The Final Fantasy series can be a sore subject today. There are two camps: people who will play anything with the name Final Fantasy in the title, and people who loved the old Final Fantasy games and stubbornly refuse to play the new ones.I fit into the first of those camps. My love for the series burns, since I love it knowing that the newer Final Fantasy titles are gorgeous but seriously lacking, mostly in coherent plot. It seems that nostalgia works both ways in this case: a good source of revenue from diehard fanboys and fangirls but no revenue from the latter fans. To celebrate twenty-five years of Final Fantasy, the company worked with developer Indes Zero to produce Theatrhythm Final Fantasy for the Nintendo 3DS two years ago and, it came to my mind recently, since it was announced that Japan is getting an extended version sometime soon. This title is unconventional in that it is the first Final Fantasy rhythm game and it is the second Final Fantasy title that forces me to recheck my browser to make sure I’ve spelled it correctly again and again (The first being Final Fantasy Dissidia 012 Duodecim; wordsmiths, they are not). I bought the game knowing that it is only a matter of time before I purchase any Final Fantasy title (except a XIII sequel), especially one with Cloud Strife in it.
Final Fantasy fans can rejoice because each game from I–XIII in the main series is represented here. For Final Fantasy Dissidia fans, you will be familiar with the cast of main protagonists. Later in the game, some side characters become available as well, but they will take a lot of dedication to acquire. Theatrhythm has its own style to incorporate each definitively realized title. To do so, each character is a cutesy version of the original. In that sense the game is irresponsibly cute—characters, villains, and monsters are animated in a way that will make some long-time fans squeal with delight and the art seems fitting for the casual rhythm genre. Even Sephiroth looks huggable. The storyline is simple, superficial, and will cause more head scratching than interest. Chaos, the main villain of the Final Fantasy Dissidia games, can only be defeated by the power of rhythmia, that is, music. This can only be collected by once again experiencing the iconic music of each game. Really, the story should have been left out altogether.
The game has three main ways of playing: series play, challenge mode, and chaos shrine mode. The only mode open at the very beginning is series mode, in which the player must play five songs from a selected title with varying gameplay types. A team consists of four protagonists, and while there are subtle differences in stat bonuses and abilities, the game is not difficult enough for players to worry if they simply choose their favorite characters. The first and last of these songs in the series are both simple, not even games really; they are simply the opening and closing themes in levels that can be skipped and, in all honesty, will be. While these two levels are nostalgic as they represent moving themes, the player simply taps on the bottom screen as notes congregate in a crystal at the top of the screen. There is no punishment for failure or for skipping these first and last stages. They are just game fluff—a weak start. The real game begins as the player faces the three different series gameplay styles: BMS, FMS, and EMS. They each stand for battle, field, and event music stages respectively.
BMS stages are the most recognizable for FF fans in that there is an enemy on the left screen and protagonists on the right screen, lined up as they had been in games I–VI. They feature, as one would expect, battle themes. Three different types of circles move across the screen that the player must hit as they reach an empty circle next to the protagonist with varying degrees of accuracy to attain a high score. The gameplay is simple in that the player must either tap, swipe in a given direction, or hold a given circle, depending on circle color. These taps, swipes, and holds are the sole mechanic of the game, even throughout each game type. The goal of BMS mode is to destroy the enemies that appear with attacks and, depending on a player’s performance, summons, spells, and abilities are employed. As with all of the modes, if a player cannot keep up with the beat, a shared health bar will decrease until the party survives or is defeated. In FMS stages, the player must move as far as they can across recognizable and game-dependent backdrops while hitting notes and holding notes as they move up and down. Lastly, the most iconic stages are EMS stages, in which an empty circle moves without player control across various nostalgic videos. While these video scenes showcase the game and are the most emotion-provoking, they are the most limited in number. All of the basic series songs shouldn’t give an experienced player trouble; it is only once the game moves beyond series mode that it becomes a real challenge.
In challenge mode, the player can play each of their previously played songs in basic mode, expert mode, and, for the very good, challenge mode. In the more challenging modes, the game becomes as difficult as any good rhythm game can be and I still find some of the songs, even several hours in, impossible to master. The game is not limited to these relatively few songs from the Final Fantasy library. In chaos shrine mode, players will face two songs in a row at very high difficulties, with great rewards if conquered. Many of the songs in this mode are not in the series titles, and are often exciting to unlock. It is also unforgiving in that the only way to unlock more of these chaos shrine modes is to survive one or to streetpass with another Final Fantasy music savant. Chaos shrine mode serves as an endgame for players who want to master the rhythm and unlock various goodies like encore songs, extra characters, and collectable virtual cards. Also, if even the seventy-or-so total tracks are not enough, players can download what is now a small library of music for a dollar per song. This is notable since Theatrhythm was the first Nintendo 3DS title with DLC therefore, one of the first Nintendo-licensed products to ever receive DLC, if not the first.
The game offers both fun and challenge, as it is easy to get swept up into playing for hours but can easily be picked up and put down between meetings, haircuts, or whatever else we handheld gamers do. The 3D offers little, as it only enhances the moving notes but not the more interesting bits like movies or characters. Character statistics and abilities add little to the experience and are far simpler than the normal intricacies that the series usually offers. The game can be a little easier with healing spells and flares firing across the screen, but the game really breaks down to how well and timely a player can tap, swipe, or hold each note.
That is not the real sell of this game though. Let’s face it: nostalgia is the game’s selling point. Theatrhythm fits a niche of players who have fallen in love with the music of Final Fantasy. Nobuo Uematsu and his peers have been featured in concerts, compilations, and remixes and they deserve a title that gives that music the spotlight. While not a title for the mainstream, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is a great rhythm game with only a few complaints though it feels like a reminder that Final Fantasy has gone from a mainstream franchise to a too few, far-between, and underwhelming series of games from its once-rich heritage. It is certainly not as fulfilling an experience as Final Fantasy Dissidia, the first game to tie so many titles together and, for a player who has never played a Final Fantasy game, it may only serve as a short diversion or should be completely ignored. It is what it is, which makes it a very niche game. However, it does serve to keep the spark of fandom from waning for a series that has had such celebrated success and is but one of a select few videogame legends still playing encores after twenty-five years.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames