adc's Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation Portable) review

Not a classic, but thumpin' good.

Once upon a time, there was a spiky-headed dude called Cloud Strife, SOLDIER First Class. He saved the world with a little help from his friends, and he was hated by a contingent of the fanboys because of his non-heroic attitude. That, and because at times he became a whiny bitch.

No danger of that here. Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core stars Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class, who wants to be a hero and is actually quite good at it. He's endlessly positive and energetic, and he's definitely good with a sword. So Crisis Core has the first thing right, a main character everybody can get behind. And it's not just a good start, it makes for a very compelling story and adventure all the way through.

Crisis Core is sometimes termed an action-RPG, which is sort of true and sort of not. The battle interface trends a bit more toward RPG than action, as Zack's commands are still selected from a menu, but because the targeting is automated and requires only an "activation" button press, it plays out much more smoothly than a traditional menu-based RPG. The × button is that activator, the ∆ blocks, and the ▢ dodges. In order to simplify the gameplay a bit more, there's no timing involved in blocking (you just hold down the button), and there's rarely any direction required for dodging (Zack just rolls forward and usually doesn't get hit). In other words, the controls don't make things tough on the gamer. You just point Zack where you want him to go, choose Attack, Items, or whatever Materia you have equipped, and the game takes care of the rest.

Also in the realm of not making things tough is the slot machine in the upper left of the screen. Called the Digital Mind Wave or DMW, this is the mechanism for making Zack perform Limit Breaks or Summon Magic, and for conferring certain positive status effects on Zack. When the DMW turns up three of the same character, a Limit or Summon will be performed, and there's a chance that Zack will get a level up or that one of his equipped Materia will level up. Apparently there is an experience counter in the game which affects these chances, but you don't see it. Sometimes you'll level up very quickly, and sometimes you'll grind for a while and get little reward for your efforts. I'm not fond of hiding the experience counter, as it's always been a valuable piece of information when you're developing your character, but the game makes it work pretty well.

And even if you have bad luck at level-grinding, there are other ways to upgrade Zack. All Materia have the potential for stats buffs, and with the proper application of Materia Fusion — combining two Materia and (optionally) a stat-boosting item — you can gain huge stats benefits from equipping the proper Materia. This is a fortunate change from FF7's style, which nerfed HP and ATK in favor of MP and M-ATK. Equipping powerful Materia is no longer a double-edged sword. There are also stats-boosting Accessories which most FF7 fans will find familiar. In a move which I fully support, as it streamlines the gameplay, there's no need to constantly buy weapons and armor, as the Materia and Accessories provide all the stats manipulation you need. Also, if you're not currently fighting a battle, you can go shopping at any store, at any time. Had a tough battle and need to buy more Potions? Do it now! You don't need to go to town, nor even find a Save Point. It's not realistic, but it removes one of the pains in the ass characteristic of the RPG format.

Having discussed all of this about upgrading Zack, it should be noted that the main story is rather short, so there's not a lot of time to get him leveled up. So they put in a Missions system, similar to the Mark Hunts of Final Fantasy XII, which sends Zack all over the world doing jobs which mostly require him to beat up on enemies. There are 300 Missions, of which 299 are optional and most need to be unlocked by either game progress or completion of previous Missions. So there's a lot of stuff to do. My complaint is that the Missions get quite repetitive, and that some of them may say Easy or Normal but turn out to be Nintendo Hard, with almost comically unfair random enemies and bosses capable of unblockable one-hit kills. It's not ideal, so I'm glad these are optional and can be basically ignored once you feel Zack is up to the next challenge.

And believe me, you will definitely want Zack to be up to the next challenge. The story of this SOLDIER warrior opens at the end of the war between ShinRa and Wutai, about five years before the events of Final Fantasy VII, and takes Zack through the events leading up to (and a bit beyond) a certain confrontation in Nibelheim. Along the way, he'll meet a flower girl from the slums, a ShinRa infantryman who gets motion sickness, a whole bunch of Turks, a very cute young cowgirl from the sticks, and (of course) the amazing SOLDIER legend Sephiroth. Plus there are some new characters along the way, the most important of whom are the mentor-figure Angeal, loose cannon SOLDIER operative Genesis, and young Turk Cissnei (who is the only character from the Japan-only Final Fantasy VII Before Crisis to get a name). As Zack travels all over the world and gets pulled into ShinRa's machinations and schemes, you might find that you started with a full battery and now the power light is blinking. It's that interesting, whether you're exploring an enemy-infiltrated Mako reactor or trying to get friendly with the flower girl. The story-related fighting is not terribly challenging, but it's not exactly a cakewalk, either. It's a good balance that allows you to move forward without getting frustrated, but doesn't leave you totally devoid of that feeling of accomplishment.

Most of the story sequences are handled in the game's graphics engine, though — this is Square Enix, after all — there are several long full-motion video sequences as well. The character models are realistic, allowing for some of the ridiculous hair, and the graphics team have clearly learned a lot from creating the character graphics for the Playstation 2 Final Fantasy games. Textures and lighting have excellent detail as well, and the overall look of the game is really sharp. Some of the eccentric character designs from FF7 have been toned down, which I think is unfortunate but appears to tally with the preferences of modern gamers. Battles feature enemies of various sizes, including some absolutely massive bosses and tough random enemies, yet I don't recall seeing so much as a frame-drop. There were a handful of instances of clipping errors and wonky collision detection, but these were few, far between, and irrelevant to playing the game.

The sound, on the other hand, is technically proficient but kind of lousy. Many of Nobuo Uematsu's original tracks are remixed and reworked, always to their detriment; and the new musical cues are mostly bland instrumental rock with blazing but boring guitars and ridiculous techno beats. Most of the English-language voice-acting is solid but unspectacular (Carrie Savage fans will probably fall in love with Cissnei; I'm not exactly a fan, but after seeing Cissnei in a swimsuit, I'm in love as well), with only Hojo sounding ridiculous and miscast. This isn't a game I'd really want to hear, but I wouldn't turn the sound off, either. The soundtrack and voice-acting do their jobs. That's a precipitous fall from FF7's amazing soundtrack, of course.

There is a New Game Plus feature once you've finished the game, and there's a Hard Mode which I almost certainly won't touch. With all that plus the 300 Missions, there's some replay value. This is not a classic game, but it's a thumpin' good one which all PSP gamers should play.

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