Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time review
Time To Get Into This Fantasy
The original Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the Gamecube was a game that was fun but was clearly built entirely with the (rather expensive) multiplayer setup in mind, leaving the single player options more as an afterthought. Fast forward to the DS and this new entry in this subseries Echoes of Time, hoping that it can carry forward the quality of the original while addressing the issues that came with it.
The story is fairly weak, especially for a RPG but also in general. Your character takes on a coming of age ceremony that involves fighting monsters (because, sure, why not?). An illness in the village leads you into the world to find medicine and eventually you discover things about ancient civilisations and magic crystals and some other stuff. Honestly, I didn't care. I wasn't given a reason to care about the characters and despite the game's attempts to shock with its plot twists, these things could be seen coming a mile away. Only towards the end as the conclusion was drawing near did I start to take an interest, though by that point it was a little late.
It's definitely a pretty game to look at. There are four races in the game with gender counterparts for each as well as a myriad of unique design NPCs scattered about. There's a bit of an unsettling frozen face thing going on but otherwise the animation for them is rather solid. One aspect I love about the character models is that when you change the equipment of a party member this is actually visibly reflected onscreen. You don't see that very often in RPGs so I can really appreciate that neat touch. In addition to the playable species you have all sorts of monster designs from simple foxes and skeletons to more elaborate creations, especially when it comes to many of the game's towering bosses.
You get to explore a number of different areas giving you the typical themes like an ice covered mountain, a serene forest and ancient ruins teeming with secrets. A little odd to see the ice mountain practically right next to an active volcano but nevermind. All of it looks good up close as you explore each location. The DS's dual screens are used effectively, by presenting the action on the top screen and offering a map as well as access to touchable actions on the bottom screen.
It's not all good news though. The isometric viewing angle combined with some general layout can sometimes make it rather tricky to accurately judge where certain objects are in relation to your character, which is especially bad where the game is asking you to make precision jumps over hazards. The other issue is that sometimes parts of the scenery will block the view. It's not that much fun to be trying to fight an enemy you can't see or wondering if there's an item there. Quite why these objects don't become semi-transparent when they block the view is a mystery.
The music is cheery and nice and all that kind of stuff. I must say though that none of it can be called amazing. It's just... there, in the background humming along to the mass slaughter happening onscreen. The sound effects do at least enhance the action, with character yells and the whooshes of weapon swings and spell explosions flying around in all directions.
The game also manages to squeeze out some voice acting for its important cutscenes, although opting to skip it for most of the ingame dialogue. Something about it doesn't really strike me as great though.
The game plays out as an action RPG, where you actively move a character around fighting enemies and generally exploring. At the start of the game you can chose your race and gender which affects your appearance, starting equipment and what area you're more skilled in. As you progress you can chose your equipment to match whatever style you want. Whatever options you choose, all races have the same combat options open to them in varying ways. You have a basic attack that can produce simple combo attacks which will likely form the main focus of your fighting. You can also access other attack options through your chosen weapon by unlocking them as you progress, such as being able to charge a normal attack for extra damage. You also have options for how you attack, like jumping on top of an enemy to smack them or grabbing hold of them.
Physical fighting is complimented by an excellent magic system. You have six magic types available to you, which can easily be switched between by tapping the icons on the bottom screen. Some spells are offensive based, such as the fire and blizzard options, while others are more supportive, like cure and raise. Casting a spell is as simple as holding a button to bring up the targetting ring and then directing it to your target. The game also lets you stack spells, which can either produce more powerful variants of the spell, like casting cura for more healing power, or produce entirely different effects, like casting fire and cure to buff defences. The game only tells you a few of the combinations though so the rest is trial and error. You can stack spells either with other characters in the party or on your own by using L to lock a spell in place while you cast another. Supportive spells are naturally extremely useful but the offensive ones also manage to win a place in the action as some enemies are pretty resistant to physical attacks but less so to magic. The effects they can have too, like freezing an enemy solid, will no doubt prove useful. Magic is limited by your magic meter, which is replenished by collecting items dropped by enemies or other objects. The frequency of these items is very good, letting you use magic a lot without letting you outright abuse it.
Enemies come in all sorts of types and pose varies risks to you, whether they are limited to simple melee attacks, casting their own magic spells, area of effect strikes or firing frigging laser beams at you. You end up learning the different traits of each type and it can be a lot of fun. The bosses take this up a notch with their own specific attacks and vulnerabilities. One boss is best attacked by jumping on its head and beating it up, while another can have its flames doused with water.
I've mentioned party a few times now so I should probably discuss that more, especially as it is an area that improves immensely from the Gamecube game. Like that game, you have the option to play with other players, although you can do so locally or over WiFi. What impresses me though is that you can still play single player with a full party. In this case the computer takes control of whoever you are not controlling. The game even lets you make your party members in the same way you made your own character. The computer is a bit hit and miss in regards to their intelligence though. Sometimes they're pretty good, getting involved in smacking enemies about, using effective spells to smash through defences and having the sense to use healing and status curing spells when in danger. This is also marred by them sometimes doing some absolutely stupid things for no reason. I've seen them jump into the abyss or walk into spikes because they're so focused on trying to follow me that they don't seem to notice the hazards or other times they will literally just stand there while enemies flock around. The last few areas of the game seem to demonstrate this the most, with me spending about 1/3 of the last battle just reviving them. It's not enough to call them useless though but it does demonstrate the large gap that still exists between an effective human player and the computer. Regardless of that I felt that having their support was better than having none at all. You can switch control to one of the party members or instantly warp everyone to you at the press of a button. You can also switch between single and multiplayer options at any save crystal, so you're not locked into a particular style once you start a game file.
The equipment setup is very robust too. You can outfit anyone in your party with weapons, armour, headwear and an accessory. Each of these affect stats as well as some offering extra bonuses. To get these items you can either opt for the more direct route and purchase them or you can opt to have them crafted. This requires buying the scroll first for an item and then paying money and materials gained from the levels. The items on offer differ from those you can buy directly. You can also generate jewels and then attach them to equipment for added effects. It can be a lot to take in though, especially at first if you happen to build a full party of 4 members the first chance you get (like I did) but it's a system worth getting used to.
Exploring the different areas is more than just beating up monsters. There's a degree of challenge in finding your way around, as although the game gives you maps you still have to figure out how to open that locked door or how to get across that gaping chasm. The more simple puzzles may simply task you with hitting a switch or taking an item and placing it on a specific spot. Later areas challenge you with moving objects in such a way as to create a suitable bridge to carry an object across or manipulating moving platforms in a manner that lets you reach an otherwise out of reach location. I do think the combat side of things is more impressive, but I think they've made a good effort on this side too. In some areas there are even places that are entirely optional but can be challenged to reach. One requires you to take a pot, carry it back to a blocked path and then set it on fire to blow up the obstruction. I was quite impressed with myself when I figured the trick out.
At times you're required to do a little platforming and this can be a little hit and miss. The problem tends to be more in judging the platforms accurately from the isometric viewpoint and it certainly led to a few falls into the abyss or lava or whatever hazard waited before. Fortunately, such falls don't result in instant death but a loss of health and being warped back onto the level. It's still annoying though and I found myself relying on my chosen tribe's midair jump ability a lot. Sometimes though this isn't anywhere near as problematic and can even be interesting, so it might come down to what consequences you face if you miss a platform. It does tend to hurt more than it works so I just am thankful that the game doesn't place as great as focus on it as the other elements.
The game is quite helpful in letting you know where you need to go for the most part. In most cases the game directs you via NPC conversations, but for the few times it doesn't or if you forget then the game keeps a log that helps you find the next destination. Unfortunately, I must criticise the save system in this game. You can only save at special crystals scattered around the game world, which also serve to fully heal your party. However, there are times where you can go quite some time between these crystals. While you can simply use the DS's sleep mode, I feel this is not as good as offering a more flexible save system which I consider an important factor for a handheld game.
There's a fairly challenging experience in here, which lets the player choose their own difficulty so you make it as hard or as easy as you dare. It's also quite a lengthy adventure, with plenty of content to find. The replay value can be knocked a bit as the game already has you playing through some areas more than once, only from a different entrance and tackling some moved about puzzles.
I'm pleased with the direction the game took. OK, I thought the story side was handled poorly, the isometric view could interfere at times and the save system needs revision. However, I found myself completely drawn in by the interesting combat system that was complimented by locations that were fun to explore and numerous ideas that work quite well. I can certainly recommend this game for RPG fans.
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