Ah, Final Fantasy VII. While most people bash it for being overrated, I still consider it one of the best RPGs I've ever played. Of course, the last time I played it was when the Final Fantasy games were still final and Tactics was one of the few titles to go without a series of V's and I's at the end of it's name. These days, things are a little different. Gone is Squaresoft, now going by the name of SQUEENIX (or Square-Enix, if you're not down with the hip abbreviation). Now, don't get me wrong. I liked Square and I liked Enix, but I can't say I'm a big fan of Square-Enix.
Ever since the merger, it seems as though the Final Fantasy games have stopped being so final. The release of Advent Children, a movie about some spiky haired emo chick fighting a bunch of silver haired chicks (sorry for the spoilers, that's pretty much the whole movie), started a trend of idiotic side-stories taking place in the world of Materia and mako energy. Unless you've been living under a rock your whole life, you probably already know that the seventh game in the FF series was a great success, so it's no wonder why Square-Enix has decided to milk it for all it's worth with a shit ton of sequels. I'm sure some people (the kind who write fanficton about Sephiroth having hot steamy sex with the other characters) think this is awesome news, but unfortunately, I'm one of the people who would rather leave the game in the past and not run the risk of fancy new graphics ruining my good childhood memories of the original.
After falling asleep during Advent Children and wishing I hadn't wasted a rental on Dirge of Cerberus, it's no surprise that I was a little skeptical about Crisis Core. I wasn't really sure I'd like it even if it was good, just because I hated Advent Children soooo much. Well, considering the 12 hours of precious, non-refundable life I've put into it over the past couple days, I can't honestly say I hate it.
Crisis Core is not what I expected it to be. I was expecting Final Fantasy VII with a different story and prettier graphics, but I got something quite different than the original game. Not having done any kind of research before playing it, I had no idea that it was a prequel to FF7 rather than some weak bullshit sequel. With sequels, I feel like they're just tacked on, with whatever pretty characters they want to throw in to make it a hit with the fangirls. With prequels, a little more effort is required for everything to make sense and work together with the original story of FF7. It's more interesting to play through and be like "Oh, so THAT'S why this happened in FF7." Crisis Core won some points with me the second I saw the word "prequel" describing it.
One thing I really hated about Advent Children was the over-the-top fight scenes. Yeah, they were cool and all, but they just didn't feel right. Neither did the characters' more life-like appearances. Call me a purist or whatever, but it just bothered me. There was a point in time when I thought of Cloud as the blocky mess of a protagonist that starred in a great RPG. Now, I think of Cloud as an androgynous emo kid that looks more like a J-pop singer than the world-saving type. The opening cinema was just as ridiculous as anything from Advent Children, but it's quite a bit easier to look past it when the characters waving their swords about aren't the same ones from 1997.
Zack, the main character of Crisis Core, is quite the opposite of Cloud. He's silly, reckless, and just a lot more fun to play as. Unlike most RPGs, you don't really have a party of characters. Zack is the only character you play as, which makes sense considering the way the game plays. The combat system is more similar to the real-time action of Kingdom Hearts than the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy VII, which was another big surprise to me. In a combat situation, Zack can run around, attack, dodge, and guard freely. These commands are available at the push of the button, while using magic and items will require the L/R buttons to cycle through the menu at the bottom of the screen. The combat is actually a lot of fun, though simple and repetitive. The battles ARE (kinda) random, but the way the most areas are structured (hallways and rooms, with encounters only taking place in rooms) makes them easy to avoid. If you end up out in the field, however, be prepared to fight every step of the goddamned way.
While the battles are pretty simple on the surface, the DMW (Digital Mind Wave) changes things up a bit. A slot machine-like set of reels constantly spin during battle, randomly stopping on various combinations of numbers and character portraits. Depending on how many 7's pop up, Zack will gain helpful status effects, such as invincibility or no-cost magic casting for a limited time. If two matching characters appear on the outer reels, you'll enter "Modulation Phase", which is your chance for a limit break (if the middle reel stops on the same character), Materia level up (if two reels stop on the same number), or a level up (if all three reels stop on 7).
Exploring is pretty typical RPG fare, talking to NPCs and such, but one thing you'll notice is how limited you are in places to go. You can wander about Midgar, but every other location you visit is determined through story events. Crisis Core isn't your typical console JRPG, but more of a toned down handheld one. There's no large world for you to explore or lengthy side-missions for you to complete. Instead, the story is fairly linear and you're pretty much stuck going from one event to the other, aside from a few tiny side-quests that you can take on while you're in Midgar. Of course, taking the place of side-missions are a wealth of non-story missions (300, in fact) that can be taken on from any save point. These missions are unlocked by talking to certain NPCs, progressing the storyline, and of course, completing already unlocked missions. The missions are great because you can finish most of them fairly quickly and save right afterward, making them perfect for a portable game. The only downfall is that every one of them boils down to the same thing: hunt down a certain monster (which will physically appear in the world, rather than being a random fight) and kill it. As repetitive as they are, I've probably spent most of my 12 hours with the game completing these missions. They're addictive, if nothing else.
Okay, so I like Crisis Core. The combat is fun and the missions are addictive as hell. The story is pretty okay so far, but I'm not on the edge of my seat to see what happens next or anything. Unfortunately, among all the good, the game does have a few flaws. The DMW system is kind of annoying, with no real way to affect its outcome. There's no experience system, at least not a visible one, so gaining levels is pretty much random. I suppose it would make more sense if there was an underlying experience count, but that doesn't really explain why my friend leveled up three times in a single mission. Limit breaks are just as random and summons are so rare that I often forget they're even in the game. As you get more limit breaks, cutscenes depicting Zack's ties to the characters will start to play during Modulation Phase, which gets kind of tiring after a while.
The biggest flaw to some may lie in the difficulty level of the game. If you're looking for a challenge, Crisis Core is NOT for you. Okay, maybe if you play on Hard Mode, but Normal Mode is a walk in the park. The combat is so simple that, if you have enough HP, you can pretty much just tap the attack button until you hit a Modulation Phase, at which point you can just let the cutscenes win the battle for you. Also, you're never without healing items or any other kind of items for that matter, as you can buy items from your menu screen at any point in the game.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII may not be for everybody. It's a fairly shallow action RPG (though the Materia Fusion system adds a bit of depth) with simple gameplay and very little challenge. However, the missions can get really addictive and the combat is fun. For fans of FF7, this is a great game, flaws or not. The story is interesting if you've played the original game, though some things kind of bothered me. How the hell can I buy items from online shops and maintain an e-mail account in this game while I couldn't in Final Fantasy VII? Maybe it has something to do with Zack's SOLDIER status, but it just sometimes seems like technology is more advanced in this game than in the "future" one.
Ah, nevermind. If you're not a fan of FF7 or have never played the original game, I still recommend you give Crisis Core a try. In terms of gameplay, it's nothing like FF7. Don't forget, it's a prequel to FF7, so newcomers are welcome. Just don't expect to pick up and enjoy FF7 after playing this graphical beauty of a game.