For four years, Square-Enix have teased us with one of the most eagerly anticipated games across any console. It's been almost exactly four years since Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII was announced, and it took over three of those years for the game to arrive in Japan, and an additional six months for it to hit North America. To me, Final Fantasy VII remains as the epitome of storytelling in the FF franchise. While games like Final Fantasy XII have made strides in gameplay and freedom, FFVII's presentation, story, and memorability cannot be toppled. For the past two weeks, I've been playing Crisis Core for a considerable amount of time, having completed it once, and now replaying it yet again – I know how I feel about it.
By now, I'm sure you know that Crisis Core is a prequel to Final Fantasy VII. Crisis Core begins seven years before the events of Final Fantasy VII, and it explains the life of Zack, how he met Aerith, how he met Cloud, and so forth. If you've never played FFVII, I suppose the following are spoilers – but if you have, here's a refresher: Zack Fair is the character who Cloud confuses himself with in FFVII. In flashback, Cloud recalls fighting alongside Sephiroth, but later on realizes that it was actually a guy named Zack. The Nibelheim incident is just one of many events that Crisis Core covers and fleshes out in great detail. Naturally, because the game deals with previously established, engaging characters, and fills in voids of the plot, the storytelling continues to be fantastic and extremely captivating.
Throughout the game, you will control Zack, who starts out as a 2nd Class Soldier. Crisis Core also introduces a supporting cast of new faces such as Angeal, Genesis, and Cissnei, and re-introduces old favorites such as Cloud, Aerith, Sephiroth, Tseng, Reno, Rude, and cameos from other FFVII characters. I'd rather not spoil how the game's story progresses, as every turn marks a dramatic change in the plot, so it's best off experienced by the gamer. I will say this, though, Angeal, Sephiroth, Cloud, and Genesis are the game's four most important characters, not counting Zack.
The gameplay borrows a page from Kingdom Hearts, as it prefers a faster, more action-based real-time combat engine over turn-based encounters like those found in FFVII. But that is not to say that the fights aren't random, you fight precisely where the enemies spawn, so there's no tedious teleporting involved (think Final Fantasy XII, Chrono Trigger). You are free to move about across a large space, allowing you to dodge and guard attacks, at will, by pressing Square or Triangle, respectively. Hacking away with your sword is as simple as having the cursor set to "Action" and just tapping X. While the combat is action-based, and not turn-based, don't expect Devil May Cry reflexes here. The response between tapping X and the execution has a slight delay, and so you are purposely limited to one attack every second or so. By tapping the R or L shoulders, you scroll through your equipped materia and items list. Using materia and items is done with similar response times as attacking, which makes quick curing, or barrier setups, or item usage very worry free – so most of the times, you'll be able to stay alive with 1HP, as casting a cure is done almost instantaneously.
What's unusual about the combat engine is the row of three reels displayed at the top. These reels are called the Digital Mind Wave, or DMW for short. The DMW is somewhat randomized, and how it works may seem complicated, but it quickly becomes one of the most important elements of combat. First, the two side reels will spin; if two matching portraits are displayed, the combat will be interrupted as the center reel spins. Often times, the center reel will match the other two, and you will be given a power surge and perform a special action. There is also an additional variable, which are numbers. And these numbers are how Zack increases levels/stats as a character, or for his materia. For instance, getting 7-7-7, no matter what the portraits are, equates to a level up. If that sounds unusual, don't worry about your luck, because you'll see a proper amount of leveling up throughout the game. A lot of it is controlled by how you're playing the game, too, as you'll often see a message that says 'heightened emotions have affected the DMW' – these occur often after tense cutscenes or moments in the game.
The power surges you get also consists of your HP, MP, and AP increasing beyond their limits. So if you've got a maximum of 2000HP, you have the ability to double it to 4000/2000HP, if you're fortunate enough to get surges – the same goes for MP and AP. Notice that your actual HP limit doesn't increase, so if you fall below 2000, you'll need another surge to break the limit. In addition to all of that, the DMW can also grant you brief invincibility against magic or physical attacks, as well as no cost of MP briefly, or for the remainder of a battle, among other awesome power-ups. Lastly, Crisis Core's version of limit breaks is, again, directly tied into the DMW. Depending on the simultaneous row of portraits, Zack will pull off different moves. For example, three Aeriths will cast a healing spell on Zack and brief invincibility. Three Cissneis will give Zack nothing but critical attacks (double-power). Three Clouds will cast meteor showers. Three Sephiroths will execute Octaslash. Three Tsengs will call for an airstrike, and so forth.
Materia continues to be the core aspect of the game's magic, and likewise, is still my favorite implementation of spell casting in an FF game. But unlike FFVII, because Crisis Core isn't as grand, it's a lot more simplified here. You'll be able to use a total of four materia, but will upgrade to six later on. There is also a Materia Fusion system in the game, which will allow you to fuse materia together and create an even more powerful spell, attack, or materia effect. Physical attack-based materia is also present here, but instead of using MP, it uses AP. But unlike FFVII, there are no weapon or armor shops, as your swords are directly related to the story, so you'll have to use accessories to upgrade Zack's stats – and materia helps too.
In terms of value, Crisis Core delivers. The actual story lasts about 15 hours, which is a lot more than, say, God of War: Chains of Olympus. But in addition to that, there's a plethora of side-quests and missions you can embark on, and all of that helps the game's value considerably. The missions alone add another 10 hours of gameplay, and then when you're done, you can always replay the game by loading up your completed save, which carries over all of your leveling, stats, materia, gil, etc., into a new game.
Crisis Core is a surprisingly deep game, and I'm probably missing more stuff to talk about. But what you need to know is that this is also superb game, and, in this critic's humble opinion, the very best available on the PSP. If I had to pick at the game's flaws, I would say that it's a bit linear in progression, and not being able to skip cut-scenes can be really annoying if you have to re-watch them after losing. I'd also have really liked to explore more of the game's world, but seeing some of the more notable locales recreated still made me feel great. Simply put, this is an experience that you won't find in many games, no matter the platform.
In addition to playing exceptionally well, Crisis Core is also a technical masterpiece, especially considering the unit it's on. I've always wondered why it took so long to develop the game, and why couldn't Square just pull of a simultaneous launch last year. Well, I'm certain that having to re-do all of the lip-synching was one of the biggest reasons for the delays. There's a large amount of cut-scenes presented throughout the game, and every voiced cut-scene, in-game or computer-generated, boasts lip-synching that is extremely convincing to look at. I can't imagine having to reanimate the lips and mouths of every speaking character from Japanese to English. Bravo, Square-Enix.
The overall look of the game resembles Kingdom Hearts' visuals, as characters boast very sleek and smooth faces, and also feature similarities to Kingdom Hearts' style, as well. Not even the character detail in God of War looks as splendid as Crisis Core, it's just that nice to look at. With slightly better background textures, Crisis Core: FFVII would be easily passable as a great looking PS2 game. Regardless, it is without question the best looking PSP game available. It's image clarity is extremely crisp, you won't find any annoying ghosting issues, and it's still enjoyable to watch when playing it via TV.
Effects such as summons or powerful attacks demonstrate vivid eye-candy, and the framerate never takes a hit. And those beautiful computer-generated cutscenes are the stuff that dreams are made of; proving that, 11 years later, Square-Enix is still the best in the business when comes to them. You'll love revisiting parts of the world such as Midgar and Nibelheim and seeing them in their all new glory, too. Crisis Core is the type of game you have to see to believe. I still can't believe I played the game…in the palm of my hand.
A lot of Crisis Core is voice-acted, as you'd expect. The most important bits of dialogue are voiced-over, and there are a lot of these "important bits" in the game, so you don't tap the X button that often to keep moving through the dialogue. More importantly, the voice acting is great. The voices of Zack, Angeal, Genesis, Cloud, Aerith, Tseng, Reno, Rude, and Sephiroth are practically perfect fits. But there are a few voice actors I didn't care for, one of which who voices a new character named Hollander, and and the other is Hojo's voice actor. Coincidentally, both Hollander and Hojo are actually closely linked, so it's ironic that both voice actors irked me a bit. In any case, Cloud is still voiced by Steve Burton, a.k.a Jason Morgan from General Hospital. As you may know, Burton has voiced Cloud in Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts 2, FFVII: Advent Children, and Dirge of Cerberus: FFVII.
As far as the soundtrack goes, a lot of it consists of remixed FFVII tunes, and that's a huge plus. The battle theme is very Devil May Cry-ish, with chunky guitar riffs and heavy drumming, but I didn't hate it. I actually quite like the various battle themes in Crisis Core. Much of the soundtrack is really great, but a very few select new tracks I didn't really care much for. Some tracks just don't sound like they fit the game well, sounding out of place. Could be just me, who knows. Still, there isn't much to complain to about.
In the end, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII lives up to my personal expectations. It is precisely what I had imagined it to be, an addictive Action-RPG that ties up loose ends from the Final Fantasy VII past. It plays like a dream, blurring the lines between both genres that it covers much more than any other game. And it looks the part too, as it is easily the best looking handheld game you'll see to date, along with God of War. What's even better is that the adventure doesn't last just a few hours; you'll experience 15 hours of the story itself, and about another 12 hours doing the missions and side-quests. There's a lot of fun to be had here, so make sure you don't miss it. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is the PSP game you cannot live without.