Being a fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, I’ve been exposed to a lot of good music and some very poignant melodies that have stuck with me for years – in some cases decades. Aside from purchasing the official soundtrack discs for all the games since Final Fantasy VI, there wasn’t a whole lot to keep me going back to revisit many of the memorable scores I had loved in the past. Until now, that is.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is effectively a new genre (it’s not completely new, but it definitely doesn’t come up very often) – the rhythm RPG. When I first heard of this idea, and watched some trailers from Japan before the game was localized, I wasn’t quite sold. But, the more I heard about it, the cooler it began to sound.
At first glance, you might think, like I did, that a rhythm game based on Final Fantasy is an iffy affair. But, once you get into it, you’ll certainly see how wrong you were.
The basic idea of this game is to tap the touch-screen of the 3DS with the stylus in beat to the music. It’s as simple as that. Of course, like with any rhythm game, you’re given visual cues, as well. The RPG aspect comes into play because you can form your party of four characters from a smattering of personalities from all the Final Fantasy titles up to and including FFXIII. There’s a pretty good variety from the start, but more are unlockable down the line. As you clear stages, you gain experience, which, in turn, levels up your characters. Generally speaking, this is the game at its most basic.
But, as you might expect, it’s so much deeper than that.
There is a story here, but it is very shallow (as expected in a game such as this), because it isn’t the focal point of the game. Chaos and Cosmos are at it again, fighting to get rid of or keep balance in the world. This time, to help restore balance, you have to acquire “Rhythmia” from completing these music courses and put Chaos in his place. That is the story, love it or hate it.
While there is a pretty extensive tutorial at the beginning of the game to help you get acclimated to everything, that drops off before too long, and you’re left with choosing your party members. As I mentioned, this is a Final Fantasy mash-up game, similar to the Dissidia spin-offs, so you can choose your party from a bunch of different characters across all games from the first Final Fantasy until Final Fantasy XIII. One character from each is there from the beginning, and about twice as many can be unlocked during the course of the game. My initial party was Lightning, Squall, Tidus and Cecil.
Each character has three or four ability slots, as well, and a resource called CP that you acquire as you level up to be able to equip more abilities. The cool thing about the abilities is that, while they obviously have to be adapted to the type of game this is, they all have something that relates to their known qualities throughout the franchise. Some are pretty straightforward, such as the magic abilities (Fire, Thunder, etc.), as these do damage to enemies during the battle sequences when certain prerequisites are met. Others are more subtle and give an individual character or your entire party a boost in a certain attribute, or a better chance at clearing certain music sequences.
You also gain equippable items, as well, as you progress through the game. You can equip one item at a time for the entire party, and once it is used, it is consumed. This isn’t really an issue because you get a plethora of items as you advance.
Both abilities and items may not seem needed during the easier parts of the game – the basic courses and such – but as you progress into the dreadfully nightmarish Chaos Shrine, tackling dark notes (I’ll discuss these later), you’ll be thankful for them.
There are three main modes that you can choose to traverse, but only one is available from the start. A story mode, a challenge mode and the aforementioned Chaos Shrine. Each piece of music – regardless of mode – is broken down into one of three categories. You have your field music, battle music and event music. Veterans of the franchise will be able to distinguish them without having it explained, but for clarity sake, here’s the breakdown.
Field music are songs that are played during the overworld sections of these games. Earlier titles contain “world map” music sequences, such as “Blue Fields” from Final Fantasy VIII. Later titles may contain songs from individual “zones”, such as the theme that plays as you traverse the Sunleth Waterscape in FFXIII. Battle music is pretty self-explanatory, and can be comprised of any music that plays during any battle – from normal battles to iconic boss sequences (“One Winged Angel” comes to mind). Event music is usually a sweeping orchestral score that plays during emotional cut scenes or themes that persist throughout the game, such as “Aerith’s Theme” from FFVII.
In addition to those three main categories, each game you play through has an “intro” and an “ending credits” mini-game, which isn’t required, isn’t scored and doesn’t really affect you in any other way other than gain you a bit of extra Rhythmia. It can be skipped or played through regardless, although some of the songs that are contained in these are pretty memorable in themselves, as they are typically the music the games actually begin and end with and are worth playing through at least once.
The story mode takes you through each of the thirteen Final Fantasy titles in any order you want. For each title you’ll play through, one piece of field music, one piece of battle music and one piece of event scene music, as well as the opening and ending music that I just mentioned, if you so choose. Naturally, you’re rated on how accurate you are in hitting the notes on the cues.
The kicker here is that each of the three categories plays slightly differently. Not much, but enough to keep things interesting. Event scenes are deceptively difficult, with their reticule that is always on the move, and which speeds up and slows down to the music. Battle music has four rows of reticules, one for each of your party members, and is usually easier, although it’s more up-tempo, simply because you can keep on the beat and do pretty well. Field music is a mixture of the two. There’s just one line, but you move the stylus up and down to follow the flow of the music, so to speak.
As you clear all these stages in this mode, the songs unlock in the challenge mode, which lets you do them on a higher difficulty. If you, then, clear the song with a rating of “A” or higher at that point, then an even more ridiculous difficulty opens up that will truly test your prowess with the stylus (and you can then go through the story mode again at the higher difficulty to level up other characters, if you so choose).
The Chaos Shrine houses what are called Dark Notes. These are combinations of tracks at a pretty high difficulty – one field music track and one battle music track. Each dark note has three possible bosses, which each drop three possible items. After you clear each Dark Note, whether you beat any bosses or not, you get another Dark Note. In this mode there is also ad-hoc play, as well, so you can challenge your friends if each of you has a 3DS with the game and is there sitting next to each other.
Let me tell you, there is no shortage to content in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. The “main story” might only last a few hours, however this game goes so far beyond that it is pretty ridiculous – in a good way. Of course, the better you perform a course, the more Rhythmia you get. Every 500 Rhythmia you collect, you unlock something. It could be new music in the player, a new video to watch, a new colored shard (collecting eight of the same color unlocks a new character) or some other unlockable goodie.
As far as the gameplay goes, there are a couple drawbacks. I feel, sometimes, that my hand cannot make the movements quick enough that some of these tracks want me to make on the intense difficulty levels. It’s especially problematic with the notes that require you to slide the stylus in one direction or another, and then gets worse in the extreme difficulties when the arrows on those notes start to rotate so you have to anticipate the direction they will be facing when they pass over the reticule. Even if I can do it, it doesn’t seem to register sometimes. It isn’t simply me “missing” the note, but I think sometimes the game requires you to perform so quickly that the screen itself doesn’t pick up your movement or distinguish it from the one before it.
Also, I’m a bit disappointed songs such as “Kiss Me Goodbye” and “My Hands” didn’t make it into the game. While these may be available later as DLC, and they aren’t as iconic as something like my favorite (“Melodies of Life”), they still would be better for the event scene music than the songs for those games they included. (Hey, “Kiss Me Goodbye” is a great song, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the game it was included in. Don’t judge me.)
Finally, also relating to the music selection, I’m saddened that the extended English version of “Melodies of Life” is not included. They did, however, put in two versions of “Sutake da ne”, which is highly pleasing to me.
Ultimately, I think there is a lot to love here for gamers and rhythm fans in general, but the real beauty of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is likely to only be appreciated by fans of the franchise. These are the songs and this is the music we grew up on. Personally, it’s a flashback to what really jump-started my love for this franchise specifically, but also RPGs in general.
When I first started playing Theatrhythm, I went straight to Final Fantasy VI, then hit Final Fantasy VII. I played them back to back and a smile never left my face the entire time. While a lot can be said – good or bad – about Square-Enix’s more recent penchant to go crazy with spin-offs and re-releases, in this one case I think they hit the nail on the head. It’s a unique and memorable trip down memory lane, which also offers a lot of fun and challenge for the modern gamer.
Simply put: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is one of the best games I’ve played on the Nintendo 3DS to date and is a definite “must buy” for any owner of that handheld.