Zack has equipped in the corresponding slot. So if the numbers come up 1-4-1, and Blizzara is equipped in slot 1, then it will improve by one level. Most Materia can only level up three or four times. But that’s not all! There is also a crafting system in which you can combine two Materia and up to 99 of one item to create something new and great. The higher the level of the Materia, the more powerful the crafted item will be. The game shows you what you will create before you actually take the plunge, but you’re still looking at hours and hours and hours of experimentation if you don’t use a guide.
It is also important to note that the slot machine is not just a random number generator. “Emotions”—the way Zack is feeling about a given character at certain points in the story—can affect the generator, as will your performance in battle. I often earned a bonus after a successful dodge, for example. And the difficulty of the battle will also make it more or less likely for Zack to level up during a fight. This is the only real way to “break” the leveling system that I found. Engaging in Hard or Very Hard optional missions will level Zack up much faster than simply progressing through the story, so if you keep up with the missions as they unlock, Zack will be monstrously overpowered for the story missions. I don’t know the level cap—I assume it’s 99—but I finished the game around Level 45 and found the endgame bosses to be comparatively underpowered. However, players who persist through all of the optional missions will undoubtedly meet challenges equal to even the most over-leveled character.
To say that Crisis Core is the best entry in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII is a hilarious understatement. It doesn’t exactly have strong competition by way of the limp shooter Dirge of Cerberus or the enjoyable but brainless Advent Children. (To be fair, the cell-phone exclusive Before Crisis is supposed to be okay, but my Japanese isn’t good enough to play it and find out.) But more importantly, Crisis Core is the only addition to Final Fantasy VII’s story that, to me at least, feels necessary. Along with delivering a solid RPG, Crisis Core satisfyingly illuminates many of the strangest plot turns in FFVII, and gives Cloud a reason to be riding on top of that train as FFVII begins. The fact that it also introduces the most compelling hero in the FFVII universe is a most welcome surprise.