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Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate

It's Final Fantasy, but not as you know it...

Japan Import:You may remember this from GameCube, when we went all giddy with anticipation at the prospect of Final Fantasy returning to Nintendo, then got sick with disappointment when we discovered it wasn't going to be a proper Final Fantasy after all.

We were relieved when it turned out to be more fun than a sack full of moogles, but in the end it didn't matter, since the massive cost and logistical unlikeliness of the four Game Boy Advances and link-up cables required to play it meant that, in the end, hardly anyone actually saw the thing.

Second time lucky
Luckily, the people at Square Enix never forgot just how good Crystal Chronicles was, and, now that they're back in the fold as Market-Leading Nintendo's best buddies and technology has advanced to the stage where wires are quaint little relics from 2004, they've done us a sequel.

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Like the original, it's a dungeon-crawling adventure that plays a little bit like a faster-paced Phantasy Star Online. You control one plucky young warrior, accompanied ideally by three like-minded friends with whom you'll combine magic attacks and take specialised roles in the relentless combat that forms the bulk of the game.

The D-pad makes your bloke scamper around, and every other button is used for picking things up, attacking with the main weapon or using special magic attacks. There's even a jump button, as the game features a lot of simple platforming sections, and the touch screen is used for selecting magic, using potions, accessing menus - and switching between characters if you aren't able to enjoy the full four-player, four-cartridge experience.

There's a lot of stuff going on and it isn't particularly easy to control, especially when the buttons have context-sensitive functions and the more advanced actions require multiple inputs. For example, if you're controlling two characters on your own, which you'll probably have to at some point, combining their magic attacks involves a finger-twisting combination of two shoulder buttons, the touch screen, the D-pad and the X button - and the enemy won't stand there waiting while you fumble up multiple levels of magical fantastic.

These frequent fiddly bits, and a general lack of friendliness that extends to not actually pausing the game when you access the menus in single-player mode, means this lovely new Crystal Chronicles can come across as the cantankerous old bugger of the action-RPG world. Clearly, Square Enix have forgotten that first impressions count.

But while the controls never quite clicked with us, and the diagonal camera view often falls foul of the DS Lite D-pad's utter contempt for diagonal directions, we're really quite taken with the game as a whole.

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Looking good
The main thing is that there's plenty of it and it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. And when you do manage to arrange a four-player session, Crystal Chronicles flies as beautifully as its older, unplayed brother. The more people you've got, the more possibilities there are for the strategic role-play that's so satisfying in this sort of thing. The designated healer will need to collect potions from the others and stand out of the way, reviving doomed colleagues from the safety of the battlefield's margins, while the other players use melée attacks or ranged weapons.

When the time is right, everyone can combine their magic for some devastating blows that require great co-ordination. The ability to pick up and throw smaller enemies adds another element to the action, and while it's rarely difficult to progress through the game, the fun is in battering the enemy as impressively as possible, then scrambling for the shiny goodies that spill from their corpses.

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