Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Bringing a new meaning to 'grindcore'
25th Mar 2012 | 15:00
Final Fantasy introduced rhythm to role-playing with its Active Time Battle System. Now, with this, it's returning the favour by introducing role-playing to rhythm action.
The awkwardly named Theatrhythm is similar in execution to the Elite Beat Agents/Ouendan games, except instead of tapping along to cheesy pop songs and thus solving babysitting crises, you're ploughing through abridged versions of classic Final Fantasy storylines while orchestral scores boom from the 3DS's diddy speakers. Before you can tippity-tap along with Mambo De Chocobo, however, things get a little RPGy.
Your first task is to assemble a party of four from a hero selection including FFVII's Cloud, FFXIII's Lightning and - everybody's favourite - the Warrior of Light from Final Fantasy. This appears to be cosmetic fluff at first glance, but further prodding of the Japanese menus reveals the party system's hidden depths.
Each hero boasts three inventory slots that can be filled with character-specific skills that alter the conditions. For example, you can activate a modifier that lessens the chance of tripping when you miss a note during the Field phase (of which more later).
It's handy if you're a klutz, but more confident players may prefer to use the slot on a skill that offers bonuses in lieu of cheats - one that improves the chance of finding rare items such as Crystal Fragments, for example, as they can unlock the likes of FFVII's Aerith Gainsborough (Deceased).
Each successful note hit increases your 'Rhythmpo' score, which is the Square Enix Random Word Generator's way of saying 'Experience Points'. As your party members level up their stats rise in turn, meaning they learn new skills, deal more damage and just generally get a little more bad-ass.
One Hitpoint Wonder
Once you're finally all tinkered-out with the customisation menus, your first port of call will be Series mode, where you can play through plot outlines of the first 13 'core' games in any order you fancy. As we alluded to earlier, each story is split into three distinct sections; Event, Field and Battle.
Event is by far the least involved of the three (so much so there's an option to skip it), as all you do is tap a crystal in time with the music while a melodramatic cutscene plays out. The remaining two segments make up the meat of the game, and it's here where the Ouendan influence is most keenly felt.
Field takes place in the Overworld, where the aim is to encourage your squad to cover as much distance as possible by tapping and tracing over markers as they pass above your head. And the further you travel, the greater the chance of bumping into bonus characters bearing gifts. The Battle segment works on a similar basis, except this time you're racing to polish off as many monsters as possible before the song ends.
Although Theatrhythm is keen to make an impression on the genre with its mish-mash of playing styles and tactical options, for the first few hours you find yourself wondering if all the complexity is strictly necessary. No doubt about it, Theatrhythm is the show-pony of the rhythm action genre - while rivals dial back flair for functionality's sake, Theatrythm knows the most powerful weapon in its inventory is its ability to trade on nostalgia.
Iconic action sequences and cutscenes have been pilfered and painstakingly reproduced from across the Final Fantasy spectrum - from blocky NES text to PlayStation FMV - and it would take Sean Connery-levels of manliness to stifle a tear when you're reunited with a favourite scene or tune. For this reason, Square Enix are eager to push them to the forefront of the player's consciouness - sometimes to the game's detriment.
Tellingly, the markers are located on the top screen, where the action is. While this means you never miss a graphical flourish - a common occurrence in Ouendan - having the markers and the input mechanic on separate screens creates a dissonance that makes hitting a perfect note far less satisfying than it is in Ouendan.
That's not to say it isn't a good game. but you never lose yourself in the music in the same way you do in iNiS' games.It's also a slow starter. The default difficulty is set far too low (presumably to give you a chance to soak in the graphical splendour), but once you complete a title in full you get the chance to replay sections at a more challenging pace. Still too easy? Then give the Chaos Shrine a visit - it's a nightmarish remix mode that requires as much dexterity as Ouendan's Insane mode, particularly in later stages, when the markers begin spinning as you're trying to hit them...
With over 70 songs squashed onto the cartridge, Theatrhythm is by no means a slight game, but should you ever exhaust its collection there's the option of buying extra tracks via an in-game menu (no having to flee back to the 3DS splash screen, then).
While it's no classic, Theatrhythm certainly hums a pretty tune, but come its release in the UK this summer, the eventual review score will depend on whather it manages to really get stuck in our heads for good.