Seven years before the fateful events of Final Fantasy VII, one of the unsung heroes of that tale was facing problems of his own. Together with the legendary SOLDIER members Sephiroth and Angeal, SOLDIER Second Class Zack Fair is sent on a mission to recover Genesis, a former SOLDIER First Class who went rogue and turned against the Shinra Corporation. Determined to prove himself a true hero, Zack throws himself into his work, but he soon realises that there is far more going on behind the scenes than he ever suspected.
Given the amount of spin-offs now flooding the market, it doesn’t so much seem as if Square-Enix are flogging a dead horse so much as they’re flaying an elephant that is slowly sinking to its knees. Amidst all the dross and cheap cashing in, however, there are a few occasions when it’s no bad thing to jump on the bandwagon- and Crisis Core happens to be one of them.
Milking the franchise
Casting players in the role of the ill-fated Zack Fair, Crisis Core is one of Square-Enix’s more successful attempts to implement a more action-based battle system (Star Ocean good, FFXII bad). The story proceeds linearly across a series of chapters that fill in the gaps as regards Zack’s career, his relationships with Sephiroth, Aerith and Cloud and his eventual fate.
In battle, Zack has the usual menu of options available to him- he can execute sword attacks, block, dodges and use the usual array of Final Fantasy items. And naturally, since this is the world of FF7, he can also equip materia to give him a range of magic, command and support abilities. The system is solid, fast and furious, but on its own it wouldn’t be quite enough to make the game as addictive as it is.
On top of the basic system, the game also adds the confusingly named Digital Mind Wave (DMW), a set of three spinning reels bearing both numbers and the faces of important NPCs in the game. Powered by Soldier Points (SP) accumulated in battle, the DMW periodically stops, and, as with a conventional slot machine, the aim is to get three of a kind. Getting two or three of the same number activates special effects such as being able to cast magic for zero MP cost, or temporary immunity to getting knocked down, but the real reward comes when you match three character faces. Doing so activates a limit break related to that character- for example, Aerith provides healing and temporarily invincibility, whilst Sephiroth empowers Zack to perform a powerful multi-hit attack.
That’s not all the DMW has to offer, however; over time, it also gains Summon Mode, in which Ifrit, Shiva and selected other FF summons can make an appearance to deal out damage, and a special Chocobo Mode, where the FF ‘mascot’ characters such as Chocobo and Moogle create special effects. The DMW is also responsible for levelling up both Zack and his materia, which adds an element of chance that makes conventional grinding pointless.
When it comes to getting geared up for a mission, everything is taken care of within the menu screen- even the shops are hidden away there. For story reasons, Zack cannot change his weapon, but he is free to customise his accessory and materia setup as the player wishes. After a certain point, you also gain the ability to fuse materia, a useful ability which enables you to access powerful magic which is unavailable in the shops.
If the linearity of the main game disappoints you, then fear not, because the game has plenty in the way of optional missions, complete with a full range of rewards. Unfortunately, the sheen of this additional mode soon wears off, because in the end, they are all much the same. With so much else packed onto the UMD, there seem to be room for only a handful of maps on which missions take place, and all of them consist of battling through monsters to get to a boss enemy who must be defeated to clear the mission. And although it’s easy to initially be fooled into thinking encounters are random when on missions, you’ll soon realise that they’re triggered when Zack steps on particular spots on the map- even if you just defeated a monster in that exact place mere seconds earlier! By the time your enemies get strong enough to start spamming cheap instant death attacks, you’ll have mastered the art of hugging the walls to avoid fighting anything except the mission boss. The fact that you can’t even grind to level up for a particular mission makes the process all the more painful.
Story: we know how it must end
There aren’t that many games out there where you know that the hero is going to die an ignominious death at the end, but as anyone even vaguely acquainted with the FF7 franchise will realise, Crisis Core is one of them. The later chapters of Zack’s story are as well known as they are depressing, but in addition to that, the game also comes up with its own story that segues into the tale of Cloud’s struggle against Sephiroth in the original game.
To that end, Crisis Core expands upon the ‘One Winged Angel’ theme, introducing two more legendary SOLDIERs to stand alongside Sephiroth- the brilliant and poetic Genesis and Zack’s mentor, the stoic Angeal. Both stand at the centre of a tale of dark experiments, alien cells and false copies- and if you thought making logical sense of the original FF7 story was hard enough, you’ll be tying yourself into knots trying to make some kind of vaguely logical sense of the events of Crisis Core. It’s certainly several grades above the pointlessness of Advent Children, but if you don’t want to succumb to the same madness that claims Genesis and Sephiroth, just accept it as pure hokum from the outset.
That being said, the game does do rather well at characterisation- as the heart of the story, Zack is likeable rather than generic, and his untimely end is none the less poignant for being completely unsurprisingly. Both established characters and the ones introduced for this game are painted in bold, vibrant strokes- they may not always be the most complex of personalities, but you’ll enjoy spending time with them.
Technology has come a long way since 1997, so much so that a handheld game of today such as Crisis Core looks a lot better than the once groundbreaking console title that is Final Fantasy 7. The game looks good and plays smoothly, with the only problem being that the disk space taken up by the lavish cut scenes is what forces the game to have so few map environments in which to set its many missions.
In both visuals and music, the game stays true to the style and atmosphere of the original whilst giving the presentation a once-over so that it doesn’t feel dated. Familiar locations such as Midgar and Nibelheim have been recreated well, whilst the soundtrack mixes in new material with updates of familiar themes such as a rock version of the original’s boss music, now used for epic battles against summoned monsters.
Although it’s easy to accuse it of being the latest in a long line of lazy Square-Enix cash-ins, Crisis Core is in fact an enjoyable game to play. If it can make an old cynic like me feel nostalgic for the days when FF7 was the last word in RPGs, it must be doing something right.