A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Squaresoft (or simply Square) was an extremely well known company under Nintendo’s very large belt. Starting with The 3D Battles of World Runner on the Nintendo Entertainment System and continuing with Rad Racer, they found themselves on the brink of economic collapse.
In desperation, Final Fantasy was born. As we all know, this title, which was named because it was Square’s last attempt into the videogame world, was an instant hit.
Three Final Fantasys (only one of which we ever saw in the US) and a few scattered titles (King’s Knight among a few others) later, the SNES came out. Squaresoft expanded their lineup, creating such classics as Final Fantasy 4-6 (us ‘uneducated’ gamers only saw an easier version of 4 back then, and missed 5 entirely), Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and Chrono Trigger. In addition, Squaresoft moved onto Nintendo’s portable Game Boy, bringing their beloved Final Fantasy line to it, among other titles.
But then Squaresoft wanted to do something else. Something bigger. The cartridge format that Nintendo held dear for so long was too limiting to them. In time, they became an exclusive developer for the Sony Playstation.
It’s been nearly ten years since a Squaresoft title appeared on a non-portable Nintendo console. Now, as Square Enix, the company brings to the Gamecube the series that started it all – Final Fantasy. How does this Action/RPG hold up? Is it a worthy successor to the Final Fantasy line? Let’s find out.
Upon starting the game for the first time it very quickly becomes apparent that Square Enix hasn’t lost the knack for developing a living, breathing world. Trees are where they should be, grass scatters the countryside, and the water is some of the best looking water we’ve ever seen. While the environment itself tends to be stationary (trees, grass, etc) what does move is very impressive to the eye. The clouds that constantly pass over the battlefield are amazing to see, and as I said, the water effects are simply fantastic.
The characters are large and detailed, but rarely shown in their graphical splendor. Short of when you first start a stage, you’ll never notice the fluffy fur on their outfits, the detail on their faces and bodies, or the way they hoist their weapons. While they don’t look as good as the cover art on the box, they are remarkably close.
The monsters you’ll face have been given the same treatment. They’re expressive and well animated, even going as far as cheering when they or one of their buddies have connected a well-placed hit. The bosses have gotten the same detail as well, which is a good thing considering that they’re easily 10 to 20 times your size most of the time.
The spell effects are given an over-the-top look to them. The fire spells burn wildly, little sparks arc everywhere in the thunder line, and the traditional time symbols spin continuously with the slow and haste spells. The effects get especially impressive when you combine their powers together. Try casting three or four of the same spell at the same time for a virtual lightshow of effects.
Are there any negatives to this explosion of detail and colors? On occasion the game does slow down. It’s rare, but bluntly obvious when it happens. In addition, some of the game’s textures do not hold up well at all when viewed up close. This part is most noticeable when you gather the myrrh – the water of life needed to protect your village. The camera zooms in, and things start looking bad.
All in all, Square Enix should be commended in putting the full graphical power of the Gamecube into use. The best part is that this graphical detail imparts only a slight loading time on the user, so you aren’t punished with long waits in exchange for high quality visuals.
Once again Square Enix’s brilliance shines through in this area, bringing an audio masterpiece to one’s ears. Weapons clash and clang like they should, and the music itself is sometimes enough to keep you playing.
For starters, let’s talk about the sound effects. Battles come to life as your blades smack into their target. Your speakers will roar as spells are cast, putting weight behind the graphical glory you are creating. Bosses roar, birds chirp, and towns simply sound alive as you run through them.
Surprisingly, Square Enix did a rather good job with the limited voice work in this game. As in the Japanese import, a song is sung during the intro, giving life to the animation. Whenever you enter a stage for the first time her voice returns, giving a little bit of story and character to the level you’ll be playing on.
And finally, we come to the music. The soundtrack to this game is best described as a cross between Celtic tunes and something commonly heard at your local renaissance fair. It’s full of earthy tunes and woodwinds, as well as little drums or more commonly heard instruments. It’s very rare to hear something like this in a videogame, but it fits perfectly with this title. Where can I buy the soundtrack?
In a highly unusual move, Square Enix has gone far outside of the norm as far as controlling the onscreen action goes. In single player mode, you’ll be using the Gamecube controller in a limited fashion, keeping the GBA nearby to display map and character information. What the GBA shows can be customized during the game, displaying monster information and treasure locations for example, but I think that the area map is far more useful.
However, should you choose to play this game in multiplayer, you are required to own a GBA and link cable for every player who wishes to play. Read that again – you are required to own a GBA and link cable per player. Why did they do this? Let me explain the control scheme in detail.
A uses the current item/skill/power in your command screen. B picks up and drops the Crystal Chalice (a very important part of the gameplay). L and R changes which item/skill/power is selected in the command screen. Select or the Y button (depending on which controller you’re using) brings up your inventory, skills, artifacts, etc. Start pauses the game (only in single player), and X tells your Mog companion to carry the Crystal Chalice (only in single player).
What makes this so unusual? Well, as stated above, in multiplayer mode, you can’t have the players constantly pausing the game, looking through their inventory, trying to get their spells and Phoenix Down items in order. Therefore, everything is done on the GBA screen while the game itself continues to move forward.
Sure, this is a very expensive way to play a 4 player game, as each player must have a GBA and a link cable, but the more I think about it, there’s just no way to reproduce the information needed without drastically disrupting the gameplay on the main TV screen. Sure, the developers could have duplicated the GBA in the corner of the screen, but that would be distracting to say the least.
Thanks to Nintendo’s recent announcement that over 20 million GBAs have been sold, finding people who own a GBA shouldn’t be too hard. But it’s still a very unusual move at best.
Taken from the manual: ‘Long ago, miasma swallowed the world. Its very touch was fatal, and it claimed many lives. But we have since discovered a way to hold it at bay.’
In short, the player must search the world for myrrh, a liquid that combined with the power of the Crystals centered in each town and city of the world, keep the dreaded miasma away from the populace. But the myrrh that is collected only powers the Crystals for a single year, so each year many caravans wander abroad, searching for this all-important liquid.
This year, it’s your turn to go searching for myrrh.
Harkening upon the classic Secret of Mana, or the GBA remake Sword of Mana, this game is presented as an Action/RPG, shown to the viewer as a mostly overhead title. You run around, slash and spell your way through the levels, gaining items and artifacts as you go, and defeat a very large boss at the end. Repeat until you’ve finished the game.
However, this title is much more than that. For starters, not only do you have 4 player capability, but you benefit from the cohesion that a well-played group can bring to this game. Spells can be combined, weapon attacks can be chained one after another, and at the end of the day, you’ll feel like the heroes that the game portrays you as.
How does the average stage play? Well, this varies wildly depending on the number of players. Let’s highlight the average multiplayer game, as this title is a multiplayer game at heart:
The four of you will wander into the newest dungeon, cave, or expansive grassland, looking for myrrh. When you start every stage, you start out with only the basic attack and defend options (unless you’ve earned some very exclusive items). No cure spells, no fireballs, no electrical jolts of lightning.
Your team quickly wails on a few opponents, and from there the fun starts. This creature might drop a cure spell, this one a fire spell, and this one a blizzard spell. From here, you’re ready to cause destruction. While your fighters up front battle anybody else that comes your way, you now have a dedicated healer healing the warriors, while another one casts a fire spell from the relative safety of the back line.
As you progress deeper, you’ll start finding additional spells, as well as items that you’ll keep, allowing you to make better weapons and armor. Now the spellcasters can go nuts. Cast two fire spells at the same time and you have a much more powerful blast of fire. One combination will destroy flying creatures, while another can be used to devastate the undead.
And then you come across the boss. Many, many times larger than you, he’s capable of destroying the most hardened of warriors in only a few blows. Teamwork now fully comes to play. Somebody has to watch the ones fighting up front, raising them from the dead if they don’t do their job properly. Somebody has to concentrate on the occasional reinforcements that’ll surely pop up during combat.
Spells will fly fast and furious on all sides, the heroes only seconds from death. But eventually, good will prevail, and you will win.
Gather up the myrrh, and head back home for some rest and relaxation. While you’re there, replenish your healing items if you used any, and craft new weapons and armor to make your front line that much more powerful.
Notice I never mentioned anything about experience or levels in the description above. That’s because there aren’t any. In an interesting move, the only way to gain power is to craft new weapons and armor, and gather artifacts lying around on the battlefield.
How does one get new artifacts in a multiplayer game? A good question. Situated on the GBA before each area is a little notice like ‘deal damage,’ ‘don’t heal,’ ‘use focus attacks,’ and so on. At the end of each area, the person who complied best with the notice gets first pick of the artifacts gathered. Then it continues down the line. So the party is always competing with itself as well as working together.
In short, this makes for a very exciting game.
Are there any negatives? Well, the single player mode isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the multiplayer one. It’s still fun, and there’s lots of killing, but you’ll quickly wish for a few friends to back you up. Thankfully people can enter at almost any time, providing backup when it’s needed.
In addition, the gameplay can get a bit repetitive at times. You just keep doing the same thing time and time again. It’ll quickly get harder, but it’s still the same exact thing year after year.
However, is it fun? Heck yes. Will you enjoy it in either single or multiplayer? Heck yes.
For those of you who play this game solo, you’ll start to get tired of this title come the fifth or sixth ‘year’ of playing. Thankfully the game can also end at this point if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t have any friends to join in on the action, knock off 10 points easily from this section.
However, if you happen to have multiple friends who are willing to spend the time necessary to play as a well-developed group, you’ll wish that this game will never end. This title emphasizes teamwork above everything else, and in doing so, will give you a game that one can play for almost forever. Or at least until you become so overwhelming powerful that your opponents are no longer a threat.
Games that allow one to have a single player play alongside you the entire time are rare enough, but games that support 4 players are even more scarce. For those of you who have 4 GBAs and enough friends to command them, this is one of the best gaming values out there.