It just makes sense
You know what’s really good? Final Fantasy music. I’m not the kind of person who puts video game music in their walking-around playlists, but I’ll frequently pop in a pair of earbuds and simply vibe on the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack. It’s great in the context of the games – Final Fantasy as a franchise plays host to some of the most evocative JRPG battle themes of all time – but it’s also just fun and pleasant to listen to.
So the philosophy behind Theatrhythm Final Bar Line makes sense. Nobody in the world will tell you that the music of Nobuo Uematsu is bad. Even the “worst” Final Fantasy soundtrack is a vibe. Why not make that the whole game? The idea has worked a handful of times before (the first two Theatrhythm games, the arcade spinoff, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, the Japan-exclusive Theatrhythm Dragon Quest), so it should work again.
Yeah, it works
The good news is that Theatrhythm, at least in the recently-released demo, is as good as it’s ever been. Tapping, sliding, and flicking to the beat still feels great. Developer indieszero has proven its competence in the rhythm gaming space time after time, and it seems like Theatrhythm Final Bar Line will continue the trend.
For the most part, this is Theatrhythm as it’s always been. You assemble a small party of doll-like Final Fantasy characters and head into a stage where you’ll tap to the beat of different Final Fantasy tunes. In the demo, songs are separated into Field Stages – usually town themes, overworld exploration songs, and other chilled-out tracks – and Battle Stages – intense fight themes. The final game will also feature stages with cinematics from various Final Fantasy games, but I haven’t had the chance to try those yet.
Variety is the spice of life
Final Bar Line, like its Theatrhythm ancestors, does an excellent job of making Field Stages and Battle Stages feel different. The fundamentals are exactly the same; you tap when a red circle shows up, you hold when a green circle shows up, and you flick whenever you see an arrow. But Field Stages feature sliding notes, which make them feel significantly more free and flowing than the thumping, heavy Battle Stages, where the focus is less on movement and more on keeping track of your fingers. The developers have also done an excellent job of adapting the touch-based controls of the series to a traditional controller. I played the demo on a Nintendo Switch and it only took one track for me to fully adjust to the new control scheme.
The game can get tough, too. Every song has at least three difficulty levels: Standard, Expert, and Ultimate. Some songs also feature an even tougher “Supreme” difficulty. These are truly terrible difficulty labels, but the levels themselves are very nice. Supreme songs will genuinely challenge hardcore rhythm gaming enthusiasts, while babies like me will feel fantastic clearing an Expert level track – sounds better than “second-easiest,” doesn’t it?
Every track can also be played in co-op mode, and my girlfriend and I played around with that a bit. We found the two-player offerings every bit as satisfying as they were in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory‘s best-in-class co-op mode, and I’m glad to have a new multiplayer rhythm game in my pocket.
Not much RPG here
The one area where Theatrhythm Final Bar Line isn’t singing for me just yet is its RPG core. Like the first two Theatrhythm games, Final Bar Line features a rudimentary leveling system. Every character can unlock different abilities, and you can assemble a party of four from a staggering number of Final Fantasy characters. There are also equippable summons, healing items, and a handful of other RPG systems. In theory, there should be a ton of customizability. Unfortunately, none of these abilities feel like they do anything.
Healers make it possible to miss a few more notes than usual, and attackers will engage in little battles on the bottom of the screen that are presumably impacted by their stats and abilities, but none of this feels impactful at all. In some ways, I get the sense that Final Bar Line suffers from its release window. I never minded the relatively shoddy rhythm “combat” in earlier titles, but having just seen Hi-Fi Rush nail this format, it does feel a little disappointing. My performance doesn’t seem to have any impact on the idle game that’s happening underneath the notes, so I can’t bring myself to care too much about what happens down there.
It’s possible that party composition will feel much more exciting in the full game, but at least in the demo, it feels like a basically superfluous system. It’s fun to have Alphinaud and Aerith fight side by side, but I’m not sure what they’re actually doing.
A promising overture
Overall, I feel really good about Theatrhythm Final Bar Line. The modular difficulty makes it easy to find a sweet spot, the different tracks feel varied and interesting, and the co-op offerings are wonderful. I hope the RPG bits get more engaging and interesting as the game goes on, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else the title has to offer.
This is the kind of game I’ve been itching for, and I’m glad it’s finally here. I never doubted that Square Enix and indieszero could make a fun Final Fantasy rhythm game, and it’s nice to be proven right.