Theathrhyhm is essentially a Final Fantasy themed touch-based music game - not unlike the modern DS classic, Elite Beat Agents - with a few RPG elements incorporated into your progression through the game's many challenges. Like that game, you'll tap, swipe, and follow along a winding track on the touch screen in concert with the beat and melody of various songs that happen to be from the thirteen main instalments of the series. When you top its enjoyable trip through some amazing compositions with a heaping number of unlockable challenge mode songs and a great visual representation of over twenty years of RPG history to boot, you've got an excellent 3DS title with a good helping of content.
This is a rhythm game through and through, although numerous elements from the core series are incorporated into the music. Before playing songs, you must choose a party of four (from a pool of one character from each main entry, at first), and missing notes during a song costs them HP. Run out, and you'll have to start the song from scratch. There are three types of songs - Field, Battle, and Event. In Field tunes, your party leader strolls across the screen while a sort of diorama of memorable visuals cascade by in the background. One line of "notes" scrolls by, and you'll occasionally need to follow a long, flowing note line with the stylus.
Battles have you facing off against as many foes as you can cut through by song's end. Notes are split up into four lanes here, one for each of your characters, although you can execute the notes anywhere on screen. The differentiation in Battle songs exists because here, notes are tied to attacks. Nail a chain of notes scrolling in front of Zidane, and he'll deal damage that boosts your score. Time a note just right and you'll score a Critical for extra points, a nice bit of nomenclature. Battles tend to be the simplest to perform, perhaps due to their simple visual representation, but later challenge levels called Dark Notes make the most of them by introducing deviously complex rhythms within those simple inputs.
The Event type is - and not to belabour a comparison here - much like Elite Beat Agents. Instead of notes scrolling by you, a line of notes slowly pans around the space of the screen, only visible just before they need to be hit. Some additional challenge lies in not being able to anticipate ahead as much as Field or Battle tunes, but I found these Event pieces to be the least enjoyable of the bunch. This is in no small part due to the montages of game footage from the titular Final Fantasy you're playing through. It's a neat nostalgic touch in theory, but the clips often don't seem cut together in any meaningful way, and are more than a little distracting when you're laser-focused on identifying incoming notes. The 3D seems to compound the problem during these songs, which puts a little bit of a damper on an otherwise good use of the effect.
Although the core playthrough of the game is pretty easy overall, things can get mighty challenging after that, and you'll want to use your characters' CP to equip abilities. It initially sounds pretty nutty to have to manage a party's abilities in a rhythm game, but Theatrhythm strikes a very good balance in making them useful but completely unobtrusive to the action itself. If you're not already a fan of the series and the thought of equipping and managing skills sounds awful, that's OK - abilities are passive, and activate in certain conditions that naturally arise from your performance and what type of song you're playing. If your HP gauge drops way down and you have Cure equipped, you'll get some health back. Offensive abilities like Fire usually trigger when you hit a slew of notes in a row without missing one in a Battle stage. This keeps the RPG elements tertiary to the actual gameplay, but nonetheless a necessity as you progress deeper into more challenging material.
I can honestly say that I was surprised by the depth and appeal of Theathrhythm. Knowing it would appeal to me as a huge fan of Square Enix's legendary series, I fully expected to enjoy the ride. Indeed, established fans of the series will get by far the most out of this package, and initiates will feel a bit left out by this game's constant references to moments it just assumes you have experienced. But beyond the presentation of the material and its many nostalgic prods embedded within, this is a great rhythm game packed with some truly outstanding music, and that's something just about anyone can enjoy. I've been playing well into the double digits of hours, and between its deluge of Dark Note challenges and steady influx of DLC, I have no intention of stopping any time soon. Unless you're loathe to play another rhythm or Final Fantasy game in any form, Theatrhythm is one fine product.