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Square Enix plots the European appearance of Zack Fair, the return of Cloud Strife, and the conclusion to the 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII'...
It may have been released over a decade ago, but there's little argument amongst fans of Square Enix (or perhaps of Japanese RPGs in general), that the pinnacle of the genre to date was 1997's Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation. Introducing the world to one of the more durable J-RPG characters in Cloud Strife and his nemesis, Sephiroth, Final Fantasy VII remains at the core of any JRPG fan's collection. Which is perhaps why Square Enix have been loathe to leave it be ever since; practically touching every media is the so-called 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII', a grand opus of titles all set in the world ruled by the Shinra Electric Energy Company. We've already had 'Before Crisis' for mobiles (in Japan at least), the CGI movie 'Advent Children', and the action/adventure 'Dirge of Cerberus', so to finish the circle, the publisher has turned to the PSP and produced Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
Already available with great fanfare in Japan, the fact that a limited edition PSP was produced to coincide with the launch says it all, TVG caught an airship to Midgar to analyse the Crisis close up...
The Final Piece Of The Puzzle.
Set seven years before the events of the original Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core focuses on the story of Zack Fair, Cloud Strife's best friend (and 'influence'), and a key player at the so-called 'Nibelheim Incident', who dies before the events of FFVII occur. Beginning as a 2nd Class warrior for Shinra's SOLDIER military division before getting promoted after a desertion of troops, Fair's formative years and rise within SOLDIER are the centre-piece of Crisis Core, as the Shinra super soldier struggles against the loss of his mentor and the desertion of key commanders. In a similar move to Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core breaks from traditional by focusing entirely on Zack, dropping the traditional party structure in a bid to create a solid story arc.
Unveiled back at E3 2004 - yes it really has taken nearly four years to come to fruition - Crisis Core very much follows the Dirge of Cerberus school of thought. Breaking away from the traditional turn-based structure for a more free-flowing action-orientated affair, Crisis Core features a strange mix of elements from turn-based RPGs and real-time action titles, making for gameplay that Square Enix hopes will prove compelling and deep for fans and newcomers alike. At the heart of this shift is the Digital Mind Wave...
The new 'DMW' is an attempt by the team at Square to deliver an element of fate into Zack's story. A fruit machine-like trio of barrels that randomly select numbers and avatars from the game, the DMW does seem like a perplexing addition to the gameplay, especially since it's largely out of the control of players. Linked to both levelling up and a raft of special powers (not to mention the rather nifty ability to fill health and power meters), the charm of the mechanic is that it's not just a tacked on feature added just for the sake of Crisis Core getting an 'original' feature. By being linked to such an intrinsic element of an RPG, the DMW certainly seems like a more solid attempt at bridging traditional RPG gameplay with faster, real-time based action. At least, that's the theory. What remains to be seen is whether the near-randomness of the DMW's ability to level up Zack as the story progress pushes the frustration levels a little too far. It's certainly a nice addition when luck is in your favour, but we're not entirely convinced just yet whether the control-freak nature of many RPG fans will take to its twist of fate.
But it's not out of the gamer's hands entirely.
Power selection, and the ability to use magic and items, is within the grasp of players. Much in the same way as volumes of turn-based RPGs have done in the past, Crisis Core allows gamers to select and execute melee and magic attacks or refill health bars using the shoulder buttons, except that there's no pause in the action. As you'd expect, the knock on effect of this juggling action between attack selection in the corner of the PSP screen and dodging enemy attacks gets a little tricky, especially if Zack is on his last legs and you're desperately scrolling through for that life-saving health potion. Crisis Core also marks the return of Final Fantasy VII mechanic, Materia, together with the ability to mix and match different actions to form new Materia attacks or upgrade available ones.
Besides the as expected glorious CG work of the cut-scenes, Crisis Core's visuals are of a much higher standard than a lot of other PSP titles out there. Slick, fast, and fluid to boot, it's certainly looking like the time it's taken to get Crisis Core out onto Sony's portable has been well spent, crafting high production values alongside a storyline and gameplay experience that stands on its own two feet - despite the backing of the illustrious Final Fantasy VII name.
The Genesis Of Shinra's Shenanigans.
Beyond the main storyline, gamers can also take part in a wealth of side-missions, whether that's in a series of head-to-head face offs with the Shinra Security Team, mopping up the remaining Wutai forces, or facing up to captured summons in a 'battle sim'. In other words, prepare for what's shaping up to be an extensive and varied experience. With the main thread looking a little unsuited to portable play, thanks to significant gaps between save points, we can't imagine having a quick blast of Crisis Core on the commute. However, these side-missions seem to be Square Enix's way of injecting an array of smaller, bite-sized scenarios for gamers to explore and complete.
In light of the delay in getting Crisis Core over to Europe, and North America for that matter, Square Enix have added a 'Hard Mode' difficulty setting. Whilst perhaps not quite the bonus or compensation package that some of the hardcore will have expected, the Hard Mode does at least suggest quite openly that Square Enix views Eastern and Western audiences very differently when it comes to a more action-orientated title.
There's little doubt that Final Fantasy VII continues to be held in very high regard by gamers, but ten years after the original broke new barriers on the burgeoning PlayStation brand, is there actually an audience for Crisis Core and its nods to the past? Whilst the hardcore cosplaying Clouds will no doubt flock to their local stores when the game hits them in a couple of months, it's very questionable whether it'll be seen as anything more of a 10th birthday celebratory piece of nostalgia. Of course, with over 770,000 units sold in Japan to date, Crisis Core is far from a flop, but perhaps it's just not the Final Fantasy VII instalment that gamers have been crying out for - let's face it, who wouldn't want to see the original getting a transformation on the seven-core strong PlayStation 3???
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