The music of Final Fantasy is so integral to the series' enduring popularity it's a wonder Square Enix hasn't made a game focused purely on that music until now. Enter Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a rhythm action game that runs the risk of being almost as absurd as its nonsense title. I was all ready to chuckle at this game when it crossed my desk and then move on with my life, but it turns out that tapping your stylus along to the dramatic Final Fantasy themes of yore is actually a ton of fun, and the game wraps enough unlockable content and RPG-style character progression around the core rhythm mechanic that it actually starts to feel like a decent value even at full price.
Theatrhythm is a fine rhythm game in the mold of Elite Beat Agents or Gitaroo Man, so if you're the sort of person who gobbles up every game of that type regardless of how you feel about the music, feel free to jump on in. But the people who should really be looking at this game are the ones who revere the grand scores that anchored Square's epics from the NES right on up to the modern era. For me, the Final Fantasy series marked one of the first times I realized music in a video game was actually capable of stirring the soul, and VI in particular inspired me to go out and spend a bunch of money on an actual soundtrack CD. That puts me smack dab in this game's crosshairs, and it does a good enough job of tweaking my nostalgic feelings for this material that I don't even care how blatantly I'm being pandered to.
When you first fire up the game, it feels a little light on content, since you've only got access to a small selection of songs from each of the first 13 core games in the franchise. For each game, there's one "field" music (typically the overworld theme), one battle track (a mishmash of regular and boss themes, depending on the game), and one "event" piece that corresponds to a particular dramatic moment from the game's story, say, the famous opera scene from VI. Each of these song types comes with a unique type of gameplay, so you're doing a little of everything with each game, and they're always bookended by the opening and ending themes of the game in question, which let you tap out the rhythm to earn a little extra rhythmia (the game's unlock currency). Still, it takes less than 10 minutes to play through any one of the games in the series mode, and they're all extremely easy at first, so it's hard to ignore the feeling that there's just not much in here, especially for a full-priced 3DS game. Luckily, the more of Theatrhythm you play, the more it seems like there is to play.
The game strengthens its case almost immediately since you get to build a party of four characters drawn from all the leads of each of the 13 games as soon as you boot it up. I went with Cecil, Terra, Squall, and Lightning, partly for nostalgia and partly because each character has significantly different stats and abilities that come into play depending on what sort of song you're playing and how well you do. You've got hit points and magic just like a regular RPG, and some abilities will heal you when your party becomes weak or unleash a certain type of elemental magic based on how many of a certain type of note you've hit. There are even single-use items you can equip that cause specific effects to trigger. Leveling up your party to unlock better and more unique abilities becomes sort of addicting in its own right, especially since the later difficulties can get overwhelmingly hard. I really grew to like the idea that leveling up my party and intelligently equipping them could help me scrape by during encounters that I had no chance of beating otherwise. You know, sort of like in the old Final Fantasy games this thing is based on. It's also worth mentioning that part of the game's charm lies in the cutesy art style all of these widely varying characters have been mashed into, and they tend to spit out some lovable nonsense dialogue in between songs. The game has a droll sense of humor in general that makes it more likable.
Theatrhythm doesn't really get engrossing until you open up the challenge mode, where you can play those higher difficulties, and especially when you get access to the chaos shrine and start unlocking dark notes. That's right, dark notes. These are mystery combinations of one field and one battle music, so you don't know what songs you're going to play until you tackle that particular note. The upside of this is, the dark notes contain a bunch of new songs you won't see at all in the main story mode. The downside is, they're super tough, but they'll level your characters pretty quickly and will almost always drop you another dark note as a reward. I was mostly excited to get into the chaos shrine for some new music, but the dark notes, like everything else you do, will generate rhythmia, and the more of that you rack up, the closer you get to adding some more unique songs to your challenge mode lineup, or even unlocking some other fan-favorite characters like Sephiroth, Yuna, and Vivi. The rhythmia requirements for those unlocks are pretty stiff, and I only started even getting close to the first ones after about eight hours. But the good news is, I'm not at all tired of playing what's already available; heck, I haven't even played through all 13 games start to finish yet. It starts to feel like a lot of content after a while.
If you find yourself wanting more, this game bears the questionable honor of being the first 3DS game to offer paid DLC. It could've been easy to get upset about the selection of songs included with the base game, but aside from the conspicuous omission of Final Fantasy IV's final boss music, I'm generally pretty happy with what's already in here, which the game claims already amounts to "over 70" songs. It's not like there isn't already a long precedent for rhythm games selling piecemeal downloadable songs anyway, and at a dollar a song, the prices aren't completely insane. It's ridiculous, however, that the barebones in-game store doesn't offer some kind of preview of the available songs. You probably won't have much trouble finding samples of those songs by name on the Internet, but you should have that option at the point of sale, full stop. Otherwise, it's nice to have the option to pick and choose a few extra songs if you want to supplement what's already in the game.
It probably says a lot that Theatrhythm so ably overcomes the absurdity of its premise and actually ends up deserving a place in the collection of rhythm-gaming Final Fantasy fans (either current or former). Given Square Enix's recent track record, it's easy to see this game showing up on iOS devices in the not-distant future, but if you're looking for an endearingly entertaining rhythm package to occupy your 3DS right now, Theatrhythm fits the bill.