The battle between Cosmos, the goddess of good, and Chaos, the demon of evil, rages ever on, but this time, the battlefield is somewhat different. To shine in the darkness, the crystals of the FF worlds need the power of rhythm – can the heroes of Final Fantasy fight this new, musical battle?
With 2012 being the 25th anniversary of the birth of the Final Fantasy franchise, it was for certain that Square-Enix would be doing something special to mark the event. Even so, their choice of celebration initially seemed a little odd – was the best way to commemorate the endless trundling of their mighty cash cow to release, of all things, a rhythm game?
As it turns out, this seemingly odd choice is actually a very shrewd marketing ploy, because as you play it, those familiar tunes overwhelm you with nostalgia and positivity for the FF series. Not only do you suddenly want to replay all those old classics, but you find yourself thinking new, unfamiliar thoughts, such as “you know what, maybe FFXIII wasn’t that bad after all”. It’s truly a stroke of genius on Square-Enix’s part, but given how fun and addictive this game is, we can forgive them their tactical ploys.
Feel the rhythm
Introduced by way of its paper thin story, Theatrhythm thrusts you into a world of FF music, stretching all the way from the 8-bit days (and it is indeed the original 8-bit versions of tracks) to the more modern anthems. There are three different types of level, all requiring you to tap, hold and swipe the stylus to the music, but each with their own unique style.
Field Music Stage (FMS): As the music plays, your character walks through a field map – do well and they start running (or even summon a chocobo), do badly and they fall over. Progress far enough over the course of the stage and you’ll be rewarded with an item. FMS takes a little getting used to, but ultimately it proves to be the easiest of the three modes, although still a lot of fun.
Battle Music Stage (BMS): Your party of four faces a succession of enemies, dealing damage as you hit triggers and taking damage when you miss them. Battle music can be a pretty intense experience at the harder difficulty levels, with some insanely fast combos that can wipe you out in seconds. It is also possible to call summon monsters in BMS to deal additional damage.
Event Music Stage (EMS): Perhaps the most pointless set of stages, EMS is basically a level set against the backdrop of some FMV or in-game footage (depending on whether the game’s original release had FMV sequences). You tap along as the cursor moves about the screen with something of an oddness in timing, affecting nothing in the stage itself except whether you get to play the extended version or not. EMS, although not as difficult to finish as BMS in the harder difficulty levels, is nonetheless the hardest to get a good score on.
Every time you clear a stage, the game rewards you with Rhythmia, the so-called power of rhythm needed to restore balance to the crystals. Rhythmia can’t be spent; like a points score they just endless accumulate, but for every 500 you earn, something new gets unlocked. This can be anything from movies and music to be watched and listened to outside of gameplay to items, new songs to play and special Crystal Shards needed to unlock more playable characters.
With these different stages as the building blocks, Theatrhythm is divided into three different gameplay modes, with three difficulty levels. Only Basic is available at first, but do well enough and you’ll unlock the more challenging Expert and the insane Ultimate.
Series Mode: The ‘meat and potatoes’ of the game, Series Mode lets you choose your favourite out of the 13 main FF games and play through five consecutive tracks – an optional Prologue and Epilogue in which you tap in time to notes hitting a crystal to accumulate more Rhythmia, and one stage each of EMS, FMS and BMS. The prologue and epilogue sections are quite dull (especially given that most of the prologue tracks are just versions of Prelude, the well-known FF opening theme), but in your quest to accumulate as much Rhythmia as possible, you find yourself unwilling to skip them.
Challenge Mode: As you might expect, Challenge Mode lets you play any individual EMS, BMS or FMS song. All songs from Series Mode will eventually become available, as will extra unlockable BMS and FMS songs gained either from accumulating Rhythmia or purchasing DLC.
Dark Notes: A section of the game that ranges from challenging to fiendishly difficult, each Dark Note consists of an FMS immediately followed by a BMS. How well you do on the FMS determines which of three bosses you face in the BMS, with each boss dropping different items. Your first Dark Note is awarded after you’ve played enough of the main game; from then on, you earn more either by completing the Dark Notes you already have, or by getting them via Streetpass from other Theatrhythm players. Dark Notes are randomly generated from all songs available in the main game, including a few that can’t be played in the other modes, and you can have up to 99 different Dark Notes at any one time. The best use of Dark Notes is for the collection of the Crystal Shards needed to unlock new characters, since the bosses you face drop them quite frequently.
Those FF touches
You might think that playing FF songs as FF characters (and, in the case of BMS, fighting FF enemies) would be enough to seal this game’s identity, but even so, Square-Enix have packed in many more little details from their juggernaut franchise. And it’s not just the frequent appearances of moogles, chocobos and summoned monsters – they’ve gone out of their way to give this rhythm game a pseudo-RPG feel.
It may be surprising at first to discover that all your characters still have stats and levels as if they were in a real RPG, but after a while, it all begins to make sense. Your HP now corresponds to how many mistakes you can make before you fail a stage, Strength and Magic determines how quickly your attacks defeat enemies in BMS, and a higher Agility means that your character will progress more quickly through an FMS, thus being more likely to reach the end and pick up an item. Each successfully completed level earns EXP for your characters, and as you might expect, earning EXP will let your characters level up and become stronger.
Characters also learn skills as they level up, which can then be equipped for use in stages. Proactive skills usually confer some sort of protection or advantage on the party throughout the level, such as stat bonuses or health regeneration, whilst reactive skills are usually attack based, and useful for dealing additional damage in BMS.
Even items have their place in Theatrhythm; ranging from simple curative items such as Potions and Phoenix Downs, to more specialised objects that enable you to call a faster chocobo or a specific summoned monster. Scrolls can also be equipped to teach your characters new abilities, allowing you to eventually kit out your favourite characters pretty much as you like.
All in all, though, is this array of things to acquire and unlock enough to invest some real replay value into the game? Well, the answer is yes, because in general, playing this game is simply great fun. It’s a rhythm game, and it’s the Final Fantasy music that fans of the series have come to know and love; even without all the extra bells and whistles, it would be satisfying to play, but with them, you feel this urge to have just one more go on a level you might otherwise have considered over and done with.
Theatrhythm has its own unique visual style, where everything from our heroes to Safer Sephiroth is cute and chibi-fied. It takes a little getting used to, but over time it does actually grow on you and begin to seem quite appealing.
Of course, looks aside, the one thing Theatrhythm is proposing to be all about is the music, and it certainly has a vast library of that to choose from. Although the selection of tracks is not the one I would have chosen if let loose in the FF archives, there is plenty of good stuff there, and, like the visuals, the less appealing tracks do grow on you over time. And if the selection on offer still fails to satisfy even after you’ve unlocked all the extra tracks, you can always sink dizzying sums of money into downloading the available DLC tracks.
Despite my pre-release scepticism, Theatrhythm has more than proven its worth by being an entirely fun and addictive experience. Not only a worthy game in its own right, but one that makes you nostalgic for the entire FF series, it has certainly proven to be a worthy way of celebrating Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary.